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Posts Tagged ‘POV’

One of the questions I get asked a lot is How do you choose which point of view to write a scene from? The answer is complicated, because I almost never write a scene from just one character’s POV. If there are three characters in a scene, odds are good that I’ve written a version of that scene from each of their POVs. This is very true of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. I wrote multiple versions of nearly every scene in the book.

As for how I chose which version ended up in the book, that was influenced by several factors: the way characters’ perspectives affected the plot, the way revelations affect character development, and above all, the reaction I wanted readers to have to a scene. With some scenes, it was easy to decide. For others, I spent weeks wrestling with the decision. Perhaps the hardest choice I made was who was going to narrate the events of Kellen’s 26th birthday, or as it’s sometimes referred to: the infamous handjob scene. For this month’s newsletter, the bonus scene from All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is the flip side to that birthday, that night from Wavy’s POV.

That scene is split into two sections–Kellen’s birthday dinner and the aftermath. In the published version, both segments are narrated by him, and I made that decision in order to balance readers on the edge of a knife. I wanted them to see Kellen in a new light. I wanted to reveal certain elements of Wavy’s personality that would echo back to other parts of the book. Most importantly, I wanted readers to feel the emotional impact of that night deeply, but I didn’t want to destroy them. Not yet anyway.

Kellen’s telling of his birthday is extraordinarily painful in a way that Wavy’s version isn’t. On that night, he comes face to face with the nature of his feelings for Wavy and with his own failure to protect her. As he hasn’t until that moment, he understands that this relationship that has expanded to fill so much of his life is not as simple as it should be. I wanted readers to come away from that scene feeling winded and a little scorched, and even doubting Kellen. After all, that’s how he’s feeling when it’s over.

I feared that telling the scene from Wavy’s POV would have too little impact. On that night, she is testing out what it will mean for her to become a woman. She is investigating her own powers of attraction and attempting to change the dynamics of her relationship with Kellen. Honestly, in rereading this scene from her POV, she comes off as pretty flippant about it all. She is unprepared for the damage it’s going to do to Kellen. Told from her POV, the scene is not devastating enough.

Conversely, the aftermath of that ill-fated handjob, told from her perspective, is too devastating. Kellen is already trying to calculate the trajectory of this moment, and looking ahead to the future. He is negotiating with himself how he will mitigate the harm he’s done. There is an element of calm, or at least a veneer of calm over his shame and his rage.

Wavy’s horror-stricken narration, however, reveals the effects of childhood full of shame and self-loathing. Naked and shivering in that bathtub, she is stripped bare emotionally to a little girl whose worst fears have been realized: she’s dirty and unlovable. Every bit of confidence she gained from Kellen’s kindness is gone. It left me as the writer feeling ravaged and hopeless. I feared it would do the same to readers, when I most needed them to have the strength to go on.

Having had a little glimpse behind the scenes of my writing process, I’m curious what readers will make of the choice I made.

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Did I dress up for Halloween? Not really. I always wear black and I’m wearing black today, so I basically look the same as I do every other day of the year. My costume is on the inside.

I had a couple of interviews published over the weekend, and in the comments of one, a reader tried to inform me that I was in error to have a “personal” interpretation of a piece of literature. This reader informed me that I was missing or ignoring the “universal meaning” of the book in question. Well, holy shit. My surprised face, let me show you it.

This idea is not new to me. After all, I have a couple literature degrees, so I’ve spent plenty of years in intellectual servitude to the “universal meaning” of literature that any given professor espoused. When it was for a grade, I could regurgitate the meaning I was supposed to have absorbed from a novel, play, poem. I could reproduce the meaning traditionally ascribed to the author of the piece.

Once I got free, however, I started having my own interpretations of meaning that didn’t require me to check in with anybody else, including the author. It was a pretty radical experience, even inside my head, to not check in with the dominant cultural point of view as I read. Having been trained to view books from that POV, though, it’s easy to slip back into that mode. To have discussions about literature based on the perspective of middle-aged upper class white men.

vittorio-reggianini-poetry-reading

I almost let it happen this weekend, but then I remembered that I hadn’t read Lolita as a middle-aged upper class white man. I read Lolita as a working class pre-pubescent girl. While it’s all well and good for Nabokov to have had specific intentions, I was under no obligation to feel what he wanted me to feel. I experienced the book from my own particular perspective, one distinctly different from the received wisdom about the “meaning” of Lolita.

So today, on the inside, I’m the default reader. My interpretation of a book’s meaning is valid. If you want, you can join me in being the default reader. It’s easy and it doesn’t require grease paint. Just go through the day feeling confident that your perspective and interpretation of any piece of literature is correct. If we make it through today, we’ll try again tomorrow, until it’s not a costume.

And if you’re curious, my two interviews are here:

For the Kansas City Star‘s FYI Book Club (jointly hosted by the Star and the Kansas City Public Library.)
On Writer Unboxed, interviewed by Liz Michalski, author of Evenfall.

My November newsletter goes out tomorrow with more deleted scenes from All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. There’s still time to sign up.

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