Caring about Hazel Motes

A geek-fest on POV in Flannery O’Connor’s WISE BLOOD. I’ve read a lot of books and I plan to read a lot more, and what I want from each book is to feel interested in the characters. I don’t need to like them, or feel similar to them. I just need to care about what …

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Starting a Book with Panache

Sometimes I think about how I should start the book I’m working on. Right now I have about 23,000 words written, so when I say “start,” I’m not talking about the process. The process of writing a book is separate from the book’s starting point, which is its first sentence.

The first sentence assumes ridiculous importance because it’s ridiculously important. But you can’t always blurt out a great first sentence when you start the actual book. I usually need to get to the end of the first draft.

A different kind of ABC test

In another post (Raising Questions) I floated out four book openings and asked
a) which are fiction and which nonfiction
b) how they make you feel
c) whether you’d want to read on

Here they are:

1: The greatest hunger in life is not for food, money, success, status, security, sex, or even love from the opposite sex.

a) This one is nonfiction, from The Book of Secrets by Deepak Chopra.
b) It made me feel annoyed, because of the (we hope) unconscious bias in “love from the opposite sex,” which leaves out everyone who loves their own sex.
c) But it also posed a question, which made me want to read on. The question being “what does the writer see as the greatest hunger in life?”

2: The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.

a) This one is fiction, from Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. [The link on the title will take you to Morrison’s own thoughts on what she was trying to do with that opening line, which is on a very interesting website called On Lines (onlinesonline.com), whose tagline is “Connecting story and song, one line at a time.”]
b) It made me feel mildly curious. I was suspicious of insurance agents, which is a terrible generalization, I know, and one born of ignorance about what the job entails. I knew Morrison was a great story teller. Yet the job itself seemed to form a barrier to my interest, and I was on the fence about whether to keep going. A bunch of considerations flew around inside me–the prose, the size of the book, my own feelings.
c) I wanted to keep going because I like Toni Morrison’s writing and because it posed a question: “why did the agent promise, and who was the promise to, and how did he plan to keep the promise?”

3: The French painter and writer Paul Gauguin–by most accounts mad, bad, and dangerous to know–suffered acutely from cosmological vertigo induced by the work of Darwin and other Victorian scientists.

a) This is nonfiction, from A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright.
b) It made me feel extremely interested–the juxtaposition of the cliche “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” followed by the words “suffered acutely from cosmological vertigo” were like a tasty treat for my brain.
c) I felt an interesting mind at work and wanted to read on.

4: I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of having to be removed by an ambulance in the Night.

a) This is fiction, from Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Toczarcuk, translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Here’s a review from The Guardian that reflects my own experience of the novel.
b) It made me feel like pulling up a chair and eating the book immediately. I loved it. I love feeling surprised and interested by a book’s first sentence.
c) I couldn’t wait to read on (so I didn’t). I read it first from a library copy, signed it out again a month or two later, then bought it at the legendary Pulp Fiction Books in Vancouver. It’s one of my inspirations for a novel I’m writing because it’s so highly entertaining yet has so much depth. BTW, it’s high time I thanked my friend, award-winning writer Hilary Zaid, for texting me one day out of the blue saying she thought I’d like this book. Thanks, Hilary!

I’d love to hear your own first sentences, or those in books you love. Send them to me at info [at] awritersroadmap [dot] com, and if possible, include your answers to the abc questions above.


An Editor’s #1 Writing Tip

As a book editor, I often see writers use too many words–more words than are needed to create the moment or make the point.

Every piece of writing needs white space. This gives the reader a chance to pause and let the ideas resonate.

Wordiness can consist of:

Repeating. Saying the same thing in two different ways. Saying something one way, then saying it a different way. Expressing the same idea more than once. Saying the same old thing over and over. Being repetitious.

There are…that. Often you can lose those flabby words. “There are three components that this system relies on.” Better as: “This system relies on three components.”

Overexplaining. Not stopping at the end of a sentence, but going on with more words. I could have made that, “Not stopping at the end of a sentence.”

Editorializing. Commenting on the action (in fiction) right before or right after it happens. You don’t need showing plus telling–just one or the other. Example: “In the chaos of that day’s scene, they did not notice her secrete the tiny metal blade from the surgical table. Ironically, her luck had not run out.” The last sentence is editorializing. Let the reader have those thoughts.

