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Saturday, April 11

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Point of View and Internalization

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

WIP Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and we diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to WIP Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines. 

Submissions currently in the queue: Three

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through May 2.

This week’s questions:

Do you think POV works? Have I done italics correctly? Am I handling staying in this victim's head okay? Am I showing too much?

Market/Genre: Historical Crime Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: This is a historical fiction crime novel. One man killed four female members of his family over a 20-year period. Neither of one here is the protagonist. The protagonist will hear of the death of each victim, followed immediately by present tense scenes showing the relationship between her and the murderer, then (possibly?) death scene.

Houston and Aletha January 1931

Aletha stands, half bent, at the edge of the back porch. She does not see the frost on the dried up, weedy patch of vegetation at the lot fence or notice the yellow, gold, and pink ribbons of sunlight as the morning rays peek over the pine and cedar trees at the edge of the yard. She doesn’t hear the twittering of the birds, even one singing “pretty- pretty- pretty.” She pays no attention to the damp cold surrounding her in her thin flannel robe.

The scent of the slightly burned oatmeal of the children’s breakfast overcomes her stomach. A metallic taste rises into her consciousness from her stomach. She must get rid of them, both smell and taste. Her nostrils take in too much of the acrid odor; it engulfs her throat. Her stomach roils at the invasion. Her body is betraying her secret. Her slim body is bent far as possible as she retches onto the semi-frozen ground below

“Get rid of it,” he says. It is not a question, but a demand. Her puke has turned to a watery remnant, but the nausea is still in full force. She looks at Houston, the man she is to obey, to respect as the head of the household. Aletha’s dull eyes widen, then an inverted furrow develops between her eyebrows. She does not ask for the words to be repeated.

“You gone and gotten yourself knocked up. Take care of it. Ol’ Anna Louise knows how to get rid of a young’un. I done tol’ you two is enough.”

How does he know about someone who does abortions? Aletha is almost too sick to get herself in trouble by answering him. But Barclay pride and stubbornness rear their head.

“You are the one responsible for this baby, and we don’t get rid of our babies.”

The we doesn’t refer to her and Houston.

His dark eyes narrow. His fists clench. He steps in closer. He speaks, each word with a pause after it.

“Woman, you’ll do what I say. I’m tellin’ you two young’uns is enough. We ain’t having no more. I ‘pec’ you to see to it ‘fore the week is out.” The pause strengthens the threat.

Aletha does not question him as to what he’ll do if she does not comply. I’ll love this baby like the other two. What’s another beating? What’s another argument?

This baby might’ve been conceived as a result of his drunken groping, but I’ll love this child and care for him. That starts right now. Even though I don’t want another child so soon, God gave me this baby. No one else is going to remove it from my body.

No more mention is made of this snippet of conversation, but the words hang heavy in the air and in her heart.

Houston doesn’t love me; he probably never did. But he’ll come around. He’ll love this child as much as our other two. My charming man shows who he is every day. Hateful. Unloving. Selfish. Spiteful. Lazy. I don’t want to be with him anymore.

Sometimes I think we can make this marriage thing work. Sometimes.

It is time to rush to church. Houston looks at Aletha, “Hurry up! You goin’ to make us be late.”

My Thoughts in Blue:

Houston and Aletha January 1931

Aletha stands, half bent, at the edge of the back porch. [She does not see] This tells me this is an omniscient narrator the frost on the dried up, weedy patch of vegetation at the lot fence or notice the yellow, gold, and pink ribbons of sunlight as the morning rays peek over the pine and cedar trees at the edge of the yard. She doesn’t hear the twittering of the birds, even one singing “pretty- pretty- pretty.” She pays no attention to the damp cold surrounding her in her thin flannel robe. This sets a bleak tone, nicely contrasted by the nice things she doesn’t notice

The scent of the slightly burned oatmeal of the children’s breakfast overcomes her [stomach.] A metallic taste rises into her consciousness from her [stomach] careful of repeated words. She must get rid of them, both smell and taste. Her nostrils take in too much of the acrid odor; it engulfs her throat. Her [stomach] roils at the invasion. Her body [is betraying] feels passive compared to the rest. Perhaps “betrays” her secret. Her slim body [is bent] bends far as possible as she retches onto the semi-frozen ground below This paragraph felt a little too detailed and overwritten for me. But I do like the idea behind it, and the “body betrays her secret” line

“Get rid of it,” [he says.] A bit jarring since I don’t know who this is or where he came from. Aletha was alone as far as I knew It is not a question, but a demand. Her [puke] this word hit my ears wrong. The narrative has been smooth so far and this is too harsh for the voice has turned to a watery remnant, but the nausea is still in full force. She looks at Houston, the man she is to obey, to respect as the head of the household. Aletha’s dull eyes widen, then an inverted furrow develops between her eyebrows. [She does not ask for the words to be repeated.] Nice tension created with this one line

“You gone and gotten yourself knocked up. Take care of it. Ol’ Anna Louise knows how to get rid of a young’un. I done tol’ you two is enough.”

