Thursday, December 4, 2014

Rebel without a clue: is it truly necessary to freewrite longhand?

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that after all my years as a writer and writing teacher, I have never read Julia Cameron's famous The Artist's Way. Recently one of my former students blogged about Cameron's advice to write so-called “morning pages” every day. They helped Mia find her way out of a painful creative desert, which provoked me to do a little research and find out what these morning pages are all about.

Because what writer amongst us can't use inspiration? I know I can, especially now. I seem to be mired in a Sargasso of brain-lessness at the moment. I miss my morning walks, which seemed to open me up creatively each day. As I enter the fourth week of enforced immobility after Achilles tendon surgery last month, my mind as well as my leg seems to have stopped moving. I can barely concentrate long enough to read a book, much less write one myself.

And although I still haven't read Artist’s Way, I have read the author’s website about morning pages, and also several articles by other writers extolling what this practice has done for them. It strikes me that other than Cameron's prescription that these pages should be done first thing in the morning, this is the same technique that Natalie Goldberg recommended in her classic Writing Down the Bones.

They both also stipulate that this freewriting be done longhand: with pen on paper, saying that this allows you in some undefined way to connect more authentically with your inner self. And this is where I'm going to rebel.

Why? It’s not because I’m a techno-snob. I love notebooks and pens. I've made almost a fetish of collecting them: Moleskines; Rhodias; Cartesios; handbound leather folios so gorgeous that I have never tainted the creamy acid-free pages by daring to actually write on them; even cheap Mead composition books that I sewed cute fabric covers for. I use a green clothbound notebook as my commonplace book where I lovingly inscribe quotes that appeal to me; I make a story bible out of a Moleskine each time I begin a big new writing project. I often organize my early ideas for stories in a notebook, using a cheap fountain pen whose ink flows freely onto the paper. So at times I do enjoy the pleasures—and ostensible virtues—of writing longhand.

But with apologies to Cameron and Goldberg, I’m not going to do my morning freewriting that way. I can list three good reasons why.

First, writing in a notebook isn't as private as writing on my computer, where I can password-protect something and later securely delete it for all eternity if I so desire. It's not that I'm going to divulge any deep dark secrets in my daily practice. But the free spirit in my brain will know that whatever I write could potentially be seen by someone, and that will inhibit me: creative constipation, I call it. I already have problems turning off my Inner Editor and writing as if no one were watching. So for me at least, writing longhand would negate any benefit of spontaneity that allegedly arises from writing longhand.

Second, I don't want to waste paper. Despite my love for notebooks [I've got an entire drawer full of temptingly blank ones just waiting for me to write something profound in them], I don't want to use them for what amounts to "junk writing" that is intended only to clear my clogged creative pipes, then be cast aside. Maybe it's the Scots in me, but it seems needlessly profligate to write on paper when I know in advance I’m just going to throw it in the trash. Better to do it with ephemeral electrons on a digital screen instead.

Third, since my neck fusion surgery two years ago, it is physically painful for me to write more than a paragraph or so by hand: my muscles seize up almost immediately. Although the surgery to relieve pressure on the spinal cord was successful, some of the [thankfully minor] nerve damage was nonetheless permanent.

So between the physical pain of writing longhand, and the mental constipation I would feel in knowing that what I was writing could be found and read by anyone, I am going to respectfully agree to disagree with both these wise writer women. I don’t think that spending thirty to forty minutes each day writing by hand is going to “unlock” me creatively if it’s an ordeal that I dread. No, my daily writing practice is going to be done with a keyboard, on either of my auxiliary brains.

What are those? Philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark has written extensively about how *any* tool—from a paper notebook to to a laptop computer—can with repeated use become so much a part of an individual's thinking process that it effectively functions as an extension of his or her mind. For Cameron and Goldberg and many of their students, this externalized brain is a pen and notebook. For me, however, it is either my Macbook Air or my iPad.

The keyboard has long ago become a conduit to my brain. And it isn’t just a matter of typing speed or ease either. I have spent so many years composing at the keyboard that the very act of sitting down with my laptop flips a switch in my head. The words don’t just appear faster on the screen; the thoughts and ideas that precede the words flow freely and without impediment. It’s a very fluid process for me, one that taps into a wellspring of ideas within—and isn’t that the whole point of morning pages and freewriting?

Don’t get me wrong—I love to write longhand. It has a beauty and permanence for me—a kind of durability—that writing on a computer screen does not. And that’s yet another reason why I don’t want to do my morning pages this way. My understanding from perusing Cameron’s website is that the point of morning pages is not to cling to them. You write them to purge yourself of things that may be blocking you, to center yourself, to meditate on the page. And then you let it all go. Morning pages aren’t meant to be re-read or savored.

But when I write with pen and paper, I feel a sense of special reverence that would make me more inhibited in what I wrote, not less. When I commit something to paper, it feels like something I want to preserve forever. And so I would feel more inclined to pause and ponder, to debate every word with myself, and ultimately to sputter and stall out and stop writing completely.

