Thursday, May 31, 2018

Who dis?

QUESTION: Point of view is pesky. What's the hardest aspect of POV you deal with in your storytelling with one or more POV? By Catriona

Forgive the indulgence. They made this
for me at Malice, when I was toast-mastering.
When am I going to get to use it? It's like a tiara.

Truth is I'm going to have to stretch a point to answer this week's question, because I've never used more than one point of view in a single story. Not really. I've had one character briefly paraphrase another's words, in effect adopting their voice for a bit, but that's about it.

I've tried. When I was beginning to write The Child Garden, the plan was to have two POV characters - Gloria and Stig - and write chapter about in close third person. I still think that would have been interesting. But I'm quite an organic writer (like a steaming compost heap is organic) and I was a quarter of the way in before I realised it was all Gloria's point of view and she was talking. I loved her voice though, which was a consolation. I call it "first person unaware". In other words she speaks completely openly and reveals much more than she knows. 

It's like the opposite of that cheaty veil-drawing that lets some crimewriters hide their plotting. You know: "I read the letter through to the end, sumarised it for my trusty sidekick and then burned it on the fire, before going out onto the moor to do what it had commanded." Blech.

I don't notice POV unless its badly done, usually. I've got a close friend*- a fellow writer; you know who you are - who can't read 1st person when she's writing. I've lost count of the number of times I've recommended a book, then she asks about POV and I think hard and say "no clue". And I just checked my standalones because, apart from Gloria in The Child Garden, I wasn't sure how many were 1st and how many 3rd. (Two are 3rd. Four are 1st. Of the WIPs . . . I dunno. I'd have to check. (I hope someone reassures me in the comments that this is normal.))

*I've got another close friend - a fellow writer; you know who you are - whose most frequent negative comment on novels is "All the head-hopping!", delivered with hand gestures, golfball eyes and much despair. 

A few fancy-schmancy POV choices I've thought were particularly well done were: Hilary Mantel's very, very, very close 3rd in Wolf Hall. Go, Thomas!; Lionel Shriver's kinda nearly second in the epistolary (and outstanding imho) We Need To Talk About Kevin; and Irvine Welsh's complete control over the three ring circus that was Trainspotting.

I'm such a POV wimp. The most ambitious thing I've ever done is write a one page prologue (settle down, Elmore) that was "close no person". I wanted to hide who it was that was experiencing the action and who it was driving it. I ended up with:

"The walls, rough-formed from great black lumps of stone, ran dank and wet like the flanks of a sweating beast. Single drips and rivulets coursed the length of the stairway, three full storeys and more, sliming the steps and fouling the air.
Footsteps skittered down a half-flight’s turn, then slipped and stumbled the next half  to a respite at the dark landing. Terrified breaths filled the close damp, breaking into whimpers and sinking into groans.
When at last those ragged breaths were caught, into the silence came a second set of footsteps, the steadier tread of a pursuer advancing, no halting, no hurry.
‘I’m sorry. But I have to.’ The voice wavered, as though from a recent shock, still reverberating.
The voice that came in answer was flat and dead. ‘No. I am sorry. But I cannot allow it.’
There was a scuffle, quick and grim, then a rush of unruly noise filled the tower: gasps and shrieks; scrapes and thuds. Last, a resonant crack! like a coconut, heavy with milk, raised and smashed. Then nothing."

And I couldn't have kept it up much longer without screaming. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Through a glass...darkly by Cathy Ace

QUESTION: Point of view is pesky. What's the hardest aspect of POV you deal with in your storytelling with one or more POV?

RESPONSE: This is a juicy one! For my Cait Morgan Mysteries I used the personal point of view, which felt natural for me. Cait was very much like me, and I enjoyed writing in her/my voice for this series.

If Catherine Zeta Jones would only gain about 80 lbs, she'd be the perfect Cait Morgan!

However, I knew I’d change it up for my WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries, because I had six distinct characters, and I wanted each of them to have their own voice, and viewpoint (this grew to seven in books #3 and #4). And that’s where the challenges began – with a group of Brits, all from different parts of the UK, and different strata of society, I knew it was more than “voice” I had to create…I had to create “voice” whilst using the correct cadence and vocabulary for each character, given their background.

