Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Writing Wednesday: The Futility of Combatting Ignorance

Once you put a book up for sale, one of the most annoying things you have to put up with are reviews.  At least they're often annoying for me.  Other people get nothing but 5-star raves all the time I'm sure.  My luck is that I sell hundreds of a book and the only person to review it gives it one star and says, "I don't know what I was expecting but that wasn't it."  Which as an author and a customer I have no fucking idea what good that is supposed to do anyone else.  I think my sister summarized the problem the best when she said that negative reviews are more fun to write.

Part of the problem is that you're at the mercy of stupid assumptions people might make about your work.  They come to wrong conclusions and then punish you for their errors in a bad review.  An epic example of this was last month when Andrew Leon ranted and raved about "middle school errors" in my opus Where You Belong.

Here was the first point:
First, it's written in first person. (I haven't been shy about how I feel about first person. But it's worse, because it's written in first person omniscient and, well, that's just not a thing. I mean, unless your protagonist is God (or, maybe, Charles Xavier), omniscient and first person do not go together. That's the whole reason for writing in first person, to have a limited view of what's going on. A view limited to only what the protagonist knows and observes. That's why first person works so well in detective fiction, because the whole point of that is the protagonist trying to work out what he doesn't know from his rather limited perspective. This issue of allowing the first person protagonist to know too much is very pervasive in first person stories, but I'd never seen full-on first person omniscient before. Yes, it set me against the book right from the start, because, again, first person omniscient is not a thing.

[Note: Dilloway has spoken on his blog and various other places that the book was originally written in third person and that he later went back and converted it. I think he must have done this through a simple replacement of pronouns, because he didn't do anything to adjust the viewpoint. I'm saying this based on my experience with my middle school students. There have been many times when I have given writing assignments to write from a particular perspective. It is not infrequent that I will get stories that were originally written from a different perspective so the student just went in and changed the pronouns. That's not enough when making a perspective shift and, anytime I have asked, for instance, "Did you originally write this in first person," the answer has always been "yes."

So that would explain the omniscience problem. He originally wrote it in third person omniscient but didn't narrow the viewpoint to first person when he converted it to a first person story. I'm just going to call it what it is: a middle school mistake.]
Then there's the issue of the voice, and this, also, is probably related to the shift the author made from third to first person. When you write in third person, the voice can be whatever you want it to be, because it's the narrator's voice, not the character's. When you write in first person, though, the voice needs to be the character's voice and, thus, reflective of the character. The protagonist starts out at age three or four, but the voice is definitely that of an adult. That would be okay if it was clear that it was an adult reflecting back on his childhood, but the feel of the story is that it's being told by the kid, especially since some of it is in present tense, but not in a kid's voice. Now, I get that writing from a child's perspective can be difficult but, if you can't do it, don't choose to do it.

I had a good laugh about his speculation about how I converted the book from third to first person.  As if I just went through and changed the pronouns.  LOL.  Sorry, but that couldn't be farther from the truth.  I wrote the entire book in third person and then rewrote it entirely as a first person narrative.  The third person version was called No Matter Who You Are after a Bob Seger song.  Here's the opening of the book:


Chapter 1
            Life comes in streaks.  For the first twenty-two years of his life, Jack Bentley’s life consisted of one solid cold streak.  Even the good things that happened to him like fucking Dorothy Lintner in the bed of her father’s rusty pick-up soon turned sinister when Jack felt a distinct burning sensation as he pissed two days later.  This dose of the clap was curable, not so the rest of his rotten luck.  At least not until deliverance came from the jungles of Southeast Asia and a new streak began.

And now here's the opening of Where You Belong:

Chapter 1
            For the most important trip of her life, my mother wanted to buy a new car.  Ever since getting her license at sixteen, and at least three years before that when no one was paying attention, she drove her sister’s battered Ford pickup truck.  The vehicle had been red at one time, though little of that paint remained; mostly the truck was mud, rust, and soot smeared into intricate patterns.  By the time I was born, the Ford had two hundred thousand miles on it and almost four years later it showed no signs of quitting.

As you can see, they are completely different.  If you're really paranoid I can send you the Word file of the original story.  Though someone would probably accuse me then of rewriting a 163,000 word book just to show up a bad reviewer.  I'm a fast typist but I'm not that fast.

Honestly, can you imagine how long it would take to change the pronouns in a book that's 550 pages?  It would be a lot easier to just rewrite the whole book than to try doing that.  I'd have probably driven myself crazy by the end of the first chapter.  That's an idea that probably would work better for a 10-page story, not a whole freaking novel.

Also, it was pretty amusing to think that after almost 20 years of writing I would just plum forget the difference between first and third person.  Maybe if I were one of his 13-year-old students that would fly, but not someone who had been in the game for a while.

Anyway, that first paragraph from Where You Belong illustrates the style of narration, which while not entirely "omniscient" is not as limited as first person often is.  The reason for this is very simple:  the book is written like a memoir.  If you want, you can think that the main character, Frost Devereaux, is an old man and writing down his life story.  This gives him the freedom to add in things he found out later, like when his mom got her license, or to speculate on other things.

I like to reference Doc Brown in Back to the Future:  You have to think 4 dimensionally!  What's the fourth dimension?  Time.  In this case the time factor is when the book is being written.  This first chapter isn't being written when Frost is 3 years old.  That wouldn't make any sense unless he's a prodigy like a literary Mozart.  Thus there's no sense writing it as if he's a 3-year-old.

