Review: Life after Life

This novel by Kate Atkinson won the Costa Novel Award in 2013. Her novel, A God in Ruins,which I greatly admired, also won the Costa. I wasn’t quite as taken by her third World War II novel, Transcription, but I was fascinated by the blurb on the back cover of Life after Life: “What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?”

Kate Atkinson

The novel begins in 1910 with the birth of Ursula Todd into an upper class English family in the London suburbs. There is a heavy snowstorm at the time and the doctor is unable to reach the house. The chord is wrapped around the baby’s neck, and unfortunately, she died. But there is another version where a 14 year-old maid recognises the problem, cuts the chord and the baby survives. And there is another version in which the doctor arrives in time. Similarly, when Ursula is a toddler at the beach with her older sister, they wade out into the sea and they are struck by a huge wave. Ursula drowns. No, she is saved by an elderly artist on the beach. Then, there is the time when she is taken advantage of as a teenager by the American friend of her brother and becomes pregnant. Or is she? No, she bats him away.

The story continues to the run up to the war. Ursula visits a family in Munich where she meets Eva Braun and her older lover, Adolf Hitler. Ursula’s family includes some remarkable and memorable characters, like her aunt, Izzie, who is a loose cannon socially, financially and romantically. Then there is Teddy the much-loved younger brother who becomes a bomber pilot and is killed in the war. Or no, he was shot down, parachuted, spent the remainder of the war in a prison camp, and finally made his way home.

Ms Atkinson’s descriptions of the London blitz of 1940 when Ursula worked as an area warden are astonishingly authentic, the settings devastating and the characters memorable. There are so many twists and turns in Ursula’s life, that one can’t be away from the story for very long.

There is a passage which occurs at the beginning and the end of the book in which Ursula assassinates Hitler in 1930 in a Munich cafe with a family handgun which she takes from her purse. She, in turn is killed in both versions, yet she lives to work into the 1950’s. Perhaps this is just her imagination of how the war may not have been.

For me, the idea of living one’s life again until one get’s it right is misleading and doesn’t actually happen in the book. Rather, it is a question of slightly different circumstances and reactions of the characters which make for a different result. So, the point for me is how a small bit of fortune – or misfortune – can dramatically change one’s life.

Car Crashes

Harry Bingham of Jericho Writers had some interesting thoughts in his email of a couple of weeks ago.

He said, “Let’s talk car crashes.”

“What if you have a writing car crash? A complete and total failure?

And, by the way, we need to be a bit careful to define terms here. If you’re writing your first novel and you make some plotting cock-ups, that’s not a failure – that’s just writing.

If you complete your work, edit it hard, then come to us for a manuscript assessment, only to be told that there are still a lot of issues, that too is not a failure. It’s just writing.

Same thing, indeed, if you go through the whole process, and send your stuff out to agents, and get some agents wanting to see the full manuscript only, ultimately, to say no. That’s disappointing, of course, but really, that’s a success. You wrote your very first novel and got it good enough, on that first outing, to have serious agents toying with the idea of taking you on? How is that not impressive?

So, yes, I have high standards for what constitutes a car crash. I think the key ingredients are (A) your work is way below the standard to be expected from someone of your experience – plus, (B) you’re completely in the dark about how bad things are. If you have the first element without the second, you don’t have a car-crash, you just have an unresolved editorial problem, and we all have those. Again: that’s just writing.

But, even on a strict definition, I had a total car crash early in my career – my only really bad experience.

I’d already sold my first book, via a highly contested auction, and the book went on to be a bestseller. So: good outcome, right?

Better still, I’d delivered the draft of my second book before the first was even launched. So: good author, right?

The trouble was that second book was AWFUL. I haven’t kept a draft of it and never re-read it, so I now only have a nightmare-style recall of what was in it. But – plotting, bad. Elevator pitch – worse. Writing – subpar. Characters – patchy and (yeugh) a bit icky too.

The draft was so bad that I got called into HarperCollins’ nice London offices for an editorial discussion. My editor and publisher, both very nice humans, told me – gently – how bad the book was.

I didn’t need a lot of telling. I wasn’t defensive. As soon as they started to talk it through, I realised they were right. Luckily, I had plenty of time to do a re-write. So I got home, copied the document into a Drafts folder that I could plunder for paragraphs here and there, then selected the whole document and hit delete.

This bestselling author had just deleted his second novel.

My redraft was about a million times better than the version before, and it was still the least good thing I’ve ever written. But it’s also where I really learned to be a writer. My first novel had just come too easily. The core idea had been a good one. My delivery was fine, or more than fine. But the absence of struggle had also meant an absence of knowhow. I’d read nothing at all about the craft of writing. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might need to do so. (We all know how to write, no? You just glue enough sentences together.)