How does he know about someone who does abortions? Aletha is almost too sick to get herself in trouble by answering him. But Barclay pride and stubbornness rear their head.

“You are the one responsible for this baby, and we don’t get rid of our babies.”

The we doesn’t refer to her and Houston.

His dark eyes narrow. His fists clench. He steps in closer. He speaks, each word with a pause after it.

“Woman, you’ll do what I say. [I’m tellin’ you two young’uns is enough] Perhaps cut since he just said this. We ain’t having no more. I [‘pec’] awkward you to see to it ‘fore the week is out.” [The pause strengthens the threat.] I don’t get the sense of a pause here

Aletha does not question him as to what he’ll do if she does not comply. I’ll love this baby like the other two. What’s another beating? What’s another argument?

[This baby might’ve been conceived as a result of his drunken groping, but I’ll love this child and care for him. That starts right now. Even though I don’t want another child so soon, God gave me this baby. No one else is going to remove it from my body.] This paragraph feels more like an infodump than an internal thought to me.

No more mention is made of this snippet of conversation, but the words hang heavy in the air and in her heart.

[Houston doesn’t love me; he probably never did. But he’ll come around. He’ll love this child as much as our other two. My charming man shows who he is every day. Hateful. Unloving. Selfish. Spiteful. Lazy. I don’t want to be with him anymore.

Sometimes I think we can make this marriage thing work. Sometimes. ] Here as well. Her thoughts are also rather contradictory, so I’m a little unsure what she means.

It is time to rush to church. Houston looks at Aletha, “Hurry up! You goin’ to make us be late.”

The Questions:

1. Do you think the POV works?

Yes and no (readers chime in here). Keep in mind who your narrator is for these omniscient sections. If it’s a distant narrator, then the entire passage should probably be from that narrator’s POV. A few of Aletha’s thoughts in first person work to show the immediacy and importance of those thoughts, but the rest would be part of the third-person narrative. It’s not Aletha’s POV, even though she’s the character the omniscient narrator is following. It’s a subtle difference, but a critical one is this type of narrative.

There’s a strong sense of voice in the omniscient narrator that’s telling the tale, but the internal first-person thoughts of Aletha sometimes feel more infodump than her true thoughts. She seems more educated than Houston, and maybe she is, but it was enough to pull me out of the story a little.

My trouble here, is that because the narrative is so distant, Aletha’s internal thoughts pull me even tighter into her head and make me think she’s the protagonist. I feel I’m supposed to connect with her and care about her, and she does tug at the heartstrings for being suck in this awful situation. But the distant narrator pushes me away at the same time, so I’m not sure how to connect to this scene or these characters.

I personally found the mix of omniscient present tense with first person past tense a little discordant, but I’m not a fan of omniscient present tense (readers also chime in here). It’s possible it’s a personal taste issue and not an issue with the pages. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it.

(Here’s more on Do You Know Who Your Narrator Is?)

2. Have I done the italics correctly?

Yes and no. The shorter thoughts feel like immediate thoughts Aletha would be having at that moment. The longer thoughts feel more like exposition, and thus feel like infodumps instead of her thoughts.

Typically, only immediate internal thoughts are done with italics, and the regular internalization is part of the narrative. For example:
This baby might’ve been conceived as a result of his drunken groping, but I’ll love this child and care for him. That starts right now. Even though I don’t want another child so soon, God gave me this baby. No one else is going to remove it from my body.
Could be written from the omniscient narrator’s point of view:
This baby might have been conceived as a result of his drunken groping, but she’ll love this child and care for him. It starts right now. Even though she doesn’t want another child so soon, God gave her this baby. No one else is going to remove it from her body.
You’d put your own voice and spin on this of course, but something like this puts the information in the narrator’s POV.

Of course, you could also tweak it a bit so it sounds more like Aletha and shorten it up some.
This baby might’ve been conceived as a result of his drunken groping, but God gave me this baby. No one else is going to remove it from my body. I’ll love this child and care for him. That starts right now.
The larger thoughts just feel too calm and rational for someone in this situation, and I’m not feeling the emotion I’d expect to from a first-person internal thought in this situation.

