Thursday, December 18, 2014

Point of View Considerations for Writers

Dan is here today to talk about an often-overlooked area of writing craft: point of view. POV is one of those topics covered mainly in the introductory fiction writing class alongside theme and tense and other literary terms. There's not a huge amount of debate and discussion on this topic outside of MFA programs. Yet POV can make or break for a novel, and many new authors handle it poorly. Sometimes without knowing it.

Initial POV Decisions

When starting a new project, the author must make several decisions related to point of view. For example:

  • Will the story be told in first, second, or third person POV?
  • Is the narrator be omniscient or limited?
  • If first person POV, who is telling the story?
  • Are there multiple POV characters? 
These questions all deserve some consideration, because changing the POV of an existing manuscript usually requires a complete rewrite. That's a lot of work for any writer, and thus POV decisions should not be made lightly.

First, Second, and Third Person POV

This point of view choice may be influenced by the age category and genre in which the author is writing. For example:

  • In epic fantasy, the point of view is almost always third person. Admittedly, there are some wonderful exceptions to this unwritten rule (such as Robin Hobb's Assasin series) but the predominant form is third person, multiple POV.
  • Many young adult (YA) novels favor first person POV. As long as I'm pigeonholing this category: the narrator is usually a snarky teenager.  
  • Second person POV is rare, and (from what I've heard) difficult to do well. The only books I've enjoyed in this POV are the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which come to mind because the publisher of that series, R.A. Montgomery, recently passed away.
The decision here has a number of consequences. Writing from first person POV, for example, usually means that you have only one POV character, that the story is told in his or her voice, and with limited (not omniscient) narration.

Writing Multiple Points of View

In the fantasy genre, novels with multiple POV characters are common. As both a reader and a critique partner, I've learned that telling stories from multiple points of view is difficult to do well. One problem is the disruption of continuity: at the beginning of a book, we're just getting grounded with one character's perspective when the narrative jumps to another character. It's like hitting the reset button. I often feel that the author should have done a little bit more before changing points of view.

Another issue is character sympathy: some characters will appeal to certain readers more than others. In the first few books George RR Martin's The Game of Thrones series, for example, I groaned whenever I came to a chapter about Sansa. She didn't do anything interesting until book four.

Limited or Omniscient Narration?

Most of the books I've written have a limited point of view; in other words, we have only one character's perspective in each scene or chapter. Yet I've enjoyed reading some truly masterful works of fiction -- James Clavell comes to mind -- with third person omniscient points of view. Clavell hops around into lots of different characters' heads, even within a single scene.

I think it works because the characters are all so damn interesting, and also because the novels take place in Asian cultures (feudal Japan, 19th century Hong Kong, etc.) in which people often conceal their thoughts and emotions. As I said, I don't use omniscient narration, so I'd love to hear from an author who does.

A Writing Tip for Tight POV

I generally write first person or very-tight third person (limited) point of view, and I have a suggestion for new authors who do the same: when you're in such a tight point of view, there's very little need for the italicized thought. For example, in a first person POV story, a line like this:
The dragon was five hundred pounds of teeth, muscle, and claws. That thing is going to kill somebody, I thought.
...could be written like this instead:
The dragon was five hundred pounds of teeth, muscle, and claws. That thing was going to kill somebody.
See what I mean? There's no need to clarify that the statement is a character's inner monologue, because we're already in his or her point of view. Every line of narration is from his or her perspective; saying so would just be redundant.

What Are Your Thoughts on Point of View?

I've shared some of my thoughts on point of view, but I'd love to hear yours. What types of POV do you prefer? What do you struggle with? Finally, what advice can you share with fellow authors?

Lisa: I write in predominantly 1st person simply because that's how it comes to me. This is probably because characters exist for me before the plot does. Normally when you think of plot first, it goes something like this: She was going to break up with him--had even told him it was over, though he didn't believe it. That was before his parent's went missing, and no one can make a break-up stick when parents are missing.

In direct contrast, here's how my thoughts go when I am brainstorming: My name is...Farah? No, I have a tougher name because I'm a badass, frizzy-haired girl who drives a motorcycle. O'Ryan is my name. What situation could I be in that would conflict with my personality? Got it, I'm stuck in a relationship. Whoa, I'm not the type who'd stay with a guy when it's no good anymore. Not normally, but I'd be a big douche if I broke up with him considering his parents have gone missing.