That second novel was a wrestling match, start to finish. I read every book I could find on craft. I didn’t agree with everything I read, but even the process of disagreeing made me more reflective, more considered.

And that second book didn’t do badly. I got a sort-of film deal for it, which admittedly never quite materialised. The book was shortlisted for one of the big annual writing prizes. It sold a plump five-figures number of copies.

I still don’t love the book, but it did OK.

My reasons for offering you this story is threefold:

1. Car crashes happen

They’re not terminal. Don’t fret. Move on.

2. Use them to learn

I’m a huge believer in the importance of craft.

Writing technique is the sword and shield that protects you from disaster. It won’t protect you from mistakes – nothing does. But the better your basic writing craft, the quicker you’ll pick those issues up and the more rapidly you’ll solve them.

3. Protect yourself

The best way to avoid major problems, however, is to stop making them in the first place. The single strongest tool you have for doing that is a powerful idea for your book. The stronger that idea, the better your delivery is likely to be – and the less any errors of execution are likely to matter. Dan Brown is the ultimate exemplar here. He is a poor writer – but his Da Vinci Code idea was (for his particular market niche) one of genius. You could, I guess, say the same about EL James and Shades of Grey, except that her writing is even worse.

The reason I called my own personal car-crash a worst-best experience is because it made me a far better writer. It was the single biggest learning development of my writing life.

My first book was gifted to me. The rest? They were all worked for. And if I’m technically competent now, that’s largely because of the kick in the pants I got from that terrible second novel of mine.”

Faith, Law & Writing

On Writer’s Digest (16-04-22), bestselling author Robert Whitlow talks about how he combines writing what he knows with writing what he’s passion about—faith and law—and how his characters get to that crossroad.

Robert Whitlow

Robert Whitlow is a film-maker and a best-selling author of fifteen legal thrillers. He is also a contributor to a short story The Rescuers, a story included in the book What The Wind Picked Up by The ChiLibris Ring. In 2001, he won the Christy Award for Contemporary Fiction, for his novel The Trial.

Mr Whitlow says, ” My newest novel, Relative Justice, sits squarely in the middle of the crossroads of faith, law, and writing. Well, maybe faith and law. The characters leave the writing part to me. But the journey referred to in the title of this article is often lived out by the fictitious people who inhabit the pages of the stories I write. How do my characters get to this crossroads? What are the rewards of the journey?

Let’s start with the law, not faith. In the real world, ethical attorneys (and the vast majority of lawyers I’ve known over the past 43 years as an attorney are ethical) don’t knowingly misrepresent the facts or the law. They strongly advocate for their client’s recollection of what took place and why the law should be applied in a certain way, but they don’t make up facts or evidence to deceive a jury or mislead the court. When writing about the law, believability of character is linked to accurate portrayal of the legal process.

One of the axioms repeated countless times at writer’s conferences is “write what you know.” Knowledge empowers creativity. By writing based on knowledge, an author can craft a story with nuance, texture, and freedom from stereotypes. I’m from the South. I’ve lived my entire life in Georgia, South Carolina, or North Carolina. My professional career has been spent as an attorney. I write southern, legal dramas, and I populate my novels with people drawn from the cultural soup I’ve eaten since I was a small child.

So, when writing a novel containing legal elements, I enter the creative arena with an awareness about the world of the law—trials, investigation, depositions, motions, client relationships, law office politics, etc. That knowledge is obtained either by direct experience, observation, or research. These are all a form of “knowing.” Only then can a story achieve the acceptance awarded by a discerning reader. Courtroom time can be compressed, cross-examination shortened, and shocking surprises inserted. But no writer wants a reader to stop in the middle of a chapter and inwardly think, “There’s no way anything like that could happen in real life!” Such a tragic moment takes the reader out of the world the author created and boots them into a place from which he or she may never return.

Relative Justice is a story about a small, southern law practice consisting of family members preparing to battle a behemoth drug company. It’s a David versus Goliath scenario. Every lawyer has a few rocks in his sling, but do the attorneys in the novel have the right ammunition and skill needed to slay a giant? If not, is there another way to legally bring down an imposing enemy? That’s the law part of the journey.

A second, less common axiom for writers is “write what you’re passionate about.” That’s equally important. For me, that means incorporating faith into the lives of my characters. Not every character, but faith is strategically interwoven into the lives of some of the people who inhabit my books. And because the world of faith is someplace I “know,” based on experience, observation, and research, it’s possible to achieve the goal of credibility. The reader may not agree with a character’s expression of faith (neither do I in every instance), but what a character believes and how it impacts life can be told in a way that fits with the flow of the novel to the intersection for faith and writing.