Of course, your experience with freewriting might be very different from mine; every writer works in his or her own mysterious way. But for these final two weeks in a cast [at least I hope they are the last two weeks] while I am confined largely to my bed or recliner, this will be my grand experiment. I will see if I can jump start my idling brain by doing my personal variation on morning pages—but on my lap, with my iPad Air and an external keyboard.

I will let you know how it goes.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The walking orthopedic disaster zone strikes again!

Meet Rowdy, my new ride for the next four to six weeks. Although I did manage to make it through October without heading to the OR—the first time in four years that has happened—the heady freedom didn’t last long. Because on Nov. 12th, I will be ending up in surgery after all, this time to repair my Achilles tendon. I will have to be off the leg completely for at least a month, part of the time in a cast: hence the nifty little red knee scooter. Do I know how to have fun or what?

And yes, I fully intend to decorate Rowdy with tinsel and a string of battery-operated lights for Christmas!

This surgery isn’t exactly a surprise. I’ve been hobbling around since last January on not just one but two bad Achilles tendons, which I ignored for as long as I could. Then I went through all the standard conservative treatments, including several weeks of painful physical therapy and a fashionable walking boot, but the tendons only continued to get worse. So finally my orthopedic surgeon—who really ought to name his next child after me, I’m such a good customer—said we could avoid the scalpel no longer. I got to choose which side to do first—because yes, I will have to have another surgery just like this one next year—and I picked the right leg, which is a bit worse.

I knew this surgery was looming even before my orthopod weighed in: my PTs were honest with me about how bad things were in my poor heels. So I took myself off in early October for what seemed like a decadently selfish thing to do: one week in the mountains, all by myself, so I could write. I’m so glad I did that. It helped me get back in touch with my own characters and stories after so much time helping other writers with theirs.

And who knows? Maybe the enforced down time after my surgery will give me the opportunity to have another writer’s retreat. It won’t be anywhere near as pleasant as my time in the mountains, but maybe it will still refresh my creative spirit.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Why Lemony Snicket is my hero

“You cannot wait for an untroubled world to have an untroubled moment. The terrible phone call, the rainstorm, the sinister knock on the door—they will all come. Soon enough arrive the treacherous villain and the unfair trial and the smoke and the flames of the suspicious fires to burn everything away. In the meantime, it is best to grab what wonderful moments you find lying around.”

If anyone needed it, this quote from Lemony Snicket’s Shouldn’t You Be in School? is proof that children’s books aren’t all saccharine fluff and nonsense.

I know it's been months since my last post: a lot has been going on, and sadly today isn't the day for me to catch you up on it. [Though I did have a heavenly solo writer's retreat last week.]

I will pause long enough to say that over the past week I've been reading two middle grade series that appeal to my twisted and sometimes macabre sense of humor. The first series is Tales from Lovecraft Middle School, four books by the pseudonymous Charles Gilman that are like a cross between Goosebumps and the Cthulhu mythos. Some of my best memories of my late dad are of him telling us spooky stories that I later found out were written by H.P. Lovecraft. So Gilman "had me at hello" just with his titles.

The second series is  All The Wrong Questions, a planned quartet of books in which Lemony shares a pivotal event from his apprenticeship at the age of thirteen in the secret VFD [Volunteer Fire Department]. If the famous Series of Unfortunate Events books were simultaneously an homage to and a parody of penny dreadfuls, then All the Wrong Questions does the same thing for Golden Age detective novels. There is even a noble librarian named Dashiell!

When I got to that quote about not waiting for a wonderful moment, I realized that was the very reason I fled to the mountains for my retreat in the first place. There never does seem to be an untroubled moment in which I can write. If it's not another round of surgery for me, it's needing to leave home to take care of my mother after she's had surgery. The central air conditioning dies and needs to be replaced, trees crash onto all three of our cars, the toilet chokes, the dog needs to go to the vet. And even when things are going well, there is always food to be bought and cooked, dishes to wash, floors to be swept, clothes to be folded, and carpets to be vacuumed. If it's not student or client manuscripts to edit, it's a new educational gig to stress over.

This is true not just for me, but for all of you who are trying to write. None of us has a life filled with untroubled moments. But what I am learning, almost against my will, is that I need to stop waiting for those mythical halcyon times before I sit down to write. As Lemony tells us wisely, it's best to grab whatever moments we can find lying around in the midst of the daily chaos.

That's what I am trying to do today, with rain pouring down in sheets outside and tornado watches pending. Forget about all that, and just write.

I will leave you with another quote from Shouldn't You Be in School, this one by Lemony's imprisoned sister, Kit.

"“If you’re not scared, she told me, it’s not bravery.”

As I sit down to try and find my way back into my middle grade novel, I do feel a little shaky in the knees. Have I forgotten how to write? Is my idea stupid? Are my characters made of cardboard? Will kids find anything to like in this book? Is it worth writing at all?

So like Kit, I will be brave—and like Lemony, I will keep writing.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Deep POV: Fast Track to Compelling Character Voice

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

Deep POV is single viewpoint on steroids.

