Craft, Writing

What’s the point?

I have a dead zone in my brain. You know, that place where things you try to learn just won’t stick? If the formula for calculating percentages doesn’t dwell in mine, it’s definitely in the neighborhood. (Don’t tell my math teacher son.) Most tasks involving word usage reside in livelier areas, but one that doesn’t is the “point” referred to in the title of this post. That would be, Point-of-View—or POV if you’re into acronyms.

Oh, not everything about POV falls into my dead zone. I understand that it refers to which character tells the story and from what distance. I know the relevant terms: single, dual, multiple, omniscient, limited, unlimited, first, second, third, close. I’m aware of at least some of the advantages and disadvantages of writing in each, and I’ve written in all but one of them. Omniscient.

On second thought, I don’t remember everything I’ve written. I may have used omniscient at some point in my life, but probably by mistake. I’ve been told omniscient viewpoint was more popular in the past, so no doubt I came across it in the classics I’ve read. Today, literary writers most often use it. According to Elizabeth Lyon in Manuscript Makeover, it’s a viewpoint best reserved for use by “gifted” writers.

What I can’t retain is recognition of omniscient viewpoint—or maybe that it exists at all. Unless I’m forewarned, each time I encounter it I mistake it for an error, a POV slip by the author. (Revealing my ignorance today, aren’t I?) So, I go back and read about omniscient viewpoint and study the examples. I understand it. I think I’ll remember this time. Then whoosh, right into that dead zone it slips.

Maybe I’d have to use it in writing to make it stick in my brain. But I don’t want to. I’d probably do it wrong anyway. Lately, I’ve been looking at the characters in my WIP and wondering how long I can stick to my vow to write in single POV this time, but omniscient … nah.

Speak to me: What’s in your dead zone? Do you have any thoughts on omniscient—or any other POV? How’s the weather?

Craft, Editing, Fiction, My Books, Novel, Reader, Revision, Words, Writing

Best laid plans vs. vacation

I’ve been too busy with two little charmers to write a new post, so today I’m serving up a re-post from one year ago. It’s a topic of continued relevance to me and, I hope, of some interest to you.

Blue-toed tree frog.

I apologize up front because I might step on some toes today. Just know that mine are black and blue too. I am in editing mode—again—and I’ve recently discovered John Gardner’s book On Becoming A Novelist. I shared a passage from that last week and will share another below. Gardner has been stomping all over my writing toes.

I confess I’ve been a “literary” wannabe. In editing my work, particularly the passages that haven’t changed since the first version, I find a tendency to overwrite, to use ten-dollar words or syntax that only complicates the reading, not deepens the meaning. Or, when writing in a poetic character’s point of view, to let myself get carried away with imagery. Possibly the line drawn between good writing and overwriting is quite fine. Or else, I just leapt right over it.

John Gardner

Gardner writes:
“… as a rule, the good novelist does not worry primarily about linguistic brilliance—at least not brilliance of the showy, immediately obvious kind—but instead worries about telling his story in a moving way, making the reader laugh or cry or endure suspense, whatever it is that this particular story, told at its best, will incline the reader to do.”

Anne Tyler

If you’ve been around this blog for long, you know that one of my favorite writers is Anne Tyler. I’ve always thought of her writing as beautiful, but when I examine it, I see that rarely does she call attention to her word choices or phrasing. By this, I mean, not often do I stop reading to admire her clever writing. I admire her talent at story telling, her fleshed out characters, her ability to draw me into her fictive dream, which means she’s an excellent (Pulitzer Prize winning) writer, but she’s not a show-off.

I’ve read books in which it seems, as Gardner says, “the writer cares more for his language than for other elements of fiction.” I don’t enjoy those books as much and little of them stays with me. If those writers attempted to create a fictive dream, I’m too aware of their writing to fall into it. Obviously, there are people who read such books, literary critics generally love them, and creative writing classes teach them. I believed that I should aspire to become one of those “important” writers. But I’ve changed my mind.

I just want to tell the best stories I know how with beautiful, but understated, language to people who want, for a while, to dream of a different life, or place, or time.

Critique, Feedback, Fiction, Writing

Story or character, which weighs more?

In previous posts, I’ve told you about the beta-readers who praised my work, but now I’m going to come clean. One writer, though complimentary on my writing skills, did not think my story was successful. I respected his opinion, and certainly appreciated the time he spent reading my manuscript and writing his critique, but I was honestly perplexed how he failed to “get” so many elements of my story.