To safely arrive at this intersection, it’s necessary to avoid writing what I call “a crusader novel,” a story in which the writer has an agenda or message that the characters can’t carry. This doesn’t just happen in the Christian fiction genre. There are crusader novels written about many topics: environmentalism, race relations, and political agendas, to name a few. A book is relegated to this category when the author’s opinion becomes intrusive (preachy) and overrides the capacity of the characters to convey the message in a legitimate way consistent with who they are.

There’s nothing wrong with characters having opinions about a topic. But the writer must provide them with the background, education, or life circumstances that can justify what they believe and express. In Relative Justice, there are characters with various levels of faith or no faith at all. I take them as I find them and discover where a faith journey might believably take them, just as it occurs all the time in real life.”

Edgar Allen Poe on Vivid Writing

The http://www.writerswrite.co.za website has a compilation of advice from famous writers on writing.

“Edgar Allan Poe was an American author, poet, editor, and literary critic. He was born 19 January 1809, and died 7 October 1849.

Edgar Allen Poe

He was one of the first American short story writers. He is known as the inventor of the detective fiction genre, and for contributing to the emerging science fiction genre. His works include classics like The Raven and The Fall of the House of Usher.

Poe was ahead of his time in his writing. He understood that less is more and he had a critical plan for each piece that he wrote.

In his essay, ‘The Philosophy of Composition’, he explains the elements that make up a good story. Poe takes us through the creation of his poem, ‘The Raven’. He says he selected this well-known work to show that nothing is in it by accident. He writes ‘…that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.’”

“Here are five tips that Poe gives on vivid writing:

  1. The work should have a vivid, original effect. He writes ‘Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?’ He says that tone and incident should be worked together to have the desired effect (mood) on the reader, ‘whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone’.
  2. Do not overwrite. To have the desired effect, it should be read in one sitting. He says, ‘if any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression.’ Obviously, novels do not necessarily fit this rule, but he believed this was essential for effect. Perhaps our modern unputdownable novels with shorter chapters have the same effect on the reader. The ideal length for a poem, he says, is one hundred lines.
  3. Know the ending before you begin. He believes you need to know this to be able to plot effectively. He says, ‘Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.’
  4. Choose a setting that works for the story. Poe first decides what he wants to say in the poem, or rather what he wants the characters to say, and only once that is in place, does he decide where to set the poem. He says he needed to bring the lover and the Raven together in a specific way, ‘— and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields — but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident: — it has the force of a frame to a picture.’
  5. The tone should reflect the theme. He says the choice to allow the raven, a bird of ill omen to repeat one word, ‘Nevermore’, in a monotonous, melancholy tone at the end of each stanza allowed him to ask: ‘Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy? Death — was the obvious reply.’ The melancholy tone echoes the theme of death.”

Review: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Having never read any James Joyce, I decided I should start with something shorter, that Ulysses. I am disappointed, but not put off enough to abandon the idea of tackling Ulysses.

Joyce was born in 1882 into a middle class family in Dublin. He was educated at Catholic schools and universities, a brilliant student. In 1904 he met his future wife and they moved to mainland Europe. He published a book of poems, Chamber Music, and a short story collection Dubliners, before serially publishing Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ulysses was published in Paris in 1922; it’s publication in the UK and the US was prohibited because of its perceived obscenity until the mid 1930’s. In 1939, the next major work, Finnegan’s Wake, was published. He died Zurich in 1941 shortly after surgery for a perforated ulcer at the age of 58.

James Joyce

Portrait is set in Dublin in the late 1800’s and is narrated by an omniscient, neutral third person, except for some stream of conscious in the final chapter. It traces the experiences of its protagonist, Stephen Daedalus, from his childhood to his early 20’s. Stephen is a bright, perceptive individual, but he lacks self-confidence, and his relations with classmates are somewhat difficult. The themes in the novel are family: his father is a heavy drinker and an unreliable bread-winner. His mother is kind and loving but dedicated, uncritically, to the Catholic church. The church restricts Stephen’s desire for artistic freedom, and there is likewise a tension in his image of women: virginal purity vs prostitute. There is also tension in Stephen’s view of Ireland and its culture: loyalty to its homely comforts vs a ‘nation of clodhoppers’. Amidst all this conflict, Stephen searches for his own identity: priest vs artist. He chooses the later, leaving family, Dublin and the church behind. Joyce’s innovative techniques, including stream of consciousness, internal monologue and description of a characters psychic state rather than his actual surroundings.

Joyce’s prose is certainly captivating; one never has a doubt of what is going on in Stephen’s mind, but, for me, sometimes it seems too detailed. I felt that there was to much of it, that it would be better to show rather than tell. Do we have to know exactly how he was feeling? Would not a hint now and then suffice? Let the reader pick up the thread.

