Tag Archives: the editor pontificates

The Editor Pontificates: Point of View

Very recently (as in, yesterday evening) I got bitten by the screenwriting bug – I want to learn how to do this. So this morning, in the course of a couple of hours of trawling the Internet, which included placing half a dozen holds on library books under the subject heading of “Motion Picture Authorship” (go figure – Library of Congress couldn’t assign it a sensible heading like “Script Writing”), I ran across a useful web page, “A Glossary of Screenwriting Terms and Film Making Definitions“.

Scrolling through the headings, which include such interesting terms as “lap dissolve” (which, without the definition, would bring up a rather gruesome image), what jumped out at me was “POV”. Every writer, screen or print, knows what that means, don’t they?

Well, apparently not. In editing, that’s one issue that comes up quite frequently; POV – Point of View – doesn’t seem to be as easy as you’d think. So what exactly are we talking about when we go on about POV in writing? That’s where this web page’s definition is extremely useful:

POV: Point of View. The camera replaces the eyes (sometimes the ears) of a character, monster, machine, surveillance camera, etc. As a result, we get to see the world through the sensory devices of some creature.”

The camera replaces the sensory experience of one character.

The 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie demonstrates this extremely well in the scene where Elizabeth is asleep while riding in the carriage. The camera – what we see on the screen – fades from darkness to blurry pink flashes of soft light, like sunlight flickering over one’s closed eyelids. The camera is literally replacing Elizabeth’s eyes, putting the viewer into her head.

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Steve’s POV: “I looked at the big orange cat. He refused to meet my eyes; I suspect him of nefarious intent.”

Now, in film making, “the camera” is restricted to the audiovisual medium. All it can do is see or hear, no more. However, in prose writing, our “camera” can do much more. It can shrink down to a tiny atom and burrow right into the brain of our narrator – it can feel everything she feels, know everything she knows.

And that is where the danger in handling POV comes in. Because a narrator has the power to pontificate – uh, I mean to tell – what they know, it’s very tempting for the writer to narrate something that the POV character could not know.

One of the first decisions a writer has to make when they set out on a new story is which perspective to write the story from. To quickly recap your boring Grade 6 Language Arts class, the basic perspectives fiction tends to be written in are either first person (“I ran down the street, feeling the cobbles under my feet”) or third person (“She tripped over the cobblestones”); third person is further subdivided into “tight third person”, which is roughly the same as first person except with different pronouns (“She ran down the street, feeling the cobbles under her feet”), and “distant observer” (“She ran down the street, but she did not know that around the next corner one of the cobblestones was sticking up above the pavement”).

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Louis’ POV: “This person is sticking a camera behind my head, and there is a small fluffy thing sitting across from me. I wonder if it tastes good.”

There are multiple versions of this style of narration, which we won’t go into at the moment, but let me quickly mention the most noteworthy one, which is the “omniscient perspective”: the narrator is God, they know everything about every character. In that POV the camera is, in fact, split into hundreds of tiny cameras implanted into each character’s brain, knowing and feeling everything – and the screen, i.e. the story, is a mosaic of all the different cameras.

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Omniscient observer’s POV: “The cat and the bear sat across from each other on the bed. The cat felt mildly curious, but the bear, as usual, was indifferent to the proceedings.”

And that’s the perspective that it’s very easy to fall into accidentally. The writer knows everything about everyone – he can see the cobblestone sticking up above the pavement – but the character does not – she runs along headlong and stubs her toe. Ouch. A filmmaker is physically restricted to what their camera lens can see – they put the camera on a character’s shoulder and leave it running, and that’s what will be on the film – but a writer has to make a constant effort to keep that mental camera lens where they have chosen to put it.

So if you choose to write your story in first person or tight third, your character cannot know what other characters’ feelings, thoughts and motivations are. “I looked at him, and he felt angry” is not a sentence that should ever appear in any story. I can only know what I am feeling; what I know of other people is only what my senses experience. I can see that he’s frowning, I can hear that he’s yelling at me, I can feel his fist hitting my jaw – but I can only deduce that these pieces of evidence mean he is angry. For all I know, he’s perfectly calm, and these are in fact an expression of love and care on his part (which would make him a psychopath, and my whole novel has just gone off the rails – but that’s a different topic altogether).

What goes hand-in-hand with this is that you need to know your characters. If, for example, your POV character is a five-year-old, he will not look at a canoodling couple and think “They must be so much in love,” but instead he’ll think something like “Eeew, why is Joe licking Suzie-next-door’s face?” He also has to stand on a barrel to be able to see over the fence in order to watch the canoodling – the camera in his eye is about three-and-a-half feet off the ground, and the fence is five feet high.

There are various reasons to choose one POV over another – they all have their advantages and drawbacks, which we won’t go into because this post is getting too long already. But my main point here is: when you pick your POV, stick with it. Never, not even for one sentence, remove that camera lens from the eye of the character it is strapped to at that moment. You can take it off and strap it to a different character, or to an unnamed observant narrator who knows everything about everybody, but be aware that that is what you are doing – and again, if you pick it, stick with it.

