Monday, January 14, 2013

Remnant Population: A Look at First-Person Narration

Elizabeth Moon is a controversial writer both for her writings and for her stance on social issues.  She’s a favorite of the feminists in science fiction crowd and broke ground for women writers competing for awards in a genre that was claimed for many decades as men-only. Because of her notoriety, many female writers received a fairer hearing from agents, publishers, readers, and award groups. Kudos!

Characters in the works of Elizabeth Moon are often women past the age of romance and child-bearing who struggle to find voice in a repressive family or community – one of my favorite themes. I will mention specific plot points in this review, so **spoiler alert**.

remnantRemnant Population is narrated by a solitary 80-year-old woman named Ofelia who secretly stayed behind when the failing colony was evacuated offworld. She resisted decisions made for her by her son, by the corporation that owned the colony, and (implicitly) by her long-dead husband.  When a rescue team arrives years later, she must find her voice to resist deportation, but also to negotiate the relative rights to technological advances for the indigenous and intelligent creatures.

Ofelia reminds me of Grandma in Edward Albee’s An American Dream who has no voice within family. She is constantly shipping out boxes, and eventually follows her shipments to escape a repressive domestic fight.

esslinThis archetype follows the idea of the “affirmative no”, meaning that to realize her complete self, she must say no to loved ones. This concept was articulated in Martin Esslin’s Theatre of the Absurd where he discusses the plays by Albee along with Brecht, Beckett and even Sam Shepard.

Ofelia achieves her “affirmative no” when she hides to avoid the shuttle flight. She enjoys the solitude of the abandoned village even though she worries about her age and failing health.  The pacing is good. The number and difficulty of obstacles Ofelia overcomes is engaging for the reader (similar to Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood).

Additionally, Elizabeth Moon deftly handles a classic problem of how to report plot events that are beyond the sightline of the first-person narrator. Ofelia hears the struggle over an abandoned “weathersat” when a colony ship 200 kilometers distant has to abort the landing mission because the indigenes mount a successful attack. Ofelia is sorry for the offworlders who she identifies with, and is afraid of the indigenes who she eventually befriends. The reader quickly sees that later in the story Ofelia will serve as an ombudsman between these groups.

Herein lies the problem. How does the writer present the worldview of the indigenes? How does the writer present the group dynamics of the rescue team before they step off the shuttle? A solitary narrator can only assess what is in her sightline and from her POV.

Moon resolves this writerly problem by inserting scenes from the group-think of the indigenes using a specific vocabulary, and scenes from the POV of one member of the rescue crew named Kira. These scenes are not separate sections, but presented as the next paragraphs within a chapter. But then, I read the story on Kindle where standards for section breaks are still evolving.

I found the group-think scenes charming and valuable for increasing the nuance of later encounters with the indigenes. I found the POV scenes for Kira wholly unnecessary. The crew was stereotypical for arrogant scientists, and their gestures after landing told the story of tensions in the group.  In fact, Moon includes a well-written scene between Ofelia and the “enforcers” of the crew who are not included in the expedient exposition of Kira’s POV scenes.

For overall balance, though, if the Kira POV scenes were deleted, what justification remains for the occasional group-think scenes from the indigenes? Both or neither may have been the final (editor/publisher) decision.

Aspiring writers who struggle with the temptation to pause the first-person narration and present an alternative POV within the story can take a lesson from how Moon resolved that need in Remnant Population.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Twitter Friends vs Fans
by Stella Atrium

Before iTunes, Smashwords and 99¢ eBooks on Kindle, the rule of thumb for a performer who wanted to attract the attention of industry big wigs was to show that he had 1000 loyal fans. We are in the Wild West stage of selling books just now where anything goes and the lowest bidder wins the most traffic.  But traffic and fans aren't the same creature.

A fan tells friends about his favorite performer (like a review), plays the tunes at parties (like a book chat group), and wears a t-shirt with the band logo (like buying a paperback). A fan RETURNS for more products from the same performer and puts down her money at retail prices.

I don't understand free ebooks on Kindle or Smashwords.  The writer spends all her life writing this book at the sacrifice of so many other activities and time with loved ones. Why devalue the product?

I'm not convinced Twitter traffic translates to sales, either. I see writers promoting each other, or cross-promoting with reviewers and handlers.  The writer is like a candidate surrounded by members of the press and cannot reach past the loud-talking reporters to find a voter willing to shake hands.

Maybe the audience we are seeking aren't even among our followers on Twitter.

Years ago I fooled around in non-profit theater in Chicago where attendance was one-quarter house on a good night and theater groups lived for reviews in The Reader and grants from Thorten Foundation. The truth was that no matter how well produced the performance for acting, directing, or set direction — the audience for live theater was sparse, even at low ticket prices. A producer in this arena could not expect to see returns on her investment.

