Saturday, March 31, 2012

Wrestling with Point of View in Your Writing

When I was in first grade, I had an art teacher who shamed me into crying in front of the entire classroom.

She had given us an easy assignment. Handing out blocks of wood, she asked us to draw faces on them. I loved art, and happily got to work drawing a man's face. When I'd finished with his features, he looked more like an alien than a man, so I painted his face bright blue. (I blame my mother: she always read to me from her science fiction novels rather than from any of those boring children's books.)

The art teacher went down the row of student desks, nodding and smiling as the children held up their wooden faces for praise. And then she got to me, and nearly went into one of those whirling fits of rage I now associate with Roald Dahl characters.

“You painted your face blue?” she shrieked. “You can't paint a face blue! What kind of face is that?”

“It's an alien's face,” I said, tearing up.

I might as well have said “Satan.” The art teacher hauled me over to sit in the corner and made me paint another face while the rest of the kids tittered.

Now, this story happens to be true, but if I were writing fiction, I could have chosen to relay it from a different perspective. For example, I might have written it in limited third person from the teacher's point of view, or from the point of view of the town sheriff, who is called into school after the art teacher is found dead. Or I might have chosen to begin the narrative after an alien invasion, during which the art teacher and several other people in town are abducted! Then I probably would have used multiple points of view.

Wrestling with point of view is something that writers do every day in fiction, and it's one of the most frustrating—and fun—aspects of writing. Sometimes it takes several drafts before you get the point of view that works for a particular story. For instance, if you're writing about an alien invasion, you might want what's called an “author omniscient” point of view, which basically means that you're relaying the story from on high, from multiple points of view or even in multiple time frames.

In Sleeping Tigers, my first novel, I chose what's called a “limited third person” point of view—this means that I can only be inside the main character's head, and nobody else's. I did this because I wanted to create a tight emotional connection between my protagonist, a young woman named Jordan, and my readers, while still having the literary freedom to write lush descriptive passages of other characters and the setting (San Francisco and Nepal, in this case).

For my next novel, The Wishing Hill, to be published in spring 2013 by Penguin, I created the story of two women who are bound in ways they don't suspect, so I decided to alternate points of view between them. That lets the reader discover their complex interconnectedness even before the characters themselves know what's going on. I had to be careful to differentiate the voices. One speaks in longer sentences while the other has more hyphenated, staccato thoughts.

Now I'm writing a paranormal mystery. For this one, I initially tried a third person point of view for the first two drafts. I'm contemplating a first person point of view for the next draft to see if that will help ramp up the scare factor. Maybe the reader will be more likely to feel something cold and damp behind her in the hallway if she is the “I.” Using first person is an avenue for getting even deeper into the protagonist's psyche; at the very least, if I try it, I can always go back to the third person point of view, having learned new things about the character, right?

Take a closer look at the book you're reading or writing. What would have happened with another point of view? Try it—you might be surprised.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Cat Living a Dog's Life

I never meant to adopt two cats instead of one, much less to fall in love with a cat that thinks he's a dog. But sometimes life surprises you. Or, in cat terms, sometimes life is a ball of yarn that unwinds into unexpected pleasures.

It all began when I gave into my son Aidan's request for a kitten. Aidan had a tall order: his kitten had to be gray, white-pawed, and female. After weeks of driving around New England, we finally found a shelter with the perfect gray kitten, snowdrop paws and all.

As we waited for the paperwork at the animal shelter, I glanced into a cage across the aisle. There, all by himself, lounged a cat as long as my arm, butterscotch gold and with a kinked tail. On impulse, I scooped him into my arms.

“Put him back,” I scolded my own impulsive self. The last thing I needed was another cat, much less two more. We already had two dogs and a gerbil.

On the other hand, I thrive on animal chaos. I grew up on a gerbil farm—at the height of his career, my gerbil czar of a father had 9,000 of these endearing rodents housed in three Sears prefab buildings behind our house—and my mother raised horses. Just for fun, we also had pygmy goats, sheep, geese, chickens, barn cats and house cats, a furious parrot, at least three dogs at a time, and peacocks that could scare the life out of you because their cries sounded like somebody being murdered in the back yard. In many ways, I get along better with animals than with most people.

At the animal shelter, the big yellow tomcat was as languid in my arms as he'd been in the cage, purring like a motorboat as he nuzzled my neck. He didn't care that he'd been abandoned. Life at this moment was a good thing and he was going to make the most of it.

Just like that, I was in love. Aidan and I walked out of the shelter with two cats instead of one.

It soon became clear that my new cat, Mini Wheat, was no ordinary feline. He is a CatDog like that hybrid cartoon animal on Nickelodeon, the one with a cat's head on one end of his body and a dog's on the other. If I walk our dogs on leashes, this CatDog struts between them as if he's on a leash, too. When I call the dogs to come inside, Mini Wheat comes running, tail wagging. If I toss a toy, he fetches it for me, purring. Our clever Cairn terrier wisely snubs Mini Wheat for his doggish antics, but our Pekingese lovingly accepts this CatDog into the pack.

As I write this, MiniWheat is curled in my lap, catlike. But I know that he's waiting expectantly for three o'clock, when it's time for our afternoon walk: me with a Cairn, a Pekingese, and one enthusiastic CatDog, who shows me how to think and live outside the box.