I, You, He/she/it/they?

Recently I attended a workshop on point of view and came away confused and overwhelmed. The teacher presented us with six versions of POV with short examples. Too much for me to absorb in one hour. And it all felt prescriptive, as if I ought to select a POV before the story or memoir begins. (Poetry never entered the room, ever the unwelcome guest in a garden party.)

So what do I think about POV? I think it grows out of the relationship between the writer and the reader. It has to do with distance. Mostly, it has to do with voice. Whose voice does the writer transcribe as the piece develops? And it makes its presence known in the language, especially the pronouns, those pesky little words that mean so much. First person–I, we–suggests but does not guarantee a closeness between the narrator and the reader. And it can be unreliable, or as a plural it can hint at connection or community. If a writer dares speak for others, well, go for it. In some cases, it can be useful. In Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” the whole town seems to be telling the story, and in that process revealing a common displeasure and disinterest in the history of the gentile but rebellious Emily. You might want to read this short story.

Really, there is no shortcut to finding the perfect voice to tell a story. Even in memoir we edit our language and revelations. I say, write the story as it comes, set it aside and go back when your head clears, hoping to find that the narrator keeps us reading and is somewhat consistent in telling the tale. Better still, notice how books you love (or hate) work. I’m currently reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer, who scored a Pulitzer for the novel. My inner jury is still sequestered. Greer makes some quirky turns in POV, startles me out of the flow of the story. Halfway through, I’m in no position to judge him. Besides, he has a major award, and I don’t. Does that tell you something?

Read for Equality

Regular followers know that I sometimes list books or reminders meant to promote equality in publishing and reading. Well, here’s one that I want to highlight: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I chose to read this book because it will be featured at a book club this week in Boulder. By the time I finished reading and went to sign up, the discussion was already full. That’s a little frustrating but a good sign that adult readers have plenty to say about what is touted as a YA novel. That’s not half of it. This story takes us into the life of sixteen-year-old Starr, a black girl attending a primarily white school and managing to fit in, although at times she feels invisible and divided, her diction tailored, one vocabulary at school and another in her neighborhood. Quickly, we get in deep, as there is a white-cop-black-victim shooting, and Starr is the only witness. Add gangs, drugs, and poverty. Enough excitement yet?

From this point on the narrative tears through racial tensions, including Starr’s attachment to her white boyfriend and to her radical black father who loves her but opposes the romance. And that’s just part of the story. What I most appreciate is the view of family life, complexity of community, and character development as Starr wrestles with opposing decisions, to speak out about the shooting or to maintain a polished image in her affluent white school despite her impoverished home neighborhood. Additionally, the writing is fine, well developed and perfectly plotted. If this is YA, good for the young people who will read it. Better still for the adults who might not notice it without prompting.


How Do I Revise?

I’m not sure anymore what revise means, but what I am doing with the novel ms is rewriting. Yes, I am retyping every chapter, sentence by sentence, sometimes word by word. In this time of cut/copy/paste, people often look at me as if I were hopelessly stupid. But this is actually my third pass at  the ms. My first drafts are handwritten, then typed and printed, then retyped and printed. Close attention at every stage lets me see changes that make for a better book. Typing a sentence gives me a chance to be sure I’ve not left those cursed dangling/misplaced modifiers, used exactly the right word to convey the image that brings the story to life, and gives readers the clues they need to stay inside the story. A novel is a world in which a reader resides, if the writer quiets the outer world of distractions, gives no excuse to leave the scene of the crime or the next big thing that develops character and storyline. Once we are buckled into the rollercoaster and the ride starts, no one gets off if I’ve done my work well.

As I write this, I’m about 15% done with the rewrite. Chapters are not yet numbered because I’m holding my options open as to what follows what. (Each tentative chapter has a slug line/title that cues me as to its content.) I have three main characters and I want the reader engaged with each one for a significant amount of time. If the POV changes too quickly, it’s like a series of little climbs and drops on that rollercoaster. I prefer a pretty long ascent before we drop and start to climb again. As I see it, when I rework the ms for the fourth time, I’ll decide on the structure and then send it off to those sainted beta readers before it ever gets to the professional editor. I want to present the best ms I can so that any advice I get is meaningful. It’s work, yes, but it’s satisfying work. My process does not work for everyone, but after years of writing and teaching, I can say it’s a viable way to approach creative writing.

