Nanowrimo prep: Point of View

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We’re coming up to the wire now: Nanowrimo starts in less than 3 hours for me (on Eastern Daylight Time) and has already started in most of the world. So here’s my final post in the Nanowrimo prep series. I hope to do a couple posts during the month of November if I can tear myself away from my own book, and I definitely have some plans for a “What Next?” series after Nanowrimo ends. So without further ado:

Point of View

This might seem like something very minor, and when compared to plot and setting and character, it is. Still, your decision to write in first, second or third person can make a big difference in how your reader receives the story.

Arthur Golden, who wrote Memoirs of a Geisha, said in a later interview that his first few drafts were written in third person, and while people were interested in the concept, no one wanted to touch the novel.

Before meeting Mineko, I’d written a draft in third person. Even after interviewing her I felt no temptation to try entering the head of my protagonist by writing in first person. Instead I wrote another 750 page draft in third person. While I was revising it for submission, a number of big name agents and editors in New York began calling me–very heady stuff for an unpublished writer. But when they saw the manuscript, they all lost interest. I know I’m a perfectly competent prose stylist; I didn’t think the writing itself had scared them away. And the subject matter is so fascinating–or at least it was fascinating to me. The way I saw it, if I’d failed to bring the world of geisha compellingly to life, I’d done something dreadfully wrong. And in fact, as I came to understand, my mistake was having chosen to use a remote, uninvolved narrator.

Writing the novel in first person made the story closer and more personal, which was exactly what the novel needed.

First person (“I walked down the street”) is particularly useful in genres where the action or emotion of the plot needs to come through. It seems to me that a large part of the success of Fifty Shades of Grey has been because it was written in first person, which lets the reader imagine that they’re the main character. It’s also popular in urban fantasy, which is often full of romance and action. Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy did fantastic things with first person point of view, breaking a lot of rules. If you want to learn how to do first person well, read that series.

Second person (“You walked down the street”) is extremely rare. A lot of people have an irrational dislike of it. I happen to like it, but that’s just me. Unless you’ve been in Homestuck fandom, you probably haven’t seen too much of it, at least not in fiction. I wrote a short story in second person and my writing group unanimously hated the POV. One of them complained that she wasn’t doing the things described in the story, so why was the text telling her she was? It was a bizarre complaint, but not uncommon. Writing in second person can make your novel stand out, but it runs the risk of putting off readers. Any time a writing technique is too obvious, it distracts from the story itself. If you have a good excuse for it, though, do it! Just beware of the potential response you’ll get. (Side note: this is why I recommend that beginning writers write fanfiction. You can experiment with lots of writing techniques like this one with very little consequence).

Third person (“She walked down the street”) is most common, and therefore most invisible. It might be more narratively distant than first and second person, but it’s useful if you have multiple points of view in your story, or if you want to leave a little bit of mystery in your main character’s head. It’s a pretty safe bet, for better or worse. Don’t rely on it too much, though, because you could be missing out on a better option.

Basic? Yep. And you might not even know which POV your story should be in until after you’ve written it. If you get a chance during the frenzy of Nanowrimo, try writing the opening scene in all three POVs and see which one sounds best. It might make a big change in your novel.

That’s it for my Nanowrimo prep posts. I hope they were helpful. For those attempting it this month, good luck!

Previous posts:

Outlining your novel
Making characters
Setting
Themes

 

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Nanowrimo prep: Themes

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I remember in high school, reading books like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Steinbeck’s The Red Pony and having to identify the Christ metaphors and color symbolism. I knew without a doubt that no author would ever actually put this crappy symbolism stuff in their novel intentionally. Unless you were doing it with the sole purpose of giving high schoolers work to do, what was the point of it all?

The idea of annoying high schoolers is a good motivating factor, but now that I’ve had a little more experience with novel writing, I’m beginning to realize that you can’t really write a story without a theme. A story without a theme has all the soul of a grocery list. It’s just a sequence of events with no real meaning behind it.

First, let’s define theme. A theme is what your story is about, even though it’s never stated outright. It’s the invisible thread that links your subplots to the main plot, and it’s the kind of thing that makes readers think about your book after they’re done reading.

For example, in Love, Actually, there are a number of story lines going on at the same time, but they’re all exploring different facets of love, illicit or familial or unconventional or passionate. In Batman Begins, the theme is fear, and how you let your fears define you–whether you use it to become a hero, or use it to control and incapacitate a city. In Finding Nemo, the theme is how avoiding all risk keeps you from experiencing life.

