Thursday, November 29, 2012

Point of View interview

How-to Author Series – by Margie Lawson

How to Author Series Features Alicia Rasley
Hello Alicia!  I’m glad you could join us today.

1.  ML:   Here’s a powerful quote from page 13 that speaks to what POV can do for your story. Could you elaborate?
POV can create tension between what the character says and what she means; between her vision and reality; between what is said and what is interpreted.
AR:  To effectively use POV, authors have to believe in the inner life, that we are not transparent beings, that our inside can be different from (and affect) our outside.  If you believe that, then you can have the POV character (for example) say something and then mentally translate it:
"Of course I'd love to babysit little Sadie!" she said, smiling so hard her teeth ached.  She had to get this account, and if it took installing little Sadie in front of a Little Mermaid marathon, she'd do it.
Or she can see something and believe it to be something the reader knows isn't real, like:
It was a lovely lunch, Shirley thought, leaving her customary 10% tip on the table. She rose, then hesitated.  The waitress was so efficient, taking back that cold gazpacho soup and returning with it steaming the way it ought to be.  Just this once, Shirley decided to leave a huge tip. She added a quarter to the pile of dimes by her coffee cup, just hoping that her generosity didn't make the waitress too conceited.
(I used to be a waitress, and 1) gazpacho is supposed to be cold, and 2) a quarter added to 10% isn't going to corrupt the waitress. )
Going into a character's point of view offers readers a terrific experience of being someone else for a little while--- but they never stop being themselves, with their own values and knowledge.  Writers can have fun with that separation between the character and the reader, and that sometimes results in unexpected character development.
2.  ML:  What are some examples of unintentional POV shifts that make you cringe?
AR:  Here's one that is kind of subtle:
Women! Wives, cops, didn't matter. All they did was complain. The lieutenant nodded at the patrolwoman and said, "Thank you for bringing that to my attention, Officer Reilly. You may go."
Judy charged out of his office, slammed the door closed, and stormed down the hall.
This is supposed to be in the lieutenant's POV, but there's a switch, probably inadvertent.  But the reader starts out in the lieutenant's head—we get his thoughts (Women!), so we know we're in his head. Notice that he calls her "the patrolwoman," and "Officer Reilly." We can assume that this is a rather formal relationship.  But then in the next line, we have "Judy" (her name for herself, not his) leaving the office and slamming the door.  Then she goes on down the hall. The lieutenant couldn't see that (she closed the door).
If you were sitting in the lieutenant behind the desk, what would your perspective be?
The officer muttered something under her breath, and turned on her heel. She stormed out, and the door slammed behind her.  He sighed and went back to his paperwork.
That's clearly still in his point of view, right? He sees her leave. He sees the door slam "behind her". He sighs.  That's what you have to do to stay in the character POV—stay in the character!
The kind of inadvertent shifts are the ones that make me cringe, because I can tell the writer didn't mean for that to happen.
3.  ML:  In your chapter on levels of POV, you address how adding some narrative distance can make characters and their emotions more appealing. Could you share an example?
AR:  I wrote a scene where the heroine was humiliated and ostracized because of something she'd done. When I read it over, I realized that her POV made her sound self-pitying—not because she was, just because the reader might interpret it that way because it's just too intimate, too raw, to be in the head of someone suffering like that. So I rewrote the scene from the hero's POV, as he saw this happening.  From his perspective, she was brave and forbearing. We got her pain—he could see she was hurting. But we also got his—he was suffering vicariously for her. 
So that taught me that the reader doesn't need to be inside the character to identify. The cues of body language, vocal expression, and speech patterns can give the reader a sense of the emotion—and bypass that "automatic shutdown" that is our common defense mechanism against too much emotion.
4.  ML: Given that your entire book is about POV and you’re limited to a short answer here, what gems would you like to share about the advantages and disadvantages of the different levels of POV?
AR:  I would just say that different spots in the scene might benefit from dfferent levels of penetration.  It's all about getting that part of the passage in the right level. For example, readers shake their heads when they read a passage where the character is in intense danger, running from the bad guy, and as she pelters down the ramp in the parking garage, hearing him behind her, she's thinking about her father and how aloof he always was and how she never knew if he really loved her—that is, action scenes are usually best done in the action level!  We can't really believe she's in great danger and running hard if she has time and mental space to relive her childhood miseries.
Always consider the reader. The whole point of point of view is to give the reader a particular experience of the story… and that rests on your ability to create a believable experience in the character's viewpoint.
5.  ML:  You recommend the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell. What can writers learn about POV from reading her forensic procedurals?
AR:  The clinical, almost objective description makes truly horrific material (autopsies) bearable, even interesting.  Whenever you're dealing with stuff that might make the reader shut down or close her eyes, whether it's because it's so emotional or so gross, consider that distance imparts tolerance. We can read almost anything if it's presented right.  
6.  ML:  Last question!  How do you recommend writers handle secrets when they are in the POV character’s head?
AR: It all depends on whether you want the reader to know, and how certainly you want her to know. That is, if Mike has a secret and you want the reader to know what the secret is, go ahead and have him think it in some plausible way at an appropriate time. But if all you want is for the reader to suspect that Mike has a secret, but not what it is, think about ways you can hint.  For example, Mike can start to think about The Secret, but then cut himself off and force himself to think about something else. Then the reader will know there's something he's refusing to think about.  Again, it's all about giving the reader the right experience.
I think writers should always be readers first and foremost. We should read a lot and notice things like, oh, "He's got a secret! I just know it! I wonder what it is!" And we should stop them and analyze what the author did to create that impression. We have 3000 years of story in the Western tradition, and all the lessons we need are there. :)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Double doubt in a triple negative

Here's another double negative sentence that could be "yes" or "no"-- why leave the reader in doubt?