In the first article of this series, I compared single POV to viewing a scene through the eyeglasses of one particular character. Deep POV takes single POV and intensifies it. It's like putting two tiny cameras with powerful microscopic lenses in those glasses; installing microphones in the character's ears, and sensors in her nose, tongue, and skin; then finally inserting a silicon chip in her brain to channel every single thought, perception, sensation, and emotion directly to readers.

Lars Norgaard, "World's First Cyborg Artist"
 Handling POV like this is a fantastic way to immerse readers in your story. Although I'm not a gamer myself, it seems to me that Deep POV is like turning the protagonist of a novel into an avatar of the reader: the line between fictional character and reader of fiction gets blurred, so that the reader experiences the events of the plot as if they are happening to her. Readers slip so deeply inside the skin of a book's narrator that it's as if the two are fused into one.

I told you Deep POV was intense!

The best way to get a feel for the difference between "regular" single POV and Deep POV is to read it in action. Here is a masterful example from the Okay for Now [Clarion 2001], a Newbery Honor book by the gifted children's writer, Gary D. Schmidt. The novel's narrator is eighth grader Doug Swietek. Here is he speaking about a Yankees baseball cap that his older brother had stolen.

"I guess now it's in a gutter, getting rained on or something. Probably anyone who walks by looks down and thinks it's a piece of junk. 
They're right. That's all it is. Now.
 But once, it was the only thing I ever owned that hadn't belonged to some Swieteck before me."

This is Doug, talking straight to readers. There is absolutely no sense at all of any author sitting there with a pen or a typewriter or a computer making this up. Rather, Schmidt is writing as if he were possessed by Doug, being used by the character to transcribe his words onto the page. Now that's how to create a vivid, authentic, compelling character voice. Schmidt's novel is persuasive testimony of the power of Deep POV. There is no better way to bring a character to life. 

Contrast this with regular single POV, in another wonderful middle grade novel, A Drowned Maiden's Hair [Candlewick Press 2006] by Laura Amy Schlitz.

"Maud had a hazy idea that the Battle Hymn had something to do with with war and slavery. She felt that by singing it she was defying authority and striking a blow against the general awfulness of the day."

Though this is single viewpoint, since it's written from within Maud's head, it is not Deep POV. It's phrases like she felt and Maud had a hazy idea that put readers at a subtle but real distance from the heroine.

The cumulative effect is a slightly more formal, slightly more adult voice. There is nothing wrong with this, but for me at least, it makes the ghost of the author more evident. I'm aware that there is a writer at work here; I don't feel that Maud is speaking directly to me. 

"Duh!" you may  object. "That's because Schlitz was writing in third person, and Schmidt was writing in first person, Nancy, you dolt." But it is possible to write Deep POV in third person. How? 

First, avoid writing anything that distances readers from your POV character in any way. Here's an example.

She jumped when she heard the door slam.

The phrase she heard is a tiny little wedge driven between the narrator and the reader. Do some quick and simple word-surgery, and you've gone a little deeper into your character's head.


The door slammed. She jumped, her heart ping-ponging in her chest.

You don't tell readers that she heard the slamming door, you simply show it happening—followed immediately by the character's response. So one way to achieve deeper POV is to follow the same old literary advice you've heard time and time again: show, don't tell.

In a similar vein, avoid distinguishing the narrator's thoughts in any way from the rest of the text. Certainly don't treat them like dialogue and set them aside in quotes, and don't italicize them either. That creates distance between your character and your readers. 

Also, don't apply what I call "thought tags," words such as thought, felt, surmised, guessed, supposed, etc. Again, just write the thought directly. For readers, this creates the sense that they are in the narrator's mind, hearing her thoughts by some kind of literary telepathy.

One of the places that it is easiest to slip up and forget to remain in Deep POV is in descriptive narrative. Writers—myself included—get carried away in describing a scene and start writing lyrical passages that their thirteen-year-old skateboarding hero would never say or think. Writing Deep POV is a humbling experience. With every word, you are trying to make readers forget that you, the author, exist. If you succeed, kids won’t even remember your name. Your goal is to convince them the main character is the one telling them the story, not you. 

So it's definitely possible to write Deep POV in limited third person. But don't assume that you are automatically in Deep POV simply by virtue of writing in first person. I've read many first person narratives that remained aloof from the narrator. I see this mainly in student work, and when it happens, I think it's because the writer gets so caught up in setting down the events of the plot or what other characters are saying and doing that she forgets to let her narrator react to all of it.

Another way of putting that is to say that the POV glasses that the writer sets on her first-person narrator's face have clear lenses, as if the hero were a scientist recording "just the facts, ma'am." And who of us sees and responds to life in such a completely neutral fashion? It's the way a first-person narrator shares plot events and her observations of other characters that reveals to use what kind of person the narrator really is. There is color to the narrator's lenses.

[© Infrared photos by Nancy Butts]

A fine example of this is the Newbery-winning novel Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson. Told in first person, we believe that the cutting remarks Louise makes about her twin Caroline are accurate. It isn't until the end of the book that we realize that Louise has been envious of her sister all along, and that her observations have been tainted because she has been looking at her sister through green-colored glasses.