China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station always comes to mind when I think of themes. The book explores intersections and borders—that in-between space that happens when something meets up with something else. One character in the story is made up of pieces of many different creatures. He hires a sculpture to sculpt his portrait, and her challenge is finding how to represent those places where he turns from one creature into another. Yet she herself is a creature that has the body of a human female and the head of an ant. Another character is a bird-man, but his wings have been cut off, so he’s not quite bird enough and not quite man enough for the societies around him. The subway station after which the book is named is integrated so completely into the cramped neighborhood around it that no one can really tell where the neighborhood ends and the station begins. The more you look at the story, the more connections you can see to this specific theme.

I previously talked about making characters, and how they need to have goals throughout the story. The three questions that I recommended you ask for each scene were:

What does your character want?
What does she do to get it?
What do her actions achieve?

When you’re developing a theme, you can go back to those questions and add another question on the end:

Why?

Why do these particular consequences happen, and not others? If your character achieves what she set out to get, why? If she doesn’t, why not? What message are you trying to send with the outcome of your story?

I’m not saying that you have to have a moral to your story, but you should have a question that your story answers, or a statement that your story affirms. If your theme is “do the means justify the ends”, then at the end of the story, your plot should have answered this question in some way. If your theme is “love conquers all”, then when the curtain falls, love will have done so.

A lot of times, if you have an idea for a story, you already probably have an idea for a theme, even if you don’t know it yet. It’s especially thrilling when you examine your story in progress and realize that your various subplots already fit into a theme. As an exercise, look over something you’ve already written, or something you have in progress, and try to find a unifying thread that runs through the story. You might be surprised.

As an added bonus, just think of the irritated high schoolers who might be searching your book for these very themes in the future.

Next time: Point of View

Nanowrimo prep: Setting

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A lot of story planning can start with setting. Depending on the genre, you could come up with a whole series worth of plots, just from making a map and figuring out what kind of people live in the world you’ve created. The setting can (and should!) be a character in itself. It can help or hinder the events of the story and provide major plot points. There should be a good reason that the story is set where it is. The tv show Dexter wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t set in Miami. Buffy the Vampire Slayer wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t in California. Imagine Portal without Aperture Science. Imagine Batman without Gotham City.

Holly Lisle has a lot of good writing advice on her website, and one of the posts that I’ve found useful is her article on developing the fictional world through mapping. In it, she talks about how to make a map and how to use that to figure out a story. This is great for fantasy or science fiction stories that are set in places other than Earth, but even more local stories could benefit from mapping out a city or town.

Obviously only a tiny fraction of your research is going to make it into your story, because you don’t want to deluge your reader with information. One of the fastest ways to get someone to put down your book is to hammer them with paragraph upon paragraph of detailed description about your country’s history and system of currency and notable citizens. Those are things you can sprinkle in the story when (and if!) they become relevant. It’s okay if you come up with an elaborate system of laws and then it never comes up in the novel. Don’t try to force it in just so you don’t feel like you wasted your time.

On the other hand, you don’t want to suffer white room syndrome. That’s when your characters talk to each other and occasionally do things, all while moving around in featureless white rooms. Your reader is going to need something to anchor the scene. Visual descriptions are good, but using the other senses can be better. What does the place smell like? Sound like? What’s the temperature? The great thing is that this leads right back to character. What does your character think of the smell/sound/temperature? Are they the kind of person who bundles up in the slightest breeze? Does the smell remind them of their grandmother’s cooking? Is it always too loud for your character?

Your characters are going to be physically interacting with this setting, and it’s going to effect them directly in ways they might not even be aware of. They could have adopted the social mores and local dialect without realizing it. Alternately, they could be an outsider to the setting and come up against hostility or uncomfortable misunderstandings at every turn.

One thing I like to do in novels is consider the season and the weather. It’s a cliche to start your novel with a description of the weather, but occasionally referencing what’s going on outside can help set the scene and anchor the story in time. Is there a heat wave? Is there a blizzard forecast for later in the week? Have there been weeks of endless rain? Is it perfect spring weather outside? Mira Grant’s book Deadline, book two in the Newsflesh trilogy, has a major plot point centered around a hurricane that was honestly chilling when it was introduced.

There’s a lot more you can explore when building your setting, including time period, technology, religion, fashion, music, economy, politics, and so on. Just remember two things: try to give just enough detail to be interesting, and make sure not to get so involved in worldbuilding that you never get around to writing the story.

Next time: Themes