This isn’t something new for any writer – we all have to do this when we write dialogue for any character, but differing POVs mean taking this process to an entirely different level, because the writer wants the reader to experience the world through the lens only THAT character has. I needed to attune myself to not just how a character spoke, but how their world-view worked, which is something I believe is critical for differing POVs to work.

Henry Devereaux Twyst (in his 50s) is the eighteenth Duke of Chellingworth: born and raised in Wales, he attended English Prep and Boarding schools, and – although not academically bright – would have acquired the vocabulary and world-view appropriate for his station, and upbringing.

Carol Hill (in her 30s) was raised speaking only Welsh on a sheep farm in south-west Wales, then learned English and powered her way to a Big Job as a computer systems manager for a massive reinsurance company based in the City of London. She's naturally "mumsy" and quite shy, preferring to work with code than people. 
Joanna Page would make a super Carol Hill

 Christine Wilson-Smythe (in her 20s) is the daughter of an impoverished Irish viscount, so has a northern Irish brogue, flattened by years in English private schools, and mixes with the aristocracy. She’s intensely bright and well-read, and her love-interest is a man from south London who’s had elocution lessons to get rid of his accent, but lived a dark and desperate youth.

Bono's daughter, Eve Hewson, for Christine Wilson-Smythe, please

Mavis MacDonald (in her 60s) is from south west Scotland, but has spent years traveling the world as an army nurse, finally taking command as a matron of an old-soldiers' barracks in London. She’s lived a life of service, first to her now-dead medically retired soldier husband, then to her two sons, then as a nurse, where she took no nonsense. 

Stella Gonet would have to look a little more plain to play Mavis MacDonald

Annie Parker (in her 50s) was born and raised within the sound of Bow Bells, so is a true London Cockney, but her parents migrated from St. Lucia, so she has access to that accent too. She’s worked her entire life in the City of London, surrounded by “bimbos, misogynists and racists”, and her attitude toward the world has been shaped by this.

Noma Dumezwemi's acting ability would allow her to do a great Cockney accent, and the physical comedy needed to portray Annie Parker

Althea Twyst is the octogenarian Dowager Duchess of Chellingworth, Henry’s mother. Born and raised near London, she was a dancer on stage when she met Henry’s widowed father, the seventeenth duke, and has had to learn how one speaks when mixing with aristocracy. She’s also taken the time to learn to speak Welsh, but rarely uses it. She often lapses back to her original world-view and vocabulary, and is comfortable when she’s with any type of person, largely treating them all the same as each other. 

Pauline Collins' dimples would suit Althea Twyst's mischievous character to a tee!

For each character’s POV I had to "think myself into them” before writing a chapter from their POV…I had to get under their skin. This can be extremely useful for a mystery writer, because – often – the same events will be perceived differently by a different character, and the reader can enjoy different levels of insight and understanding all at the same time.

Writing multiple POVs is a real challenge, but it’s one I enjoy enormously. 

 Cathy Ace writes the Cait Morgan Mysteries and the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries. Find out more about Cathy and her work here:

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

POV Thoughts - RM Greenaway

What's the hardest aspect of POV you deal with in your storytelling with one or more POV?
One aspect is how many is too many? This year I got the substantive edits back on my fourth novel, and the note said, "Not a lot of quibbles, but too many POVs." What?? I rebelled. I had written them in thinking some new viewpoints would make the story more interesting, and writing them out again would be a lot of work. So I sulked, and compromised, cutting out only two. But as my revision deadline loomed, in a moment of epiphany I realized my editor was right about cutting the biggest, most wonderful but as it turned out unnecessary POV. (He felt it slowed down the action). I went ahead and eliminated Craig's POV, and it was a very big deal, and required a lot of rewriting - but in the end the story ran so much better.

I'm grateful that I have an editor who sees stuff I don't, and cares. I have learned not to call him rude names, at least to his face, until I've mulled the advice over for a few days.

