Writing Tip – POV Switching

The first book I read that switched between 1st person and 3rd person point of view was Charles Stross’s The Rhesus Chart. At first it was the normal 1st person POV I’d come to expect from Stross, but then there were little bits of 3rd person POV that popped up. It threw me for a moment because it was unexpected, but the POV change was handled skillfully enough that it added a dimension to the narrative rather than pulling me out of the story. In a way, it was more like the chorus in Greek tragedies – those folks that told what was happening when the action on the stage wasn’t happening.

I don’t know if this is a new thing – this hopping between the depth of focus that comes from 1st person narrative to the breadth of knowledge that comes from 3rd person – but it seems to be getting more popular. I guess you could make a serious argument that it’s not at all. See the previous comment about the Greek chorus.

We had a little discussion about these swaps in an IASD thread on Facebook last week and it kind of got me wondering about the pros and cons. My Henchmen series is written exclusively in 1st person. Most of the stories and the entire (such as it is) Saxton series is 3rd person. In my limited experience, both have their ups and downs.

The primary con, of course, is switching from 1st person to 3rd person can throw the reader for a loop if it’s not handled well. One second you’re deep in the narrator’s head, feeling their feels and seeing the world through their eyes. The next you’re in a boardroom with a bunch of guys in suits smoking and trying to figure out what is to be done with this situation.

whatamilookingat

And then you’re back in the main character’s head, safely ensconced in his or her understanding of the world.

Writing is an oddball thing, because in addition to telling a story, you’re also teaching the reader how to read it. You have to give them clues about how to interpret the story because even the most avid reader can’t read your mind. If your POV swaps aren’t understandable your readers will get confused and surly. Next thing you know your book is tossed across the room in favor of some lackluster yarn about Bigfoot’s constant need for sex or the trials and tribulations of a harem of women kept by Velociraptors.

Think about this way: let’s say you’ve got a test coming up for your English lit class and it contains questions about calculating the distance between two Latitude/Longitude pairs (use a Haversine formula) and when the Battle of Hastings was (1066). Or think about the ending of Monty Python and the Holy Grail – that serious WTF moment when they all get arrested.

Those serious WTF moments are things that are best avoided in fiction lest you come to be known as one of those difficult authors and your readers start hyperventilating. Or worse, stop buying your books. Next thing you know, you’ll walk into a used bookstore and see a stack of your books for sale a quarter a pop.

This is kind of what I look like when I try to describe my books.

Does that mean you should never switch back and forth between 3rd person and 1st person? Absolutely not. 1st person POV and 3rd person POV have pluses and minuses. 1st person is great when there’s a limited cast and you want to tell a more intimate tale. Not intimate as in intimate, intimate as in connecting with the reader. 3rd person is great for larger casts and more complex story lines. Think in terms of the spread of information. 1st person is narrow and usually focused, but the narrator only knows what he or she directly experiences or what other characters tell him or her. 3rd person has a larger amount of information available, but is less intimate.

Personally, and this is just my guess here, I think Stross used the intermingled 3rd person scenes in The Rhesus Chart to explain some technicalities without having to resort to information dumps or direct experience that simply wouldn’t fit in with the narrative. He used it in a limited scope and it allowed him to provide information to the reader even if the narrator wasn’t privy to it. That way, Stross could explain why things were happening the way they were in a less obtrusive manner and avoid the dreaded information dump.

lexington-medical-document-dump
What an information dump might look like.

To tell the truth, I’m using a variation on this theme with the Saxton series. Since that’s written in 3rd person, it allows for a larger cast of characters. In a way, the Saxton stories and some of the stories in The Clock Man provide the information dump that the narrator of Henchmen wouldn’t know.

