Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I Swear I Know Better

I have in the past taught college-level creative writing. I've also read a lot of books. A lot of books. Good books, bad books, books I've read over and over again because they were so good, books I have wanted to ceremonially burn in the backyard and bury the ashes because they were so bad. I consider myself to have a relatively high level of expertise in writing, despite my narcotic-like addiction to modifiers and my unwarranted affection for the comma splice. We all have our demons.

In the rewrite today I hit a chapter -- and not just any chapter, but a pivotal, action-packed chapter in which the protagonists meet for the first time -- and found that it had roughly eleventy-billion POV shifts. Not obvious POV shifts, but little sneaky, stealth POV shifts. If somebody had asked me to critique this chapter, the first words out of my mouth would have been, "Ack, POV shifts! Run!" You want to know how bad it is? Several times I magically shifted into the POV of the dog.

There is one thing that can be said about POV shifts. Don't. There may one time in a million when an intra-scene POV works, but really, it's just sloppy and lazy and unhelpful and amateurish. One of the main mantras I pound into the heads of new writers is to avoid POV shifts completely. Always.

So then I have to ask myself what happened. I know better, really. And yet here that chapter sits, a fulcrum in the narrative, glaring at me. Maybe I was possessed. Automatic writing. I don't know. It was so long ago when I originally wrote this, that I can't recall what I could have been thinking. I do vaguely remember at some point in the distant past thinking, "Huh. I'll have to fix that." Well, now the chicken are home to roost, little evil, red-eyed, POV-shifting zombie chickens.

So now I have two problems. One, when you're confronted with the fact that's you've committed this kind of crime, it mentally brings into question everything you've done. I mean, if I could do that, what else might I have done? And then the little imp in red sitting on your shoulder pokes the trident in your neck and says, "Wow, you suck. Maybe you should go take a nap." Suddenly everything is suspect, and you're waiting for the avalanche of yet-uncovered faults to roll down that hill and bury you.

Then, if you can manager to duct-tape the imp's mouth shut, you have to fix it. The trouble is, I'm fond of most of what's in that chapter. I feel like most of what's in the chapter is important. And that's really the worst thing for a writer, having to deconstruct and mangle and eviscerate and behead and chop into little bits the things you are fond of.

It was Faulkner who said, "In writing, you must kill your darlings."  Samuel Johnson said, " "Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

Sigh. Time to torch this chapter and start over.


  1. Johnson is an ass. The lesson that he uses to berate newbie writers without artistic discipline does not apply to a writer who - as you've just proven - can look at their own work and see what's a mistake. You didn't write the god damn Borg into your fantasy story, your moment of inspiration just included the word 'derp'.

    Assuming there is no overall PoV character for the entire book:

    Figure out who sees all of the really important action and use their PoV. Bonus points if they're someone who won't have to think about or understand what's going on so you don't waste time in exposition and can have the raw impact of what they see, feel, and hear beat directly into the reader's brain. Personally, I think using the dog would be AWESOME, but that might just be my thing.

    After that, basically keep the actual things that happen happened, just rephrase them from the new PoV. Heck, if that means cutting a few things, treat your audience like they're smart. Trying to catch up will throw them off balance and leave them vulnerable to the moments of drama.

    You can so totally do this, Keri. Like, oh my god, fer sure! Despair leads to more mistakes than manic glee.

  2. The crazy thing is, the dog's POV is probably the most important in making the action make sense in relation to the narrative arc. But I am probably too chickenshit to just write from the dog's POV. I'm kind of toying with a Rashamon-like device, where I have the four different POVs in separate scenes within the chapter. The only problem is that's really hard to do without A)crushing the momentum of the action, and B) being godawful repetitive.

    I'm going to pull the chapter out and make one file that delineates the action, think storyboard, and one file that contains the thoughts and the actions that can only be seen by one character at a time. Example, Gracie leaves and gets a gun and we see her get the gun, even though no one else can. Well, I know we don't have to see her get the gun, even though it was lovely description of her fumbling with the shells etcetera. So we can just see her come back with the gun, and I can erase all that lovely but ultimately useless description. One down, fifty more to go.

    Pah. Writing is hard. :)

  3. I still support the dog, because people's naturally lowered emotional defenses to animals and the unusualocity of the perspective will suck people in. Dogs live a visceral life where they hear what people are saying but don't bother to understand it. If this is third person it will work. If it's first person it's likely to overwhelm the reader.

    But I haven't read the book, and all I can offer are generalizations. In the end it almost doesn't matter who you pick. How you write it is more important than what you're writing, and you have the skill to write it well.