Tag Archives: Protagonist

An Informal Poll

Unless I have a whole lot more people out there reading this blog than I realize, I don’t exactly have a busload of folks to take a poll with. In fact, I’d say it’s a good chance I’d have trouble filling up a minivan with my readers, even if it meant a free trip to Silver Dollar City.

But I’m gonna throw this out there anyway, see what kind of responses I get. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

Okay, so here’s the situation: I’ve had to do a revision of Pipeline: Startup, the first novel in my Pipeline duology (hereinafter referred to as Startup). If you didn’t read that blog—or have forgotten the details—in brief, I submitted my ms to Aaron Priest, one of my dream agents. He rejected me, but gave a brief critique, in which he said:

Your writing, line by line, is skillful. Your main character Lyle Villines is interesting, likable, and even compelling. However, a crime novel must have a strong sense of forward motion in its pacing, and this is what your manuscript lacked, in my view. Your query’s synopsis told me of a plot that sounded enticing, yet by page 75, almost nothing had happened. My best advice to you, as you write, is to put at the forefront of your consciousness the concept of storytelling that sustains a tireless forward motion.

There were a few more things, but that’s the bulk and essence of the letter. I wrote back, asking if I could resubmit my ms if I could revise it. I was answered by one Francis Jalet-Miller (no relation that I’m aware of), who said “…in most cases Mr. Priest does not do second readings, but if you would like to re-send your revised manuscript, Mr. Priest said that he would be okay with my giving it a reading. If you check our website, you will note that my role here is as in-house editor (I do not function here as an agent).”

So, to motivate myself, I count this as half a rejection. I would like to add that I thanked Mr. Priest for his words, because they pointed out something I wasn’t seeing, but should have. All I can say is I must have been entirely too close to the work to get a proper objective look at it. Even a friend of mine, who usually sees this kind of thing, admits he was in the same position: he saw it once it was pointed out, and can’t figure just why he didn’t see it in the first place. And he definitely wasn’t too close to the work.

So, anyway, I set about revising it, after giving it a lot of thought (and having the bejesus scared out of me when my computer tried to crap out on me), and agonizing over it more than I rightfully should have. Heck, I’m a writer. Just sit down and write the damn thing.

But, see, based on opinions I trust, about page 100 or so, it really starts to take off, get really interesting. So, okay, that’s good news. Means I don’t have to revise everything. Just a third or so of it.

I gave it a fresh look, decided the first twenty-three pages were good as is, and went from there. I re-wrote some scenes, deleted others, and changed the entire timeline. The idea I had was, while I’m at it, might as well see if I can reduce the overall word count. Never hurts, so long as you don’t cut out something vital.

So that’s what I did. Then, last Thursday, I took it to group. I started at page twenty, since they’d never heard my revised version of the first section the reporter wrote (the idea behind this book is that Lyle is telling this story to a reporter). They hadn’t like my original reporter section, so I’d rewritten it a long time ago, made it shorter and more to the point, and changed where it occurs in the novel.

Well, most of ’em still didn’t like the reporter bit. And, since it doesn’t happen till page twenty, they pretty much had the idea that nothing has still happened until after the reporter section, at the least.

Crap. I can’t win for losing.

My problem is, this isn’t like going to apply for a job and getting it. You don’t just drop off into the drug world and start moving up. And, since the plot involves Lyle getting close to someone high up in one of the cartels, he sure as hell can’t just walk up to them and make friends. You don’t stay in the business long if you do that. Not on either end of that situation.

So, the first part is necessarily a bit slow. But, at the same time, I gotta make that interesting.

One of the members said that, the problem he had with the reporter being there is that it means Lyle is telling the story, thus we already know he survived his encounter with the drug world.

Okay. That’s a valid point. Then you add in that it’s a first-person POV, which many authors say is not a good POV to use because, supposedly, the first-person narration also denotes that the protagonist survived.

And yet…and yet, I dare you go pick up a crime novel or mystery. Based on the many that I’ve read, chances are very good that it’ll be a first-person narrative. It’s a common technique, especially in mystery, but since crime is a subgenre of mystery, it shows up a lot there, too.

Plus, first-person narrative is very popular these days. So, strike that as a negative. It’s obvious readers today are willing to suspend disbelief in that direction.

So, what about the reporter aspect?

