Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mulling over the Point of View

Among other things this month, I've been getting ready to teach a workshop on point of view for the brand new WritespaceHouston.  So I've been pondering and reading craft books like Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, which I highly recommend. And I've been writing, too, for a variety of deadlines and it's been quite a lesson shifting from the final copy edits of FINDING PARIS, (April 21, 2015, Balzer and Bray/Harper Collins) which is written in 1st person, present tense and my first, still rather exploratory draft of IT WASN'T ALWAYS LIKE THIS (Spring 2016, Soho Press), which is (at least at present) written in close 3rd person past tense.

What I always like to remind my writing students is that we have a huge amount of choices when we craft a story.  And each choice we make will shape the story in different ways, both obvious and subtle. Working in third person past tense for IWALT is a brand new challenge for me, but my gut said that the main character's voice and the overall fairy tale-like tone of the story couldn't be achieved without it.  Interestingly, when we'd first chatted about the story when he acquired it, my editor said that he saw it as a first person story. It wasn't a mandate, but just his vision, and to an extent probably in keeping with what I've previously written, which has been all in present tense. The DREAMING ANASTASIA series, (Sourcebooks) even with its multiple narrators, is all in first person present tense -- a choice that I stand by, but occasionally produced some rather thorny voice dilemmas because if you're not careful, 1st person present tense, while the most immediate and intimate of POVs, can also produce narration that sounds stilted or self-absorbed. Sometimes it feels tiring to be so constantly in the moment with your narrator. The exception to this was always the witch, Baba Yaga. Because she is such a cryptic character, even in the original Russian fairytales that help form the framework for the series, writing her voice in 1st person always seemed to flow easily-- I think because I found it fascinating to know exactly what she was feeling and thinking in any particular moment, even as other characters in a scene were terrified or mystified by her. So 1st person present tense worked well to establish the juxtaposition between those two things.

When I wrote the SWEET DEAD LIFE and its sequel, THE A-WORD (Soho Press), we decided that the book would be narrated through the journal entries of stoner-turned-teen angel's younger sister, Jenna. So it was first person again, but past tense this time, since ostensibly the events had all occurred by the time she was talking about them. For Jenna, fourteen going on fifteen by the time we get to book two, this was the perfect way to free her sassy, wise but still young voice. The novels are very much Jenna's journey, even though it's Casey who's died and come back as rather dysfunctional heavenly being. So 1st person, past tense allows us the best access to Jenna's experiences as she tells us 'this is what happened to me.'

And FINDING PARIS, (the arcs are almost printed!) with its twists and turns (all I will say for now!) needed to be in first person present tense both to place the reader very intimately inside Leo's head but also so that the reader can be surprised at many things along with Leo, feel what she feels and how she feels exactly in the moment. Distance of any sort would dilute this, I think.

My brilliant friend Jen Mathieu's equally brilliant debut novel THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE (Roaring Brook) does wonderful things with multiple narrators written in 1st person past tense. Again, there is a 'reportage' feel to each character's telling of their version of the truth about Alice, who doesn't actually speak her piece  until the very end of the novel. Its a clever conceit because it's a story about rumors and gossip and slut shaming and about how quickly lies become truth. Fascinatingly, Mathieu points out in a recent interview that much of the most hurtful lies don't come in the form of texts or other social media but simply in sharpie on a bathroom stall, a tried but true method that's been around since, well, there have been writing implements and bathroom stalls.

But back to IT WASN'T ALWAYS LIKE THIS. So there was my editor, thinking the book would be first person. But there I was, thinking, no. This book is going to have to be very different. It stretches over a long period of time-- 1913 to present-- and the story weaves back and forth over that continuum, but always with the same narrator. (This is not giving away anything; the deal announcement states that this is a story of 'a girl, a boy, a fountain of youth, and what happens when you're stuck at 17.' Of course the story is much larger than that, but that's the basic premise.) Which means my narrator while technically seventeen, evolves and changes emotionally and in terms of what she knows and understands, over that large period of time. So while she is always Emma, she is not exactly the same Emma in the various past scenes as she is in the present. And third person seemed the best way to bring that forth. Because I put your in her head, but I do so from a slight distance that allows you to assess her experiences and subtle changes without being so tightly in her head that you lose that extra frisson of perspective.

That's all I'll say for now except that I am in love with this book and I'm sorry you'll have to wait until 2016 to read it! (In publishing, you never know, though. Anything could happen. So I'll keep you posted.)

Anyway, I've taught newbie writers who refuse to write anything but first person. And those who slip automatically into third person. And readers who express a preference for one or the other. But really, it's about choice. It's about the best way to tell a story, about not only who is telling the story, but how you're having them tell it.

Anyone else have thoughts about point of view? About books you've read that do a particularly good job using their chosen POV?

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