How Many Heads?

How many viewpoints in a novel?

How many viewpoints in a novel?

When you’re reading a modern third-person limited perspective novel (he said, she said from inside a single character’s head – see this great post for an explanation on narrative modes in literature) how many heads are acceptable?

When I first wrote Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes, which is written from two key protagonists’ perspectives, I switched from head to head without thinking about it, and would quite often jump into the head of minor characters. Strictly speaking that’s nearer third person omniscient, without that irritating ‘know-it-all-ness’ of an Eighteenth Century narrator.

I didn’t give it much thought, until a Beta Reader pointed out that head-hopping within a scene can be confusing and is generally avoided, and that it wasn’t a good idea to see inside the head of minor as well as major characters. It came as a surprise, because I didn’t really think about it as I wrote – the almost-omniscient style seems to be my default.

That probably reflects the literature I read: authors like Georgette Heyer, who write in what I suppose to be omniscient third person. Even though Heyer spends most of the time following one person’s viewpoint, she’s happy to hop into the thoughts of anyone relevant to explain the scene. Even though I’ve studied the theory and know the principles I still struggle when I write (and even when I read) to always know the difference. I read this great article today that helps to explain it.

That’s why Dragon Wraiths was refreshing – in first-person-present you only know what the main character sees, hears and feels. It adds other challenges to do with character development and so on, but you don’t have to worry about head-hopping.

Class Act Cover

Class Act Cover

I’ve just been through my first draft of Class Act and, like Baby Blues, it’s littered with head-hopping. That’s fine, I can fix that. But, also like Baby Blues, some of my favourite writing is inside the heads of secondary characters. I cut it all out in Baby Blues but now I’m wondering if that was entirely necessary. Maybe it’s just my voice, my style. Maybe I tend more towards multi-voice perspective or omniscient than tight third person (sticking to one head). Maybe I should embrace it rather than fix it.

I say this only because I’ve just finished The Radleys by Matt Haig and it reads like a soap opera script, seen from everyone’s perspective. I have to admit it added to my enjoyment of the novel rather than detracting from it. (Possibly because I love omniscient authors like Heyer.)

Now Haig is a much more experienced and talented writer than I am, and my execution is bound to fall a long way short, but that’s no reason not to try.

So, my question is, if you were reading a novel that took you on a brief trip inside the mind of the mum or the best friend, would that confuse or irritate you? I guess until I finish my revisions and send it out to Beta readers I won’t know. Here’s an example scene to show what I mean.

Daphne looked up, and her smile was like the sun rising over the horizon. She put the tapestry aside and rose to her feet, holding both hands out in greeting. Alex took two paces forwards and enveloped her in a bear hug, her scent infusing the space between them, bringing with it all the comfort and memories of childhood. He hadn’t been home for weeks, not since he’d started rehearsing the play, even though it wasn’t that far away. He felt terrible, but his mother of all people understood his need to carve his own way in the world, away from Sidderton.

“Alex, darling, how lovely to see you,” she said as she finally released him from the embrace. “Sit down. Does your grandfather know you’re here yet?”

“No, I came to see you first, of course.”

“You mean you crept around the side like a naughty school boy?”

His smile made him look every inch as she’d described him. “Maybe. I need to ask for something and I thought I’d ask your advice about the best approach.”

“You need money? I thought you’d got a handsome settlement when you left your last place of employment? Didn’t you talk of share options?”

“I don’t need money, and as if I’d ask Grandfather if I did! He’d roast me alive. No, it’s more complicated than that.”

“Then it’s about a girl. Have you got someone in trouble?”

“Mother!” Alex was genuinely shocked. “What do you think of me? Firstly, no, I haven’t got some poor girl pregnant. Secondly, this is the twenty-first century, not Downton Abbey. We don’t buy the servants and wenches off with money these days you know.” His tone was ironic and gently chiding. Sometimes he thought living here at the hall had confused his mother into believing they lived in the eighteenth century.

“You are partly right though,” he continued, “it is about a girl.”

“I thought you had decided girls were all fortune hunters out to ensnare you? Has one managed to catch you?” She looked worried, and he laid a hand on hers to reassure her.

“Well, I suppose I have been snared, but not for my fortune. She doesn’t know anything about it.”

“What do you mean? Does she think we are one of those impoverished families who spend every penny on their crumbling manor?”

