Monday, January 30, 2012

The Lost Art Of Shifting POVs

I was talking with someone about this the other day and thought it would make for the subject of a good article here.

A shifting point of view in a story is for some strange reason usually taught as a thing to be avoided by writers, almost as if it has to do with incorrect grammar or at least something along those lines. Perhaps that's the crux of the problem right there—that they are often done incorrectly. Actually, I think incorporating changing POVs in stories is a wonderful lost art today.

Mark Twain was one of the more prolific writers to integrate changing POVs into his stories. They usually would start off with someone relating how he had met someone, often a stranger, and go into some detail about their meeting, and then at some point this stranger would launch into an anecdote and take over the POV for most of the remainder of the story, perhaps switching back to the original narrator's POV right before the end.

A good example might be Twain's short story, "The Dying Man's Confession". This story opens with Twain relating how he and a small company of friends were traveling by boat (presumably a large paddle-wheeler). Twain himself has some kind of errand to do at his destination and decides it should be done at night rather than during the day, so he asks his traveling companions if they will relent to get off the boat in Napoleon, Arkansas and layover for a bit. They protest this, so he goes on to give an account of what happened to him the previous year in Bavaria in order to show them why this strange errand would best be done at night.

After a few pages of this, we find Twain talking about a man he met in Bavaria who was confined to bed because of a severe bout of consumption. This man has a story to tell pertaining to something in Napoleon, Arkansas and the reason why Twain is doing this errand. The POV then switches to this man as he recounts his tale like this:

    When I had been this Karl Ritter's daily and sole intimate during two months, he one day said abruptly:
    "I will tell you my story."
    Then he went on as follows:

    I have never given up until now. But now I have given up. I am going to die. I made up my mind last night that it must be....

Nearly 2/3 of Twain's story is taken up by the account told by Karl Ritter. You'll notice that Twain left a blank line between the place where he quit narrating and where Ritter picks up the narration. This is a good way to reinforce to the reader that the POV is about to change. Later in the story, when Ritter is done talking and the narration is taken up again by Mark Twain, another blank line is inserted between the two POVs. This is the thing you must remember about changing POVs in a story. You need to make it plain and obvious that you're doing it, and doing it on purpose for effect. If the reader sits scratching his/her head wondering why someone else suddenly seems to be doing the narration, then you've done it incorrectly. Twain didn't really need the blank line, but it helped to reinforce his objective of making the changing POV known, and that's a good thing to do. Rather than simply use a blank space you might consider using three centered bold dots, each separated by a space:

. . .

I can think of many examples of Mark Twain using the art of shifting POVs, but the best example I know is a terrific novel by James Hogg called The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. I consider this to be one of the ten or twenty best stories in the English language. Its narration is mainly told from the POV of someone who refers to himself as "the editor." The first half or so of the book is called "The Editor's Narrative," detailing a spooky story about an evil doppelganger that took place starting in 1687 and ending around 1710. These events are apparently as the world remembers them. However, after this, the editor offers us a document that has come into his possession that is purported to be an autobiographical account of those same events told from the POV of the story's antagonist in real time. They throw a very different light on the story. This takes up nearly the second half of the book. Thereafter is yet another short section from the editor's POV again in the present day (when this book was written in 1863), and here he begins with a letter said to have been published in Blackwood's Magazine that same year—a letter written by one James Hogg. (The author of the book.) This lengthy letter tells about the exhumation of the antagonist's mummified corpse by two boys. Then the tale finishes with "the editor" attempting to determine the authenticity of Hogg's letter.

In real life that letter really did appear in the magazine in 1863, a year before the book came out. It's a chilling novel that doubles as a railing against Calvinism. (John Carey's 1981 Oxford Press version is the only one worth having.) It's a real testament to the cleverness of switching POVs in a story when done right.

So don't be afraid to do things differently. The very fact that authors are taught to avoid shifting POVs nowadays is in my opinion a very good reason to use them. Not only will it make you stand out from the crowd, but changing POVs can be both clever and engaging.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Wasted Words

Others have written articles about the term "wasted words", but I'm going to take a different angle on them, and in doing so, will shine a light on the most annoying thing in all of literature from my perspective.

