Point of View
How many of you here have started something in first person, only to go back and redraft it as third? Or third person redrafted to first?
Or figured out you were in the wrong person’s head, and had to restart in a different head?
“It’s all a question of point of view.”
Back in the dark ages – 1980’s in South Africa the BBC Radio News reported on a labor dispute/picket protest led by the ANC aligned organizers in a fishing town up the West Coast of the Cape. The picket line had been savagely broken up by the police with dogs (the BBC reporter of the time was a passionate promoter of the anti-apartheid cause, and as his media was not within the country could report whatever he liked without any form of censorship.) The local Afrikaans press reported on the incident too. There wasn’t a lot to report on from one horse towns on the West Coast, and the Cape Town Riot squad dispersing a protest with dogs was news, if not big news. The one set of media carried it from their point of view as a bad thing, and the other as a good thing. Read more
What do you do when a new character starts talking to you?
You transcribe, of course, and thank the Muse politely and hope this state of affairs will continue.
However, when the character starts by telling you her name – and it happens to be the name of the Greek Muse of Comedy – don’t be too surprised if she finds it screamingly funny to get you five chapters deep into a story told in first person and then to point out that she didn’t actually witness certain crucial scenes and what are you going to do about that?
There was an amusing bit of fallout after my post last week. You would think that calling for recommendations of books for a pair of young ladies would hardly be controversial, yes? I mean, I don’t know about you, but there are few things I like more than a chance to talk about books I have known and loved since I was a girl. I was just comparing notes last night on social media with a friend about how nice it is to go wayback into memories and read authors like Grace Livingston Hill, LM Montgomery, Georgette Heyer, and others for sweetness and happiness in what seems to be an ever-more bitter world.
But I digress a little. I had occasion, after an angry accusation was made, to look up what the word censorship meant. I thought I knew what it meant, after all, but I wanted to be sure, because what it was being used about wasn’t what I’d have defined as censorship…
Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information that may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities or other groups or institutions.
So why was I being accused of being a censor by an incensed reader? because I and others were including warnings about books containing graphic and potentially inappropriate content, in a discussion about books for preteen children. So parents who want to know what is in their children’s books are guilty, according to this person, of censorship. It’s not the first time I’ve been accused of censoring content for my children’s sakes. When I wrote about the prevalence of what can only be called victim worship, or torture porn, in YA books, I was blasted for my stance against the graphic portrayal of abuse. I responded to that with science, laying out the fact that children need tools to cope, yes, but glorifying pain (and suicide, as in the recent Netflix hit 13 Reasons) is not a good thing for those who are trying to crawl out of the abyss. So why do I take this unpopular stance?
Perhaps because as a culture we now embrace pop stars who writhe all but naked on the stage, books that advocate ephebephilia and incest, but reject values, morals, and chivalry? I am not a perfect person, but I do believe that there should be personal responsibility in this world, a duty to protect the children, and the honor to stand up to bullies in any form or age.
I’m a mother who now has three teens and one almost-teen under her roof. Do I say ‘you can’t read that!’ and yank a book out of their bewildered hands? (and how do you confuse hands… oh, never mind) Am I truly a censor, using this blog as my ‘group or other institution’ to suppress information?
Actually, I think I can successfully argue that rather than censoring those books, I am doing the opposite. I am adding information to them, not blacking the ‘bad bits’ out. It’s no different than the rating systems we use for films and video games. Something meant for mature consumption is possibly acceptable for some who are younger, but that’s something their parents need to make a decision on. Not I, and certainly not the incen(sor)ed reader who was indignant that we were talking smack about books she read as a young girl and didn’t see any harm at all in.
I’ll tell a little story on my girls, here. When my Otaku Princess (who now adores anime and anything DC Comics-related) was a small girl-child with silky copper penny hair, she was absolutely terrified of a G-rated cartoon. It gave her nightmares every time her siblings watched it (we owned it on VHS, to date it) and she would run crying from the room when the gnomes appeared in this made-for-TV animation of Ozma of Oz. On the other hand, my Jr. Mad Scientist was taken to see Batman: The Dark Knight when she was only six years old by a doting great-grandfather who undoubtedly thought he was taking the tiny nut-brown girl to an Adam West show, all Bop! Bam! Biff! and he never even looked to see it was rated R. She didn’t bat an eye at that level of gore and horror.