So who among you doubts that football isn’t the absolute xenith of sports evolution?

The answer is supposed to be "yes!" You know, yes, we agree football rules. That's what the rest of the article develops. But--

Who among you? indicates that few among you-- so no?

Doubts-- indicates no.

Isn't -- again, no.
And putting it as a question is that false collegiality that makes my teeth hurt. 

I'm no mathematician, but I think three negative numbers multiply to a negative number:
-2 X -2 X -2 = -8, right?

Anyway, let us restate that in some way that is clear if not as clever:

Surely you realize that football is the absolute xenith of sports evolution.


You can't doubt this: football is the absolute xenith of sports evolution.

Or?  How would you revise that so that the meaning is clear and accurate?


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Not to be too smug

But daaaayyyyem, that was a embarrassing thrashing of #9 UNC by the gutsy little Butler Bulldogs. My dh said, "They look like choirboys, but they play like thugs." I'm beginning to think "The Butler Way" means "manhandling, elbowing and kneeing, and running up the score."
I love it. I feel safe only when my team is up by 20 at halftime.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Modern Grammarian

Pretty cold, when I can look at a headline like:

Woman hit by stray bullet doing the dishes


And think, "That's a great dangling participle!"



Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Trouble with Gerunds, and the Use Therein

I was asked by another instructor, "What is your problem with gerunds?"

My problem with gerunds... Well, I'm the first to say that constructions and parts of speech wouldn't exist in the language without a purpose, and writers should never willingly abandon any potential tool in creating meaning. I just did a blog -- absurdly controversial, for sure-- asserting my defense of the use of adverbs in quote tags ("she said defensively"). You'd be amazed at the number of writers who happily assert their fealty to Hemingwayesque terseness and their vow never to let a modifier cross their keyboard. 

However, there's a time and a place, and any word form should be used aptly, to create or deepen meaning. So it would be not only unwise but also perhaps reckless to use an adverb that merely repeated the verb-- she shouted loudly. (She whispered loudly, however, is interesting.)  Words and speech parts have conventional functions, and when they're used "wrongly," the wrongness itself should be for some desired effect, as there has to be a convention to rebel against, thus the rebellion is dependent on both reader and writer understanding (perhaps only intuitively) the convention.

So the convention of having a period only at the end of the sentence sets up for the unexpected pleasure of a staccato phrase like "Worst. Night. Ever." If we always punctuated for "sound" rather than for sense (the period separates one idea from another), then period would happen all over the place, and there'd be no convention to rebel against. (That's what I try to tell those writers who are sure that one-sentence paragraphs are so exciting, you know-- "Not if you do it all the time!")

Anyway. Gerunds. Gerunds, like participles, are verbals, that is, they start with the verb form and change shape to create a new form and function. Now I am coming at this from the writing standpoint, not a linguistic one-- I'm hopeless there-- and as a writer, I do have more use for certain types of words and little use for others. So I get judgmental! And one thing I notice is that almost always, when a writer starts with a gerund or a participle, things go wrong. Just my observation, but once my co-blogger (we're both really harsh on introductory participial phrases, esp in fiction) challenged our readers to pull out a book they like, and pick out a page at random, and count the introductory participial phrases. They reported back, very surprised to find that the books they very much liked might have one of these IPPs, or none, on a page, but that most sentences were either variations of SVO, or a compound SVO, or maybe might have a prepositional phrase before the subject ("Last summer, we enjoyed Chardonnay at every stop in the Alps.") That is, I am not alone in "hearing" a bumptious grunt when a sentence starts that way. Of course, there is a reason for an IPP-- when the main action of the sentence occurs simultaneously with another action-- "Travelling in France, I developed an addiction for white wine and cassoulet." However, the purpose many of our commenters identified for the IPP had nothing to do with simultaneity of action, and everything to do with what had nothing to do with meaning and yet they considered important: Varying the opening of sentences. I tend to think if each sentence means something new, repetition of phrasing won't be a problem, and if it is, sentence combining is probably a more graceful way to vary rhythm. 

So... what has this to do with gerunds. Well, gerunds, like participles, are verbals. They started life as verbs. They are verblike things used as nouns. It is common in English and other languages for words to migrate from one part of speech to another, maybe changing some aspect, maybe not. ("Walk" the verb and "walk" the noun are distinguished only in context.) A gerund usually has the "ing" of a present participle (which can be an adjective or part of a verb-- "I am the attending physician, and I am attending the lecture") but takes on the role of a noun. Now that I think of it, gerunds used later in the sentence (same with participles) don't much bother me. ("I like swimming.") It's when a gerund is used as a subject that sentences often go astray. Why?

