What Are They Thinking?

Should you tell your readers what your characters are thinking? There are several ways to look at this question.

The most common viewpoint nowadays seems to be third-person limited. In this style of writing, the reader sort of lives inside one character’s head, either for the duration of a scene or possibly for the entire novel. We’re privy to that character’s thoughts, but we see the other characters only from the outside. We have to infer what they’re thinking and feeling from what they say and do.

In third-person omniscient, the author feels free to jump from one character’s head to another character’s, freely telling us what each of them is thinking and feeling. This viewpoint is less used today than formerly. It’s not necessarily bad; it’s just unfashionable. Poorly handled, it can rob the story of immediacy. When it’s well done, readers won’t even notice.

In third-person external, the reader is a TV camera. We see and hear only what the camera sees and hears; we learn none of the thoughts or feelings of any of the characters, unless they happen to share them in a conversation with another character. This type of writing can be punchy and effective in a crime novel, but in a thoughtful literary work it may seem very dry.

It’s possible to flip back and forth within a single story. Indeed, some writers jump from third-person to first-person, or from past tense to present tense, quite freely. But again, the fashion in commercial fiction seems to be to adopt one particular type of viewpoint and stick with it.

So let’s suppose you’re planning to use third-person limited. Good choice. However, a hidden danger lurks. You can carelessly tell the reader too much about what your viewpoint character is thinking and feeling. Sometimes it’s better to just get on with the action and let the reader infer what must have been in your lead character’s head.

If you find yourself writing a paragraph in which your lead character debates, silently and internally, about what to do next, loud alarm bells should go off in your head. This paragraph is likely to reveal that you, the author, don’t know what’s going to happen next, and are using the page to work it out:

Dick was usually home by this time. Carol wasn’t sure whether to call his office to ask if he was working late, call the local hospitals to learn if there had been an accident, or let the dinner burn to teach him a lesson.

Don’t do this. Or rather, do it only if it’s thematically relevant — if Carol is prone to dithering indecisively, a trait that is imperiling her marriage. In that case, go right ahead. Otherwise, I would strongly recommend settling for something like this:

When Dick hadn’t arrived home by 6:45, Carol phoned his office, but nobody answered. She decided to let the dinner burn to teach him a lesson.

This gets rid of the author’s thought processes, which very seldom belong on the page.

Scrivening

Had a look last night and today at a program for writers called Scrivener. It offers some real advantages in letting you construct and rearrange a long document such as a novel. (Script-writing formats are also supported.) You can take notes on any passage and they’ll appear in a sidebar, and if you want to search just the text of the notes, you can do so. You can open two chapters in a side-by-side or up-and-down window and compare the text. Files you delete go to the Trash in the Scrivener project  itself, so you can always retrieve them. It auto-saves. This is all good stuff.

Scrivener can compile your text while omitting certain sections if you like, which could be useful for quickly printing out alternate versions for your readers. It’s important to note, however, that Scrivener is mainly a writing tool, not a formatting tool for desktop publishing. It can output your files in .rtf, .pdf, .doc, or OpenOffice .odt format, for example, but if you care about how your finished files look, you’ll have to plan on tweaking them in some other program.

In my initial experiments, it was outputting the titles of all of my chapters (based on the section names I had entered in its project browser) in 12pt Courier, which is not what I wanted. I emailed tech support, and a couple of days later received an answer that told me how to suppress the automatically generated chapter titles. This is okay with me. I can enter chapter titles manually myself.

The point of the compile/export routine, for me, is that I want to back up my daily work sessions in a standard format (.odt). I don’t quite trust Scrivener, or any program from a small company, enough to back up my work only in its proprietary format. Its own files are kept in folders (visible in Windows, but you have to trick the Mac into displaying the folder contents) in .rtf files, so yeah, in theory you can extract everything even from a Scrivener backup. But the .rtf files are numbered, not named. If you got into trouble with Scrivener crashing (or not working on your new computer) and needed to get at your creative work, reassembling it would be a fairly gruesome business.

Word processors haven’t really changed much in the past 25 years, have they? Bells and whistles have been added to the output side of your typical word processor: You can add graphics or tables, for example, or page headers and footers. Scrivener is not too good at that sort of thing; it tries, but it’s not a champ. What hasn’t changed in the standard word processor is the input side, and that’s where Scrivener excels.

