Writing Series: Don’t Copy Other Novelists’ Mistakes- Point of View

This is the first installment of a writing advice series that focuses on certain pitfalls of writing. In particular I’m looking at the all-too-common belief that up-and-coming writers would do well to replicate every aspect of the work of a successful author in order to gain at least one route to success.

In fact, our favorite authors make both major and minor mistakes and get away with them all the time. The major mistakes are never part of the reason for their success, however; the errors are forgiven because they are weighed against the triumphs and found negligible by comparison. The problems for new authors arise when they imagine that bestselling novels by say, John Grisham, are virtual success formulas that, by definition, cannot contain mistakes. Grisham ends more than one book with the awful cliché of the hero literally sailing off into the sunset. If you are to copy the idea of a cliché wrap-up, thinking that if Grisham did it, it must be good (or at least imagine you can get away with it because he did) then you have to be every bit as good as Grisham right up to that point. Chances are, you are not every bit as good as Grisham and you are not doing yourself any favors by allowing yourself to make a recognizable error. What is more likely to happen is that you will be weaker on what Grisham does best while at the same time adding your own pile of errors to his. It’s closer to a failure formula than it is to a secret of success.

So, the question becomes: How do you recognize which facets of a book were useful techniques and which were regrettable errors? To kick off this series, I’m going to illustrate the main argument by examining a particularly egregious Point of View (POV) inconsistency. POV is the narrative mode forming the perspective and detail in which a story is told. These modes are commonly termed first person, second person, third person, omniscient, and so one. Authors have a wide latitude in making these choices, something I define, further discuss, and examine in more detail in Today You Write the Book: The Keys to Starting Your Novel. For our purposes here, let’s just say that whichever POV mode you choose, the key to successful deployment is consistency. From consistency will come clarity. No reader wants clarity to be a struggle.

David Lagercrantz has taken up the task of continuing the beloved Millennium/ Girl with the Dragon Tattoo novels, of which there were three created and written by Stieg Larsson. I have tremendous respect for anyone willing to tackle the restoration of a series possessed of a high level of sophistication. Lagercrantz brings a superb ability to fill in character details, no doubt aided by his long experience writing biographies. His latest work in the succession is The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye. By book five of the series he’s got the characters and situations down, and he’s created the continuation of the storylines and mysteries. It’s not a flawless imitation, but it will make a lot of people happy. What he got wrong is his attempt to imitate Larsson in all respects, including his errors. That includes a failing I call “POV drift.”

When J. R. R. Tolkien created a POV inconsistency, famously shifting perspective at the end of a scene from one of the hobbits to that of a fox, some critics very reasonably referred to this as “a charming error.” Whenever Larsson made a POV switch three quarters of a way into a scene, and then a switch back, he committed a less-charming confusion error. Most writers continually evolve to filter out their POV inconsistencies, and most editors catch and correct them. Typically, later novels by the same author have fewer writing mistakes. In the course of Lagercrantz’ tribute, and his faithfulness to Larsson and his style, he actually ends up badly exaggerating Larsson’s errors, especially these notable, characteristic POV mistakes. Two variants of Larsson’s themes are the use of Evil Twins and Disadvantaged Twins. The Evil Twin in literature is often used to illustrate that the same set of powers can be used for good or ill, but that good is inherently better. Therefore, all things being equal, good must triumph over evil. (But it even works when the deck is stacked against good, as in Star Wars when we expect that Luke’s positive use of the Force will prevail over Vader’s more experienced employment of the Dark Side of the Force).

If a scene shows both of a pair of twins, the worst thing you can do is mix their POV’s. This is what Lagercrantz does repeatedly and sloppily until you can’t be sure that you’ve sorted them out. He does this throughout book five. While the novel is still enjoyable, and in fact has a marvelous ending (but for two aspects to be discussed here in future articles), not knowing what individual characters were thinking at various times in their encounters with each other was a disappointment. The only reason I pick the Millennium Series continuation as an example is that even the most stubborn fan of across-the-board imitation will notice the problem once it’s pointed out.


Will We Ever Live on Mars?

Image result for images of mars

Remember the time the Earth blew up and we all moved to Mars and forgot to tell the dumb people? This joke was a staple of childhood in Brooklyn in the 1960’s and early ‘70’s. The point is (other than, yes, kids can be cruel) that everyone understood the necessity of having a second place to settle humanity. Since it was the dawn of the Space Age, it also made sense that we could get in a rocket and break out of this gravity well. Today people have so many other worries that they sometimes wonder if a jump to Mars is even possible, let alone the establishment of a settlement there.

As space pioneer Werner Von Braun showed us, it was theoretically possible to reach Mars even in the 1950’s, and as the late, great Stephen Hawking often reminded us, we have to.

So why hasn’t it happened yet? The fundamental reason is that human beings are immature, preferring what amuses us and playing a cosmic game of chicken. There are good reasons for that condition, which will be the subject of another post. Here we will survey some of the technical/ economic reasons we have not sent humans to Mars so far.

I’ve been giving lectures on this subject for nearly the past 20 years, as part of my education work with NASA, and each year I provide an update on the viability of the prospect. Dramatic changes have taken place since the Apollo Program took us to the Moon, much of it in the latter part of this decade alone:

  1. We now have reusable rockets. Building irretrievable rockets for one-time use was one of our greatest expenses in developing platforms and infrastructure. Space X changed that.
  2. Long-term research and development. Although the NASA budget has not been high on a per year basis, the U.S. and other countries have collected a great deal of data both on the target planet and the hazards and effects of longer-term space travel. This information goes into safe and profitable planning. We can now travel better and select reasonable colony locations to maximize resources and minimize danger. Collecting this data in the immediate post-Apollo years would have been impossible.
  3. Better approaches. Since Von Braun’s time and his money-is-no-object approach, other visionaries have come up with ways to dramatically cut the costs and risks. For example, the idea of sending ahead unmanned factory ships to mine and process resources for life on Mars or return trips.

Together, these factors make it highly likely to see a Mars colony begin in the lifetime of anyone born after 1975. I wrote a novel called Mars Armor Forged covering many of the technical and political challenges that need to be surmounted to get to Mars. I predicted that the Cold War that propelled us to the Moon would begin again and unfortunately it has. In that instance, I chose 2038 as the year for the first Olympics on Mars, which is a little early if a colony is just beginning at that time. Why that unlikely date? I used what I call the Clarke Principle of Fiction: The reader will be more engaged if a story event is set in their lifetime.

This will be my topic at the Connetquot Public Library at 7 pm on Tuesday, May 22, 2018.

New Website

So here we are working on the new website with apologies to everyone who has been waiting so long. What I’ve found out about myself in the process is that I no longer like being involved in anything but writing or teaching. Anything in the category of “our menu items have changed recently” is revolting. Any updates that confound the user who knew how to use the technology a minute ago are not welcome. That’s equally true for using a phone or building a website. So we’re not driving anyone here, but anyone who happens by will see the work in progress. It’s better than the completely blank page we’ve had for months. Thanks!