So, POV: it’s the camera in your character’s eye, or brain, as it were. And once you pick it, stick with it. Not that hard, is it? No, I didn’t think so.

Life, the Universe, and POV. It’s all in the perspective.

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The Editor Pontificates: Pouring vs. Poring

You know that nerve on the front of your knee that makes your foot kick out when the doctor taps it with a little hammer? Well, that happened to me, metaphorically, the other day, while I was reading some short stories. Three times in two stories, all in the one day, this particular mistake whacked me in my editor’s knee. It’s a quite obscure and unimportant matter, and it’s really nitpickety of me to even complain, but, well…

The phrase in question goes something like this: “The scholar poured over the manuscript to find the hidden meaning of the document.”

There, that made you wince, didn’t it? I knew it would. Because of course the first question you ask when you hear a sentence like that is, “Poured what over the manuscript? Hot coffee? Maple syrup? A glass of Cabernet Sauvignon?”

“Pouring”, according to dictionary.com, means “to send (a liquid, fluid, or anything in loose particles) flowing or falling, as from one container to another, or into, over, or on something“. Here, for example, is Steve pouring a cup of juice:

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That’s obviously not a manuscript he’s holding there, the thing with Big Bird on it. No, the word you want in the sentence with the studious scholar is poring. “The scholar pored over the manuscript, carefully examining every pore of the parchment with a magnifying glass and coming to the conclusion that it was clearly a late-fifteenth-century fake…” “Pore”, “to read or study with steady attention or application” (thank you, dictionary .com). Here is Steve poring over a volume of Shakespeare:

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Not that hard, is it? Pour, pronounced “poor”, dumping liquid into something; pore, pronounced “pawr”, studying something carefully. If you can’t remember which is which, maybe think of POUR having a U in it, shaped just like a cup for pouring things into. And PORE is what you do when you stare into those magnifying make-up mirrors to examine the, uh, pores of your skin. Okay, eew, I’ll stop now.

Life, the Universe, and Pour vs. Pore. Now I have to get Steve to give me my Pocket Shakespeare back before he pours juice all over it.

 

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The Editor Eats Humble Pie, or: It’s Okay To Change Your Mind

I’d been meaning for quite some time to write an “Editor Pontificates” post on a couple of phrases that are bugging me when people use them incorrectly. They’re the kind of thing that make me want to pull out my big rubber stamp and slap on a fat, juicy WRONG! But then, I had to change my mind on both of those matters. Well, okay, maybe didn’t have to, but I did anyway.

The phrases in question are “from whence” and “begging the question”.

“Begging the question” is actually a specific term that comes from formal logical debate. In that context, it means “a circular argument”: if something begs the question, it’s stating as a fact the very question that started the discussion in the first place. The way the phrase is misused is that people use it as a synonym for “bringing up the question”: “My socks got wet wading through the snow, which begs the question why I didn’t wear boots today.” That’s wrong – or is it?

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I did wear boots today, and very glad I was for them.

“From whence”, on the other hand, is a case of messed up archaic language. It’s rarely used nowadays in ordinary speech, which is why people (those pesky people) aren’t familiar enough with it to use it properly. “From whence” is a redundancy (as is its partner, “from hence”): “Whence” means “from where” (and hence “from here”). So, “from whence” really means “from from where”. WRONG!

So what made me change my mind on the big fat rubber stamp? It’s two different issues.

In the case of “begging the question”, the point is that language is not static. Yes, the phrase properly has a very specific use and meaning – formal debate, logical fallacy, blah blah. But this isn’t the Middle Ages, and we’re not engaged in university debates where we decimate our opponents by shouting out, preferably in Latin, the labels of the logic mistakes they made – “Ad hominem!”, “Strawman!”, “Begging the question!” No, this is the 21st century. Meanings of words and phrases change; language is democratic. And so, in informal talk today, “it begs the question” means “it brings up the question”. I heard an extremely erudite and eloquent friend of mine use it that way the other day, and as he can talk rings around everyone else where vocabulary and phrasing are concerned, it clinched the matter for me. I still wouldn’t recommend using the new meaning in an academic paper, but my bet is that before long it’ll become an accepted dictionary definition of the phrase.

“From whence” fell on the opposite end of the scale. “Whence” is an old word, and I thought people just didn’t know any more what it meant. But then, I was re-reading Sense and Sensibility. And there it was, jumping out at me: “He earnestly pressed her … to come with her daughters to Barton Park …, from whence she might judge, herself, whether Barton Cottage … could … be made comfortable to her.” Well, stay me with flagons. Austen says “from whence”?!? And she does it not just once, which might be considered a fluke, but five times in S&S alone! Well, then. Who am I to complain? Furthermore, a quick Google search turns up the fact that even Shakespeare used it, in Sonnet 48: “…the gentle closure of my breast / From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part“. Austen and Shakespeare – all that’s left is for me to be glad I didn’t pontificate about “from whence” before, or I’d be wiping egg off my face now.