Another POV issue is voice, and Susan's post yesterday about close and distant third person has clarified this for me. I once received a suggestion regarding the word "rucked," a word I happen to like. It came up not in dialogue but in describing the setting, when a tarp was, well, rucking in the wind. The critiquer felt it wasn't the language of the 29-year-old male whose POV I was in. I now realize that although it was proper third person, it was distant third. To get closer, even when not speaking directly from his mouth, the tarp shouldn't ruck, but flap noisily. Would he call the sky above him cerulean? No. This particular 29-year-old male would call it blue. So much for poetry.

A third POV issue is how much you're obliged to give away. Since you're in a character's head, looking out, it's not fair to keep secrets from the reader. So if that character has committed a crime or discovers a piece of evidence, it must be disclosed (unless it's the unreliable narrator device). That can be a logistical problem, since keeping the truth from the reader till the time is right is the point of a mystery. So it's got to be worked around in a clever way. But that just adds challenge, and we crime writers love challenge.

I've heard that writing a character study in first person, then rewriting in third, can be a good exercise. I don't do it with my novels -- too much work, and we crime writers don't like work -- but by chance I did it with a recent short story. After it was done I decided I preferred third, so went back and rewrote. It was an interesting process, and I think I got closer to Heather in doing so, which made for a better story in the end (to be published in an upcoming anthology "The Dame Was Trouble"). So that's something to try out if you have oodles of time, which I don't.

I do like bopping between POV, and for that reason I will stick with third person. And now that I know it exists, I'll make better use of close and distant third, and maybe some shades in between.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Who's Talking?

Q: What’s the hardest thing you deal with in your books related to storytelling with one or more points of view?

- from Susan

When I started the first book in my first series, it was third person point of view: “she said,” “she thought;” but I felt I was too far away from Dani O’Rourke to get inside her head and to know her as a person. So, I began again in the first person – I told the story from her perspective. It gave me a lot more room for expressing her emotions, but it meant I could only share what she knew either from direct witness or from conversations she was part of. It required a bit of plot juggling, but I got the hang of it.

Three books later, I began a different series and decided I had to be more agile and creative in using the third person because I wanted to tell those stories from multiple direct perspectives – an American expat’s view of her adopted town in France, and someone who had lived there all her life. They were bound to see and understand the dynamics differently. I used what we call “close third person” for both characters, and tried to keep them engaged with other people and each other. I think it worked pretty well. In the second book, the recently released DRESSED FOR DEATH IN BURGUNDY, there are two POVs again, but the second one is a different person because she is central to this specific story.

Recently, I read a multiple award-winning novel that might be termed a family saga. The story is told in close third from a handful of points of view, sometimes in close narrative proximity. I had no problem with the switching voices, probably because she’s a good writer, but was surprised when I re-read the book to see how she pulled it off.  She sometimes threw in a change of POV right in the middle of a paragraph! That’s a no-no in the writing classes and advice books but I think the story just propelled readers right past it.

I’m now experimenting, hoping I can take some liberties with the ‘rules’ on a stand-alone novel, suspecting that if my editors balk it will be because I haven’t done a good enough job of making these switches seem natural. Rules are fine and to be respected, but I get twitchy when they become brakes rather than guidelines. 

 A bit of promotion: All five of my mysteries are in print and available in print and ebook. The Dani O'Rourke Mysteries are: Murder in the Abstract, The King's Jar, and Mixed Up with Murder. The first French village mystery is Love & Death in Burgundy. Several of my books are also available as audio books if you like to 'read' that way!

Thursday, May 24, 2018

A Damp, Drizzly November in my Soul

What book published before 1900 left an indelible impression on you? 

From Jim

Moby Dick (Herman Melville, 1850) is not an easy novel to read. Or, rather, parts of it are difficult. The encyclopedic chapters that tell us more than we’d ever want to know about 19th century whaling, ships, navigation, rigging, monkey ropes, and try-works have perplexed, challenged, and bored countless students for generations. Ever wonder what the rendering of whale blubber smells like?

“(The try-works’ smoke) has an unspeakable, wild, Hindoo odor about it, such as may lurk in the vicinity of funereal pyres. It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit.”