So, are there any hard and fast rules about switching point of view back and forth from 1st person to 3rd person and back again? No, not really. Most people seem to agree that switches like that should handled in an obvious manner: switch at a scene, switch at a chapter break. Whatever you choose to do, make it obvious that a switch has occurred. As long as it’s obvious what’s going on, you’ve done your job as a teller of stories and a teacher of readers. If you switch willy-nilly, things can get confused and that’s a bad state to have your reader in. Especially if you want them to buy more of your books.

tldr

  • It’s possible to switch back and forth between 1st person and 3rd person POV
  • There are no real rules that prohibit it, but you can usually ignore rules anyway
  • The only rule that really matters is make sure you don’t confuse your reader

What are your thoughts? Drop a comment. I promise I’ll respond.

Advertisements

Book Review – Roller Rink Witchcraft by Raven Snow

Let’s face a hard fact here: the real world can seem pretty boring. Get up, go to work, curse at traffic, flip off random drivers and pedestrians and the occasional kid in the back of the school bus, go home. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if that person who thinks he’s a warlock really is? Probably not, because you’ve picked on him since kindergarten and he’s got a huge chip on his shoulder and the power of the universe in his little finger. What about if magic were real and, frankly, pretty pedestrian? What if, instead of lurking behind the normalcy, the fantastic was right out in the open? Got a stain, go the cleaners. Got a hex, head down to Regina’s. She’s the best at getting out hexes. She’s even got a groupon going this month.

That’s the thing that fascinates me the most about urban fantasy as a genre. Regular fantasy, with mages and dragons and wizards, is less interesting to me because the world they’re set in is less interesting to me. That doesn’t mean the fantastic elements aren’t cool as shit, it just means I don’t really care for castles and dungeons. I like the idea that the hero or heroine saves the day then goes home to play XBox or Tweet about what they just did.

Totes stopped invasion of evil from 9th dimension. Suck it red ‘lectroids. Lolz. #banzai4life yo.

That’s the kind of world Raven Snow creates. There are magic stores – real magic, not prestidigitation – and they’re fiercely competitive. A budding witch with a powerful grandmother owns a throwback 70s roller rink. (BTW, I spent many a misbegotten day in legitimate 70s roller rinks. Yes, I’m that old). Snow has created a cool world where magic is just one of those things. By stripping the fantastic element from it, she’s made it even more amazing.

The story embedded in the surroundings is a traditional mystery, but Snow has breathed new life into the genre by dropping it into a magical universe. The cool thing is, magic doesn’t solve the mystery, because that would have been cheating.

Roller Rink Witchcraft is part urban fantasy, part mystery, part romance, and a heck of a lot of fun in the process.

witchcraft

Get your copy here (it’s free! At least as of this writing)

Let Me Dialogue With You

words

Human communication is mind-bendingly complicated stuff. How many times have your heard someone say, “It’s not what he said, but how he said it”? Or the age old “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice”?

Maybe the second one is less common.

Anyway, our communication goes well beyond the spoken words. You’ve got intonation, movement, history, touch, word choice, on and on and on. Anyone who tells you it’s what you say that’s most important is way off base. The verbal component of communication is actually just the tip of the iceberg.

Which leads us nicely to a potential problem: If communication is more than just the words, how do you handle the nonverbal aspects of communication in writing? For instance, take this line:

“I’ll always find you.”

The text alone is wide open to interpretation and it depends largely on the reader’s own past experiences (yes, a reader brings their own baggage into the book), their experience with the character, and the scene and story line you’ve set up. I pulled this line from from an image which shows us how important fonts are, but it’s also important to see how changes in the scene and the way the dialog is delivered can have a drastic impact on the way the line is perceived.

fonts-matter

Unless you’re hoping to write a novel with a ton of fonts – guaranteeing no one will ever read it – you’re going to have find a different way of eking that extra non-verbal aspect out of your dialog. The way to handle that is to rely on more than just the dialog. Set the scene, develop the characters, and take some time to explain the set up. Don’t get all pedantic with it, the reader doesn’t need to know every little bit that’s going through the speaker’s head at the moment, but they sometimes need to get a bit of context.

