Monday, July 26, 2010

The Finest Details

Sometimes it comes down to the finest details. For writers as readers—the most critical readers, I suppose—the success or failure of another artist’s work falls upon whether the small things act like door hinges that are well-oiled or they creak from age and rust. Today’s finest detail focuses on point of view. Before we do, however, let’s lay down a foundation.

Viewpoint is the place from which the reader views your story.

– Gary Provost, Beyond Style

As you are aware, before writing a book, a chapter, or even a scene, the writer has to make a choice on who will tell the story (and about whom). In making that choice, the writer may choose first-, second-, or third-person.

Imagine you are sitting at a table. There are two cups of coffee and an empty chair before you. If the story is told in the first-person point of view, then it will feel like your friend Sally is sitting down and telling you her story. “The other day I went down to pier,” she says, “and looking into the water, I saw the most freak-odd thing I’ve ever seen, I kid you not.” In this case Sally is telling you exactly what she saw and how it felt, using words (like “freak-odd”) that only she would use.

If the story is told in the second-person point of view, it might feel like a therapist is sitting down at the table, trying to make suggestions to your subconscious mind. “You are sitting at a bar,” he begins. “You like the music, the rhythm and pulse of it on your skin. You light a cigarette, not your normal brand, but the week has been long, the expenses high, and you had to settle for the Pall Malls instead of the Winstons.” And this may be why many readers don’t like the second-person point of view: they hate the feeling of being shrink-wrapped, told that they like red shoes with two inch heals when they really prefer a pair of sneakers, the laces untied.

If the story is told in the third-person point of view, then it might feel like Lois Lane is sitting down at the table, giving you the scoop on what her investigative reporting has uncovered. “Jonathan Rickards felt like it was the longest day of his life,” she tells you. “The boss said his work performance smelled so bad that it would take more than a can of Febreze to clear the air. And then Nicole, his wife, called to say that she’d had it. She was through and don’t bother coming home. She had changed the locks on the door to their house. Well her house, now.” Lois continues with the story, and how much you will eventually learn about Jonathan Rickards in this scene depends wholly upon what she has learned about him, and only about what he can see, hear or feel. We call this third-person limited.

In some cases, the narrator will have the details from everyone’s perspective, including how they think and feel, jumping from one person to the next in real time. In which case, it’s not Lois Lane sitting across the table and telling you a story, but rather someone with the ability to see all and know all. We call this third-person omniscient.

Sure this is a limited, not to mention a simplistic, discussion on point of view. Most writers devote whole chapters to the subject. I’m only working with a blog post, however, and don’t have the time or space to deal with it in detail.

In all cases, the choice made on the point of view is a big decision which comes with its own limitations.

The choice of narrative voice and point of view—who is speaking (and how) and through whose consciousness and emotional focus is the story understood?—will affect every other choice the writer makes in the story. In that sense, point of view is the writer’s most important technical choice.

– John Dufresne, The Lie That Tells a Truth

I believe there is a key component in the passage above: who is speaking (and how) and through whose consciousness and emotional focus is the story understood? Again, the choice of point of view narrows the scope of the story down to what any one character and thus the reader can possibly know, or in the case of the third-person narrator, what he or she can reasonably tell you as well. And this is where the work can fall short: a writer forgets that the narrator, or a character, can’t reasonably know this detail or that one. A first-person narrator, an Exxon executive sitting in his Houston, Texas office can’t possibly know that the Governor of Louisiana is right then in a secret meeting, discussing the short life of oil tycoons. Not unless he has the Governor’s mansion bugged. Or the lead character of a story told in third-person limited can’t possibly know what everyone else is thinking, not unless he’s clairvoyant.