Books and articles about wasted words can sometimes do more harm than good. What they point out are examples of phrases that seem to them as lengthy or unnecessary, so they urge writers to cut them short—something often referred to as "an economy of style." The following is a list of wasted words Jack Lynch gives in his book: Guide to Grammar and Style:

  •  quite
  • very
  • extremely
  • as it were
  • moreover
  • it can be seen that
  • it has been indicated that
  • basically
  • essentially
  • totally
  • completely
  • therefore
  • it should be remembered that
  • it should be noted that
  • thus
  • it is imperative that
  • at the present moment in time

You may have noticed that five of the above examples end with the word "that." If there's a single word writers overuse, and often unnecessary so, it would probably be "that." Rather than removing the phrases listed above which have "that" at the end, we might find those phrases can exist just fine by removing "that" from them and possibly re-wording things. For instance:

"It is imperative that" would read fine by simply removing "that" from the end. No further change is necessary.

"It should be noted that" would read better written something like: "One should note" etc.

I actually agree with most of Lynch's list. The thing to be aware of is the tendency to remove too much. This economy of style notion can cause writers to write like children in short, stabby sentences if taken to extremes, and no one took it to extremes quite like Hemingway who went so far as to decide that even conjunctions were wasted words.

What I really want to talk about, however, are other kinds of wasted words and those would entail words, phrases, and whole sentences that add nothing to a story, serving only to waste the reader's time. These often take the form of unnecessary descriptions. Let's look at some examples I've gleaned from books at random.

His mother turned from the sink. She wore navy cotton slacks, a white silk blouse, and a damp checkered apron. At moments like this, harried as she was from an evening of entertaining, his mother’s advancing age suddenly struck him. Who was this gray-haired old woman in his mother’s kitchen?

This example is the only one I will give where I'll name the author, and in this case it happens to be from James Rollins' novel—The Judas Strain. The reason I don't mind naming Rollins here is because I simply want to show that even really good authors are guilty of doing this now and then. Obviously we have no need to know what this character's mother is wearing in this instance. It has no bearing on the story at all. Fortunately, you won't find much of this kind of thing in Rollins' tales. Where he sometimes does go wrong in the area of wasted words is in often telling us the brand names of products such as automobiles or food goods where the reader would be better off not knowing. The following example is not however from a Rollins book:

The blue is darker than my eyes, which are closer to azure, sky blue, but I’m not as dark as the nearly purple Chevy I drove in high school.

Telling us the model of the car this character drove in high school added nothing whatsoever to the story. Neither did we need to know the color of anyone's eyes in the tale. This is not to say that there couldn't be a situation where the reader may need to know such information, or where it might aid the reader in better knowing a character's personality, but that's seldom the case. Knowing that Jay Gatsby drove a Rolls Royce and lived in a mansion in The Great Gatsby told us a lot about his personality. Saying whether a character drove a Chevy or a Dodge in high school usually does not.

The following author has got to be the most exasperating I've ever read, and it's all because of wasted words that find their way onto every single page. Here's an example of an entirely wasted paragraph:

Prescott Stevens, president of the 1800 Club, raised the wick of the oil lamp he was reading by and picked up the TV remote next to his tea. He aimed and clicked it at the big-screen TV opposite him, and rubbed his eyes as he went to the Weather Channel 7:00 PM broadcast. After finishing the mid-west coverage, the young woman said, “. . . and in the New York, New Jersey, and in some areas of Connecticut, rain accompanied by thunder storms continue for the second straight day. It promises to let up early tomorrow.”

I can tell you from having finished the book that not one word in this paragraph was necessary to know. It comes under the heading of "useless information." It's the type of information that causes readers to skim. Anytime readers feel it's okay to skim in your book, you know you have some wasted words ready to be cut.

Here's another example from the same book:

Turning the set off, he stood and stretched to his full height of five feet seven inches and rubbed his plump stomach. He faced the full-length mirror and buttoned the vest of his three-piece brown suit then tightened a dark brown silk cravat around his starched collar, and pushed the pearl stickpin through the shirtfront. Stevens patted his short brown and gray beard and pulled and twisted the almost-full handlebar mustache until he was fairly satisfied. He pressed a button next to the large mahogany desk and was answered immediately by his butler and right-hand person, Matt.

