Sunday, April 29, 2012

Second Person POV, part 1

Second person point of view gets a lot of bad press. The most positive opinion I've seen of it in print suggested second person POV is an especially distant form of first person, where the author uses "you" instead of "I" as the pronoun for the POV character. That argument makes a lot of sense if you're talking about the bored, hard partying, thoroughly disconnected protagonist of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, one of very few novels ever written in second person. The "you = distant I" theory doesn't work so well for other second person stories, like one I've discussed in a previous blog entry: Pam Houston's "How to Talk to a Hunter." 

I find second person interesting because hardly anybody will admit to liking it, yet it never goes completely away. The obvious objection to second person is that the author seems to be writing from the viewpoint of the reader, but that objection doesn't make sense in many cases. If a story begins, "You are the new breed: an eight-year-old with a Ph.D. in mathematics and an affinity for soul music," clearly the author's not writing from the reader's point of view. In fact, the only time I've ever seen second person used to represent the reader is in those old Choose Your Own Adventure books.  (Yes, there are new CYOA books out there, but I mean the ones that made you roll dice while fighting monsters. Anyway...)

I can't find a second person POV story that's ever been published in a magazine with strong editorial standards that would be improved by changing the POV. The latest one I've read is "You, On a Good Day" by Alethea Black. This story is in issue #163 of One Story magazine. It starts by talking about an unhappy protagonist with a strong sense of restraint:

You don't give the finger to the black pickup truck that tailgates and passes you aggressively...

The story goes on to list many, many things "you" don't do today, and sometimes, why "you" don't do them. The reader learns a great deal about "you" and "your" life up to that point as it lists things "you" don't do. About two-thirds of the way through, the story shifts to the positive:

On this day, you wake up and remember the sight of your four-year-old nephew aiming all of his fire trucks at the television during the coverage of the California wildfires because he wanted to help.

This story could have been written as "I don't do this, I don't do that," and then "Instead I do this, and I do that," and it could have worked. But I think the protagonist would have come across as the most self-obsessed narcissist this side of Narcissus himself. 

The story could have said "She doesn't give the finger..." and "On this day, she wakes up and remembers..." That might have worked. But I think the story's effect would have been less immediate, and possibly more annoying, because at some point readers would expect to learn a name, or be given a reason not to know the name, and I doubt I'd have liked the story as much. Using the second person here lets the author write about self-obsession without annoying the reader. 

The magazine's web site ( has a short interview with the author, and the author is asked about the second person POV choice, and she says the story came out of a talk she was giving herself at one point, when she was presumably talking to herself like "You shouldn't do this, you should do that." I can see that kind of thinking in her story, and I think it works.

I think at least 99% of good fiction would fail if it were converted to second person. However, I believe second person works in extremely rare circumstances, and in those circumstances, nothing else will achieve the effect you're going for.

Read any good second-person stories lately? Which ones? 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Omniscience Done Right

The omniscient point of view is difficult to handle well. In the wrong hands, that POV makes stories jumpy and confusing, as the story leaps from one character's view to another without warning or smooth transition. I'd even say the omniscient POV, which was the standard for much of fiction early history, has fallen greatly out of favor over the last few decades, possibly because doing it right requires a total lack of subtlety, and modern writers are taught to be subtle: to show, not tell.

I recently read a story that would never work without an omniscient narrator. The story is by Mohammed Hanif, and it's called Butt and Bhatti. It was originally published in Granta magazine and reprinted in the 2011 edition of The Best American Nonrequrired Reading. It's also a stand-alone excerpt from Hanif's novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. And it takes place in Karachi, Pakistan, where "Butt" is a perfectly reasonable last name that has none of the connotations it would get if an American character were named "Mr. Butt." (My initially negative reaction to a "Mr. Butt" character is just one of the unfortunate ways cultures can clash.) 

In this excerpt, Teddy Butt has brought a gun to a hospital because he's in love with one of the nurses (Alice Bhatti) and he's convinced bringing the gun will help him win her love somehow. (He's not an entirely stable man.)

"What do you want, Mr. Butt?" Alice Bhatti tries to hide her fear behind a formal form of address. She has learned all the wrong things from Senior Sister Hina Alvi.

"You live in my heart," Teddy Butt wants to say but only jabs the air with his Mauser, five times. In her limited experience with guns and madmen, Sister Alice Bhatti knows that when men are unable to talk you are in real trouble. She looks at him expectantly as if she has understood what his Mauser has just said, likes it and now wants to hear more.

