Dealing with ‘Point of View’

In 2008 I went on a course entitled ‘How to Write a Novel’. Over a week, with expert tuition, we learned about structure, character, dialogue, all good stuff. I was hooked, with all the confidence of the novice. I wanted my tale to be multi-facetted, like a precious stone, glittering with fascinating minor characters, each of whom would see the action from their own unique perspective, adding richness and texture, etc etc. You get the picture. Ludicrous ambition.

There was another admired model of story-telling in my head, from the unlikely source of the US police drama ‘Law and Order’. Not the recent offshoots, but the old original series, with low-slung angular cars and police using public phones, and then mobile phones the size of bricks. In those early days, every episode of Law and Order followed the same formula beginning with the discovery of the crime, and usually a body, by minor characters who held our attention for only a few moments before their function is fulfilled and they disappear. These bit-part players provide a momentary, quirky (what a great word!) ‘point of view’, quickly overshadowed by the familiar detectives who arrive on the scene and take over.

When I began the tortuous journey towards my first novel I didn’t even think about whose ‘point of view’ I was writing from. I would relate the action from one character’s perspective, and then switch to another perspective within the same paragraph without any awareness that I was doing so. The idea and effect of ‘point of view’ was unknown to me. I wonder now whether it was mentioned on that first course and I missed it, or was it never raised at all?

The first draft of my novel was sent off for critical review after two years of painful effort, and six weeks later, just before Christmas, the response came back. ‘What happened to ‘point of view’?’ said the reviewer. ‘The reader sees the action from several different viewpoints within the same chapter, and some of those viewpoints are minor characters we know very little about. This is asking too much, the reader will be confused. You need to reduce the number of characters through whose eyes the story is told: two or three main characters at most. Make a choice.’

The advice was sound, but devastating. I couldn’t tweak a few things to fix the problem: the whole novel had to be started again. For a while I couldn’t face it, letting the distractions of Christmas and New Year push the troublesome task to the margins of my life. But in the end I knew that I had already invested too much in this project to let it go. I went back to the beginning and rewrote almost everything, cutting out some characters completely, changing the perspective, and reducing the overall length. It was my first painful experience of a task I heard described much later as ‘murdering your darlings’. My darlings were well and truly decimated, but the lesson was learned.

That’s enough confessional for now. I’m coming back again to the issue of ‘point of view’, but just for now Chapter 19 of Book 3 is calling me and cannot be delayed any longer. It’s ready. And I know whose point of view it will be from.

How long is a piece of string…or a novel?

There was an interesting piece from Cath Staincliffe recently on the usefulness, or not, of word counting. I hadn’t realised that some writers do this constantly, to regulate their writing, or to reward or chastise themselves for their workrate. Cath’s view was that it was a fruitless and potentially damaging exercise, and I’ve been thinking about it.

I don’t think a poet would judge the quality of her work by the number of words, as one of the goals is to distill rather than to expand, in pursuit of the essence of meaning. Similarly, the best editing for me is when I cut rather than add: unnecessary adverbs, cliched adjectives, they all have to go, ‘decluttering’ the text. In my first novel ‘A Good Liar’, started to celebrate my 60th birthday, my fear was that I would not have enough to say and I wrote initially far than necessary, leaving myself with a massive ‘slaughter of the darlings’ in the final edit. It was a better book for the cuts, but how much better it would have been if I’d been more sparing, more discriminating, from the very start. That first book was written ‘from the outside in’ from a rambling ill-considered structure through cuts and re-writes to the final product. The process was difficult and frustrating and I vowed I would never try it again.

Book 2 ‘Forgiven’ was approached with a much firmer structure, holding back on the first draft until I was clear what I was doing. Much more satisfying, in terms of both process and product. Book 3 ‘Fallout’ is underway: no prizes for guessing how I am setting about it. I’ve learned that going from the inside out, from the core to a gradual expansion of the draft, works for me, and word count doesn’t really matter at all.