If you're wondering I didn't make that stuff up.  I've often cited John Irving books as my inspiration and if you read The Hotel New Hampshire, A Prayer for Owen Meaney, or Until I Find You, you can see examples of cradle-to-grave stories written in first person.  None of them have the character writing from a 3-year-old's perspective.  Because really, that would just be silly.

You'd think someone who reads so much science-fiction would have a better understanding of temporal mechanics.

And then there was the second "middle school error" I was supposedly committing.
The next issue with the book is that it shifts back and forth from past to present tense, but not in a way that makes sense. For instance, it would make sense if part of the story was being told "now" and part of the story was being told "then." However, what we have are clearly places that are "then" that are being told in past tense, followed by a section that is still "then" but now in present tense, followed by a section that is still "then" but back in past tense. These are chronological events, so the shift in tense didn't work for me.
When I asked where these shifts were, Andrew Leon told me to find them myself.  Fortunately one of his sycophants was more helpful and indicated this section:
I can’t remember much after that.  Sometimes in my dreams I see bits and pieces of what happened next.  I see a black blanket stamped with the head of a yellow hawk, which someone from the Impala used to beat out the flames that otherwise would have roasted me alive.  I see a chubby, tired woman in a white shirt leaning over me, pressing me down against a padded table—a paramedic.  I see a doctor dressed in blue scrubs, a mask covering his or her face.  “Jesus Christ!” I hear a muffled voice say.
            What I always remember is waking in a darkened room, a bit of light coming in from the crack under the door.  I’m strapped down so tightly that for a moment I think I’m still in the backseat of the Pinto.  That is until I see a face outlined in the light from under the door.  That light gives her hair a copper tint while her skin looks sallow and her eyes like the black holes of a skull.  She is at once terrifying and comforting.  Terrifying because of how she looks in the light, but comforting because I know her.  I am named for her.

And at that point I had to laugh again because it was another "error" that was so freaking easy to explain.

The first two sentences actually back up what I said about the first person narration.  Especially when he says, "Sometimes in my dreams..." then we know that he isn't communicating from that moment when he's 3; obviously he's relating this from some future point in time.

Anyway, the reason this is written in present tense is that the first two sentences are being written from Frost's present, whenever it is.  (I never really go into when exactly that is.)  The rest I wrote in present tense because I wanted to separate it from the normal narration.  Strictly speaking it's not a dream, but with all the pain he was in, the memory is like a dream to him.

It wasn't an "error;" it was a literary device.

When confronted, all Andrew Leon could say was:
It doesn't matter what your intent as the author is. If you can't make your intent understood, it's on you.

Which is also pretty amusing.  I mean if that were true, all of us authors would have to write books so babies could understand them because otherwise someone, somewhere might be able to misinterpret it.

To get back to where I started this blog post, you put a book out there and it's a crap shoot on who is going to read it.  You'd think people would read the descriptions and such so they would know what a book is about and what kind of book it is before they put their money down and then feel compelled to rant and rave about "errors" that exist only to them.

Unfortunately as an author there's not much you can do about this.  When you try to explain yourself (like this blog entry for instance) people take umbrage because you're not supposed to defend your work for some reason.  That's mean!  You're just supposed to let people say any stupid thing they want, no matter how ignorant or off-base it might be.  Because free speech.  I can say whatever I want!  Which I always laugh and remind them that free speech goes both ways.  Or it should.  Personally I think it'd be kinda awesome if John Irving wrote me to tell me how fucking stupid my review of his book was.

Of course it helps when you're reviewing a book if you aren't on a vendetta against that author.  That typically doesn't make for the most objective writing.  Captain Ahab was a good whale hunter until he got obsessed with bringing down the white whale.  A white whale would actually be a perfect way to describe me.  Arrrr, matey!

Anyway, I hope you learned something about literature.  If you want, you can buy Where You Belong for $2.99 for Kindle or the paperback is like $17.99 from various retailers.  Or there's usually that one person selling a used copy on Amazon for like $99 for some reason.  I don't know how that guy makes money, but I suppose if just one person buys it he's swimming in cash.

4 comments:

  1. I read "Where You Belong" about a year ago. I don't remember every detail, but I do remember being impressed with the way you did the viewpoint. I never thought of it as omni because it's in first person. The viewpoint is one of things I enjoyed most about the book. In general, I think that gritty writing is your strong point.

    The best thing you can do is get more reviews. Just take the chance and find out how readers really respond to your book. Reviews from writers just aren't the same thing.

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  2. Well he's entitled to his opinion I guess. I've never read the book but you make convincing explanations.

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  3. I was impressed with Where You Belong. You've written a book that is meaningful and thought-provoking. I'd like to say that's all that matters, but I know it isn't. To that end, I hope you find peace at some point.

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  4. You think you've written a good book. Other reviewers seem to agree that you've written a good book. A couple seem to disagree. Kind of sounds like the story of any book that people actually read and review. Not everybody likes the same things.

    I'm not sure why you and Andrew would want to consume your energies going back and forth with this issue. Seems like a waste of time to me, but then it's not my book either so maybe I just get it well enough.

    Like Maurice said, I agree that your explanations in this post are pretty convincing. But I haven't read the book either. The excerpt sounds fairly good to me though.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Road trippin' with A to Z
    Tossing It Out

    ReplyDelete

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