So, my thinking is to write the story how it comes to you and not force the "voice" into something it's not. I did and ended up writing 15,000 words of trash. The reason I was trying it was because I'd read enough opinions saying third person was the more mature, advanced, intelligent way to write (and my professor in college felt the same way). Those opinions may be wrong and the may be right, but it doesn't matter when it comes to my writing. People would much rather read my first person narrative rather than my awkward and winding 3rd person fumbles. I do have an epilogue in Moment(s) that is in 3rd person because that's how it came to me. I heard it all in my head as if someone else wrote it. So I guess that's the only way third person works, when my other personality takes over my head. And now you all think I'm insane. It's okay, we don't mind. :D

Seriously, my advice is to write how you hear it in your head, how it will flow out of you in the smoothest way. Because the flow that worked so well in your head will read that much smoother for readers.

Caitlin:  I adore writing in second person when it's flash fiction. (My flash fiction collection is called Your Room...heh). But I agree that it would be hard to sustain an entire novel that way. It's one of my long term ambitions to try it though! So far, I have only written novels in the first person. It comes a lot easier to me, and is pretty standard for YA (as Dan mentioned!) and New Adult as well. One novel idea I've been kicking around for years has a male protagonist. When I think of those scenes, they're in the third person. But, I think, for me, it's because I'm "afraid" to get closer to that character, and, perhaps, sexistly, I'm afraid to write in a male voice. I think once I'm more comfortable with the idea, that book will also be in the first person.

Karlie: I've never been brave enough to attempt writing in second person - and first person doesn't do that well for me either. As you pointed out, Dan, epic fantasy is usually written in third person, multiple POV, and that's how it works best for me too. The one and only time I attempted a novel in first person…that was a learning experience, which is another way of saying it turned out to be completely trash. (funny how you and I had absolutely opposite experiences, Lisa!). I wish I could think that way, but it just doesn't click with me. So, for me third person is my go-to POV.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Little Do You Know - Turn It Up Tuesday

Alex and Sierra are amazing singers and songwriters, and they've encapsulated my characters' dilemma perfectly with their song Little Do You Know.

He loves her too much to stand by and watch her use her body in such a demeaning way. Doesn't matter that even he agrees that if there ever was a corner to be backed into, she was in it snuggly. There's no other way out. Yet still, he can't stay. 

But leaving doesn't diminish his pain, only heightens it because he knows how deserted she feels. He realizes he can't live without her either, no matter what she has done, has put herself through. He begs for forgiveness.

All my mistakes are slowly drowning me
Little do you know
I'm trying to make it better piece by piece

And she wants to forgive.

Underneath it all I'm held captive by the hole inside
I've been holding back for the fear that you might change your mind
I'm ready to forgive you but forgetting is a harder fight

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Short Stories: A Different Beast

It's Karlie here, ready to talk about the pros and cons of short fiction!

Here lately I've been trying my hand at bits of flash fiction and longer short stories - and it's definitely a change. I've always been more inclined to work on longer novels, but the time squeeze is taking a huge toll on me right now - and it probably won't let up anytime soon.

In some ways, writing short stories is definitely harder. There's no room for a lot of character development or backstory, forcing most of the plot to take place "in the moment". So you only have a short amount of time to make the reader care about the characters so he/she will keep reading, and you don't have any time to delay setting up the plot. For someone who normally works with 300 pages at minimum, it's extremely hard to tell a story in just a few thousand words - or less. 

However, it is helping tighten up my writing style. I've learned a lot just over the past month or so, and it's amazingly satisfying to hold a complete story in your hand, even if it's only ten pages long. Also, it's helping round out my portfolio rather nicely. ;) And it's much less daunting to start and finish a short story than a full-length novel. 

What about you guys? 

Caitlin: I would agree short stories are a different beast! I actually took the opposite route that you took, Karlie, and I wrote flash fiction before I got into seriously writing novels. I think it did help me be a much more efficient writer, and, as you say, it doesn't require the patience of novel writing! But, mostly, I just think it's fun. :)

Lisa: I've finished seven novels, but it's only recently that I've considered a short story. Before I wasn't interested because there just didn't seem to be enough space to sink my teeth into character development really well. As you may know by now, I'm a character-first-plot-second sort of gal. But recently I was thinking about this character and her plot synonymously and realized there wasn't enough for a novel. With that decided, I considered writing her story as a short piece.

A lot of authors do like you, Karlie, write shorter fiction after getting a couple of novels under their belt in order to benefit their craft. I agree that it could help tighten an author's writing a lot. But I have the opposite problem. I plan a book that seems like it will take 80,000 words to write and end up with 55,000 words. So...perhaps my writing is a little too tight? I already know one of the problems is that I'm stingy with transitions. I wonder if writing short stories would hinder growth in that area rather than help it.

Dan: Once upon a time, writing and publishing short stories represented the first steps towards writing and publishing a novel. That's changed somewhat now, particularly due to the financial woes and closure of many short story markets. Because of that, and the minimal length, and the lack of an agent-barrier-to-entry, the markets that pay professional rates are extremely competitive. Most take less than 1% of stories submitted. They have that luxury because of the huge supply.

