Point of View: One Author's Perspective

There are lots of reasons why an author might choose one point of

view over another.  The first, quite honestly, might be comfort level,
especially when a writer is a beginner.  When I began writing, I came at
it as a reader, but also with some small amount of experience in
theater.  The easiest way for me to see, feel, taste, touch, and smell
the story was to inhabit a character much the way I had when performing a
monologue.  I began by writing in first person, as a character on stage
would speak.

First Person:  A Crooked Kind of Perfect

My first novel, A Crooked Kind of Perfect,
is about a ten-almost-eleven year old girl, Zoe, who wants to play the
piano but receives what she describes as a “wood-grained, vinyl-seated,
wheeze-bag organ” instead.  One of the themes of this book is about how
our real world often conflicts with that which we might dream about. 
First person helped illuminate that theme because I was able to
articulate her rather fantastic expectations in her own voice — one that
never admitted how unrealistic those dreams were.  While some readers
might recognize that Zoe is engaged in fantasy, the first person
narration does not encourage the reader to do so.  Instead, it invites the reader to engage in the fantasy as if it were his own.  To become the “I”.

The format of the book also lent itself to first person.  The
chapters are short — sometimes only a paragraph or two. They have been
called vignettes. To my mind, they are the sort of stories that you tell
your friends about what happened at lunch yesterday, or what your mom
said when she was driving to the party, or how you found out that boy
liked you.  I wanted the book to feel as if Zoe was telling a friend a
series of these stories and I wanted the reader to piece them together
into something bigger — a process that is replicated by Zoe herself as
begins to see that the world is a bit larger and more complicated than
she initially imagines.  So, first person helped me demonstrate
character development, too, as Zoe’s stories reveal more detailed and
sympathetic descriptions of the people around her as the book

Also, Zoe is funny.  She doesn’t tell jokes, but in she makes a lot
of witty observations that show up in internal monologue. If this story
had been in third person, I might have been able to put some of these
observations into dialogue — but not many, unless I wanted to seriously
alter the character (A person who makes such observations aloud,
regardless of who is listening, is quite different from a person who
thinks these things, but keeps them to herself) — or cluttered up the
prose with too many she thoughts and imagined Zoes.

I don’t want to suggest that I thought about all this in advance. 
First person narration was simply what was comfortable to start with,
and once I started letting Zoe talk, the story and themes shaped
themselves around her.

So, if first person was so darn comfortable, why did I write my second novel in third person?

Third Person — Hound Dog True

Dog True began as a picture book and in third person.  When I decided
to expand it into a novel, I tested out some of the initial scenes in
first person.  It was a useful experiment and one that I recommend to
other writers who are trying to get to know their characters.  Those
first person scenes helped me to understand my main character, to feel
what she felt, to speak as she spoke. But it became clear early on that
first person would not work for this character, not for an entire novel.

Here’s why:  Hound Dog True is about Mattie Breen,
an extraordinarily shy girl.  She doesn’t interact with many people. 
She doesn’t talk a lot. To have her story told in first person, even if
it was clear that the narrative was not really being “spoken” by her,
might feel like a contradiction of that essential part of her
character.  If you’re supposed to be so quiet and shy, the reader might ask, how come you keep blabbing on about it?

Mattie lives in her head and worries a lot and when it comes time to
speak, her words  stack up on top of one another (one example: things
don’t twist or turn for Mattie, they twist-turn) or break off before a
thought is complete.  If I wrote the book in first person, a great
majority of the sentences would begin with “I” and be followed by some
statement of worry or anxiety.  I wanted readers to align themselves
with Mattie and to care about her, and so many sad “I” sentences would
test the patience of even the most sympathetic reader.  Mattie might
seem whiny or self-centered, rather than worried and self-protecting. 
Likewise, it can feel claustrophobic to spend an entire novel in the
mind of someone who is continually attempting to shelter herself.

Third person can put distance between the narrator and the point of
view character and can offer readers that same distance.  The degree of
that space can vary, even within a single book. Sometimes the narration
is so far from the point of view character as to feel objective,
sometimes it more closely reflects the point-of-view character’s
attitudes and emotions, and sometimes it is so close as to give the
impression of being fused with that character’s mind so that the
narrative replicates his thoughts and speech patterns in much the same
way that first person does.

