Friday, January 27, 2012

Persnickety POV: First Person vs. Third Person.

POV is always an interesting subject. For writers, and even some readers, it's a source of great debate. Every person has their own opinions and preferences, myself included. The question then is: Which should YOU choose?
Whichever one you like.

That might seem too straightforward, but really there's no right or wrong answer. Certain genres lend more acceptance to one or the other, but that doesn't mean your story won't sell or readers will ridicule you for stepping outside the box.

So, how do you choose? Let's explore that thought a little further.

Narrative Distance

This is how far from the POV the reader feels from the story. The more distance you put between the protagonist or narrator, the less attached the reader feel from the lead character. Your plot and characters are a couple of things that will help you out when choosing which route to take. You have to ask yourself: Do I want this story to be observed or be experienced? And there's no wrong answer.

Some people don't like first person because they think it takes away from the story itself. I personally favor it, because I'm such a character driven person, and I love being inside their head. I want to experience their journey first, followed by the actual journey. Others don't like third person because it limits how attached the reader will feel to what's happening. If you haven't lived through their angst/joy/triumph first-hand, that takes away from your experience.

Preference plays an important role in choosing between the two. If you feel more at ease and confident writing first person, don't choose third simply because you think it'll sell better with your target genre. A GOOD story will sell itself but only if it's written well. There's no need to force a POV for something as trivial as "the norm" of the genre.

Exploring Narrative Distance

Narrative distance has a few options because, like the term implies, there's distance involved. How much distance is up to you. Here's what I mean.

Far Narrative Distance

Evie sighed and decided to put on the first clean shirt she came to.

This is an example of far narrative distance. By using the word “decided,” the author is telling the reader what the character is doing. We don't see Evie make that choice. Using far distances puts the reader on the observation deck, oftentimes getting information the character doesn't even know from an unknown narrator.  

Medium Narrative Distance

Evie spotted the overflowing clothes hamper and sighed. This shirt will work, she thought.
This sentence falls under a medium narrative distance. We've added the phrase, “she thought,” which allows the reader to get inside Evie's head. The reader sees Evie's actions, but they need to see what she's thinking. Medium distances uses phrases like "she noticed" or "she considered" to remind us that we're still reading a story. We can "see" the action, but the mental stuff has to be there because we aren't fully in the character's head.

Close Narrative Distance
Evie spotted the overflowing clothes hamper and sighed. No time to do laundry.

This example is close narrative distance. The way we see that is because there aren't explanations from the author. The reader "hears" Evie thinking just as she thinks it. Close distances let the reader see, hear, think, everything at the same moment the character does. If something is contrary to what the character thinks, we have to figure it out as they do.

Choosing Which POV to Use
You have to listen to your instincts here and choose the POV you believe work best. If your story is telling you it wants/needs to be in third person, take that into consideration even if it's different than what you're used to. A note of caution, if you choose to write first person, be absolutely certain your character is interesting enough to write about! If you still aren't sure, consider this...

1. Think about the plot.
Do you have a plot that revolves around multiple subplots/events? Are there places where the story would drag if the reader was solely focused on one character? Will there be scenes that don't involve the main character, yet need to be explored? If you choose to write first person, you limit yourself entirely to ONE person's head. The reader misses everything the character misses. While it's becoming more and more popular to go between character POVs per chapter, this doesn't always work well! If you have a plot that revolves around one character pursuing their goal, then your POV is optional.

2. Think about the characters. 

In my book, Haven, I I knew Ashton was the focus of the story. I never considered doing anything but first person because A) I preferred it; B) It made sense because the story revolves around her life and journey. If you have a slew of great characters, each with their own vital role to play in the story, third person may be the better way to go. As most people have read the Twilight series, we all know there were times no one wanted to be in Bella's head. (No snarky comments needed here, guys ;) Meyer made an interesting choice to switch to Jacob's POV in Breaking Dawn. While it was somewhat jarring after three books, it was the better idea. The reader gained valuable info on what the wolf pack was doing and missed out on some tremendously boring pregnancy scenes.

