Thursday, September 27, 2012

Who's Telling this Story?

I have to get something off my chest. It's a first-world problem to be sure, but it affects a major part of MY world, so I need to vent.

Let me set the scene... It's my lunch break. I just finished a book the night before, so I'm looking through the long backlog of titles on my Kindle to decide which one to read next. I settle on one with a cute title and a clever premise, sit back, and prepare to escape to another place.

The book is written in third person from the point of view of a woman who's just lost her job and has also just found out from her boyfriend that he's been cheating on her. She's devastated by this news, obviously. She's nauseated. She's stunned. I'm feeling really bad for her. Oh, what a horrible day! I'm feeling her pain. And then suddenly, without warning, I'm thrust into the head of the unfaithful boyfriend, who's despairing about his soon-to-be-ex-girlfiend's reaction to his confession. I think, "Whoa! Either this protagonist is a mind reader or the author forgot who was telling this story."

Reading on, it's obvious it's the latter. And after another chapter, it's obvious that it's going to continue happening throughout the book. That's a deal breaker, kids. The book, which I was just moments ago very excited to read, goes into the "reject" folder on my Kindle.

Disappointed, I nevertheless choose another, only to be faced with another book with an identity crisis. REJECT.

What is happening? If these were the first two books I'd recently encountered with this problem, I'd chalk it up to an unfortunate coincidence and go on my way, but it's, sadly, a common occurrence in contemporary fiction. An epidemic. I see it all the time. And as a reader, I'm fed up with being made to feel schizophrenic by writers who don't have a basic understanding of the fundamental concept of point of view. Who's telling the story? 

In To Kill a Mockingbird, it's Scout, the young girl learning some hard life lessons pertaining to human nature. Does that mean we never know what Scout's father, Atticus Finch, is thinking or feeling? Of course not. In many instances, we know by what he says and does. But we never hear his thoughts directly. We see everything through the filter that is Scout. If Scout doesn't see it, hear it, taste it, or feel it, then neither do we.

In The Devil Wears Prada, it's Andrea Sachs, the terrorized junior assistant to a high-maintenance  magazine editor. Is the despot in the designer label voiceless? No! But the only character we know as if we are in her head is Andrea. She is the lens. We never find ourselves sensing that the evil magazine editor is hungry... unless she comes out and says, "I'm hungry," or Andrea hears her stomach growl. Because the story is written from Andrea's point of view.

In other books, the person telling the story may vary per scene or chapter or section. For example, in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, sometimes beleaguered publisher-turned-investigator, Mikael Blomkvist, is the character leading us through the story. Other times it's the title character, Lisbeth Salander, who is our guide. But never both at the same time. We don't have Lisbeth's point of view in one paragraph and Mikael's in the next.


It's just like life. Unless you're a mind reader, you can't hear what your boss is thinking when you arrive late to work for the third day in a row. You may have a good idea based on the scowl on her face. Or you may know more definitely when she says, "Your tardiness is becoming a problem." But there's a big difference between those two things and experiencing what she feels in connection with your lateness. You can't feel her frustration, anger, or disgust. Your personal point of view doesn't allow for that, just as it wouldn't if you were the protagonist in a book facing her boss in a similar situation.
Decide who's telling the story--or that particular part of the story--and stick with it. Put the camera in that character's hands, and don't let him or her hand it off to any other characters.

Below are the top five reasons writers need to get a handle on this elementary concept:
  1. It's bad manners to make the reader invade the privacy of more than one character at a time. Okay, it's not. But worse than that, it's bad writing.
  2. It's psychologically uncomfortable. Some people may not understand why reading your story makes them irritable and in the mood to kick puppies, but I do. It's because you're constantly yanking the reader out of the story by switching from character to character every other sentence or paragraph. If we wanted to watch a tennis match, we'd tune into ESPN.
  3. You're robbing readers of their expectation of discovery. As a matter of fact, there's nothing to discover. You're telling us everything! Please, don't insult our intelligence. We can deduce what secondary characters are thinking and feeling, as long as you write well and let us know through exposition and dialogue. We don't need to have it spelled out for us by ping-ponging around in every character's head.
  4. It's exhausting and overwhelming to know every character's thoughts and feelings at once. One character's insight at a time, please.
  5. It's frustrating to constantly wonder, "Who's thinking this?" or ask "Wasn't I just experiencing this from the woman's point of view? Why am I suddenly privy to the man's thoughts and feelings?"
Writers. It's not enough to have a great idea for a story. You have to know how to properly execute the storytelling through the written word. That's what makes you a WRITER. That means you need to have a firm grasp of spelling, grammar, mechanics, and most importantly POINT OF VIEW. Yes, you do. Don't shake your head at me and say, "Oh, an editor will take care of that." Puh-lease. You obviously don't have one if your book is making it to the marketplace with such obvious problems.

Have mercy on the mental well being of readers everywhere and get a grip!

I'm the crazy girl sitting in her car on her lunch break, beating her Kindle against the steering wheel. Just kidding. I would never mistreat my beloved Kindle. I'm also the author of six books available exclusively on Amazon. You can find links to their pages and my Twitter feed and Facebook page on my website, www.breabrown.com. My seventh book, which I am currently writing, had better be point-of-view error-free after this self-indulgent rant. I am fully aware of that.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Taking Risks

I'm not a risk-taker. The most spontaneous thing I do on any given day is to decide what to eat for lunch... at lunchtime, with no prior planning. The second most spontaneous thing I do each day is decide whether to drink my coffee black or with a little half-and-half. I'm not kidding. That's how much I like flying by the seat of my pants.

So I should have known that taking a risk with my writing had the potential to meet with undesirable results.