That taint is what you want when writing in first person: that is, if you want to achieve Deep POV. Let every word your narrator says—even if that is about something as ordinary as the weather, the menu in the school cafeteria, or the shoes his sister is wearing—reveal more about your hero than perhaps he'd like to admit.

I've read articles and books that are almost prescriptions or recipes for how to do Deep POV, but I'm not sure that's the most helpful way to look at it. You don't have to go "all in." Such intense identification with a main character can get claustrophobic, especially if she is whiny, depressed,or unpleasant in some way. Not being able to get out of her head for even one moment can turn readers off. So you need to choose your project well. If you've got an anti-hero, or a character who might initially seem unlikeable for one reason or the other [perhaps the point of your book is show their transformation], Deep POV may not be the technique to choose, not exclusively.

Perhaps you could use it only for brief passages, borrowing techniques from Deep POV so we can hear your main viewpoint character's voice loud and proud. To me, and to many editors and readers, the voice of your protagonist is what makes a book stand out. What makes a thousand books about yet another dysfunctional family forgettable, and one book like Okay for Now so memorable that it haunts you for weeks after you finish it? Character voice. And one of the most powerful techniques for creating that is Deep POV. What better reason is there to learn as much as you can about it?

[© 2014 This article is subject to copyright. Please do not use or reproduce without express written permission from the author.]

Next in the series—Power Can Go To Your Head: The Perils of Omniscient POV

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Why are trees throwing themselves at me?

There goes my writing retreat!

© Photo by Nancy Butts

I am even sadder this morning than I was yesterday evening when I lost my "writing pecan" tree. I had spent several hours yesterday in its shade, blocking out a new outline for the second half of my middle grade novel. Around 5, I ran out of steam, so I packed up my portable office and began to move inside. I had just sat down at my computer to make sure that the day's work was backed up, when out of nowhere the winds started gusting and there was a sudden downpour of rain.

I heard a crack, but it wasn't so loud or so close that I thought it was anything in my yard. One of the neighbors lost a tree limb, I thought.

And then I heard my husband shouting. A microburst had completely uprooted my writing pecan, which had toppled down across all three cars, brushing the edge of the roof we just had replaced last year due to hail damage, and ending up with a few branches on the back porch. And to think that I had just been sitting at that table under the tree, not twenty minutes earlier. Brrrr.

The holly tree took the brunt of the pecan's weight, which saved my husband's car. The lid to the trunk will have to be replaced, but I think that's it. But both the holly and another pecan were severely injured when the first tree fell: hope we can save them, or I won't have any shade in my backyard at all. Where am I going to hang all my ghosts at Halloween?

And where am I going to write now?

My car escaped without damage, but my son's old junker is still buried under the mammoth trunk of the tree. My son launched into lumberjack mode, and the three of us were able to cut out enough of the branches to get my husband's car out and moved to a safer place, but we're now at a place where professionals need to step in. Sigh. We just finished replacing the air conditioning system last week; today we'll be dealing with insurance agents, adjusters, body shops, and tree removers.

This is the second time in six months that a tree has thrown itself at me. In January during the first ice storm, I was out walking—and please don't ask what kind of idiot goes out for a stroll in the midst of an ice storm—when a huge oak at the Baptist church suddenly crashed down just a split second after I had walked past it. It fell only a few feet behind me. I love trees so much I'm practically a Druid, so why do they keep committing suicide around me? :D

But most of all, I'm going to miss that beautiful old pecan.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Summer haven: or my micro-writer's retreat

Summer's upon us, and in a house full of academics—namely, my husband and son, both of whom are college professors—that means that everyone is on vacation. Everyone except me, that is.

Maybe it's a literary flaw, but I need peace and solitude in order to write fiction. After all those years as a newspaper reporter, I can write non-fiction in the midst of a Category 5 hurricane. But fiction is much harder for me. It requires an almost hermitic solitude for me to slip into that alternate world I'm trying to spin out of thin air, and it only takes the slightest interruption to expel me from writing paradise.

Now that summer is upon us and the house is filled with noise and commotion all day long, I have to escape. I don't have the time or funds to flee to a true writer's retreat; I can't even manage a weekend away. So what I do is pack up my portable office and head outside to a picnic table under the pecan trees. I'm barely fifty feet away from my back door, but this micro-retreat will have to do.

© Photo by Nancy Butts
 And it works! Today I managed several hours of solid writing on my middle grade novel. Sitting outside to write releases something in me. Inside, I feel trapped by the four walls; my characters shrivel up inside me, and the smaller they get, the harder it is for me to hear their faint whispers. Outside, my characters can breathe and grow. They blossom under the open sky and speak so loudly that I can follow their voices back into the world of my book, and get lost there for hours.

Now that school's out, I know a lot of you have kids underfoot all day, too. So when even a daylong mini-retreat to the library or Starbucks isn't possible, try a micro-retreat—head out to your balcony, porch, or backyard instead.

May you fall down the rabbit hole and get some writing done, too.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Indie publishing: wasteland, or brave new world?

