Friday, June 12, 2009

Challenging Writing -- Challenge Your Initial Assumptions, Then Write! -- by Robert W. Walker

We hear all sorts of advice about a writer should do this and should do that with regard to point of view. Have you heard that you should keep to a point of view that is “close” to precisely who you are? That is the ultimate in saying “Write about what you know” since you know your point of view. It says if you are male, write from a male POV, if female then a female POV. If black, if white, if green…if Christian, if Muslim, if your faith is Heavy Metal…etc., then you should stick like glue to what you are; that your narrative voice and the tense you choose, and the choice of vocabulary and whether to use first, second, or third person--all of it ought to reflect who you are and keep safely to your world view and psychology and nature. All very comfy advice.

However, serious writing involves and demands you get OUT of your comfort zones. Did Mark Twain remain of one voice in all his writings? Steinbeck? Great authors challenge themselves and sometimes go down in flames, but out of the challenge comes some fantastic work.

Let’s slow this down and back up a moment:

Present Tense first person is not the same as present tense third person, no more so than past tense first person is the same as third person past tense. Nor is second person present tense the same as second past tense. Tense refers to the time clock (verb tense is verb time). In short, the action and sometimes the first person speech is happening NOW or THEN. Present is now, first person is use of “I-me-my-mine” as your narrator. Past is then, third person is use of a third party as your narrator. Often the story dictates which is best to take on for THIS story. Often a chapter in, you have some idea which dictate is stronger, and often it has to do with your comfort zone.

When I began writing police procedurals and crime novels, I decided early on that a cop-like VOICE would narrate my medical examiner serial killer chase books, and the voice would have an edge to it yes, but it would also be intelligent. This meant a good vocabulary and not a “gumshoe voice” but rather one in keeping with a medical examiner for instance who would of necessity be highly educated. A voice that reflected the complexity of the character and life itself; a voice with a literary flare in fact.

Early on I demanded of myself to write from various POVs in a multiple POV novel, that when needed I could be flexible enough to enter the mind of a Latino working on the back of a garbage truck and a black executive who worked on Wall Street. A Cuban detective in Havana, a Hawaiian newspaperman in Maui, a Hindu ship’s captain in India, a Catholic minister in London. In every case, it was a challenge. In every case, it was worth the effort to rise to the challenge. Cuba Blue is a great example -- a female Havana cop working with hands tied by her own governmental bosses in a Communist world and all she wants is to resolve a triple-murder case. Setting and character were a challenge--talk about writing to your opposite. But that is the challenge I throw at the feet of my students who claim they want to write: Write to your Opposite. You don’t always have to do so, but you very well should stretch and challenge the ultimate writer inside. Those students who come to my classes and write about their safe little worlds and their safe friends and their safe cozy zones are not challenging themselves. The student who sits down and writes a short story from the POV of a child in a Third World Country is going to have to work. A student who sits down and takes on the challenge of another time zone takes a great risk, but the results are spectacular for her personally. A student who takes on another time zone is better off than one who remains in his time zone. A student who makes the effort to predict the future and set a story in a future world is--even in the worst of writing--at least posing a challenge to himself. Telling the story from the opposite gender, another race, another culture, another world view. These are students who will go on to continue learning and writing.

A recently overheard remark at some writers get-together had a panelist telling her audience that a writer can’t do justice to his or her opposite. This is NONSENSE and pure garbage and not useful advice at all. A writer has to be flexible and capable of playing all the parts, especially in a multiple POV novel. There are single POV novels that are genius and wonderful--such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye and are a challenge in that the author must create a first person voice that a reader will wish to listen to for some 300 pages or more--same voice! What a challenge! Third person multiple POV presents its own challenges (more attention than ever needed in transitions between pov shifts, time shifts, geography shifts).

What is not challenging is writing about characters all from the same cookie-cutter corner of a single place as in the worst writing I find of young people who zero in on telling stories only of their small cosmos and handful of acquaintances. Certainly, I had a leg up on writing outside my skin just by growing up in Chicago, but Steinbeck was not a Mexican and yet he crafted wonderful Mexican characters. Twain was not all of his characters but rather drew from the incredible array of characters he found from his childhood and through the Gilded Age. Hemmingway believed in living life and writing from experiences one had. I concur, but there’s also research and learning and interviewing.

There are many ways to step out of that comfy zone and dare to challenge yourself as a writer, as a learner, as an artist. I challenge you to do so.
Cuba Blue is a Kindle book. Find it on This is my only collaborative effort and my co-author is a fantastic lady named Lyn Polkabla of Atlanta, Georgia where I set my next book DEAD ON due out July and on preorder now at Amazon.

Rob Walker


Anonymous said...

I agree with YOU, Rob. The fallacy in the argument is "sticking close to who you are." This means I wouldn't be able to shoot anyone, since I'm homicide-free at this point.

Writing is about re-inventing ourselves--for the writer and the reader. If we do it well, that's a journey where the characters are compelling because we have more than understood their point of view, we've lived it.

Terry Odell said...

I've been told I write men well. A similar topic has been floating around a number of blogs (today, it's at Wet Noodle Posse).

Regarding POV: Strictly speaking, it's whose head you're in on the page. But unless your protagonist is living alone on a desert island, your book is likely to have more than one character. Do they all need to be POV characters. Certainly not. To date, all my books have only two POV characters: hero and heroine (an expectation in my genre).

But I have to be able to get into the heads of ANY character I create so that when they do show up on the page, their behavior and dialogue is natural.

Another common 'mistake' that will pull me out of a story: Narrative has to be in the character's head. Too many times, especially with a beginning writer, the narrative becomes not only "tell" but is the author talking.

Keep the author off the page. If it sounds "writerly" .. CUT!

(OK -- I get carried away. I've given and taken workshops on Point of View. It was my very first writing lesson [readers probably hardly notice it], and I'm a stickler.)

Rob has lots of good points in here, any one of which could be expanded into its own topic.

Morgan Mandel said...

I enjoy writing from a male point of view or another point of view that could never be anything like me. That way, my imagination works better.

Morgan Mandel

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I've enjoyed the male POV as well. I've actually found it easier.

My greatest challenge so far has been the mail female character in the last book of my YA series. I thought she was gonna kick my butt! She's a first-born choleric - dominating, unemotional, athletic, tall & skinny, extremely ambitious and with a Master's Degree - just about as polar opposite from me as they get!
But you know what? I think that's the best story I've written so far...

L. Diane Wolfe

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed this blog, and for what it's worth... since I'm writing a serial killer novel, I guess it's a darned good thing I'm not a serial killer - according to that woman, I would have to be a serial killer to write it from the killer's POV. What nonsense.

Terry Odell said...

Yet everyone assumes if you write romance, especially erotic romance, that you test all your scenes personally. No, I don't write erotica, but yes, there are love scenes in my books. I usually tell those who ask that I don't research my sex scenes, but I do have to go out and kill people to get the murders right.

Rob Walker said...

Hey everyone, you all have good heads on ye shoulders. I just bristle when I hear something goofy at a conference and I have never been to one where I have not bristled....usually wind up then at hte bar, bristling and coming down from bristling. Since I am a teacher of writing, it just grates me to hear nonsense being put forth as gospel as when one lady insisted on a panel that dialogue killed action. Arrrrghhhh! How do we keep from choking others at conferences? There ought to be a class on that somewhere. Restraint During Conferences....and or on chat groups....
Thanks one and all for chiming in and I particularly like it that I picked up a new phrase to use -- Wet Noodle Posse. Good one indeed!


Terry Odell said...

Rob, the Wet Noodle Posse is not an 'expression', it's an actual group of writers.