Which raises the next question: how long should a novel be? My first writing course, succinctly entitled ‘How to write a novel’, suggested 80,000 – 90,000 words, which has felt about right in my two efforts so far. But Julian Barnes has won prizes with far fewer than that, and I’m just embarking on 800 pages of ‘The Luminaries’ with no thought that this will be ‘too long’. In fact the first few pages promise so much that I’ll spread out my reading as slowly as the library will permit.

No easy answers to the word count issue. As with most things, the best – if banal – advice is to do what suits you, and aim for quality rather than quantity.


Weaving fiction into fact

I think about this too much, and have a feeling that there’s an obvious answer to my question that I just can’t see, through lack of experience or muddy thinking. Here’s the question, as simply stated as I can make it:

The setting for a crucial part of my story is a well-documented event. I know the timings, and the names of the people involved. The event was local and sixty years ago, and it’s therefore quite likely that local readers will know those who were involved, and could even be those very people. My fictional person, a key character in the story, is being woven into this event. Do I use the real names of the other people involved, or invent fictional names for them?

I know: it sounds so petty. Who cares? But I still can’t decide. If I use the real names I feel I should also use their real appearance, their real speech, and so on. If I use fictional names I have more latitude, and am less likely to misrepresent the person or offend those who knew him – all the people involved were male. For those reasons I’m tending towards the fictional names.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the dilemmas of writing recent historical fiction and making it sound authentic, especially in a region like this where society is relatively stable and people have really long memories. Does Hilary Mantel worry about this? Is it easier if your real characters lived four hundred years ago?

Answers to my question on a postcard please. Thank you.

Do I really want – or need – an agent?

Some years ago, even before I’d finished my first novel, I began to think about getting it published. All the advice said, you need an agent, and I dutifully bought the Writers’ and Artists Yearbook and trawled through it for those interested in my ‘genre’, although I wasn’t altogether certain (then or now) what my ‘genre’ really is. Is my work ‘commercial fiction, or ‘women’s’ or ‘literary’ or ‘historical’? I picked out a dozen agents – all based in London, I noticed – studied the various labyrinthine submission requirements, followed them scrupulously, and waited. Suffice to say, all that transpired after many weeks was a series of generically worded negative responses. After a while I found this so discouraging, not to mention the waste of time and money, that I carried on writing, finished the first novel, decided it was the first of a trilogy, and started the second. Should I try again to find an agent? I thought not.

Self-publishing to my own high standard was an enjoyable project. The resulting two books, professionally edited and designed, look good and sell well. I’m proud of them both as ‘objects of desire’, moderately pleased with the content of the first, and much more pleased with the content of the second. But the hardest part of self-publishing has been promotion and marketing. I am an outsider in the book business: looking at the potential avenues for getting my books to a wider audience I now realise how many of them are blocked simply because I published myself.

Many of the fiction awards and competitions do not allow self-published books; it’s almost impossible to get a review; booksellers can be sniffy and suspicious; requests to be part of literary festivals are brushed off. Everyone in the publishing and book business seems to assume that self-published books are vanity projects of questionable merit, which should be kept at arm’s length.

So I return to the issue of whether I want, or need, an agent, not to find me a publisher but to help me promote and market the books I publish myself. Published writers I have asked about this can’t help me as they have never had to think about it. There are occasional examples of successful self-published writers who have been approached by agents, but this is to get them a ‘proper’ publishing deal, not to help them move forward without one. Maybe it’s just not possible: I don’t know enough about it, and wish I understood more.

I wonder this would be easier if I lived in London or a major conurbation. In the rural fastness of West Cumbria it’s hard to find a ‘writerly’ community with advice and experience to offer. And so for the time being I shall finish Part 3 of my trilogy, carry on doing what I’ve done so far, and see what happens. Patience, Ruth, patience.

