I’ve called this blog Points of View because that is what I’ve been thinking about, off and on, since the Romantic Novelists’ Association Conference two weeks ago.
Not just in a relation to writing, either, as you will see.
I admit, however, that I have been struggling for some time with POV issues. I’m in the process of an Absolutely Last Edit of a book that, when I first imagined it, had a first person vibe. It didn’t last and it has much improved as a result. But in some places the “I voice” has left an uncomfortable shadow.
At least, I think that’s the answer. Especially after a really excellent workshop on Psychic Distance from Emma Darwin.
I should say first that it was just lovely to go to a real time, real people RNA conference in the tried and tested atmosphere of student accommodation.
This year it was at Harper Adams University in Shropshire, where we have been before (in 2014 and 2017). We always get a great welcome and the breakfasts, designed to meet the appetites of young farmers in training, are truly memorable.
It was a terrific programme. I organised a couple of RNA Conferences many years ago and I know exactly how hard that is. Sessions surprised and challenged me.
Indeed one lively session sent me back to my room to change the first page of that Maybe Not Absolutely Last Edit. I had to miss lunch but I needed to strike while the iron was hot, and key criticisms were still ringing in my head
Not that missing lunch was a problem. In fact, it was probably a blessing. See previous paragraph re farmer’s breakfasts.
But from several points of view, including my own, one of the greatest benefits of going to university campuses is the Friendly Kitchens.
Student accommodation these days usually contains half a dozen rooms with a big communal kitchen on each floor of the block. That means we can get together with other like minds for meaningful literary exchanges over coffee or wine. Especially after dinner.
Over the years I’ve shared dark nights of the soul, successes, encouragement, advice, support, inspiration and a light bulb moment or two in these encounters. Genuinely creative.
And it’s particularly pleasant to be able to totter down the corridor to one’s bed after some of the late night convivialities. No conference hotel could compare.
Points of View on the Page – Head hopping
When my first book was published, I’d been reading fiction since I was four and writing it since I was about four and a half. I’d gobbled up the whole rainbow of Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books and the Child Ballads along with a load of other stories from the likes of Dickens, Jane Austen, Dennis Wheatley, Homer, Georgette Heyer and the Beano.
OK, so I hadn’t done any creative writing classes. But I kind of knew what I was aiming for. And mostly I got there, eventually. And then a reader told me she liked my books because there wasn’t any head hopping.
Head hopping, my then editor explained to me, was when an author, writing in the third person, shifted describing the action from the point of view of one character to that of another. Possibly several times.
What’s more, she said, readers wanted to stay tight behind the shoulder (or in “deep third”) of that one character for the whole scene.
If I’d managed it so far, it was clearly pure luck. I’d better stay alert from now on, or my luck might run out.
It was like being told to breathe mindfully. I can breathe. Or I can think about breathing. Not both at the same time.
I couldn’t write for months. It was ba-a-ad.
What made it worse was that, as far as I could see, all my beloved authors, from Homer to Heyer, head hopped sometimes. Although I’d never noticed before. And they wandered away from right behind the POV character’s shoulder all the time. AAARGH.
I decided to stop analysing and just write spontaneously. It seemed to work.
Points of View on the Page – a Spectrum?
But then I had this new challenge: a book that had started in first person and migrated to third for incontrovertible reasons.
Mostly I was happy with it. But there were now places that felt – well – clumsy in some places, distant and alienating in others. Was it a hangover from the first person version? Was I clutching my reader too tight to the new narrative?
So when I saw that Emma Darwin was giving a workshop on Psychic Distance at the Conference, I jumped at it.
And almost her first observation gave me a key. Point of View, she said, was best thought of not as a point set in concrete but a spectrum. And sticking to one focal point throughout a scene could be horribly monotonous.
(Yup, thought I. Stay up close and personal for too long and it starts to feel like hammer blows.)
