Sunday, February 5, 2012

The POV Perplex

An introduction to Friedman’s chapter on POV

“The main issue seems to be whether the authorial presence should make itself known directly or not” - Norman Friedman

As with much in the field of narrative storytelling, narrative voice, meaning the various modes of point of view (hereinafter POV) have not been—cannot be—defined in such a way as to please everyone. First person narrator is pretty easy, but after that you pays your money and takes your choice. One writer’s third person limited is another’s close third person. Some consider neutral narrator and objective narrator the same thing while others make a distinction. You may find epistolary mode in the mix and wonder why. You may conclude that you misunderstood the concept somewhere along the line.

Consider for comparison how easy it is to define English tenses: if you google “simple present” or "how many English tenses are there?" you’re going to pretty much the same definition and the same list of tenses every time.1 Goggle "point of view in narrative fiction" and see what you get. The reason for the lack of simple definitions is that POV modes are not discrete; POV exists on a continuum. Moreover, third person POV shifts back and forth along that continuum from omniscient to close third person all the time, so to declare that a book is written in one mode or another is generalization that isn't very useful to writers.

But just because there is no convenient set of definitions doesn't mean that writers don't need to know what is meant by POV and how to use it. Because wrapping your head around the issue of POV—getting the complete picture—will change your life..

“The chief virtue of the narrative medium is its infinite flexibility, now expanding into vivid detail, now contracting into economical summary”

In fiction, the narrative voice is perceived to speak from a distance that is either closer or further from the one constant: the mind of the  protagonist. Thus "point of view" is a literal term, and "close" is going to always refer to "closer to the mind of the protagonist" and "omniscient" and "observer" are always going to be further away. Both academics and writers have written about POV since the beginning of the 20th century (when narrative omniscience began to fall out of favor), using whatever terminology seemed best to them. This trend continues.

My preferred breakdown of POV; the one that taught me the most as a writer and enabled me to discuss the subject with clients as an editor; is that of Norman Friedman, in his book Form and Content in Fiction. Although (perhaps because) he was not writing for writers, his analysis and explanations are comprehensive and full of specific examples. Moreover, he relates POV to issues such as showing versus telling and emotional engagement, with which it is inextricably interwoven; issues that are the meat and drink of good  writing technique. He comes down hard against the popular idea that the omniscient modes are flawed and should be avoided; he points out how often POV shifts in the third person; that no rules govern POV: that the writer’s choices either work or they don’t —or as he puts it “the thing has to look true, that is all.” You won’t find references to catchy terms like "bobbing heads" or a discussion of the pros and cons of outliers like first-person/second-person plural; Friedman is talking about the underpinnings of all narrative storytelling that have been at work since storytellers sat around the fire and spun their tales.

“These modes of rendering, the one second hand and indirect, the other immediate and direct, rarely occur in their pure form. Indeed the chief virtue of the narrative medium is its infinite flexibility, now expanding into vivid detail, now contracting into economical summary.”

It is my intent to—eventually—write about my experiences as an editor dealing with interesting POV issues my clients have dealt with over the years. But I feel it is impossible to do that without providing an overview of the subject as a stable point of reference. I have also long desired to share Friedman’s take on POV with other writers and editors, because I find it so helpful on both fronts. To that end, I have received permission from the publisher to reprint Friedman’s chapter on POV, and I am pleased to make it available here for the public. Moreover, this is the breakdown I use when I am communicating with writers, so they may find it of particular interest.

“Even the most concrete of scenes will require the exposition of some summary material”

As implied above, Friedman is an academician, and writes for an academic audience2. He quotes Aristotle and gives examples from nineteenth and early twentieth century authors who were themselves the first to stake a claim on the previously unexplored corners of POV-land. In short, this is about as far as you can get from tip-of-the-day-style writing advice. Moreover, as I am excerpting just the one chapter from the book, Friedman’s own definitions of terms and the foundational material in the first seven chapters are not her to frame his meaning. We arrive in the middle of the story, so to speak. Thus I provide below definitions for a few key terms and a simplified review of Friedman's take on POV as context for the excerpted chapter.

