Questions of Narrative and Tense

One has a story in mind, and wants to tell it well. It then becomes a question of how you want to tell it. I’ve learned there’s more than one way to write a novel. In fact there are many, and like all details run the risk of being overthought or overdone. Sometimes one can get so worried about them it leads to writer’s block and one cannot move forward, sort of like when when choosing a book title or character name. These are among the first details to choose at the beginning. Yet at other times, they seem to manifest themselves and/or change in the process.

One of the first questions that comes to mind is whether to write in first person or third. I find it often depends on the type of story being told. When writing Mystical Greenwood, I chose to write in third person as I felt it was the right way to tell a fantasy story set in an imaginary world no reader would have personally lived in, but could still observe and imagine. But there are many subdivisions of third person, and that was not so easily defined for me.

I flirted between third person limited and subjective. Subjective is trying to convey more than one characters’ thoughts and feelings at the same time, whereas limited focuses on chiefly one character. After sending Mystical Greenwood to Mockingbird Lane Press, at my editor’s request I made it third person limited throughout because there were originally some scenes with slight POV shifts that caused confusion. While some chapters and scenes are told from the perspective of characters other than Dermot, and there are scene breaks and a change to another character’s POV in others, I still tried to limit it to one character at a time.

I could’ve written in third person objective, but that would’ve left out every character’s feelings and thoughts, which I felt could detach readers from the narrative. Third person omniscient is often used for high and epic fantasy, where all character’s thoughts and feelings are presented. That can sometimes make it hard for readers to attach themselves to the story, as there would be too many characters to choose from to bond with while reading. But that certainly doesn’t mean it can’t work.

I’m presently trying I-narrative with the neglected pets story. I feel first person works best with realistic fiction (as it’s a setting readers and writers live in and understand), mysteries, and thrillers. I would like to try an epistolary format (telling a story in the form of diary entries and letters), perhaps for historical fiction. Some authors have alternated between third and first within the same book (using the latter for their protagonist), which I might also try. News articles could also be used in epistolary stories, and be another way to alternate. Other writers have changed narrative within a series, like the late Stephen J. Cannell did with the Shane Scully books.

With first person, one can also make it plural or use an unreliable narrator. Some novels try to replicate the thought-process, or stream of conscious – third or first could work, but I personally find it hard to follow. Some classic books have had chapters or scenes written in the format of plays; another thing I could try.

I should also mention second person narrative – “You”. It’s rarer in literature, as is writing in future tense. Most stories are in past tense, but some have been written in present, just like plays and screenplays. But there have been some well-told stories written using one or both, most famously perhaps Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. It’s always good to experiment and try new things with writing. Writer should use whatever they feel is best for your story.

Further Reading
  1. Writing in Third Person Omniscient vs Third Person Limited.
  2. Aldridge, Ally. Point of View.
  3. Wolf, Kalesjha H. First Person vs. Third Person.
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Distinguishable Characters

My very first guest appearance on an author’s blog! Many thanks to my friend and fellow writer Ari Meghlen for having given me this opportunity. For any of you who are writers looking for a place to be a guest blogger, I highly recommend her site.

via GP: Distinguishable characters by Andrew McDowell

Count your Lucky Length

Often when works of fiction are discussed, word and/or page count comes up. When you see books on a shelf, one of the first things you’ll notice, apart from the author’s name and book title on the spine, is how thick or thin they are compared to each other. Some people like J. R. R. Tolkien enjoy reading long stories. Others prefer shorter works. What is it about length? Does it matter?

Often when you look at a book’s title page, there will often be a subtitle saying “A Novel” or something similar. “A Novella” and “A Novelette” appear to be less common. Instead perhaps you might see “A Short Novel”. Furthermore, when it comes to defining types of writers we have novelist, poet, essayist, playwright, short story writer, and screenwriter. There are no set terms that I’m aware of for writers of novellas or novelettes. I sometimes feel novel is an umbrella term under which any fictional work longer than a short story can be labeled. Often, it seems word count is what it really comes down to, as I’ve seen so many sets of word count ranges that are used to define these works. Or is it?

In my senior year at St. Mary’s College, I took a high level creative writing class called “The Novella”. Some of the books we read felt like novels or long short stories. We each had to write a novella, and I started writing that story about neglected pets. It fit into a novella word count range. However, my classmates and the professor felt it should be expanded into a novel. I admit before that class, I’d first imagined it as a novel. Perhaps a work of fiction is what the author believes it to be, and subsequently calls it.