Some of the scenes in the novel seemed superfluous or repetitious in their effect.

But my largest complaint about Portrait is that my edition had over fifty pages of footnotes, so that one had to continually flip back and forth. Some of the footnotes had to do with Dublin places or real Irish people, and might be skipped. But many others were translations of Irish word or Latin phrases, and were a necessary aid to comprehension. One has the impression of a novel set in a particular time and place, and that therefore its issues and messages may not be transferable. For me, this rules it out as a classic.

Writing Sex Scenes

Sharon Short’s final segment on Point of View hasn’t been published yet, so let’s look at writing sex scenes. Jessica Martin has a piece in Writer’s Digest titled ‘How to Write a Sex Scene Like Nobody Is Watching’.

Jessica Martin is a lawyer by trade, a writer by choice, and a complete smart ass by all accounts. Based in the suburban wilds of Boston, Jess shares her life with a finance geek, a small sass-based human, and a pair of dogs named after Bond characters.

Jessica Martin

Ms Martin writes, “There are some key scenes in your typical rom-com that writers have to nail. Chief among them is the sex scene. But writing one can stir up all sorts of feelings: anxiety, excitement, a bone deep certainty that if you write a bad one, no one will ever let you live it down. It runs the gamut and while every writer has a different strategy, here’s mine.

The name of the game is distance.

First up physical space. To actually write a sex scene like nobody is watching it helps if nobody is actually watching. For me, this means leaving my house because although I have a perfectly good writing space, there’s a six-year-old beastie who likes to barge in and demand to know why caterpillars don’t eat meat. Or whether you can hear a fish fart under water. Kid, I have no idea how to answer that.

This house I speak of is also occupied by two scheming dogs who lie in wait until I’m in a writing groove. They drop their heads on my leg and drool until I have no choice but to submit to the world’s most devastating puppy dog eyes, bursting with longing that only translates into one thing: Hey human, go fetch me a snack, will you?

And then there’s the husband.

I hope this isn’t shocking to anyone here, but I’ve had sex with him. I don’t want to think about him when writing a sex scene, because I’m pretty sure that violates the sanctity of the marriage pact or something—I don’t know, it’s just weird.

In any event, I vacate the house when I need to write a scene that involves the words thrust, pant, or moan. During COVID, there weren’t a ton of options for non-germy solitude, so I wrote the majority of these scenes in the front seat of my car parked in a state forest. Wearing a ratty hoodie and sucking down tea from a thermos for warmth. Hey, I live in New England and the nights are chilly. You know what else the nights were like in that state forest? Decidedly, not private.

What I didn’t realize is that after the park shuts down for the day, it’s apparently a hotbed of illicit activity. As teens swarmed the woods armed with their flashlights and pilfered booze, they would sometimes comment on the weirdo sitting alone in her car and wondering if I was a NARC. So, I’d need to wait until they’d dispersed into the woods like horror movie cautionary tales before I could get down to the good stuff.

OK, so now I’m physically alone. Now I need to be mentally alone.

Recently, I was out to dinner with my boss, who casually mentioned he’d bought 50 copies(!) of my book for our entire legal team. I was incredibly touched but also momentarily panicked as I sputtered that it was a rom-com … and when the room went silent, I blurted out, “There’s a sex scene.”

As every eye in the room turned to regard me, a colleague asked, “What kind of sex scene we talking here?”

“A tasteful one,” I replied archly (or at least nonchalantly. Please let me be remembered as being calm and cool in that moment).

It wasn’t like I hadn’t thought about it before, it was just that interaction finally drove home that someday, somewhere, my husband, parents, kid brother, my actual kid (when she graduates to books without pictures), friends, neighbors, coworkers, former classmates whose Instagram accounts I follow but otherwise wouldn’t recognize, my incredibly bendy yoga instructor and a whole host of others might one day pick up my book and wonder, SO THAT SEX SCENE, IS SHE DRAWING FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE?

While I freely admit to stealing snatches of conversation (especially insults, I love standing behind teenagers in lines), character traits I admire in my friends, and sometimes wholesale shenanigans from my free-wheeling law school days, I draw the line at digging into my own personal cache of sexcapades. Why? Frankly, because I’d like to look that subset of people in the eyes again. Call me a prude, but I like to have a bit of an air of mystery about me. That and I don’t want anyone thinking about my sex faces.

But I’ll peel back the curtain and allow you a peek into my process.

There I am, sitting alone in a car in a dark forest (OK, that sounds creepy, but bear with me) and I warm up by watching YouTube compilations of my favorite on-screen couples. You know the ones, set to angsty music where beloved characters eye each other across a room, a shared smile passing between them. Or maybe it’s that near brush of the lips or a finger tracing a bare collar bone, a shirt goes up and over the head. For me it’s less about what the characters are actually doing and more about that delicious moment of mutual (and completely consensual) commitment to the path of no return, no going back to being friends or enemies or indifferent strangers—it’s on.