Well, after some thought, and discussing it with my daughter and that same friend I mentioned above, I’m of the opinion that I’ll leave the reporter bits in. Why? For one, there aren’t that many. When you’re reading this thing with a greater sense of continuity than I can give you at writer’s group, I think it’ll look entirely different. Also, the reporter bits, much like the reporter in Interview With The Vampire, add a perspective to it that Lyle can’t give us. Lyle’s too deep in the story. He lived it. The reporter gives us an outsider’s perspective.

Lastly (I think), the point of Lyle’s story, as I’ve written it, is not whether or not Lyle lives. I mean, be honest: how many books have you read in which the protagonist died? The only one I can think of offhand is To Live and Die in LA. Yes, the hero is often in mortal danger. But finding examples of where the good guy dies is hard to do. We know when we pick up a book that the good guy will live (unless it’s a George RR Martin novel, and then no one is safe. But not all of us can kill off main characters like he does). The suspense, the suspension of disbelief, comes not from whether or not the character lives, but how he does it. And, in the case of my novel, how he not only keeps himself alive, but escapes from the drug world and also fulfills his deal with the government and goes back to a normal life (which he realizes fairly early on that he’ll never be able to do. Getting arrested and dealing with powerful drug figures means his life will never be the same again).

So, here I sit, with two opposing viewpoints on how to go about this, which boil down to, do I leave the reporter a part of the story—and by that, I mean an active part, not just an implied one—or do I do away with that pretty much altogether. One alternative I’ve been offered is to start with a short prologue in which it is announced that there will be an ongoing series about Lyle. But, to me, that still does the same thing. All it leaves out is the rare parts actually written by the reporter that some say intrude on the story—while others say they like those parts.

That makes it a wash, in my mind, but I’d like to get a little broader poll, a little more input. Yes, I’m leaning toward leaving the reporter in, but going back to my original idea and framing the story with reporter bits. In other words, do a prologue-type thing at the beginning—one that isn’t very long—and another at the very end. Then maybe open up the second book with another, though I don’t think I’ll end it with one, because it’s structured differently.

What’s your opinion? Does the reporter aspect add anything, at least academically (I know it’s hard to judge when you haven’t read the thing)? Or does it distract a reader? Let me know, if you would.



That Point of View Thing

Though I have studied writing for perhaps fifteen years or so, I have to admit that I’ve not really taken it seriously until the last three years or so. Like John Lennon said, life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. Busy with work and other interests, I kept intending to get serious about this writing thing “someday.” Know what I mean, Vern?

So now that I’ve gotten into it in a more serious way, it seems that the standards have changed considerably and I’m constantly having to re-learn things. And one of the things I’ve been having to pay very serious attention to is point of view (POV). POV, in case you’re wondering, is how you allow the reader to see the story. Are you telling it from the viewpoint of the princess or the frog? Or both?

Standard writing books will tell there are several POVs to choose from: first person, second person, third person, third person omniscient, third person head hopping, and objective third person (I stole all these from Writing Fiction for Dummies). First person is “I.” Louis L’Amour was fond of these, the idea being, I suspect, to make you feel more involved in something that happened at least a hundred years ago (much more by now). Second person is quirky and not many people use it because it is “you.” You do this and you do that. The above-mentioned book points out that second person is risky because you’re making the reader the main character and you have to be careful to keep your actions within the actions the reader would carry out.

No thanks. I’m not getting into that can of worms, thank you. Sounds to me like a good way to get sued (“There’s no way I’d ever kiss a frog. Gross!”)

Third person objective is, to put it simply, God. The writer, and thus the reader, knows everything that is going on, but never really drops into the head of any particular character. Handy, I suppose, but kinda jarring for the reader.

Third person head hopping is a technique that used to be much more common, and I’ll touch on it again in a moment. Suffice it to say that, in this POV, the writer tells you what both the princess and the frog are thinking at any given moment. Mario Puzo does this in The Godfather if you’d like to see it done effectively (in other words, without confusing your audience).

Third person is what we see in most novels now. Well, let me restate that a bit: third person and first person are very common. Regular third person, however, differs from the other third-person types in that, rather than being objective or hopping from one character to another, the writer gets into the frog’s viewpoint and stays there in a clearly defined way. The author can still go to the princess’s POV, but he must clue the reader in somehow, such as a chapter or section break.

I bring all this up because I am most of the way through a re-reading of The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, and it’s been quite an adjustment to read.

