The Bellboy

Late Saturday morning in July, after working a week in Bogota, I change hotels, a 30-minute cab ride from the modest but comfortable Embassy Suites to the tony Radisson. A quiet time of year – schools out of session, families taking vacations. A slow period in the lobby. No businessmen heading to the office, early for check-in and late for check-out. Late for breakfast and early for lunch. Unlike my typical evening check-in after a five-hour flight, tired and anxious to get to my room, now I feel like chatting with the desk clerk and the bell boy.

I ask the clerk if she worked last week when a friend of mine had stayed there; he would have been memorable. No, she was on holiday with her family in Santa Marta, a Caribbean resort city unfamiliar to me. Providing some detail, beach activity, indigenous culture, handicrafts, she tells me I should go there some time, a beautiful place with historic sights to see. We speak mostly in English, though she welcomes my occasional tentative Spanish.

Wearing braces on his teeth, not uncommon for young adults in Bogota, the twenty-something bellboy who greeted my cab with good English, stands slight but erect, his lapel badge displaying his name, Andres. When the clerk asks for my passport, I reach for my backpack. Andres lifts it, turns it gracefully toward me, and guesses which section to unzip, holding the pack effortlessly until the clerk returns my passport, quickly zipping up the pack and placing it back atop my suitcase.

Pointing out the dining room where I should take breakfast, then handing me my room key card, tucked inside a paper pouch with my room number on the outside, the clerk welcomes me again and wishes me a happy stay.

As we walk toward the elevator, I transfer to Andres’ outstretched hand the key card, saying, “How long have you worked here, Andres?”

“Only a month, sir.”

“And before that?”

He looks into my eyes, smiling. “I just finished university, majoring in Communications.”

Good luck getting a job.

“My aunt is the head script writer for a major TV station in Bogota. I hope to get on her staff.”

Lucky kid; good connections.

He holds the door as we leave the elevator and points to the right. I follow the signs toward room 608. He reaches the room ahead of me, balances my bag and backpack, slides the card through the door slot, and holds up a palm to slow me down. He must slip the card into a receptacle on the wall just inside the door to turn on the electricity. Then he ushers me in with a slight bow.

He puts down my luggage, turns on more lights, points out the bathroom and minibar, and adjusts the drapes. I hand him a tip when he finishes the ritual.

He thanks me and tells me to phone him should I need anything. I say OK as I remove the laptop from my backpack and put it on the desk.

When he reaches the door, he turns. “Also, I am training to be a bull fighter. I want to go to Spain to become the best in the world.”

I stop setting up my laptop and look at him with renewed interest.

“I have a friend who rode Brahmas while studying at Stanford,” I say. “You’re the first bull fighter I’ve met. In fact, I’ve never been to a bullfight. We have rodeos in Texas.”

He smiles. “Perhaps I will go to Houston and Dallas to have a close look at the bulls.”

“You may prefer the smaller rodeos, like Mesquite. Easier to get up close to the animals.”

“I shall remember your advice,” He nods and backs out the door. “Again, dial 205 if you should need anything.”

Unpacking my bag, I imagine Andres striding into the ring, hat under one arm, cape over the other, scanning the adoring crowd. The braces are gone, but the eyes and smile are the same. He looks terrific in his tight-fitting uniform.

I hope to see him again, in the bull ring or on TV, or toting my bags in some Bogota hotel.

Shark’s tooth on the beach, arrowhead in the cornfield, nugget in the stream, unexpected treasures everywhere.

 

Crossing gender, race, and age gap

Have you read a story written by a male whose protagonist is female?
In George Pellicanos’s story, “The Confidential Informant,” from The Martini Shot, the protagonist is a 20-something black man. And another young black man appears in another story, “String Music.” Pelicanos is a middle aged white guy. Ho good are the portrayals? I asked my grandson to read the stories because he spends hours each day in basketbal games with mostly African-americans.

Not unlike a male author creating a female protagonist or vice versa or a young author writing from the POV of a much older character, this black-on-white treatment can be challenging.

Of course, this is nothing new. Many early women writers used men’s pen names and wrote from a male viewpoint. And we have Danish writer Karen Blixen who published her memoir Out of Africa and other English-speaking books under the name Isak Dinesen.

