Friday, January 09, 2009

Make a Point About POV

I knew as soon as I posted query guidelines that someone would hop up on his or her soap box and show how little they know about a subject. Happens every time.

In my last post, I stated that I wouldn’t accept novels written in first-person because I felt that an author should have moved on from this very limiting point of view. Of course, this particular person tried to make a case by giving me a list of classical authors from years past who wrote their novels in first person, which I took to be kind of funny. Of course there were authors who wrote in first person and there still are authors who write in this point of view. There were also authors who wrote in the omniscient—Dickens, in fact, was one of them. Authors, however, don’t write much in the omniscient anymore because readers don’t like authors being in their stories. Translation: Omniscient is not in vogue any more. Years ago most books opened with “Dear Reader.” How many of those do you see on the bookstore shelves today? Not many.

Chastising an agent because you object to his or her querying requirements because you know of a group of authors who used to write a certain way is like saying that all roads should be two-lane or planes shouldn’t have jet engines. Things change. Fiction is not static. Fiction writing methods grow and change as does everything else around us.

For instance, here’s what David Morrell, the author of First Blood, Testament, Last Reveille, The Totem, Blood Oath, The Brotherhood of the Rose and eleven other novels, has to say about first person narration. After being famous for awhile, he wrote Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing, which includes the following quote from page 102, Chapter Eight (entitled First Person):

"On the surface, the first person seems the simplest of all viewpoints. Write that way you talk, the siren song says. Just let the words come out as if the story were happening to you. Unfortunately, a transcription of even the best oral storytelling proves that what sounds effective in casual across-the-table setting is wordy and ill-focused on a page. Compounding that problem, authors who reflectively choose the first person often forget that they're trying to create fictional characters. These authors identify so closely with their first-person narrators that they take for granted the vividness of the language they are using. Neglecting to include the details of sound, touch, taste, and smell that make a story palpable, they rely almost exclusively on details of sight, with the result that their prose has a one-dimensional quality. The sentences become a litany of I did this and I did that and I did something else until the reader is overwhelmed with egotism and closes the pages.

But laziness of language isn't the only temptation the first person offers. It also encourages laziness of dramatic context. If the first person were as easy as it seems, all stories would be written in that viewpoint. The reason they're not has nothing to do with the need for variety. Rather it's that not many stories are suited to the first person. Form should follow function. Viewpoint should have something to do with the narrator's theme. The author shouldn't choose first person unless it will work, unless there is something unique to the first person that permits an author to create an effect that couldn’t be achieved any other way."

Dave Morrell goes on to give examples of fiction that works with the first-person narrator and examples of that which doesn't. However, what I get from new authors (those I'm trying hard to help on our agency blog) is the impression they choose first person because they have no other tools in their very limited tool chest. It's not that they chose the first person narrator from a vast variety of options, as Dr. Morrell suggests a professional might, but they chose first person because that's the only viewpoint they have ever written in. In other words, they write as they speak--in first person.

As another famous writer said at a writers’ conference a few years ago, everyone can write. We learn how to write at a very young age. But not everyone understands the craft of writing fiction.