Let me explain.

In the last few years, it has become a standard that readers don’t really like POVs like third person objective, omniscient or head hopping, simply because these POVs make it hard to identify with any one character. Sure, you know what’s going on throughout the entire setting, but you really don’t find a good reason to care unless the author really knows what he’s doing. By using third person or first person, the reader is able to identify with someone and thus have an investment in the story. Stand on a tall building and watch people walking by on the street below. Kinda interesting, but it gets boring after a while. But go down on the street and start talking to someone (let’s forget for a moment that it might get you committed these days) and suddenly you begin to care about what’s going on.

In older books it was very common to read third person, with head hopping being the most prominent. This allowed the writer to tell the scene from several different POVs if he desired, sort of like a camera filming several actors’ reactions in a scene. I have to admit that, in some ways, it’s handy.

Problem is, as I’ve stated, it’s hard to care about the characters when you’re jumping from one to another, so you, as the reader, don’t become quite as invested in the story.

Jump to third person (or first) and everything changes. Now, the frog sees the princess out for her daily walk and you the reader begin to dip into the frog’s head and hear his thoughts. Where once authors used italics to identify thoughts, now it’s hardly used because we’re already so deep inside the character that everything is that character’s perception and, therefore, thought. Without trying to be egotistic about it, I think I do a pretty good job of this POV in the story “Crosstown Traffic,” which you will find elsewhere on this site (and I would have to add that the readers in my writers’ group say the same thing). It’s called stream of consciousness, and it’s a wonderful technique. In “Crosstown Traffic,” I don’t try to sound like Gil, I try to sound like Mike, my protagonist. So I use phrasing and language that I imagine he would use.

It hasn’t been easy for me to achieve this. I started reading back in the Seventies, when books like The Sword of Shannara were new to the market and using that head hopping method was the norm. So, up until quite recently, I tended to write that way as well. Yes, when I first started semi-serious writing in the Nineties,  I used first person, mostly because it helped me to immerse myself into the story and character. I’m writing a crime novel right now that’s told in first person. But I don’t stick with it for the same basic reason Terry Brooks uses the head hopping POV in Sword: it’s limiting. I have only one character to tell all the events through, so the disadvantages here are pretty obvious. I have to have my protagonist be present at every important event, which stretches the suspension of disbelief thing considerably, and since the reader sees that the character is telling the story, it’s kind of assumed that he does survive. How else could he be telling the story. I get around this to an extent by having my protagonist tell his story to a reporter, so we know right up front  that he survives. This shifts the tension to how he survives. Thankfully, this setting is the perfect vehicle for that kind of story.

Thing is, now that I’ve spent so much time unlearning the head hopping  method, reading Sword has been a bit of a chore because, now that I’ve adapted, that POV throws me out of the story. In other words, I can ‘t quite forget that I’m reading a story. To be fair, this was Mr. Brooks’s first book, and I saw one review on Amazon that states that Sword is a pretty obvious ripoff of LOTR. Well, I don’t mind that. A lot of fantasies were LOTR ripoffs in those days because Tolkien set the mold for generations of fantasy authors, even the more-practiced ones (witness Quag Keep by the venerable Andre Norton). These stories were ripoffs in the sense that they were all quest fantasies, the stereotype of fantasy. But back when Tolkien wrote LOTR, there weren’t any templates to steal from.

But I digress.

To be honest, I thing that re-reading Sword may be partially responsible for my brain lock. Like many other authors, I tend to gain inspiration from whatever I might be reading at the time, though thankfully I’ve learned not to start writing exactly like the author I’m reading. That was a big problem for a while. But with this book, as much as I like it, I’m thrown off a bit by the POV. Now, I have to be completely honest and say that this isn’t the entire reason for my brain lock, but it could play a part in it.

Mostly, I’m just in a good old-fashioned slump.

Well, I thing I’ve probably wandered and rambled and missed the point enough for one post. Didn’t intend to go on quite this long, but maybe writing like this will get my creative energies flowing again.

The last point I’d like to make in the way of summing up is that, with the way things are going, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we as readers reach a point where anything other than third or first person will be difficult to read simply because it’s so old-fashioned, like many of the Victorian novels of the 1800s are so hard to read these days because of their extensive description (at least that’s my sticking point for them) and antiquated dialog. At the current pace, I might well still be alive to see if it happens that way.