Plain Jayne is a modern-day adaptation of Jane Eyre that I wrote on a whim. A months-long whim, granted, but a whim nonetheless. And along with some really positive reviews, it's also bringing me some of the nastiest, most negative reviews my work has ever received.

But I'm not here to whine about bad reviews. Really. Honestly. I want to talk about learning to take risks, despite the very real possibility of bad--or in this case--mixed results. A risk doesn't have to be a complete success to be successful.

I'm grateful to Plain Jayne. It's a departure from the norm that has--for the most part--paid off. For one, it jerked me out of my comfort zone. It's important to do that every once in a while. Wouldn't want to get too comfortable, right? Comfort is for sissies!

In addition, Plain Jayne has brought two new, very special people into my life. Real people, not imaginary ones (although I do love Jayne and Lucas). I like making new friends, especially these two. They've greatly enriched my life, and I have Plain Jayne to thank for it.

Less overtly positive, it has taught me that not everything is going to be an unmitigated success. Oh, I've already learned that lesson in all the other facets of my life, but my writing has been something that hasn't faced overwhelming rejection and disapproval. It was time to get a healthy dose of it.

Enter Plain Jayne.

"I wanted to tear my eyes out."
"Disappointing."
"Agonizingly slow."
"Too slow."
"Seemed to drag a bit."

Hmmm... I think I see a pattern here.

Now for a sampling of some of the POSITIVE things people not related to me have said in public forums about Plain Jayne (we don't want Jayne to get a complex, after all).

"Well-delivered!"
"Funny, entertaining book."
"A fresh read."
"REALLY good. And funny--so funny!"
"I didn't want it to end."
"I didn't want to put it down."
"Yet another well-written, engaging book."

And interestingly enough:
"Great with Tuscan Whole Milk."

Okay, then. I'll take it.

And you know what else I'll take? I'll take the criticism. I'll take ownership of Plain Jayne. I'm proud of it. I like it. I like the characters. I like the story. And I liked writing it (except for the times that I hated writing it). It actually felt good to do something different and challenge myself.

Plus, as the contradicting comments above clearly show, what one person hates is what another person loves (with milk, apparently).

So, whether it's with writing or any other part of your life that you're passionate about, learn to take some risks. Even if you stumble or fall down while doing it, no failure is a complete failure. It's not going to kill you. (Unless it's skydiving or cliffdiving or some other physically dangerous pursuit. In those cases, you may want to take fewer risks.)


If you'd like to see what camp you'd fall into ("Boo!" "Yay!" or "Great with Tuscan Whole Milk"), check out Plain Jayne and all my other books at www.breabrown.com. And, please, feel free to give an HONEST review. My skin is thickening, and my pillow is very absorbent.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Jury's Out

Much to the delight of my husband, who's been called several times, my number recently came up for Greene County jury duty. At first, I was chagrined, but the more I thought about it, the more I was looking forward to the experience. First off, it would get me away from the office for a day or two (or twenty); second, it's my civic duty, and I'm all about duty; third, it would be great experience and fodder for future fiction. Win, win, win.

I was particularly excited to run into some "characters." I live in the Ozarks, after all. We're overrun with characters. And the people I met at court would be great in an upcoming book of mine. Not any book in particular, mind you, but some book someday in the future.

My biggest concern about jury duty was forgetting to go. I've been plagued with nightmares of inadvertently dodging my responsibility since I accepted the summons weeks ago. The summons told me I needed to call the day before my scheduled service to see if the court still needed my group (Group 7). I've been telling myself for two weeks, "Can't forget to call. Can't forget to call." Sometimes, in the middle of the day, my stomach would drop, and I'd think, "What's the date? Did I forget to call? Did I miss my date?" A normal person would set an alarm on her cell phone and be done with it, but... who has two thumbs and isn't normal? This girl! I'd rather experience daily heart-stopping moments of terror and dread for weeks. Yes, that's much better.

Friday at work, I made the sort of arrangements normally reserved for vacation time away from the office, fully prepared to be gone for an unknown amount of time. It was sort of exciting! Okay, this is when I determined that my life is reaching an extreme level of lameness. But I've lived through some exciting times, and I have to say, I much prefer the type of boring existence I currently lead. I'm content with having the prospect of jury duty thrill me, because that means life is pleasantly dull, and nothing horribly stressful is going on.

All day yesterday, I repeated my "Don't forget to call" mantra. I had a dream last night about being arrested at work for shirking my duty after forgetting to go. And I've spent a lot of today looking at the clock, waiting until the magic hour of 5:00, when it was time for me to call and listen to the recorded message regarding group assignments.

Five o'clock arrived. I waited until 5:36 (because I'm cool like that). Then, with summons slip in hand, I dialed the first number listed. The man in the recording informed me that Groups 1-3 were to report on Tuesday, rather than Monday. Then, "Groups 4 through 14 are dismissed. Your service is no longer required."

What?! After all that, Group 7 is simply dismissed without ever reporting? Really? But I'm willing! And I really wanted the experience! And I've been fretting about this for weeks. Now, I'm dismissed? How anti-climactic! Someone really needs to instruct the Greene County Court in the ways of story arc.

Ah, well. I guess I'll have to be content with dealing with the usual characters tomorrow at work. Ho. Hum.

I live in Springfield, Missouri, and work with a bunch of engineers and geologists forty hours a week. Is it any wonder I was excited by the opportunity to serve on a jury? My fictional characters' lives are a lot more thrilling than my real life. Check it out for yourself. Links to my books' Amazon pages are on my webpage, www.breabrown.com. You can also find links to my email, my Twitter feed, my Facebook account, and this blog from there. Don't be shy; drop me a note!