Hound Dog True is told in very close third person
throughout the novel.  It feels like first person, really.  It uses
language and sentence structure that replicate Mattie’s voice and
thought patterns.  We are given no information that Mattie does not
possess, but the sliver of distance between narrator and Mattie, and
reader and Mattie, allows for a bit of perspective checking.  We are
more likely as readers to ask: Was it really like that?  Was it as
bad as Mattie thinks it was? Is that neighbor girl as grown-up and
matter-of-fact as Mattie says she is?
  It was important to me that
the reader be able to identify with Mattie, but also to recognize the
limits of her understanding of the world. The small distance between
character and reader permitted the reader find hope where Mattie could
not (yet); to root for her, rather than feeling her to be doomed.

Close third person worked well for this story of a shy girl taking
small brave steps.  So why not stick with that for my next novel?  Why
move to an omniscient narrator?

I’ll tell you why.

Omniscient Narration — The Center of Everything

book started with an image I had one summer afternoon.  In my mind I
saw a girl — the back of her head, actually.  She had small sweaty curls
poking out under a ponytail. She was standing on the sidewalk, waiting
for a parade to pass by.  Who was she?  What was she waiting for?  And
what would happen when it came?

The Center of Everything is about Ruby Pepperdine,
this year’s Bunning Day Essay Girl.  She has made an important wish, one
linked to the last moments she spent with her dying grandmother, one
she believes will come true the moment she steps on the Bunning
Schoolhouse float and reads her essay to the crowd.

The story, as I’ve described it above, could easily be told in first
person or third, but one of the major themes of the book — the
connections we make in a life*– led me to consider an omniscient
narrator, one that could go backward and forward in time, could explain
town traditions and legends, could jump into the heads of characters
other than the main character, Ruby. An omniscient narrator could make
those connections — big and little, known and unnoticed — clear, in the
way that a twelve-year-old girl puzzling out the intricacies of
wish-making could not.

Here’s an example: early in the book, as the parade begins, the
narrator describes the approach of the high school band and their “flag
girls”.  They are described as wearing sleeveless sweaters and pleated
skirts.  “In November,” says the narrator, “they will wear those
sweaters over turtlenecks and wave their flags at football games and
wish that they were warmer, but now, in the late June heat, the girls
have lobster-red faces and each is using her own favorite curse word to
swear she will never try out for flag again.  Next year,  thinks Talia O’Hare, I am joining show choir instead.

Some moments in the story are even narrated twice.  Just after Ruby
has asked for a “clear, simple,un-mix-up-able sign” that things will
turn out okay, we begin a chapter that introduces a local banker, Mr.
Victor Gomez, who has dressed up as the town founder for the parade.  In
this chapter, we follow Mr. Gomez’s rather grandiose thoughts and
daydreams and understand the reasons he nods and gestures as he does. 
In the next chapter, we experience that same moment through Ruby’s
eyes.  We see her draw conclusions about the banker’s actions that are
completely different from the motivations we have been privy to pages
earlier.  I could not have made this work in a first person novel, or
even one told in close third, but these overlapping moments were useful
in the exploration of another of the book’s themes: the question of
whether or not things happen as they are “supposed to” or whether there
is a “supposed to” at all (and if so, can we ever know what that
“supposed to” is?).

There are challenges in using such a visible narrator, of course. 
Some warn that it creates the feeling of a filter between the reader and
the character, or that such a narrator is an unwelcome reminder that
the story is “made-up”.  I tried in this book to balance that with many
scenes where the narration takes on a third person point of view, often a
close one, and during Ruby’s most pivotal scenes, an extremely close

So, What’s Next?

For the book I’m working on now, a fantasy adventure, I’ve gone back
to third person.  Or maybe omniscience.  Sort of.  I’m still figuring it
out.  In the end, it will come down to how close or far away I want the
narrator and reader to be to the main character.  How wide a view do I
want readers to have of the world?  How important is it that readers
understand the motivations of other characters?  How much needs to be
explained that would not normally be a part of what my main character
would know or understand or share?  How best can I make this character
and his adventure come alive for my reader?

We’ll see.  We’ll see.

Already this post is too long, but I want to recommend some fabulous
books that provide great examples of point of view, too.  So, how about
this:  Next week I’ll start posting some lists of my favorites and a few
reasons why.  Meanwhile, if you have any books you want to recommend,
feel free to leave a comment below.

