Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Moon Goddess and Other issues

First, an update: “Don’t Mess With The Moon Goddess” is now up at Long Story Short. Though written in December 2009, this story was accepted by LSS back in December 2010, a testament that sometimes it takes a while to take a story from the initial drafting to a publishable finished product. Take the time to read it, and feel free to give me your thoughts. I hope you enjoy it.

Secondly, I received an interesting, and thankfully a personal, rejection letter on “A Leap of Faith.” Even though it was a rejection, I was excited to see what the editors thought. Most of the comments were positive. One note that struck me, however, was the following::

“…sentences such as 'Personally, scumbags like Moselle deserved to die.' which is missing a 'she thought' or something like that in there.”

So what was the editor looking for? By his own words, the editor believed I failed to include a tag which would have linked the sentence to the lead character’s thought and not the narrator’s. My argument, though, is that this story is written in the close third person, not the distant third person, and that the above should have been seen as the character’s thoughts.

For those who might be scratching their heads, Nancy Kress, author of Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, describes it as so close to first person that the reader knows everything a character thinks and experiences as soon as it happens. This occurs because the reader suddenly sees the world as the character sees it, not how the narrator describes it. How does a writer accomplish this? Let me give you an example::

Jack squinted through the scope. He slowed his breathing and drew in on himself, waiting to feel his own pulse. There. One and two and three and four. Catch the rhythm, wait for the half-beat.

He placed the cross-hairs on the target, a woman in a white dress suit, at a café table sipping a cup of something. Probably some multi-combination drink, like a decaf skinny mocha latte with a dash of vanilla. These days, it seemed like everyone was into junk like that. Why couldn’t they just order a good ol’ cup of Joe and be done with it, drink it like they used to out on the lonesome prairie?

In the first two sentences, it’s clear we’re in the third person POV. First, there is Jack’s name. Then, if that isn’t enough, the reader sees the pronoun starting off the second sentence, which is most certainly a cue of the POV selected. But notice what happens with the next three sentences. See how fragmented they are? A third person narrator shouldn’t use sentences like that. The second paragraph tells us even more. After the first sentence, setting up the action, the reader is suddenly thrown several thoughts. Again, with words and phrases like “junk” and “cup of Joe”, the reader is given cues that he is now in Jack’s thoughts. He sees the world as Jack sees it. Finally, notice how I never used “he thought” in the two paragraphs. To me, with the cues mentioned, it’s easy to see the transition.

The thing is to know is that many writers do this. Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, and Elmore Leonard are just a few of the bigger names in the business who write this way. Sometimes, the move is so subtle the reader may not even realize it. It’s there just the same, though.

The danger in using a close third person, however, is that some readers can get confused. Nancy Kress calls it giving the reader the sensation of vertigo. This, I think, is what the editor tried to express in his criticism of my story.

So, here’s the question: Should I re-write the story, putting in the extra pronouns and tags so the reader isn’t confused, or should I leave it alone, accepting that some readers can’t see that using slang like “scumbags” should indicate the character’s thoughts instead of the narrator. Personally, I’m leaning toward the latter. I think it’s a matter of style, or the writer’s voice, and while it won’t resonate with some readers, it will with others.

What do you think?

Finally, I’m getting fired up over Justified the new series on FX, which starts March 16th. This is based on one of Elmore Leonard’s characters, a U.S. marshal named Raylan Givens. I first ran across this character in Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole.” All I can tell you is that you must find it and read it if you haven’t already. It’s fantastic. Raylan Givens also appears in two separate novels, Pronto and Riding the Rap, both of which are currently sitting on my shelf and waiting for me to read. Mark your calendars, my friends. Set your DVRs. Raylan is coming to a TV set near you, and it promises to be a great show.

Until next time...


  1. Congrats on your pub - enjoyed your story! And super post on close 3rd. I'm a happy camper writing in 1st, though closs 3rd is another comfy skin for me. But, I think nancy kress has a point about the 'vertigo' feeling of close 3rd. From your short excerpt it's difficult to tell whether the concern re tags differentiating narrator versus character is an isolated incident, or one compounded by multi-POV 'head-hopping'. Peace, Linda

  2. I can see your point, Linda. While there was interaction with another character, the story submitted was written from the POV of only one character. And the comment from the editor regarded a sentence early on before the interaction.

    As far as the vertigo feeling, I don't know how a writer avoids it with some readers. To keep the story flowing, the writer has to inject action, sights, smells, etc. Those, especially action, can't be written without pulling out of the character's head. If you limit the POV to one character per scene, then it's my opinion the reader should be able to make the leap and know the difference between narrator and character.

    Thanks for stopping by again. I always enjoy hearing from you.

  3. happy for you and the pub. personal notes are not a bad thang as they took the actual time to pick up pen and jot down their opinion.

  4. I agree, Paige. It's the feedback that let's the writer know exactly why something didn't work for the editor. This is why I like the personal comments rather than the form letter that tells me nothing beyond the rejection.

    As always, thanks for stopping by.

  5. I well remember that story, Stephen, and am glad to see it landed on both feet. Nicely done.

    On your writing question, I'm going to echo Linda a bit and say I'd have to know more of the context before making a call. However, if it is close 3rd and if it's clear which character is thinking, I'd say leave it as is. If you get another "doink", well, maybe there really is a problem.


  6. John: Thanks for stopping by offering your thoughts. The editor did have some valid criticism. On this issue, however, I'm not ready to concede. I am going to leave it and re-submit the story again. We'll see what happens.

  7. Stephen, I agree you should leave it. IMO, you shouldn't even think about changing that bit unless a) you're getting this feedback from multiple, reliable sources, or b) the flaw is now so evident to you that you feel you MUST fix the mistake.

    Congrats on Moon Goddess. It's a fun story.

  8. Translation of Touch's comment: "Your blog is true, Oh I support!!!"

    Thank you. I appreciate that you stopped by.

  9. you-who:-) not sure if you pick these things up or not but there is something at my place :-)

  10. Congratulations on the publication, Stephen. I look forward to reading.

    I also look forward to the more personal rejections. In fact I've put mine in a notebook for when I need encouraging.

    Interesting discussion on close third, which I'm working on at the moment, coming as I do from a place where first is more comfortable. I'm reading Ron Carlson's stories in A Kind of Flying, and noticing that he writes most in first, but when he does third, he gets just as close.

  11. Thank you for stopping by, Cynthia. I've never read Ron Carlson. I'll have to add him to my "To Read" list.