My winter course offering at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, Introduction to Novel Writing, is now open for registration.
This class is about planning and starting a novel rather than busting pages… you brainstorm and evaluate a number of ideas, winnow them down to one contender, and strive to get a really good start on the opening. We talk about all the foundations for a novel: plot and characterization, of course, but also suspense, transitions, and the ever-important need to find joy in the project you’re working on.
Early registrants get a break on tuition; drop me a line if you have any questions.
If you’re further along with your novel, interested in screenplays, short fiction, or poetry or for any other reason would like to check out one of the program’s many other fabulous offerings, here’s a way in.
Quite a few new writers embark on their first novels using first person POV. Sometimes this POV, in past or present, is indeed le choix juste. Other times, it’s less considered and more of an accident.
What causes us to bumble down this road? There are plenty of reasons, but the two I’ve seen most are these. First, if you haven’t been writing short stories or fanfic* before embarking on noveling, for example, it’s quite likely that the inside of your protagonist’s head is shockingly like the inside of yours. Their voice is a lot like your voice. So why not let them just, y’know, talk? It’s comfortable, like the things you wear on the weekend when nobody’s coming to visit.
(*Seriously, fanfic is a stupendous** way to get out of your own head and practice POV, dialog and voice if you’re just starting out. Pick a show where your knowledge is extensive and your love runs deep. Grab a favorite character, and drive around in their skin for a scene or two. Switch to the character you like least. Give them the wheel. Compare the results with whatever you’re writing now.)
(**Note to self: get the word stupendous into more heavy rotation.)
Another reason people get drawn into first person sometimes is that if you haven’t been writing for long and are going at it instinctively but without any kind of theoretical grounding (that sounds lofty, I know, but it’s less about academic snobbery and more about knowing that sticking two boards together is easier if you have a hammer and nail, or at the very least a glue gun) you may have a sense that some kind of narrative voice is… necessary. But at the same time, you may not be sure how to make it happen. Reaching for a main character named “I,” in that situation, is something of an automatic response.
So, good choice or bad, you’re in it now. First person narrator. Damn the torpedoes. How are you most likely to suck?
By making I a self-centered narcissist: The only character in the story with any degree of depth is that narrator, whom we’ll now name Vorpal. Everyone Vorpal meets in this book is onstage to be something of a flappy-armed excuse for either conversation or action. When they’re snarky, they’re clearly the one in the wrong. When they do things that intensify the conflict, they come off as a bit irrational. What drives these people? Why are they tormenting poor Vorpal? Do we even know? Can we, let’s face it, even tell them apart?
A thing about first person as a narrative choice is that you are always going to see Vorpal’s perspective most clearly… and so the characterization of everyone else has to be filtered through their perceptions. In exchange for an intense and intimate portrait of one person, you get an entire cast of other characters who can only be drawn from the outside. And that’s hard! So you can make your narrator cool and capable, a top neurosurgeon-type who designs Prada-quality bags in their spare time, and also has recorded a hit song for the new Buckaroo Banzai reboot… but if Vorpal is also an insensitive blockhead–someone who doesn’t notice things about the other characters or occasionally try to empathize with them–chances are great that your story will fall flat.
I verb, I verb, I verb. It is the truth universally acknowledged that new writers will often fall into a pattern of describing action with a long string of sentences that open with a character name and then an action.
I walked down the street and got the paper. I opened it up, and immediately saw the Wanted poster for Danny McGrew. Then I ran back home to tell Mom.
“Vorpal,” I heard her say, as she flapped her arms in surprise, “How do you find time to run down fugitives between your neurosurgery practice and Fashion Week?”
I replied, “I’ve just coded the most stupendous time management app ever!”
This is a habit to break no matter what POV you’re writing in. Obviously. Varied sentence structure = good, okay? But an additional effect of a passage like this when written in first person is that the reader’s ear picks up on the sound of someone endlessly yakking about themselves. Which is alienating – it can make us dislike even a pretty great character.
The surging oceans of inner turmoil are just gonna make us seasick. One of those two-dimensional crazy-ass supporting characters has just stormed off-stage, after giving Vorpal shit they probably did not deserve. And now, we get the unmitigated treat of three pages of: “How could they say that? Don’t they know my heart is forever theirs, and also I’m busy performing the Twelve Labors of Hercules here, on a budget I might add, and maybe this is a good time to mention again that I have post traumatic stress disorder and to launch a long flashback to the Maiming Fields of Kansasland. I felt so betrayed…”
Not only can this verge perilously close to whining–another thing that can drain a reader’s sympathy well–but it is the sort of thing that can happen without giving us a single sensory image. We might as will be in a dark room listening to a monologue. Action stops. The gnash of a broken heart is everything.