Alex thought about the immaculate interior of Sidderton Hall – Mother had been an interior designer before she married – and laughed. The laughter lit his handsome face from within, like the sun breaking suddenly from behind storm clouds. Then the clouds drew across the light again, as he realised his charade was no laughing matter. He had to think of a way to make Rebecca love him despite his background. He had to get to the bottom of her dislike of the landed gentry – there had to be more to it than a few idiots being rude to their gardener. That was for another day. He was here to help her build her future, whether that included him or not. Acts of altruism were not part of his general make up, and he found he quite liked the sensation.

Daphne sat patiently whilst these thoughts played out across her son’s even features. She was used to her son’s internal dialogue and knew he would present his conclusions when he was ready. He shifted his position on the ancient and battered leather sofa that dominated the family room and she knew he was ready to speak.

“I need to get grandfather to agree to sell the old hay barn down in the south east corner.”

Whatever Daphne was expecting, it wasn’t that. She spoke aloud her first thought.

“No Sidderton has ever sold one inch of the estate, not even when they faced bankruptcy”.

Alex laughed suddenly as she said it. She gave him a bewildered look and he clarified: “That’s what the estate manager said to me, and I thought the same recently when I was talking with Rebecca about buying property. It must be a mantra that we’ve all been brainwashed with.”

“What makes you think you’ll convince grandfather otherwise, when you know it is so much against the family way?”

“Because I have to,” his voice was urgent, “Because it’s important. Just because that’s the way something has always been doesn’t mean that’s the way it always has to be. Because I want to help the woman I love, and – if I’m really lucky and dig myself out of the huge hole I’m in – it won’t be out of the family for long.” His words came out in a rush, as if to explain it all to his mother suddenly seemed both difficult and vital.

In limited third person the entire scene should be either from Alex’s or Daphne’s perspective, or there should be a scene break when it hops from Alex’s to Daphne’s head. But, to me, the scene works fine as it is. Maybe it’s the subject matter: there is an air of Heyer, or of nineteenth-century romance, about the novel. Should I have the same consistent voice across all my novels or is it permissible to shift it according to the needs of the novel. Answers on a postcard, please… 🙂

My Left Brain Princess: 2013 365 Challenge #219

The movie I bought for my daughter (!)

The movie I bought for my daughter (!)

I bought Enchanted on DVD for my children today. Well I say for them but, as it has Dr McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey) in it, it might have been a tinsy bit for me too. I have seen it before I think, certainly the end, but the DVD wasn’t expensive and I thought my daughter would love it. I was wrong.

She’s possibly too young for a movie with violence (my son didn’t seem to mind though we did skip bits featuring the evil mother) but I thought the singing and the dress and all the things I love, like the happily ever after, would appeal to her too. Hmmm. Not so much.

I’m beginning to realise why I don’t always connect with my little girl. She has too much of my left brain and not enough of my right brain. Actually, I don’t know if that’s true. She is very creative, loves telling stories and creating masterpieces out of pipe-cleaners. But she is also extremely analytical and cuts through illusions with her razor-sharp questions. Maybe she is actually too much like me in all ways!

I love a happy ending, although I know they don’t often happen. I believe in a good world full of good people, though I know it isn’t always that easy to find. I am creative, with writing and art and photography, but I used to work as a number-cruncher and write analytical essays. When you get those charts saying, Left Brain or Right Brain? I am both.

I used to describe myself as a pessimistic optimist, expecting the best and fearing the worst. (Like the herd of young deer currently in the field to my left, warily keeping pace with us, although the dog thankfully hasn’t yet seen or heard them, lord knows how. They think they’ll be spotted but they’re hedging their bets. They should have stayed put or legged it as they’re actually following us up the field. Anyway I digress).

Twenty-First Century Princess

Twenty-First Century Princess

My daughter it seems is realist all the way. I already suspect her of seeing through my fairly pathetic Father Christmas lies. She’s four. When we talked about going to Disneyland, we first had to explain what it is (because I try not to let her watch TV adverts!). Once she’d grasped it, she said, “Mummy I think they’re probably people in costumes.” Oh dear. No magic dream there then.