I think the secret to how well this excerpt flows, despite leaping back and forth between POVs, is that the text tells the reader, flat out, what thoughts belong to what characters. Switching POVs is no time to worry about that "show, don't tell" rule. You have to hit the reader over the head: 

Alice Bhatti tries to hide her fear...

" heart," Teddy Butt wants to say...

In her limited experience...  

(HER experience, and since there's only one woman present, it's got to be Alice)

Sister Alice Bhatti knows that when...

So remember, there's no room to get cute when you're dealing with the omniscient POV. Tell the readers directly who is thinking what, who is feeling what, who is seeing what. Otherwise, the story will confuse readers on such a fundamental level that they won't be able to follow it, much less enjoy it.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Book Review: Steering the Craft

Today, I'm going to review one of the books on fiction writing I've collected over the years. This one is Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin, one of my favorite authors. The book has a long subtitle stating that it contains writing exercises either for "the lone navigator" or "the mutinous crew." I bought it because (1) Le Guin wrote it, and (2) I was intrigued by the thought of writing exercises you could do as a "lone navigator" (that is, by oneself).

In many ways, Steering is a typical "how to" book on fiction writing, in that it has chapters devoted to specific aspects of writing, each of which contains sample prose from other authors that Le Guin uses to make her points. I think there's a ton of good material in this book, so much that if you don't own any books on fiction writing, I think Steering would make a fine starting place. My problem was, I own quite a few books on fiction writing and I'm not sure this one showed me much that wasn't in at least one of the others.

My larger problem with Steering is that I think it's much more valuable for a group of writers than for any individual. I'm not convinced the exercises (which remind me of our own mini-contests, sometimes) are all that valuable if you don't have a more experienced or capable writer going over your work.

Writing isn't like bowling, where there's an objective scoring system that tells you if you're any good at the game. But to continue the analogy, how is a gutter ball-throwing beginner going to improve unless someone with more experience and skill shows the beginner a more effective way to bowl? Writing presents the same problem, except that with writing, it's easy to think you're knocking all the pins down when you're really only knocking down one or two of them. That's because many beginning writers have difficulty evaluating the words they put on a page separately from the story they carry around in their heads. They look at the words they wrote down, those words remind them of the great story in their heads, they say "what a great story I've got in my head," and then conclude they wrote great words down. We all do that to some degree, but beginners do it more.

So I question the "lone navigator" part of Steering's subtitle. I'm not sure the exercises are valuable unless you can get useful feedback on your results from another person. 

On the OTP yes/maybe/no/favorite rating scale, I give Steering a "maybe." I think it's a good book to start with if you don't have any others, but I don't think it's the best book out there. Furthermore, I think the exercises would be terrific if you could get useful feedback on your attempts at performing them, but I question whether anyone can evaluate their own writing well enough to improve meaningfully by doing them alone.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Not Knowing Key Facts

Few problems in a short story can be more jarring than an author who seems ignorant of some fact that's important to the story—or would be, anyway, if the author knew that fact. For instance, imagine a murder mystery in which the most important clue was the "fact" that the iPhone was invented by Radio Shack in 1962. Of course it wasn't, and most readers will know that, and they'll stop believing in the story's fictional world right then and there. 

One of my favorite short stories will forever be marred for me by a fact that seems to have slipped past one author and at least three different editors. The story is How to Talk to a Hunter by Pam Houston. Here's the paragraph, which shows the hunter trying to apologize after cheating on the protagonist:

When you get home in the morning there's a candy tin on your pillow. Santa, obese and grotesque, fondles two small children on the lid. The card will say something like "From your not-so-secret admirer." Open it. Examine each carefully made truffle. Feed them, one at a time, to the dog. Call the hunter's machine. Tell him you don't speak chocolate.

The problem, in case you don't know, is that chocolate is poisonous to dogs. (And this character would never deliberately harm her dog.) The next thing that should happen in this story is an emergency trip to the vet. True, a huge dog can take a small bite of chocolate and just get a little sick, but still, chocolate and dogs are never a good combination. I've never owned a dog, and even I know that.

Who doesn't seem to know that? 

* Pam Houston, the author. (Although maybe, just maybe, she does because later in the story she describes the dog as "nauseous." I think that's a gross underestimate of the problem, though.)

* The editors of Quarterly West magazine, who published the story in (I believe) 1989, who should have asked Pam, "Are you sure you want the protagonist to feed a poisonous substance to her dog? That seems highly out of character."