The wrong POV can hurt a story and limit its potential, but as long as the story is good, the POV won't matter. In other words, don't worry about your story not doing well from a POV perspective. People have preferences, and you can't do anything about that. Write your story the best way you know how using the best POV for the job. If you feel like you can only do that in one type, then write everything in that type. If you can handle both, choose what feels best for that particular story.

Which style do you prefer to read or write?

Happy writing!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

When in Rome: How to be a Successful Hooker

The introduction to your story is imperative. It's the first impression the reader gets for the tone of your writing and book. An opening paragraph is one of my favorite things to look for when buying a new novel.

But what makes a great hook? Let's take a look at the opening paragraph in the prologue for Elizabeth Isaacs' The Light of Asteria.

'Malachi stood at the base of the mountain staring into the chasm of hell. Black clouds billowed over the blood that boiled in the land of the centaurs’ grave. Thunder rolled, as the lightning streaked across the sky in fury. The sun became black as sackcloth. The void grew, and the blood turned to tar that smelled of rotting flesh. Onyx silhouettes, writhing from its depths, crawled to the rim; the ground below their feet withered and died. The slick, obsidian army absorbed any colors of life that surrounded them, and the growing chasm boiled with glee.'

First things first, the imagery and sensory writing here is brilliant. I'm immediately sucked into this hellish place, squinting through the smoke and gagging at the scent of decay. Now we're left asking, ‘What's happening here?’ ‘Why is he in such a place and what are those black creatures?’ It sets the tone of the story and lets the reader know to expect something deep and intense.

Another good example would be Janet Evanovich's One for the Money. She incites a different response from readers with her witty and straightforward approach.
'There are some men who enter a woman's life and screw it up forever. Joseph Morelli did this to me--not forever, but periodically.'
Already the reader is smiling, knowing what's going to come of this story. You can already imagine the humor and history the protag and her friendly foe share. The opening is funny and engaging and leaves the reader wanting to find out just why this character's life is so screwed up … periodically.  

There are a few notions to keep in mind when working on an opening paragraph. Think of this as sort of a checklist:
* Does it express the general tone of your story? If you're writing like Evanovich, does your opening paragraph portray that humor?
* Does it show versus tell? Look back to Isaacs' example. You're drawn in by experiencing the story for yourself. Had she told me Malachi was angry, scared, or vengeful, I wouldn’t have connected with him or the story. Always phrase things so the reader is a part of the story, not watching it.
* Does it show something about your primary character (or someone else important to the story)? Don't forget, this intro will help your readers relate to and care about your main character. If that person has a weakness or flaw instrumental to their downfall, this is a good place to mention that as well.
* Is there a form of mystery or intrigue the reader will spend the rest of the work trying to figure out?
* Does the opening paragraph lead with the object of focus for the story? Don't begin by talking about someone/something that isn't the theme for the story. You want the attachment in the right place.
* Does the hook introduce a main theme? Let's focus the intro to our plot!
So, what opening lines are your favorites?
Happy writing!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Crafting a Believable Character

Chi and I were recently discussing characters: Well-written versus boring. Believable versus unbelievable. In general, what makes them easily relatable and interesting.

My current WIP is written 3rd person POV and involves several "main" characters over a period of time. This is a new experience for me as I've always written 1st person and kept the focus on a linear storyline. That doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room for "main" characters. If you're living the story as opposed to watching it, your focus is on your protagonist in his or her time.

I've been reading a lot of historical fiction lately, brushing up on the voicing and customs. One author in particular, in my opinion, has absolutely nailed character development. They're well-rounded, unique, and intriguing. While there's a common vein along each story, every character is distinct and notable. They're relationships are multifaceted, just like real people. Their mannerisms vary depending on their surroundings or situation, just like real people! You can tell who's speaking or moving by their actions and reactions. It sounds so simple, but it really is very hard.

The particular scenario Chi and I were discussing involved the relationship among three different characters and how it affected the believability of the storyline. As I'd originally plotted, there wasn't purpose to certain actions. One guy's reaction was over-the-top for the situation. His reaction is necessary to the plot, but I couldn't figure out how to make that happen without the melodrama. Finally, Chi looks at me and says, "He has to have a deeper relationship with these people in order to feel that strongly about it. There's a balance there and his passion has to have a purpose. What's their history?"