So there you have it: Life, the Universe, and an Editor’s Changed Mind. Which begs the question, From whence do people get their language?

 

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The Editor Pontificates: Show, Don’t Tell

NaNoWriMo is nearly upon us – in fact, as I write this, across a good chunk of the globe the clock has already ticked over the magical line of midnight to November 1st, when you get to shoot out of the starting block and race down the novelling track towards that elusive goal of getting 50,000 words on the page. So I thought this would be a good time to squeeze in another post on the writer’s craft, because of course we all have our heads in our stories and are aiming to make these the best novels yet. Right? Right.

The thing I want to talk about is that most hackneyed piece of writing advice, the one you can’t escape if you’ve taken any kind of creative writing class anywhere: “Show, don’t tell!” It’s a piece of advice that’s being handed out so freely, you’d think it wouldn’t need explaining any more. But from what I’ve seen as reader and editor, it appears that you actually still do. So I’ll put on my pontificating-editor hat (which is the hat of the pontificating editor, as opposed to the pontificating editor hat, which is the pontificating hat of the editor – the latter would probably look something like the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter movies, with a mouth at the brim, pontificating away) and waffle on about it for a minute.

Just to refresh your (and my) memory on what “Show, don’t tell” actually means: in fiction, when you’re describing something, don’t just state as fact that something happened (“telling”), but let the reader see it through sensory detail, dialogue or implication (“showing”).

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Telling: “The orchard looked pretty.” Doesn’t give you the picture, does it?

So, for example:

“Joe got to the office building at 6:00 PM, stopped the car and went in.”

TELLING!! Now, how about this:

“The early evening sun caught the golden hands of the big church clock as Joe’s car rattled over the cobblestones of the market square. ‘Like a dagger,’ Joe thought, twisting his head around to maneuvre into the tight parking spot in front of the tall brick facade of Bemelman’s Law Offices, ‘that clock hand jabbing at the six looks just like a bloody dagger.’ He squirmed out of the narrow driver’s seat of the Smart, tugged down his suit jacket and ran a finger under his shirt collar. The gears of the church clock took their whirring breath to strike the hour just as he pulled on the wrought-iron handle of the old building’s front door.”

That’s saying the same thing – but so much more, as well. We know that it’s six because he says the clock hand points at it and it strikes the hour. We know it’s six PM, not AM, because it’s early evening light, not morning. We know that he’s going to an office – it says so – and that he’s stopping the car and going in. But we also know, from this short passage, that he’s in Europe (not many cobbled market squares with church clock towers in America, for example), and that he’s not happy to be there – the squirming, twisting, tight shirt collar and car seat, and thoughts of jabbing daggers tell you that he’s feeling rather anxious at the moment. Oh, and we know that it’s sometime around summer (because the sun is still shining at 6:00) and that it’s a sunny day.

But you didn’t need me to explain all that to you – you already had it figured, because you’re smart that way. See, that’s part of the reason why fiction writers need to show, not tell – because us readers ain’t stupid. Some writers don’t quite believe it, so just to make sure they double up – they do show, but then they also tell: “Joe ran a finger under his shirt collar, which felt tight because he was anxious.” Nope, nuh-uh, don’t do it. Show, don’t tell. Just don’t.

Unless, of course, you’re a reporter, not a fiction writer – then you need to reverse this piece of advice; you need to tell, not show. In fact, that’s how, in Grade 6, I got the first F of my school career. We had just moved, and in my new school they were working on writing “factual reports” in language class. I’d always been good at writing stories, but didn’t know about this “factual” stuff. So when we were supposed to write a mock newspaper report on some guy nearly drowning in the river, I threw in all these visual descriptors of the scene, and how the guy was feeling. Nope – FAIL! Not objective enough. Stick to the facts, girl, tell what happened, don’t show it! I’m still smarting from that F some 30-odd years later. But now I’m taking revenge on that failed factual report by letting my imagination run riot on the page. I’m showing ’em!

Now, if you need some help and inspiration on how to do this “showing” gig really well, go over here and take a look at Jodie Renner’s most excellent post on how to use verbs to make a passage sing. In fact, bookmark that page and keep going back to it, and then do yourself a favour and buy a copy of Jodie’s book, Fire Up Your Fiction, which is stuffed full of superb advice like that. (And no, I have no commercial connection with Jodie; I’m just advertising her because I think others could benefit from her excellent work, too.)

Incidentally, doing lots of showing rather than telling is also a really good policy for NaNoWriMo purposes. With NaNo, you want the greatest possible word count. The “showy” passage about Joe, above, clocks in at 111 words, vs. an emaciated 16 in the “telly” sentence. What’ve you got to lose, other than dry and dusty prose?

Life, the Universe, and Showing vs. Telling. Go give me the picture!

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