I think I’ll have to buy it. (It’s not expensive.) I may not switch over with my current project, but for the next project I’ll give it a serious workout.

Ten Little Words

I can tell you how to write great fiction in ten words. There are only two rules:

  1. Tell a good story.
  2. Put the reader in the scene.

Back in the 1980s I had a 3×5 card with those two rules thumbtacked on the wall above my typewriter. By now I don’t remember whether I picked them up in a how-to-write book, or whether they were my own insight. The book I was working on at that time, Walk the Moons Road, was soon bought and published by Del Rey, a fact that suggests those notions may not have been entirely off-base.

The tricky bit is in knowing what the rules mean, and how to apply them.

We can have long, earnest debates about what does or does not constitute “a good story.” At the risk of oversimplifying, I’d say a good story is one the reader cares about. If the reader stops caring, or never starts, it’s not a good story. Recently I was reading a crime novel called Skeletons by Kate Wilhelm. I’ve liked some of her books, but about 2/3 of the way through this one I put it down and haven’t picked it up again. I had stopped caring. There were good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys were really creepy, and the good guys were in great danger … but that was the extent of it. An annoying level of danger, but no reason to care.

The fact that you, the writer, care about your characters is a good start, but it’s not enough. As they say in classes on logic, it’s necessary but not sufficient. Your readers will have to care too. This is why books on writing tell you to choose a likable lead character. Even a zombie can be likable, I suppose; I don’t read zombie books, so I’m not an authority on how to make a zombie likable; I’ll leave that up to you.

Another way to phrase Rule Two would be, “The writing must be clear.” You must provide enough sensory details that your readers can picture the scene, and you must arrange the details in such a way that the mental effort needed to assemble the picture is not too arduous.

How arduous it will be depends on how intelligent you anticipate your readers will be. Some novels require considerable mental effort — and reward it. Others, though marketed to adults, are carefully written at an 8th-grade reading comprehension level. I’m sure the authors of the latter sort of stories know their market.

Writing clearly is really the whole enchilada. Every sentence and every paragraph must serve somehow to make the scene clear to the reader. However, the writing skills you’ll need are various. Pronouns will need clear antecedents. Adjectives and verbs will need to be chosen with care. (As Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”) When you’re drafting an action scene, events will almost certainly need to be set down on the page in strictly serial order. Your readers will probably be curious what the characters look like, so you’ll need to tell them. When two characters are interacting, readers will need some hints about their facial expressions, gestures, and body language. Whatever decision you make about viewpoint, you’ll need to handle it with care.

And so on ad infinitum. But it all boils down to that very simple idea: Put the reader in the scene. In the scene. As if the reader were standing there invisibly, watching the drama unfold.

If the drama is not clear to you in your own mind, you won’t be able to put the reader in the scene — but that’s a topic for another time.

Hoo Dat Opp Dar?

In the early 1960s, before the United States became deeply involved in the war in Vietnam, Art Hoppe did a series of columns for the San Francisco Chronicle in which he satirized the conflict (in what we would now say is a rather racist way) by describing it as an ongoing dispute between two leaders in hilly country — Hoo Dat Opp Dar and Hoo Dat Don Dar.

Taking these questions seriously is a key to understanding how to write powerful fiction. Who is that? Who is it really? Is he like me? Does he think the way I think and feel the way I feel?

Every writer of fiction is an amateur psychologist. (We will tiptoe lightly past Jonathan Kellerman, who was at one time a professional psychologist.) That is, every writer of fiction has a concrete and practical idea of who people are. To write fiction at all, you have to have some notion of what’s going on in the heads of your characters. Who’s that up there? Who’s that down there?

One important difference between good fiction and the other kind — perhaps the important difference — is that writers of good fiction have more insightful theories about the human psyche. They also know how to assemble their ruminations into good stories, but you can’t forge a good story using poorly imagined characters.

This is one reason why mathematicians and chess players often do their best work when they’re 20 years old (or even younger), while fiction writers often remain active and produce wonderful work when they’re over 60. It takes time to develop an understanding of what it means to be human.