A novel, she argued, has a rhythm of action and reflection. Similarly there is a rhythm of intimacy and distance.Definitely a light bulb moment for me.
Suddenly I know how I need to look at these unsatisfactory places: is the emotional distance right for what is happening? And, if necessary, is there a smooth transition between focal lengths?
Editing has just got creative again. Thank you, Emma.
Points of View of Publishing Professionals
Admittedly, I went along to the Slush Pile Slam just for fun.
The brain child of brilliant Janet Gover, current organiser of the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme, this is second cousin to The Voice. Except that the panel are not asked for a Yes or No. Instead they indicate the moment they know what they think about the first page which is being read aloud.
(Read by neutral third parties, I hasten to add. Brave conference goers submit their first pages, but they alone know if and when it is read out. For the rest of us, the pieces are anonymous.)
The panel on this occasion consisted of two editors and an agent.
Sometimes they knew immediately they would want to read on. Sometimes it was an instant “No more!” Mostly it was in the middle.
The real joy of this was that there was a goodly amount of instinct involved. Reactions had to be immediate. (They got through 19 first pages, if I remember right.) So the responses came straight from the gut.
And it was fascinating to watch the professionals work out why they a) were definitely interested b) would read on for a bit to see how it developed, or c) were going to stop right now.
Of course, some reasons were informed by experience – what they thought they could sell; what they knew was a popular trope. And some were purely personal, like the agent who hated books which started with people waking up in bed.
But, since they were unmediated by kindly-meant rational arguments for rejection, time and again I saw exactly why a first page was boring, or alienating, or just too bewildering to be worth sticking with. It was salutary.
And that’s the session that made me miss lunch in order to take a machete to my own page one. Thank you, Janet!
It made me take a carving knife to my first page, too, Sophie. Such a useful experience especially as no one ever sees my work until it’s finished and in the hands of my editor. Brilliant stuff, Janet.
Great, wasn’t it, Liz. Absolutely made me listen to my characters in a new way.
I was sorry to miss the conference this year, but I do remember that first Slush Pile Slam at Lancaster (I think it was). I can definitely relate to wanting to change a first page afterwards!
Focuses the mind wonderfully, doesn’t it?
The Slush Pile Slam was a great session. (Thank you, Janet!) For me, it reinforced how different the reactions of industry professionals can be. One may reject a MS out of hand; a second may love it. So we writers shouldn’t get too hung up about one editor or agent’s negative view of what we’ve written. Unless quite a few editors/agents react in the same way, with the same criticism, it’s probably best not to agonise over it. If it’s your own editor at your publisher, of course, you do have to pay attention 😉
I was interested to see that sheer instinctive personal reaction came before any consideration of whether the ms was marketable or not.
I suppose that makes sense. An agent or editor is going to have to work with it almost as intensely as the writer him/herself. It would be torture if they didn’t at least like it begin with.
Now I’ve got to go and look at my current first page again. Annoying, but really useful, thank you.
Let us speak further on this. Both Liz and I had a wake-up call, though from different bits of the session.
Jenny, thank you for this interesting round up. Glad you enjoyed Conference x
Glad you enjoyed my take on it, Sandra.
How fascinating. I would love to have attended both those sessions. They sound enlightening indeed. POV is a bugbear. I find when I re-edit old books that I was forever popping from one character to another. Sometimes it is so ingrained in the text, I can’t edit it out. Other times, I can jockey around a bit to cut back on the hops. These days, I write one scene from one POV, but do not necessarily sit on the character’s shoulder throughout. There are actions, etc to be included too. I think the idea of perspective and distance is interesting and very likely crucial. I certainly encourage others when I edit for them to stick to one POV in a scene as far as possible. But it can work to have even multiple POVs, as long as the transitions are smooth and don’t confuse the reader.
I think lots of readers don’t notice – or care, even if they do.
I’m the one who cares now I have noticed. But even so, sometimes the ear doesn’t hear what the subconscious has written.Thank heavens for editing tools we have these days!