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Come on in and enjoy the view

Point of view, that is.

A novelist has options, lots of options. She chooses her book's setting, creates the characters, builds a plot. But perhaps her most important decision is figuring out who is the best character to tell her story.

Take Gone With the Wind, for instance. Scarlett O'Hara is one of the most memorable characters in modern fiction. Margaret Mitchell chose to relate the story from Scarlett's point of view for various reasons. One would be that Scarlett's life and that of aristocratic Southerners like her could never be the same after what we Southerners call "the late unpleasantness." But what if Ms. Mitchell had created another character, a young black man, perhaps a slave on the O'Hara plantation, to relate events from his own perspective? It would have been a completely different book, wouldn't it?

Or what if there'd been more than one point-of-view character in Gone With The Wind? Mammy, for instance, as a counterpoint to Scarlett. Would that have worked as well? Probably not, because then Scarlett would have needed many more scenes of conflict with Mammy, and Mammy stayed in the background for much of the book because what she could bring to the story was important, but not that important. She was Scarlett's conscience, and who needs a conscience when you're struggling to survive? Not our Scarlett, that's for sure.

Well, how about Gerald O'Hara, Scarlett's father, as a POV character? What if Ms. Mitchell had begun her novel in Ireland when Gerald was a boy? Would the story have had more impact if that were the case? Or less? Since Ms. Mitchell's area of expertise, the milieu in which she'd grown up, was the southern United States, and since she was concentrating on that society's upheaval, I think focusing on Gerald and his Irish background would have diluted the book's emotional impact on the reader.

Certainly Rhett, Ashley, or Melanie could have had their own points of view. It might have been fascinating to see Scarlett, her strengths as well as her imperfections, through their eyes. I'm glad Margaret Mitchell didn't give them a voice, though. If she had, she wouldn't have had as much space to devote to Scarlett. And we would have been deprived of many of the intricacies of Scarlett's fascinating character as she carried the story forward in her own inimitable way.

I'm writing a book with multiple points of view at present. For me it's a natural process. One character or another steps forward and says "Me, me, me! Write about me!" In this work-in-progress, five women are clamoring for my attention. When I started out, there was one. I added two more because my story needed depth, and then another because she was the perfect person to relate the backstory. Finally a sub character, an elderly Gullah woman, both wise and feisty, started jumping up and down and hollering, "Honey, don't you even think about leaving me out! Hunh."

As if I'd dare. Guess I'll go work on one of her chapters right now. Read More 
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Choice Words

When I give workshops, I'm sometimes required to read the attendees' manuscripts. Note: required is the word I've chosen here because we have to start somewhere.

But what if I'd used the word allowed or encouraged or requested? Puts a whole different slant on it, right?

Required implies that I must read manuscripts even if I would rather not.

Allowed gives you the idea that reading manuscripts is a privilege.

Encouraged? Someone wants me to read manuscripts, and perhaps I can pick and choose, or maybe I can go to the beach instead.

Requested means that they ask, and I could say no. In fact, I there's a good chance that in this instance, I will say no, considering that the beach is presently a cheerier prospect than a mountain of paper.

As for the manuscripts that I'm required to read, almost every one will include disconcerting combinations of words. Or combinations of disconcerting words. Or words in disconcerting combinations. Read on, if you dare.

Writers learn to use words that are active instead of passive, specific instead of general. Eulalie barreled into Samson as she rushed around the corner of the gym, not Eulalie ran into Samson as she went around the corner of the building. However, some beginning writers toss any old word into a sentence, perhaps figuring that if active is good, more active is better. Eulalie crashed into Samson (evokes images of Samson as a crash dummy, poor guy). Eulalie slammed into Samson (not bad, maybe even better than barreled). Eulalie flew into Samson (is Eulalie a bird? a bat? a 747?).

Maybe this writer ends up with Eulalie slammed into Samson as she rushed around the corner of the gym. Well, if Eulalie slammed, wouldn't she already have been rushing? Slammed implies velocity. Velocity isn't achieved by creeping.

So how can we get rid of rushing? Perhaps Eulalie slammed into Samson as she rounded the corner of the gym. However, if she rounded the corner of the gym, which is most likely a 90-degree angle, that may be a too-confusing picture for the reader, whose brain is already in shock from Eulalie's slamming, not to mention that if Eulalie slammed into him, Samson may be lying on the ground, further complicating the picture. With all these problems in this one sentence, it makes a person wonder how anything at all gets written, not to mention how I'm going to have time to go to the beach.

Also, Eulalie would be better off if she didn't go near the gym at all. After school, she should hie herself off to the parking lot where she'll meet Dwain, the love of her life, who smells like Brut instead of sweaty gym socks.

But that's another column. Read More 
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