Even so, I have chosen to separate the three sections of the chapter, because the first and the last sections are somewhat opaque and may not be of interest to everyone. The actual breakdown is contained in Part 2 (POV II in the tabs at the top of the frame). So my advice is to read Part 2 first.

Definition of terms:

·      When Friedman writes about the “author-narrator” he refers to the narrator, the voice that tells the story (most applicable in omniscient modes), not to you, the writer, sitting at your computer.
·      Friedman makes a distinction between narration (i.e., what the omniscient narrator does) and imitation (i.e., what the writer does when she assumes the identity of a character in, for example, limited third person and first person modes). One of many ways to describe the two ends of the point-of-view continuum.
·      He introduces another opposition between scene and panorama. Scene (which happens at the imitation end) involves expanded writing and direct dramatization. Panorama (at the narration end) involves  condensed writing and indirect narration.
·      Likewise, subjective writing (identified with telling, a term you are no doubt familiar with) is differentiated from objective writing (identified with showing). Subjective writing is at the panoramic end of the continuum, while objective is at the scenic end.3

Narrative modes
In Part 2 of his chapter on POV, Friedman identifies seven narrative-voice modes, but is careful to point out that it’s possible to define others and that, moreover, within these modes, POV can shift from front to back, near to far. The modes are listed in order from panorama/condensed/indirect (distant from the protagonist) to scene/expanded/direct (close to the protagonist).

1.     Editorial Omniscience You may know this as omniscient narrator, third person omniscient, etc. Friedman also calls it the frameless frame.
2.     Neutral Omniscience Often called neutral narrator or third person neutral. Saga mode.
3.     “I” as Witness First person, but not from the POV of the protagonist. Sherlock Holmes mode.
4.     “I” as Protagonist First Person, from the POV of the protagonist. Also called  by Friedman, “protagonist narrator”
5.     Multiple Selective Omniscience What we call multiple POV these days. Friedman includes both third person and first person POV in this mode.
6.     Selective Omniscience Most commonly called limited third person these days, or close third person. Friedman calls it (and I love this) the reflecting consciousness.
7.     Dramatic Mode In effect, dialogue only; completely imitative and objective. I.e., not a narrative. A reference to the fact that with drama (meaning storytelling acted on a stage), the author has completely disappeared, with the scene being all there is.

Part 2 is a good place to start.

Part 1 is a study of POV from the early days of drama and narrative storytelling. It is enlightening to realize that what we take for granted now was considered novel a hundred years ago.

Part 3 has a lovely examination of what Friedman terms “consistency,” meaning consistency of characterization, attained when the writer can detach herself from her characters, fully objectifying them.

“Lack of consistency means loss of effect.”

1 Yes, I know, in England they call the progressive tense the continuous tense, etc. The point is that although grammarians will argue about what to call a tense, and, for example, whether or not to include the conditional tenses in the list, each term has a specific and clear meaning that can be easily illustrated by example.

2 No harm there. I think it’s extremely helpful for writers to read some writing theory now and then, to step back from the trenches of a daily writing quota and take some literary theory on board, just as I think it’s useful to read serious literary criticism.

3 This is the one that I found counter intuitive. It helps to realize that Friedman is using subjectivity in terms of the relationship between the narrator and the reader, not between the character and the reader. Apparently this is the terminology used in the academic world, so there it is. Friedman puts it this way: “Subjectivity refers to the interfering and summarizing authorial narrator and objectivity means the disappearance of the author”

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fiction Editing: Don't Touch My Junk

In high school, and even in college, I was taught that fiction is not edited the same way nonfiction is; that the fiction writer has free rein when it comes to style and word choice and need not comply with standard rules of grammar and usage. Moreover, it was impressed upon me in my formative years that to suggest a change in language use to a fiction writer is offensive, an intrusion upon the literary process, and altogether just Not Done.

