Jill Elizabeth Nelson: Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View

Almost all books on writing will spend at least some time urging the writer to “show not tell”. At the simple level this means to restrict the use of narrative summary passages to explain things to the reader or cover a whole series of events quickly. In a narrative summary the characters are not in action nor are they talking, the author is talking or “telling” what went on. Melville used narrative summary at an almost poetic level with large sections of Moby Dick but the modern novelist should not follow his example without very compelling skill.

Jill Nelson defines deep point of view (POV) as writing that stays entirely within the framework of the character whose POV is currently telling the story. In the following example the POV is a teenage girl who has finally been found by one of the soldiers sent out to look for her.

He kept his face stern to show his anger but he was happy to see her she thought.

This is NOT deep POV. The POV character can only know their own feelings so it takes the author to provide the emotion experienced by the observed character. This is what is known as “narrative distance”, the author is pushing in, breaking the reader’s link with the POV character.  Something like this is deep POV:

His stern face tried to maintain the glare but his eyes crinkled and a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.

Now the reader is seeing what the character is seeing. The reader can interpret body language and facial expressions as well as the writer and in this case the writer is respecting both the reader’s intelligence and allowing them to participate in the character’s life.

The example also illustrates one of Nelson’s key signs of narrative distance which is the phrase “she thought”. A person connected to their own internal monologue never inserts those kind of comments into their stream of consciousness. This applies to other phrases such as: “he thought”, “she felt”, “he wondered”, or “she considered” and quite a number others that you can supply.

Nelson covers a range of typical instances of narrative distance that authors insert often without thinking about it:

  • naming a POV character’s emotion, for example “she was sad”, instead of describing the character’s internal sensations and stream of conscious thoughts
  • using add on prepositional phrases that explain or tell how a character feels
  • using phrases like “she saw”

Nelson’s book provides excellent explanations and lots of examples to help a writer gain skill in using deep POV. I have added to my editing kit a set of 20 words and phrases like “thought”, that I now do word searches on when editing my first draft. If I find these I most often revise them to keep the readers inside the character’s head.

This book can make a very real and very quick difference in a writer’s ability to show rather than tell. It is also available in Kindle format so it is inexpensive and very well written. Get this book.

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First Sentences: Introduction

The accumulated editorial wisdom suggests that the first sentence of a novel should be carefully crafted. As a beginning blogger and novelist I have decided that one way to help both myself and other writers is to devote a set of posts that investigates published first sentences. Though the first sentence doesn’t need to be the entire “hook” that catches a reader it is an important part of it.

K.M. Weiland in her new book Structuring the Novel (which I will do a review on soon) indicates that the first sentence needs to at least create some questions in the reader’s mind. Ideally it should show a character in action in a setting. She provides an example from one of her professors: “Hitler invades Poland.” (Actually it is type set like this: “Hitler. Invades. Poland.”) but I turned it back into a single sentence. So I want to explore a lot of first sentences.

My method is going to be to snag books, lots of books, many of which I have never read and probably will never read wherever I can find them (my own library, friend’s homes, bookstores and libraries to start with). Then when I have copied the first sentence and perhaps the first paragraph I will start writing blog posts to analyze and investigate that first sentence.

Here is the first sentence for Richard Paul Evan’s book

James Kier looked back and forth between the newspaper headline and the photograph of himself, not sure he should laugh or call his attorney.

The sentence fulfills at least 2 of Weiland’s suggested guidelines. First we have the character James Kier and second he is both reading and “looking back forth” in the newspaper. We don’t really get a direct look at the setting but combined with his first name and his quick willingness to consider legal action we can at least speculate that he is in North America.

We know a bit more about James as well. He has some level of importance in his community since there is a headline line story about him along with a photo. He has “his attorney” which leads us to suspect that he is probably reasonably wealthy since most people in his situation would have thought something like, “Should I call an attorney?” Apparently James has enough legal business to need a regular, ongoing relationship with a lawyer.

We know from the title of the book that the time frame is sometime reasonably close to Christmas so at least within the last quarter of the year. Most importantly James is trying to decide between laughing or angrily calling his attorney so there is an emotional charge even though we don’t know what the content of the newspaper article is all about. We can guess that the content is in some way negative since you don’t call your attorney if the paper has written a positive article about you.

