distract me

Today for about two and a half hours it was impossible for me to focus on writing anything that required deep thinking. For that period of time the Girlchild was in the air on her way back to Boulder, you see. A mother’s concentration is crucial to keeping that airplane on course and making sure it lands safely.

So now she’s on the ground, and I will be getting back to work shortly. As soon as I finish this post, and eat something, and stop feeling as if I’ve lost something precious. Because she isn’t lost, I know just where she is, and later this evening I’ll talk to her.

A couple quick things that occur to me in the last couple days:

Suddenly I am no longer compulsively checking the news wires. Has the country been delivered from evil? Are we back in economic and moral good health? No. But there are competent people working on things. It won’t be fast and it won’t be painless, but it feels now like there’s a good driver in charge. So that’s something big to be thankful for.

Also, I have been thinking about all the so-called rules that fiction writers are sworn to uphold by those who would instruct them. I’m one of the people who instruct, on occasion, so I don’t exempt myself from this. The thing is, all these rules (or ninety-nine percent of them) are not compulsory. They are, for the most part, a matter of fashion. Here’s one example of a rule that isn’t really a rule: headhopping, or moving from one character’s pov to another’s within the same scene.

But maybe you disagree. Or maybe you have another not-really-a-rule to mention.

And now, back to work.

13 Replies to “distract me”

  1. Airplanes are *totally* kept aloft through Mother Power.

    As for story rules, now that I’ve learned them all too many times, I think the most important one is to write the best book you can. The rest of them are just guidelines. ;)

    Oh. And no comma splices. They drive me to drink.

  2. @Beth:

    Well, sure. To each her own, and all that. But my point (and I do have one) is, is this similar to not liking … olives? Or the color purple? Or songs in the key of F? Or is there something intrinsically wrong about it.

    It can be done badly (and usually is), but it can also be done well. No?

  3. I would argue that it -is- intrinsically wrong to change POV within a scene because the flow of the story is disturbed.

    Although I could understand why you would want to show one particular scene from the Points of View of two different characters.

    Every now and then on tv you will see an episode of some show or other where two or three people retell a story. Its used for comedic effect generally. What I find so interesting about this is you get to see how each character experienced and interpreted what happened.

    Rather than headhopping in a single scene you could use a bit of the last scene as experienced by another character in your next scene to ease the transition between POVs?

  4. @Kenzie:

    I would agree that if the flow of the story is disturbed, then the pov shifting isn’t working. But. In theory at least, it’s possible to write so well that the shifting pov doesn’t disturb anything. I knew I should have thought of some examples before I started this conversation.

    A parallel example… Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant is a favorite novel of mine. It got me at the first sentence, and kept me until the last. I finished it and re-read it within a week. I talked with friends about it. And in all that time, I never noticed that she had no chapter breaks. None.

    If prior to this experience, a student had asked me if it was possible to write a whole novel without chapters, I probably would have said something like: well, I supose, but it would be very distracting to the reader. That is in fact true, but Patchett still pulled it off.

    So now I’ll have to come up with a couple examples of shifting povs. Or to be more precise, well done examples.

  5. When I read your post last night I struggled to think up any examples of well-down headhopping…

    As to your other question, I just thought of one of those rules that I’ve heard in a writing class before:

    Write what you know.

    Great advice for new writers who tend not to let little things like the facts get in the way.

    How can one write without venturing (at least a little) into the unknown?

    If everybody followed this advice we would only have memoirs lining our shelves, what a sad fate that would be…

  6. ‘Write what you know’ can be interpreted a number of ways.

    1. You don’t know anything, so don’t bother writing.
    2. Go out and learn/experience something, then you can write about it.
    3. Stay focused on the YOU. Your life story and experiences are all you can (or should) write about.

    The first path is what some writing teachers will say, for a variety of reasons (to keep the competition down; to avoid having to read student work, etc). Hemingway is an example of the second path; he left home and went to war. The third path rarely turns out well. Have I ever told the story about the Greek chicken?

  7. Yeah well I think it’s not good because it leads to bad writing. Staying in one head for a scene means that you have to stay *out* of the other heads in that same scene. That makes the reader identify with the head they’re in, which (IMO) makes for a much better reader-character identification. And I don’t mean identifying with the POV character I mean being forced to identify with the character whose head you are not in. See, the head you’re NOT in – and as a reader, I have to imagine (just like the POV character) what the other characters are thinking and feeling. This is more like life – trying to figure out what’s going on in someone’s head by hunting for clues in the tone of their voice, twitch of a finger, a totally random comment that you wind up trying to decipher later.

    I dunno, when you head-hop, it’s like unwrapping all the presents at once or something – spoon-feeding every thought and emotion, telling instead of showing. When you stick inside one head at a time, the intensity builds, the interest builds, the characters get built. The only reason TO head-hop is to be lazy and uncreative, and it definitely shows in the final product. It’s sloppy and lazy and it shows.

    Not that I have any strong feelings on the matter or anything.

  8. Rosina its possible I may have missed something but I do not recall any stories regarding Greek fowl.

    Also, I totally agree with Beth.

    It all comes down to suspense. To abuse a movie analogy, are you a Hitchcock hinting at things through music and camer angles or an Eli Roth showing everything and more in grisly detail? I suppose there is an audience for both, but which would you really prefer?

  9. Greek chickens? Did they have roads then?

    Not only must I worry the whole time a kid is on a plane, I also must worry while they’re driving on interstates to and from airports. Then there was the trip one took to Mexico. Luckily I thought that one was going to another country and didn’t know it until it was over.

    Roshaman (not spelled correctly), a Japanese movie, probably made in the 50s showed 3 or 4 viewpoints of an event, never telling the viewer what really happened. I recommend it. Of course, it would help if I knew how to spell it.

    Diverted yet?

  10. An example of a novel that does headhopping well is Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.

    Another where head-hopping is just not a problem is Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or anything else by Douglas Addams. He hops heads, planets and time zones. Deal with it, and laugh yourself silly in the process.

    Head-hopping is only “distracting” or “disturbing” if the author established a style with a one-scene one-head rule early on and then violated it later. It may be a default POV in some genres, but certainly not in all.

    On the other hand, staying in one head is a strong technique for establishing reader identification with a single character. When your story is in dramatic style rather than epic or generational or any of the alternatives, that makes it a smart choice.

  11. @Dal Jeanis:

    Now there you go. A concise and very precise overview of this, with the bonus of the examples that were evading me. Lonesome Dove! Of course! And Douglas Adams. And there are others, dozens, that do this without causing a lexical or semantic meltdown. I shall start a List.

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