Hmm. Well, you know, with participles, Theresa says, "There are three things that can happen with participles, and two of them are bad." A participle can dangle, or be "squinting"-- isn't that a great term? And I'll add that when participles are made of stative verbs like "to be," they are generally unnecessary. ("Being an accountant, I'm good with numbers." Hmm. My being good with numbers is a result of my being an accountant? The two beings happen simultaneously? This connection might not be incorrect, but it's near to meaningless, and certainly doesn't give the vigorous impact I want of my sentences.) I'd also expand the "things that can go wrong with participles" to include another-- when the participle action is not simultaneous to the main action: Running down the stairs, I tied my shoes.

I like to think none of these would happen in our prose. However, I see these all the time, in theoretically edited work like articles in major magazines.

Where was I? Gerunds. Gerunds, like participles, have their birth in verbs. And so the whole point of a gerund, I suppose, is that it retains some of the qualities of a verb while taking on the role of a noun.  Well, like participles, gerunds should probably be connected to action (that is, not a stative verb, so "Knowing" as in the example is already problematic). Why? Well, stative verbs refer to -conditions- and so are not dynamic or "moving."  Stative verbs have an important function in that they express a condition or state. We aren't always inevitably in motion, and the stative verbs let us refer to objects/persons/nouns as having merely condition-- the conditions of being, having, and knowing being the most common. 

But most verbs are dynamic, and in fact we refer to verbs as "action words" because they fulfill a function really no other words can do, to show the motion and change of the nouns. "I ran across the room." How can we say that without the action word "ran" or a synonymous verb like "dashed?"

So anyway, when a gerund leaves verbhood to become a noun, what verbiness does it retain? Why use a verbal rather than a noun?  (Most gerunds have counterpart nouns, after all-- "knowing" has "knowledge." Interesting-- 'understanding" has "AN understanding"-- two different words, as one's a gerund -- no article-- and the other is a noun.) Well, if not the element of action (in a stative verb like "knowing"), the verb element is probably that this requires at least an implied subject (noun or pronoun). This isn't unprecedented. After all, a participle has an implied subject (whoever is doing the participle action), and when that conflicts with the adjacent sentence subject, the participle is said to dangle.

Is there such a thing as a "dangling gerund?" I don't know, but I think if we have a subject of "knowing," there's an implied actor in there-- "the one who has the knowing." That is, "knowledge," as a noun, can exist without someone or something making it happen. A rock is a rock. But "rocking?" there's a hand or a cradle or something in there with it. Knowledge, I'd say, can exist without a knower. That library over there exists even if no one enters it and reads. There are no doubt articles in obscure journals which are never read (I've written a couple of those :), yet that knowledge exists. Nouns exist. They are form. 

But "knowing?" Can that exist without a knower? Or does it maintain that verb quality, that if there's an action or a condition, there must be something experiencing it or causing it? 

So... long way around. I'm looking at that example clause (simplified to a SV -- subject/verb clause-- always a good technique with these complicated sentences, I think): "Knowing.... highlights and underscores." Whose knowing does that? Who has to know for the highlighting and underscoring to happen? If there is "knowing," doesn't there have to be a "knower"? 

The subject of the sentence should be important, I think. It's high-priced sentence real estate. What is doing what? With "knowing," I would be asking, "Who has to know for this to happen?"
Hmm. This all made sense a minute ago. Let's try another gerund with a perfectly good noun counterpart.

Experience (noun) is the best teacher.
Experiencing is the best teacher.

The second one begs for amplification: Who is doing this experiencing?

I know it's not really different from using the noun. But it is. By forcing in the verb aspect, we're inviting the reader to ask, "Who? What?" when we don't do that when we start with an equivalent noun.  
Often we put the implied subject later in the sentence, like.. Experiencing is the only way I learn. or  Knowing history helps journalists highlight and underscore patterns in political behavior.

As I said, I think this is more a problem-- more awkward-- early in the sentence, because the reader hasn't had enough cumulative knowledge of the sentence to make sense of this. Later, when the reader has absorbed the most of the meaning, he'll find it easier to parse the more anomalous elements. Context is all, and the beginning of the sentence establishes the context.

I certainly don't mean to ban any writing tool. I am, after all, the modifier's most stalwart defender. (Take that, EB White!!) And most of my antagonism to gerunds in the subject position is aesthetic (generally, they sound wrong). But I'd also ask, am I nuts here to think that there's an implied subject (or should be) with a gerund, and a subject shouldn't have an implied subject? 

I keep coming back to that notion that sentence order matters a whole lot-- that what's perfectly fine at the end of the sentence might not be as useful at the beginning. 

Does this make any sense? Are there examples in your writing or reading where gerunds as subjects have been more effective than a counterpart noun would have been? I know there are examples. ("Knowing" really is different from "knowledge".) I think that this might be more effective when there's a -process-, again, a more active word, like "Babysitting spoiled rich kids paid my way through college." (Notice that the implied subject is manifested in "my".)