by wjw on September 22, 2006

There is nothing quite like the experience of sitting at a round table of your peers and being told that the last four chapters of your novel don’t work.

Enduring an air strike by B-52s might give something of the flavor, but may be not.

In a recent post (“Creamy,” August 17), I discoursed on the art of the infodump, and the various narrative strategies I was employing both to convey information to the reader and to maintain the third person objective viewpoint that I had adopted (for good reason) in the early chapters. I thought I was doing pretty well with this.

And then— fwoom!— ARC LIGHT!

I participate in a monthly critique session with other writers. Really good writers like Sage Walker, Daniel Abraham, Sally Gwylan, Melinda Snodgrass, Terry England, and Steve Stirling. And when the entire group tells you that you’ve failed, you can pretty well believe what they tell you.

“I have no idea what’s going on.” Well, that one’s easy to fix. I’m forever telling other writers that “there’s nothing wrong with this piece that a few simple, declarative English sentences wouldn’t fix,” and I think I know how to write sentences like that. So: more, briefer, exposition. Less subtlety. Put up a big fucking sign to let even the bad readers know what the book is about. Check.

The larger problem, though, is the third person objective viewpoint. For the first three chapters I had good reason for not letting the reader know what was going on in the reader’s head. That reason ends in the fourth chapter, when actual exposition starts.

So I’m going to make it easy on everybody. I’m going to go back several chapters and begin to insert the protagonist’s thoughts, emotions, and sensations. This will have the fringe benefit of shortening the expository dialogues I’d written to explain what the poor guy was thinking. If I do it with sufficient subtlety, readers won’t notice that the point of view has shifted.

I just hope that the changes aren’t so comprehensive that I’ll actually have to rewrite the chapters in question, from first word to last full stop. But I will if I have to.

This isn’t one of those blogs where every post comes with a cute cartoon and a description of the writer’s mood. But if I had to describe the mood, it would be “squirmy.”

Coherent September 23, 2006 at 12:05 am

Take heart. Some writers have extremely inaccessible styles but go on to have extremely famous and well-received books. William Gibson drove me cross-eyed for weeks before I finally bought into his style and finished the book.

Sometimes it just means the reader will have to re-read it a few times to really figure it out. There’s nothing wrong with that. As long as it grabs the reader enough to make him want to do it. It has to be “hooky” all the way through.

Sage September 24, 2006 at 2:51 am

I have no doubt whatever that you’ll fix what needs fixing and do it in amusing and innovative ways.

And thank you for the recent mentions here. Heaven knows I’ve been more successful at finishing eggs in cream than finishing stories. I’ll try to think of stories as eggs, and break more of them more often.

S.M. Stirling September 24, 2006 at 9:01 am

Whip and beat them, Sage… 8-).

dubjay September 26, 2006 at 9:14 pm

Coherent, it wasn’t the style, it was just that I wasn’t transmitting the information in the right way.

Also, one of chief talents is getting into the heads of my characters and letting the readers understand and sympathize with them. Writing in the third person objective meant I couldn’t do that. It was sort of like going into a boxing ring with my best hand tied behind me.

So I’ve decided to untie myself. And I’m quite relieved that I’ve done it.

Coherent September 26, 2006 at 11:25 pm

Not only getting into the heads of the characters, but as readers, we like what we find in there. Your protagonists tend to be motivated by “The Right Stuff”, whatever that is. They generally want the world to be a better place, and they’re willing to put themselves on the line to make it that way.

Your protagonists recognise how tiny and ephemeral our lives are, and how being the fulcrum on which the future rests is a privilege, an honor of sorts, and the person who has that awesome responsibility in their hands and doesn’t fuck it up… they are worthy of all glory. They justify their existence in a grand manner. I never begrudge them the wealth or power that they accumulate as a consequence, they earned it.

That’s what _I_ like about your protagonists at least, and your books by extension.

S.M. Stirling September 27, 2006 at 3:54 am

I’ve really never been tempted away from modified third-person omniscient past tense.

It’s the most flexible style, rivaled (but not seriously) only by first-person-past-tense.

Everything else is like wearing blinkers and leg-irons, IMHO.

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