Visualizing Molly and Rosemary

Dave Simmer of the ever-cool Blogography wrote me a nice e-mail in response to my opening to Mount Royal posted here, and I thought I would share it with you.

Wonderful! It would take me weeks to write something like that!

Actually, it took me weeks to write what you saw here. My mother and I first brainstormed the idea of Mount Royal this past spring. I had about 4000 words written back in July, before losing everything due to a copying accident on my borrowed Powerbook. I had to recompose this scene and about the three others which followed in spats between last September and now.

It’s important to note that Mount Royal has been on the backburner, and so hasn’t received my full attention. If I were to concentrate on the story, it would go faster, but the length of time it takes for one to write has no bearing on the quality of one’s writing. I completed a submittable draft of Rosemary and Time in four months, but I was rushing to get the thing in ahead of the deadline for the Delacorte Press Contest (deadlines are excellent motivators). It then took four years of fairly hefty revisions and resubmissions before I found a publisher willing to take a chance on me.

The key to successful writing is as much dedication and luck as it is about talent. So you shouldn’t get discouraged if it takes you a lot of time to write something. That you’ve written anything at all gets you half way there.

I do have two questions…

What does Molly look like? I was connecting with the character just fine, but had a problem envisioning her because there were no details. Even a quick line about hair color or height or perhaps some reference to her passport photo… just something, anything, that would help me picture the character in my mind as she starts her adventure. It seems odd that I was able to get an idea about every character except the main character!

Ah, good question!

When you tell a story, you have a number of choices for delivery. You can tell a story in the first person (I saw this; I did that) or third (Rosemary saw this; Peter did that). If you choose the third, then you have a choice between an omniscient narrator (wherein the writer acts as an all-knowing god, getting into everybody’s heads) or various point-of-view characters. Actually, that’s an oversimplification. Second person stories exist (you do this; you see that) and there are a host of other tricks out there for authors to indulge in, but first, third omniscient, and third POV are the most common.

As an author, I tend to stick with third person, point-of-view characters to tell my stories — which is to say, I enter the characters’ minds, and I tend to try and stay there. It’s a personal stylistic choice I make because I believe it makes the storytelling feel more personal (without having to go for the gimmick of a first-person narrator); you as the reader are experiencing the tale as the characters experience it.

The problem with this approach is that, if you tell your story through the eyes of one character, you can see the world through their eyes, but you can’t see that character. Unless that character examine herself in front of a mirror. And you do see a number of stories wherein the heroes start out in front of the mirror poking and prodding their assorted features. That’s something to be avoided. If you’re standing in front of a mirror, you’re not actually doing anything. The plot isn’t moving forward, and most readers are savvy enough to notice that you’re using a cheap trick in order to shoehorn your image of your hero into their head. It builds up resistence.

The other extreme is to not describe the point of view character at all, allowing the reader to build an image of the character when the point of view shifts to a different character (Diana Wynne Jones’ The Merlin Conspiracy is a good example of this), or when the point-of-view character gets a chance to comment on an aspect of their appearance as part of the plot. In The Unwritten Girl, Rosemary doesn’t get an opportunity to examine her appearance in detail. We do learn over the course of events that she considers herself to be short for her age. We know she has glasses because she pushes them up on her nose in a nervous reaction. There may even be a reference to hair-colour somewhere.

But it’s interesting how one’s picture of Rosemary grows not by what she looks like, but by what she does. We all have our pictures of people that are influenced by our perceptions of their behaviour, and vice versa. A punk rocker probably isn’t going to be clean-cut and wearing a pinstripe suit. A slightly geeky young teenager probably isn’t going to be built like a model. You don’t need to go into greaet detail before a reader gets a picture in their mind, and there is something to be said about leaving the hero’s description vague, and letting the readers fill in the blanks.

The risk, of course, if you don’t set the ground rules early on, you’ll come up with a description later in the story that runs counter to reader expectations, which can shatter their suspension of disbelief and pull them out of the story. Molly doesn’t have any of these opportunities to comment on her appearance, yet. but I’m sure I’ll add a few in as I go through the story during its many revisions.

Anyway, that’s the theory. Your mileage may vary. In the end, the technique to use is the one that works, and that’s something sometimes only discovered after several serious edits.

What are “sound lines”??

That would be from the line: “A moment later, Molly revised the drawing, blurring the arms and legs and drawing in a great gaping hole with sound lines in place of the baby’s mouth.”

Those are a series of straight lines radiating out from a person’s mouth to indicate a shout. :-)

(Update 7:30 a.m.): I’m about to head off to be a poll clerk, but before I go I’d like to remind you all that the second phase of the Bow. James Bow election pool remains open until the polls close, so don’t forget to make your predictions here.

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