I’ve always wanted to go to Disneyland, but only with a wide-eyed child to vicariously experience their awe and wonder. I suspect she’d rather we spent the four thousand pounds on a swimming pool. And she might have something there. Magic is all well and good, and the memories might last a lifetime with the right supporting evidence, but a pool’s a pool. We currently choose childcare and Mummy’s writing over an annual family holiday. I might write happy endings but I chose my husband on the Internet and as much with my head as my heart (you need to read Do You Like Jelly, if I ever get around to publishing my short stories!)

So, while I envied Giselle her magnificent ballgown and her dishy McDreamy, my daughter was asking me to play Guess Who. Like Patrick Dempsey’s character in Enchanted, I don’t want my daughter be so wrapped up in fairy tales that the real world disappoints her (like me with my ten-year search for my Georgette Heyer hero). But I’ve never discouraged her from reading Disney stories or watching the movies (okay, I edit out the bit in her fairytale book where the princess answers her marriage proposals with “Yes please.” I mean, really?) But somehow my practical, stripped bare, world view has rubbed off.

It makes me sad. I never intended or sought to take away the magic of being four. I wanted her to go to Disneyland and be wowed. Unfortunately this isn’t Miracle on 34th Street and Santa isn’t going to make her dreams come true. I’ll have to settle for writing HEAs and let my little princess carry on in her left brain world.

P.S. Daddy tells me she is starting to ask for girly stories at bedtime, so maybe I just need to wait a bit longer!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 

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The cold air made Claire’s eyes water, as she waited, shivering, outside the hostel. A few paces away a cluster of people stood, giggling and shoving each other. They were a disparate crowd, although they all looked under twenty. Claire heard a range of accents, American, Irish, at least one that sounded Japanese. She wondered where they had met and formed such a close bond, and how they’d found time to come travelling together.

Feeling like she would give her left kidney for a hot coffee, Claire stared at her itinerary and tried to tune out the laughter and banter. It brought back too many unhappy memories. Why are youngsters so noisy? Don’t they know it’s before 7am? She glanced up at them, with their glowing, tanned, skin and happy smiles, and felt ancient.

I’m not even thirty, I’m not old. With a quick mental calculation she realised she was probably a decade older than most of the group.

They were probably all born in the nineties. Ugh.

It made her want to get on the next plane home; to go back to a normal life, with a job and a car and her own circle of friends.

Except I don’t have any friends.

A large green coach pulled up outside the hostel as the dark thought flashed in her mind. Feeling like a four-year-old on her first day at school, Claire shuffled nearer to the bunch of people as they jostled and scuffled good-humouredly to be the first on the bus. They greeted the driver by name, and he gave one or two of them a high five.

Wait a minute. Isn’t this the first stop on the bus? How come they all know each other?

Now it really did feel like the first day of school, except this time it was high school, when her parents had taken her away from her friends and launched her into private education. All her new classmates had come through the junior school together and she hadn’t known a single person. Character building, her parents had said.

With a shudder, Claire presented her ticket to the driver without looking up.

“Claire Carleton. Hmmm.”

The man scanned his list for too long. Claire felt her stomach clench on the empty space where breakfast would have been if she could have managed it.

“Are you sure you’re booked on?” He looked again, then flicked the paper over. “Ah, yes, there you are. Alright, Claire, on you get. Leave the sack with the others.” He cast his eyes towards the mountain of luggage by the side of the coach and then looked behind her, dismissing her from his mind.

Claire hadn’t heard anyone else approaching and was surprised to hear a deep English voice wishing the driver good morning.

At least I’m not the only solo traveller.

She chanced a quick glance as she added her rucksack to the pile. The newcomer was a dark man in his forties she guessed, by the grey sprinkled through his hair. His voice, low and smooth, sounded like a cello cutting through the chattering violins in a Brahms concerto. It resonated deep in her gut. He seemed to feel her eyes on him, and turned to meet her gaze. She flinched at the electric shock that ran from her head to her groin.

For goodness sake, girl, you’re like a dog on heat. You’re here to write travel stories and come up with a plan for the future, not eye up every sexy stranger like a child in a sweet shop.

Hiding her blush with her curtain of hair, Claire scurried past the newcomer and the driver, and went in search of an empty seat. The bus must have been half full on arrival, as nearly every seat was taken. At last she located an empty one at the back, and sank to the seat, placing her handbag on the spare seat, lest anyone get any ideas.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw the man climb aboard and languidly scan the bus before sauntering up the aisle. He had the grace and power of a panther.