In addition to the stench of melting fat, Melville treats us to exhaustive detail on whales themselves, their heads, teeth, and skeletons, even their dying habits. Talk about loading up on exposition and background... It seems the author, like many of us, was tempted to include every bit of his research come hell or high water—and did! Something approaching half the book has nothing to do with Ahab’s obsessive chase of the great white whale, but is scientific or technical in nature.

Call me Ishmael

Yet I love this book. I love it for its first-person narrator. (I’ve never understood how some obdurate readers can refuse to read anything written in the first person.) Ishmael is, in fact, one of the most famous narrators in all literature. He is the witness. The sole survivor of the Pequod’s fateful voyage. Oh, come on! The book was published 168 years ago. That’s not a spoiler! His opening paragraph is at the same time poetic, literary, and downright modern. Who among us hasn’t felt some kind of wanderlust when we feel a damp, drizzly November in (our) soul? Or when we are tempted to descend into the street and methodically knock people’s hats off? Ishmael takes us from boarding houses in New Bedford, Massachusetts, past maelstroms and through typhoons, all the way around the world. And through his lens we learn what percentage a crewman might make on a three-year voyage in search of precious whale oil. And what might happen to maniacal zealots who obsess over unholy leviathans. Kind of reminds me of a certain foaming-at-the-mouth maniac in the White House and his fixation with his immediate predecessor...

Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

I get giddy over the allegory and religious imagery in Moby Dick. And the language. It’s antiquated, tragic, and epic. At times it calls to mind the Old Testament. 

“Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” 

The realization of the Parsee’s prophesy of Ahab’s death “by hemp” is mythical and magical in its accuracy and inevitability.

“The harpoon was darted; the stricken whale flew forward; with igniting velocity the line ran through the groove;—ran foul. Ahab stooped to clear it; he did clear it; but the flying turn caught him round the neck, and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone.” 

After hundreds of pages, Ahab’s death happens in an instant and, though foretold, manages to take us by surprise. And despite popular opinion, Ahab does not end up lashed to the whale. (Except in the movie with Gregory Peck.) It’s the Parsee who suffers that fate. 

The Parsee lashed to whale
Suddenly, it’s the epilogue. The rescue of Ishmael, floating atop a casket sent rocketing from the depths of the vortex caused by the sinking Pequod, hints at a divine mercy. Not even the “gliding sharks” or sea-hawks dare harm him, but witness his deliverance instead.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Turning the pages and raising the bar

What book published before 1900 left an indelible impression on you? What book published after 2000?

by Dietrich Kalteis

Some of the classics really came to life and left an impression when I was younger, and I remember certain scenes like I just read them. I’ve reread some of these books over the years, and most have stood the test of time and were as enjoyable the second time around. 

I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein when I was in my teens and loved this book. It was originally published anonymously in 1818 when she was just twenty. Her name finally appeared on the second edition, published in France in 1823. Maybe some of the story’s deeper meaning was lost on me back then, but it was still a great story.

More on the dark side, I loved the stories by Edgar Allan Poe, like The Murders in the Rue Morgue, first published in 1841. Poe was the first well-known American to try to make a living as a writer, and doing it at a time before international copyright laws. Dracula by Bram Stoker was another horror tale I enjoyed, originally published in 1897.

Then there were the classics that didn’t make me check under the bed. I loved Mark Twain’s tales of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and life on the Mississippi — still do. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884, is still considered by many as the great American novel. Hemingway wrote, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”

And I loved adventure tales like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, the second in the Leatherstocking Series, published in 1826. And there was Herman Melville’s Moby Dick from 1851. I still have that image in my head of Ishmael waiting on rescue, floating on a chunk of the ship as he watches the smashed Pequod go down. There were other great seafaring tales from the late 1800s: Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling, and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. And from under the waves: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, released in 1870.

Other classics that left a lasting impression were The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol, The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells, Ivanhoe by Walter Scott, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas and King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. All of them are unfading, and all were written before 1900.