As another example, here is something I read lately. The particular scene was told in third-person limited (i.e. our Lois Lane analogy) from the point of view of Johnny, a hit man for the mob. As the scene unfolded, the reader could only see what Johnny saw. Suddenly, there was a gun fight in the street. Everything was running smoothly until the writer typed down these words:

Johnny kicked [the gun] away quickly, stomped on Strazza’s fingers, breaking two of them…

At that point, I took a pause in the reading experience. Really? Two of them? How was it possible for Johnny to know for sure that he just broke two fingers. Did he have an x-ray machine? I don’t remember him having one. Maybe he’s not Johnny after all, but Superman, and has x-ray vision. If so, then why didn’t the writer tell me that from the beginning?

It’s a subtle thing, providing a detail that a character can't possibly know, and admittedly I’m being a bit snarky here, but I think it would have been better to write the following instead:

Johnny kicked it away quickly and stomped on a Strazza’s fingers. He heard a satisfying crack and smiled.

By writing it this way, the reader understands that something in Strazza’s hand just snapped. Whether it was one finger, two, or even three, it doesn’t matter. Strazza no longer has full functionality in that hand.

This is just one example. How about you? Are there cases where you've noticed a violation of POV? I would like to see them.

Other News:

It’s been a while since I last posted. Since then, my good friend Paige Von Lieber bestowed upon me the “Blog With Substance” award. Many thanks to her for that. Upon receiving this award, I’m supposed to share my blogging philosophy in 5 words: Writing Life from my Perspective. I hope that sums it up. I’m also supposed to give this award to 10 other bloggers. The problem with that, however, is I am not as dedicated to blogging as others these days. As such, I’ll give it out to other bloggers as I can think of them, a few usual suspects and two others I think you should consider for the edification they provide: Greta Igl’s blog, Linda Wastila's blog, Michael Larsen’s blog, Nathan Bransford’s blog, and Carol Benedict’sblog.

I finally finished the polishing job on “Simple”, a short crime story, which I’ve mailed off to one of the bigger print magazines. Fingers are crossed.

Currently working through the polishing of “Rule Number One”, another short story which has been on the shelf for a couple of years. Hopefully, I’ll have that one ready to go soon.

The plan at the moment is to have a small number of short stories out in submission while I start the actual revision of my novel.

Until next time…

Monday, July 5, 2010

What I Did This Summer...

(Blog Warning: Longer post than usual.)

Like your family, each summer brings an opportunity for our family to skip town and find a nice place to vacation for a week. Over the last ten years, that place has usually been somewhere in the mountains. We’ve traveled to New Mexico (towns like Cloud Croft, Ruidoso, or Red River) as well as Colorado (Sulphur Springs or Colorado Springs). I’ve enjoyed every bit of it.

Have you ever reached a place and suddenly felt like it was the home you’ve always wanted? Well, the mountains are that place for me. Especially during the summer. I love the smell of pine in the air, carried along by the cool breeze soughing through their boughs. It sounds like waves rolling ashore. I love the way the temperature drops in the night and how cool it feels in the morning—just the right thing to go with your wake-up cup of coffee.

I enjoy the wildlife. The way deer materialize in the morning mist, like ethereal spirits gliding through the valley. I love the way you can hear the hummingbirds flutter through the woods, the chirp of their wings sounding oddly like cricket songs in the night. And as strange as it may sound to you, I even enjoy watching bears lope up the mountainside, moving as fast as I would on a downward slope. The bears I enjoy watching from a distance though.

Personally, I would like to go to the mountains in the winter, too. I want to try my hand at skiing. I want to ride snowmobiles and buzz through the woods at break-neck speeds. I want to ice skate on a frozen pond, fall on my rear, and laugh with those laughing at me.

This year, however, my wife wanted to go to the beach. To give the kids something different, she said. Reluctantly, I agreed. So, we planned and mapped and did the math. (And no, my dear friends, I did not whip out a spreadsheet this time) We decided to visit South Padre and do it with a camping trailer.

