Friday, August 23, 2013

A snail's pace: better than no pace at all!

It's been another crazy week in a summer full of them—which is good news for my bank account, but bad news for my middle grade novel. I've been busy with teaching and manuscript critiques, and this week I had a book deadline Tuesday, with two more next week—and I just got the specs three days ago. Yikes! [Lest I mislead you into thinking that I can leap tall buildings in a single bound, these are very short books for second and third graders that I am doing on a work-for-hire basis for an educational publisher.]

I like being busy, but I had hoped to have my usually lazy summer so I could finish up my middle grade novel. No such luck. It doesn't help that although I can write non-fiction any time, anywhere, and do it in a flash, when it comes to fiction, I am glacially slow. I am beginning to feel a little desperate, not only about ever finding time to do this, but also about ever finding the peace and quiet I need to concentrate.

Then I saw this little guy on my walk yesterday morning, and I remembered—in writing, speed doesn't count. What matters is that you keep adding to your story, one line, one word, even one syllable at a time.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Confessions of a Single-POV Puritan

Note: This is the second in a series of articles on demystifying viewpoint. The originals will appear first as posts here on my Spontaneous Combustion blog, then be archived on my website as downloadable PDFs.

I'm beginning to think that I’m obsessed with viewpoint, to the point where I’ve turned into a POV prima donna. Or what novelist and writing teacher Alicia Rasley called a “single-POV Puritan” in a 2009 blog post on the subject.

Me, a Puritan? Heaven forfend.

It didn’t used to be that way. Before I started writing fiction, I didn’t pay any attention to whether an author used omniscient or first person narration, multiple POV or the tight single perspective of one character. All that mattered to me was whether the book gripped my imagination. I didn’t care how the wizard behind the curtain created that story magic; I just wanted to be swept up in it.

But after many years on the other side of the page, as a writer, I’m definitely aware of viewpoint in everything I read, to the point where it’s difficult for me to shut off the Inner Editor in my brain long enough to simply enjoy a book. And it drives me mad when an author skips blithely from one character’s POV to another. Perhaps I’ve developed a kind of empathy deficit disorder in my later years, but how am I supposed to care about anything that happens to these characters when I don’t get the chance to spend more than a few paragraphs at a time with them?

Yes, yes—I’ve read the sage advice that it doesn’t matter which viewpoint you use, so long as you do it intentionally, as a tool to accomplish a specific effect in your novel. And although I agree with that, it doesn’t shake my almost visceral aversion to both multiple POV and omniscient narration.

Maybe part of the reason for my “puritanism” is that children’s writers like myself are forced to use viewpoint more cautiously than do writers for adults. The standard advice I give to my writing students is that whether they use first-person or limited third-person narration, they should zoom in on one young character in the book and tell the entire story through that child’s eyes and ears, her heart and mind. Why? For one thing, the younger the reader, the less experienced they are with narrative techniques. So using a more “sophisticated” POV technique such as multiple viewpoint might confuse them.

Also, developmentally-speaking, kids have a more egocentric view of the world. Since each child sees herself as the center of the solar system of her life, it’s easier for her to comprehend a book in which the young main character occupies a similar position.

I go beyond that. Use a tight single viewpoint, I advise my students, to help readers slip inside the skin of the protagonist, to the point where kids can no longer tell where their identity stops and that of the hero begins. This total immersion into the viewpoint of the main character is very similar to Deep POV, about which I will write later in this series. It enables kids to bond so closely to the hero or heroine that young readers experience and react to the events of the plot as if they were happening to them.

Hypocrite that I am, I violated this single POV rule in my first novel, Cheshire Moon. I wrote from the perspective of a secondary character for a few chapters, which I felt was necessary to show how the protagonist, a young deaf girl, was [unbeknownst to her] sharing the same series of dreams with a boy she had just met.

But I used limited third person and stayed mainly in the head of my young hero in my second novel, The Door in the Lake. Is it a coincidence that this book has been much more successful than the first, earning an ALA Quick Pick and a Scholastic Book Club selection? I don’t think so. I believe that my use of a single POV enabled kids to connect in a deeper, more immediate way with the protagonist, a boy who had mysteriously disappeared for two years and returned to his family with amnesia.

The middle grade novel on which I am working now has an even tighter focus on the eccentric young main character. It didn’t start out that way. In the first two iterations of the manuscript, I was actually brazen enough to think that I could get away with seven—count ‘em, seven—different main characters. Yikes! Fortunately, my critique group cured me of that particular delusion.

And they were right. When I allowed a young boy whom I had initially conceived of as a minor character to take center stage, the entire book came to life in a way it never had before. By focusing on his POV, and his alone, I found my way into the novel.

When children’s writers decide what viewpoint to use, we don’t just consider the needs of the story—we also stop to think how our choice of POV will affect readers. It’s that perspective—the viewpoint of readers—that I think gets lost sometimes when writers discuss POV.