*that’s a reference to a quote from Mister Rogers that I use as the
book’s epigraph.  “The connections we make in a life — maybe that’s what
heaven is.”

When is a Poem Done? -- and other questions answered by Kelly Fineman

You might have noticed that I only post when I've got something I really want to say.  Today, is one such day.

The recent publication of Kelly Fineman's At the Boardwalk resulted in a really interesting email conversation about poetry and picture books and how they arrive in the poet's brain and -- even more interesting to me -- how the poet understands when the work is complete.

I loved the conversation so much, I asked Kelly if I could share it with you.  She, kindly, said yes.  And so, here it is:

But first, the book.  Look:

Doesn't that look like fun?  It is fun.  The illustrations, the text, the rhyme -- it is just plain fun.  And I wondered if it was top to bottom fun to write.  But more importantly, I wondered if she had always conceived of this poem as a picture book.  So this is what I asked:

Me:  I know you to be a poet.  I’ve read poems that you’ve written for grown-ups as well as for kids and I’ve had the pleasure of watching you craft an entire biography in verse.  I’m wondering, specifically, about the poetry you write that is meant for the picture book format.  Does it start for you as a poem first and then later you might see its application to the picture book format, or do you know going in that a particular work feels like a picture book poem and craft it with the form in mind?

Kelly said this:   Your question presupposes that I know what I'm doing when I sit down to write, which is decidedly not always the case. AT THE BOARDWALK, which is my only published picture book to date, started out as a five-stanza poem, the first two stanzas of which essentially fell in my lap on the way home from a trip to Ocean City, New Jersey a few years ago. After I got home, I wrote a bit more, and it was a poem about the boardwalk, the beach, and the sea. When Tiger Tales approached me to ask if I had a manuscript that might be suitable for them, it occurred to me that the seashore poem I'd written might be good - but it needed work first. I scrapped one or two of the original stanzas in order to limit the book to the boardwalk, and expanded the entire poem to eight stanzas that covered the arc of a day. (It later expanded to eleven stanzas, which is what you'll find inside the book.)

The most recent single-poem picture book that I completed was most definitely a case of me picking a particular form and running with it.

Me:  I love that you say that two stanzas fell in your lap – I imagine that happens a lot.  And that other poems come as the result of much less magical circumstances.  Can you describe what it is like to get the beginnings of a poem?  Is it a feeling? A word?  A desire to write about a particular topic?

Kelly:  I have to laugh, because the correct answer is "yes": it could be any or all of those things. 

I could just imagine Kelly laughing at this, because I've been lucky enough to hang out with her at a number of New England SCBWI conferences.  In case you want to imagine her laughing, here's a photo:

It's a terrific photo -- Angela de Groot took it -- and it looks just like her.   Keep the picture in mind as you read what else she had to say, and you'll see why she's smiling.

Kelly:  Sometimes a line or two of a poem turn up all at once, seemingly from out of the blue, like the start of "At the Boardwalk" or the first two lines of "Lawnmowers," which is on my website and was printed in slightly different form in Summer Shorts, an anthology from Blooming Tree Press. The opening of that poem turned up while I was in the shower. (I get a lot of good ideas in the shower - I think it's the white noise from the water - the trick is remembering the lines well enough to write them down after you get out.) Sometimes I sit down to an "assignment" (often a self-imposed one), which could be a conscious choice to write a particular form of poem (say, a sonnet, a terza rima, or a haiku) or to write about a particular topic. That was the case with the poem "A Place to Share", which I wrote about the three guys who founded YouTube, which will be appearing in the forthcoming anthology Dare to Dream . . . Change the World (Kane Miller 2012). Laura Purdie Salas asked me to write a biographical poem about YouTube's founders, while she worked on a paired poem of a more inspirational nature (the marvelous "Just Like That!", also in Dare to Dream . . . ) Sometimes it's a word or a phrase that won't let go of me. So, basically . . . there's no magic to it, and no easy answer, either.

 See?  The smile is because even though there's no easy answer, she always makes it work.  I'd smile, too.