The plethora of giveaways on sites trying to build loyalty (for the site, not for the writer) is similar to non-profit theater in Chicago. Except for a couple break-out sites that facilitate the reading community like GoodReads and LibraryThing, the audience just isn't there.

How does the self-publisher gain those "1000 loyal fans" for convincing evidence that her writing rises above the pack and is worthy to become a book-of-the-month choice for reading clubs?

Reputation is everything. There are several levels of reputation, though. Listed are 10 types to avoid.

    1.    The Situation — Anyone can show his navel and get others to look.  Be sure there's integrity and a reason the fan should return.
    2.    Always free — If it's free, that means you couldn't get anybody to buy it. Have a little dignity.
    3.    Trading favors — My back doesn't needs scratching. Because you asked, I know you haven't found true fans yet.
    4.    Inflated claims — "If you liked Jurassic Park, you're gonna love my self-published book." I always turn away when the writer claims to be like some other writer.
    5.    Five-star fan reviews on Amazon — Really? Were they posted by your mother?
    6.    Twitter Blanket — the same note every two minutes announcing the launch of your book. Your followers already read the announcement. Nobody else sees it. Who are you talking to?
    7.    Begs for reviews or retweets — Be patient, a quality reviewer will find a quality book soon enough. Building brand loyalty only happens over time.
    8.    Writer blog tour — Sponsored by another writer in a chat room where only writers sign in.
    9.    Salacious claims to increase traffic — Fool me once and "unfollow" is my next gesture.
    10.    Purchasing followers — Get real!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Lovely Bones: a Study in Writerly POV
by Stella Atrium

Lovely_BonesThe Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold was published in 2002 and a Peter Jackson movie followed, so I’m not giving away secrets when I reveal that the narrator is a dead girl. This review includes specific plot details, though, so **spoiler alert**.

The story is about how family members work through grief, and a little about cosmic justice. If the reader recently lost a loved one, reading the novel may be heartrending.

Sebold managed multiple perspectives in each scene since the narrator spies from heaven and tells the story through the eyes of a suburban schoolgirl. The creative use of verb tense and simple sentence structure reinforces the deep but flat POV. Aspiring writers can take a lesson here about how to integrate “double voiced” sentences (see: Mikhail Bakhtin).

After she is murdered, Susie exists in “my own heaven” and frequently views family members, school chums, and the man who murdered her. For the first hundred pages, Sebold restricts the narration to the perspective of a 14-year-old girl who discovers secrets her parents hold dear and also how the world works. For example, she follows the rabbit that carries poison in the garden back to the burrow where the whole family dies.
BeattySusie can spy on individual members of the family and school friends. Later she seems to view the whole town during a specific event (the escape of her murderer) for what each person is doing at that moment.

There are several stories (made into movies) about a return from heaven.

Who can forget Warren Beatty in Heaven Can Wait? or A Pure Formality with Gérard Depardieu and Roman Polanski?

The Lovely Bones has a strong presence in this crowd, even though the Peter Jackson movie with Mark Wahlberg, Susan Sarandon, and Stanley Tucci did the novel no favors.
FormalityIn her own heaven, Susie can call into existence comforting objects and the company of favorite dogs. She is guided to a tree where her heaven overlaps with the personal heavens of other murder victims, and later as spirits they ride along with the bad guy during his downward spiral.  I’m glad the dénouement didn’t offer a cliché ending, but rather a drawing away – like a boat receding from shore – so heaven is not restricted in scope.

Discovery by other characters for needed plot points is managed deftly. Susie is a passive observer, for example, when her sister Lindsey deduces by the presence of a red scarf that her mother slept with the detective assigned to Susie’s case.

As the months and years pass, Susie’s perspective matures and the insights grow world-weary. While she follows siblings and school chums into adulthood, her connections with them allow her to travel to areas she never knew in life, and see what they were and were to become in the same paragraph. This development feels rather like she has the help of the ghosts of Christmas past and future simultaneously. And much later she flies with her dead grandfather while they chase birds skimming treetops in several states.

Some of the events are sugar-sweet, and the double loss (sister and absent mother) experienced by an inarticulate younger brother is underdeveloped. The reanimation of Susie for sex with the high school sweetheart is silly. I had sex with my high school sweetheart when we were adults and it was not transformative, as she describes.

When the story ends, we have the same number of characters as in the beginning. Nobody commits to an outsider. Even when the sister and her fiancé want to refurbish a strange old house, the owner turns out to be the father of a school chum. Maybe that’s how life works in the suburbs. That feature, however, keeps the story in its own little world, tight and self-abusive.

Aspiring writers who struggle with managing a narrator’s voice or multiple views for the same scene can learn much craft from Alice Sebold.



Thursday, January 3, 2013

Reading in 2013

by Stella Atrium 1/3/13

My resolution for 2013 centers on more structured reading, maybe with a group, and posting reviews where the group discusses results. Goodreads is a great place to start, but the smaller challenges are fun too. Here's two that I embrace in January: