Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Limited Knowledge

In the words of the delicious Helen Merrill, 'Hush now, don't explain.'
My son goes to sleep to Helen Merrill.

Well, I've certainly encountered my fair share of problems in revisiting the first ms I wrote. Heavens, I was such a dillbrain back then (and yes, I'm sure I'll say the same thing about the now-me in another couple of years - well, tomorrow probably).

What I did have back then was enthusiasm and that carefree sense of fun that comes with being naive, er, jejune.
I still have that enthusiasm, for sure, in buckets, but I now write under the wry and watchful eyes of hundreds of techniques, all sitting on my shoulder like tiny professors, tutting and shaking their heads from time to time, or drawing a noisy breath of disapproval. B*stards.
I don't know if you're artistic: when I am, say, charcoaling a life model, there is this overpowering feeling that the image is defying me from the outset, willing me to fail. It's a full on battle, sometimes of profound proportions. Hmmm ... I'm close to a tangent here.

Anyhoo, I can feel things coming full-circle again. It's very strange.
I was right worried that I wouldn't be able to make my new style and old style meet, and for a while they were like chalk and ear wax, but after a lot of honing and a lot of immersion and a fresh understanding of Penpa and her world, I'm starting to hear wedding bells. (Erm, a marriage between old and new.)

One problem that I never resolved, moreover I side-stepped it, was this:
Penpa lives with Blinky at the top of the world and she knows nothing of the world outside other than what she reads in these mysterious journals that she found.

I initially wrote the majority of the ms in third-person omniscient. In that way, I could comfortably refer to things beyond Penpa's extremely limited knowledge. But, as I'm sure you've guessed, this did nothing to forge the reader-protag bond.
So my new opening is primarily written in third-person limited. Which means that Penpa's knowledge is my knowledge: a 'cannon' becomes a fire-belching beast, and a 'cannonball' becomes a star blazing through the sky, whistling without tune, etc. And imagine the problems with measurements (I use spans which I imagine as being some Penpa-made unit, probably the length of her forearm or somesuch) and time (I use sunrise, sunfall, moonrise, moonfall, and seasons, although the idea of discerning seasons from the top of the world still troubles me).
Then, in my old opening, I felt obliged to kill the pace and explain to the reader how Penpa found these journals in the first place, and her thoughts about how she came into the world and the like. Opening pace = zero.
Now, with Penpa watching the nomads from afar, I'm happy to limit this information to the absolute minimum: All that Penpa knows about the outside world has been gleaned from journals that she discovered => the journals explain that, if one were to gaze into the eyes of a nomad, one's soul would be sucked out.
Stick to the crucial point: set-up the anticipation. The rest can wait, and the reader is happy to wait (indeed, the reader is expectant) provided that something else is going on.

I'm about happy with my new opening, and am almost ready to go into chapter two (the original chapter one). I have already identified the point where I can allow the pace to slow; at this point, I shall answer a few more questions such as where and how Penpa came upon these journals.
We've been discussing pace a lot of late. I'm learning to recognize those moments where pace can drop, and those moments where it absolutely must not drop. I'm learning to drip-feed information as and when it is necessary. And I'm learning to stagger this drip-feeding such that there are always questions in the reader's head.
I remember an interview with Jo Rowling in which she confessed that her first editor told her to keep some stuff back (hence the seven novels I guess).

I'm reading the second of Pullman's His Dark Materials novels at the moment (The Subtle Knife). The pacing, the drip-feeding of information, is exemplary. There are always unanswered questions and there are lulls when Lyra and Will discuss things, and then triggers that launch the narrative into a heady pace. Such pacings are not necessarily action-packed: often they are dialogue-delivered packets of information, well-timed reveals or reversals that fuel the momentum.
Remember my little ramble about anticipation - that sword-swallower who, in spite of his dullness, kept me hanging on? If we're clever like Mr. Pullman, we can ensure that even those requisite lulls are framed with suspense.


R1X said...

Yes, yes, yes! I'm mulling over my next book idea now. I wrote an opening 3 pages, and very unlike me, I've stopped to consider what I've told/shown the reader - too much! Too much! What is there for them to learn later? How should/would my protag know this? Should I go with a different character to view this happening? How much would they know.

And more importantly, my protag has lost his girl in very tragic circumstances. This is v. important to his nature but something that shouldn't be brought up until at least the midpoint, so how do you skirt around it, showing the character as heart broken/guilty, if you want to hold off the crux of the info?

esruel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
esruel said...

I'll be bold here, Rich, and say that the reader needs to know this information as soon as possible. The midpoint should reveal something else, if a reveal is what you are after. Her death should not be a mystery, and neither should your protag's feelings. Unless your story is all about her death, of which the protag has no knowledge. The reveal probably would be about the circumstances. Perhaps engaging your reader and protag via this vital and emotional information at the earliest opportunity is what Kurt Vonnegut was on about. (More rules! lol)
The reader doesn't need to know this information after the protag - thus heightening the anticipation, perhaps?
Hope that helps.

solv said...

You could always suggest with a few shows Ricardo.
How does your protag feel?
How can you show this?
Perhaps a scene where your protag is shopping and some little girl is asking for sweets and her dad smacks her and protag pushes the man over.
Or the bedroom/shrine: the door that is locked and no-one is allowed in.
Or maybe the protag carries some memento around with him: something not too revealing like a hairgrip or a shell.

You need to ask yourself how much you want to reveal, and when you want to drip-feed these nuggets of information, and then find ways of working shows into the narrative at the right time.