Anyway, all of what she said above makes sense to me -- when I start a novel or even a picture book, I don't know where it will lead exactly, but since my form is character-based, I know when the book is done.  The main character has achieved what she set out to achieve, or recognized that her goal is unattainable but that something else of value is good enough, etc.  But with many of the poems that Kelly writes, there isn't a main character, etc.  So, I wondered how does she know when a poem is "done"?  And that's what I asked her.

Me:  How do you know when a poem you’re working on is done?

It took Kelly another day before she could respond -- but her answer was worth the wait.

Kelly:  I confess to this question bringing me to a hard stop. It's one of those amorphous sort of things that's even harder to answer than how you get started or revise or whatnot. I have decided to relate something that Billy Collins said when I heard him speak a couple of years ago. When asked "How do you know when a poem is done?" Collins first replied with this quote: "In order to be a great painter, you need two people: one to paint the painting and another to cut that guy's hands off." He went on to say (I'm paraphrasing) that he always feels like his poems are moving: he starts somewhere and is moving toward somewhere else. But because he feels that sense of forward motion, he starts to feel a sense of arrival when he gets near the conclusion. "The more of a forward roll and a sense of direction you have, the more of a sense you'll get that it's reached its end."

That is all true. It is also, of course, false. Sometimes you know for sure that the poem is done. For instance, if you're working within a closed form (a form of poetry that has a specific number of lines, such as a villanelle or a sonnet or even a sestina), you know where the end is because the poem must fit in its particular box. Sometimes, though, especially when working in free verse or in an open form (such as a pantoum or rhymed couplets, say), you can't be certain where the ending should fall. In those cases, you have to ask whether you've conveyed what you intended, and whether the place where you've stopped the poem is the strongest place - perhaps you've gone to far, or not far enough. Perhaps you've gone the right distance, but without sufficient oomph. Perhaps you ended in a straightforward way when a twist would work better, or vice versa.

That's why it's important (when possible) to let a poem rest for a bit, then come back to it with fresh eyes, so you can more easily assess it as a whole and evaluate whether it's doing its job the way you wanted. It's also why it's important to have a first reader or two, who can take a look at it and tell you whether it works, and where it needs improvement. And really, they almost always need improvement. It's a rare poem indeed that arrives in perfection.

And yet, so many of Kelly's poems reach that stage.  

Thanks, Kelly, for letting me share our conversation.  You gave me a lot to think about!

Emotional Connection and Point of View

A friend pointed out a Twitter discussion of Hound Dog True in which the following comment was made:

"It's more than a story being told - almost like a story being felt by the reader."

I don't think I could have asked for a higher compliment. Now, I need to acknowledge that the person who made the comment, the very thoughtful Brian Wilhorn at helpreaderslovereading, was not in love with Mattie's story -- especially not at the beginning. So I guess I appreciate even more that someone who didn't initially connect with the book still engaged enough to feel what Mattie feels.

As much as I wanted readers to feel along with Mattie, I did need to create at least a tiny bit of distance between reader and character.  I tried to address that here, at a visit to John Schu's library.  There, a young writer asked me why Hound Dog True is written in third person, rather than first.  If you click on that link, you'll see a video in which I:

  1. Use my hands a lot.
  2. Explain that if the book were in first person, every sentence would have the word "I" in it and you would quickly tire of the character.

The video does not include all the stuff I thought right after I was done speaking.  Including:

  1. I should try to stop talking with my hands so much.
  2. It's not just a matter of being irritated by the self-centerdness that is reinforced by the first person pronoun "I", it is also that the tiny sliver of space that comes when we shift to even very close third person gives the reader the ability to question Mattie's perception of the world.  It allows us feel Mattie's desperation to show her uncle her doorknob-installation prowess even as we obtain the distance to understand that her efforts are not going to turn out well.  It allows us to question her perspective even as we connect with it.  Or at least, that's the goal.  I won't claim to have always reached it.
  3. What a smart question on the part of this young writer.
  4. Was I that astute a reader when I was in fourth grade? (answer: no)
  5. This book will probably be most satisfying for readers who are willing to feel the "I" behind the "she" and in the places where I was able to convey that feeling. 
  6. I have a lot to learn about writing.

I just realized that I wrote a few other bits about writing Hound Dog True but never posted them.  I'll try to rectify that this week.

Meanwhile, if you've got thoughts about point-of-view and "feeling" a book, I'd love to hear them.

