Making your point by changing POV

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In this morning’s meeting of our Writer’s Workshop Manuscript Group, we wrapped up response to five writers’ offerings with a brief talk about changing point of view. The writers who meet each first Saturday went home with advice from Josip Novakovitch (Fiction Writer’s Workshop) and Sherri Szeman (The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing).

POV gets tagged a lot during manuscript workshops, in part because deviating from the missionary-position of single POV is so easy to spot. Making POV changes is an opportunity for both failure and brilliance. Just make sure each change is worth the trip.

Which POV are you choosing, or using? There are many definitions. Across the two writing teachers listed above I compiled the following list:

First person
First person multiple
First person collective observer
Second person
Unlimited
Epistolary, or first person letters
Outer limited
Inner limited
Third person
Third person limited
Third person objective
Third person subjective
Third person limited flexible
Third person omniscient
Third person multiple
Omniscience
Theatrical
Multiple viewpoints
Skeptical

There’s the possibility of “combo” as well, mixing several of the above throughout a story.

Novakovitch offers consistency as a guideline to help authors manage their shifts. Start early with a definite pattern, then stick to it. He also says first-time novelists or short story writers will do better by observing the conventions of POV. However,

Switching POVs can … derive information about an event initially in the first person. After the story has been assembled by several witnesses, and enough inferences have been made to cover even what has not been told by the witnesses, the event may be described without references to the sources; things can assume an objective third person perspective — and a composite report can be written about the motives of everybody involved.

E.M Forster said that shifting POV is “the right to intermittent knowledge” and that it parallels our perception in life. “We are stupider at some times than others; we can enter into people’s minds occassionally but not always, because our minds get tired.”

The best reason to shift POV might also come from Forster, who said that “this intermittence [of POVs] lends in the long run variety and color to the experiences we receive.”

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Taking the shortcut to telling

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Show, don’t tell. It’s a chestnut, a bromide, a mantra for writers. Those who want to sketch pictures of stories that readers want to live in, they make a habit of showing a world, not telling about it.

Telling can be a hard habit to break. A lot of the writing many of us began with was reporting: on books, our summer vacations, the literature we were force-fed in high school, current events or debate team ammunition. Facts, or our feelings, told instead of painted. It’s one of the greatest differences between fiction and non-fiction. The former needs to show to do its work. The latter tells as a matter of course.

But sometimes fiction can abide a bit of telling. To move things along, in brief stretches. To set up a scene briefly, which follows the telling immediately.

Telling is a shortcut in writing fiction, or creative non-fiction. Readers want the longer path so they can dally in the delights of a world created by words.

Notes on dialogue, Iowa-style

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One week ago today I enjoyed a long, fun day at the Summer Writing Festival. I read a short bit in an open mike session, reveled in an Elevenses lecture on metaphor. I also learned a good deal about dialogue that can improve my own novel, Viral Times.

Here’s just a few quick notes:

1. Dialogue should sound organic. Answers don’t necessarily follow questions, not directly, anyway. The answer can change the subject. The answer sometimes doesn’t reflect the question. This is one way to make dialogue surprising.

2. Dialogue doesn’t indicate emotion. It shows emotion. No “he exclaimed” or “he whimpered” to indicate. Search your imagination for dialogue whose words show exclamation or whimpering. Or use gestures that might match these feelings.

3. Dialogue should be motivated by both character and situation. Rent Pulp Fiction. Eaarly in the movie, you’ll notice how there’s very little of the explanation of the hit mens’ plans in their dialogue. Jules and Vincent (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta) say:

“We should have shotguns for this kind of deal.”
“How many up there?”
“Three or four.”
“Counting our guy?”
“I’m not sure.”
“So there could be up to five guys in there.”
“It’s possible.”
“We should have fuckin’ shotguns.”

These fellows stand in front of a car trunk while they talk this over, loading .45s. Their plan must to be kill someone, several people. Nary a word is said about the plan directly.

In dialogue, the central thing is not named, so it can gain power during the scene.

Oh, and the shorter the dialogue per character (total number of sentences), the better. People don’t speak in long sentences (most people, anyway). Too many sentences and you have a speech. Leave that for the sequel, the narrative writing that follows the scene.