What do you think of the sentence? Do you want to keep reading? Has Evan’s created enough curiosity that you will read the first paragraph and perhaps the first page?

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K.M. Weiland, Outlining Your Novel

Weiland’s outlining process is a combination of guided free writing exercises and a short course in the elements of a good novel. The key advice is that you need to give yourself permission and time to really explore your story world and characters without any of the pressure of writing a “first draft” of your novel. You can do the work using your computer but Weiland suggests, as she does, that you go back to pen and coiled notebooks because you have more freedom to mess around. I am not going to provide detailed notes on her process it is worth buying the book for that, but I will share some of the key ideas that have really helped me.

The first step is to try and get down in one sentence — the premise sentence — what the story is about. It should “convey the characters, setting and central conflict”.  Weiland then suggests that you start writing out and exploring “what ifs” that come to mind and let them take you where they might. A few more triggers that Weiland suggests for exploring your ideas:

  • list things that a reader might expect to happen in the story, then try to turn each expectation on its head, insert the unexpected wherever possible
  • list and write about 4 or 5 big moments in the plot and develop at least 2 complications for each of them
  • consider and create main characters that have at least 2 major problems or anxieties, then explore how these will affect the story

There is a lot more and her writing tone is both encouraging and fresh, think about buying the book.

Much of the book then provides a guide to take this mass of ideas you are generating and turn them into a novel. Key ideas covered include:

  • plan the book scene by scene, start with a scene list that includes everything you can think of currently and then add to it
  • make sure that there is conflict that is supported by realistic character motivation
  • develop character arcs for the main characters, they have to change as the story develops
  • work on the theme through character development

I have read the book twice now and have taken 15 pages of handwritten notes that I turn to constantly. As it turns out a lot of that note taking was direct quotes from Weiland and I now find that they are a perfect supplement to this blog (not an initial plan at all) and the quotes will show up in the “Writer’s Quotes” section in the sidebar to the right.

If you can only afford one book this is the one you should buy. And while we are at it ignore or forget all the babble about outlining making the actual writing of the novel a dead and constricted process. This is NOT the essay outlining you may have been exposed to in school with main topics in upper case Roman numerals, then indented topics and sub topics and sub sub topics with first lower case Roman numerals, then the lower case alphabet and finally numbers. Instead it is a dynamic, creative, fascinating write yourself into insights and discoveries you never expected all interacting with each other and generating even more ideas.

Following Weiland’s approach the spectre of writer’s block is almost completely banished because your scene list provides the needed prompts and if one scene isn’t working you have lots of others to work on and then get back to that problem one. Of course there will be changes as you write, whole new scenes will emerge as well as unexpected characters or very different actions from the ones you planned. However you will be thoroughly grounded in your story world and your character’s lives and the novel has a much better chance of being published.

 

 

It all started when …

So there I was 65 years old, still actively farming which can consume all of your time if you let it, struggling with this story that just won’t leave me alone. I have written over the last year several fragments of the story, the one’s that just had to get down on paper and I wasn’t unhappy with it but I just couldn’t make the whole thing into a novel.

Having committed myself to write I realized that I had never really researched or investigated how professional novelists go about their business and there was my Kindle just waiting for more content from Amazon Whisper Net. For whatever reason I chose to first read KM Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success published in 2011 and at that point available for the Kindle reader. This was a crucial and important moment and I have not looked back since then. I have since picked up something on the order of a dozen writing books but Weiland’s is still the best book in my opinion for a writer wanting to get down to real work.

Her major contribution for me was the simple comment that her “outlining” phase could take several months of notes on ideas, characters, setting, back story etc. before she ever settled into the actual writing of the novel. This idea took root and spread in my brain like Canadian thistle, prickly ideas constantly springing up and written down in the first coil notebook. It is now more or less 4 months since I became serious about writing my novel and I have filled almost 2, 300 page coil notebooks with ideas, notes on writing, the social structure of my story world, the basic religious practices, the fictional history of my heroine’s ethnic group and those around her and a lot of historical notes about what was really happening in the world starting from 1000 BCE.