Claire felt her heartbeat quicken as he came further down the bus. Oh crap, he’s going to sit next to me. Please don’t. She turned to look out of the window, following his progress with her ears.

She heard his deep voice say, “Good morning, may I join you?” It sounded slightly further away than it should. Turning her head a fraction, she saw he had stopped two seats away and was talking to a pretty redhead, who giggled and patted the seat next to her.

Slumping back into her seat, Claire closed her eyes and tried to go back to sleep.

***

‘The Extincts’: Resurrecting my Love of Reading: 2013 365 Challenge #69

Roelant Savery [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Roelant Savery via Wikimedia Commons

I was lucky enough to grab a free copy of a children’s book (MG I would guess) from our local book shop today, while taking the kids in to spend their World Book Day vouchers.

I always find it odd taking a free book and my daughter exclaimed in horror when I didn’t pay for it. Funny because I happily give my own books away for free. Maybe that says something about how I rate my writing or how I perceive the difference between an ebook and a paper copy.

The book, an uncorrected proof, is called The Extincts  and is by Veronica Cossanteli. The proof copy says it will be published in May 2013. When I got home I found it on Amazon here.Looks great.

I read some of the book this afternoon while Daddy took the kids to buy me a mother’s day gift (and after I’d ordered my mum a spa day and printed and laminated the voucher). I was hooked, as much as I have been by any book recently. I have three half-finished novels under my bed – Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman, The Real Thing by Catherine Alliott and Rowling’s Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets which I’m reading because I’m finding the others too much at bedtime. I never used to leave books half-read and couldn’t understand how my husband would have three or four on the go but these days I have to be in the right frame of mind. When I’m not I re-read something that’s so familiar I can open it at any page. I feel I can happily read this book, The Extincts, to the end not just becuase it’s great but because it isn’t emotionally taxing.

My eclectic half-read pile of books

My eclectic half-read pile of books

Veronica Cossanteli’s book has the strongest opening and voice of anything I’ve read in ages. There are bits that don’t flow but partly that’s shifting pace to Middle Grade fiction after reading YA and Women’s lit. The pace, the language, the imagery and the plot concept are all great. It has reminded me how much I love Middle Grade fiction (probably one reason it is Harry Potter I turn to in times of trial.). MG fiction tends to be entertaining without being too close to home emotionally (like the Catherine Alliott book) or too challenging in subject matter (like the Blackman book).

It’s like the TV my husband and I watch these days: it has to be safe, preferably funny, definitely non-emotional and (for me) non-violent. We have enough struggle in the real world, our entertainment is a time to escape. We couldn’t even watch the nature programme on penguins recently because the chicks were being attacked by cormorants.

I was drawn to the Cossanteli proof because the publisher is Chicken House, who ran a competition I wanted to enter last year. Funny how life can throw you random choices that have significant results. The book has entertained me, broken my dry-spell of reading and reminded me that reading can be fun as well as challenging and stretching. It brought to mind a quote I read on Twitter the other day:

“One must own that there are certain books which can be read without the mind and without the heart, but still with considerable enjoyment.”
― Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader

It’s also reminded me that I would love to write Middle Grade fiction if only I had the imagination for it. Maybe one day.

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Claire dumped her rucksack on a bottom bunk and went to stand at the bay window. There were bars in front of the glass, presumably to stop small children falling out. Claire opened the window wide and leaned out as far as she could. She was in the turret at the front of the hostel and the hillside dropped away, falling down to Eyam village. Weak rays of sun prodded through the heavy cloud and highlighted buildings beneath her. She turned and looked at the bunk where her rucksack lay, conscious of an urge to lie down and close her drooping eyelids. She’d barely slept after her frantic evening ringing hostels trying to arrange her two weeks with Sky.

The door opened and the hostel warden poked her head round. “Not really meant to let you stay, love. Checking in isn’t really til five.” She smiled apologetically.

“That’s okay. Thank you for letting me in to leave my bag. I’m trying to decide whether to walk into Eyam village or drive to Chatsworth house.”

Eem Miss.”

“Sorry?”

“It’s pronounced ‘Eem’ not E-yam’. E-yam sounds like a cheese.”