Quiet Books and Gatekeepers

Whew!  The last of the big reviews is in for Hound Dog True and HOORAY! It received a star!
Here's a link if you want to read the review in its entirety.  Otherwise, how about just enjoying this bit:

The most action readers will find in this story is Uncle Potluck tripping over a vacuum cleaner cord, but the characters are well limned, and Mattie's perceptions and observations add a tender dimension. There are many books that offer adventure and twists and unusual story lines. Most of them do not offer young readers such fine writing and real characters. That is hook enough.

Do you know how my heart sings?  Not just for the nice things said about my own book -- but because I have a passion for quiet books about small things.   And I know that the way only way those books will find their perfect readers is if librarians and booksellers and passionate reviewers make them known and give them space amongst their fabulous big plot, high concept peers.  So thank you, SLJ.  Thank you Kirkus and Horn Book and Booklist and Publishers Weekly.  Thank you teachers, librarians, moms, dads, bloggers and big mouths, for all you do to get the small books into the hands of their just-right-readers.

PS:  If you haven't entered THIS DRAWING for Myra Wolfe's less-than-quiet, rip-roaring new picture book CHARLOTTE JANE BATTLES BEDTIME then hop to it, matey!

Rough -- Early Attempts at Novelizing Hound Dog True

Okay people. I'm not going to sugar coat this. Hound Dog True was hard to write. It took two and a half years before it was good enough to send to my editor. During that time, entire characters were created, then disposed of. Plot lines appeared and got ditched. Scenes got written dozens of times -- sometimes because they needed it, sometimes because I had no idea what came next.

I didn't start keeping a notebook until late 2008, so the early days of HDT are hard to recreate -- but I know my last submission of the Promising the Moon picture book (click here if you haven't read it yet) was in January 2007. The first fragment of the novel I can find is dated 5.17.2007.

By that point, I had already determined that Uncle Potluck had a neighbor -- Miss Sweet (whose name was Ona at the time) -- and that Miss Sweet had a niece, Quincy. I had written already about Mattie's first fearful encounter with Quincy, though other than a vague notion of "shyness" I hadn't given much thought to what was behind it. I had also, apparently, decided that Mattie and Quincy would be forced into a sleepover.

What I'm about to share with you is my first attempts at thinking about that sleepover. I will warn you, it isn't pretty. This is true, raw, rough draft, people. Typos. Spelling errors. Sentences that just plain stop. Ready? Okay. Early Bits of Hound Dog True

If you have a copy of Hound Dog True around, you can compare this with what is on pages 51-53. Some elements are there. The sleeping bags. Uncle Potluck playing cards in an adjoining room. Mattie's discomfort. But there's no scene yet. No momentum. I was just trying to figure out What Happens.

My best drafting days are a little neater. Those days, scenes emerge -- usually in the character or narrators voice. While I don't outline, on my best days I seem to be directed by my knowledge of the character and confidence that she will tell me her story.

At this point in the writing of Hound Dog True, I didn't have that confidence. I wasn't sure yet why Mattie felt the things she did. It would take much more drafting and imagining before I would know.

But we'll talk about that next time.

Meanwhile: I want to remind you that you can win a copy of Myra Wolfe's swashbuckling picture book Charlotte Jane Battles Bedtime by leaving your name in the comments section on my Word Press blog here or at LiveJournal here.

Charlotte Jane Battles Bedtime -- You Could Win It!

So, yesterday I told you about a special treat and here it is:

I know!  It's crazy adorable, isn't it? I love these illustrations by Maria Monescillo -- but I loved this story even before it was illustrated. 

This is the story of Charlotte Jane who "came howling into the world with the sunrise." 
            "Arr.  She's finer than a ship full of jewels," said her mother, smiling.
            "Arr," agreed her father.

Arr, agree I.  And don't you love it?  All that pirate talk and yet a cozy wonderful warmth of family right from the start.  Arr.

            "Also," said her mother, "she's got oomph."
            "Formidable oomph," said her father.

Charlotte Jane's oomph leads her to want to get the most juice out of her days.  She swashbuckles, she hunts for treasure, she performs Fantastic Feats of Daring -- but she is determined not to go to sleep at bedtime.  "Bedtime was not juicy."   But soon she finds that "her oomph seems to have gone to sleep without her."