I am going to create a “Reviews” page that will contain formal reviews of books that I have worked through and that I think are worth buying. I will build that probably tomorrow morning since I have also decided that from 5-6:30 in the morning is my social media work time.

I started this project in late May and have now managed, as noted above, to really explore (without any need to control what I am writing, without any need to think about plot, or character development, or grammar for that matter) my story world and my characters. There is a separate notebook, the Character Bible, that is slowly filling with basic outlines of each character’s appearance, psychology, goals, wishes, dreams and weaknesses along with interviews with all the more important characters. The story that I initially wrote that I thought was the start of the novel turned out to be the “initiating event”, something that irrevocably commits the heroine to a course of action that she follows for the rest of the novel and occurs about a third of the way into the novel.

So that’s the start. Simply write every day for an hour or more about ideas that come. My first entry was about the religion since the Mother (who is God) has encouraged my heroine to re-establish the ancient faith of her people that has been drowned out and overcome by the patriarchal male Gods for whom dominance over women is one of the first tenants of faith.

OK, more about all of that later, be patient, you’ll get the one sentence elevator pitch in a day or two.

 

Psst, Don’t Tell My Wife but I’m a Writer

The first official post in a blog is a bit intimidating. Will anyone ever read it? Why would they read it? How can they possibly find it in the first place? I don’t have any answers at this point but perhaps over time I will manage to answer some of them. The real point is that I am 65 years old, retired from teaching but still ranching and I am finally willing to say publicly that I am a writer. I have never been willing to say that before because I have no fiction published anywhere which is probably the same reason that many people feel that same hesitancy. However here is the key that I have finally recognized. I am obsessed with language, poems and stories. I’m the guy at the camp fire who can stand up and do a rather exciting version of “The Cremation of Sam Magee” by Robert Service and another 2 dozen or more poems that have stuck in my head. More important there are several stories that keep coming up and demanding to be told. They haunt my dreams. They interfere with my driving. They impose on my concentration when I am working at other tasks. They guilt me every chance they get.

I may not ever get published. The stories that I write might just be uninteresting to any other person on the planet, for that matter my wife doesn’t seem to be interested and she is always supportive, perhaps that should tell me something. However I must write. I have always needed to write. I have dozens of coil notebooks and gigabytes of files of journal entries that have accumulated over the decades. I have two completed novels that have never seen the light of day and another three that have never been finished. I have about 60 poems in my “Collected Poetry” binder of which only one has been published but almost all of the rest have been rejected time and again. Perhaps I should learn from that, but I am still a writer.

I may not be a good writer but I will never know unless I commit the time and energy to really produce a completed novel (I am actually planning on a trilogy at the moment) and then see if I can market that novel into publication. I hope that I have several decades left to write and experience life but who knows? However with whatever time is left I am going to finally sit down and write, and write, and write.

I’ve started the blog for two reasons:

1. As I work out this journey and experience the difficulties and solutions perhaps I will be able to help other writers make the same kind of decision. I have always considered my writing to be a separate kind of thinking process, a creative flow that suddenly comes up with amazing connections that I did not have when I sat down to do the writing in the first place. That kind of creative excitement can keep you young, keep you active, make life worth living.

2. In this day and age if a person wants to be a success as a novelist they have to be ready to be part of the marketing of their book. This has been pounded home again and again in the books on writing that I have read over the past year and in every issue of every writing magazine that I have read as well. A writer must have a “platform” and should become proficient at social media in order to provide agents or editors with evidence that they are serious about their craft.

So this blog is started. I will let you know and give you a step by step report on my skill development in social media including Facebook, Twitter and more focused sites that I find and learn about. But most of the posts will be simply a journal of my writing experiences over the past few days and what insights I have gained that might be of use to another writer.

I know that I have to schedule some specific times during the week to work on social media because there is nothing more depressing and discouraging than to find a good blog and realize that it is almost dead with no new posts in the past year or two. So I am committing myself to posting at least twice per week and before November to be doing something similar with Twitter and Facebook.

So don’t tell my wife that I’m a writer, she is much happier thinking of me as a nice, solid, retired teacher, competent farmer and loving husband.