Which are most succesful? Are there some duds? Is one of these three crossovers harder than others?
Here is one of many blurbs on subject

http://www.intergalacticmedicineshow.com/cgi-bin/mag.cgi?do=columns&vol=mette ivie harrison&article=044

Another interesting facet

There’s a gender gap in prize-winning literature—not between the authors, but the characters

and another

https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/03/the-mixed-results-of-male-authors-writing-female-characters/273641/

 

Fantasy

I dreamed she curtsied once and smiled
Then took me by the hand
And led me through her meadow green
Midst bees and blossoms grand

See yonder, ‘neath the canopy
Where hawks and owls do reign
Where doe and fox and lizards roam
In happy dearth of man

That’s where we’ll take our lunch today
That’s where we’ll sing our song
Until the evening shades bespeak
It’s time we must go home

I’ll whisper words, you hum the tune
Together we’ll create
A blend of thought and harmony
That will our friends elate

 

Camping in Oman Desert

petrified-tree

 

We planned it well. Rather Mike did. He’s a detail man. My sole responsibility was to accept his invitation to spend the weekend in the Oman desert.

I had a two-week gig in Muscat, where Mike had worked ten years for the petroleum company owned by the Sultanate. On a previous visit, I enjoyed a memorable evening with his family—wife Bette and four kids—dinner, conversation, and perusing the book Mike wrote covering the year-long, around-the-world trip he and Bette took before they had children. They drove an old Datsun and repaired forty-two flat tires.

On Wednesday, the end of the Omani workweek at the time, Mike picked me up from the office where I taught a class and drove me to his house for dinner. The kids were interesting and pleasant as before, two in high school, two in junior high, all active in sports and school activities. During dinner they joked that I was doing them a favor going with their dad because they were tired of the desert overnights. I didn’t know what to make of it. I thought they were trying to make me feel good.

After we cleaned the dishes, Mike lugged equipment from a storage room out to his car. Well, not a car, but a Toyota Sequoia, with large tires and plenty of interior space, which we filled with cots, sleeping bags, a charcoal grill, a telescope, and water jugs. We packed two ice chests with food.
We said goodbye and took off at 7:15 pm. Within thirty minutes we were outside the city on a two lane road with minimal traffic. An hour later we stopped for fuel. It would have to last the entire trip. He let some air out of his tires to give better traction in the desert sand. Continue reading “Camping in Oman Desert”

Murphy was my great uncle

It began with the garage door opener garage-door-openerand the lawn sprinkler.water-sprinkler-system Our double garage has a door for each car. The right-hand side opener worked fine except the courtesy light failed to come on, a common problem if one can believe the results of Google searches. To check whether the bulb has burned out requires loosening two screws, swinging down a plastic shield and testing the bulb in another socket.

The bulb was fine.

According to internet experts, the next procedure is an order of magnitude more challenging: remove the motherboard (circuitry panel) and replace a condenser held in by solder. After watching two YouTube DIY videos, I deposited the problem in my crowded later basket. Continue reading “Murphy was my great uncle”

A day to remember, the 10th of December

December 10th
Anything in common?  I’m stretching the analogy a bit because the light bulb was invented just about the time Emily died, but she was a keen observer of light as you can see from the beginning stanzas of these poems.
There is a certain slant of light
On winter afternoons
That oppresses like the weight
Of cathedral tunes
 
It’s like the light,-
A fashionless delight
It’s like the bee,-
A dateless melody.
 
The day came slow, till five o’clock,
Then sprang before the hills
Like hindered rubies or the light
A sudden musket spills.
   
And one of my favorites
 
I’ll tell you how the sun rose,-
A ribbon at a time.
The steeples bathed in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.

A Look at Point of View in Fiction

Pick up any book on writing fiction. You’ll find a section on point of view (POV). Open any novel and read the first paragraph or two. Look for the pronouns. Ignoring dialog, if you find “I”, the story is told in first person and the author lets the reader see things and feel emotions through the narrator’s eyes. Otherwise, a character, usually the main character, at first referred to by name but subsequently by “he” or “she” provides the point of view. The reader sees and feels what that character sees and feels. Some fiction relies on an omniscient POV, where the reader sees and hears things that no character can sense. In other cases the POV changes from one character to another.

Some writers treat POV with kid gloves, others are more casual about it. Every critique group has its POV maven.

How important is POV when you write a story? Are there rules to never break? What are the types of POV? What do the experts say and do? Can ignorance of POV destroy your story? To what degree does POV limit the narrative? Are there genres that must be written in one particular POV? These are some of the questions to guide us as we explore.