This is going to be a quickie post, as I have sworn to devote today to working on a chapter of my own novel! And it's all too easy to let myself get distracted by things that are easier for me to write—such as blog posts, for example.

So even though this is a fascinating topic about which I should write a longer post some day, I'm not going to do it today. Seriously. I'm not. If I can just drag myself away from this "new post" composition window.....

Photo by "Rodw" at Wikimedia Commons
Instead, I'm going to let this piece on the Huffington Books page speak for itself. It's a spirited defense of the quality of self-published books by indie author Lorraine Devon Wilke. The article sparked a conversation on a private listserv of children's writing instructors to which I belong, with some folks lamenting the abysmal quality of a lot of self-published books they've gotten off Amazon. And though I can't disagree with that, since I've stumbled across the dreck, too, I have also discovered many fine books by clearly skilled, professional writers as well.

If you like historical mysteries with a strong female protagonist, look at books by former college history professor M. Louisa Locke, who has a great blog here. If you like thrillers, paranormal or otherwise, look at books by former Hollywood screenwriter Alexandra Sokoloff. Then there are books, both adult and middle grade, by my former colleague at the Institute of Children's Literature, Chris Eboch [writing for adults as Kris Bock]. Take a look at the middle grade Island of Fog fantasy series by Keith Robinson. And of course I have to get in a plug for two of my editing clients, indie author Alberto Hazan, who writes urban fantasy for teens and medical thrillers for adults; and YA writer Kristina Ludwig, who has published contemporary teen novels, short stories, and a series of novellas in the burgeoning Amish romance genre.

Of course this is only a small sample, but I believe that many talented, hard-working authors are out there in the indie publishing world, and they are every bit as professional and skilled as any traditionally-published writer.

I'd be interested in hearing what you think about indie publishing. Is it a brave new world, or a wasteland?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Libromania: or how I killed my Kindle

I've been reading so much lately that I burned out my Kindle Paperwhite! Seriously.

© Photo by Nancy Butts

For the past couple of months I've been reading incessantly, almost obsessively. I tend to do this after a long, concentrated spell of hard work, which is what the past year has been. For twelve months, I had so much work coming in—student lessons, client manuscripts, educational gigs—that I felt as if I were juggling live snakes, trying to keep all of them safely in the air so they and their venomous fangs wouldn't collapse on top of me and start a feeding frenzy on my throat.

Now there is a slight lull in the work load, which is a bit scary from a financial point of view, but wonderfully freeing and refreshing creatively. And after so much writing and editing, I need to inhale a lot of words—a lot of Story—to replenish myself.

After I finished my senior honors thesis back at Duke [and don't ask how many years ago that was], I sat down and read all eighty-eight Agatha Christie murder mysteries in one summer. Now I seem to be on a more eclectic literary frenzy—a libromania, if you will—that includes fiction and non-fiction, adult and children's books, fantasy and historical fiction and mystery and thrillers and contemporary drama.

In the process, I've fallen in love with a new writer, Gary D. Schmidt. Well, he's not new—he's been around for a while. But I just discovered him, and I am in awe. Okay for Now is a middle grade novel set written in a very close and tight first-person viewpoint, and you know how I love that. It was a National Book Award finalist, and I can see why. In the deceptively simple voice of an illiterate but artistic eighth grade boy, Doug Swietek, Schmidt spools out a masterful, moving story about love and redemption. In this book, it takes a village not just to raise a child, but to heal an entire family.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy is kind of a middle grade, kind of a YA—it was an honor book for both the Newbery and the Printz awards, if you can believe that. Has that ever happened before? It is written in omniscient narration that often dips into the head of the main protagonist, Turner Buckminster, and is based on a true story that happened in 1912 in the state of Maine. Having spent so much time on the coast of Maine myself—my first novel, Cheshire Moon, is set there—I was drawn to this book. Schmidt once again shows his mastery here. Be warned: there is an undercurrent of sorrow in all his books, even a riptide in this one. But somehow Schmidt manages the trick of being both luminous and heart-breaking at the same time. If you haven't read any of his many books yet, please do!

Or maybe not. If you're like me, when you finish one of them you'll think that it was so good that no other novel needs to be written ever again. Which isn't such a good thought for writers to entertain, not even for a split second. :-(

And besides, I think my new best friend Gary just broke my Kindle. This glorious time of year I sit outside to read, so I need my glare-free Paperwhite for that. I finished a rip-roarin' Printz-winning YA novel, Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel late yesterday as the sun started to slip behind the mulberry trees towards the west.

I went inside to recharge the battery—and nothing. I tried every trick in the book, but when I plugged into my Mac and started getting ominous messages that the Paperwhite about to fry my USB port, that was it. I yanked out the charge cable, contacted Amazon—and even though I was three weeks out of warranty, they are sending me a new Paperwhite tomorrow! Amazon deserves a lot of credit for that. I didn't even have to ask; they immediately offered.