I was disappointed, to be sure, but I didn’t panic because I had solid responses to his objections. I didn’t start tearing my book apart because I knew every element he questioned was integral to the story. Did my book need work? Obviously, so—I subsequently revised the version he read, adding 16,000 words, though only a small part of those words addressed his issues. Yet his critique nagged me.

Recently, I listened to him discuss the next issue he would address in his own work—a supernatural tale. His story was finished, fully fleshed out, and now, he said, he would go back and add more characterization. I sat there thinking how wrong that sounded. Finally, the reason why thunked me on the head. His method sounded wrong to me because it’s the opposite of mine.

He has a great story he wants to tell … and, by the way, there are people in the story. I want to tell you about some people … and, by the way, they have a story.

That is a definition of action-driven vs. character-driven fiction. I’m not saying one is better than the other, that plot-driven fiction can’t have good characterization, or story doesn’t matter in character-driven fiction. But I think writers take different approaches to each.

I start with just a story premise—a situation, really—and then I explore the characters in that situation: who they are, what they want, why they don’t have it. I want to see where they live, what they do for work and pleasure, who populates their lives. I have to know them inside and out. Only then can I write their story.

Tell me, what kind of fiction do you write, and which takes precedence, story or character?

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Agent, Author, Craft, Fiction, Novel, Publish, Query, Writing

Yes, I’m angry!

PLEASE NOTE: This post is not a criticism of Elizabeth Strout’s writing, which I love. It is only a rant about some arbitrary writing rules.

This is the post that will probably get me in trouble. On Friday, I finally got a copy of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which won a Pulitzer last year. Accessible literary books are what I normally read, but for some reason, after reading the first paragraph of this one, a light flashed on in the writer section of my brain and I began to seethe. Here’s that paragraph:

“For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summer-time roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold.”

Okay, I love this, but where’s the obligatory punch ’em in the face opening line? You know, the almighty hook! And … oh, no it can’t be … this entire paragraph is made up of only two sentences?! One of which is fifty-four words and the other is eighty-five words long! And whoa, what’s this? It couldn’t be snow and rain and fog in that opening because that’s the dreaded no-no weather. Oh … I get it, this is a hoax. This book was never published because no agent or editor would ever read past that first paragraph because nothing happens in it!

Yes, I know, I know, Strout had two books published before this one, so she’s allowed to break the rules. She’s a member of the “In Crowd” now. But if this had been her first novel, would any agent who reps literary fiction reject this book because of her “rule breaking” opening? Really?

So why am I seething? I’m angry at myself for taking to heart these arbitrary rules. I’m angry that I’ve rewritten my novel opening—as well as my query letter—a dozen times because they didn’t have enough in-your-face oomph! I’m angry that I’ve broken up uncountable melodic, well-punctuated sentences because they were “too long” and revised whole paragraphs because they were too “literary.”

I’m angry that I listened to my head and not my heart and soul!

So, now I’m taking a deep breath and going off to write the way I love to write. Who knows, maybe some day I’ll win a Pulitzer Prize.


Part Two, coming soon.

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Excerpt, Fiction, Writing

Literary Tag

I was tagged twice today by fellow writers Kasie and Candice. Kasie says it’s called Bookwormed.

Here are the rules:
1. Open the closest book – not a favorite or most intellectual book, but the closest at the moment – to page 56.

2. Write out the fifth sentence on the page, as well as the two to five sentences following.

3. Then open your ms to page 56 and write out the fifth sentence, as well as two to five additional ones.

4. Tag five (or more) buddies to do this same exercise.

So, here’s this from Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain”:

The houses were dark inside, even on a bright day. Those with shutters kept them pulled to. Those with curtains kept them drawn. The houses smelled strangely, though not uncleanly, of cooking and animals and of people who worked.

And now, my WIP:

Meredith and Jalal ran laughing onto the porch. They had gone for a stroll along the beach walkway after dinner, but just as they came back in sight of his house, a windswept rainstorm surprised them. Now, just as they stepped over the threshold, lightning splintered the air with a sound they felt in their bones, and a velvety blackness swallowed up the beach road. Jalal reached out and flipped the light switch with no result.

I tag all writers who read this and would like to participate. Anyone? Anyone?