Procrustean Publishing

I was very pleased, a few short months ago, when a literary agent said she loved the first book in my YA fantasy series and would like to market it. Who wouldn’t be thrilled?

The book was a bit long, she said. Publishers hesitate to take on a new author whose first book is above 100,000 words. My book was at about 122,000. So I rolled up my sleeves and cut 5,000 words, and she agreed that she could try to sell it that way. It’s still on the long side, but possibly part of the point of the exercise was that she will now be able to assure potential publishers that I’m flexible. (I also told her I would be willing to use a pen name, if anybody thought having a man who is over 65 write for a market that consists first and foremost of teenage girls was too weird.)

I’m now working hard on Book III. (I’ve already sent her Book II.) Because the series is really all just one monstrously long and complex tale, I have now found that I need to go back and make a few tiny changes in Book I. I’m sure tiny changes are okay, but today I felt I needed to restore an 800-word scene that I had cut. I’ve already scissored in a couple of shorter bits that are entirely new. Book I is growing again.

How this will play out in the one-size-fits-all world of publishing remains to be seen. I’d like to believe that a publisher will be so thrilled by the series that I’ll be given carte blanche to do as I will. That seems very unlikely. Paper is expensive. Shipping books to bookstores is expensive. And aside from the economic factor, I’m sure some publishers figure a buyer is more likely to try a new author if the book isn’t so fat/thick/massive/bulky as to be intimidating.

What I haven’t yet done is read through the entire text of Books I and II after finishing III (and possibly IV, which won’t be done before the end of the year). At that point, I might find that I need to add a few things — for continuity, for flavor, or just because I get a kick out of fresh ideas.

I’m not quite to the point of hoping that the series doesn’t sell to a mainstream publisher. There’s a certain panache in being published by a real publisher. It would be a feather in my cap, as my father used to say. The distribution would be good, I wouldn’t have to worry about cover art, more people would read and enjoy the books — there are some real advantages. But I am starting to feel that there’s also something to be said for self-publishing. In spite of all the added headaches, in spite of the ego deflation, if I self-publish I can edit the entire series into lapidary coherence before I unleash it on the world — and I won’t be forced to cut to fit a narrow word count.

One of the things I’ve added to Book I is a brief epigraph. It’s a quote from To Kill a Mockingbird: “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” That describes the theme of my story pretty darn well … and it’s also a good motto for any author, especially an author who can foresee a potential clash between the publishing industry and the sometimes inconvenient but always vital needs of the story itself.

What’s Hip Today

Tower of Power once had a hit song titled “What Is Hip?” The line I remember is, “What’s hip today may become passe.” (With an accent over the e there at the end.)

Indeed.

I’m now 60 pages into The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever, and I’m about to bail out. Never mind that it’s a meandering plotless mess. Quite a lot of literature is meandering and plotless. And never mind that the writing is often shot through with lambent rays of brilliance. No, what alienates me is that Cheever is coy. In 1957, when the book was published, his coyness may have seemed clever or charming. Sixty years later, it grates.

On page 60, Leander Wapshot and his teenage son Coverly are on their way to the village fair.

They stopped in Grimes’ bakery, where Leander ate a plate of baked beans. “Baked beans, the musical fruit,” the old waitress said. “The more you eat, the more you toot.” The mild crudeness of the joke had kept it fresh for her. Walking up Water Street toward the fairgrounds Leander let several loud farts. It was a summer evening so splendid that the power it had over their senses….

There you have it — an embarrassing, and embarrassingly bad, joke, suitable at best for a comic book and probably so shopworn even in 1957 that a comic book editor would have red-penciled it, and Cheever not only drags it into his narrative but attempts to use it in an ironic and symbolic way. This is apparently what passed (if you’ll forgive the term) for literature in 1957.

I gritted my teeth and soldiered on past the fart joke for a couple more pages. Leander and Coverly have gone to the burlesque tent, where a girl (actually a young woman, but in 1957 any writer would have referred to her as a girl, so we’ll give Cheever a free pass on that one) takes off her skirt and dances naked. He hasn’t bothered to mention her removing her top, so we’re left to guess about exactly what “naked” means, but that’s a detail. What stopped me dead was this:

Then the girl picked the cap off a farm hand in the front row and did something very dirty. Coverly walked out of the tent.