Out of personal preference and because of the breadth of this subject most examples are drawn from short fiction.

First person POV

Here are two well-known examples from novels written in first-person POV.

“When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”

The speaker Scout is the narrator in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

In Great Gatsby, Nick Caraway speaks the opening lines.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.

Similarly in short stories we have

“Mr. Leopold Gantvoort is not at home,” the servant who opened the door said, “but his son, Mr. Charles, is—if you wish to see him.”

“No, I had an appointment with Mr. Leopold Gantvoort. I’ll wait.”

This is how Dashiell Hammett opens “The Tenth Clew.” The speaker is eventually identified as the Continental (detective agency) Op.

Kristiana Kahakauwila begins her story “Wanle” with this unusual sentence.

The Indian said “Poi Dog” the way other men say Princess or Babydoll. I called him the Indian. I didn’t mean it bad or good. I just called things what they were, as my father had before me.

Third person POV

Here are two examples of stories seen through the mind of a character referred to in the third person.

Mary Robison opens her story “Coach” with

The August two-a-day practice sessions were just sixty-seven days away, Coach calculated.

Margaret Atwood catches our attention in her story “Stone Mattress” this way.

At the outset, Verna had not intended to kill anyone. What she had in mind was a vacation, pure and simple.

In these two stories, the POV is established immediately. We are in a character’s mind and the character is not a narrator.

The list of Points of View

But, are these the only POVs: first and third person? Of course not. Life is not that simple. Why bother writing about something having no mystery, no complexity? Experts generally posit five or six points of view. Here’s how two of my favorite writers-on-writing see the breakdown.

The Art of FictionJohn Gardner (The Art of Fiction, 1983)

  1. First person,
  2. Third-person-limited or subjective
  3. Third-person objective “the ice-cold, camera’s eye recording”.
  4. Third-person-omniscient (two or three characters plus objective observations)
  5. Authorial-omniscient (used by “the noblest writers, like Isak Dinesen and Leo Tolstoy) speaks as if god…sees into all his characters’ hearts and minds, presents all positions with justice and detachment, and occasionally dips into third person subjective. Usually he judges events, touching on morality only by implication
  6. Essayist-narrator (Gardner cites Jane Austen, Poe, Faulkner)

 

Ursula Le Guin (Steering the Craft, 1998) uses essentially the same breakdown.

  1. First person
  2. Limited third person
  3. Detached author “fly on the wall”, “camera eye” objective narrator
  4. Observer narrator,
    • using first person
    • using third person
  5. Involved author-Omniscient author

So, third person is broken down into three categories,

  • Being in a single character’s mind, seeing and feeling things (close third)
  • Fly-on-the-wall
  • Occupying the minds several character and seeing things not perceived by any character.

“Coach” and Stone Mattress typify the close third person – you’ll have to trust me or read the entire stories, which are worth the effort. The fly-on-the-wall is illustrated by Raymond Carver’s “Neighbors” or Hemmingway’s “The Killers.” Here are fragments from page 1 of the latter.

The door of Henry’s lunch-room opened and two men came in. They sat down at the counter.

“What’s yours,” Henry asked them.

“I don’t know,” one of the men said. “What do you want to eat, Al?”

Outside it was getting dark. The street-lights came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu.

From the other end of the counter, Nick Adams watched them. He had been talking to George when they came in.

Another famous Hemmingway story “Hills like White Elephants” also uses the fly on the wall POV. Aside from the opening paragraph that describes the outdoor setting and another paragraph at the end when one character carries suitcases and stops at the bar for a drink, the story is more than ninety percent dialog, mostly without tags.

Jane Austen provides excellent examples of Gardner’s essayist-narrator, a subset of omniscient author. In her novel Sense and Sensibility the first four dialog-free pages detail the background of the Dashwood family, recently thrown into turmoil by the death of the patriarch and the inheritance of the family estate by his only son John, thus displacing the widow and her three daughters from their home. Austen makes no pretense to hide her opinions. “[John] was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed..” and later, “Mrs. John Dashwood had never been a favorite with any of her husband’s family; but she had no opportunity, till the present, of shewing them with how little attention to the comfort of other people she could act when occasion required it.”

Alice Munro crafted her story, “Train,” using omniscient POV. It begins

This is a slow train anyway, and it has slowed some more for the curve. Jackson is the only passenger left…Already he has taken his ticket stub out of its overhead notch. He heaves his bag, and sees it land just nicely. No choice now – and the train’s not going to get any slower.