Says Who?

Going back to the list of novels I’m analyzing (flip back to last week’s blog if you need to see the list), I had a breakthrough idea, or so it is for me. Maybe everyone else in the writing business has known this and hidden it from me. Shh, she has to figure this out for herself. I realize now that the point of view determines and/or results from the distance between the reader and the writer.

In Laird Hunt’s Neverhome, the POV is completely in the voice of the main character, Gallant Ash, diction, syntax, details. Anything Hunt thinks or believes is veiled by her presence. Same with 1000 White Women (Jim Fergus) in which every word comes from the journals of May Dodd. What she knows, we know. Tight, first person POV.

George Eliot, however, in Middlemarch, trots out on stage to tell us just what the author thinks, believes, questions. In drama it’s called breaking the fourth wall, that imagined line between the audience and the action on stage, like the narrator, Tom, in The Glass Menagerie. We never lose sight for long of Eliot, whose omniscient eye/I explains the story as she goes along. This intrusion lifts us out of the action, a dangerous thing. In fact, commercially successful fiction seems to be afraid of anything but a tightly controlled POV. Don’t let their attention wander for even a second.

Between these two alternatives, live the characters in the other three books. In God Help the Child, Toni Morrison keeps the spotlight on her main character, Bride, but from a close third person POV, so it’s almost like a first, keeping the reader and writer each on their own side of the line. Then Piercy and Atwood have to move the spotlight to refocus on the various main characters. Focus, focus, don’t leave the reader in the dark. But I sense the hand of the author adjusting the light.

What accounts for these variations in distance and POV? The form follows the function, whatever the story needs to keep it moving at an effective pace. POV is a writerly exercise in concentration and adaptation, in risk and experiment. It relates to last week’s “what if?” Which POV best answers that key question? What if you choose the wrong one?

The Big What If

Here again are the six novels I’ve been studying in preparation for finishing the first draft of my own work in progress.

  • 1000 White Women: the Journals of May Dodd, by Jim Fergus
  • God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison
  • Neverhome, by Laird Hunt
  • Summer People, by Marge Piercy
  • The Robber Bride, by Margaret Atwood
  • Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Let’s begin with the first item on a revision guide I recently gleaned from a workshop with Lori DeBoer of the Boulder Writers’ Workshop. What’s the story-worthy problem? What gets it all going? I think of this as a version of the BIG WHAT IF.

  • What if May Dodd volunteers to become the wife of a Cheyenne chief so that she can leave the asylum where she has been committed because she was not married to the father of her two children?
  • What if a smart, gorgeous, successful black woman falls in love with a man who deserts her with no explanation?
  • What if a woman disguises herself as a man and joins the Union army during the American Civil War?
  • What if a love triangle breaks apart and the three people involved don’t know what to do with their grief?
  • What if three friends are each victimized by a woman whose funeral they attend, only to find out that she is still alive?
  • What if a genteel young woman marries a much older man only to discover that he is not the brilliant writer she had planned to help with his magnum opus?

Each of these books has a major problem to explore and each story is told from mostly female points of view, more than one in Piercy’s and Atwood’s books. Eliot’s book is omniscient, and being of the Victorian era, includes authorial intrusion and direct address to the reader. I have no difficulty skating over those elements and no intention to revert to that structure. The book is a massive novel of manners, but still worth the effort to read it all the way through.

The shifts among three main characters, one of them male, in Summer People are rapid, but the transitions are clearly labeled with the name of the POV character. I would have preferred the sections to be longer so that I could sink into the story more deeply. Lesson noted. The Robber Bride has a more leisurely pace that develops the trauma inflicted by the “dead” woman on each of her victims. In the other books, a predominantly single POV make for easy reading and a shorter book. Not that ease or brevity are measures of excellence.

So, lessons learned: the need for a good WHAT IF and the effect of POV on the reader and on the length of the novel. My novel Accidental Child has a close first person POV and it’s short, less that 70,000 words. My sequel has three main characters with POV shifts and will be longer. Next week I’ll come back to this list and delve again into the things I’ve learned.