Poring over your first five, and why you should

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The air was thick with a tiresome tone last Sunday, the final day of the Agents and Editors conference in Austin. Most of the crowd had been pursuing the people on the dais for days. We listened to three editors and 17 agents. One panelist after another, with few exceptions, told stories of what not to do while querying them. A query is opening a business relationship, so there are preferences and protocol to observe.

Don’t write your cover letter on a half-sheet of legal paper, longhand. Don’t address your letter to another agent (a failure of Word’s mail-merge). “Don’t tell me you’ve written a fictional novel,” said Mike Ferris of a Dallas agency named after him. “Unless you expect a fictional reply from me, one I don’t have to send.”

Be sure to get the honorifics right, one added: “Don’t address me ‘Dear Beth,’ ” said Beth Vesel. A few of us looked puzzled at that one, looking down at the program where she was billed as “Beth Vesel,” also of a literary agency named after her. Oh, I get it. The correspondence to the leader of the Beth Vesel Literary Agency should be addressed “Dear Ms. Vesel:” Or “Ms. Vesel:”

Beth (sorry for the familiarity, but now I feel like I know you better) said she won’t read unsolicited e-mail queries. Put your unsolicited paper query in the mail and send it to her Fifth Avenue office in New York City. (Not to be put off by that address. The office is at 50 Fifth Avenue, a few blocks from the Village and Union Square in NYC.)

She said she wants writers to look at her Web site to see how to submit a manuscript. (Doesn’t appear to be a listing for her agency’s site in my searches via Google or Yahoo.) After 15 years of work at another agency, Vesel started her own in 2003, and according to a 2004 listing at the Agents Actively Looking Web site

is actively looking for new clients. Beth handles serious psychology, cultural criticism, narrative nonfiction and literary fiction. For non-fiction please include a query letter, CV, proposal, and SASE. If a finished proposal is not ready please supply a synopsis, full outline, and related clips.

For fiction please include a query letter, synopsis (with word count), sample chapter and SASE.

Why query her? Because she’s been an agent since 1988. Because she specializes in psychological thrillers, among her interests listed in the conference program. Most important, because she’s hired to get your manuscript in the running for a deal with a major publisher, if she or her readers can get through the first five pages of your writing.

Vesel was blunt and funny. She said she thinks that “literary fiction” is a genre created out of “bullshit,” to quote her term. (She was the only agent to use that word to describe the habits of an industry full of it.)

If it sounds challenging to get a open-minded read from Ms. Vesel, well, that’s the nature of the publishing game at a New York level. You don’t want to think that bright, accomplished people like the agents at that conference would dismiss a work of art in less than 10 pages. The truth is that they do, all the time. And that’s a fact that Noah Lukeman built a book upon: The First Five Pages.

This book’s subtitle is “Staying out of the rejection pile,” and Lukeman begins by saying his book might not be a good use of your time.

Most people are against books on writing on principle. So am I. It’s ridiculous to set down rules when it comes to art.

Of course, he goes on to set down not rules, but a chapter-by-chapter examination of where to go wrong while you try to stay out of the recycle bin; how to get past the MFA grad student or under-published writer who reads for an agent. Lukeman’s first chapter deals with presentation, and offers this advice, only partly in jest:

Don’t try to contact an editor or agent between 12:30 and 3. They will be lunching with other editors or agents. Don’t contact them before lunch, because they will be settling in for the day. Don’t contact them between 3 and 4, because they will be recovering from lunch and returning calls from those who called during lunch. Don’t call them after 5, as Hollywood is finally waking up about then, and they are also preparing to leave for the day. So — if you absolutely must call — then call at exactly 4:30.

Or 3:30 if you live in Texas. I do see another opening there, by calling during lunch.

You can read a few basic chapters of that kind of advice in the early part of Lukeman’s book, but the bulk of it is much better than that. He says it’s not a book about publishing, but a book about writing. Face it, there’s not much you can do about the habits of business people focused on honorifics, the color of your paper, who they believe you shouldn’t call, or how you refer to your work. (Self-published already? Don’t hide it, they advise. Open your kimono and tell them about your sales, they say.)