As many of you know, when giving someone a critique on their story, it is customary to give the good before you give the bad. Yin, Yang, I-Ching and all that stuff. So, let’s lay out the good right now. If you’re into the beach scene, South Padre Island has much to offer, both for the adults and the kids. I enjoyed walking out along Pier 19, a seventy-yard boardwalk out into the Laguna Madre. I enjoyed smelling the air, which reminded me a little of what you’ll find walking into a Red Lobster or the seafood area of your local grocery store. I enjoyed the brilliant sunsets (as you can see above). I enjoyed spending an afternoon at the Schlitterbahn water park and riding on a tube in the lazy river. I enjoyed being on a boat out in the deep water, feeling the sudden lifts and drops of the bow as the waves rolled underneath. Though I’m not ready to sign up for "Deadliest Catch", I do like the feel of the ocean. I also enjoyed sitting under a canopy and reading a book while the wind blew in off the coast. Below is a picture of me safeguarding the canopy, the food, and the shade. Somebody had to do it.

There are things I didn’t particularly enjoy, though. First, the sand. Like a pet cat, it gets everywhere. And into everything. You want to enjoy a nice string of licorice? I hope you like a little grit to go with it. You want to go to bed? You had better take a shower first, or you’ll end up sleeping in what will probably feel like a box of kitty litter (thankfully, minus the clumps). You want to take a blanket to the beach to sit on? Count on this: the darn thing will feel like sandpaper against your skin before it’s all over.

I didn’t like the sound of screaming kids who totally ignored what Daddy had to say about leaving the jellyfish alone. Then, I didn’t like it when my wife had to tend to the kids, escorting them off the beach to treat the boo-boos with vinegar and meat tenderizer, which left me alone with the unpleasant task of carting all the stuff across a hundred yards of blistering sand.

I don’t like mosquitoes. Personally, I’m not sure why God created them. In fact, I’ve placed it on my list of things to ask. At elevations of eight- to ten-thousand feet, you don’t have to worry that much about the darn critters. It turns too cold for them. Along the coastal shores, however, where for every beach you’ll also find a marsh (or two), mosquitoes are a way of life. Sure, you can use bug spray, but then you’ll have to take a shower every night for that, too. After all, who wants to go to bed smelling like Raid on a Stick?

But the fishing, you say. Think of all the fishing. You can fish in the mountains, too, in case you didn't know it. They have wonderful little edibles called Trout, which you can fillet and fry up in corn meal and eat without worrying over the bones, which are as soft as the bones you might find in a can of Starkist. Out in the ocean, however, the critters are like prison wards, with bones like steel shanks, each one ready to make you bleed.

And finally (I have more, but I’ll wear you out) I didn’t like all the crazies. I don’t know what it is about the beach, but it sure brings out the loons. Like the old guy who decided to sit down on the shoreline with my wife, his wife in tow, to have a pleasant afternoon conversation. “Yeah,” he said. “We went to Hooters last night and had a real good time. And our waitress was something else. And if you don’t mind my saying, ma’am—” nodding at my wife “—you and her have something in common.”

Of course, I’m under the canopy minding my business and reading a book, oblivious to all of this. It is only when my wife comes back shaking her head and muttering something about “that dirty old man” that I finally realize the couple weren’t just two people being friendly. Well, he was. More friendly than most people really care for.

So, that was my vacation this year. We didn’t have a television in the trailer, nor did we listen to the radio. I had to come home to Lubbock (over 700 miles away) to find out that Hurricane Alex was whipping up an attitude out in the Gulf. It finally slammed ashore this last week, and the streets of South Padre Island are now under a foot or two of water. I can’t say I’m surprised. After all, it is only a sandbar off the Texas coast.

I can’t say it was all bad though. As a family, we had plenty of good memories. And I am thankful that we were able to take a vacation away from home; not everyone is afforded that opportunity. Besides, there was one additional point worth noting: in the process, I even came up with an interesting story idea complements of Mr. If-You-Don’t-Mind-My-Saying.

Next year, however, I’m arguing for a return to the mountains. Bring on the hot cocoa, the flannel blankets, and the s’mores.

Until next time…