There are many unforgettable books published since the millennium. I recently  read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, what a terrific book. And a couple from Cormac McCarthy come to mind. The Road is dark, real dark, but it’s also well done and it moves, no wasted words. And No Country for Old Men is nothing short of a modern-day masterpiece. And Elmore Leonard turned out some of his best work, like Pagan Babies, Tishomingo Blues, and Mr. Paradise, writing right up until his death in 2013. And Don Winslow keeps getting better, turning out powerful novels like The Winter of Frankie Machine, Savages and The Force

I’m always awaiting the latest from authors like Carl Hiaasen, Dennis Lehane, James Ellroy, and George Pelacanos. Outside the genre, I loved Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, having been a big fan of her music since her album Horses back in the seventies. And there was something special, both fierce and funny, in the writing style of Hunter S. Thompson. And I loved Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. And there were J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories. And one that I’ve just started, but one that shows great promise from its opening pages, is Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.

For me, reading is just the best form of entertainment, and a great book, no matter when it was written, is always sure to inspire and leave an indelible impression.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Opening lines - a quiz

By R.J. Harlick

I'm afraid I got caught up in Victoria Day family gatherings and found myself out of time to do my blog, so I am treating you to one I posted a few years ago.

"Some authors think that the opening line of a book is what grabs a reader. Do you agree with this? What are some of your favorite opening lines?”

She inched closer to the edge of the cliff, unsure of what she would find. Fearing the worst, she peered over the ledge at the rocks below…and presto she had her opening line. 

Or if you prefer

She rocked back and forth on her chair, scratching her head, trying to come up with an opening line for the bloody book.

Opening lines don’t come easily, but I find, they are key for getting me into the story I am about to write.  Rarely am I satisfied with my first attempts. I will often keep massaging those first words until the final edits. Sometimes I even adjust them slightly when reading from the published book.

And yes, I believe that not only the opening lines, but the opening paragraphs, the opening scene, the opening chapter are key in capturing a reader’s interest.  It is particularly critical for an the aspiring writer, who must grab a prospective editor or agent’s attention in those first paragraphs otherwise the manuscript will be chucked into the garbage.

If you have ever attended a Hammett Awards ceremony you would have had an opportunity to experience first hand the importance of good openings. Excerpts from each of the five nominated books are read out. They tend to be short, only a couple of paragraphs from the opening chapter. I have yet to listen to one of these readings that didn’t capture my attention from the get go. There was a very good reason these books were Hammett finalists.

But as critical as the start is, a writer has to ensure that the rest of the book lives up to the promise of those opening words.

I thought I would let you test your knowledge of crime fiction. I’ve selected opening lines from ten books and provided a list of twelve well known writers, some living, some not.  I want you to match the opening line with the author and guess the title of the book. I’ll give you a hint. Most books are the first published by the author. I’ll post the answers at 9:00 EST tonight. So you have all day to test your wits.

1.     “It was a solecism of the very worst kind.  He sneezed loudly, wetly and quite unforgivably into the woman’s face.”

2.     “Mrs. Ferrars died on the night of the 16th-17thSeptember, a Thursday. I was sent for at eight o’clock on the morning of Friday the 17th. There was nothing to be done. She had been dead some hours.”

3.     “The girl screamed once, only the once. 
Even that, however, was a minor slip on his part.”

4.     “The boy couldn’t see in the dark, but he didn’t need to. Experience and long practice told him it was good.”

5.     “The night air was thick and damp.  As I drove south along Lake Michigan, I could smell rotting alewives like a faint perfume on the heavy air.”

6.     “In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.”

7.     “Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday. It was pretty much a surprise all round.”

8.     “The woman stepped into the circle of light and began to undress.”

9.     “”Bob Barnes says they got a dead body out on BLM land. He’s on line one.”
She might have knocked, but I didn’t hear it because I was watching the geese.”

10.  “It happened every year, was almost a ritual. And this was his eighty-second birthday.”

The authors

1.     Gail Bowen
2.     Agatha Christie
3.     Michael Connelly
4.     Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
5.     Elizabeth George
6.     P.D. James
7.     Craig Johnson
8.     Stieg Larssen
9.     Sara Paretsky
10.  Louise Penny
11.  Ian Rankin

12.  Peter Robinson