My writing shed

Just after I moved into my house here in the south-west corner of the English Lake District I designed a shed to be built at the end of the garden. It was insulated and double glazed, and therefore useable year-round, not just a summer house. The first roof blew off in a southerly storm, but the company replaced it for me and learned valuable lessons, they said, about how to combat the weather. When it was built I wasn’t a writer. But now I am, and the little ‘shed’ has become my writing place. When I work out how to take a photo, download from the camera and upload into my blog, I’ll post a picture of it.

As I walk the fifty metres from my back door to the shed, something seems to happen in my brain. I switch from a multi-tasking busy person, partner, grand-mother, resident of our tiny street community, into a single focus writer. Currently I’m writing in the 1950s, so that’s where I am. The characters are my friends and family: I know them inside out, their feelings and reactions, on-stage and off-stage. It’s hard to remember that they are fictional fabrications. They live in that shed with me for about six hours a day.

The shed is cut off from contact with the contemporary world. There is no internet or phone access. It faces south, away from the house. The closest neighbours are next-door’s hens and the sheep in the field beyond the hedge. If I need information I add the question to the list of things I need to check when I return to the house and the real world. I have electricity  there for my laptop, a blanket for my knees or shoulders, and a little radiator that I switch on before my breakfast to warm up the space. If it’s sunny the big windows capture light and heat, but I have to adjust the screen to avoid the glare.

In the summer the double doors open onto a small patio, where the hot tub sits. I can’t afford to keep it on all the time, but it provides an occasional idyllic experience, especially on cold clear nights when the steam rises from the water towards the stars overhead.

There’s a big sofa bed in the shed, to sit and read, or even sleep through short summer nights. No people, no distraction. I’m so glad the shed is there. I love it.

Linking to Facebook

I thought I’d set up these posts to link automatically to FB, but I needed to do some more ‘settings’, so let’s see if this works. All the blogs posted since last weekend are on, including all the fumbling first attempts at posting pictures etc which I will delete shortly. Still getting the hang of all this new stuff – new to me at least!

How helpful is a detailed outline?

Late last September I arrived in Winnipeg to begin a month’s work there. I had come direct from two weeks in the warmth and bright light of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Winnipeg was unusually – and disappointingly – wet. I lay in bed listening to CBC Radio 1 – the equivalent of Radio 4 here – and heard an interview with Andrew Pyper from Toronto who was in Winnipeg for a writers’ festival and doing a workshop on novel-writing at the downtown library that morning. It sounded so useful that I pulled on waterproofs, splashed to the bus stop and turned up at the library to pay my $25 and find a good seat. I’d never heard of him, but he’s obviously a well-known Canadian writer and the place was packed. And how useful it was! All the advice and warnings about how to set about writing a novel resonated with my experience, including all the multiple mistakes I’d made first time around

One thing I learned that morning is that I needed to think, think and think again about the focus, the characters, the shape of the plot and write a detailed ‘map’ of your writing journey before starting the first full draft. Part of me had resisted that, too mechanistic, takes too long etc, but when I began the third novel, the work in progress currently, I decided to take this advice and to write the detailed outline patiently before succumbing to the urge to get going on the first draft. As the outline drafts progressed more and more was added, key conversations and events, insights, perhaps the odd phrase. After the 6th draft I thought it was ready and I got started on Chapter 1.

Almost immediately, discontinuities, weak plot points and gaps in the research began to be obvious, so back I went again to the outline, tweaking and adding before going back to the full draft. And so it’s gone on, start with the outline of the chapter, write, tweak the outline, correct some items from earlier chapters, add to the outline further down the track, write again. It’s not an absolute blueprint, but the outline is always there to guide me. I don’t have to carry the map in my head: I have a visible overview of the lie of the land which helps to get me going every morning and keeps me roughly ‘on track’. Different paths and features of the landscape may appear when I get up close, but the big picture is what sustains me through the complexities that almost defeated me on ‘A Good Liar’, Part 1 of the trilogy. Thank you Andrew Pyper. I’m sure your advice has helped to make the first third of ‘Fallout’ (Part 3 of the trilogy) take shape much more smoothly than before.