Is it just me, or is it really quite difficult to imagine what a naked girl might do with a farm hand’s hat that would qualify as “very dirty”? To be sure, censorship was alive and well in 1957, but surely we deserve at least a broad hint about what the girl did with the hat. But Cheever’s worst sin is this: He does not tell us why Coverly walked out of the tent. The boy has had some sort of profound reaction to the “very dirty” thing the girl did, whatever it was — but Cheever is too coy to tell us what that reaction was. Only after a couple more pages do we get hints that Coverly was aroused and either is masturbating or is trying to avoid masturbating.

The boys took their mother to church at eleven and Coverly got vehemently to his knees but he was not halfway through his first prayer when the perfume of the woman in the pew ahead of him undid all his work of mortification [diving into cold water] and showed him that the literal body of Christ Church was no mighty fortress, for although the verger had shut the oak doors and the only windows open were not big enough for a child to enter by, the devil, so far as Coverly was concerned, came and went, sat on his shoulder, urged him to peer down the front of Mrs. Harper’s dress….

Adolescent shame over sexual urges is, for better or worse, an important (though not a very interesting) part of growing up in America. But Cheever’s handling of the incident is as adolescent, and as shame-filled, as the incident itself. Is this a case of literary imitative form? I doubt it. Of the need not to attract the attentions of the censor? It seems unlikely. No, Cheever is just being coy.

As a footnote, the coyness can also be seen in the time period in which the story is set. We seem to be in some sort of timeless present — events beyond the borders of the town are never mentioned — but in the burlesque tent, “Then the girls retired, one of them to crank a phonograph and the other to dance.” There’s the answer, in black and white: a hand-cranked phonograph. I’d have to look up the history on that technology, but it sure as heck wasn’t in prominent use in 1957. No, we’re being hand-cranked.

Faded Pressed Flowers

I read a lot of junk fiction. Some of it is very good junk fiction, but I’ve never been much drawn to literature. I’ve never read Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, never read James Joyce. I tried Faulkner and didn’t get far. Got bogged down after the first hundred pages of Don Quixote and never went on with it.

Nonetheless, I have some good books on my shelves. As the occasional day manager of our monthly Friends of the Library used book sale, I have plenty of time to scrounge among the fiction tables, discreetly overlooking the Danielle Steel and Scott Turow, the Dan Brown and Andre Norton (of which there is usually a lot) and picking out, now and again, one of those books that I think someday I might want to read, or that I should read. For 50 cents for a hardback in decent condition, how can you go wrong?

Tonight, having finished re-reading John Gardner’s marvelous The Art of Fiction, I thought, well, Gardner talks extensively about literature, and that’s inspiring, but do I really know what he’s talking about? So I wandered into the den and picked up John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle. It’s one of those books that you know is highly thought of by knowledgeable people, and I have what appears to be a first edition, though not of much value to a collector, as the dust jacket is torn.

Having read more than 30 pages, I’m ready to deliver a verdict. This may seem risky, but I’m pretty sure that literature is like junk fiction in at least one respect: After 30 pages, you can form a reasonable guess as to what the author is up to. If you guess wrong, it’s because the author is falling down on the job.

What strikes me about The Wapshot Chronicle is that it’s fundamentally sentimental. Beautifully written, of course, but one has the feeling that it was written by a man who didn’t really understand life or people, and wished he did — a man who felt sure he was missing something, and didn’t know what it was.

From the copyright notice, it appears the novel was published in 1957. That was the year after the United States tested the first hydrogen bomb. It was the year Russia launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. A lot was going on in the years when Cheever was writing the book. But none of that gritty reality is allowed to creep into the first 30 pages. We’re introduced to a small New England town named St. Botolphs, near the coast, presumably not far from Boston — a town that seems lost in a time warp. The book begins with a rather down-home small-town Fourth of July parade. The setting could as easily be the 1930s as the 1950s. Someone sets off a firecracker under a horse that is drawing a flatbed float, and the horse bolts — but nobody is hurt.