Every kid is different. But only you, the parents, know which kid is yours and what they are ready for. When you look at a book like Robin McKinley’s Deerskin, you want to know that it has graphic accounts of child abuse, incest, and miscarriage in it. You, the parent, can then determine if that’s a book to be read now, or one that should perhaps wait a few years until the developing mind that is in your care is prepared to grasp that not all bad things end in bad times, they can come out to survival and triumph. Personally, that book shook me to the core and I can’t re-read it. On the other hand, her other earlier stories (I’ve never been able to read her after Deerskin) were brilliant, and I have bought copies to give to my girls. Some censor, I.
Some times a book isn’t right for an age level. I had a book rejected from being added to a school library due to content concerns. I didn’t think once that I was being censored, or cry out “I’m being banned!” to all the media. There is a scene in my YA book The God’s Wolfling that portrays the heroes as they are captured by drug dealers when they stumble into someplace they shouldn’t have been. The elementary school in question explained that they couldn’t have any books in their library that portrayed ‘drug culture’ in any way. As I’d never intended that pair of books for juvenile (under 12 years) readers, I shrugged and went on with life. Have I, an author, been censored? Yes. Did it harm me? No. Would that scene (spoiler: the teen heroes make it out intact and the drug idiots pay dearly) have harmed some young impressionable mind? Well, probably not. But that’s not my call to make. The school has a responsibility to parents, and parents are the ones tasked with raising their children. Not, thank goodness, angry people on the internet.
I don’t think there are many children reading this blog. To be honest, I’d be surprised if that number was greater than one. There are rather a large number of parents and grandparents who read and write here. With all of those, I suspect that a primary goal is for us to raise readers. Not to restrict them, but to guide them and feed them good, tasty books, until they can be weaned and off to a diet of meaty books full of stories that will satisfy them, mystify them, and make them think more until their brains stretch out a size or three. And the best way to accomplish that is to talk about books which are beloved and find ones the children will read all up until they cry out for ‘more! more’! and that’s when you know you can come here, asking for ideas when you’re out, and we’ll tell you about the books we loved. Which includes a word of warning about things you might want to know so you aren’t up in the middle of the night with a case of reading indigestion and a crying child.
Let me start by thanking everyone for their well-wishes and blog ideas last week. Sorry I didn’t get back with a real post but the headache and sinuses laid me low. Since you guys were so great with blog suggestions, I spent a few minutes this morning going over them again and am going to hit on a couple in this post.
As writers, we are going to see our work critiqued, whether we want to or not. Most of the time we don’t want to. Let’s be honest, no one likes hearing that their baby is ugly and that is what we risk when we read a critique. However, before we ever see our work in print, many of us workshop our work in critique groups or we have alpha and beta readers look it over. Then there are the editors. We trust them to tell us what is good about our work and what is bad about it.
But what do we do with that information once we get it?
That is where a number of authors, usually those new to the field, run into trouble. Do they try to incorporate all the changes their critique partners and beta readers suggested? Or do they simply nod, say “thanks” and move on? Or is there something in the middle?
Unfortunately, there is no “right” answer. But there are guidelines. There is also the author’s gut, something the author must learn to listen to.
When I first started getting serious about writing as a profession, Sarah offered me a bit of advice when I was lamenting about how I didn’t understand what someone in a critique group had said. It’s been long enough now I don’t remember exactly what the comment was. What I do remember is that what they wanted me to do would result in basically breaking the character. But this person, who had more experience than I did — or so I thought at the time because of the way they conducted themselves in the group — was adamant that I do what they said.
So, after anguishing over it, I talked with Sarah. She was silent for a moment and then she asked if anyone else had voiced the same concerns about my work. No. Then she wanted to know if, after this person voiced their opinion, anyone else chimed in with an agreement. Again, no. That’s when she told me about the Rule of Three. Unless three people tell you basically the same thing, do NOT automatically decide you need to make the suggested changes. After all, people are different. They read differently, have different tastes and, let’s be honest, they can make mistakes.
Then she went on to tell me that even if three people say the same thing, that doesn’t mean you have to instantly make the change. But it does mean you need to consider what they said, and do so dispassionately.
Here is an example from my current critique group. My critique partner is a very good writer, very serious about her craft and open to critique. She wants to do whatever she can to make her work better. In a recent meeting she talked about how, in another group, someone had suggested she redo her current WIP so that she was alternating POVs of her main characters. Their reason was because they did not feel like they were learning enough about one of the POV characters and felt having scenes from his point of view might help.