Let's see how long it takes me to burn this one out.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The roundabout way to my true North

After a long time away from my middle grade novel, I feel disconnected from it. So yesterday I spent several precious hours of solitude trying to brainstorm some new ideas, convinced that the book was beyond resurrection.

I had to laugh this morning when I sat down and looked at the mind map I had created for what I wanted to write next—it was the same book I had already started. So I guess the Muse is trying to tell me those characters ain't dead yet after all!

Or as Stephen Pressfield says in The War of Art, "Resistance will unfailingly point to true North—meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing."

Wind rose from a chart of Jorge de Aguiar, 1492

Leave it to me to wander around South, East, and West, when I could have just looked at the compass and gone North in the first place. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Fight Club: Multiple POV Fights Back [Part I]

Note: This is the third 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.

Photo by Arash Hashemi, in the public domain

The POV Puritan is back—and I think I may have experienced a conversion. In part 2 of my series on demystifying viewpoint, I stood up loud and proud and gave my testimony as to why I thought single viewpoint was best, both for readers and writers. Nevertheless, at the end of that piece I promised to give multiple POV a fighting chance to defend itself.

But the more I tried, the more I struggled to find anything good to say about multiple viewpoint—that's how much I dislike it as a reader. Months dragged by. Every once in a while I would sit down and try to write this post, and every time I'd draw a blank. Finally I had a brainstorm: I realized that I needed to let proponents of multiple viewpoint speak for themselves. I would find four well-reviewed middle grade novels that used several viewpoint characters, then let them speak on behalf of multiple POV everywhere.

And despite my Puritan prejudices and preconceptions, I found myself enjoying the books. I'm not a complete convert, but after reading these books, I think I've come to appreciate that in the hands of a capable writer, multiple viewpoint can work well.


Wonder [Knopf, 2012], by RJ Palacio

What's a wonder about this book is that it didn't get a Newbery nod. Can you tell I loved it? This contemporary drama is about a ten-year-old boy named Auggie who was born with severe craniofacial dystopia that even after dozens of corrective surgeries makes him look like ET. Homeschooled all his life, the book follows fifth grader Auggie's first year at a private school in Manhattan. Although there are  many painful moments for Auggie, the theme of this book is that kindness can triumph over anything.

The book has six main viewpoint characters—and that's not counting three other viewpoints that are briefly presented, in epistolary fashion, as emails in one chapter. For me, the reason why the multiple viewpoint works in this book is due to Palacio's brilliant evocation of the kid-like voice of Auggie, his on-again off-again best friend Jack Will, and his classmate Summer. Palacio captured the hearts and minds of these three characters beautifully.

I can also see why the author chose to include the viewpoint of Auggie's sister, Via. That is important to show that things in Auggie's life aren't always the way he sees them; and also to show that as much as Via loves him, her brother's disfigurement has burdened her life as well.

However, I think Palacio could have dispensed with the viewpoint chapters written from the perspectives of Via's boyfriend and Via's best friend. And I also think it would have been possible to show the sister's side of things without getting into her head. It could easily have been done through dialogue instead.


Because of Mr. Terupt [Delacorte, 2010], by Rob Buyea

I thought it a bit odd that this book features adult novelist John Irving so prominently. There are blurbs from him on both the front and back cover, Buyea singles him out in the acknowledgments, and Irving even wrote a foreword to the book. You almost never see a foreword in a middle grade novel. It made me wonder who the publisher saw as this book's primary audience: kids or adults?

In any case, I did enjoy this book, though not as much as Wonder. It's another book about a year in fifth grade, this time at a small school in New Hampshire with a new teacher.

It is told in the constantly alternating voices of seven fifth grade students, which didn't always work for me. I found that often I had to flip back to the title page of each chapter to remember which student was talking. Also, no one character had very long to speak, as each chapter was only two to three pages long.

But I can see how this multiple viewpoint might work well in a book that was being studied in a classroom setting. No matter what role a child may have assumed in school, or what label they may have acquired—joker, troublemaker, bully, mean girl, bookworm, nerd, fatso, or the Invisible Kid—they can find a viewpoint character in this book who speaks for them. That is what is so lovely about this book. I think it might be great for a group of students to read it together, almost as if it were a play and each reader took a part.


Every Soul a Star [[Little Brown, 2008], by Wendy Mass

Of the four books I read, this one about three kids coming together at a remote campground to watch a solar eclipse was most successful for me in its use of multiple POV. I think that was for two reasons. First, there were only three POV characters. Second, the author spent a significant amount of time in each character's viewpoint before switching away to another. To me, this is crucial. The longer you spend with each POV character, the more a reader can settle into his or her head. If you are constantly jerking readers from one character to another every couple of pages, it's bound to be both distancing and disorienting.

[And I should note that when I was twelve, I went through a serious astronomy phase myself, so I may have connected with the story more because of that.]


A Tangle of Knots [Philomel, 2013], by Lisa Graff

This whimsical, light-hearted book about how we are all tied together by fate is like a rainbow-colored version of Neil Gaiman, which I mean as a compliment. It was the only fantasy of the four, and since that is my favorite genre, I expected to like it the most. And it did have a lot of charm. Nevertheless, I think it was the least successful in its use of multiple viewpoint, primarily because it had nine—count 'em—NINE viewpoint characters. Aiyee!

