Thursday, October 27, 2016

It never gets easier

Writing never gets easier. Not for me, anyway. Not if I’m continuing to challenge myself.

I’ve written the first 30 pages of a novel-in-progress three times now, using two different points of view and even trying present tense.

Point of view is my largest concern anytime I start a novel. I think it’s the most important decision a fiction writer makes.

I’m several months –– but only three chapters –– into a new novel, one which I hope launches a new series. I want the book to feature a husband and wife team. The wife is a career-oriented power player in her profession; the husband is a cynical type who wants no part of his wife’s relative celebrity. I wrote the first three chapters from the husband’s third-person perspective –– he’s the outsider, viewing his wife, the most powerful person in their workplace. I didn’t love those pages. And, after writing three novels recently using the third-person perspective of a female, I was hankering to write from a male’s first-person point of view. (I grew up on Robert B. Parker and John D. MacDonald, after all.) So I scrapped the third-person opening, committed to the first-person voice of the husband, which moved him much closer to the action, while making sure the wife remains a large part of the plot from the start. I’m off to the races now.

No discussion of point of view is complete without also mentioning John Gardner’s “psychic distance” chart. In his book The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, Gardner offers this wide-to-narrow camera lens view of the distance from which a reader views an author’s scene:
  1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
  2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
  3. Henry hated snowstorms.
  4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
  5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul
When you reach No. 5, you are inside the character’s head –– and not far from first-person. The benefits of using third person, especially in a crime novel, are clear: You can zoom in (as Gardner’s No. 5 illustrates) with nearly the precision of first-person; however, in third-person, the writer can also withhold information that might be hard to conceal in a first-person story. Michael Connelly, in a2003 BookPage interview, speaks of the challenge of withholding information from the reader when writing in first person: "When you go into first person, all bets are off. You find yourself feeling like you're cheating the reader if you hold anything back. I think that's one of the things that was good about the old [third-person] Harry; I was able to hold things back and kind of spring them on the reader when I wanted to."

While third person has many benefits, I’m a sucker for the intimacy of the first-person speaker. I like to be closer to to the character. Writing in first-person, to me, is like acting: I step into character and voice and record (and convey) the information in a manner true to the speaker’s worldview.

What it always comes down to is making the appropriate choices for the work at hand. After writing 100 pages to get 30, I’m hoping I’ve done that.

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