Stage direction. Overexplaining unimportant actions. “She walked across the room and reached out her left hand to turn on the light.” Better as: “She turned on the overhead light.”

What is wrong with extra words?

#1 If you qualify and overexplain even small moments, the reader does not feel trusted.

#2 Wordiness is tiring to read. Over the course of a book the words slow the reader’s pursuit of the story or information and make them NOT want to turn the page.

Trust the reader. Always assume the reader is at least as intelligent as you are. Then your book can speak to the people it’s meant to reach.

Raising Questions

Want a good way to start your book?

Sometimes, seeing a book’s opening unfiltered through the act of choosing it (reading the blurb, seeing the cover and the author’s name) reveals its essence more directly.

The following quotes are openings from four books. Two are novels, two are nonfiction.

As a fun exercise, see if you can identify a) which of the four following quotes are from fiction, and which are nonfiction, b) how they make you feel, and c) whether you’d want to read on.

#1: The greatest hunger in life is not for food, money, success, status, security, sex, or even love from the opposite sex.

#2: The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.

#3: The French painter and writer Paul Gaugin–by most accounts mad, bad, and dangerous to know–suffered acutely from cosmological vertigo induced by the work of Darwin and other Victoria scientists.

#4: I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of having to be removed by an ambulance in the Night.

How did you do?

I’ll post the sources next week, or if you’d like to know sooner just drop me a line: info[a]awritersroadmap[dot]com
or, sign up for my newsletter and you’ll get the answer in your mailbox next week.


8 Billion Shades of Gray

The Power of Voice

If you’ve ever submitted anything for publishing, you already know that a ‘meh’ piece of work is unlikely to get into print. Literary mags get far more submissions than they can fit into a few issues a year. Agents and publishers get far more manuscripts than they can read in ten lifetimes.

The biggest single antidote to a meh reading experience is creating a compelling voice—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.

Back in 2016 or so I sent the third draft of a complete novel to my agent. I thought I’d told a pretty good story. Then we talked about it, and she said it was, you know, okay. She liked the characters. But she didn’t love the manuscript enough to be able to sell it. It lacked oomph.

I knew immediately what she meant, and she was right. I hadn’t dug deep enough into the POV character’s psyche. I was holding back. This made for a boring reading experience. The novel’s voice was not compelling enough to carry the reader through the story, and the story wasn’t compelling enough to make up for a pedestrian voice.

So What About the 8 Billion Shades?

The other  morning I got dressed in gray pants, a gray tank top, a gray button-down shirt, and gray socks. I was halfway to work when I looked down and realized that none of the grays matched. They weren’t even close. One had more blue, one had a pink cast, and one was greenish-gray. Considering they were all the “same” color, they couldn’t have been more different.

This is true also of the nearly 8 billion humans on planet earth: There are no identical views on life. There isn’t even a broad consensus on what constitutes reality. If you could somehow transport into another person’s head, let’s say someone in the same socioeconomic group, in the same town, with the same job as you–heck, let’s imagine they share your partner and kids!–you cannot really know their experience.

That’s because everyone has their own way of experiencing the world. Anyone who believes other people think exactly the same way they do is doing what the psychologists call “projecting.”

If we could really get inside each other’s heads, we would understand that each person’s way of perceiving and deciding is a completely individual experience.

It’s the same with voice

You might have five novels with the same characters and plot (what happens, in what order, from whose POV). Or five memoirs, five essays, five transformational self-help books on the same topic.

Even if the writers have the same skill level and information and approach to the book’s elements, each book will be different because the writer’s voice is different.

Those books that are the most fun to read are those where the writer has no interest in sounding like everyone else. Where the voice is unmistakably theirs alone.

Voice is amorphous and deep and kind of fragile at the same time. Some readers might love a particular novel’s voice while others find it galling. It’s not just flashy tales with a crazy narrator that have voice, but everything you read.

We can all hope that one day we’re writing and the “voice” of the piece will seize us, so we can spew out a terrific draft with complete confidence and verve, as if receiving divine dictation, knowing exactly  how to get it on the page and transport the reader fully into the experience we want them to have.

