Writer tech: narration, POV and “head-hopping”

Well, here I am, writing a blog post when I’m one chapter away from completing the first draft of Epitaph. Why? Because I woke up at 5 AM with an urgent desire to read a biography of William S. Hart.

Bill Hart was the silent film-era Western star who befriended Wyatt and Josie Earp during their Hollywood years (1915-1944). This morning, I got out of bed and ordered four books by and about him before I even brushed my teeth. Paid extra to get two books delivered overnight, too, because I really really really want to finish Epitaph.

In the meantime, I’ll write this. Then I’ll mow the lawn, I guess. Because I have no life.

I thought I knew how this novel would end; I sketched the final chapter almost three years ago. When I reread it on Monday, I knew it wasn’t right — factually or structurally — but all week, I tinkered, and rearranged, and hammered on it because I wanted to be done.

Last night, I went to bed knowing that I had to junk the original ending and attack the final chapter from a different point of view. Who would have the most interesting vantage point from which to see the Earps’ final years? I woke up with the answer: the actor who urged Wyatt to tell his own story; who was a pall-bearer at Wyatt’s funeral; who remained a patient friend to the increasingly difficult Josie as she descended into dementia. William S. Hart.

Which illustrates the earliest lesson I learned about telling a story. When you hit a wall, don’t just keep bashing your head against it. Step back. See if there’s a way to go around it.

As you may know, I’m a biological anthropologist by education and a self-taught novelist by accident. I’ve often said that I never meant to write a novel; I thought I was trying a short story. I was a recovering academic who’d been making a good buck as a technical writer for medical imaging equipment. When the recession of 1991 hit, my contracts dried up, my kid had just started first grade, and I had time on my hands. I’d always been a passionate reader and wanted to see what it was like to create a character, to write dialogue. It was just a goof, really. I was sort of embarrassed even to admit that I was trying to write fiction, but I believed this experiment would make me a better, more appreciative reader.

(That backfired; I am now a critical, snarky, demanding reader who rarely gets past the first two pages of most contemporary novels.)

Since I’d never taken a course in creative writing, nobody ever told me, “Show, don’t tell.” Why not? I’d have asked. Tolstoy tells. Dickens tells. Austen tells. Movies show; books tell. What’s wrong with telling? I like narrative. Furthermore, I remained blissfully ignorant of the rule, “Stick to one point of view. Hopping from one head to another will confuse the reader.” Well, I like to build a story that readers assemble in their heads, the way they’d see an image in a mosaic. I think readers are smart.

Okay, some aren’t, but MY readers are. And I’m not just sucking up to you. Okay, I’m sucking up a little, but I really do write for people who are more likely to watch a Ken Burns documentary on PBS than Dreadful Housewives of Someplace You Can Sneer At.

Anyway, in my opinion, sticking to one point of view is like composing a symphony with only an oboe or an opera with just a tenor. I like plainsong as much as the next person, I suppose, but I like harmony, counterpoint and orchestration better.

Which takes me back to the second week of working on what became The Sparrow. That book was written in the order in which you read it: rocking between After and Before, trying to make sense of what happened to Emilio, trying to find out what had reduced him to the state in which we found him at the beginning of the story. In September of 1991, I’d produced  ten pages about this damaged, almost mute man. Everyone was angry with him, but I didn’t know why, and I had no idea what to do next.

So I gave up.

That began a pattern that persists to this day: I give up, every single week. I moan to my husband, who is a very patient man, “I can’t do this. It was a stupid idea anyway. I should go back to technical writing.” I declare that I’m quitting, and the next morning, I wake up with a way to move forward with the story. This has nearly always involved finding a fresh point of view by asking myself, Who can observe the main character from an interesting vantage point?

It was Jimmy Quinn, in the second chapter of what became The Sparrow. And I’m pretty sure it will be William S. Hart for the last chapter of Epitaph.







2 thoughts on “Writer tech: narration, POV and “head-hopping””

  1. Thank you,
    I so enjoy you taking us through these adventures in writing.
    It strikes a vibrant center somewhere between the writers who blithely say they just write what comes into their heads with no regard to plot and others who say, it’s just a job and it’s hard, if done right.
    Meantime, my husband have started a macrobiotic diet and we are stunned by the results. Not only do we feel happier and stronger, but we have lost weight! The only problem now, is that if we eat a non-organic vegetable, we know immediately! Hope all is well with yours!
    Anchorage, Alaska

  2. This came up on my Google alert for Josephine Earp. The Hart idea is genius. I have an interview that was done with Hart’s son that I can share with you — want me to dig it up? It’s either an audiotape or a transcript but very cool.

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