Their history? I sat there and thought about her question. Any good character, whether hero or villain or next door neighbor has to have purpose, an evolution to their current state of mind. A good hero will have a history of things he overcame to make him the savior he is. Likewise, a villain will have a lifetime of sorrows, regrets, or embittering acts that make him choose his own desires over everything else. Those histories, written or unwritten, are what make the characters real! They're imperative even if there only in your head.

Every character, like every living person, should have a history. They should have mannerisms as a result of their lives and personality. Each thing feeds into the next. Someone who grew up feeling entitled or never doing things for themselves will have a personality, traits, and actions to mimic that. For instance, they might tend to look at things with a harsher opinion. They'll have perfectly manicured features. I would imagine some hoity-toity woman tapping her foot and looking down her nose at anyone who questioned her. A man who grew up scrounging for every cent is likely going to be suspicious of others. I'd imagine he'd keep a tight grip on himself, both physically and emotionally. He isn't going to let his guard down for a moment. Those are, of course, open to any influence you choose. Just think how your upbringing, financial well-being, and social circles influence who you are outside your natural personality.

Characters should be well-developed and thought out. If your reader can't relate to your characters, they aren't going to care how the plot unfolds. They have nothing invested. Take your time, and truly think about the things that make your imaginary friends unique and real. Your readers will thank you for it!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Day in the Life of Writer-Mom.

I find it funny that one of the most common questions I've seen in interviews is: How do you balance being a writer (AKA marketing lackey, publicist, critique partner, editor, mental health counselor, etc.) and a mom (AKA cook, maid, chauffeur, nurse, dedicated alarm clock, surgeon of stuffed toys, etc.)?
So, I thought I'd give you guys a peek into the glamorous life that is writer-mom.

6:00 AM -- Alarm clock goes off. Unbeknownst to me, I hit snooze.

6:10 AM -- Do it 3 more times.

6:44 AM -- Fly out of bed, realizing I've overslept, again, and scramble to wake the natives. Put dogs outside.

7:07 AM -- Moderate burn from iron. Can't find matching socks to save my life. Wrestle the kids into the clothes while they insist on pirouetting through the living room. Let dogs inside.

7:10 AM -- Yell at dogs for eating out of child's cereal bowl. Crying child gets a consolatory granola bar.

7:30 AM -- Kids leave. Walk through the house, turning off every light upstairs that is inexplicably left on every day for no reason at all. Throw in a load of laundry. Pick up the crap in the floor that's in my direct path. Silently curse dog for eating insole of shoe. Shouldn't she be full after the cereal?

8:00AM -- Put dogs outside quickly. They're full of foam and Lucky Charms. Check email, FB, Twitter, Triberr, and 15 other app tabs at the top of computer. Shout out books and awesome people. Contemplate blogging but brain isn't working. Open current WIP doc and Google search window. Twitter app tab's lit up. Hop over there. Conversation ensues.

8:10AM -- Let dogs in. Swap out laundry. Debate folding load removed from dryer. Back to Twitter, er, work.

11:00 AM -- Notice it's now 11:00. Stomach growls, nothing sounds particularly appealing. Eat a spoonful of peanut-butter. Put dogs outside. Another load of clothes in. Plop back down in makeshift computer chair and continue wondering why exactly the lights were on at all this morning? What's remotely interesting in the closet? Very long rabbit trail follows along these lines: I need to clean out the closet. That means Tupperware and donation boxes which means I'd have to go to the store. Looks at clock. No time today. Maybe I'll do it tomorrow. I'll have to remember to get some mushrooms. I wonder why mushrooms make my feet hurt? I'm so old... Phone call.

12:45 PM -- Crap. It's after noon. Make the most of time and shout out books and people again. Check clock. Just over an hour to write, and I still haven't showered. Sulk to the bathroom, bypassing dirty dishes. Quick stop to let dogs in.

1:39 PM -- Get into perfect, harmonious writing groove.

1:50 PM -- Alarm goes off on my phone, reminding me to pick up my kids, because yes, I have to be reminded. Frantically type, trying to squeeze 5 hours worth of writing into 20 minutes.