Writing for the stage and screen can be more restrictive, though it’s by page count rather than words. Once at a meeting of the MWA Annapolis chapter it was stated a page of a screenplay equals a minute of screen time. Thus an ideal film script should be 100-120 pages. A TV episode script would be 50-60 pages. Plays too it seems have page count limits these days. Audiences I can understand would rather not sit in a theater all day.

Some classic plays and films are long. Hamlet is usually abridged when staged or filmed. The 1996 unabridged film version lasted over four hours. Sometimes I wonder what Hamlet’s stage and screen history would’ve been like had Shakespeare written it as two plays, as he did with Henry IV (which has appeared onscreen only as TV films). I also wonder what the movie Gettysburg would’ve been like had it been a TV miniseries as initially planned.

Charles Dickens’s works were first published as a serial (like novelettes or novellas) before being printed as complete books. The serial versions were cheaper, making his novels available to the masses, whom, with a cliffhanger, would be enticed to buy the next installment. The novels of the Brontë sisters were published in “volumes” – but like Dickens’s books they’re are only published as complete works nowadays. Some people feel novellas and novelettes have difficulty getting published these days, and if they do they are usually combined with similar works.

In the end, it all comes down to the writer. It’s up to the author whether they want to define their work as novels, novellas, novelettes, short novels, or short stories. Length is applied in the public consciousness, but maybe it doesn’t have to. Does length and its description on the title page affect the customers decision to purchase or pass?  What do you think?

Further Reading
  1. Meer, Syed Hunbbel. Differences Between a Short Story, Novelette, Novella, & a Novel.
  2. Playwriting 101. Chapter 1: The Play’s the Thing.

Nom de Plume

Nom de Plume, pseudonym, pen name, whichever term you prefer to use, several writers have used one instead of their real names. Like fictional characters, a pen name in itself is a persona created in the writer’s imagination.

Your real name can in essence become a pen name, or what I like to call a “writer’s name” where nothing is made up (otherwise it’s a pen name). There are many options beyond your first and last names. You can include your middle initial, go with your full name, or use initials. If you prefer your middle name, you can use it alone or also include your first initial. If you go by a nickname, have a suffix, more than one middle name, and/or a maiden name, you have even more possibilities. Try saying them out loud, so you can hear how they sound.

There are many sources from which you can create a pen name. You can of course use part of your real name. You could pay tribute to relatives, friends or other people, places real or fictional, something special to you, or maybe it could be an anagram. Samuel Clemens came up with “Mark Twain” from working on the Mississippi River (from a phrase indicating the water to be two fathoms deep). Charles Lutwidge Dodgson took the Latin versions of his first and middle names, anglicized the spellings and swapped them to create “Lewis Carroll”. It could even be one name. Charles Dickens initially used the pseudonym “Boz”.

Usually, a pseudonym is used if a writer feels that he or she has a specific need for one. Some sought to distinguish themselves from someone well-known with a similar name. Others wanted to reflect their chosen genre. It can become a character within the story, like Daniel Handler and William Goldman did respectively with “Lemony Snicket” and “S. Morgenstern”. A writer with multiple works coming out simultaneously might publish some under a pen name and the rest under their real one, which Stephen King did for a while with “Richard Bachman”. If you simply desire privacy, probably your best option then would be something that doesn’t stand out, and even better, isn’t an obvious tribute to anyone or anything special to you.

Perhaps one of the most frequent historical cases has been female authors using male or gender-neutral pseudonyms to give their work a higher chance of success. Some continue to be used, like “George Eliot” (real name Mary Ann Evans). Others no longer are. The novels of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë appear today under their real names. However the sisters first published them respectively as “Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell”. Sadly this trend still seems to continue. Joanne Rowling‘s publisher apparently did not feel the target audience for Harry Potter (teenage boys) would be inclined to read books written by a woman. Rowling subsequently came up with “J. K. Rowling”, when in fact she does not have a middle name (she chose K in honor of her grandmother, Kathleen).

Often, writers become better known by their pen names. A friend who’s a teacher told me of a time when he asked his students if any of them knew who Theodor Geisel was, and no one could answer him. Had he used Geisel’s most frequent pen name (Geisel did use more than one, which you can certainly do), “Dr. Seuss”, they could have answered him right away.

At times I’ve thought about using a pen name. I came up with several possibilities (much like Eric Blair did before he settled on “George Orwell”). I also thought about how my own name could be written in various ways. In the end, I settled for my first and last name, which suits me fine. It’s unlikely, but not impossible, that I might still use a pseudonym for something someday. Whether you use your name or a nom de plume is entirely your choice. If you haven’t decided yet, try not to take too long. Always remember, your creative work is your first and foremost concern.