Things do work out, ultimately -- though you'll have to get a copy of the book to find out how.  I'm no spoiler.  But I'll give you a hint:

Okay.  And do you not want to crawl into that bed right now?  I know.  Me, too.

So, in celebration with Myra Wolfe and Charlotte Jane, I'd like to send a copy of this book to one of you.  Do this: leave a comment below or on my wordpress site (in case LJ is acting up during its "technical upgrade") and I'll have one my resident pirates randomly select a winner next Thursday, okay?  Grand.

In the meantime, if you'll like to see a few more of the illustrations in this book, you can take a gander here.  And I can't leave you without a link to a fabulous Publisher's Weekly review.  One of the highlights of that review? 
Monescillo's detailed and gently textured watercolors are full of insouciant pirate energy (Charlotte Jane's bravado is matched by that of her surly teddy bear, who wears an eye patch), and Wolfe's text has as much charm and verve as her heroine.

Now THAT is juicy.

You Might Need a Myra

Long ago, in a rental house a few miles from here, a young(er) picture book writer was having doubts.  She had been encouraged to try her hand at novel writing -- but novels seemed so LONG, so complicated, so impossible.

Long ago, in another house clear on the opposite coast, an even younger writer was bubbling up with language and story and brilliant voice.  She, too, was a picture book writer.  Her name was (is) Myra.  And she was one of those encouraging her friend to write a novel.

The two struck a deal.  Every Friday they would exchange words.  Not a lot.  Nothing daunting.  Five hundred words.  They made a vow.  A pact. A blood oath (sans blood).

And they kept it.

It was that oath that kept them both writing -- even when the task seemed impossible.  The younger writer produced some awesome picture books, a young chapter book, and a few other delights.  The older writer produced a manuscript that would become A Crooked Kind of Perfect.  The older writer knows she could not have written that book without Myra expecting those 500 words every week.

So, here's what I'm asking you now:  Is there a book you want to write?  A challenge you want to face? Something important you want to put on paper, but have been procrastinating about?  You might need a Myra.

Right now, I'm being a Myra to a writer I greatly admire.  She's well published and brilliant -- but there was something getting in the way of the words landing on the page.  (Have you felt this?  Maybe you have written and rewritten the first seven pages of that novel but can't get farther?  Or you've got just one more bit of research to do first?)  Every week, this writer is sending me 500 words.  "Dear Myra," she says, "here you go."

As a Myra, my only job is to read those words and say: YAY!  Keep Going! -- just like my Myra did for me.  This is not a critique gig.  Not a coaching thing.  It's easy -- and delightful.  I get to enjoy this novel as it emerges. YAY!  Keep Going! Is easy to say -- because I want to read more! 

So, could you use a Myra?
Can you be a Myra to someone else?

Tomorrow, a super treat.  Myra's picture book, Charlotte Jane Battles Bedtime.  Want to win one?  Meet me here tomorrow for your chance.

Meanwhile, think about this:  would you write differently if you knew someone was waiting to read your words?  Could you use a Myra?  Could you be a Myra to someone else?

Sentences and Barbara O'Connor

Recently Grier Jewell at Fizzwhizzing Flushbunker reviewed Hound Dog True and said this:

"Hound Dog True had me at the first sentence and held me in its enchanting grip until the very last page. (As I read this, I kept thinking, did Barbara O'Connor change her name to Linda Urban?)"

Could a person be paid a higher compliment?

I love Barbara O'Connor's writing.  Each book is a gem (I'm particularly fond of The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis -- but you know how I feel about small things.) and each sentence in each story is so carefully crafted.  There's a rhythm to what Barbara writes, and an attention to detail.  Have you read any of her posts about the line edit stage of her novel writing? Read these.  You'll see what I mean.

Anyway, I thought that Grier's kind words were as good as it gets, but this morning I read THIS.  Yes.  Barbara O'Connor picking out a few sentences she liked from Hound Dog True.  I am, Dear Reader, aflutter.

If you link up to read them, you might notice that some of them are rather oddly constructed.  Some are fragments.  Some seem to interrupt themselves.  That's Mattie's voice.  And in the next few weeks, as we talk about how Hound Dog True became a novel, we'll talk about that voice and how it came to be.  (If you missed yesterday's post and are interested, you can click here to read an early picture book version of the story.)

Until then, go read Barbara's notes on her revisions.  Eye opening stuff.