Tuesday, October 23, 2012

First Person POV . . . I love/hate it!

I grew up in a dysfunctional family. I did not want it that way, but I was a kid and had no choice in the matter.

I remember daddy beating my brother with a leather belt for spilling water on the floor while washing the dishes. Daddy had slipped in the water and fell. I covered my ears, the screaming was so loud. Later that night, I rubbed baby oil on the welts for Billy trying to reduce the sting. I mentioned it to my teacher the next day and she called the police.

I saw daddy go into a rage when he found out. I knew he thought it was my brother who tattled on him. I was afraid of daddy, so I did not say anything, even when the social worker took my brother away. I never saw him again.

“I”, “I”, “I” . . . it gets boring. Sure, a paragraph or two is fine, in fact, it can be compelling, but page after page of this writing style gets boring real fast.

First-person POV can be powerful. You’re inside the character’s mind, privy to their private thoughts, sharing their happy moments and suffering with them during painful experiences. Everything the MC sees, the reader also sees, but nothing else. That limitation poses serious issues for a writer.

Omniscience – In 1st person, every scene can only be related from the main character’s POV. There can be no outside awareness . . . no man hidden in the shadow around the corner, or knowledge of preparations by the antagonist for an unexpected conflict. Every scene is limited strictly to the MC’s view, knowledge and experience.

Reader exhaustion – How many times can a reader see the pronoun “I” before it becomes annoying: I did, I was, I am . . . or even using active verbs . . . I ran, I jumped, I ate, I hated. The opening example (above) illustrates the excessive “I” dilemma.

Other writing techniques are limited, too.

Foreshadowing - In 1st-person, tension comes primarily from suspicions or knowledge, expressed to the reader through dialog, internal thought, or narrative. The MC can only tell the reader about matters that he/she should know about or that are introduced to the MC by an outside source. For example, “Luke. Trust the force!” (This was masterful foreshadowing when Obi Wan’s voice popped up in Luke’s mind during the vent-targeting scene against the Death Star. It created expectation and foreshadowed a result.)
Scene building – Scenes can only show 1) what the MC sees or already knows, and expresses to the reader through narration or dialog, or 2) information given to the MC from an outside source, one that is also shared with the reader. There is no omniscent narrator warning the reader about the massive wall of snow coming loose on the ridge above the lodge. The MC and reader do not get wind of the avalanche until a wall of ice blows through the picture window, hence, the reader was deprived of anticipatory anxiety.
So, how do we writers get around these 1st-person limitations?

Very carefully.
Let’s look at a re-write of the opening example. This time, the goal is to minimize the use of “I” and to generate sentences that begin with action words instead of boring articles and pronouns.

I grew up in a dysfunctional family. Not that I wanted it that way, but kids rarely get much choice in the matter.

Discipline came from a leather belt. Daddy did not know any other way. One time, he slipped in water my brother spilled while washing the dishes. Screams from my brother’s punishment made me cover my ears. Later that night, I rubbed baby oil on Billy’s welts trying to reduce the sting. I told my teacher about it the next day, and she called the police.

Daddy exploded in rage when he found out. Accusations flew at my brother. Being fearful of my father, I did not say anything, even when the social worker took my brother away. Never saw him again.

The concepts (minimizing "I" and starting sentences with colorful words) in this rewrite can be repeated throughout a whole book, thereby diminishing boring repetition and creating vivid imagery.

What about foreshadowing?

Foreshadowing can come from the MC or it can be experienced by the reader, while the MC remains unaware. For example:

Booklets for women about how to do a proper breast self-exam lay on the doctor’s waiting area table. Being young, I scoffed at them.

They’re for old gals with saggy tits,
I thought to myself. Little did I know.

This example of foreshadowing used narrator (first person) internal dialog and the MC's observation of the brochures to suggest that something was/is about to happen, adding tension, and all within the POV of the MC.

Scene development works similarly. For example:

Stopping at the door, something felt wrong, but the source of the feeling eluded me. Gray metal looked normal, but as my palm pressed tentatively against the center or the door, searing heat burned flesh with an audible sizzling. Second degree burns raised painful blisters.
This brief scene conveys lots of information: character development-the MC acts on his intuition, visual/imagery-he’s facing a metal door implying commercial structure, conflict/tension-fire is raging on the other side. This scene accomplishes many goals, all with information the MC experiences first-hand . . . and none of those damn I’s.

In writing first person, the key issues are to 1) limit every piece of information to what the MC would actually know or experience . . . that includes all scene development, foreshadowing, dialog or narration, and 2) avoid repetitive sentence constructions.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Creativity - Let the Beast Out

I was a daydreamer. "Mrs. Sault, something is wrong with Dean. He never pays attention. He's always off in some fantasy."

That was a criticism leveled at me by my Kindergarten teacher. I "failed" Kindergarten. Forced to repeat it a year later.

Shirtless author-to-be on right.
Is creativity a congenital anomaly? Where does it come from? Can it be learned? It isn't bought in a box or downloaded. It can't be injected in the mind of a person lacking it. Rather, some people seem to be born with this affliction. Others are not.

Earliest manifestations of creativity can be seen in children with wild imaginations. While most kids draw reflections of what they see, the creative child will draw images found only in abstractions of their own minds. They reach conclusions built on foundations of their own making.

Creativity often gets crushed in early years under the heavy palm of conformity, especially during the academic regimentation of elementary schooling. Parents who recognize (and value) the gift of creativity will teach the child to conform on the surface while nurturing the wild speculation raging inside the creative mind.

In adulthood, the anomaly of creativity portends out-of-the-box thinking. Einstein did not see Newtonian laws of physics in his mind. Of necessity, he learned the mundane, but privately, his intellect ripped them to shreds as he solved intricate questions unanswered by status quo thinking. Hemingway rejected eloquent prose of his day in favor of working man language, yet his genius was in crafting elegance from simplicity. Steven Jobs built a computer empire from a simple idea started in his garage. Such are the results of creative minds.

Writers seem to fall into two groups. A lucky few possess extraordinary creativity and have found release for pent up visions in their stories. Others, like me, have tasted the sweetness of latent creativity and struggle to turn the key in the cage door, hoping to release the monster.

What about everybody else? You might wonder, “Am I one of the creative few, or am I destined to a life of structure and perpetually satisfied curiosity?"

Rise great steed. Off to the frog prince's castle.
The nice thing about creativity is that IF you long for it, then it's already there, simply waiting for discovery and cultivation. You see, people without the congenital creativity don’t crave it. That’s the good news. By asking the question, you have taken the first step to free your imagination.

If you wish you were as creative as your favorite author, or as talented as your favorite artist, then all you have to do is remove inhibitions that life installed. Let the beast explode from your inner mind. Seek change. Embrace risk. When life presents a fork in your journey, choose the path that provides no preconceived expectation. Pick the one made more mysterious with its simultaneous potential for discovery and ominous uncertainty.

In writing, creativity demands we release our passion, without limit, and give the world stories that are uniquely us, not clones of others. Most importantly, we must write for ourselves. So, let your creative monster run wild and enjoy the surprises from within.