I think we need to realize that viewpoint is more than just a literary tool, a way to shape a book and showcase our virtuosity; we need to recognize how it’s going to affect readers on an emotional level. It isn’t just about us, in other words, and what we need as writers; it’s about readers, too. And whenever we use the more distant forms of viewpoint, whether that be a shifting, multiple POV or omniscient narration, we increase the odds that readers won’t be able to form a deep connection with our characters—and thus with our books.

At least, that’s been my experience—not just as a writer, but as a reader. Perhaps it’s all my years in children’s literature, but I find myself increasingly impatient with novels where the author skips from the POV of one character to another.

Maybe that’s just me. I posted this question about multiple POV on my Facebook page, and got a thoughtful response from someone who said that when done well, she was eager to get inside the heads of different characters to see how each one responded to plot events. This added to her enjoyment of the story. This is an adult reader, talking about a specific adult novel, and she did note that she got confused when a writer changed POV without warning, especially within a chapter or scene.

So perhaps that’s my real problem. It’s not multiple POV itself that I dislike; it’s poorly-done multiple POV.

I just finished Reckless, by Cornelia Funke. She changes POV with each chapter, rotating between several characters, including two brothers, their respective love interests, and two of the villains. Though I appreciated the artistry of Funke’s prose, and the subtle way she explored themes in this first installment of a new fantasy trilogy, the multiple POV left me cold. It was far too easy for me to put the book down, forget about the characters and the travails they were enduring, and decide I’d rather be reading another book instead. By the closing pages, I finally did start  to care—but not about the heroes. I found myself actually feeling more sympathy for the villains instead, which I don’t think is what Funke intended.

Based on the book reviews that I see on Amazon, I’m not the only reader who feels this lack of connection with the POV techniques used today in so many novels. Readers today are more savvy about viewpoint—and about all the various scaffolding tricks we writers use to structure our tales. And they respond to this in their reviews, complaining when they feel an author has jerked them around too much with a constantly-shifting point of view.

I’m not saying that we should pander to readers. As writers, we have stories to tell, and I believe that we need to do that in whatever way seems right and best to us.

However, I think we would be wise to stop for at least a moment to consider the repercussions our literary choices have on the aesthetic experience of our once-and-future readers. There is a balance we ought to consider, a trade-off between the artistic effect of a particular viewpoint technique and the impact it has on readers. If a POV technique succeeds in either a literary or structural sense, and yet fails to capture the imagination of our readers, is it worth it?

“Only connect,” EM Forster famously wrote. In my view, that should be the measure we employ to gauge whether all this distant, peripatetic point of view is worthwhile. Remember what readers want—to get caught up in the story world we are creating—and use POV in a more controlled, purposeful way to help them do that. 

Maybe I’m not a single-POV Puritan after all. What I am is fascinated and perplexed by the eternal mystery of viewpoint.

Next time: Multiple POV gets the chance to defend itself in Fight Club: Multiple POV Claws Back.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Who Gets the Glasses? An Easy Way to Understand POV

Note: This is the first in a series of articles on demystifying viewpoint. The originals will appear first as posts here on my Spontaneous Combustion blog, then be archived on my website as downloadable PDFs.

New writers may be forgiven for being utterly lost when confronted with decisions about how to employ viewpoint in their stories and books. There is a bewildering array of variations. How does distant third-person POV differ from omniscient narration? When does dipping become head-hopping; and what the !@#$% do those two terms even mean?

The difficulty with understanding viewpoint is compounded when you realize that not every “expert” analyzes it the same way. Although I think Alicia Rasley does an excellent job of explaining viewpoint in her book The Power of POV, I don’t parse the different kinds of viewpoint in the same way that she does.

The nuances of viewpoint require an entire book to explain; no one can cover it all in just one 1500-word article or blog post. But I’m going to try to demystify viewpoint here anyway, adding other posts later in an entire series on the subject. So let’s get started with this valiant attempt.

Viewpoint is often called point of view, which is where the acronym POV comes from. I will use all three terms interchangeably in this article. At its most basic, viewpoint means the character through whose eyes and ears, thoughts and feelings, a reader experiences a scene or event in the plot.

Think of viewpoint as if it were a pair of glasses. You as the author have the power to give these glasses to any character you want. Whichever character happens to be wearing those glasses at any moment in your book is your POV character. For however long that character wears those glasses—a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a scene, a chapter, or even the entire book—then you can write ONLY what that character can see through those glasses. The moment you switch from what the character is seeing, hearing, feeling, or thinking to someone else, even for just a moment, you have yanked the POV glasses off his face.

Here’s an example.

Laughing at the TV screen, Ben crammed another salty handful of popcorn into his mouth. This show was so funny.

In these lines, the POV glasses are sitting invisibly on Ben’s face. We know this because we can taste the salt on the popcorn along with him, and share his thoughts about why he was laughing. The line “This show was so funny” dips into his thoughts.

Now let’s look at this next paragraph.

His father came into the room and scowled because the TV was so loud. “Turn it down, would you?” he barked.

