Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Simple Things in Writing

By Joanna Bourne

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: Today, we have Joanna Bourne, author of Forbidden Rose, talking about the simple things in writing.

Joanna Bourne writes historical fiction set in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France and Regency England. It was a time of love and sacrifice, clashing ideals, and really cool clothing. She in the Appalachian Mountains with her family, a dog, a cat and a goldfish. She's the author of the RITA award-winning My Lord and Spymaster, the American Library Association RUSA genre choice, Spymaster's Lady, and Forbidden Rose, which comes out out in June. Joanna blogs at Historical Romance.

Take it away, Joanna...

I was thinking the other day about elaboration of prose and simplicity of prose. Thinking about it in terms of what I'm doing in my own manuscript.

Overall, I'm aiming for straightforward, spare, stripped-down prose. The goal of general narrative is to be invisible to the reader. The story goes along just talking. Just building a picture. This ordinary narrative--for me--shouldn't be something that's going to make the reader stop and look at the writing, either to remark on its cleverness nor, I hope, to wince at how awkward it is.

It's not easy to write short and simple. Mark Twain, famously, is said to have written to a friend, "If I had more time this would be a shorter letter."

And then we got POV.

When we're in Point of View, we should sound like the character. When we do that, the reader is maybe going to notice the taste and tenor of the language itself.

To take two extreme cases:

My simplest, youngest folks should have a great directness to their experience. A concrete observation of the world. Dead simple language.

An example of the prose I'm thinking about would be this dialect passage from Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath'. Here, the POV character demands the simplest of expression.

And then the raids--the swoop of armed deputies on the squatters' camps. Get out. Department of Health orders. This camp is a menace to health.

Where we gonna go?

That's none of our business. We got orders to get you out of here. In half an hour we set fire to the camp.

They's typhoid down the line. You want ta spread it all over?

We got orders to get you out of here. Now get! In half an hour we burn the camp.

In half an hour the smoke of paper houses, of weed-thatched huts¸ rising to the sky, and the people in their cars, rolling over the highways, looking for another Hooverville.

For other characters, we try for more mannered speech. Elaborate and complicated speech. For an extreme example, look at Bramah's 'Golden Hours'.

"Your insight is clear and unbiased," said the gracious Sovereign. "But however entrancing it is to wander unchecked through a garden of bright images, are we not enticing your mind from another subject of almost equal importance?"

I love this clever complexity, this joyous sport with the language. I want to put something like this in the mouth of the characters.

It is immensely hard to write plainly. To catch the immediacy of an experience unfiltered by complex thought. It's also blindingly hard to write the speech of a complicated, eloquent character where every word comes to us already weighed in a discerning mind.

Hardest of all to slip from one voice to another as we change POVs. Just enough to make a poor innocent writer want to take up knitting or something.

A career is blooming...

A glittering French aristocrat is on the run, disguised as a British governess. England's top spy has a score to settle with her family. But as they're drawn inexorably into the intrigue and madness of Revolutionary Paris, they gamble on a love to which neither of them will admit.


  1. Great guest post. I knew there was a reason why I stick to one POV. At least for now.

  2. Hi Stina --

    That's the way we start, y'know. One POV. Then that feels so good we maybe try another POV, thinking we'll be able to handle it.

    "I can stop anytime I want," we say to ourselves.

    But we don't stop. Pretty soon we're writing stories with three and four POVs and wondering if we can maybe add one more . . .

  3. Good points. :) My first novel(ette, really)--which has been dutifully trashed--was 40k words with 8(?) main characters. I just kept meeting all these fascinating new 'people' and had to let my readers see through their eyes. Now they get to play in my 'Junk' folder.

    Oh, and are words fun. One novel I'm working on has a narrator who's creative with language. One critique partner sometimes marks words with "Did you mean to use this?" I answer, "Yes", "Ooops", or "You're right; that doesn't work."

    The difficulty between POVs comes from making them all distinct, because the writer's one person, with one sense of humor and a particular set of 'pet' words (we hope). And then there's an aspect that we probably like characters of a specific type, so how do you make 'em distinct? Oh, the joys of writing.

    We love to hate the process, though. Otherwise, we'd find a hobby that suits us better. I hope.


    P.S. I knit.

    P.P.S. I crochet, too.

  4. Hi Carradee --

    You've seen my 'Revolutionary Knitting' blog posting.

    Maybe the best training for writing in different POVs is to write non-fiction. Most people's 'non-fiction' voice is just gonna be different from the 'fiction voice'. Non-fiction is more formal, for one thing.

    And yet, this comes naturally to us, this differentiation. All those essays at school.

    Then, once you get comfy writing in two voices . . .
    Can three distinct voices be far behind?

    You start with building dialog. You expand that into making the internals sound right. Eventually, you got a POV.

    I have to admit, eight POVs in a 40K novella sounds . . . challenging.

  5. Oy, I'm just starting to think in POVs. This was very helpful.

  6. Hi Rhonda --

    It's all a matter of fitting yourself into the character's skin.

    This is not easy, but if you can sorta climb inside the character and see through her eyes, feel through her skin . . .

    It's really fun when you do this.

  7. It might be hard, but you do it beautifully. Your books are my go-tos when I need to show somebody that yuh-huh, romances can TOO be wonderfully written!

    (And now I will go get this new book, which I am excited to finally see coming out. Yay!)

    (p.s. sorry if this is a duplicate, blogspot's hiccuping on my comment.)

  8. No problem. Knitting is not for me >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  9. Thanks again, Jo! Great having you here and hearing how you approach writing.

  10. Hi Lianemerciel --

    Thank you so much. When it comes to those new to Romance, I like to hand over Crusie's 'Welcome to Temptation' or 'Faking It'. Who could resist?

    We think of Romance books as ultimately 'character' books. It's all about what the hero and heroine feel. That's why I work so hard on being deep in POV.

  11. Hi Janice --

    So very glad to visit here and see everything that's going on at 'Other Side'.

  12. "Faking It" was awesome. My sister-in-law turned me on to Jennifer Cruise and I was hooked by that book. "Bet Me" was another of hers I really enjoyed.