Now, the rules of writing dialog have been done to death. Truth be told, writing dialog isn’t hard: Listen to the way people talk and replicate that. Follow the rules of grammar, make it sound natural, all that jazz. But to make it all work and make the dialog compelling you have to – at least sometimes –  handle the nonverbal.cues.

Some of the nonverbal aspects of dialog – things like character development and history – are far too in-depth to handle in a blog post, but if you’re writing you’re probably already familiar with those things, so let’s focus on setting the scene. To illustrate how different word choices and scene-setting techniques work, we’ll be using the same quote for each scene. This is actually pretty similar to an exercise we used to in acting classes, but with writing. In that exercise, each actor is given a line and a feeling and told to deliver it. Two actors could be given two unrelated lines and told to interact using a feeling or something similar. This exercise basically the writing version of that.

Meloncholy:

He watched her from afar, as he always had and always would. She had her life and it was better without him in it. He’d saved her again and, just like always, she never even knew he was there. “I’ll always find you,” he whispered to her from the darkness.

Angry

“I think this will be the last time we meet,” he said. That smirk that made him a beau that won over many a young lady’s heart was plastered on his perfect face.

She tore at the cheap plastic belt that held her in place and glared as he casually walked off into the rain. It was a cheap trick, but it had worked, and he escaped her one more time. “I’ll always find you,” she snarled.

Happy

“How did you …,” she stammered.

His eyes sparkled gold and hazel in the mid-day sun. She drank him in, reveled in losing herself in him.. He held her close, stroked her hair, and said, “I’ll always find you.”

Scary

He pressed into the wall and wished he could magically pass through it. That nail he’d promised for months to pull out dug into his back. “How did you …,” he stammered.

Her eyes were as black as her soul. She didn’t care what happened when this was all over. Whatever it was, it would be worth it just to have been able to see the look on his face at this moment. She bared her teeth and her smile spoke of predation. “I’ll always find you,” she said.

Try it sometime. Take one or two phrases (technically it should be two since dialogue usually requires two people, but you get the idea), pick a feeling, and see if you can make it work.

None of this should imply that every line of dialogue needs this level of detail. There are certainly times when you want snappy repartee and, in truth, most of the times when we actually talk to each other there’s a lot of give and take. People talk over each other and interrupt each other all the time when they’re speaking. That’s not necessarily something you want to try to emulate in writing; it works about as well in print as it does in real life. Which is to say, not really at all.

Sometimes the dialogue needs to come fast and furious, but it’s also a good idea to back it off a bit sometimes and let the reader know what the voices in your head are thinking. Set the scene, let the characters be themselves, and let it rip.

Let’s mix the fast and furious with the deep POV and see what happens:

“Oh, Johnny… Where are you Johnny?” she asked.

Johnny stumbled backwards across the room, hands feeling behind him in a futile attempt to keep from tripping over the detritus of his misery. She was close. But there was no way she could be here, right? Not after the … incident.

“I just want you to meet my friend, Johnny,” she said.

“I already have friends,” Johnny said. “I don’t need any more.”

“But she so wants to meet you. She’s bright and shiny and I know you’ll both get along so well.”

“It was an accident.” Tears welled in his eyes remembering her broken body on the pavement. “I’m so sorry.”

“It wasn’t an accident, Johnny-boy. You loved your drink more than you loved me. But that’s okay, I found some new friends and they’re looking forward to meeting you.”

She came around the corner and he finally got his first look at her. Kelly, the woman he’d loved and lost to an accident that could have easily been prevented. She looked well, she looked normal. She looked like home. Whatever it was, it looked like her, but there was no way it could be her.

Johnny pressed into the wall and wished he could magically pass through it. That nail he’d promised for months to pull out dug into his back. “How did you …,” he stammered.

Her eyes were as black as her soul. She didn’t care what happened when this was all over. Whatever it was, it would be worth it just to have been able to see the look on his face at this moment. She bared her teeth and her smile spoke of predation. “I’ll always find you,” she said.

Sure, it’s a first draft, but hopefully it gives you some ideas.