The first eight words of the second paragraph are still in Ben’s point of view. Through his POV glasses, he is seeing his father walk into the room with a scowl on his face. However, those glasses are yanked off Ben’s face in the last six words of the sentence [colored in yellow]. The moment I wrote the reason why Ben’s father was scowling—because the TV was too loud—I left Ben’s mind and jumped into that of his father, just for a moment.

It’s subtle, but look at it closely. Unless this is a Stephen King novel and Ben is telepathic, he can’t know why his dad looks so grouchy. When I wrote “because the TV was so loud,” I jumped from Ben’s mind to his father’s. I changed POV, just for half a sentence. And that’s what we call head-hopping, switching POV from one character to another too often, too quickly, or for too short a time.

Note: as soon as I quoted the actual words his father said, I jumped back into Ben’s mind, because that was dialogue that Ben heard.

So how do you avoid the POV error? It’s easier than you might think. All you have to do is rewrite the second paragraph like this.

His father came into the room and scowled.
Uh oh, Ben thought. The TV was too loud again.
“Turn it down, would you?” his father barked.

Instead of reading the father’s mind, I stayed in Ben’s head instead. From past experience—apparently Ben has been scolded repeatedly about the volume on the TV—Ben deduces that his dad must be angry about the noise, which is confirmed by the dialogue a moment later. But since I never left Ben’s mind, writing only what he saw (his dad’s scowl), what he thought (Dad’s mad about the noise), and what he heard (Dad’s command to turn the TV down), I’ve gotten rid of the head hopping. The POV glasses stayed firmly on Ben’s face for the entire scene. The only way we find out for certain why Dad is upset is because he says so out loud, in a line of dialogue.


When you keep the POV glasses with one character for an entire scene or longer, that is called single viewpoint. That is the first of the three fundamental groups of point of view.

Note that in writing for kids, remaining in single viewpoint for the entire book is the norm, especially in easy readers, chapter books, and middle grade novels. There are variations with single viewpoint; you can choose to do it in first person (I) narration or third person (he/she) narration. But we’ll talk about that in a later article.

The second fundamental kind of POV is multiple viewpoint. This is when you transfer the POV glasses from one character to another.

This is where Rasley and I disagree. To me, any book in which there is more than one viewpoint character is multiple POV. If you are telling the book from the perspective of more than one character, then to my mind, you’re using multiple POV.

Rasley sees it differently.  To her, it’s only multiple POV if you change viewpoint within a single scene. Everything else is single POV—even a book where every chapter is told from the viewpoint of someone new. I guess she sees that as a kind of serial monogamy! :D

When multiple POV is defined as Rasley does, however, I don’t see the difference between it and head-hopping. I’ve read her book twice now trying to figure that out, and all I came away with is the vague sense that multiple POV only gets labeled—or libeled—as head-hopping when it’s done badly.

But in this series of articles on viewpoint, when I say multiple POV, I mean any book in which more than one character is used as a viewpoint character. 

Multiple POV isn’t recommended for children’s books, though you do see it sometimes, especially in YA novels. I think there are two reasons why single POV is preferable. First, it’s less confusing. Remember, your readers are young. This means that they aren’t just inexperienced with written language—they are also inexperienced with narrative techniques in fiction, so it’s easy to confuse them.

What you hope to do in your book is bring your viewpoint character to life so vividly that readers start identifying with him or her closely—to the point where kids actually feel as if they are slipping inside the skin of the viewpoint character and experiencing every moment of the story with her. So every time you jump into a different character’s POV, you forcibly eject kids from this character they’ve been inhabiting. And that poses the danger not only of confusing readers, but of alienating them as well. They might even put the book down and not come back when you evict them from a character they’ve come to know and love.

The second reason I think multiple POV is not the best choice is that it’s very difficult to pull off, especially for a new writer attempting his or her first novel. It’s a challenge even for experienced authors to do multiple POV smoothly and well. When you are first starting out, I think it’s better to stick with single POV. [True confession time, however; in my first novel, Cheshire Moon, I did use an alternating viewpoint. But I had a good reason for doing so, I promise. I’ll write about that later in the series.]

Which brings us to the third fundamental group of viewpoint, omniscient narration. Rasley breaks this down into several different types, but let’s keep it simple. Omniscient narration is when none of the characters in your book gets to wear the POV glasses: you keep them for yourself. Or for some invisible narrator who, in a god-like manner, knows all the characters inside and out. The omniscient narrator hovers above the entire book, knowing everything about both the characters and the plot.

The various forms of omniscient narration are less popular today than they used to be, though you still see it in fairy tales, fantasy epics, and in some picture books.

So there you have it. Later in this series we’ll get down and dirty with more of the subtle intricacies of viewpoint. But you won’t go wrong if you think about the three fundamental kinds of POV in terms of who has the viewpoint glasses.

  1. Single POV: One person has the glasses
Multiple POV: Two or more people have the glasses
Omniscient POV: Zero people have the glasses; a floating, invisible, all-knowing, all-seeing narrator’s got ‘em

Next time: Confessions of a Single-POV Puritan