Sunday, February 25, 2007

point of view thoughts

Point of View is a writing concept in which it can be easy to err. For most of my YA fiction I’ve either used first-person, or third-person limited, and lately, more of the latter. I had come to believe it gave more freedom than first-person, but some critiques of my recent work had me wondering whether I’ve completely understood the third-person POV, or perhaps the boundaries are shifting today.

I think one of the great instructors of creative writing, as well as being a first-rate author, was John Gardner. His book, “The Art of Fiction,” (1984), is an outstanding craft book. In reviewing some of Gardner’s comments on POV, I noticed that long ago I highlighted this passage:

“We may go along for years without ever noticing that the third-person-limited point of view is essentially sappy…the third person limited point of view forces the writer into phony suspense.”

Gardner sets up a story situation in which a man named Alex Strugatsky is taking his Saturday morning ballet class when his mistress, the wife of the local Chief of Police, comes in to stand watching. Alex is distressed—he does not want their affair known, lest the police chief shoot him; but he does not want to be impolite, because his mistress, Genevieve Rochelle, is a beauty. Gardner shows that if we start off this story in the omniscient point of view, as Checkhov would, we can get the important facts in right away and get on to what’s really interesting, such as: What will Alex do? But if the writer starts off in third-person-limited, where, Gardner says, the writer limits himself to the thoughts of the central character, mentioning nothing not directly present in the character’s mind, Alex’s story quickly becomes sappy. The sappiness occurs because the writer has no other way of showing what happens except by somehow putting it into Alex’s head.

However, Gardner’s non-omniscient, third-person POV seems to be broken down into two separate categories by Lynna Williams in her chapter, “And Eyes to See: The Art of Third Person,” in "Creating Fiction," edited by Julie Chekoway. The ‘sappy’ construct of third-person-limited given by Gardner is Williams ‘third-person-unified,’ in which “everything, even the “telling” that goes on in exposition, is filtered through the point-of-view character’s consciousness (see bold passage in Gardner). However, in Williams third-person-limited, the POV character:

“will continue to be our angle of vision on events, and we’ll still have access to her thoughts. But in this use of third person, we’ll also be able to take advantage of objective narration; that is, neutral exposition that is not tied to the character’s consciousness.”

It’s the latter type of third-person limited that I’ve followed, rather than the bold-marked version quoted in Gardner’s discussion. So perhaps I've been correct in my POV treatments. Still, I’m about ready to believe that third-person omniscient may be the more powerful, best, all-around way to go in fiction writing.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

synopses crapometer

Some days there seem to be few words of literary craft or reflection that might merit a blog entry. That may be good—as when all free time is suctioned into the present enterprise of creating a science fiction novel, an unusual genré for this writer, but enjoyable, nonetheless. A second draft is coming along reasonably well, but a few thoughts on one of the hard tasks ahead might be worth musing about now. Synopses of stories are difficult to write, even for mainline fiction stories, but a synopsis for a science fiction story could be especially challenging. Lots of ground has been broken for some plot premises, which sci-fi readers might be expected to be familiar with, but any totally new concepts could be hard to get across in a synopsis. After reading online some synopses examples gathered by a literary agent, Ms. Snark, where writers have submitted them expressly for her Crapometer assessment exercise, a certain amount of trepidation now hangs over the anticipated synopsis writing task. Some of the synopses Ms. Snark received were rated good, but one of the sci-fi ones was so easy to lampoon. Lots have been written in craft books about writing synopses, but this was quite a lesson. Check it out.