Once I’m there, then I imagine my characters, their expressions, their voices, their sex faces (not mine, thank you very much) and what the timbre of their sex scene is. Is it slightly humorous, two people fumbling around knocking stuff over in their jubilant haste to get to one another? Is it full of murmured teasing as one character deliberately seduces the other? Is it rushed but somehow decadent because it’s going down somewhere where any moment our lovers could be discovered?

That’s the feel part.

Then comes the mechanics. I cannot remember where this nugget of wisdom originated, but someone once told me that sex scenes are like fight scenes. Watch the hands. I love this, because it makes me go back and smooth out the scene once I’ve finished with the heady feeling part to make sure it all syncs up. For example, if his pants were carelessly discarded like caution to the wind on the floor a moment ago, as he slides up her body, his hands worshipfully tracing the topography of her hips, then he shouldn’t be reaching for protection in his pocket, right? It has to be in the bedside table or if they’re outside, maybe she’s the resourceful one who still has pants on and whips out the foil packet with a triumphant cry? Details count.

Once I’ve nailed the feeling and true up the details, I break the veil of solitude, I leave the deep dark woods (I’m sure you psych majors are having a field day). I slip back into being a lawyer, a wife, a mother, that person who almost always uses a turn signal when changing lanes. I send the sex scene to my beta readers, then my agent and my editor. I’ll ask them, “This isn’t gross, right?” and that’s usually all I need to feel confident that it’s there.

At least until someone tells me they bought fifty copies of it and they’re giving it to all my coworkers.”

Point of View: How Close?

This is the second in a three part series written by Sharon Short for Writer’s Digest.

Sharon says, “Just how “into” your narrator’s head and heart do you want your readers to be? Do you want them to feel emotionally embedded with your narrator(s)? Or observe your characters’ experiences from afar? What emotional distance (close, far, or a mix) should you strike to achieve the best point of view for your story, novel, or memoir?

The answer, of course, depends on the type of story you’re telling as well as the experience you want your readers to have.

Luckily, you don’t need to know the answer before you begin writing—though it’s fine if you do. Somewhere in the process of drafting and revising, you’ll need to figure out the emotional distance that’s right for your story’s point of view (POV)—and your readers.

Deep POV—or Not?

A common pearl of wisdom is first person is more personal and immediate than third or omniscient—after all, the narrator is telling their story directly to the reader.

Consider this example:

I had to stay late for work, and as I was driving home, I wondered whether mac ’n’ cheese from a box would be OK for dinner, and I hoped that tonight I could finally get my 12-year-old daughter, Stacy, to open up to me. I was distracted and didn’t notice the pickup truck slowing down in front of me until it was too late and I rear-ended it.

Hmm. This feels a bit flat and distant, doesn’t it? The use of linking verbs (“was”), past progressive tense (“was driving”), and verbs that describe emotional and mental processes (“wondered,” “hoped,” also known as filter words) all hold the reader at bay.

Revise into what’s often called “deep POV” with active verbs and emotions to pull your readers into your narrator’s head and heart:

At first, I relaxed as I drove home; traffic was light, an unexpected boon of working late on another set of expense ledgers. But that also meant dinner would be late—again. Would everyone be OK with mac ’n’ cheese—again? Maybe I could get Stacy to help me—she always opens up when we’re doing a task together. I’d rather hear her prattle on about seventh-grade drama than worry about the water heater repair bill … Boom! Oh, crap. I hit the back of the pickup truck in front of me. If only I could stay focused on what’s right in front of me—whether ledgers or red brake lights.

Same information and then some—we know more about the narrator’s relationship with her daughter and financial worries, get a sense of her personality, and are right there with her when she rear-ends the truck.

This works just as well with third person:

At first, Donna relaxed as she drove home; traffic was light, an unexpected boon of working late on another set of expense ledgers. But that also meant dinner would be late—again. Would everyone be OK with mac ’n’ cheese—again? Maybe she could get Stacy’s help—the kid always opened up when they did a task together—and Donna would rather hear her daughter prattle on about seventh-grade drama than …

Notice how this deep POV and third person combination feels more distant than the deep POV and first person combination, but a lot closer than the initial example of first person.