Contortionist fail. Meanwhile, halfway through the book, it suddenly occurs to you that Vorpal really cannot be present to witness the pivotal sex scene between their cheating life partner and their fellow stage magician, Burn the Magnificent. Can you fudge it with “Vorpal knew…?” No, we see what you did there. How many times can you get away with them eavesdropping on the other characters? Get off that windowledge, Vorpal, they deserve their privacy and you don’t want them calling the cops or, Chaos forbid, shooting at you. After Kansasland, you can’t really blame Burn for carrying that rifle around.
Can Vorpal pose as the hotel videographer? No.
Maybe no one will notice if you just dash behind the curtain, switch into third person for a minute, and let Burn take the mic. But are they a fully-realized and intriguingly voiced Burn, or just a 3rd person Burn who sounds a lot like Vorpal, right down to the accent, class, and education? It doesn’t matter, does it? Burn never takes center stage again. Hey, at least they got laid.
And indeed, maybe no one will notice.***
I’m just saying: sometimes these things are less glaring if you’ve thought them through earlier in the novel.
(***Actually, I’m just being polite. We’ll notice.)
The stuff Vorpal doesn’t know is way too important to share. Here your plot is headed in a super-mysterious direction, but nobody will tell poor Vorpal what’s going on. Because Vorpal’s probably pretty smart, right? If the other characters just ante up the info, obviously we’re all going to beeline to the end of the book. So instead you have the other characters swan onstage, make a few murky pronouncements, and then hightail it. Your narrator is confused and so are we. That’ll keep us hanging in for the middle ten chapters, right?
Or maybe not. Maybe you’re just being obscure, denying Vorpal their agency, and generally failing, as Kelly puts it, to get in there with the monkeys.
Now it is true that a lot of these pitfalls can arise with any POV. But first person is especially pitiless. It’s not a large cast opera, where the soprano spells off the tenor, and then they fall in love and the servants have to gossip pianissimo for it for awhile, and then a long bass versus bass smackdown breaks out, and anyway it’s opera so nobody expects the plot to make sense. First person POV is a solo concert: one point of view and the spotlight glaring down, hot enough to fry an egg. If we aren’t fascinated by Vorpal or at the very least inclined to like them as a person, we have nothing else–no other voice, no other perspectives, nothing but that hot Burn sex scene–to look forward to as the story unfolds.
If there’s one behind-the-scenes element of writing that you should know–one technical issue you ought to understand going in–my belief if that it’s this: point of view. Go with first person, but don’t fall into it by mistake. Choose wisely, and story well. Vorpal will thank you for it.
I wrote a post here, called X-Men: Days of Boresville.
This part of the sample critique I was writing was going to be all about how you don’t do it… how you say unkind things and mock the story. So! The snark demo seems to be covered in the pre-existing post.
Wow, I hated this film. It made me so angry. The central problem I had with the story, the part that offended all of my sensibilities, was that the past-tense storyline played out in 1973, during the U.S. military action in Vietnam. There were scenes set in a number of interesting Vietnam-related situations, including the Paris peace talks.
How cool, right? You could do a million things with that!
Part of the point was to show how the military industrial complex is always looking for their next big villain, the next reason why billions of dollars have to be spent on bigger and shinier weapons instead of, you know, food or bandaids. It’s Germans! No, it’s Communists! Brown Commies! Wait, it’s mutants! OMG!
So far, so good. The possibilities for exploiting this historical period, of creating a mutant-flavored alternate history of the Vietnam War are incredible. It wouldn’t have been off-topic, or separate from the point–we’re talking about a movie that already made the time and space to use this material. But instead, 1973 and its events were set dressing. Meaningful use of the historical subject matter verged on zero.
As a single example, let’s talk about the way Charles is taking drugs that mess with his telepathy so he can walk. The so-called serum is pitched as medication, but there’s also this ongoing cinematic dance, within the direction, that has Charles looking more than a little like an addict. They don’t have the guts to actually make him one, though.
Do I want junkie Charles? Not necessarily. Addicts and their stories are not my favorite thing. But if I’m going to have to watch him inject himself and act all withdrawaly anyway, why not take the opportunity to do some bravura characterization on this so-beloved character?
Consider: you have a teacher whose whole life is about saving mutants from their own powers and from societal discrimination. Now his school is in ruins because his students are being drafted and sent to Asia. But Charles is gleefully shooting chemicals into his arm not because he cannot bear that terrible reality. And not even because he’s a telepath, and if he keeps his powers he might feel those kids he’s linked to as they kill and die and experience unimaginable horrors. Good heavens, no!
He’s taking the serum because he doesn’t like being in a wheelchair.
Now being shot and paralyzed is a traumatic thing, I’ll grant you. And I understand that Charles isn’t meant to be all grown up and stable yet. But what’s stronger? Taking the opportunity to imagine how a compassionate and caring guy like Xavier would be affected by a war that would inevitably use his people more and harder than ordinary folks? Or being asked to care because he has to choose between superpowers and walking?