Friday, February 16, 2007

inventiveness in writing

I'm currently reading "Just in Case," by Meg Rosoff. She's also the author of "How I Live Now," last years Michael L. Printz" award (for a book that exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature). "How..." was interesting, with a 15-yr. old American girl visiting her cousins in England at a time when some shadowy guerrilla force has risen all over the countryside. She and her cousins are left to fend for themselves while the adults of the household are gone. The character and voice of the girl was compelling, and the book was a little daring in that she becomes involved with her same-aged first cousin. A good read. The title of the new book, "Just in Case," is a play on words, as the protagonist, a 15-yr. old who has a doomed outlook on life, changes his name from David Case to Justin Case, not recognizing the irony. As he's in a clothing store looking for a set of threads to go with his new persona, he meets a girl who's decided to help him dress tastefully. Here's the author's description:

"Justin turned slowly. The voice belonged to a girl of perhaps nineteen who peered at him through a heavy, clipped pink fringe. Her eyes were thickly rimmed with kohl, her mouth neatly outlined in a vivid shade of orange that clashed perfectly with her hair. She wore four-inch platform boots in pale green snakeskin, wildly patterned tights, a very short skirt, and a tight see-through shirt printed with Japanese cartoons over which was squeezed a 1950s-style long-line beige elastic bra. A camera bag hung from her shoulder.
Even Justin recognized that her dress sense was unusual."

I love that inventiveness, which is typical of Rosoff; how can the reader not keep turning the page to see what kind of person we have here? The age difference intrigues, too; what's the author going to do with this? Agnes is obviously a lot more extroverted than the doom-struck Justin. Rosoff goes on with her inventiveness, and it all flows nicely without seeming contrived at all. It's entirely engaging. That's a great way to write.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

probabilities and agents

Like lots of writers these days I've thought about using some of my energies to search out and enlist the aid of an agent to try and improve the chances of marketing a Ms., or at least, one for my latest YA novel. Agents, of course, would prefer a novelist with credits, so in the past I've tried the unsolicited Ms. route to the better known publishing houses. If you're not going to do simultaneous submissions, which many houses say they do not accept, it's a pretty time consuming route. Out of several YA novels I've submitted over the past eight years, the maximum number of submittals I've managed for any one novel was about six--twice I waited up to a year for a reply. I don't know what the probabilities are at book publishers, but I read an interesting article by an associate editor at a literary journal, on the success rates for short story Ms. at such journals. He figured there was an average one-percent chance of being accepted, and since that encompasses a lot of marginal work, he gave himself at least a five-percent chance of having his own stories accepted at any given journal. He had a math instructor do his statistics and he figured he needed on average to submit his Ms. up to 56 times to be confident of having a story accepted. I would have thought with a probability of five-percent it would have been twenty submittals, but you get the idea. If the percentages are the same for books, and it took on average about six months to hear back from a book publisher, you might not learn whether you had a viable novel for up to ten years. A competent agent would have a better idea of the market than me, and assuming the agent liked the novel, it would seem like a win-win situation to sign on with one. So much for the marketing quandry; I'm looking forward to some fiction writing tomorrow morning. To have a few smiles about what comes across the transom of a sharp, no nonsense agent, see Miss Snark's blog.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

young people's literature

I noticed today that the story "Bridge to Terabithia," by Katherine Paterson, (1977), has come out as a movie again (also in 1985). BTT is a moving, sensitive story about an anxious, artistic boy named Jesse, and an athletic tomboy named Leslie. Leslie is the 'new kid on the block' having moved into the locale with her New Age intellectual parents--lots of books, no TV, no formal religion--and she easily wins a school race that Jesse has long trained for. Nevertheless they become fast friends and create their own mythical world, Terabithia, in the woods near their home. (Warning--plot tip follows). The book created a shock in its day because of the tragic death of a young character. Such an attitude would seem very condescending today. It even surprises me for then, since an old, classical favorite, "Grimm's Fairy Tales," had plenty of young deaths. Other young people's literature taboos were also apparently crossed by BTT --Leslie's parents New Age spirituality, and a supposed sexual content. If sex was there it completely escapes my memory. And yet BTT was on ALA's “Ten Most Challenged Books of 2002”...for "offensive language, sexual content, and references to the occult and Satanism." Wow, I read it and never even picked up on any of those. I thought it was only a moving, sensitive story. Nowadays many of those taboos have fallen--though not always to the benefit of a good story. Still, I think the more liberal attitudes have been rewarding for young readers on the whole.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