Soon, Jackson shows up at Belle’s farmhouse where she wants to milk her Jersey-cow, Margaret Rose, who is slow to come to the stable.

But this morning she [the cow] was too interested in something down by the dip of the pasture field, or in the trees…She heard Belle’s whistle and then her call, and started out reluctantly. But then decided to go back for another look.

 

Do we enter the cow’s mind in the preceding passage? One can argue that the things attributed to the cow are really intuited by Belle. But animals have been used for POV elsewhere, e.g., the gut-shot lion in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”

Le Guin again, p. 87:

All myths and legends and folktales, all young children’s stories, almost all fiction until about 1915, and a vast amount of fiction since then, use [involved author].

Can there be a second-person POV?

While few writing authorities mention second-person POV, it has its champions. Listen to Oakley Hall, in How Fiction Works (2001), on p. 101.

Second-person point of view has a tour de force quality, as in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City or Fay Weldon’s Letters to Alice on first Reading Jane Austen.

But in his next breath, after citing a passage from Bright Lights, Big City, Hall undermines his claim.

The point of view in here is actually first person, with the narrator speaking accusingly to himself as you.

Consider this passage (a bit shorter than the one cited by Hall).

Eventually you ascend the stairs to the street. You think of Plato’s pilgrims climbing out of the cave, from the shadow world of appearances toward things as they really are, and you wonder if it is possible to change in this life.

— Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City

This example, like many I’ve seen, reads perfectly well—better in my opinion—replacing each “you” with “I” or “one.”

Second person narration is not necessarily an additional POV. Whose head are we in? The reader? I don’t think so. I think the reader is in the narrator’s head.

I have a hard time contemplating second-person POV. Certainly, it is easy to write in second person narration. Junot Diaz writes some of his stories in second person. His “Alma” is consistently second person narrative. But “Flaca” is told in first person POV with much of the dialog directed at “you.”

Lorrie Moore wrote several stories in second person narration, including “The Kid’s Guide to Divorce,” “How,” “How to become a Writer,” and “How to be Another Woman.” Some of them read like cookbook recipes.

Carlos Fuentes wrote his short novel Aura totally in second person narrative, “the voice poets always use,” he called it when interviewed by the Paris Review. If you want to judge for yourself whether second person POV is possible, buy the bilingual edition of Aura, 160 pages —80 if you plan to read only one language—and check it out. My view: if second person POV exists, this represents it. But it feels like being in the author’s head, first person POV.

 

The first four sentences of this essay are in second person with the implied “you.”

In his story, “Black Ass at the Crossroads,” Hemmingway’s first-person narrator says,

“You should not attack an armored vehicle while it was moving, but if he braked, I could hit him with the big-headed German bazooka.”

Clearly, the “you should” represents “one should” as is often the case in second person narrative.

Whether second person POV is possible is moot. It is used so seldom, we can ignore it.

 

Reliable vs unreliable narration

A word of caution. Narrators can be reliable or unreliable. Thus, POV characters can tell us truth or falsehood, and falsehood can arise from imperfect memory as well as from dishonesty. Common wisdom holds the first person narrator to be more reliable.

Listen to this observation by Huck Finn, p. 186 of my edition.

“I says to myself, I reckon a body that ups an tells the truth when he’s in a tight place is taking considerable many risks, though I ain’t had no experience.”

Le Guin has this to say on p. 84.

Most first- and third-person narrators in serious fiction used to be trustworthy, just like memoirists. But “unreliable narrators” are now fairly common in fiction, narrators who—deliberately or innocently—misrepresent the facts. [they] are almost always telling us something about themselves. The author lets us see what “really” happened, and using this as a touchstone, we readers are led to understand how other people see the world and why they (and we) see it that way.” She cites Huck Finn who “never sees that Jim is the only adult in his world who treats him with love and honor; he never really understands that he loves and honors Jim, [which] tells us an appalling truth about the world he and Jim live in.”

Why should we care about POV?

Gardner makes this bold statement (p. 155).