So, what tricks do you use when you write dialogue?

Book Review – Breacher by Tom Julian

 

A while back I reviewed a book that had the single most uplifting and soul crushing line I’ve ever come across in fiction. That line – although I didn’t mention it at the time – was “This is none of my concern.”

Time has dulled my memory a bit, so that may not be the exact quote, but it’s good enough for now. That book was Tom Julian’s Timberwolf and it was a wonderful read about a world of high technology, constant war, and the religious reasons for those wars. The lead character was a serious bad-ass name Timberwolf Velez and we got to see the world through his jaded eyes.

The really cool thing about self-publishing and the eBook revolution is it allows authors to do things we wouldn’t have been able to do even a decade ago. When the world only read books in print it would have been unthinkable to publish a stand-alone story about a character unless you could find a magazine willing to put it out there. The simple fact of the matter is books cost a lot of money to publish and distribute and no one in their right mind would even think about publishing a short story unless it was in an anthology. Now an author can write a story that expands on the larger work and make it available to fans for a minuscule cost. This is the exact sort of thing I’m doing with the Saxton series, in case you’re wondering.

This, I suspect, is exactly where Tom Julian is going with Breacher. It’s a short story set in the world of Timberwolf, but covers Velez’s earliest days in the armed forces and gives us some tantalizing hints about the universe at large and how Timberwolf came to be.

The action in Breacher is quick and tense, and the story is worth the read for that alone, but the hints about the back story and the world at large are what make it truly exciting. One can only hope Julian will continue to work away at the events that occurred before the final, epic conclusion of Timberwolf. So, if you’re reading this, Mr. Julian, it’s time to start cracking away on some war stories.

Somewhere in orbit off one of Saturn’s moons, a ship sits in darkness, awaiting its own destruction. A small squad approaches. Malfunction. Destruction. Three friends are set on the path to bitter rivalry.

Before Timberwolf Vélez became a legend, before Emmanuel Gray became a bishop, and Michael Solandro became his right hand, they were soldiers. Together. And before twenty years of war pitted Earth against the universe, they formed part of an elite group of specialized operatives: the Breachers.

breacher

Get your copy here

Writing Tools

Every now and then I’ll come across a Kickstarter campaign for a book and wonder what’s going on. Sometimes the campaign is to help fully publish and do a custom print run, other times it looks like the campaign is trying to raise money for software or whatever else. Even more rarely, you’ll see someone running a crowdfunding campaign so they can quit their jobs and just write.

Some of that I can certainly understand. If you want to do a custom print run of a children’s book or something like that, you’re looking at dropping a butt-load of money on the project. Or, as my son likes to say, you’ll need a lot of cheddar.

Kids these days. As if we didn’t have enough slang terms for money already.

But for those campaigns where the author just wants to take a year off work and write a book, I’m not sure how well that will work out for them. If you can’t write a book in a year during your free time, there’s no guarantee that making it your job will help. I’ve known far too many people who’ve said for years “I’m working on this novel.” Just write the damned thing already.

Writing isn’t exactly rocket science. You come up with an idea. You sit down and write the idea out. Write some more every day. It takes time, it takes dedication, and it takes tenacity. Before you know it, you’ll look down and the word count will be hovering around 70k.

So, what do you need (besides an idea and some tenacity) to get a book written? Software generally helps. You could be one of those writers that uses a typewriter, but if you have access to a computer and some free software you’ll make your life much easier. CSB moment: I saw an old manual typewriter at a pawn shop yesterday and seriously considered buying it. Then I remembered what it was like to work with one of those damned things and came to my senses.

With that in mind, here’s a quick list of free or cheap stuff you can use to write your amazingly awesome novel that will propel you into the upper echelons of high society.

A computer of some sort or another.

This doesn’t have to be the latest Voodoo PC laptop with an 8 core i7 CPU and 32GB of RAM. Writing is word processing and the beautiful thing about word processing is it doesn’t require much in the way of hardware. I’ve written on my old Asus Transformer tablet and that thing’s insanely slow. If you’re buying a computer, go cheap. Spend your money on other important writing tools like Scotch. All the computer has to do is handle words and not crash all the time.