Putting every internal thought in italics is also likely to feel awkward after a while, and might even feel like there are two separate narratives going. My instincts say to use the first person italic internal thoughts sparingly, and only for emphasis. The more you use, the more Aletha’s POV is going to fight for the narrator position, and the more likely it is to confuse readers (Ken and Maria, chime in here if you’re reading this week).

(Here’s more on Choosing Which Thoughts to Italicize)

3. Am I handling staying in this victim's head okay?

Yes. I do feel the narrative is focused on her, even when it’s watching her from a distance. She’s at the center of the scene, and we never dip into Houston’s head or see things from his perspective.

(Here’s more on How a Limited vs. a Tight Point of View Can Confuse Writers)

4. Am I showing too much?

The vomiting paragraph was a bit more than I felt was needed, but everything else read fine. There’s a certain amount of “told feel” with an omniscient narrator, because there is someone else telling the story and seeing/knowing things the characters don't. That was consistent with the POV, and the outside details shown worked well to contrast the bleak nature of the scene.

You also might be showing Aletha’s thoughts a bit much. I think that’s why those longer italic thoughts are standing out to me. They just didn’t flow as well with the narrative. They made me feel that the POV was wrong if we were spending that much time in her first-person head.

(Here’s more on Living in My Head: Crafting Natural-Sounding Internal Thoughts)

Overall, this is a challenging POV style to do, but you’re handling it fairly well. I think the trick is going to be finding the right balance between the internal thoughts and internal narrative. Being clear who the narrator is and staying in that narrator’s head (even if it’s an omniscient narrator) will help you identify what to italicize and when to draw close, and when to stay with your narrator’s POV.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

About the Critiquer

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. 
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3 comments:

  1. I find it a very rough scene without having feelings for any of the characters. I'm not sure if this is an opening scene of the book or a chapter, but I would like to feel some compassion for the person (even if it is not the protagonist) before we enter this dialogue. Perhaps that occurs out of this submission.

    Personally, I have a hard time with antagonists that show such anger and hostility. While that might be the case with the character, I find a more silent character (one that needs to say little to get his point across) invokes more fear than one who bullies.

    I don't see anything in this man that would make her want to "make the marriage work" - perhaps a scene with him being kind to the other two children might make the reader see a side of him that could be appreciated - even loved.

    I'm not sure about the POV as I think I'd need to see that play out to have an opinion on it.

    Overall, a good concept and with a little work I'm sure it will be a great book.

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  2. This is a gripping situation and powerful description. But I agree, the level of detail to use here is a real challenge. Present tense is tricky, omniscient is trickier, and a viewpoint like this that's almost a close third-person but slips outside it is harder still.

    Above all, this has to work with whetting our interest in the actual crime and protagonist, instead of fixating us on Aletha herself. I'm assuming this is an opening scene ("the protagonist will hear of" each death sounds like the first death is introduced before the protagonist). This is triiiiicky writing to do.

    Your best bet might be pick other writer(s) who've used momentary characters in a similar style, and learn everything you can from those scenes. One of the keys might be how we react to Aletha's situation at the moment: you've defined her husband as the problem and she doesn't quite have the strength to deal with that, so you might play up her just starting to come out of victimhood and take control of this (it might be as passive as enlisting relatives to remind Houston how much he loves children) --when the killer cuts that beginning of hope short. That probably means using your description to hint where the story's really going: that this isn't a slow immersive climb in Aletha's life, the scene actually goes faster than it might, and it hints slightly at tragedy and injustice from the start. That's your real goal, more than Aletha's baby is.

    You may want to use either a single viewpoint at a time with no omniscience, or else back out and make these scenes more poetic and Told but less immersive since they're ultimately someone else's story. Moments like saying what she doesn't see or pointing out her "slim" body in the middle of things would have to be weeded out for the first approach, and played up for the second.

    One other thing: the third-last paragraph does contradict itself. She thinks Houston can be won over, but then she says how unpleasant he is and even that she doesn't want to be there. Contradiction and conflict are powerful moments, but you need to acknowledge the contrasts. That means adding a "But" or a sense of interruption when a thought from one side gives way to the other. Or at least present them as more clearly a muddle of thoughts in her head at once, eg "I want to stay. I want to go" right together.

    You've put yourself and us deep in a combination of Aletha's head and a vivid description from outside the situation. You may want to rethink what the scene's exact purpose is and how to keep that in mind with every line -- but it's clear you've got some serious skill to bring to that crafting.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hey I actually write screen plays and not novels but my writing always is awfull. I have read how to do all the beginning and what not but I just keep messing up today I had to delete 5 pages I spent hours on because it just doesn't sound good. How can I be confident in my writing and be able to continue?

    ReplyDelete