But what if you want the reader to feel distant from Donna? Perhaps she’s a stiff, uptight character who doesn’t let anyone easily into her feelings. That’s fine—but it doesn’t mean you need to revert to verbs and filter words that describe, rather than show, experience. A less distracting way to create distance is to use active verbs, eliminate immediate thoughts and feelings, and stick to the facts of the narrator’s situation:

Reviewing another set of expense ledgers meant I left work late, but by then, traffic was light. Dinner would be late. Mac ’n’ cheese would be sufficient. Stacy could help make it. That would mean listening to the kid talk about seventh-grade drama. Suddenly, I crashed into the back of the pickup truck in front of me …

Every writer I know finds that being a writer is an emotional experience. Oh, we all try to be practical when talking about our experiences in public—focusing on craft techniques or business practices.

But when talking with trusted writer friends, we admit writing is an emotional endeavor—both as we create, and as we put our work out into the world.

While creating, you might get so into your work that the characters and situations become real. I’ve both burst out crying while writing a particularly moving scene and laughed aloud at my characters’ hijinks. (I’ve had family members catch me in such moments and ask, with some worry, for reassurance that I do know I’ve made up these characters and their situations. Well, sure. But, that’s beside the point. They feel real to us!)

That’s a great kind of emotional closeness to your work. It’s part of the joy of creation, after all, and though experiencing this as you write won’t ensure that every reader will feel the same way, it surely shows you’re on the path to creating something that is visceral and authentic.

On the other hand, when it’s time to revise, emotional distance becomes your ally. That hilarious scene that had you in stitches as you wrote it? If it’s slowing the pace of your story, it may need to be shortened—or even cut altogether. (But save it in a different file! Outtakes can be bonus material for readers in the future, or worked into new pieces.)

Then, dear writer friend, there’s the emotion of putting our work out into the world—perhaps sharing it with a trusted writer group, or submitting to agents or editors, or having it published for readers to enjoy (or, alas, sometimes not.)

Depending on our personalities and the reactions our work receives, emotions can run the gamut from joy and excitement (woo hoo, I have a request for my writing or my writing group loves my new scene!), to despair (I’ll never find a home for this story), to anger (how could a reviewer or writing group member say that about my work?).

Let yourself process all of those emotions but discipline yourself to hold back on expressing them. (Well, except if you have great news. That you can shout from the rooftops!)

Remember that setbacks are temporary. Not every piece of writing will please every reader; you’re not writing to please everyone anyway. Remind yourself that if you receive a pass on your work that it’s the work that’s being rejected—not you.”

Point of View Myths 1

Sharon Short, a Writer’s Digest columnist has three pieces on Point of View (POV). Her first is choosing the right point of view for your story.

Sharon Short is the author of 12 published novels, most recently in her Kinship Historical Mystery series, which she writes under her pen name Jess Montgomery. The Hollows is the most recent title in the series, published by Minotaur Books and inspired by Ohio’s true first female sheriff in 1925. Set in the Appalachian region, the series draws on themes of workers’ rights and women’s roles, and has garnered several awards.

Sharon Short

“POV is the principle that pulls together every other element of your prose. You might have a compelling premise, interesting characters, beautiful writing, and great pace. But if the POV is not right, the reader will sense something is off as if it’s ice cream curdling in the bowl.

Intimidating? Yes. But this and the next two “Level Up” columns will focus on POV: busting myths, exploring emotional distance, and examining the element of time for first, third-limited, third-multiple, or omniscient POVs. (Though it’s often used in advice columns such as this, second is rarely used in prose, so I’m setting it aside.) My hope is that the three columns will give you a mini POV tool kit to apply to your project.

POV Myths—Busted!

First-person POV is the easiest!

In first-person POV, the weight of the entire piece rests in the voice of the narrator—for 300 pages or longer for book-length works! Don’t do yourself, or your work, the disservice of thinking of first POV as easy simply because of the “I” pronoun. Each POV has its own challenges. And sustaining a distinctive, strong voice for the narrator’s POV for the entire work is the challenge in first. Of course, if done well, this is also the charm of first.

But … First-person POV is simply the narrator telling the story!

No, you, as the writer are always the invisible narrator in any work of prose—even first-person POV. You are always in control of the story. In first-person POV, you allow one character (at a time—even working in first, you can still have multiple narrators) to narrate the story in his, her, or their voice.

Well, first is the only way to use a deep POV.

It may seem easiest to have a deep POV (sharing of thoughts, emotions, reactions) in first, but the drawback of that seeming simplicity is the temptation to overshare. Or to share in a way that feels either false or overwrought. And you can certainly have deep POV in third as well. (More on deep POV in the upcoming column on emotional distance.)

That’s all right. Third-person POV is more high concept anyway!

Every novel, story, memoir, or essay must be driven by a guiding concept—the heart of the piece. High concept simply means the premise of the piece can be described succinctly (in a few sentences) in a way that intrigues and incents readers to want to read the full work. Fulfilling that promise depends on getting all the elements just right—including POV. Of course, examples of high concept third-person POV novels abound, but high concept first-person POV novel examples include The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) or The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) or the bestselling thriller The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave. It’s hard to imagine those first-person POV examples working as well in third person.

