Thursday, 20 February 2014

E=MC2 for writers

I have now supervised the linguistic endeavours of two small children, and I’ve reached some important conclusions.

Firstly, and most importantly, that I have no idea what goes on in their heads and how that connects to what comes out of their mouths.

Actually, that’s pretty much it.  For ‘some important conclusions’, read ‘one fairly useless conclusion.’

Despite two linguistic degrees and personal study of a whole lot of pre-school wittering, I have absolutely no insight into the process of language acquisition in small children.

Thomas barely said a word until he was nearly two.  There was a lot of ‘bu’ and ‘ca’ and ‘do-y’ but very little actual communication until the day he announced, from the back seat of the car, that ‘that man not indicate, mummy.’  Which made me look slightly daft when the health visitor rang me to follow up my concern about his lack of speech.

Ben, on the other hand, has followed the ‘repeat everything indiscriminately until something sticks’ model.

Leading to useful utterances such as “Wassa story Balamooooory’ and ‘Bob Builder canny fissit.  ES!  E CAAAAN!” and  ‘Isa any ‘ticular reason oo doin’ dat?’ 

He also appears to have no preference for any particular tense or viewpoint.  So ‘My no like dat’ is interchangeable with ‘Nonono mummy. Ben do it.’ or ‘I want it. I WANT IT!’

I have some sympathy for this confusion.  Tense and viewpoint  - particularly viewpoint - are probably the most fundamental choices that a writer has to make when beginning a new project.  And that choice can create a whole lot of angst.  Particularly when you get 30,000 words in and then develop a sneaking suspicion that your first person viewpoint should actually have been third person, and then start trying to work out whether you need to entirely re-write, or whether you can get away with a ‘search and replace’ exercise on ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’, ‘mine’, ‘I’d’, ‘I’ve’ and every other possible permutation thereof.

Or when you’re particularly pleased with your innovative use of the third person omniscient narrator, and then your entire writing group perform a co-ordinated nose-wrinkle, before chorusing ‘Really?  Are you sure?’ and extoling the virtues of first person.

There’s been reams of advice and theory written about viewpoint.  I’ve read a fair bit of it, and I still struggle with it.  I don’t find that it’s a choice that I ever actively make.  Each idea and project seems to come with its viewpoint packaged up with it, as part and parcel of the whole, and I don’t tend to question it, unless something is fundamentally not working and I need something to blame.  Then I start pointing the finger at viewpoint, and trying to remember how to do a ‘search and replace’ in the mac version of Scrivener.

In that respect, I can empathise with Ben, and his desire to be left in peace with whichever point of view fits his mood at the time.

Inhabiting his emotions.  Using the unequivocal, self-exposing first person in order to communicate the true extent of his fury at having his socks put on by an intrusive third party parental figure.

Ben no like dat.
Distancing himself slightly from his likes and dislikes in order to provide a wider context, and a better overview of his complex relationship with in-car music.

My not eat it.
Employing disorganised grammar to convey the chaos of his conflicting thoughts about baked beans, and the way they interact with the toast.

Or something like that.


Anyway, I empathise.  I don’t like viewpoint rules.  Mainly because they never seem to quite fit with what’s actually going on in any project.

First person, for example, is supposed to be the most immediate viewpoint, with unfettered, direct access to a character’s innermost thoughts and feelings.  It’s supposed to dump us right in the middle of that character’s emotions, so that we experience what they’re experiencing, in as close to real time as you ever get in fiction.

I’m not entirely convinced.

I like first person.  It’s probably the viewpoint I use the most.  Well, I know it’s the viewpoint I use the most.  Both novels are in first person, which means that there are at least 280,000 first person words kicking around in my computer.  Even if everything else I’ve ever written was in third person, the I’s very much still have it.

But I’m becoming less and less convinced that it’s automatically the most immediate point of view.  I think that there’s a certain distance in some first-person writing that you don’t get in the equivalent third-person approach.  Because you’re never going to be able to experience someone’s thoughts and feelings as that person experiences them.  The act of writing about them means that they have to be vocalised and verbalised and honed into some sort of coherent structure.  This creates an automatic editing of sorts.  A first-person narrator who communicated every fleeting, irrelevant thought, would be spectacularly difficult to follow – and I suspect you’d probably not bother.

It would be like a conversation with Ben, with every little fleeting impulse broadcasted in incoherent technicolor.