These days, as a freelance substantive editor1 working primarily with fiction, it is my job to read a short story or novel and provide a professional level of feedback to the writer. In this context, I define “professional feedback” as feedback that comprises subjective reader reactions framed and informed by education, experience, and a knowledge of accepted literary theory and current publishing preferences. But what does that actually translate to? When you hire a freelance substantive editor, what do you expect?

It’s not going out on a limb to say that all writers will expect to get feedback on the big storytelling elements of plot, characterization, theme, and structure--and you will indeed get this. You may also expect and are quite likely to receive a mechanical edit (though you may not be familiar with the term) that will address issues such as spelling, punctuation, and formatting errors. Perhaps you also expect a copy edit--a term defined as an edit that does not suggest changes in the substance of the text (hence the distinction between a copy and a substantive edit)--though you may not be completely clear about the differences between this more familiar term and the mechanical edit. But a copy edit is understood to involve corrections in grammar and usage, which brings us to the door of the inner sanctum that is the writer’s process, face to face with the thing that is just Not Done.

At this point, because you really want your book to be as good as it can be (and have proved that by seeking out a freelance editor), you’re probably in a mood to take whatever feedback you can get. After all, it’s up to you what you choose to do with it. It’s only the cultural climate against intrusion into your writer’s process that tugs the other way. You may wonder if your substantive editor will point out or correct your non-dialogue grammatical mistakes. That doesn't sound intrusive. Take another step forward. You may wonder (or hope, or fear) if she will question your word choices and debate the merits of the tense you’ve chosen in a particular sentence. Is that right? Is it Done? Perhaps you are unaware that, outside of fiction, these issues are meat and drink for copy editors, let alone substantive editors. Perhaps it has never even occurred to you that a writing coach would ever dream of questioning…your writing.

This wouldn’t be an issue if there were consensus among all the substantive editors and writing coaches and even the under-appreciated copy editors out there. Your writing coach would edit at full breadth and depth and have a hundred web sites to point to in her defense. But consensus there is none. Each substantive editors has her own policy on how deep she is willing to dig when working with fiction. Far too many become shy when questioning a word or a phrase, by their very delicacy supporting the old taboo. To this day, I see the appropriateness of this issue raised and hesitantly debated on editing listservs and forums across the Internet. This hesitation drives me wild.

To me, it is madness to think that any discussion of language use between a fiction writer and her substantive editor is taboo. It is, moreover, a form of denial to think that a good substantive editor doesn’t notice when a writer isn’t running on all stylistic cylinders, has made a poor choice, or is simply making a mistake. When I see a passage or a sentence that is awkward or below the writer’s own standard, or when I see a weak word choice or a line of dialogue doesn’t achieve its purpose because some non-standard construction has bumped me out of the story, it’s my job to speak up. This is not a question of correcting grammar or usage to conform with stuffy old Standard American2; it’s a question of helping a writer maximize the emotional impact of her story; of helping her make the best use of the ink.3

As with all good substantive editing, the trick for the editor is to focus on the text, so that the feedback will be in close context, and then to explain it. She won’t be perfect, and you’ll disagree with a portion of what she says, but this is how you measure her worth: on the depth an breadth of the feedback. This is how you will improve your writing. When you find a writing coach who is willing to provide feedback on all aspects of your book and how you’ve written it, and presents her feedback as useful information (which you’ve bought and paid for ) and not as the eighth deadly sin, then you’ve got a good writing coach.

1 I prefer the term “substantive editor” for what I do, with “writing coach” coming in a close second. Sometimes clients come looking for a “content editor,” which is also fine. I’ve also seen “developmental editor” used synonymously with “substantive editor;” but I think it’s wise to make the distinction that a developmental editor is someone who works with a project from the beginning. A discussion of the various categories of editors is an essay unto itself. In the end, there is no definitive categorization from one field to the next.

