One challenge of writing fiction for me is that I have never had any formal training in creative writing. Or literature. Ever. I think that’s literally true. When I was younger, I always knew I was going to be a scientist (BTW: It didn’t work out) and so I always chose courses and experiences in line with that expectation. As a freshman in college, I took one literature course, but the one I selected was in film, so we watched some movies and I wrote a few papers. That was it. The point is, that I really don’t know anything about writing fiction, other than what I’ve picked up along the way through reading and writing.
I’m lucky to have a wonderful group of family and friends who read my manuscripts and comment on them from multiple viewpoints. My son Daniel who, not only offers thoughtful comments, but also hysterical mockery and comedic dramatizations. My brother Phil, who has actually studied speculative fiction writing and often has deep insight into the practice of writing and story structure. My kouhai Andrew-kun who teaches scientific writing with me and frequently has useful insights. And my colleague Zander who always has useful comments and has graciously served as a sensitivity reader for helping me write trans and disabled characters.
I should mention that the first one to read my stories is always my mom Lucy. But she never offers comments, just unwavering support and encouragement.
And, of course, now that I’m working with Paper Angel Press, I have an editor and writing group that I can fall back on. But I don’t want to depend on them to read and comment on my manuscripts until they’re as ready as I can make them.
This morning, Phil provided his critique (he always writes me a formal critique and sends it as an email attachment) and, among his praise (which was unusually lavish, in this instance) he identified a problem. In The Third Time’s the Charm and the follow-on stories I’ve written so far have all been told in third person. And always from Revin’s perspective. But in my current manuscript, there was this sentence:
Grip returned the letter to Revin and then secretly watched his unguarded expressions as he read and reread the letter.
This is from Grip’s perspective. That’s a no-no. I sorta knew this but, again, I’m writing mostly by instinct. So Phil provided a nice summary for me when I asked:
Your story is almost entirely in close-third: The story is only told when Revin is there to know what’s going on, and the reader often has insight into what Revin is thinking.
Another viewpoint option is “omniscient,” where the narrator knows everything, and can dip into various people’s heads to report on what they’re thinking, seeing, etc.
It has become the fashion of late (this wasn’t so true in the 18th and 19th century fiction) not to shift viewpoints willy-nilly, as you do here.
You can write in first: “I was sitting at the desk, drinking a bourbon, staring out the window as night settled over the city, when a dame walked in. You can write in third: “Revin gazed out the window of the airship daydreaming of better times until he realized his mentor was coming this way…” You can even write in second: “You’re in a maze of twisty passages all the same…”
All can be “close” (where you see into people’s heads) or not (where you don’t). The other two are “omniscient,” which I’ve already described, and “cinematic” which is like non-close third: You don’t get in people’s heads, the text just describes what a fly on the wall could see and hear. Dan Brown (of the DaVinci Notebook) did cinematic, which made his books trivially easy to adapt for the screen.
Of course you can mix them. Lots of books are in close-third with the protagonist, and then in non-close third (or cinematic) for the other characters of interest.
Steven Barnes at Clarion said: “You don’t need any of this stuff. Just write from the heart. These tools are for when a story isn’t working. Then you can take it apart, figure out what’s broken, and fix it.”—Philip Brewer
He also referenced a book as the definitive guide to writing character viewpoints, but because it’s by an odious person, I don’t think I’ll read it.
As I say, I had already sorta recognized this in that, for example, I’ve identified two stories I want to tell as part of this series but, because they don’t include Revin, they’ll need to be told as side stories. They’re going to be a lot of fun to write.
I’m really enjoying the opportunity to learn the craft of writing better.