What you can do something about is your writing — and like Lukeman says, that’s a very different subject than publishing. Agents are all about publishing, and whatever they suggest about your writing will always have this motive attached to it: Do this, and it will help me sell your book. That is the outcome a writer wants, after months or years of creative work. Expect requests for change to get a deal done. So it’s better to have your writing done well enough, early enough in your piece of art, to be able to proceed to the “we need these changes” conversation with a professional reader, editor or agent — some of whom revealed sometimes picayune requirements with relish.

Starting later, then saving on education

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Many writers begin their stories too early. In my novel Viral Times I’ve written three chapters of prologue. They likely will never see an editor’s desk, but I needed to write them to know more about some of my characters.

Starting too early in a story, even if it’s well-written, still won’t make it past an editor who wants to hear the tale, not revel in the backstory of vivid characters. (Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for backstory. Just read Empire Falls to see how Richard Russo makes the history of main characters so essential to understanding their current-day personalities.)

But most of us aren’t so clever as Russo. Even an award-winner like Val McDermid, according to the blog site The Writing Show. Quoted in an online interview , McDermid tells about a difficult amputation that taught her, and where else a writer can get an affordable education.

How do you decide when and in what context to reveal details about your characters and your story?

VM: It’s not a conscious decision-making process. It’s a combination of instinct and acquired technique. The first draft of my second novel, Common Murder, began with five beautifully crafted chapters of back story for my protagonist, Lindsay Gordon. When I sent it off to my agent, she said, ‘Lose the first five chapters. They’re lovely, but they don’t tell the story. Everything you’ve told us here can be fed in as and when we need to know it.’ That taught me a very important lesson, and I think it’s now so deeply embedded I don’t have to think about it any more.

Do you make a conscious decision to tell a certain proportion of the story through narration as opposed to dialog, or do you go by feel?

VM: Always by feel. I’m not at all formulaic about my writing. Most of what I do is informed by what feels right to me. I think the best way to develop these instincts is to read, read, read. You can learn as much from a bad book as a good one. Other people’s mistakes are a very cheap way to discover what not to do!

Changing the mood with word alerts

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Although William Zissner’s On Writing Well is subtitled “An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction,” the book has advice for all writers of prose. A section called “Bits and Pieces” offers Strunk & White-like summary counsel on writing’s brick and mortar: words and punctuations.

Within that chapter, however, there’s a subsection called “Mood Changers.” He covers the specific power of certain words to help readers keep up with your changing moodes. Zissner warns us, if you’re going to change the mood of the writing from one sentence to the next, then use a word to alert the reader. Zissner suggests these words, with a comment on each:

but
yet
however
nevertheless
thus
still
instead
therefore
meanwhile
later
today
now

Those last four can be especially important to writers of narrative. “Writers often change their time frame without remembering to tip their readers off,” Zissner says.

As his book is primarily a guide to nonfiction, Zissner also weighs in on his favorite kind: memoir. More on that on Monday, when I can compare what the Agents at the Writer’s League of Texas conference have to say about memoir in the post-James Frey era.

Letting voice lead your body out of block

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John Lee tells us in Writing from the Body that our throats can bottle up what we want to say in our writing. He has an exercise he suggests to clear our throats, so they are not “knotted with unspoken dreams and uncried tears.”

Yell and shout from deep in your belly into a pillow, Lee says, sending all that blocked energy out of your throat. After you rest your voice an hour, you’ll notice your voice has dropped a register.

He says by repeating this exercise you can clear the unspoken words from your throat and find your voice and writing are both deeper, and with more power. It reminds me of the mornings after I’ve been to a great game, basketball or baseball, shouting out loud among a crowd for several hours. I interview people the next day and tape the conversations, then play them back later and notice how much deeper my voice has gone. And yes, so goes the writing for that day.

Lee adds that “our greater voice in writing occurs naturally, when we are off guard, writing with a certain simplicity of mind.” That’s what we work to create in our meetings at the Writer’s Workshop, using our AWA exercises to switch off the left brain and get to the heart of the words we were born to voice.

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