If you’re technologically savvy enough, Linux will eke out every bit of power from your hardware. Find a used laptop that works, even if it’s full of viruses and malware, and drop Linux on it. I’d recommend Kubuntu, but there are dozens of other choices out there.

The only other piece of hardware that would come in handy is a portable USB drive. Don’t rely on a thumb drive, they’re notorious for randomly dropping all their data, get a small portable hard drive and make it a habit to keep a copy of your manuscript on the laptop and backed up to the USB drive.

Software

A Dropbox subscription will also come in handy. Dropbox is a free tool that lets you back up your data to cloud storage. Cloud storage, by the way, is just a cutesy, fancy term for putting your files on someone else’s server. A subscription is free for the first 2GB of data. If your manuscript is larger than 2GB, it’s probably time to consider cutting the length down. Dropbox is available for Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, and just about everything else under the sun.

The actual writing portion of writing can be handled on Notepad if you’re so inclined, but it’s not really the best choice. You can go with Office if you have a copy already, but if you have to buy a copy of Office you’ll soon see it’s a pricey piece of software. There are plenty of cheaper alternatives and some excellent free ones, too.

Scrivener is a cheap tool that’s built for writing screenplays and novels. It’s amazingly flexible and a steal at only $40. The only downside to Scrivener? It’s only available for OSX and Windows. As of right now there are no Linux versions.

If that’s too steep, how does free sound? Both Open Office and Libre Office are free and open source versions of Microsoft’s Office suite. Versions are available for Linux, Windows, and Mac OSX.

The hardest part of writing is the actual part where you have to sit down and write. No amount of hardware or software can help you with that. Unfortunately, inspiration will strike at the most inappropriate times, so invest in a notebook to jot down the little bits and ideas that pop up from time to time.

Now, go out there and tell the world a story.

Past Tense vs Present Tense

I recently read a comment on a Facebook group post that made me wonder if was doing something wrong. Then I sat down and thought about it, did a bit of research, and came to the conclusion that no matter what anyone says, they don’t really have all the answers they claim to have.

Does that mean I’m not doing something wrong? Maybe. Hell, I don’t know. I just write stuff and hope it resonates with someone.

Anyhoo, this was a heated response by an author who said, in no uncertain terms, that she absolutely could not read books that were written in present tense. It apparently causes a visceral reaction and, as a result, she flat-out refuses to read books that aren’t written in the past tense.

Now, stop for a moment and think about the last book you read. Was it in present tense or past tense? Chances are high it was in past tense. I’ve read both styles and not even noticed if a book was written in past or present tense. After I started reading up on the whole past vs present debate, I started paying attention to what I was reading and found the bulk seem to be in past tense.

Guess what. Mine are in present tense. Aiyah.

I’m not entirely certain how this happened. It just seemed more natural for me to write in the present tense. For whatever reason, the present tense just felt more immediate and, for books I’ve described as “in your face entertainment”, immediate seems like a good thing to have.

For those of you scratching your heads and wondering what on Earth I’m prattling on about, past tense vs present tense in fiction deals with when the story happened and how it’s told. Past tense is more traditional. In past tense writing the narrator is recounting something that has already happened. Present tense is less common and the narrator is telling the story as it happens. Take for instance the following snippets:

Past tense: Mighty Cthulhu rose from his dreamless sleep to spark nightmares in the world and consume those who would worship him. His worshipers were the lucky ones; they were eaten quickly and put out of their misery.

Present tense: Mighty Cthulhu rises from his dreamless sleep to spark nightmares in the world and consume those who would worship him. His worshipers will be the lucky ones; they’ll be eaten quickly and put out of their misery.