You can only have multiple POVs in third person, though.

Again, that depends on the story. Hank Phillippi Ryan’s novel Her Perfect Life alternates between third-person limited and first-person POVs. This works because the main character (third-person limited POV) needs to keep her distance from the public, while the first-person POV character, who works for the main character, has many opinions that we might have—until we get to know the main character. In Heather Webber’s South of the Buttonwood Tree, two first-person POV characters trade off narration of the story—and third-person POV anecdotes are interspersed throughout. By the end, the narrative lines all braid together to create a complete story tapestry.

No one writes omniscient anymore, and besides, isn’t it the same as head hopping?

Omniscient differs from multiple POV in that the latter strictly relegates each POV to a section or chapter. And it differs from head hopping—the confusing effect of jumping from one character’s thought to the next character’s thought—by switching perspectives based on which character’s reaction is the most important in a given moment. Usually, that also means that we stay in one character’s POV for a sentence or paragraph, rather than hopping from one character’s head to the next in the same sentence. An excellent example of omniscient POV mastery is Louise Penny, who uses this POV in her Chief Inspector Gamache novels.

Changing POV is as simple as changing pronouns.

This is a common myth—that if somehow first-person POV isn’t working, then switching to third-person POV is as simple as replacing all the “I’s” with “She, he, they,” or a name. But it’s not that simple. Proper POV depends so much on emotional distance and time—more on those elements in the next two columns.

What’s Your POV, Dear Writer?

Now, take a moment and consider your POV about your own work—and your writing life.

What are the myths you might have given into?

  • This is my first novel—so it has to be in first-person POV.
  • I’ve never written in third POV before because it feels too hard. (Or similar fear for first or omniscient POVs.)
  • I’m used to this particular POV, so I’d better stick to it.

Part of the joy (and yes, pain, but hopefully more joy than pain!) of any creative endeavor is experimenting and pushing yourself to grow.

If you’ve always written in first-person POV, try a short story or flash fiction in third. Or if you’ve always written in third, try writing an essay in first.”

Good Dialogue

Matthew FitzSimmons has an article on writing dialogue, dated September 1, 2021, on the Writer’s Digest website. He makes some points that wouldn’t normally be high on the last for a writing class, but nonetheless, I think they’re worth remembering.

Matthew FitzSimmons is the author of Constance, as well as the Wall Street Journal bestselling Gibson Vaughn series, which includes Origami ManDebris LineCold HarborPoisonfeather, and The Short Drop. Born in Illinois and raised in London, he now lives in Washington, DC.

Matthew FitzSimmons

Mr FitzSimmons says, “I was teaching English at a high school in Washington, D.C., when I wrote my first novel, The Short Drop. One of the perks of being a teacher is having summers off, and it took me a little over two years to finish the manuscript. At the time, I thought one of the book’s strengths was the dialogue. After all, I came from a theater background and so much of directing is thinking about the spoken word. Plus, and I don’t say this to brag, but at that point I had 40-plus years of practical, hands-on experience in “talking.” So how hard could writing dialogue really be?

Well, my developmental editor on The Short Drop, the wonderful Ed Stackler, got his ink-stained mitts on it and disabused me of the notion that a lifetime achievement award for best original dialogue was my destiny. After that, I stopped taking dialogue for granted and began to craft a personal writing philosophy on the art and artifice of dialogue. Here are a few of the guidelines I keep in mind each day I sit down at my desk.

1. No One Uses a Name Without a Reason

Ed’s first lesson was one that in retrospect should have been painfully obvious—no one says anyone’s name in general conversation. (Alright, not never, but rarely.) When a name is spoken, it has purpose behind it. A few examples to illustrate the point: 

  • When someone is trying to get another person’s attention: “Matt. What do you want from the bar?” 
  • When someone is attempting to dominate another person: “Isn’t that right, Mr. FitzSimmons?” 
  • When someone is showing off that they were paying attention when you met and actually remember your name: “Matthew, good to see you again.”

There are, of course, many others, but always for a reason. When was the last time you used the name of your best friend?

2. Hemingway’s Non Sequiturs (or, Not Everyone is Having the Same Conversation)

Whatever your opinion of Ernest Hemingway, the man was brilliant with dialogue. I strongly recommend his short stories—“Hills Like White Elephants”, for example, is a masterclass of elliptical dialogue. But it was a couplet of dialogue between Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes from chapter IV of The Sun Also Rises that taught me that the most interesting dialogue is rarely a straight line. It goes:

“Don’t worry,” Brett said. “I’ve never let you down, have I?”
“Heard from Mike?”