Now, we have all read books where there are different POV characters. Some of those books are written in 3rd person omniscient and some 3rd person limited. Others are written in 1st person. So my crit partner knew it could be done but her question was should it?
Our group discussed the options, as well as the pros and cons of doing it.
So here’s the thing, whether my crit partner needed to do as suggested — and, in my opinion and the opinions of the others in our group, she did not — there were issues with doing it. The biggest is, if you switch points of view, you have to be ready to have a distinct “voice” for each POV character. This is especially true if you are writing in 1st person. There are writers out there who can do that without problem. But it is difficult and not something to do if you, the author, don’t have that second voice firmly in your head.
Sure, there are easy ways to cue your reader that you have switched points of view when in first person. You can make sure each chapter or scene change is tagged in such a way that you actually give the POV character’s name. Or you can have another character call the POV character by name in the first paragraph or so and making it clear it is your POV character responding.
In this particular case, however, the author didn’t need to go back and rewrite a good chunk of her book. The one thing we agreed with the person wanting another POV character on was that we wanted more of a feel for the other main character in the book. So we brainstormed ways to do so. The suggestions we came up with meant a little rewriting, but it was more along the line of a sentence here and a paragraph there. Letting us more into the mind of the POV character and her reactions to him, especially at the beginning of the book.
Now, was the original critique wrong?
Not necessarily but it wasn’t necessarily right either. However, what that person did was offer a concern with a solution and not offer any other ways to address the concern. By raising that person’s concern with our group, our critique partner wound up with a discussion of not only some minor weaknesses we saw in her work but also different ways to address them. What solution she finally chooses is up to her, as it should be. She is the one who knows her book the best and who will be able to determine the best way to fix the concerns, if they really need fixing when the entire book is looked at, without breaking the book or the characters.
Here is another point we, as authors, need to keep in mind when we workshop a book in a critique group. More often than not, our critique partners are seeing only a chapter or two at a time and it may be weeks or months or even years before they critique that last chapter. That means critiques tend to be centered only on the chapter or scene they are currently working on in the group, not on the work as a whole. It means details from previous chapters can and will be forgotten. The flow of the book won’t be there. So, when someone says you need to do something that impacts the entire book, you have to ask yourself if they made the comment with the entire book in mind or just the current chapter and maybe the previous one or two in mind.
This is where your writer’s gut has to come into play. If what the critique partner says feels wrong, ask yourself why. If it feels right, examine that as well. Don’t be afraid to ask that person if they had the same concerns about earlier chapters they had seen.
If I have to point out one rule when it comes to critique groups/alpha and beta readers it would be this: do NOT try to make everyone happy. If you try to insert every change that every person suggests, you will probably wind up causing yourself more headaches and problems than you find solutions. This is, to repeat myself, where you fall back on the Rule of Three. If three folks say basically the same thing, consider what they said and why. If not, make a note, think about it but remind yourself that others did not have the same problem or suggestion.
Most of all, learn to trust your writer’s gut — and when to realize you really shouldn’t have had that three-day-old slice of pizza that hadn’t been refrigerated. Now go forth and write and, if you aren’t a writer, read.
Oh, in case you are wondering what to give your favorite authors for Christmas, here’s something every author would appreciate. Write a review for their work on Amazon. It doesn’t have to be long or detailed. Just enough to let folks know you read the book and what you thought about it. The number of reviews a title gets impacts its visibility. It also helps other readers decide if they want to try an author they might not have read before.
“So nat’ralists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller fleas to bite ’em.”
Jonathan Swift, On Poetry: A Rhapsody
We’re all a cheerful heaving mass of parasites. Parasites on parasites at times. A delightful thought, one of the joys of having a biologist write about writing…
Some of these parasites do no real harm – we can survive them, although we might do better without them. Some of course, do harm. They can maim, hobble, weaken and indeed kill. There are tales of cows being killed by mosquitos, by sheer blood-loss (not, thank heavens where I live). Other parasites stray a little… or even quite a lot into the area of commensualism, and right through to outright symbiosis.
It might, for example be said that the male anglerfish particularly in the deep-sea ceratiidae (the sea devils) is perfect example of parasitism that is essential to the survival… not of the host but the host’s products – well, offspring. Genes.
