Point of View Tips and Tweaks

Look_close_macro_224801_lI spent yesterday afternoon reading a rewrite of a client's novel (at least the first part of it). He has struggled with point of view in the past, and I've nudged him mercilessly on it. So I was thrilled to see that he is mastering it!

Reading his manuscript brought to mind some tips on viewpoint that might be helpful to others. (Note: most people, myself included, use the terms viewpoint and point of view interchangeably.)Please note that this is not in anyway a definitive rundown on viewpoint. Volumes have been written on it.  If you need more info on viewpoint try this or this.  What follows are just some simple ideas that might help you if you get confused about it.

1.  Don't use omniscient.  Just don't, okay?  In my experience, most of the time the use of omniscient viewpoint turns out to be viewpoint violations galore.  Or laziness.  Whatever, omniscient viewpoint is hard to master and do correctly and it confuses the hell out of readers–which is a cardinal sin.  So don't do it.

2. I am a camera.  Or at least your character is one.  All he or she can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel is in her viewpoint.  It's in her head.  Not the other character's head, hers alone.  Sometimes I see subtle viewpoint violations, like, "Sandra noticed that Frank felt scared."  Sandra can't know that Frank feels scared because she's not in his head.  She can notice that he seemingly felt scared, or she can see an expression on his face that tells her he's scared.  If you get confused on this point, think back to the camera analogy.  

3.  Change viewpoints at the start of chapters or scenes.  It's fine to use multiple viewpoints.  All you have to do is be clear to the reader that you are doing so.  Don't switch points of view in the middle of a sentence or even a paragraph.  Do it at the start of a scene or chapter, and please also give us some hint of who we are switching to.

4. To denote a scene shift, use white space.  If you want to switch viewpoint in the middle of a chapter, its easy–just use white space to signal the reader.  White space is four single hard returns or two double hard returns.  If the white space falls at the top or the bottom of the page, show it with stars:  *  *  *  *  *, otherwise it might not be evident.  Note: you don't need to use stars or any other symbol to show white space if it falls anywhere else on the page.  That's why they call it white space.

5. If you struggle with staying clear on viewpoint, try first person.  This is a great trick, because first person is easy to stay true to–all you've got is that "I" viewpoint, after all.  You don't have to write a whole novel in it, but try a short story or a piece of flash fiction.  It will teach you the limits of viewpoint very quickly.

Okay, those are my quick tips.  Do you struggle with viewpoint?  How have you taught yourself to master it?

Photo by xptakis.

John Updike, 1932-2009

John Updike has died, of lung cancer.  You can read the New York Times obit here. 

I'm sad.  I didn't even know he was ill.  The obituary is one of those that has been on file for awhile and so doesn't talk a lot about the circumstances of his death.

Love him or hate him, he was a huge literary figure and he published over 50 books throughout his career.  The Times referred to him as "prolific, even compulsive." 

Not a bad epitaph, considering that so many of us struggle to even get words on the page.

(And, for those of you who thought I had gone to the same place as Updike, I assure you I'm still here.  I've got four, count 'em, four posts, written out to put up.  Circumstances in my life has been a bit, um, overwhelming shall we say.  My mother in a nursing home, my daughter deciding to get married in less than a month, a trip to Chicago for AWP to moderate a panel in a couple weeks and three ghostwriting projects.  Oh, and I just adopted my Mom's ancient, frail cat, who thinks the blind pug is a big scary beast out to eat her for breakfast when the truth is I'm not even sure he knows she exists.)

Reason Number 5 Gazillion for Writers to Be Happy This Week

Obama is literary.

He writes his own books and they are good–I just started reading The Audacity of Hope this week.  And even though I make most of my living as a ghost-writer, I applaud the man for writing it himself.  Honestly?  I do a great job of getting people's voices on the page, just as an actor inhabits his role, but there still is no substitute for the voice of the writer himself.  Okay, I can think of instances where this is not true, but in Obama's case it is.

Obama actually reads.  An AP story tells of the time he phoned Nobel laureate Toni Morrison to ask for her support, but first he told her how he admired her work and how much it had meant to him.  The story goes on to talk about Morrison's admiration for Obama's writing.  To quote, "Writers welcome Obama as a peer, a thinker, a man of words — his own words."  The article also quotes Pulitzer Prize winning author Jane Smiley and novelist  Ayelet Waldman.

 My buddy Roy just sent me a snippet from Poets and Writers, headlined, "Will a poet read at Obama's inauguration?"   In 1961, Robert Frost read at John F. Kennedy's inauguration; James Dickey read at Carter's in 1977, and Bill Clinton, of course, featured Maya Angelou.  So who, if anyone, will Obama choose?  According to Poets and Writers, poet laureate Kay Ryan has the inside track.

Writing and Reading Odds and Ends

1. Le Short Story.

From my buddy Roy, here's a nice essay on the short story.  Best quote from it:

"That grain of sand is the story’s salvation. I take my cue from William
Blake: “To see a world in a grain of sand.” Think of it: the world in a
grain of sand; which is to say, every part of the world, however small,
contains the world entirely. Or to put it another way: if you
concentrate your attention on some apparently insignificant portion of
the world, you will find, deep within it, nothing less than the world

The essay is by Steven Milhauser.

2.  Le Frenchman180px-Nobel2008Literature_news_conference1-1

In case you hadn't heard, a Frenchman won the Nobel Prize for Literature. 
His name is Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio and I'm embarrassed to admit I'd never heard of him until he won.  I'm intrigued by him, though, especially given that he divides his time between Albuquerque and France.   Check out the list of all the Nobel Prize winners at their website.  Its kind of a cool site.  Who knew?  (The photo at the right is of the announcement.)

3.  Le Weekend

I don't have a three.  It's Friday afternoon and I've been trying to get to my novel all day and so instead of casting about for some fascinating tidbit to balance out this post, I'm simply going to wish you a happy weekend and go write for a bit.

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