2 For the record, I love non-standard American English grammar, non-standard usage, dialects, accents, the whole kit and caboodle. With fiction I edit to what works in context, not to what you read in a grammar book. I do often point out instances where non-standard grammar/usage will be taken as a typo, and is therefore ill-advised.

3 These days, when there’s not much ink used by writers, I tend to use “ink” as synonymous with the number of words the writer has allotted herself to tell the story. The idea being that you want to make every word count.
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Monday, October 24, 2011

Yo, Editor: How Do You Spell Success?

I never set out to be an editor. For one thing, it's not the sort of profession that appears on the ?What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up? lists. Even if it had been there I would have sidled by with averted eyes--because for another thing, I can't spell*. And whatever else I thought that those mythical editors might do (a topic for another time), I was certain that correcting spelling was a prerequisite. You couldn't be a successful editor if you couldn't spell.

Yet here I sit.

I backed into editing when I found myself in the midst of a community of non-native English speakers, many of whom were working on various papers and Masters theses and PhD dissertations. They could all spell just fine, but their grammar and usage (or so their professors told them) needed an obligatory overhaul. Which is when I discovered that the one vendable commodity I had was a modest facility with my own language. This, in combination with an equally native analytical bent, my insights on the writing process, and a horror of being late, got me started. The fact that I liked it; liked working with writers toward definable goals; liked making money, got me hooked. Living overseas for twenty years, during the period in which all other contenders to English as the language of the planet bowed out, gave me plenty of opportunity to get good at it.

So that was a form of success. I made a good living working for various companies for many years. I learned many things:
  • No one sets out to be an editor (whatever "editor" means).
  • Knowing what you can't do and how that dovetails with what you can do is key.
  • Don't assume you're right because you're the native speaker: check everything.
  • Include a bullet list and lots of white space to make your page look attractive and easier to read.
  • People who worry about the passive tense have a lot of time on their hands.
  • There is no bottom to editing, you can go on forever; the trick is knowing how deep to plumb for each job.
  • English grammar is a gloriously supple beast that is born of the spoken language, not the other way around.
  • Usage trumps grammar.
  • Dialect trumps usage.
  • Clarity of intent and expression trumps everything.
  • In the Great 21st c. Publishing War, I am an NCO in the Legion of Extraordinary Freelance Editors, assigned to defend Fort Any Fool Can Spell**.

At the turn of the century, shortly before I moved back to the US, I shifted my focus from language and technical editing (which is what I called what I did) to include more substantive editing and more private clients. I consider myself a writing coach***, someone writers can hire as tennis players hire tennis coaches: to help them improve their game, for consultation about whatever it is that's the problem of the day, from cover letter to character development.

These days, I spell success h-a-p-p-y-c-l-i-e-n-t-s. I've been lucky enough to work with myriad wonderful writers who have seen their work published by major and minor publishers, in print and on-line. I've developed an approach toward substantive editing that has stood the test of time and I've amassed a lot of practical experience about how to write things. I've seen writers make the same bad choices again and again, and had some once-in-a-lifetime experiences. In this blog, I hope to share such wisdom as I have with other writers and editors, for the love of the writing profession, and for the joy of it.

* Words in this entry I spelled wrong the first time: sidled, charlatan (had to look it up).

** A less offensive title, Fort Spelling Ain't All It's Cracked Up to Be, was rejected by a narrow vote as too long and less punchy. Small skirmish over the merits of Any Fool vs. Any Idiot.

*** Not a book doctor--not ever a book doctor. Not only is the term synonymous with charlatan in some professional circles, but the notion that a piece of writing has to be "fixed" in some way is repugnant to me. I don't "make books publishable" (the definition of a book doctor that has stuck with me); I work with the writer to get a piece of writing as close to what she intended as possible. Follow theconstantpen on Twitter