2:35 PM -- Fuss at myself for not leaving on-time 10 minutes earlier. Pray I have enough gas to get one city over. It's too late to stop now.

2:50 - 3:20 PM -- Stuck waiting at school. Work thumbs to nubs trying to make most of sit-in time and do more marketing. Decide that's not interesting. Play Plants vs. Zombies.

4:00 PM -- Make it home after going through another exhaustive explanation about why McDonald's and donuts don't make for a healthy after-school meal. Break up senseless argument about imaginary medicine. Kindly demand youngest child stop making faces at oldest child. Repeat process when retaliation is sought. Threaten grounding for all involved. Pouting and tears ensue. Eye begins to twitch. Put dogs out.

4:09 - 6:27 PM -- Various household chores that are over a week behind. Scrounge around for dinner. Break up fight over which hair bow looks best. Remind kids to eat, not play. Insist on all toys being put away. Let dogs in. Remind anyone within earshot to feed the chickens and the cat.

7:00 - 7:45PM -- Homework. Step over toys still scattered through house. Bathe kids. Clean their teeth. Pajamas for all. Listen to oldest's dissertation on why a later bedtime should be in order. Shoot down dissertation for the umpteenth time. Read story. Decline request for second story and TV. Grit teeth through whining. Eye continues twitching. Put dogs out.

Credit Chris at
8:03 - 9:15PM -- Quiet time with hubby, less the two interruptions from youngest child wanting to lay on couch/floor/chair/etc. Let dogs in. Phone call.

9:22PM -- Head to bed, intent on enough sleep tonight. Pajamas. Teeth. Pick up book to relax for 10 minutes.

12:43AM -- Lay down book. Turn off light. Think about book for 30 minutes. Finally fall asleep.

It's okay to be jealous of me ;) In all seriousness, balancing writing with anything else is a tough act. It can get overwhelming. When your writing, you feel like you should be cleaning. When you're cleaning, you feel like you should be spending more time with your family. And when you're with your family, you're thinking about that deadline looming over your head.

I get lost in all the To-Do's and tend to want to shut down entirely. The important thing to remember is, at the end of the day, if you can't get your word count where you intended or your clothes are laying on the table, still not folded, the world won't come crashing down. You get another chance tomorrow. So, enjoy your family. Your children won't be children forever. And while some days it gets to be a lot to handle, just think about how blessed you are to have two, capable hands.

Happy writing!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Off with Your Hand!

There comes a time in every writer's career where they have to sever the hand to save the arm. For me, that time is now. Sometimes that severing involves you stopping halfway through and beginning again. Sometimes it's a matter of scrapping the entire project even though you had high hopes for it. In my case, it meant tabling it, hoping that one day it might have another opportunity (one way or another) to flourish.

I won't go into great detail with the premise, but I will say the timing of the release was extremely time sensitive. I had a required "due-date" to have the book written, edited, and published. That date was doable, but not without sacrificing tremendous time and effort I don't have to spare at the moment. Some might argue that I shouldn't bite the bullet and give it all I've got for the next few months if I truly believed in the book, but I have to disagree. And here's why...

I have a life outside that one story. Just in writing, I have a sequel to finish and a separate series to begin. There's a stand-alone I'm working on for someone else. My kiddos are in ballet and have school functions, and I have a husband who actually enjoys my company. One of my very best friends is getting married in June, and I have the privilege of being matron of honor. Then there's marketing, planning, writing, and blogging all while not being a complete shut-in.

So, yeah. I could force it to work. I could throw a bunch of crappy words onto paper and call it a book. But what a disservice to myself. How could I be proud of something I put half my heart into? Let's not forget the project itself. If anyone loves their stories at all, they want them to shine. Writers want their writing to be worthy of the story because they feel so strongly about it. Or rather, they should.

So, while it makes me sad to lay this down, maybe to never reemerge, it also encourages me that I've grown enough in my writing to know when to persevere and when not to. It isn't defeat to say not now, because not now doesn't mean not ever. You deserve to put 100% of yourself and your heart into your work. Not only that, I wholeheartedly believe my friend Chi's philosophy. She says, "I believe stories are given to us, and it's up to us to find the words to do them justice."

So be an all or nothing person!

Happy writing :D