Grenade in the Room – Part 3

Disclaimer: The Writer’s Desk Logbook is not a podium from which universal truths and profound wisdom flow down to the masses. These posts are nothing more than personal observations about my exploration of the fascinating craft of writing.

“Grenade in the Room” continues:

According to what I’ve learned from reference books and based on the fiction I typically read, third person narration is more common than first. For me, the choice of third came naturally because I wanted to tell my stories from multiple points-of-view, and using multiple first-person narrators seemed more “experimental” than I was ready for. Someday I’d like to try it.

As one who launched into writing fiction without benefit of formal training, my journey has had to rely on a combination of “how-to” books, participation in writer’s groups, and what seems like a never-ending gauntlet of trial and error. And of all the structural elements of fiction, none have evolved more for me over the years than pov.

My initial understanding of third person can be summarized as follows: the narrator 1) is not present as a character, but tells what happened to other people, 2) is distant in space, never there, always invisible, 3) can be omniscient or limited, and 4) can be limited-single or limited-multiple.

I’d been writing off and on in isolation for about ten years before I joined the Novel-in-Progress Group of Austin and discovered how terminology can degrade communicating with other writers. The words I used to describe my understanding of pov were different than those of others around the table, and it became obvious that periodically getting hung up on semantics was part of the process. In retrospect, however, I realize that using different words also prevented me from seeing deeper into the pov pond for what lay under the surface.

My novel Pilot Error had been completed and revised more than once when I joined the group. At that time, the relatively small number of members actively submitting material and the fact that I had a complete manuscript allowed me to receive feedback on about 150 pages in the first year.

A persistent critique comment had to do with characterization. The mc was too distant, too much of an automaton, too wimpy, and too inconsistent with regard to his attitude toward family and career.

As a writer’s-group newbie, I hadn’t yet learned how to process critique comments well enough to avoid the inevitable “pendulum-itis” effect: trying to satisfy every member of the group with wild swings in my treatment of characterization. Once I learned to better evaluate comments, they settled into three categories: 1) the absolutely right on, 2) the totally bogus, and 3) the largest group, worthy of consideration in whole or part.

And throughout this learning experience, a number of readers mentioned on multiple occasions that they didn’t feel close enough to the mc. While not a unanimous verdict, the frequency and persistence of the assessment convinced me to do something about it.

All I got for my trouble was increased frustration as successive submissions failed to eliminate the comment that readers wanted to get nearer to the mc. I’ve since concluded that this stagnation resulted from a combination of my not understanding how to do what readers wanted, and readers not being able to come up with just the right words to help me break through the roadblock. It’s no one’s fault, just the reality of learning, that sometimes it takes a synergism of input and reception to turn on the light bulb.

For me, a brighter moment occurred after I joined another writer’s group we call “Little Group,” or “El Gee.” I’d begun submitting from my novel Redline, the second-in-series to Pilot Error, and the same comments kept cropping up about lack of closeness to the mc. As often happens in smaller groups, with less structure than is required to keep a larger group on track, we began a more wide-ranging discussion on pov. This was the first time I’d heard the term “distant third” and another especially intriguing one, “first and a half.”

The topic quickly evolved into whether a third-person narrator can ever achieve the same closeness to readers as a first-person participant. Relative to what I’d read about third-person narration (detailed earlier in this post) when I first began writing, I realized that over the course of my effort, I’d drifted away from the concept that choosing third person necessarily dictated distance, invisibility, and non-participation in the story. I believed I could draw readers into a third-person participant’s world if I could only learn how.

Then one of the members explained the concept of psychic distance as explored by John Gardner in The Art of Fiction. Although to characterize that moment as an epiphany might be judged as hyperbole, that’s the way it felt.

For my following Redline submissions to El Gee, I tried to incorporate the concept of psychic distance. To paraphrase the famous line, readers responded with, “By jove I think he’s got it!” Since that time, I’ve submitted about fifty pages of Redline to the larger group. And although I can’t claim any particular expertise in creating characters, I have managed to eliminate the previous comments about readers feeling as if they were being held at arm’s length by the mc.

“Grenade in the Room – Part 4” will continue this personal exploration of pov. Thanks for reading and please join me again soon.

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