A Shining Example

Last year I read a novel about an abandoned and abused nine-year-old boy desperate for human connection, who lived in a broken-down bus on the edge of a farm inhabited by a family of psychopaths. His only help came from another child from that same family, and she was afraid to help him. Then winter hit. Then the boy stumbled across a deformed baby sasquatch whose mother had died. Then the sasquatch’s father came back to the territory and took an interest in his son. Then…well, I won’t spoil it for you.

The horror of this child’s ordeal made for an intense reading experience. The writer sometimes showed the boy in scene, in action, with no interior monologue, and at other points let the reader deep into the boy’s thoughts; sometimes he closed up psychic distance to give minute observations from the boy’s perspective and at other times moved out into a much larger perspective.

He showed time passing both in increments and in great leaps, always returning to the boy’s present-day reality of the story.

He interwove “oral histories” from other perspectives to tell the psychopathic family’s story.

Finally, he told some events from an antagonist’s POV, building suspense as the perspectives and the timelines converged toward the climax.

WHAT A BOOK!

And what made it possible for me to read this harrowing story was the writer’s skill in using every one of the elements named below.

Tips to combat ‘meh’

Here are some of the things you can think about when you’re staring at a ‘meh’ draft of your own work and wondering what to do.

Look at point of view

See where you can give it some wiggle room. Even in a novel or memoir that’s mostly first person, you can experiment with omniscience (at chapter openings, for example). This can help create meaning.

In fact, in a story with harrowing or violent incidents, zooming out in space and time might be essential to helping the reader stay with it long enough to get to the end and have the experience you want them to have.

Look at psychic distance

Psychic distance is about whether we are deep inside the people in the story’s (or memoir’s, or essay’s) heads and privy to their thoughts, at arm’s length, a block away, or seeing them only by what they do and say, with no access to their thoughts at all.

Any one piece of fiction or narrative nonfiction can roam the territory between close and far psychic distance. Knowing when to move in and out is part of creating the story’s voice. If you want to let the reader deep inside the person’s experience in a particular moment, limit the details to only what that person would see or notice.

And if you want the reader to pay more attention to the facts than the emotions of an event, you can enlarge out of the person’s immediate experience into a more distant set of observations or facts. Even when you are not relaying interior monologue, the reader can know how the people in the piece feel through what they do, what they say, and how others react to them.

We can also know them through the language of the story. We might not get a character’s thoughts in (say) a scene set in a hospital, we can know if they hate hospitals through the words the writer chooses to describe the setting.

Vary narrative modes

Look at the narrative modes you’re using to relay events (scene, scene fragment, exposition, narrative summary etc.). Exposition and narrative summary can telescope time and bridge scenes, create cause and effect, or give the reader essential information about the piece’s world.

If you have “scene, scene, scene,” with the people in the piece locked into the present-time experience and no pauses for reflection, no chance for the character (or reader) to absorb the meaning of what happened in the scene or consider what that meaning implies for their next move, or to zoom out to the larger picture, the reader can feel like they’re in lockstep, in a claustrophobic experience that doesn’t let up.

Look at tense and time.

Writing in present tense is a completely different reading experience than the same story in past tense. “I pick up the saw and move to the autopsy table” feels different than “I picked up the saw and moved to the autopsy table.”

Get the truth on the page, no matter how weird

Positive or negative, smart or dumb—let the reader in on everything you know.

I try to remind myself every time I sit down in front of my computer that deciding to  become a writer means giving up the rights to any kind of withholding; a good story—a true story—doesn’t have anything to hide.

Aria Beth Sloss
Writers Ask, Issue No. 64, Summer 2014

How to Change Your Novel’s POV

In my editorial experience, fiction writers go through more trouble nailing point of view (POV) for a piece of writing than almost any other topic I’ve come across. The only real test of POV is whether it works. By “works,” I mean whether it is basically invisible to the reader and gives them the experience …

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World Building in Historical Fiction

If you write historical fiction, taking apart the novel of a master of the form can be illuminating. For example, how does Peter Carey convey historical information in his novel, Parrot and Olivier in America. (The novel is reviewed by Thomas Mallon in the NY Times here, and by Ursula K LeGuin in the Guardian …

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Recommended Craft Books

Sometimes you come across a book about writing that contains exactly what you need, exactly when you need it. Here is a closer look at five excellent books that will deepen your understanding of the craft of fiction. From quick reads (the Hugo book) to weighty tomes (The Rhetoric of Fiction), they are worth dipping …

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