You see out in the deep blue desert – well, ocean, but it is de facto rather like a desert in that food is sparse and scattered (although there is plenty of water) – but it’s nutrient poor, deep and cold. The possibility of finding prey is small, and find sex when you need to breed, well, let’s put it this way, you’d have more luck finding a nudist colony in Riyadh. So the sea devil females have a way around this. They keep one… well I was going to handy, but it more like hanging around their butts.
Now, as I said food is scarce, and taking someone for dinner down there is well, usually digestive, for at least one. If you have ever seen an anglerfish you’d know they are like banks – a little dangly ‘bait’ on the end of the illicium – held just above a vast mouth full of evil teeth to make sure dinner doesn’t leave undigested. The males are more like politicians, they can somehow – despite having lousy noses or eyes or anything else except testes, find females in watery waste. Perhaps there is a sea-devil pub.
Once they find a female… they bite her. This may be just as well as she’s all too well equipped to bite them, and they’re small and feeble compared to her. Females need to be big to accommodate a lot of relatively large eggs – males do not.
And at this point things get really, really weird… as he bites and then releases an enzyme that digests the skin on his mouth, and her body, where he has bitten… and the ‘wound’ heals up with the male and female joined in sense humans can never experience. The male and female join at the tissue level, and share blood-vessels.
He gets what he needs to live directly from her bloodstream. The bits he no longer need atrophy. He’s there to be sperm when she needs it. Sometimes as many as eight males can be found like ticks that have actually grown into the host (and you see why biologists look at arts graduate sf writers blathering about ‘non-binary sex’ with amusement.).
I suppose too many would kill her, but it is a system that works, despite the fact that the parasitic males draw all their nourishment, and indeed oxygen from the host. Without them, the species would die. With them, individuals may.
It has parallels in our lives (and no I don’t just mean the waste of space who does little more than father children) and of course in the writing world.
Most of life involves ‘carrying’ a ‘freeloading parasite’ load which may do you (or at least humans in general) some good – or not. There’s a fine line between the benefits (if they exist) and the sheer cost of carrying this load. Governments (national and local) and bureaucrats with their slew of petty rules and associated costs and taxes are good example. Yes, they might protect you from being eaten, but they’ll make up for it by devouring much of your subsistence without doing much positive, most of the time. Still, rather like the male anglerfish, they’re supposed to be there when you need them.
In writing there is some difference of opinion as to who the degenerate freeloaders are. From the point of view of agents, traditional publishers, and at least some of retail, we are. We’re interchangeable widgets, sucking their blood and giving precious little in exchange. Without them, we are nothing, and while they need us as a group, as individuals we’re worthless, instantly exchangeable if we want too much of their precious lifeblood for doing the trivia we do. After all, any fool can write books. Look at Freer for example… It’s one point of view.
As with so much of writing, the point of view makes quite a difference, as I for one am reluctant to see myself as an exchangeable widget. However, while I may want and benefit some – or all – of the services that agents, Trad publishers, and retail provide (almost as an afterthought it seems at times) – I can do without them. Some writers can do very well without them, selling directly. You can certainly cut some of them, and benefit a lot from carrying less of a parasite load, and simply do what they do yourself, or contract it out for less. The agents, traditional publishers and retailers can do without me, but they cannot do without writers.
It then becomes – for the writer, anyway, an equation of can he survive and have his work thrive alone in the deep blue sea of making a living from writing, or does he need all, or some of the ‘parasites’ so they’re there at the right time, so his work does not fail to find readers. That equation varies from writer to writer. Honestly, I believe if you can, you’re wise to outsource proofing. Unless you’re a wiz at covers or the cost cannot be met, well, they’re your display. If you can afford – and if you can find a good structural editor, take this opportunity with both hands. They can turn a mediocre or even bad book into something great, just by finding where and how to tweak it. This is difficult, because most Trad publishing houses don’t have them either. Copy editors have value, but seriously, most of them are widgets. If you find one that isn’t, hang onto them. Marketing… well IF you can do it well, great, if you will probably do it better than any publisher’s employee, even though they have the contacts etc. You will work only for you. He or she will work for the publisher – who has lots of irons in the fire. Even outsourcing here is tricky – so much marketing these days is social media.
When it comes to retail – unless you have a social media platform par excellence and/or a mailing list, retail still are ‘have to have’. That’ll cost you. But some parasite load has to be carried.
It’s always good to know what you’re carrying, and to work out if it has value relative to the cost.
Otherwise ditch the sucker.
As the anglerfish didn’t say, ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea.’
And biology is very useful for designing implausible aliens.