Fact vs. Fiction

Among the genres I intend to try my hand at is historical fiction. Within this genre, the characters witness actual events from our past. Some could be real figures (or based on them). Often books and movies include the subtitle “Based on a true story”. I’ve noticed with literary and cinematic successes there’s often a subsequent wave of interest and research aimed at separating fact from fiction. For a writer, the dilemma presents itself beforehand. With the goal of telling a story and telling it well, can historical fact get in the way of telling good historical fiction? How far should writers go if they cross the line?

Fiction can actually run the risk, with time and new generations, of becoming thought of as fact. In my junior year at St. Mary’s College, I took classes discussing how literature and history have been analyzed and interpreted. In the latter, I recall us discussing how history has been “romanticized” even in America. People record events with their own beliefs and motivations. It’s human nature. To this day there have been cases where real events and figures were altered, or the truth stretched, to create a better story. Facts are sometimes selectively preserved or obscured altogether.

Fiction being fiction, some lines will be crossed. But some writers, like Rafael Sabatini, believe historical fiction should be kept close to fact. Sabatini used real events and drew inspiration from a number of historical figures when writing Captain Blood. Another novel that has been criticized for historical inaccuracies is Ivanhoe. Though several historical points ARE accurate, compared to some of his other novels it seems Sir Walter Scott took liberties. However, he DID admit he had taken liberties when Ivanhoe was published in the book’s “Dedicatory Epistle”. Some believe he wanted to reflect both his support for British unity and his Scottish patriotism through the book’s Saxon-Norman conflict.

Folktales and legends are a part of human culture and the human psyche. We need something to believe in so we may strive and rise to something better. In America, it has been noted we root for underdogs and rebels as symbols of freedom. Pirates and Wild West outlaws were almost exclusively thugs and killers. Nevertheless they’ve been popularized as romantic heroes. Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 book A General History of the Pyrates has had a considerable influence defining how we perceive pirates today, along with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. However some believe Johnson used artistic license. Pirates seldom buried gold. More often they sold stolen commercial goods on the black market and spent all their money on vices.

My father pointed out to me a common observation that history is written by winners. This notion is especially apparent to me, together with how fiction can become fact over time, in William Shakespeare’s Richard III. I remember the news story of how Richard’s skeleton was found beneath a parking lot. I subsequently learned there are societies who believe he was wrongfully maligned by history and Shakespeare. In the play, he is depicted as an evil, scheming tyrant who has his nephews murdered after usurping the throne from them, as well as harboring an incestuous desire for his niece.

But was Shakespeare to blame? When he wrote Richard III, he was living under the reign of Elizabeth I, the granddaughter of the very man who overthrew Richard. Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII, had to justify why he took the throne. What better way than by painting his defeated opponent as a villain by playing upon rumors of his nephews’ disappearance or incestuous desire (that rumor Richard had denied)? We still don’t know for certain what befell the Princes in the Tower, although Richard certainly had opportunity and motive. By Shakespeare’s time, this image must have been considered fact. Even if Shakespeare doubted it, he almost certainly couldn’t offend his own monarch’s grandfather without putting his neck on the line.

In other cases however, Shakespeare, who’s living depended upon entertaining the masses, did deliberately ignore fact or simply filled gaps. In King John, the hero is Richard the Lionheart’s illegitimate son, Philip Falconbridge. He did actually have an illegitimate son, named Philip of Cognac. Yet little is known of him, not even his mother’s name. Shakespeare took the name and father then created his own character. In Henry IV Part I, he made Harry “Hotspur” Percy and Prince Hal close in age so they would be better character foils, when Percy was actually many years Hal’s senior.

There are exceptions to the rule of winners writing history. At St. Mary’s I took another class on the Lost Cause. Ex-Confederates initiated the movement after losing the American Civil War to whitewash their image as heroic, conveniently ignoring slavery and racism. Once again, it is a case of people recording events with bias.

As readers, we must bear in mind fiction is fiction. Historical fiction and drama shouldn’t be taken completely at face value. But that doesn’t mean writers should ignore historical fact either. I want to try and reconcile my respect for history and the goal to tell a good story well as much as possible. I know it won’t work in every way, but I’ll do my best to be accurate, particularly with worldbuilding, and any real events or figures should I use them. When I cannot be accurate, I will acknowledge it. Good historical fiction is built upon historical fact. Fiction in turn can inspire a search for the fact.

Further Reading
  1. The Richard III Society.
  2. Higgins, Charlotte. Scotland’s image-maker Sir Walter Scott ‘invented English legends’.
  3. Sabatini, Rafael. Historical Fiction.