perspective on perspective, or pov

I just today ran across a really good post from back in 2006 on Justine Larbalestier‘s weblog. It’s about (so-called) head-hopping (rapid shifting of point of view) and the general belief that such techniques are bad bad bad. She says:

Let me repeat: no writing technique is bad per se. Sure, it can be done badly, but that’s an entirely different issue. Writing that obeys all the writing workshop rules and deploys not a single adjective or adverb can also completely suck.

I have friends who are on this no-pov-shifting bandwagon, and who are quite vocal about it. For example, Jenny Crusie has been very clear about her dislike of rapid POV shifting. Now, I love her to death, but on this, I’m sorry to say, I think she’s got the wrong end of the proverbial stick.

Justine’s post is worth reading because she backs up her position with a lot of interesting observations This is one of those anti rules-of-thumb: If you are good enough, you can break any rule and not only get away with it, but pull off something wondrous.

In the spirit of full disclosure: I do sometimes use rapid POV shifting as a technique in certain kinds of scenes. A few people have emailed over the years to ask me why I would commit such a crime. I think now now that question has been answered, more by Justine than by me.

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back to business: padding verbs

It is really hard to keep focused when the cyber universe is going nuts, as it has been since mid January. In the last couple weeks readers and authors and bloggers (primarily in the romance community) have been trying to outshout each other until everybody is deaf and hoarse, too. Saying even the calmest, most reasoned thing (and there were lots of people who tried to do this) could get you called outside for a fist fight. I tried to stay out of it for the most part (I’ve already got one Author Behaving Badly badge, after all). Though I admit it was tempting to say some things. Some things that might have brought the mob to my door. I could be incendiary and get lots of attention that way, or I could get back to talking about writing. One simple sentence before I do that:

Plagiarism is morally and ethically wrong.

So there you go, my stance on the subject. Now, about padding verbs.

Right now in fiction the trend and fashion is for very distinct point-of-view boundaries. Head-hopping is frowned upon. A story written in third person will have more than one POV character, and the writer switches back and forth between them. So you experience the beginning of the argument from inside Maria’s head, then comes a break (usually a double return so you get an island of white space on the page) and you experience the rest of the argument from inside Gwen’s head. Gwen sees Maria’s reactions and interprets them, and you get that information in the narration.

Maria lifted her upper lip and Gwen had to turn away or laugh. Mandy was right, Maria did look like a chipmunk when she was mad.

This clearly comes from Gwen and not from Maria, who observes Gwen in her turn:

She’s not going to leave this alone, Maria realized. This is that ridiculous episode with the toilet plunger and the squirrel, all over again.

One of the challenges of this switching back and forth is signaling the switch to the reader without being too blatant. This is managed most usually with little coded phrases

Maria thought (so you are inside her head)
Maria felt (ditto)
Maria saw the color leave Gwen’s face.

This might not seem like a big deal, and in many ways it isn’t. But this constant signaling the reader (yoohoo! we’re over here now, in Laura’s head!) can be a burden.

You might write: Gwen felt the sweat soaking into her silk blouse, or, more vividly: Sweat blossomed under the arms and along the collar of Gwen’s silk blouse. The difference starts with that padding verb: felt. I think of this as a padding verb because it steps between the reader and the action or emotion in order to establish POV. This habit can get out of hand.

I try, when I’m writing, to look for these padding verbs and if I can do without them without confusing the reader’s sense of which character has the POV, I’ll cut the little intruder right there.

Elizabeth saw Nathaniel reach down and grab at a root sticking up out of the ground.

Do we need those first two words? Maybe not. Probably not.

Of course, if you are writing a first person narrative this will not be much of a problem for you because there’s no POV switching at all. On the other hand, you’ll have to figure out a way to keep the reader informed of all the stuff they need to know — but you can’t tell them because the narrator doesn’t know them.

On a different front: I’m delaying the photo contest, and I may fold it into the other, bigger giveaway. The same prizes, so never fear about that.”

Miss Zula

spring 2007
My camellias are all blooming; the magnolia tree is in full flower. The rest of the garden is a disaster. But one thing at a time.

On another front, I got some feedback on Tied to the Tracks which I have been trying to process:

I wanted Miss Zula’s story. I wanted to hear her voice. I wanted her sister’s story. Those were the storylines that interested me, and there wasn’t enough of them.

I’ll try to reflect back what this reader is telling me:

This reader would have liked Tied to the Tracks better if it had been all about Miss Zula and her family, from Miss Zula’s POV.

Some time ago I posted about my old friend from grad school, Steve Huff, and what happened at his doctoral dissertation defense. That post was about the way readers sometimes respond to authors, and how authors respond back.

So my first impulse is to write back to this person with this set piece:

I see your point, that would be an interesting story. If you’d like to advance me $100,000 for approximately two year’s work with the standard Author’s Guild contract in place, I’ll see what I can do.

On the other hand, I do appreciate the fact that my secondary characters made such an impression. So I’m going to do something I rarely try to do: I’m going to say something about my intent in how I wrote TTTT. In the next post.

once again, with feeling: POV and head hopping

First, I can’t remember where I found this link. If it was your blog, I apologize for not giving you credit. Whoever you are.

So here, Therese Fowler’s weblog. She’s got her first novel coming out soon, with a high profile house that’s putting a lot of marketing energy and money into her debut. I’m looking forward to reading her book.

On the other hand, after reading her post on the perennial POV debate and thinking about it for a while, I would like to boil the whole discussion down to a few points and get in my two cents at the same time:

1. POV is one of many technical skill that fiction writers have to master.

2. For some that will be easier than for others. In the same way, all of us have our strengths and weakness (dialog, description, etc etc).

3. Writers reading other writers are far more observant and critical than the average reader out there. In the same way an accomplished tailor will look at a garment and find all kinds of flaws I don’t see, most readers won’t be aware of POV cheats or shortcuts.

4. Nevertheless, I would say that a serious writer works to get these things right.

5. Maybe there’s an annual convention where tailors sit around arguing about hemming shortcuts. I would guess that some of them truly enjoy such ongoing discussions. Authors love to bat around the big questions: POV, present vs. past tense, third vs. first person narration, etc. I’m not such a fan of these discussions, but I can see that they are important to some people.

6. If there is a rule that says: no POV switching within a scene, then that rule is a matter of fashion and aesthetic. Trends come and go in fiction as they do in most things. Minimalism hung on for a long time and has slid away, mostly, into the shadows. The obsession with the semi-colon — fueled to some degree by John Irving in his Garp phase — faded.

7. There’s a difference between breaking a rule, and bending a rule to suit your needs. If you break the rule and the story falls flat because of that, you have not succeeded. You took a chance, it didn’t work. Back up, think it through.

8. Some authors are better at bending the current rules than others.

9. Some don’t care to try, out of fear or laziness or whatever.

10. Rather than contemplating this on-going, never-ending debate, I (and you) should be writing.

Note: In the spirit of full disclosure: I am not Nora Roberts, but I do switch POV within scenes sometimes. I believe that it mostly works for me, but feel free to disagree.