We know within the first chapter of the book that it's a story based on time travel back and forth between present day and the 1860s. The characters who undergo time traveling obviously will change their clothing to fit in with the era in which they travel. Yet this author has decided to inform his readers about every stitch of clothing the characters wear at all times. After the first chapter you'll want to scream, "We get it already! They dress appropriately for the era. Enough with the useless descriptions and get on with the story if you have one!"

Something else to notice above is that we're told the type of wood used in the desk. The author does this type of thing repeatedly. Almost any time there's a mention of a wooden object, he tells us the type of wood. He also feels compelled to tell us the color of carpeting several times in different rooms even though the color, or whether or not there even is carpeting or wood flooring or tiles, has nothing to do with the story.

The doorman held the door open and Bill entered. He went downstairs, sliding his hand along the well-polished curved mahogany banister, and then walked on the dark brown wall-to-wall carpet. An oversized ornate wooden door with a large brass handle faced him.

All useless information!

He entered a small walk-in closet that had his name etched in a silver nameplate on the door and sat on an upholstered bench to remove his wet shoes and socks.

Just tell us he changed his clothes for Pete's sake and leave it at that.

Bill turned back to his computer and looked at the results of the subject he had punched into Google.

Just say "the subject of his search." Why do I need to know which search engine Bill used?

I read and reviewed another book not long ago for a lady friend/author that turned out to be a paranormal romance. Had I known that ahead of time I wouldn't have volunteered to read the damned thing! As you might have guessed, it was chock full of wasted words. There were several entire chapters devoted to the building of a new home to a character's specifications and details given, not only about the house from top to bottom, but even the incredibly boring meetings between the character and her architect. Once again, not one iota of this information had anything to do with the heart of the story. This is one of the few books where I felt justified in ignoring entire chapters before giving a review.

I'll leave you with a rule of thumb I lit upon earlier. When proofing your manuscript, ask yourself if anything in it can be skipped without losing anything from the story. If it can, leave it out, or risk boring your readers into putting your book down and reading something else. Every word must be important and must be the right word or phrase that gives the greatest effect. The latter takes a long time to execute. If you're writing more than 2,000 words per day, you can't possibly be honing your story to the fine gem it was meant to be.

Wasted words equal wasted time. No reader wants his or her time wasted.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Problem With Romance Novels

In this age of cultural and moral relativism, it should be no surprise that we often find people demanding respect in every field of art, where a finger painting is held in as high esteem as a Rembrandt for instance.

Romance novels are inexplicably among the best selling of all genres. The fact that we have nearly a 50% illiteracy rate in this country might be partly to blame. Many people don't have the reading skills to rise much higher than children's books or romance novels. Because romance novels do sell so abundantly in our day, I've noticed more and more articles about, and interviews with, romance writers where they are as often as not put on a pedestal—as though they somehow belong in the same class as authors of much higher standing.

What the modern reader needs to understand is that romance novels by their very nature are meant to be inferior.

I think it's safe to say that no Ivy League school will ever teach out of romance novels as part of the required curriculum. No romance novel will ever be thought of as a classic along side Spencer, Bunyan, Swift and Dickens. If a romance story were that good, it would no longer be referred to as romance, but would instead simply be known as drama or literary fiction or a classic love story. If you think about it, there are of course a handful of classic novels that fit the description of the latter: novels that are full of romantic love but which are so well written that they aren't thought of as romance novels/stories. Romeo and Juliet probably tops the list (though it was a play of course) followed by Jane Eyre. No one would call Jane Eyre a "romance novel." It would instead be referred to as a "classic love story." The very thing that separates classic love stories from romance novels is that romance novels must by default be bad, tacky even, or they'll no longer be classified as romance novels and will get placed in a higher category.

I find it difficult to respect something that is purposely meant to be a lessor work. One should always strive to do great work. If an author classifies their own story as romance, that tells me that even they don't think much of it. That being the case, neither should we.