That doesn't even count the prologue, which is written in omniscient narration that dips periodically into the head of an 18-year-old man who shows up later in the book as a viewpoint character. There is also some second person narration early on, and then there are nine other viewpoint characters: the heroine, Cady; three other children; and five adults. 

This parade of characters made it difficult for me to say that Cady is the true protagonist of the book. Rather, I would describe her as the hub around which all the other characters revolve. But with so many characters to read about, I never felt that strong a connection to her. Although perhaps that was Graff's point. She may have deliberately written a book in which no one character predominates in order to make her point that each of them got where they were through the tangled actions of many others.

.... [continued in part II]

[Note: This article is running so long that I am publishing the second half in a separate post. The entire article is archived as a single downloadable PDF at my website.]

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Fight Club: Multiple POV Fights Back [Part II]

[Note: This is a simple continuation of my blog post on multiple POV, divided into two parts because it ran so long. The entire article is archived as a single downloadable PDF at my website.]

Photo by USMC Lance Cpl. Chris Korhonen,
in the public domain
....[continued from part I]


Unlike adult books with multiple viewpoint, where authors feel free to change POV characters in the middle of a chapter, a scene, or even a page, all four authors were very careful to make it clear for young readers when the viewpoint changed, and whose viewpoint it was. They always changed chapters when they changed viewpoint characters, and they flagged this in multiple ways. The viewpoint character's name was prominently displayed at the start of each chapter, and sometimes in a header at the top of each right-hand page as well. In addition, different fonts were sometimes used to distinguish each POV character. 

And in some cases graphical elements were  used to help readers remember which  viewpoint character was speaking at any time. In Every Soul a Star, each character had an astronomical symbol: crescent moon [my favorite, as in my own novel Cheshire Moon] for Ally; the planet Saturn [also my favorite planet] for Jack; and a star for Bree. 

I especially liked how this was handled in Wonder. Each viewpoint section had a sketch of a face. For every character other than Auggie, there was only one eye in the face: the character's left eye. For Auggie's three POV sections, the graphic changed. In Part 1 he had no eyes; in part 6 he was wearing an astronaut's helmet with one eye—his right—and a hearing aid. And in part 8, he too has one left eye represented, just the like other characters—as if to signal that he now sees the world as a more welcoming place. Clever.


1. In each book but Every Soul a Star, I think the writers simply used too many POV characters. There were six in Wonder, seven in Mr. Terupt, and nine-plus in A Tangle of Knots. Even with all the effort made to distinguish which character was speaking when, I frequently got confused. And if a professional writer and editor couldn't keep all the viewpoint characters straight, I doubt young readers would fare any better.

2. In Wonder, I think the author veered away from Auggie for far too long. He appears in Part 1, and then doesn't reappear until the final quarter of the book, in parts 6 and 8. That's far too long to stay away from the character you want your readers to empathize with the most. 

3. In both Mr. Terupt and A Tangle of Knots, I think the authors spent too little time with each character, and changed characters too frequently. 


Despite my strong Puritan prejudice against multiple POV, I now have to admit, however grudgingly, that there is a place for it in children's literature. How could I deny that after reading these four delightful novels by such talented middle grade authors? 

But why use multiple POV at all? Remember the first article in this series, the one in which I compare viewpoint to wearing glasses? Well, on her website, Palacio says that she didn't initially intend to write Wonder in multiple POV. But after she started the book, she got interested in Via and the different way she viewed Auggie and his problems. In other words, Palacio wanted kids to put on Via's glasses for a while and see the world through those lenses. Then Palacio says she got interested in Summer's glasses, and so on. 

"The Glasses Apostle," 1403
by Conrad von Suest

In an NPR interview, Buyea said that all seven characters in Mr. Terupt suddenly appeared to him one day while he was working his mother's garden. So in his case, it wasn't a conscious decision—this was simply the way the Muse decided to deliver the gift of this novel to him.

What does multiple POV accomplish that single POV cannot? I think Palacio says it best. It's a way to help young readers see many different sides of a story. Kids tend to be very ego-centered. I don't mean that they are selfish; I mean that they tend even more than adults to see other people as reflections of themselves. That is probably why single POV is so effective in gaining young readers' attention, because it mirrors their own experience of life. 

Photo by Tangopaso,
in the public domain
But that may be precisely why a multiple POV book is a refreshing change of pace for kids. It knocks the glasses they're used to wearing off their noses, so they are forced to look through someone else's lenses and discover that not everybody sees the world the way they do. There aren't just two sides to any story; there are a thousand. Shifting between several different viewpoint characters encourages readers to imagine how one event can be experienced in unexpected ways by a variety of different people. 

And that may be the best reason to use multiple POV in a middle grade novel. 

However, as I said above, I'm only a partial convert. I stubbornly maintain that multiple POV is not to be undertaken lightly. It is very, very difficult to pull off—even as much as I liked these four books where the authors handled it well, I still had some issues with how they used it. 

