Julia speaks – A recipe for choosing POV

Last week I set a goal of deciding on a POV and then posting about it.
As it transpires, that took more humming and hawing than I’d expected.

First, let’s put us all on the same page. What is meant by POV (Point of View)? It is where the narrator is speaking from. I like to imagine it as a camera position, although that analogy doesn’t always hold up.

There are many choices, and there are books that move from one POV to another — sometimes within a paragraph (putting paid to the insistence that there can only be one POV per book which you sometimes hear in writers’ groups and classes; it’s like being told that you should never paint with black paint because black is made up of all the colors, but Manet, Van Gogh, and Gauguin used Ivory Black straight from the tube…) Oops! Yes, POVs. Here are just the main ones, according to James Hynes:

I, me, my: First person. Divided into first person objective, more rarely used, where the narrator reports only on their actions and observations but without interior dialog or direct emotional insight (example: Ishmael in Moby Dick), and first person subjective where you are inside the narrator/protagonist’s head and body. This is a very common POV in contemporary fiction, especially YA as it’s valued for its immediacy. In my analogy, the camera is mounted behind the narrator’s eyes (note that the narrator may not be the main protagonist, as with Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby). The only time we see the narrator’s face, it’s in a mirror.

You: Second person. Believe it or not, it’s been done! It’s used quite frequently in shorter pieces to put the reader directly in the role of the protagonist, and has been successfully sustained for novels. BUT NOT BY ME. This POV went straight into the too-hard basket. “You entered the room and turned on the light…” Imagine sustaining that for 100,000 words!

She, he, it: Third person. Divided into third person omniscient, where the narrator is looking down and has access to all information, including things the characters can’t know, the future and the past, intimate thoughts, etc. — this camera can zoom any place it wants to go; third person close – objective, where the narration follows one character, usually the main protagonist, seeing only what she  can see, but with no access to interior dialog — imagine the camera loosely chained to the protagonist, always where she is, recording; and third person close – subjective, where the narration follows the protagonist but also has access to his inner thoughts and feelings. The camera is usually on the protagonist’s shoulder, seeing what he’s seeing, and has a special mic that can also record his thoughts.

Well, so which way to go now? The only POV that was easily discarded was the second person.  The rest of the process of elimination took ten days and is still not rock solid. I reserve the right to change my mind.

My book is going to be the very personal stories of four women—each story about a dislocation. I need the book to be intimate. Therefore, I disqualified the least intimate of the POVs, the third party omniscient.

First person subjective is arguably the most intimate POV, but in the course of my book, I have four protagonists. To write four first person subjective POVs is possible, but to write them well would be a huge challenge. The first person voice is not only responsible for telling the story. It is also responsible for bringing the character alive, by being individual and specific to the character.  To pull this book off in first person, I would have to create four authentic voices. I’m sweating just thinking about it.

Which leaves us with third person close – objective or subjective.  If I want intimacy, subjective seems the obvious choice. The only problem with this is that I’m by nature more of an objective writer. I put a lot of my energy into trying to find the telling observation. I want my readers to deduce and empathize from what they see. But then again, I’ve only written short stories to this point. I do believe most novels are less subtle. Maybe readers have less patience over a longer haul? Maybe with short stories they like to be provoked. With novels, they want to be satisfied. But I digress.

So, say for now the POV is third person close – subjective.
This allows the entire book to be written in one voice—my voice. Yippee!

Now, what about the tense? Do I try to put back some of the immediacy I lost when deciding against the first person? I could do this by adopting the present tense. Or do I opt for the greater flexibility of the past tense, which can range from the immediate past to the distant past?

I’m still on the fence on this one. I switched my first four paragraphs back and forth between tenses, and couldn’t feel much of a difference. So, I am going to use the past tense for now. It might make more sense, as the book is set in four eras of the past. And, as my excellent writer friend Kara Vernor said, “there’s a reason past is the default tense for novels.” She’s got a point. You don’t even need to know what that reason is. If it’s good enough for Turgenev…

Next week, a little look at how the research is progressing.

Happy writing!





The stock take — or, an intro to MindNode

Most of you are ahead of me. Most of you have started or even finished a novel. But this is my first. How do women face pregnancy and childbirth for the first time, I wonder. That’s something I’ve never attempted either.

Rather than stare into the abyss of inexperience, I thought I’d do a little stock take of where I was in this novel-writing gambit. If you are about to start your first novel, this is a good tip. It was really helpful.