Moving on from my previous post about Die Hard, workshop etiquette and providing fictional/film examples, here’s what I’d say about The Imitation Game. This is the problematic stuff, and would come later in the critique than the section where I praised the characterization, the weighty and worthwhile subject matter, and the general structure of the story, which holds together in a decently coherent fashion.
Hi, Graham and Morten,
- Though the story moves from beat to beat in a logical manner, and is effective in achieving the desired emotional effect, it lacks subtlety. The story feels heavy-handed, on the nose, as if the characters are bellowing slogans like, “War is bad!” and “It takes more than guns to win these things!” and “Look at this amazing maladjusted smart guy and all the people he saved!” and “Wow, isn’t it horrific and amazing that every day he and his band didn’t solve the problem, all sorts of people died?” I’m not saying it doesn’t work, but it’s fundamentally clunky.
- The details of your chosen historical period and the military/intelligence community are for the most part accurately rendered, but you have chosen to simplify the chain of command by making Turing and his guys seem responsible for an enormous swath of military action, including calling or cancelling bombing raids. I understand why simplifying is often a good choice, but it’s less interesting, in this case, than if you tried to hint at the complexity.
- Turing’s male sidekicks are somewhat slenderly characterized. They blend together in my mind, forming something of a multi-headed bully when they’re not on his side and a multi-headed cheerleader when they are. The only one who stands out at all is the fellow with a brother in the Navy. That’s less about characterization and more about the story attached to him.
- I’m not sure what I think of you showing us apple and cyanide during the story, foreshadowing the manner of Turing’s death, without explicitly saying that he poisoned himself. Apples have both Biblical and fairy-tale freight, and I wonder if you couldn’t do something more with this.
All of the above is clear and yet it’s respectfully worded. It’s not so “nice” that the intent is lost, but it doesn’t try to snark, show off my huge brain, or score points.
It would be easy to push that line, especially with the first item. I could simply add a touch of sarcasm to the sentences I use to illustrate the story’s various points. (Even if I tool the last one up slightly “Gee willikers, do you all get that every day Turing and his plucky band didn’t solve the problem, all sorts of people died?” the tone changes.)
The exercise here, if you missed the previous post, is to critique a movie that many people will have seen, as if it were actually a novel or short story submitted to one of my classes. It’s a chance to practice critique. And to get to say, “Dear Francis Ford Coppola, about this thingie you’ve written…” Which is just, I hope, fun.
Next in this series, we will discuss my deep and abiding hatred of the most recent X-Men movie.
I was having an online conversation recently with one of my novel-writing students about reading more thrillers–because she’s writing one–when one of her classmates chimed in with a question.
It boiled down to this: “How do you learn to write from reading? Is there an article explaining how that works?”
A number of answers occurred right away. There are so many ways to learn from reading other authors, living and dead. It’s a huge question. We learn from a form of osmosis, for example: simply by reading books for pleasure, we absorb some sense of how sentences are supposed to sound, proper grammar, new vocabulary, the idea of voice, fundamentals of worldbuilding, word play, plotting, and how to structure a variety of points of view. Everything we want to try, in fiction, is in a book somewhere.
If we want to try out some particular literary technique, chances are it’s because we read it in a book somewhere. I structured the Indigo Springs frame story as I did, in part, because I wanted to understand novels like Katherine Dunn’s exquisite and heartbreaking Geek Love.
We can break down a book we love or admire–examine it scene by scene, plot point by plot point, character journey by character journey. We can outline it, draw graphs, shuffle around cards with the story components jotted on them, all to better understand its structure. On the micro level, we can become better prose stylists by examining small pieces of writing within larger works, the passages that make your heart beat faster, the ones that sing within the mind’s ear because they’re just that effective. (Or, sometimes, the opposite. Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places has some deeply annoying comma splices, which break up its rhythm quite badly.)
Many of you already know I do this, using my text fragment collection.
Moving off the beaten track of this topic, there are also a number of books and movies about readers and writers, pieces that are instructive. They’re fiction, is what I’m saying. But they can add to your understanding of craft, or discipline, or process. A somewhat frivolous example would be the romantic comedy Music and Lyrics, which–amid the tasty froth of a boy meets girl tru luff always storyline–sneaks in some hard truths the value of art, the persistence and commitment it requires, genre snobbery, writer’s block, trying too hard, and giving up too soon. All that and Drew Barrymore, too!
Or, if you want something loftier in this vein–not to mention thoroughly wonderful–go pick up Alan Bennet’s novella “The Uncommon Reader” It’s about the birth of a writer, a certain eminent person who takes up reading comparatively late in life and who does nothing, for most of the story, but read, read, and read some more. If you want a fictional and yet true answer to “How do you learn to write from reading?”, this is very much it. And the beginning of that answer? Learn to read. Or, rather to read. Not glancingly or inattentively, but with passion, intent, and thoughtfulness.
(This novella is, btw, quirky and delightful. You’ll laugh.)
I hope to have more on this subject in the future, and perhaps not just from me. In the meantime, what do you all think?