Even though I started out by writing short stories (as do many writers who take a fiction writing class), I still find it harder, in some ways, than writing a novel. It's not just the economy of words required, it's that most of my good ideas are about epic conflicts. I find it challenging to handle these and make them satisfying in a short fiction piece. That said, I find that writing shorter pieces (especially flash fiction) can be a good exercise for honing one's craft. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Turn It Up Tuesday: What Hurts The Most

It's Karlie, posting Turn It Up Tuesday a day late. Sorry about that.

Anyway, my song is What Hurts The Most by Rascal Flatts. It goes perfectly with one of my short stories, Unspoken. It's kind of an after the credits thing, but it fits the whole mood so perfectly. 

Natalie Hunt and Mark McGuire make an amazing pair - in a squad car. But since they lost another good cop to a shootout, Mark seems to realize how short life really is. Natalie wants to move to another level, but they both know the perils of that crucial step.
When tragedy strikes again, this time much closer to home, one of them is left alone with the words left unspoken.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Should Authors Read Their Reviews?

Caitlin here. As you may have seen, my debut novel, Heartsick, is coming out in February. (Yay!) While some days it feels like the launch date can’t get here fast enough, other days I pause and think that actually, right now is the fun part. I get all the excitement and anticipation without any pesky negative things, like bad reviews. While this is a cozy thought to me right now, eventually I, like all writers who put their work out there, will have to confront the dreaded truth: not everyone is going to like my book. 

Of course, I’ve had negative feedback before. Critique partners and writers group members and fellow writers on forums have criticized my writing. But those environments are collegial. The aim is to help each other become better writers. There’s a camaraderie to it that takes the sting out of it.
And, of course, I have also been rejected. Rejections rarely bother me. Every famous author has been rejected. It’s just part of the business. I even made a rejection goal in 2013—I wanted to get 125 rejections. I failed, but I did get over 100! To do that, I had to submit, submit, submit. And, at the end of the year, I also had several new short story credits and a literary agent! So, my motto: rejections breed success. :)

But…rejections are private. And, again, there’s a respect inherent in the process because agents and editors are professionals. Their job isn’t to tear writers apart, it’s to build them up. And, in fact, if they take the time to send a personal rejection, it likely means they saw something promising in your work.

So, if I’m not afraid of critiques or rejections, why do reviews have me quaking in my ballet flats? Simple. Reviews are for readers, not authors. They aren’t there to make me a better writer or let me down easy. They’re there to help readers figure out if my book is worth reading. And sometimes they’re there to entertain prospective readers with snark and merciless analysis. 

I am not criticizing reviewers for doing this. I whole-heartedly agree with Veronica Roth when she said, “The worst thing for an author is NOT someone hearing your book is bad, it's someone not hearing about it at all.” (If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend her post on the author-reviewer relationship.)

So, I want reviewers to snarkily tear apart my book! Honest, I do. I’m just not so sure I want to read those reviews. Sure, maybe the positive aspects of a review will build me up, maybe the constructive criticism will help me improve. Or…maybe the negativity will freeze me. Maybe I’ll never want to publish my writing again.

I don’t know if I should bravely face them or bury my head under new WIPs. 

What do you think? Should authors read their own reviews?

Karlie: Theoretically, I would say stay away from them! However, I know I won't be able to resist it. Knowing me I'll read the good, the bad, and the ugly. I think it's important to have the right mindset though - don't let the negative reviews get you down or stop you from writing! Like Caitlin said, at least people are reading it. ;)

Lisa: I have never actually thought this through. Thanks for posing the question, Caitlin. I think maybe read the reviews as they might say something that will help you. Not that it's their intention, nor their job, but multiple reviewers might say something that you were already worried about, and you know from then on that you should trust your instinct on that matter next time. Then again, I can see how a bad review could stun you into no-more-writing land. I know that I've received critiques from friends that was harsh enough (probably not harsh at all but it felt that way at the time) that it stopped me in my tracks, making me take a brief break from writing. And that's from a friend and coming from a place of helpfulness. So, maybe I'll win the lottery and hire someone to be the filter -  read the reviews and only send me excerpts that I need to see.

Dan: As far as reading the reviews, I think it depends on the author and is a matter of personal choice. Some authors might like to have the feedback or (from good reviews) the positive reinforcement. It's also a good way to check the temperature of the readership, and find out what works (or doesn't work) for many individuals. I'm still on the fence about whether or not I'll have the guts to read the reviews of my own book, especially the negative ones. The most important guideline I've heard from many published authors and professional reviewers is that an author should almost never respond to reviews or engage reviewers. The reviews are generally not aimed at authors anyway. They're aimed at readers.