Not a lot to it until you consider that Jake is hopelessly in love with Brett and that Mike is Brett’s latest husband. Read it again. Now what was merely an innocent non sequitur becomes a cutting, passive-aggressive barb more incisive than any five-page argument. How people answer, or don’t answer, questions is an incredibly useful tool for revealing relationship, character, and agenda.

3. Complete Sentences/Correct Grammar

Dialogue composed of nothing but complete sentences will sound false to the ear. Grammar also tends to take a backseat as well. A character who uses who/whom correctly in casual speech is revealing a lot about their background. More often than not, people use shortcuts to limit the number of words necessary to communicate information. One example: Personal pronouns are frequently omitted—“I’m running late,” often becomes “Running late,” and so on. Listen to, and become a student of, how people speak, and what it can tell a reader about your characters.

4. Multitask

I always aim for dialogue to perform more than one purpose. If a passage of exposition is absolutely necessary, I always ask, “What other jobs can that dialogue be performing in terms of character and story?” Small talk is especially challenging, because as a species we (sadly) depend on it to navigate almost every social interaction. In prose, small talk is deadly to a reader’s interest and less is definitely more.

5. Not Everyone Sounds Like Me

If you spent any significant time around me, you’d quickly pick up on my conversation style, my verbal tics, and my sense of humor. When I first began writing seriously in my 20s, there was a tendency for all of my characters to sound like versions of myself. What was pleasant in small doses (I hope) was catastrophic in large ones (the world really doesn’t need more than one Matthew FitzSimmons in any conversation). It was an incredibly important self-discovery. I realized that if all my characters sounded like me that I wasn’t putting in the work to fully realize each of my characters. A habit I’ve developed in the years since is to write “interviews” with my characters to think through how they speak and why. Once I understand their conversational posture, I have a much better insight into who they are as people.”

Mr FitzSimmons point about people not using names was brought home to me when the manuscript for my novel Nebrodi Mountains came back from the editor with many names deleted. And I particularly like Hemingway’s not sequiturs as a clever dialogue device.

How Not to Lose The Plot

James Gault has an article on the Voice of Literature e-zine in which he discusses the elements of plotting.

James says, “I write mostly political thrillers with a touch of humour, set in the present but sometimes with references to the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of my books are in the Scottish vernacular. Some are really comic novels. They always have references to social issues. I try to offer readers interesting and engrossing characters, and favour relatively complex exciting plots with more than one unexpected twist in them.”

James Gault

He says, “What is a plot? Is it just the series of events that occur in a work of fiction, what we might call the story? Or is it perhaps more specific than that? Words can be hijacked to mean whatever the writer wants, and in this case I am shamelessly going to do that and define a plot in a specific sense.

A plot is a story with certain characteristics. For my definition, I am borrowing from a book called The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, in which he analyses and classifies the stories of works of fiction from different eras and from poems, plays, novels and films. You may not agree with all his classifications, but he puts his finger on what is perhaps the essential element of a fictional plot: a character is presented with a problem and has to overcome the challenges of solving that problem.

In a way, all fictional stories (and possibly all interesting real life ones) fit this model. The structure is obvious in certain genres: mysteries, thrillers, romance etc. Other genres do not at first sight appear to conform, and these I would call episodic genres. They include biographical novels, sagas, slice of life stories and so on. In these cases, there is no central problem to be solved, but a series of different problems which arise and are resolved.  So they are more a collection of related plots, tied together by a central theme. For me, this kind of book requires much more talent from the writer, who has to find some other narrative drive to pull readers through to the end of the work. 

Of course, the path to coming up with the solution to the main plot problem is normally long and tortuous. Other, smaller problems arise along the way, obstacles are put in the path of the protagonist, attempts to move forward are thwarted and misleading information is presented and misinterpreted with disastrous results. Unexpected plot twists make readers stop and re-evaluate their conclusions so far, and set their imaginations off in new directions. There is often a false ending, where everything seems to be resolved and then some forgotten fact or incident raises its head, plunging the reader back into the problem and looking again for a secure and safe answer, but with heightened suspicion now. Without a good helping of all of these ingredients, no narrative can expect to hold a reader’s attention to the end.

I’m going to risk an oversimplification here. There are other elements to novels, like writing style, atmosphere, accurate details, but I would contend that to be effective, the two main essentials are character and plot. So, for a novel (or play, or film, or TV drama, or narrative poem) to engage its audience. there are two essential  goals the writers must reach:

  • find an interesting and difficult problem for the protagonist to solve
  • create main characters with whom readers can identify as they try to solve the problem.

Achieving these goals may not result in a best seller, but I do not think any success can be achieved without them.”