Back up has a lot of connotations for a writer. I might mean – back up your work! And it’s certainly good advice. Scrivener automatically saves and backs up to Dropbox every time I close it, so I don’t even have to remember to take this advice. But if you don’t have a back up system, do get one.
It could mean – back up from the screen. You’re sitting too close and you’re all hunched over. This is probably good advice, too, but I don’t take it. I really only push back from the computer to stumble to the dictionary or the kettle. I do try to sit up straight and I don’t have carpal tunnel syndrome yet, which must surely mean something. It could mean – back up and start over, which I’m currently doing, writing what I hope will be the final draft of my first novel. So I am backing up now, going back and back, over and over. But what I really mean today, and how I started this morning, was to back up from my characters, back up and look over the top of my story.
For beginning fiction writers (and as a recovering playwright I still include myself in this category) the thorny issue of point of view must be grasped. In drama, every character is equal. It could be anyone’s play, anyone’s story, at any time. At any moment, a character can charge downstage and say something so remarkable and so personal that the play spins on its axis and moves off in an entirely new direction. This can happen in fiction as well, of course, but someone will only say that your point of view is inconsistent. And that’s after you’ve made the initial decisions in the first place: whose book is it? do they speak first person from “I” or third person from “she”? Is there a narrator who is also a character or not and how much do they know?
As I was figuring out the structure of my first novel, I tried every tense and point of view going, every draft. I learned a lot. I learned I’m much more comfortable writing third person looking through a character’s eyes, in present tense. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine, and writing this way helps me stay out of my own way so that I can just get the words down, just tell the story. First person makes me feel like I’m writing monologues, and a narrator felt too – I don’t know – omniscient. I kept thinking, who is that person talking if they aren’t a character? Who is that and how do they know so much and why is she just talking to the reader – does she know the reader is there? Was it as basic as asking if a play has a fourth wall or not? Are they aware of the audience or not? Does a book tell its own story, over and over if no one is reading it? And then I felt I had to understand who individual characters were talking to when they were in scenes or chapters. Were they aware of the reader so that the reader became a character for them, either in their story or in a sense of needing to explain or justify or apologise to them? And this was problematic because the intent changes what they say and how they say it, as in drama. In a book, I suddenly realised, it makes every character slightly unreliable. As Laurence Olivier might say, “Perhaps you should just try writing, dear.”
I knew my characters had a stranglehold over me, in terms of what they were doing and saying. By writing and looking through their eyes, they were each constantly justifying themselves. It was very hard to get any information that was “clean.” By backing up from them and allowing myself to sometimes use a third person voice that was not looking through them, but rather looking at them, I feel I have found a way to see them better and show them better, and allow the reader to make up her own mind about what the truth of the story is and who’s “the good guy.”
That’s today’s revelation anyway. I’m quite looking forward to writing tomorrow, actually.