Claire flushed. “Oh. Sorry.”

“That’s alright. Southerners never get it. Walk into the village, it’ll be pretty when the sun breaks through. There’s a nice bakery and a tea room.”

Claire thought privately that it was a bit early in the day for tea and cake. She didn’t want to offend the woman so she merely nodded and went to get her things from the rucksack.

“If you’re wanting to walk into the village take the path rather than the road. It’s real pretty, winding past a llama farm. Comes out behind the church.” The lady shone a bright grin then ducked back out, closing the door behind her.

Eem it is then,” Claire said to the empty room. She let herself out and followed the signs for the footpath.

Halfway down the hill Claire regretted her decision to walk. Down is fine but I don’t fancy the climb back up.  The sun’s attempts to break through looked like they might be scuppered by the surly clouds and Claire could feel moisture gathering on her hair.

By the time she reached the village Claire was sweaty and irritated, knowing she had the return climb to contend with after whatever delights Eyam had to offer. The footpath took her into the village past the church. She turned right and stopped at a sign proclaiming the ‘Plague Cottages’. I thought the whole village suffered from the plague, not just a few cottages?

A dark green sign promised illumination and Claire stopped to scan it. The notice told of Mary Hadfield, who lost her sons, aged 4 and 12, early on in the plague and her husband nearly a year later. Just when she must have thought the worst was over. I can’t believe she lost thirteen relatives in total. Claire felt the grey of the day seeping into her soul.

I don’t think I even have thirteen relatives, never mind that many all living within the same clutch of houses. She tried to imagine living that close to her parents and Robert. I don’t know what’s more depressing: that she had them or that she lost them.

Claire took a quick snap with her phone then walked on towards an impressive high stone wall and black cast iron gate on her right. The board said it was Eyam Hall, Historic House and Craft Centre. Whatever it is, it’s closed. Clearly they don’t expect many visitors in March. Can’t imagine why.

She wandered on past a Post Office and some more cottages, following signs for the museum. May as well get some facts for the blog, then I can get out of here and go somewhere less depressing. Like maybe a morgue.

The museum looked like a school house or a village hall, hulking opposite the car park and public toilets. When she got closer she could tell it, too, was closed.

Seriously? No wonder they had no problem separating themselves off from the world. Who the hell would want to come here? It’s dark and dreary and half of it isn’t even open.

Claire spotted a map urging her to ‘Discover Eyam at a Glance.’ I think I’ve done that. It wouldn’t take more than a quick peek. Having located the YHA hostel on the map Claire realised it was a short walk up the road from the museum. For a second she contemplated heading into the village for an early lunch and a better look around. Or I could walk back to the hostel and drive to Chatsworth for some civilisation. Her eyes scanned the featureless museum building staring blankly at her and decided on Chatsworth House.

That’s assuming it’s open.

 ***

Tarot Cards, Dragons, Babies and Georgette Heyer

My novel Finding Lucy is all about Tarot

Tarot Cards, Dragons, Babies and Georgette Heyer: What do these things all have in common? They’re the main themes of my last four novels. Just as I have an eclectic taste in books and music (Metallica and Einaudi currently my car-CDs of choice) I appear also to have a varied set of themes and genres for my writing.

I’ve heard it’s wise to settle on one genre and writing style that represents your voice and stick to it. But when in your writing career do you do that? I’ve enjoyed writing Young-Adult-first-person-paranormal as much as writing third-person-contemporary-woman’s-fiction and now (hopefully) a romantic comedy. Who is to say which one is really my style?

Except they’re all romances. Gotta have a love story.

I guess maybe the market decides, by what you manage to get accepted by an agent or what sells online. Georgette Heyer, the subject of my NaNoWriMo this year, wrote forty odd Regency romances and something like a dozen detective stories, together with a historical novel or three. By all accounts she despised her romances and the people who read them and her best book is considered to be one of her historical novels. Yet her witty and well-researched historical romances still bring pleasure to millions. Even Stephen Fry counts her as one of his guilty pleasures.

I guess the thing to accept is that unpublished fledgling authors like me won’t know what their voice, their style, their genre is until it’s validated externally. If I’m extremely lucky I might get one of my styles published. I’m not fussy which one!

Until then, in my best Strictly Come Dancing Bruce Forsyth voice, “Keep writing!”