First, I got myself a copy of MindNode on the recommendation of my brother. He’s also a writer, and he said it was great for getting down and then organizing a lot of information. It helps you think laterally, because you can ideate first, and organize later.

So, I put down the core structure I mentioned in my last blog. East, South, West, North. I put down a two-line description of each part’s protagonist. I put down everything that I knew about each protagonist in terms of life moments. Then, from each life moment, I budded out all the things that I didn’t know—knowledge I would need to describe that moment well.

This is what it looked like. (This is as fast as the animation will go!)

There wasn’t a lot of random ideation, yet. I was unpacking things that had been gathering in my head, and for the most part, it all came down in chronological order. But I can see how MindNode will be great when I need to throw ideas at the wall later.

One cool thing about MindNode is that it makes it easy to reorganize your thoughts (nodes) by just dragging and dropping them. So, I reorganized the life moments so that they were sequential — a timeline. Well, four timelines.

Then I shook out of my other ear all the scenes that have been rolling around in there — little flashes, brief movie snippets. I aligned those with the timeline.

Scenes I have

You can see quite quickly where I have gaps, where I need to get down to the writer’s first job of imagining. But it’s been very reassuring to me that I have this much at all!

Of course, “Do I have enough to write about” is not the only cause of anxiety. “How do I write this” is at least as terrifying.

I have a crutch for that too! I am going through a fiction course and letting that guide me along. The one I’m using is an audio course by James Hynes (sorry, Michael) from the Great Courses. I love the Great Courses — but don’t buy anything that’s not on sale. If you wait long enough, your course will go on sale and the discount is always significant.

So, seeing as I now know that I have enough of a plot to get started, and that I know my protagonists well enough to at least summon them for a meeting, what next? For me, the first barrier to laying ink down is which tense and which POV?

We’ll see what James has to say about that next week, when Julia speaks.

In the meantime, happy writing!



The story of this story…

January 13th. As promised, the first post in my new “Julie and Julia for Novelists” blog. I’m hoping that these flow-of-process ramblings will be useful to you, or at least entertaining. They will be useful to me. They will be like footholds up the mountain: pauses for respite and added impetus to advance another step. I hope.

OK. Where are we now? We are in Washington State, on the Olympic Peninsula. For more than a decade, this book has been rattling around the back of my head like a dried bean in a gourd. Once, I came up to Seattle to start researching it. But I turned tail and fled. It just seemed too big.

The original germ of the book came from family history. One of my great-great-great grandmothers was a Suquamish woman who married a Chinese man and went back with him to old China. What must that have been like? I am Chinese. I was born outside China, but in an age when China was only a few hours’ flight away; or a good book and a comfortable chair away; or a click to the travel channel away. And yet when I first visited China, I found it such a shock. I felt so foreign. How must she have felt?

Over the last ten years, this skeleton of a book idea, banished to a dungeon, has put on flesh. Other dislocations have attached themselves. From rich to poor. From east to west. From dark to fair. From aware to blind.

You’ll remember that I thought the original book too big. How dare I attempt it now that it has swollen like Mr. Creosote?

Driving one night, my mind kept turning over how the Chinese call out the four points of the compass. Not North-South-East-West (making the sign of the cross), but East-South-West-North (clockwise, starting from the region of “most importance”). I suddenly saw how my book could be a book of four parts, each part following a different protagonist in a movement east (Seattle to China); south (China to Hong Kong); west (Hong Kong to San Francisco); north (San Francisco to Seattle). This rudimentary structure gave the book solidity, anchored it in reality for me; made it attemptable.

So, I’ve committed to the attempt. I’ve cleared my calendar (minus some editing) for the next three months and rented myself a cottage on the Olympic Peninsula where the book starts and ends. I’ve given the Suquamish Museum and the Seattle Public Library notice that I’ll be coming to pester them. I haven’t reached out to the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience yet, the one housed in my great-great-great grandfather’s shop front. I think I’ll drop in on them in person.

For the past few weeks, I’ve sketched the book’s basic outline at different holiday parties. I’ve introduced my four protagonists to my friends. With each telling, the book feels a little more gestated.

In the meantime, I’ve armed myself with Scrivener and Mind Node, programs that I’ve yet to learn to use. I’m carrying a packet of blank index cards around with me. I’ve been noting down the scenes that randomly pop into my head. I’m planning commitments and finances so that I leave huge writing blocks free through this year and the next, just in case I get any traction.

So now that I’ve settled into my writing cottage, what comes next?
I think I will start with a stock take. I want to organize what I have…and what I know I need but don’t have. I’ll share what this looks like with you next week.

Happy writing!