* Shannon Ravenel, the series editor for Best American Short Stories who selected the story as a candidate for the 1990 edition of that series.

* Richard Ford, who selected Pam Houston's story out of all the candidates Ms. Ravenel had chosen, ensuring that the story would appear in the 1990 BASS edition.

* Any of the editors at W. W. Norton, who published her story in a compilation of Pam Houston's works called Cowboys Are My Weakness. Even if the BASS rules say stories must be accepted exactly as they appear in the original magazine (and I don't know if that's true), stories get re-edited all the time when they appear in later compilations. 

Either back in the early 1990's no one knew chocolate and dogs don't mix, or a whole lot of people weren't paying attention to that particular line. And that's sad to me, because it's really a trivial detail in a story I think deserves its placement in the 1990 BASS. That detail could have been removed or adjusted without losing a thing.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Not just redundancy...

In the last entry, I talked about the significant redundancy in a paragraph from an otherwise terrific cookbook called Cookwise written by food scientist Shirley Corriher. Even fixing the redundancy doesn't entirely solve this paragraph's problems, though. To prove it, here's a version with the redundancies edited out:
Mixing methods play a major role in cake texture. Frequently there are no real rights or wrongs in cooking, as "right" is often a matter of personal preference. From the very beginning you may as well do some soul searching and decide what kind of a cake person you really are. Do you love... [various styles of cake are compared].

What is the purpose of the first sentence in that paragraph? The first sentence is about mixing methods. The rest of the paragraph focuses on the idea that there are many different kinds of cake and it's up to you to decide which kind you like best. If you're not convinced yet the first sentence doesn't belong where it is, look at the next paragraph:

If lightness is your first concern, you should choose a mixing method...that gives prime importance to volume and aeration. [...] On the other hand, if you are a texture person, you should choose the two-stage method....

I think the first sentence of the first quoted paragraph belongs at the beginning of the second quoted paragraph instead of where it appears in the book. If you rearrange the text that way, you get:

Paragraph 1: There's more than one way to make a perfectly good cake, but different methods produce different results.

Paragraph 2: Mixing methods play a major role in how the cake comes out, so if you want a specific kind of cake, you'll have to pay careful attention to the order in which you mix the ingredients.

The rest of this cookbook is, in my opinion, much better written. I have to wonder if these two paragraphs are the result of a last-second rewrite, or something. They have a quality I associate with first drafts: good ideas presented in an order that feels awkward and disconnected from each other, and from the surrounding material. In short, it's writing that says, "I put this sentence here because that's where the cursor was when I thought of that sentence." In a first draft, that's fine. In a published book, I consider it embarrassing.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


Earlier in this blog, I said we'd discuss some of the edits we made to the stories we chose for publication in Issue #16. This idea didn't work for two reasons. First, I forgot to ask permission from the authors, who might not want us talking about the clumsier parts of their original entries. Second, none of the stories required all that much editing. Sure, we found an unnecessary "that" or two, but most of our editing came in the form of questions. 

For example, maybe one character had a line of dialogue that we thought was too harsh, or maybe too stupid or too smart, for the character as presented in the rest of the story. Or maybe there was a critical detail in a story that we thought could have been presented more clearly, because it confused at least one of our judges. 

So for now, it's back to examples of prose I think needs some editing even though it was published somewhere reputable. 

Food scientist Shirley O. Corriher wrote one of the best cookbooks and cooking instruction manuals I've ever seen. It's called Cookwise: The Hows & Whys of Successful Cooking. If you cook or bake and you're not already teaching food science somewhere, you can probably learn quite a bit about cooking or baking from this book.

But in places, the prose could have used tighter editing. Here's an example from a section on cakes (p. 141 of the hardback edition).

Mixing methods play a major role in cake texture. Frequently there are no real rights or wrongs in cooking. As the saying goes, "One man's meat is another man's poison." Many times "right" is a matter of personal preference. From the very beginning you may as well do some soul searching and decide what kind of a cake person you really are. Do you love... [various styles of cake].

Could you finish that paragraph without wanting to shout, "I get it already"? I couldn't. The second, third, and fourth sentence all convey exactly the same information. Sol Stein, in his book Stein on Writing, says that in prose, 1 + 1 = 1/2. He means that, in prose, saying something twice is half as effective as saying it once, and I agree.

If I'd edited Cookwise, I'd have numbered each of those sentences and asked the author to tell me the one she wanted to keep.