scoring manuscripts

Many writers will be familiar with MS-WORD’s spelling and grammar check capability in its Tools menu. I’ve often used this check to evaluate a completed Ms., particularly to find my total word count, Flesch Reading Ease score, and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score. It’s been interesting to check the Reading Ease and Grade Level of my work compared to more than a dozen best-seller authors analyzed by author James V. Smith, Jr., in his “Fiction Writer’s Brainstormer.” Smith's analyzes show that all of his best-seller authors typically log Reading Ease Scores between about 70 and 90; whereas, a U.S. Government manual describing combat actions that “any credible fiction writer could have turned into high-energy writing,” scored about 37. His best-seller authors also scored Grade Levels between about 4 and 6—which was surprising, since one of them, Wallace Stegner, was a Pulitzer Prize winner. So, even in good adult literary fiction, the grade level required to understand the language chosen was not necessarily high. The Gov. manual scored almost Grade 13. My most recent YA novel manuscript, about a girl who competes in karate, had a Reading Ease of 77, and a Grade Level of 6, so I figured that part was pretty good. Now, if only the story is interesting and marketable. You'll notice, if you try it, that brief, intense discussions like this, and story synopses, tend to score poorly because one tries to get too much info into a short piece. This post scored 52.5 in Reading Ease, and 11.2 in Grade Level.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

the king dork code

I’ve been reading the YA novel, King Dork, by Frank Portman, a lead singer/guitarist in a San Francisco Bay area punk band. His main character, Tom Henderson, a high school ‘dork’ who fantasizes on starting his own rock band, has pretty much read all the YA ‘classics,’ and prides himself on being nothing like the characters in them. He heaps sarcasm on Catcher in the Rye, and Separate Peace, and this works to give him his unique, conflicted voice. He dismisses teachers and parents who found those books and similar heroic in their own youth. Especially Catcher, which I sort of liked back then, but I can understand that. Attempts by Tom to decode messages tucked into the books left to him by his dead father are a little involved, but work to advance plot and subplots. High school bullying and sex seem a little far out at times, but maybe not. Tom’s spacey mom and flower-era stepdad provide good backdrops for Tom’s angst. This is a first novel by Portman, and a pretty good startup.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

stephan king syndrome

Sort of a stunning walking experience two days ago. Reminded me of author Stephan King's awful experience walking along a highway in Maine, though it was much worse for him. I was on the last lap of my three-mile walk--a repeated one-mile loop of empty, paved roads in a little-used state park. I was on my last lap, heading home, when I heard a squeal of tires behind me and I moved to the side of the road. When I looked over my shoulder a red car was skidding right at me. I ran off the road and fell while trying to get up a low slope. I could see in slow motion the grill work and bumper headed for me as I lay on the grassy slope. The car jammed to a stop a couple feet away. I was looking eye-level through the windshield and a young woman seemed to be laughing, perhaps nervously, or perhaps she was stoned, sitting behind the wheel. Her passenger boyfriend just kept looking at her and wouldn't even look at me. I was pretty shaken; I got up, dusted off, and stalked away, down the road. They got the car started again and gave me a wide berth as they drove by. It was very eerie. Something like getting visited by a banshee, a female harbinger of the end. Or as my son put it, a bean sídhe (Irish, pronounced the same) must have been driving the car. Well, perhaps it will make good material to give verisimilitude to a strange sort of fictional story.

Friday, February 2, 2007


It’s a worsening problem to keep up with the publishing houses and know who is accepting unsolicited Ms., and whether they will return a Ms. in a SASE, or even whether they’ll send a form rejection in an SASE included with a Ms. that doesn’t have to be returned. Some now just tell the writer to submit a complete Ms., and if they’re interested they’ll let the writer know. It’s a pretty cold way of doing business, and these conditions keep changing. Just submitting a novel on spec may cost thirty to forty dollars, and the editor will likely make a decision on the first four or five pages. It shouldn’t be any more work and expense for them to invite a query letter, an outline, and up to ten pages of the Ms (with SASE for reply). They may have taken this step to hold down their slush pile, but if the probability of uncovering a good Ms. remains about the same, and probably it does, they may be passing up profitable opportunities. A friend told me about a new writer’s site that will track and update changing publisher’s needs and provide a forum for writers: I registered as I'd like to keep up with this situation.
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