We’re told, briefly, about several generations of the Wapshot family, “founded by Ezekiel Wapshot, who emigrated from England aboard the Arbella in 1630. Ezekiel settled in Boston, where he taught Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and gave lessons on the flute. He was offered a post in the Royal Government but he judiciously refused, establishing a family tradition of thoughtful regret….” The atmosphere of genteel regret is as thick as molasses. Whether any of it will prove to be thoughtful, I haven’t yet discovered.

In chapter 4, a young woman named Rosalie Young (in literature, names often give us hints about meaning) goes off for some afternoon sex on the beach with a man who is referred to by Cheever, coyly, only as “her date.” We’re not told his name, and of course that’s an omen, because at the end of the chapter he is speeding along a country road, misses a curve, and runs into an elm tree on the Wapshots’ property. He is killed. Rosalie isn’t. And in a subtle touch that may have seemed daring in 1957, the last sentence of the chapter in which this happens ends without a period: “The speed made Rosalie feel relaxed until she heard him swear and felt the car careen and bump into a field”

Cheever’s handling of the omniscient point of view is worthy of study. He occasionally addresses the reader directly and often provides information about people and events that are distant from the moment-to-moment narrative. I may keep reading, perhaps in the forlorn hope that one of the Wapshot boys will take a wrong turn and find himself in Arkham rather than St. Botolphs. But so much water has flowed under the bridge in the past seventy years that, looking back on this prose version of a Norman Rockwell painting, I can’t help feeling that Cheever is manipulating our emotions — possibly on purpose, or possibly because he doesn’t know any better.

Are Two Heads Better Than One?

Some of the best known writers in SF and fantasy write collaboratively with one another. Every collaboration may have its own structure, the strengths of one writer balancing the limitations of the other. Sometimes the collaborators are equals; Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote some wonderful books together.

Other times, one writer (for instance, Mercedes Lackey) is the headliner, which leads one to suspect, rightly or wrongly, that the lesser-known writer in the team is doing the lion’s share of the actual work. Such a collaboration can be beneficial to both writers, of course. The headliner gets some money and keeps the fans happy with a regular flow of new books, and the second banana gets a boost in his or her reputation and maybe a little advice and guidance from someone with more experience.

It would be very, very rare, however, for a professional writer to team up with an amateur. Recently I ran into a plaintive request on an Internet forum from an amateur who is hoping to find a professional to help whip his fantasy trilogy into shape. It’s a nice dream, but the truth is, the only way his book is ever going to see the light of day is if he buckles down and writes it himself.

Sure, if he’s rich enough he could probably find somebody to ghostwrite. Heck, pay me enough in advance and I’ll ghostwrite your novel! Just keep my name off the cover and don’t mention me in the Acknowledgments.

Why won’t a pro collaborate with an amateur?

First, most professional writers of fiction — no, it’s safe to say all of us — have more story ideas than we have time to write! We don’t need an amateur’s brilliant concept or outline or rough draft to give us something to work on.

Second, with shockingly few exceptions amateurs have not the faintest notion what sort of idea will form the basis for a good novel. Amateurs’ story ideas tend to be hackneyed and shopworn — some half-remembered concept borrowed from Star Trek — or so awkward and ill-formed that major surgery would be required to make the idea usable in a published book. Or, more likely, both.

Third, when it comes to drafting the actual sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, even an amateur who is happy to roll up her sleeves and write day after day will almost certainly lack the basic skills that a professional brings to the table. I’m not just talking about spelling, grammar, and punctuation, though those are part of the skill set. Amateurs don’t always understand pacing. They don’t understand characterization. They don’t understand viewpoint. Until you’ve mastered these and other skills of narrative, a professional would have to rewrite everything you write. What a horrible job!

Fourth, the amateur is quite likely to flake out rather than seeing the project through to the end. Writing ain’t always fun, folks. It can be a grind. Why would a professional take a chance on spending weeks or months working on a project without knowing whether a collaborator with zero track record is going to have the fortitude to stick with it.

And then we get to the problem (more familiar in the music industry) in which the amateur sends the pro an outline or a few chapters and then, years later, sues the pro for alleged theft of copyrighted material. Why would a professional take a chance on that?

So yeah, you’re on your own, dude. Good luck. You’ll need it. Heck, we all need it!

We Are the Knights Who Say “e!”

