Saturday, July 7, 2012

POV Choices

I've been trying to figure out for some time now how to blog about a book I'm reading without actually identifying the book. I don't want to hurt the author's feelings because I'm convinced the problems in the book are not her fault. I know her editor. I know the kinds of errors her editor routinely fumbles, and I keep thinking that experience will cure these problems -- she's still a new editor, in her defense, and she's still learning her job. Maybe once or twice a year, I will pick up a book this editor worked on just to see if she has figured out how to repair these things I keep spotting. The books are always brimming with unreached potential, and every time I finish one, I swear that the next time I see this editor, I'm going to take her aside and give her a few tips. Not that I'll ever actually do that -- but that is my standard response to one of her projects.

Without getting into too much detail, this is an historical novel with an actual historical event forming the spine of the plot. There have been other historical novels written about these events and people, both from the points of view of the central figures and from a meta-pov of a non-central actor who was impacted by these events. We probably have passed the tipping point of reader interest about this time and these people, and it would be hard to come up with a fresh angle.

But they tried. They chose as the pov character someone who witnessed the key events without actually being involved in them. With this choice, they were stuck with one inescapable fact. The pov character was a very young person when events began to unfold. We'll call the pov character VYP for Very Young Person. How young? Young enough to lack manual dexterity. Young enough to be incapable of basic daily tasks for the time period, such as riding a horse. So young that the meaning of the witnessed events would escape our pov character.

By the way, they chose first person pov, too. This created some difficulties with the plot because, in first person, it's very difficult to insert information not available to the pov character -- and the pov character in this case would have little ability to provide analysis or commentary. Imagine, for example, VYP at a big family party. Where would VYP naturally spend the party? In the company of other children, not at the grown-up's table, right? VYP might notice that certain adults spoke to other adults without being able to supply insight about the implications of those moments. VYP would be naturally more interested that cousin Johnny found a bug than that rich Uncle Frankie gave the family wastrel a loan. This leads to a problem in the text: how to provide the reader with information that would not be available to VYP.

As I see it, they had two workable options.
1 - Hack off the first third of the plot, which occurs when VYP was too young to grasp the events.
2 - Choose a different pov character.

Instead, they made a mistake I've seen over and over in works handled by this editor. They used narrative compression to try to patch the damage. Long passages -- pages and pages, even entire chapters -- summarize years of events in a sort of viewpointless exposition, with occasional dips into actual scene material from VYP's pov. It's like reading a long essay about the political situation interspersed with short bits where a tall person helps VYP get something down from a shelf. Six pages of family interrelations explained, then a half-page about what VYP ate for dinner.Nine pages about a war happening elsewhere, then a page about someone giving VYP a present.

It doesn't work.

The real-time scene material is too trivial, and the exposition is too compressed, too dense with facts, and too dull. And it went on this way for well over 100 pages. Out of curiosity, I checked the book's reviews to see if ordinary readers reacted the same way I did. Sure enough, in many reviews, people complained that they couldn't get into the story and that they were bored. I saw a few that said they did not finish the book.

We talk a lot about using a pov character who has something at stake in the events. In this case, the character did have something at stake (not much, but something), but lacked the maturity to understand that and the ability to convey it to the reader. So it has to be about more than the stakes. You have to choose a character who will serve as a good medium for the story. The reader will experience the events through the prism of this character's pov, and choosing a cracked prism will only distort the experience.



green_knight said...

Another option is first person ominiscient, aka first person with hindsight.

Now that I am old, let me tell you about the events of my childhood.

This allows the POV character to insert items they didn't understand at the time, or to report things and then add 'I would see him only one more time, ...'

I have to admit that it's probably my least favorite POV. I particularly loathe fevering with a character only for them to turn around to say 'of course, my actions were completely foolish, I should have done x' - because every time that happens I go 'but I just rooted for you to succeed, and now you call me stupid for thinking it might have worked? Goodbye.'

Edittorrent said...

It might have helped, but it still would have inserted a bit of awkwardness into the text. I'm not sure that the adult would remember with any clarity the events of these very early years. Bits and pieces, yes, but enough to set up a frame story? Probably not. But it's still a better option than the choice they made.


Iola said...

As a starting-out editor who hasn't yet faced this problem...

How, exactly, do you tell an author that the POV isn;t working and they need to rewrite the entire book from another POV?

Because isn't that what you are saying?

James Pray said...

It's frustrating to see stories hobbled by basic choices made poorly at the outset. At the editing stage, I could see the decision not to make one of the various clear-cut fixes (alter the POV, for instance) being called on the basis of time constraints, but I can't see any excuse for a writer getting to the end of a first draft and either a) missing or b) being unwilling to fix an issue so integral to the reader's experience.

Edittorrent said...

Lola, you tell them the pov isn't working and needs to be fixed. You say it gently, but you can't hold back on saying it at all. Present them with revision choices, if you can, because you want them to feel empowered and in control. If you just say, "This is bad," they'll respond negatively. If you say, "We can reach a better result by doing either A or B," they'll think it through and have a positive motivation.


Edittorrent said...

Kiolia, your point about scheduling is well-taken, but this house doesn't hesitate to shake up their calendar to create more time for revisions. At another house, though, this kind of printed problem can certainly result from schedule constraints.

Here's another angle to consider. This isn't the first book from this author at this house. So the author certainly sold on proposal. Didn't anyone notice the problem at the proposal stage? Apparently not.


Val Muller said...

Thanks for the insight. POV is one of the most difficult elements for a writer to "get." I have read many books in which POV was wrong, and to make up for it, important events are summarized while trivial events (like getting dressed or eating) are described in detail. Especially frustrating when the storyline/plot would otherwise be engaging.

James Pray said...

(aka Kiolia):

If they're willing to make the time for deep revision, but they lack the insight/skill/what-have-you to recognize the need for it, I suppose that puts them on an equal footing with houses whose people do see such issues, but don't have time to fix them. I feel like there's a lot more potential for improvement in the former, though.

I won't ask why offering your advice directly to this editor isn't appropriate (I'm sure there are good reasons), but I hope somebody does, sometime.

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