(1)The choice of POV will largely determine all other choices with regard to style – vulgar, colloquial, or formal diction, length and characteristic speed of sentences, and so on. (2) In contemporary writing, one may do anything one pleases with regard to POV, as long as it works. (3) It is often said, mainly by non-writers, that the first person POV is the most natural. This is doubtful. Third person POV is more common in both folk and sophisticated narrative. No fairy tales are written in first person, also no jokes….but first person does not force the writer to recognize that written speech has to make up for the loss of facial expression, gesture, and the like, and the usual result is not good writing, but only writing less noticeably bad.”

Changing POV

Le Guin, p.90, warns us about switching viewpoints.

Any shift from one of the five POVs to another is a dangerous one. It’s a major shift to go from first to third person, or from involved author to observer-narrator. The shift will affect the whole tone and structure of your narrative. Shifts within limited third person-from one character’s mind to another- call for equal awareness and care. A writer must be aware of, have a reason for, and be in control of all shifts of viewpoint character.”

It is a near-unanimous opinion among writers that except for author-omniscient POV, where it’s acceptable, even expected, changing POV requires skill and purpose. Novices change viewpoints unintentionally. Craftsmen who go there recognize the limitations. Switching narrators is more challenging in short stories. One common strategy in novels is to change narrators with a new chapter.

That said, many authors switch viewpoint characters within a story or a chapter or even a scene. F. Scott Fitzgerald switches from his protagonist Charlie to antagonist sister-in-law Marion and back twice in one scene, in “Babylon Revisited” (first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1931).

According to the doctoral dissertation, “The Significance of Point of View in Katherine Ann Porter’s, Ship of Fools, Robert Hickman Adams, June 1965, University of Southern California, “manipulation of point of view was a standard technique in [Porter’s] stories”

Yet, Adams points out that Porter was preceded by To the Lighthouse published in 1927 by Virginia Woolf, (35 years before Ship of Fools) which contains passages from alternating restricted perspectives.

I remember being jarred reading a Michael Connelly’s The Narrows in which he alternated POV between first person (Bosch) and third person (Walling).  I was not alone in that feeling, though some readers thought Connelly pulled it off masterfully.

Preference among writers for POV

Of the thirty stories in Mary Robison’s Tell Me collection, one is written in fly-on-the-wall and one in omniscient narrator. The remainder are equally divided between first person and third person limited.

Of the forty stories in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories (2015, Lorrie Moore, ed.) only four stories feature changing POV and another five represent omniscient POV. The remaining work are half first person and half third person POV. Earlier work was predominantly third person.

Of the seventeen stories in T. Coraghessan Boyle’s 1979 dark-humor collection, Descent of Man (remember titles may not be copyrighted) eight are written in first person, five in omniscient, and four in third person limited.

Summary

Successful story writers are divided between first and third person, with a small percentage using omniscient, fly on the wall, or shifting POV.

Novels frequently employ omniscient or shifting third person POV.

Shifting POV has been around for a century, but requires skill and care.

Essayist narrator POV is no longer in fashion.

Second person narration is uncommon, whether or not it can represent a POV.

For Tyler James Murtha on his sixteenth birthday

My son has a son he named Ty
That boy is the peach of our eye
As a babe in his high chair
He resembled a Little Bear
So that name ever stuck to the guy

It’s hard to believe he’s sixteen
Seems just yesterday he was a tween
Where life will lead him
What passion will seize him
As of now are not likely foreseen

Ty’s a picture of calm, grace, and poise
And seldom he generates noise
His good looks do no harm
And that smile conveys charm
You might think him just one of the boys

But Tyler will forge his own plan
Making judgments as only he can
So strong and so fleet,
He’s quite an athlete
But mind and heart will reveal the man

The rare opportunity, Ty, you must tame
Fools and suckers overestimate fame
When you fail, be no sap
Each wrong turn mends your map
And never forget whence you came

James A. Murtha, 14 June 2016

How many characters should inhabit your novel?

How many characters should your story have?

In a 2015 workshop sponsored by Houston Writers House, local literary luminary Ann Weisgarber warned to not have more than five characters appear in the first three pages of a story (short story, memoir, or novel). We did not take up the related question, what’s the maximum number a novel can support and how much does it depend on the number of words or pages?

That workshop came to mind recently while reading Julian Symons, A Criminal Comedy. I’d been working my way through the winners of the Edgar Award for best crime fiction novel and Symons was on the list, not for this novel, but for his The Progress of a Crime, which I enjoyed reading a few months back. I stumbled upon A Criminal Comedy and decided to give it a try. Continue reading “How many characters should inhabit your novel?”