So with first person, what you often get is a nicely edited, carefully trimmed version of what the viewpoint character sees as the truth, or wants to be seen as the truth.  People don’t generally have absolute insight into ever nuance of every thought that crosses their mind, and fictional characters with that kind of piercing self-awareness would be fairly unconvincing, and probably more than a little bit dull.  For this reason, I think that most first person narrators are unreliable, to some extent, whether it’s because they don’t understand something, or because they don’t want to acknowledge something, or because they are deliberately trying to fool themselves, or someone else.

You’re kept at something of a distance, because the character is, on the face of it, in control of what the reader learns about them.

So what about third person viewpoint?  This is traditionally considered to be the slightly more detached point of view.  But I’m not sure I agree.  With a third person viewpoint, you are watching the character, and analysing what they do, and you can be as detached, or as involved, as the author allows you to be.

I had a blinding lightbulb moment at a workshop with Emma Darwin, at the York Festival ofWriting.  She was talking about ‘psychic distance’, a term coined by the author, John Gardner, in his posthumously published The Art of Fiction.  Emma used the following example from Gardner:

1.It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.

2.Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.

3.Henry hated snowstorms.

4.God how he hated these damn snowstorms.

5.Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.

The examples show how the reader can be kept at a distance from the main character, or granted direct access to his thoughts and feelings.  The fifth example, while in third person, is every bit as immediate as a first person account, arguably more so, because the third person narrator is like a ghost, barely there and with no agenda or filters of their own.

There’s a lot of discussion about ‘voice’ in writing workshops and books, and people often talk about the importance of ‘finding your voice’ as a writer.  I think that the trick is actually finding your voice as a narrator, in any given piece of writing.  And I think that, to some extent, finding that voice is about balancing viewpoint and psychic distance.

If I was trying to write a best-selling ‘How to build a best-selling novel’ type book, I would probably announce at this point that I’d discovered the secret formula at the heart of all fiction writing.  I’d assign characters and symbols to it and put it in big block letters.



It would be like one of the courses on my postgraduate linguistics degree course, where we’d all sit in silence while the tutor would work his way round the room, covering every whiteboard with complex equations, the point of which appeared to be to assert that a statement is true if, and only if, that statement is true.  At which point we’d all look at one another out of the corners of our eyes, before deciding that we weren’t going to be the one who stuck their hand up and said ‘Er, so the point of all that algebra was….?’  If someone else had done it, we’d probably have been willing to nod supportively, right up to the point when the speaker was made to look spectacularly stupid, at which point we’d adopt disapproving expressions and edge away, as though the thought had never crossed our minds.

I’ve never been good with equations.  I never understood quadratic equations, much to the perpetual and incoherent rage of my GCSE maths teacher, who did not feel that ‘well I’ll just miss them out ’ was a valid approach to a whole branch of mathematics.

It clearly was.  An A in GCSE mathematics attests to the complete irrelevance of quadratic equations.

Unreliable?  Me?
So probably best to avoid the novel-writing equations.  Maybe someone could come up with a writing program which calculates how close you are to a character’s thoughts, and then shades that section of writing in different appropriate colours, allowing you to then print it all out and analyse it.   Maybe there could be a little unreliable narrator alarm.  I could customize mine with a recording of Thomas, saying ‘Ben did it’ or ‘Wasn’t me.’

Of course, all that would probably involve equations again, but as long as I don’t have to do them myself, I can live with that.  I’m sure the clever people at Apple can come up with something.  I’ve recently switched to an Apple and it seems to do pretty much everything else.

Unfortunately, I suspect it’s not actually as straightforward as an equation.  I suspect it’s probably more like tuning one of those CB radio thingies, where you twiddle knobs... – not like that.  If you’ve come here on a ‘knob-twiddling book’ google search, 50 Shades of Grey is that way...

...until it stops making a horrible noise and you start hearing voices.

Or voice, perhaps.

I think I’m starting to get my head around the whole viewpoint thing.  I don’t think it’s something you can really figure out in isolation.  It doesn’t seem to me that you can consider an idea and simply think “Right. Third person.  Off we go.”  You need to work out what kind of person your main character is, and what relationship they are going to have with the reader, and with the fictional world around them.  Maybe that equation should be something like:


Or maybe I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.  Maybe I’m an unreliable narrator.  Maybe it is as simple as “Right.  Viewpoint selected.  Off we/you/I/he/she/it goes.”

In which case, I might adopt a multiple second-person unreliable narrator for my next project.

You are sitting on the radiator, posting dominos through the slats.  When I shout and wave my arms, you look at each other and something passes between you.  Then one of you looks me in the eye and tells me “Ben did it.”

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