The Deep End of the POV

Ever wonder what makes a book a bonafide page-turner?  God knows I have.  I pick up a book for a bit of pleasure reading and all of the sudden I’m in the story, oblivious to deadlines, ringing phones, and my overloaded washer’s current attempt to escape.  Nothing else matters beyond What Happens Next and I’m useless until I finish the story. How did this happen? How was my attention captured so completely? Instead of  reading the book, it felt more like I was living the story. Did the writer cast a spell over me? No, but it’s likely the writer used a technique called “Deep P.O.V.”

P. O. V.  is the story’s point of view, the perspective of the narrator.  That can be the unseen, omniscient third person narrator (like God is telling the story); first person narration (e.g. “Call me Ishmael”) or, if the author is very good and ambitious, second person narrator (second person is very in-your-face and tricky to sustain unless the writer is incredibly skilled like Margaret Atwood, Jay McInerney, or Robert Penn Warren).  The voice of the narrator telling the story acts as a buffer between the reader and characters so the less you can hear of the narrator’s voice, the closer you get to the characters, and the more likely you’ll get emotionally involved with them.
For an example of immediate Deep P.O.V, look at the first lines of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the matteress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother.  Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.” 

Immediately, we are in the narrator’s head, sensing the cold and the canvas she feels.  And, without being “told”, we know so much more. From the temperature and the mattress cover, we can infer this is a hand-to-mouth household. Families who can afford sheets and heating bills don’t have their kids sharing a canvas mattress in order to stay warm. We also know Prim is the narrator’s sister and Prim sometimes suffers from bad dreams. Finally, we know “the reaping” can bring on nightmares.
Now compare this with one of the most famous opening paragraphs in English Literature.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”

No sense of physical stimuli here; we get opinion and perspective instead. We’re told of a place completely preoccupied with money and marriage.  We also get the impression the narrator thinks this is a ridiculous idea.  A well-modulated voice narrates the story of Pride and Prejudice with dry wit and good humor, letting you know his or her opinion without explicitly stating it.  P&P doesn’t pull the reader under, as The Hunger Games does, but the extra layer of distanced narrative gives it a richer, more nuanced perspective.  

Which is better?  That depends on the story, or even what point the story is at.  A story can  decrease the narrative distance during crisis points, which increases the tension and urgency, then re-establish the distance again, once the crisis has passed.  The point is, the success (or failure) of a story often depends on how it’s told.  Next time you find yourself getting involved in a story, mentally backup (if you can) and check the language.  Is it written in present tense, with the minimum of emotional signposts (verbs like thought, decided, believed, said) and lots of sensory cues, you’ll know why you are getting pulled under.  You’re in the Deep End of the POV.

Praising the Books that Chronicle Life.

My mom used to divide her library into sections. Lots of space was dedicated to fiction and the sturdiest shelves held her coffee-table sized books on the movies.  But one special part of the library was devoted to chronicles of everyday life, virtually all of them written by women.  Some also wrote Kid Lit. or humor like Jean Kerr and Judith Viorst while others wrote novels or plays but every book on that shelf was what I called a “Domestic Chronicle”; an account of  everyday life.  If those books sounded boring, they weren’t.  All of them were clear-eyed observations on a  fascinating, multi-faceted worlds. usually recorded with dry wit.  These books had a remarkable effect on the reader. Novels might be read for excitement or entertainment and non-fiction for excitement or knowledge but domestic chronicles could appease the soul.  So my question is, where are the books of this genre today?

According to my mom, the best writer in this genre was Gladys Taber, author of the Stillmeadow series.  In book after book, Ms. Taber recorded life at her New England farmhouse, Stillmeadow.  She was not a farmer or a New England Yankee from birth so her stories deal with learning to live in a place like Stillmeadow, a 300-year-old farmhouse with neighbors whose families had been there almost as long. Some of her “Country Living” experiences were good, some were bad and a few were downright painful but all of her stories made you feel at home like you were as much a part of the Stillmeadow life as the tea kettle or a shelf of preserves. Mom loved to read almost anything but she always seemed more serene after reading those Stillmeadow books.  I couldn’t wait to grow up and find the domestic chroniclers that would speak to me on such a basic level.

It took awhile but when a friend introduced me to John Chancellor Makes Me Cry, it was like meeting a BFF or getting the keys to the kingdom.  This was an introduction to everyday life in the “New South”, where the women who were raised to join Junior League, ran businesses and corporate departments instead but still cherished their domestic life.  Everything was here, from those who still lived on the land to the god-awful traffic on Peachtree; from blizzards and tornados and the fear of a lost job through coastal vacations, Christmas, and the rococo radiance of Spring in North Atlanta.  For years, JCMMC, has been the book I run to when I felt like a stranger to my life and I needed serenity in my soul.  But books like these are few and far between

Which brings me to something I thought I’d never see again, a new(er) book about everyday life.  My Southern Journey is a collection of Rick Bragg’s essays about life in the American South.  His is not the same South in JCMMC; life’s been harder on Mr. Bragg’s family.  But there is still that bone-deep sweetness that comes with knowing a place and its people so completely, of a life measured in years and seasons instead of moments.  And, in writing about what he knows best, Rick Bragg touches the bits of life we all love.  Damn few of us will be whisked away to a haunted English estate but who doesn’t know about the post-dinner catnap that feels like the best sleep in the world?

There are books on cooking and beautifying the home and books about people overcoming dreadful obstacles.  There is also, of course, a universe of novels but there are too few volumes that deal with everyday life, the fact (not the art) of living.  These are the stories we can identify with, the ones that really speak to the human heart.  They’re the Chronicles of Life.

