Sometimes: Paper

A few weeks ago, while I was working on finishing up the new book for my August deadline, I hit an interesting technological bump.  Interesting to me, anyway.  I have been composing on a computer since 1984–my computer use is now old enough to have made me a grandmother.  Before that, I did my composition on a typewriter.  If I’m far from electricity or a computer, I can write longhand, but it’s a drag–when I’m on a roll, I type faster than I can write, and of course I always hope to be on a roll, not staring into space, biting my lip and jiggling my leg while I wait for the next word.

So: the current WIP is divided into three sections.  I had just finished a second pass through parts one and two and was reasonably happy with them, so onward to the third section.  I already knew that the third section was going to be a bear: not only is it the most loosely written (with things I hadn’t quite got around to inserting, and some whopping continuity problems), but I have decided that I need to split the third section into two points of view–there are certain things that happen to one character that another character will not know about, and vice-versa.  I am a strong proponent of single-POV; more, the first two sections are seen from single points of view (a different character for each section, granted).  But the demands of the story meant I could not keep the third section to a single POV (believe me, having the second character recount what had happened to him to character One some time after the fact would have the dramatic impact of a wet Kleenex™) I had to figure out what events in this section, previously seen by one character, could be seen by the other.  And then write them that way, of course.

This sounds like a mechanical thing, right?  And it might add some richness by adding a different perspective and allowing some other information to come into play, and anyway, the glass is at least three-quarters full.  Except that I could not seem to accomplish the mechanical task of figuring out which chapters to re-write from POV-A to POV-B.  I sat with my laptop, making a list of every event in the third section.  I made notes on the laptop.  And I couldn’t get it to come out right.  More, I felt that weird, creeping paralysis I get when something large-and-intangible is getting in the way of my work.

Finally, I got a couple of sheets of typing paper out.  I made a list of events for POV-A on one.  I made a list of events for POV-B on the other.  Some crossing out and rewriting and arrowing and circling occurred, but at the end of an hour or so I had an outline of the revised section.  At which point I returned to the laptop and began to write.

I’m still working, sanding off the rough edges, smoothing in the research, polishing and hitting those “D’OH!” bits where I wonder what I was thinking on the first or second draft.  But what is interesting to me is that I could not have gotten this far if I hadn’t stepped away from the laptop and sat down with a sheet of paper.  Writers talk about their characters insisting on going off in unplanned directions, or the story veering from its original course.  Sometimes the process itself refusse to cooperate with your standard operating procedure.  When that happens, go with it.  It’s so much easier in the end.


Madeleine E. Robins blogs at BVC on the 7th and 21st of the month, and more often at Running Air.  You can check out her short fiction on her bookshelf.  She is slowly digitizing her early Regencies for the Café, and finishing yet another damned novel.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Sometimes: Paper — 10 Comments

  1. Yes, sheets of paper (and concentration) work that way. There’s a new book out by Nicholas Carr, The Shallows, that pertains to this issue. As for the recent SF fixation with a single POV, to me it seems an arbitrary and affected constraint — as if following such a rule would automatically produce stellar literature. Mainstream literature employs multiple POVs without fuss or damage. Unless “straight” SF/F wants to make sure it doesn’t get confused with SF/F Romance (girl cooties!), which does use multiple POVs routinely.

  2. I have a large whiteboard, which is lovely for complex plotting and time lines. Something about being able to draw swooping arrows connecting A to B.

  3. Having only managed one long and convoluted storyline (70,000 words or so, and I just realized I forgot to add the antagonist’s side of the story) paper appears to be essential. Maps, timelines, perspectives, it’s true we could do all of these up on computer, but it’s just somehow more gratifying to work it out by hand, preferably with high quality inks and pens…
    *sigh* have to go write another temper tantrum scene, the antagonist is getting cranky about nothing going her way… maybe next chapter she’ll win some.


  4. Athena–this is my own obsession. I find I’m just happier with a single POV (at least within a scene). What I don’t want to find myself doing is lapsing into that 1970s-blockbuster-novel-where-you’re-in-seventy-different-POVs-and-we-get-a-one-paragraph-dossier-on-each-so-that-we-know-what-their-motivation-is sort of style. If I have to withhold information from the reader (and you always have to do so sooner or later) it’s easier to do it with only one POV available.

    Brenda–I tried a whiteboard and, oddly enough, the act of writing vertically totally threw me. I could probably learn to like it, but not on short notice with a deadline looming.

  5. “Seventy different POVs” is reductio ad absurdum, no? All writing conventions are just that: stylistic/mental shortcuts for the convenience of both writers and readers. Everyone wrote or told stories in style X, until someone came up with a different way. Or, as the saying goes in scientific circles: all theories (in this case, all literary styles) start as heresies and end as superstitions.

  6. I keep writing journals — a hardback blank book for general thoughts and a spiral-bound for each novel — for just that purpose. Problem-solving, flow charts, character arcs, noodling, mapping out scene rearrangements. I find the switch from phosphors-on-screen/keyboard to pen on paper often jars me loose from whatever logjam I’ve created for myself.

  7. Heh, I’m a rebel who still writes omniscient. In my Fantasy Monster that could well lead to 70 POVs. 😉

    I’ve been told omni doesn’t sell, readers hate it, it’s VERY difficult to do well (it is), but it’s still the POV that comes most naturally to me and so I decided to use it, hell be damned. 🙂

  8. I don’t at all mind reading omniscient or multiple POV narratives. I just find that I don’t feel comfortable writing it; maybe it’s because it makes me feel sloppy when I’m writing (and no, I don’t think that makes sense, but it’s the best approximation I can come up with as to why I feel this way).

    The writing, she is a mystery.

  9. I think it is easier to have several (or more) POVs if they are not first person. A multiplicity of first-person POVs becomes confusing.