Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Voices in my head

Sorry for my extended silence, folks...I took a nice three-day weekend out of town.  I'm still, in fact, trying to figure out how to claim a trip to New York City as "research" for my novel.  It must be possible....  In any event, they made me an offer I couldn't refuse: triple points at the new hotel in Brooklyn. 

For anyone who didn't know: it's a LONG drive from Richmond, VA, to Brooklyn, NY.  It's a long road, mileage-wise, but then you also have to pass through traffic-ensnared behemoths such as Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, MD.  And then there was the bumper-to-bumper crawl on the Interstate as soon as it entered Maryland on the way back.  We stopped at the rest stop and asked the friendly(ish) cashier if she knew what the slowdown was.  "Toll booth."  Oh, I see.  Apparently it's a normal everyday thing to crawl down the Interstate at ten miles per hour or less in order to be able to pay the Great God of Tolls for the privilege to drive on the Interstate at ten miles per hour or less. 

Strange way of life, that.

The long trip did, however, give us the opportunity to get nearly 1/4 of the way through Jean Auel's new book on audio disks.  My wife has been a big fan of the series and can quote nearly everything that's happened.  I read the first one and enjoyed it but...well, meh.  It's not really my cup of tea, since there's no dragons or space ships to be found anywhere in the prose.  If only she'd put a hobbit or two and/or a zombie wandering around in the Cro Magnon camps...now that would be cool.  But she didn't.  It's still a good story, really; I'm just a picky bastard. Clearly others like it, as she's sold over thirty gazillion copies of her books, and that's quite a lot. 

Listening to the work did bring to light a couple of things, though.  The first lesson a new writer like me can glean is that it's perfectly possible to sell a boatload of books (and, like I said, that's a lot!) that have no plot to speak of.  After a few disks, while Heide was changing one for the next (conveniently prompted by the Voice saying "You've reached the end of Disk 3.  Please put in Disk 4," answered by my typical "Well, duh"), I asked her, "So, Love, what's the plot of the book?"  She looked at me quizzically, and then said, "Well, there isn't one.  The story is about how she learns and adapts."  Or something like that, anyway; I don't listen so well when I'm trying not to rear-end the car ahead of me on the Interstate.  "Why do people listen to the story, then?" I asked.  By her answer, apparently, people are fascinated by the details in how Ayla, and by extension the stone age cultures, learn and develop.  Hmm...OK.  So since I'm showing how Crystal learns and develops, I don't really need the plot I created?  My guess is it probably doesn't apply to me, as I haven't already sold thirty bazillion books.  That said, I'm enough of a curmudgeon to complain about it when I see it. 

Apparently others are, um, curmudgeonly (is that a word?) enough to do the same.  On one review forum a writer points out the lack of a plot in the sixth book, and a fairly limited plot development in the others.  He's met on the topic by an apologist saying, "There was more to that story than just the plot itself."  Well, OK.  In truth, it is a decent tale that draws us in to liking the characters quite a lot, so I'll let the plotlessness go for now.

The other thing that I caught while listening is how jarring the third person omniscient voice can be when used incautiously.  Some literary experts explain that the third person omniscient voice is the most commonly used, and is the best choice for "epic stories" involving many characters, sometimes separated by a geographical distance.  It's the voice in which the narrator...me, in my book, and Auel, in hers...knows everything and tells the reader everything that the narrator wants the reader to know.  It's what I've been trying to avoid in the Ascent of the Goddess, for the same reason why I don't like it so much when Auel uses it: it's jarring.  We're going along in the story learning all about what Ayla is thinking and doing, and all of a sudden we're inside somebody else's head learning what he's thinking.  A commenter on a blog about voices said it like this: "The biggest drawback of third person omniscient is that readers can get confused if the author can’t smoothly move the reader from one point of view to another. It is possible to get mental whiplash when the author is head-hopping." (http://ingridsnotes.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/five-advantages-of-third-person-omniscient-pov/). 

Granted, third person omniscient has been used very effectively in many works.  Tolkien, for example, used that voice, as did Douglas Adams, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, and Dickens.  I'm certainly not going to take a stance against it.  I will, however, caution against its injudicious use.  It's a natural choice that frees the author from the confines of "what would the main character actually know?" which is actually more of a restriction than it seems, as I've been finding in my own revision process.  By using it, then, you're free to take the readers head-hopping all you want.  Be advised, though, that some readers don't enjoy that. 

And now...time to get dressed for work.  Have a great day! 


  1. You know, the whole head-hopping thing was on my mind the other day, too. I have yet to read a novel where third person omniscient worked well. Most of the time I read these, I find myself stopping mid-page and wondering why I'm suddenly in Judy's head when in the last sentence I was in Frank's. If it's something that potentially pulls the reader out of the story and ruins the suspension of disbelief, why use it?

    Great post, good points made. :)

  2. Third person omniscient is actually my favorite style of writing to do. And I agree that doing it right--that is, doing it so that it's not confusing as hell--is really friggin' difficult. XD When used effectively, however, I feel it can really give a unique twist to a story.