If there are books on everyday life that you love or would like to suggest, please tell me in the comments below!

The Art of Improving a Story.

It’s no secret that I love to tell stories.  The fact is when I’m out with friends I sometimes have to shut myself up; if I don’t, I’ll dominate the conversation with stories and they won’t be my friends anymore.  But, as much as  I love reeling off  anecdotes, I’m not that sure I can tell one well. For that, I need the crew at Arc Stories.
Arc Stories is a group of top-notch raconteurs who help amateurs (like me) tell the stories of their lives. I’ve been envious of every person they ever put behind a microphone and for years I’ve been working up the nerve to pitch a story to them. I finally sent in an idea this fall and got a call back from one of the coaches.   Send me the full story, he said.
Writing isn’t that easy for me, especially when the material is personal. I wrote, rewrote and rewrote my tale, choking up when some memories came back. Once I dried my eyes, I sent it off, wondering what the coach would think of my draft.  He thought it needed work.
My mentor was extremely kind and polite but he pointed out a big flaw in my narrative.  It had one of the underlying themes we hear all through December. Not a bad message but definitely not original. Closer to a cliche.
Now, even kind, honest criticism can be hard to take (like medicine) but both are meant to make the subject better and the subject here was the story, not my ego. Talking with him showed me a fresher angle of approach so I rehammered out the story.  Same difficult memories, same catch in the throat, the same deliberation over every sentence.  When this draft was finished, I knew it was better and was happy to send it in.  Then the producer called.
Yes, the story isn’t bad (she said) but this time I’d left out the stakes. Why was what happened so important to me at the time?  What unknown outcome might keep people interested?  Please rewrite it again.
Of course, the producer was right but I wasn’t sure I had another rewrite in me or if I could face the material again.  And I knew that even with this rewrite, they might still turn me down.  On the other hand, if I quit at this point, they would definitely reject the story.  I grabbed the tissues and sat down for one more try.
All of this is to tell you what I’ve learned and add a small announcement.  First off, when it comes to revision, nothing is more important than improving what’s already there. Not an overly sensitive ego, or the previous work, or the angst that went into each sentence. Revision gives stories necessary structure and if that means rebuilding the whole thing from scratch, then that’s what you do.  My finished story is a lot better than the first draft I sent.  And on Friday, you can judge for yourself.

Unless something unforeseen and terrible happens this is where I’ll be on Friday evening, probably overwhelmed by stage-fright.  If you’re interested but you can’t be there, they issue podcasts of their broadcasts.  (So if I’m really bad, you can hear me mess up over and over and over!) No matter what happens, I’ll always be grateful for what I’ve already learned from those wonderful people at Arc Stories.  They’ve taught me something of what it takes to improve a story.

The Best and Worst of Times

Have you ever seen an abused or neglected pet?  A creature that nobody loved?  They huddle at the corners of our towns and houses, too frightened to approach us for help.  Have you watched them with their matted coats and terrified eyes, keeping their distance on unsteady feet?  If you have, you’ve seen Ada Smith, the narrator of The War That Saved My Life.

Of course Ada isn’t a dog or a horse; she’s a girl, somewhere around ten. Ada doesn’t know what age she is because she doesn’t know her birthday.  Ada doesn’t know how to read, or write, or even walk very well. She has a club foot and is never allowed to leave her Mam’s one-room London flat. Ada’s only real connection to the world outside is her little brother, Jaime. When Mam says Jaime’s being sent to the country because Hitler is going to bomb London, Ada decides to follow her brother.  In the process, she becomes one of the few English children who could thank Germany for starting a war.
Over 800,000 children were evacuated from England’s city centers during “Operation Pied Piper“. Some of them were relocated overseas but the majority were resettled in rural England; all were separated from places and people they knew. It was an emotionally devastating policy that put much of Britain’s future in the hands of unqualified, under-prepared strangers and some evacuees found the poor treatment Ada expects.  What she and Jaime encounter is, for them, more challenging: a reluctant host who treats them well.
What follows is a remarkable exercise in unreliable narration on Ada’s part.  From birth she’s been raised on two articles of faith: that mothers love children and she is a monster. When Susan, the woman who shelters them, describes herself “as not a nice person” Ada accepts that as well.  The problems come from reconciling her beliefs with the facts.

“She was not a nice person, but she cleaned up the floor. She was not a nice person, but she bandaged my foot… and gave us two of her own clean shirts to wear…Miss Smith was not a nice person, but the bed she put us in was soft and clean, with smooth thin blankets and warm thicker ones.”

This is Ada’s first experience with sheets (the smooth thin blankets), good food, and regular baths as well as grown ups that think well of her.  Like an abused or feral animal she shies away from kindness and anticipates abuse as her due. She can barely begun to respond to this kinder, rural world of peace when the War comes roaring back in.
The greatest blessing of historical fiction is how it connects us to remote events and animates them through the eyes of the story.  Some sixth graders may have heard of World War II and a few of those may have heard of Dunkirk but this book helps them understand it by seeing it through the eyes of Ada.  Here we see not the tired-but-cheerful soldiers that animated the newsreels but the barely controlled panic of a sea-side village deluged with the wounded and dying.  The war becomes as real a threat as Ada’s abusive parent and the lessons she learns in fighting one aid her battle with the other.
I love historical fiction and kid lit but seldom have I seen one book shine in both genres. The War that Saved My Life is a brilliant exception.  It deserves every award it got.  Read it, share it, talk about it with kids and when you see a victim of abuse, remember you’re looking at Ada.

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