Which one is better? That depends on who you talk ask. A vast amount of words have been written in praise of writing in the past tense. It’s easier, it’s more traditional, it’s just better. Much less has been written in praise of present tense. In fact, some dismiss it as a just something new writers use to be fashionable and recommend the use of present tense be severely curtailed.

But here’s the problem with that argument: it assumes there are rules that must be adhered to for a book to be considered good. This is fiction. The only rule that matters is whether or not the reader can follow the story. Beyond that it’s all personal choice. Sure, some people will refuse to read anything in the present tense, but there are also people who refuse to read poetry, urban fantasy, horror, science fiction, or any of dozens of other categories of writing.

And – much as I hate to say this – there are people who will refuse to read your book for a variety of reasons. Or they’ll read it and hate and tell all their friends that you’re a horrible writer and quite possibly also responsible for kidnapping the Lindbergh baby and changing the formula for Coke. Don’t fret about those people; you can’t please everyone.

So, forget what the naysayers neigh about. It’s your book. Write it like you want to write it. Past tense, present tense, first person, third person, third person omniscient, etc., etc. These are all just labels and they don’t define your story. Only you can define your story.

Book Review – The Alexandria Project by Andrew Updegrove

Here’s a fun fact for you: Wars are won and lost on information. Weapons and troops are certainly important, but if you don’t know where to place them they’re less than useless. Imagine a whole battalion of the greatest warriors the world has ever known, armed to the teeth and ready to take on any foe. They’re also standing in the middle of nowhere with no one to fight while a few people with homemade explosives and cheap Chinese knock-off AKs take out a supply depot.

Information is a weapon and if you know how to manipulate it you can blow the kneecaps off the world. All you’ve got to do is find it. If you can find it and manipulate so the other guys can’t use it, well, that’s much better.

Hacking used to be a fun past-time for some people. Sit in a motel somewhere and steal a whole mess of credit card numbers. Lolz ensue. Break into someone’s server and delete a bunch of information. Hilarity ensues. Bad as those things might be, they pale in comparison to what governments do to each other on a day-to-day basis.

That’s the face of modern warfare. It’s brilliant and difficult to trace and extremely hard to prosecute. Sure, lives get damaged in the process, but people don’t actually, you know, die.

Besides, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper to hire a bunch of hackers and turn them loose on an enemy than to ship a whole mess of troops halfway around the world and let them duke it out. Plus, after the war, you’re still stuck with cost of rebuilding the damage and running the conquered country.

That’s the general gist of The Alexandria Project. I accidentally gave away a major plot point (if you were paying attention), but I didn’t give away the details, so Andrew’s book should still be a good read.

“Thank you for your contribution to the Alexandria Project” is the message cyber attackers leave behind as they delete crucial data from computer networks across America. It’s not long before the nation is on the verge of collapse as Wall Street, the transportation system, government agencies, and the rest of our internet-based economy all fall victim to the attacks of unknown assailants. As the public outcry builds, Frank Adversego, a brilliant but conflicted cyber security expert, finds himself under suspicion as well as trapped in a power play between the FBI and the CIA. Only by tracing the Alexandria Project back to the source can he clear himself.

What follows is a fast-paced, satirical tale of cyber sleuthing, international espionage, and nuclear brinksmanship that accurately portrays our increasing vulnerability to cyber attack. The surprise ending will leave readers both ready for the next Frank Adversego thriller, as well as concerned about where our headlong rush onto the Internet may be leading us.

Personally, I found it a great read. The technical details were accurate – which is a rarity these days. Far too often I’ll read a techno-thriller and find all kinds of gross inaccuracies, but The Alexandria Project made it work without getting drug down in the technical details or simply making technology up.

The Alexandria Project has a goodly portion of the alphabet soup of American intelligence agencies, a dysfunctional genius of a computer security specialist, the North Koreans, and enough intrigue to keep you on the edge of your seat. You can never go wrong with the North Koreans; they’re like the Nazis of the modern world.

A highly recommended read.

alexandria

 

 

Get your copy here

Follow Andrew on Twitter

Check out Andrew’s blog