Lessons in Creative Writing from Deborah Harkness – Part 5

Point_of_view

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is the fifth and final in a series of posts sharing what I learned from author Deb Harkness during a week-long Master Class at Hedgebrook. Here are part 1part 2part 3 and part 4 in case you missed them.

Our final class was an open forum for various topics, so if this looks disorganized, that’s because we were just asking whatever came to mind. We had Deb’s expertise and we were going to take advantage of it!

Point of View
We spent a fair amount of time talking about how to know which point of view to tell your story in, and along with that, whether to write in past or present tense.

Refresher: the three main points of view are first person, third person limited and third person omniscient (this really isn’t used much anymore, so we didn’t talk about it.) Past tense is the traditional verb choice, but present is gaining in popularity. From my experience as a reader, present tense has to be done well for it not to be annoying. I wish I could tell you what I mean by that, but I can’t; I just know it when I see it.

Deb seems to be a third person fan – in fact she said if she had it to do over again, she’d write the All Souls trilogy in third person. I on, the other hand, I write in first person (so far, who knows for the future). Deb said she believes we’re seeing first person fatigue among readers and editors. Personally, I like reading first-person accounts because they are more intimate, but that’s just my opinion.

Each point of view has its positives and negatives. First person has serious limitations because you can only write about what your main character sees or is present for. In order to show other things, you have to rely on reports, hearsay, letters, conversation or exposition. In addition, because you are writing from within one person’s mind, all other characters are at least somewhat opaque. However, there is a deep sense of living the events along with the main character. I find it very helpful if you specifically want to tell one person’s side of the story or if you are chronicling a life.

As Deb noted, in first person, you’re better off sticking with past tense. Even though it’s popular, especially in YA novels, first person present tense almost never works. It does convey immediacy and power, but is usually awkward and stilted. (In fact, one of the books I’m reading right now is guilty of that.)

What third person lacks in intimacy, it makes up for in versatility. Limited third person allows you to change point of view and weight it more toward one character when you need to. A small twist puts you in a different point of view. If you have a lot of locations or things that your character doesn’t have access to in your plot, use third person. You can get the same immediacy of a character seeing something first hand if you have another character ask something like “is that a pirate ship in the harbor?” and then give a description.

Deb is quick to remind writers that point of view isn’t written in stone. “It’s a tool and method of discovery, not a straightjacket or a contract.” You can switch back and forth in the drafting process, so long as you’re consistent by the time you’re ready to send your work to anyone else to read. For example, if you are writing in third person and are having trouble identifying with your character, she suggests writing a scene or chapter in first person. You can always change it later. (In fact, she wrote the opening of Book of Life from eight different characters’ points of view before she finally hit on the one that worked.) She says when you find the right point of view, you’ll know.

Empty Phrases in Writing
One thing eliminate from your writing (especially when writing in first person) is what Deb calls “neck and above sentence structure.” This includes phrases like “I noticed, I saw, I smelled, I tasted, etc.” When you do this, you are filtering the experience through the thoughts of the character rather than letting the reader see through their eyes.

Writing like this can almost always be changed around to be a more powerful sentence. For example, in book one of the Guinevere trilogy, I originally wrote “I could smell the heavy, choking fumes of the tar that turned the boat black.” When my editor got a hold of it, she taught me to change it around like this: “The air was thick with the heavy, choking fumes of the tar that turned the boat black.”

This is a tough habit to break, but it is possible. I still do it occasionally, but I’ve learned that writing the other way really does have more impact. Deb says that if you find yourself slipping into this habit repeatedly, you may want to consider switching to third person.

Other Writing Tips:

  • If you’re using letters in your novel, make sure they do some work for your plot, preferably beyond just revealing information. Otherwise they are just a gimmick.
  • If you have a sense of play, fun and discovery while you’re writing, that will come across to your readers in your writing
  • Not all characters will be forthcoming with their emotions or motivations. With reserved characters, show there is more than meets the eye – show their inconsistencies, put their difficult roles in context to show their humanity. (I had to do this with Arthur; he wasn’t much of the sharing type.)
  • Deb suggests writing a biography for your characters when you are starting to get to know them. She suggests striking through, rather than deleting, things when details change so that you can always see your changes if you need to.
  • When researching, take a picture of the cover and table of contents of each book to help refresh your memory in case you are wondering where you got something from or need to reference it again later.
  • Asking questions will help you get to know your characters. Let them answer you. Then probe them as to why.

Deb’s last piece of advice to us was, “Don’t go shingle shopping before you’ve bought the house.” By that she means, don’t get hung up on the details before you have the main structure of the characters and plot in place. I think that’s a great way to keep your priorities straight when writing, especially in historical fiction, where it’s tempting to keep researching forever.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and were able to take something away from Deb’s wisdom. I wish every single one of you could have been with me at Hedgebrook. Don’t forget that Deb will be on tour this summer promoting Book of Life, so you may just get the chance to meet her in person!

What do you think of Deb’s lesson on point of view, and her other tips? Do you agree or disagree? Why? What have your experiences been with different POVs in reading or writing?