Far be it from me to knock e-books. They’re not just trendy, they have some real benefits. And then there’s the dark side…

If you’re serious about writing fiction, whether you’re self-publishing, with a small press, or with one of the big publishing houses, having e-books available for your customers should definitely be part of your marketing plan. Nonetheless, print is not dead. Going strictly with e-publishing and ignoring paper entirely would be a mistake.

Publishing electronically is certainly easier than publishing physical books. The print-on-demand (POD) industry has made it a lot easier for indie authors to produce paper books, but some authors may not see a clear difference between e-books and POD books.

An e-book is usually so inexpensive that it’s pretty much an impulse buy. Plus, instant delivery to your readers! Also, the visually impaired will likely find your e-book far easier to read than your paper book. The type can be made larger or output aurally by a screen reader program.

Setting all that aside, there are powerful reasons to insist on paper books (whether you’re writing them or reading them).

First, longevity. An e-book is a digital file. It can only be accessed and displayed on-screen by software that is compatible with that specific file type. Some companies have been known to upgrade their software in a way that makes old files unreadable — either through short-sightedness or simply to force you to buy stuff again. And some companies go out of business, leaving the users of their software stranded.

It’s an open question whether any of today’s e-books will be readable by your grandchildren 50 years from now. A paper book, even if it’s printed on cheap paper that turns yellow, will still be readable.

Second, you can loan or give a paper book to a friend. Transferring ownership of a digital file is sometimes possible, but it’s a lot harder than just handing someone a book.

Third, you can take a paperback book to the beach. You don’t need to worry about it getting sand in its sensitive parts, and you don’t need to worry that someone will steal your $200 book-reading device.

Fourth, with a physical book you can be reasonably sure that the text is what the author wrote. It’s not just paranoia to suggest that governments (and private entities) sometimes have strong reasons to alter the text of books so as to promote their own point of view. If you download an electronic version of, let’s say, a socialist or atheist manifesto, you can’t be sure that it hasn’t been edited by someone who hacked the publisher’s website. Changing the text of a physical book is pretty darn difficult, so if you buy it in a store you can be pretty sure it’s the real thing.

Fifth, as a writer you’ll have a larger audience if you publish on paper. Believe it or not, there are millions of people in the world who are too poor to own an e-book reader. Millions more are so technologically challenged that the idea of setting up an e-book reader makes them very nervous.

Finally, again speaking to authors here, if you decide to promote your book at conventions, you’ll need physical books to put on the table and sign.

For all these reasons and more, e-books will never replace paper books.

Shifty

Tonight a fellow on a Facebook writers’ group suggested I download a free sample of his book. So I did. I’m not going to mention his name, nor offer a critique of his story, which was so poorly written that I couldn’t bring myself to finish it.

The first thing that alerted me to expect problems (well, actually it was the second or third thing) was an abrupt viewpoint shift. We were only a few paragraphs into the first scene, a scene of a dramatic confrontation, and suddenly we were offloaded from Bob Smith’s viewpoint to Carol Jones’s. (The names have been changed to protect the guilty.)

Why is a viewpoint shift a bad thing?

It’s a bad thing because the reader would like to become immersed in the story. The fullest immersion happens when the reader is invited, as it were, to play the role of one particular character — to see an entire scene through that character’s eyes, to feel that character’s emotions, to get a glimpse of what drives that character.

When the viewpoint jumps to a new character, the reader is yanked up by the roots and plopped down somewhere else. It’s disorienting. Even if it’s not confusing to the reader — even if the reader can see clearly that he is now in Carol Jones’s head — it’s not satisfying emotionally.

This is not to say that some great writers haven’t employed shifting viewpoint in some of their stories. But shifting the viewpoint in the middle of a scene requires even more mastery of technique than sticking with a single viewpoint. If you’re tempted to shift viewpoint out of laziness — or, worse, if you don’t even know you’re doing it — you’re in trouble.

The standard practice, these days, is to shift to a new viewpoint character only at a scene break. A scene/viewpoint break is customarily indicated in the manuscript by leaving a blank line.

Staying with a single character and really telling us what that character is thinking, feeling, and observing — that’s not easy to do, not easy at all. And until you’ve mastered how the pawns move, you’re well advised not to start the knights hopping around the board.