And unfortunately, I've also read many books with multiple POV that were not done well. I'm not going to list those here, because that would be mean-spirited. 

Like so many things in writing, there is no one right way to craft a book. I hope I’ve been able to step far enough aside from my own aesthetic preferences to allow multiple viewpoint a fair chance to duke it out against single POV. Even I have to agree that a compelling case can be made for using multiple POV in some books. There are always risks and trade-offs to doing that, however—a subject I’ll speak about in the last installment of this series.

In the meanwhile, with writers as gifted and skilled as Palacio, Buyea, Mass, and Graff as its champions, it's clear that this narrative technique needs no help from me. Sometimes multiple viewpoint may be the best way to tell a certain story.

Next time, however, I am finally going to write about a specialized form of single viewpoint that is near and dear to my heart—something called Deep POV. I can't wait!

Next time: What Is So Special About Deep POV?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Finally researching that piece on multiple viewpoint

I've just ordered five middle grade novels via inter-library loan that use the dreaded multiple POV: Wonder by RJ Palacio, Every Soul a Star by Wendy Mass, Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea, A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff, and A Week in the Woods by Andrew Clements.

© Photo by Nancy Butts
I make no bones about being a single-POV Puritan; in fact, I wrote an article about that which I published both here and on my website last summer. At that time I promised that I'd give multiple POV a chance to defend itself, but I'm only now getting around to it. Sorry! After trying rather unsuccessfully to set aside my POV prejudice and write a fair, objective piece on why and when and how to use multiple viewpoint, I got a brainstorm. Why don't I let some the best examples of it that I can find in middle grade literature speak for themselves?

So that's what I'm doing. It may take a while for all five books to arrive, so I can't give you a definite date for when the article will be published. But in the meantime, if you have any favorite examples of multiple POV, please share them with me in the comments!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Steeping in silence

© Photo by Nancy Butts
There is too much silence in my life; and there is nowhere near enough.

That is the line that keeps echoing in my head as I sit down on this windy March day and try to find something worthwhile to say after a five-month absence from this blog.

For the first time in months, a syzygy of events more rare than a conjunction of five celestial bodies has finally occurred: I have the house to myself at the same time that I have zero—count 'em—zero work deadlines to meet. Making it even more miraculous, I also do not have an appointment with either a physical therapist or an orthopedic surgeon. Since those both require driving anywhere from 80 to 140 miles round-trip, such appointments tend to devour most of the productive, creative hours of my day.

And since last October, I've had a slew of such appointments. First it was the rather unsuccessful aftermath of my knee surgery, and then it was some still-mysterious tectonic event in my neck on Dec. 8th that led to twenty-six days of unrelenting, excruciating pain. That was not conducive to writing, let me tell you. Opinions differ as to what happened, but the MRI of my neck looks like something exploded in there, and the physical therapy isn't helping. So I don't know what lies in store for me on that score.

Meanwhile, students and freelance clients and educational gigs have been flooding me with work. It's flattering to be in such demand, and it's good for my bank account, but it's also exhausting. I woke up one day last week feeling so depleted, both physically and mentally, that I could barely function. I had to declare the day a Work Free Zone and hide out from my email, so no one could find me and give me any more assignments with deadlines so tight that they require traveling back in time to get them done.

All of this is to explain [rationalize?] my absence from this page; and also my pervasive creative silence. It may be a paradox, but my life is so filled with noise—in the sense of a bombardment of what electrical engineers and information scientists call "signal interference"—that I have fallen silent. I have nothing to say.

At least, that's how I felt this morning when I uploaded the edits of a client's manuscript, checked both my work inboxes, looked at my calendar, and realized that I have an entire afternoon to myself. I don't have any assignments to correct, manuscripts to edit, or educational texts to research and write. I don't have anywhere to drive. And the house is blessedly silent, since both my husband and son are at their respective college campuses teaching. It's just me and Yukon, the neurotic Newf.

The house is silent, and so am I. Or so I thought. Obviously, I found something to say, because I've just written six hundred words about it. But it's just a tease, a delusion. I can't hear any of my characters in my head right now; are they just sleeping, or did they give up on me and move away? I don't know.

There isn't going to be a tidy end to this post; I haven't come to any epiphanies, or suddenly found my creative voice again. I just need to set this down: although the noise of my life has momentarily fallen silent, I still can't hear myself. And for a writer, silence is supposed to be this horrible thing. We're always running away from it, always scrambling desperately for characters and ideas and words and images—for something, anything to say.

But maybe that's the epiphany I'm supposed to be having. Maybe silence isn't such a horrible thing; maybe we as writers need to stop fearing it. Perhaps we need to stop once in a while and let ourselves be filled up with it. Instead of struggling to drown it out with an increasingly frantic deluge of words, maybe we need to steep a while in silence and listen, really listen, to what it may have to say.

"Without silence, words lose their meaning." The Belgian priest Henri Nouwen said that; I used it as the epigraph of my first novel, Cheshire Moon.

Time to listen.