Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Table Hopping--Yes; Head-Hopping--No!

Much of your waking day is spent preparing lecture notes or commenting on student papers, editing manuscripts for clients, reading such contemporary publications as The London Review of Books, The Times (of London) Literary  Section, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Guardian, Mother Jones, and The Paris Review. Your class-related reading takes you often as far back as the nineteenth century, and well into the present era, say Viet Nguyen's recent novel, The Sympathizer.

Your personal reading is every bit as eclectic as you are, ranging from the tightly plotted mysteries of Tana French and Robert Crais to the less structured and yet more idiosyncratic works of such writers as Rachel Cusk, Ali Smith, and J.M. Coetzee.

Your personal writing projects reflect your inner chaos: a contemporary mystery novel, an autobiographical coming-of-age novel, and a revision of a work on writing fiction. To a significant degree, this is the life you saw for yourself when, as a college fresh person, you invited the notion of life's work as a writer to come to dinner, then move in permanently.

The world about you, as you've come to know it, waxes and wanes tidal between the two extremes of purpose and chaos. You frequently find yourself somewhere in the middle, experiencing a tug in either direction, depending on immediate needs and circumstances. You aspire toward orderly progression, yet as you approach that state, the incoming tide of chaos deposits some significant surprise at your feet. Or in your mind.

Much of your life, even in its more disorderly aspects, is focused on the writing, teaching, and reading of drama. Chaos and opposition make appearances in drama, sometimes in the guise of characters, other times as complications caused by opposing sets of characters. Your taste for and appreciation of the works of other writers takes its clues from their ability to depict and deploy chaos and opposition as though they were similar to the chaos and oppositions you sense in everyday life.

These preceding paragraphs become prologue or backstory to your concept of life in the outer world finding its metaphor for you in the large gathering, where a meal is served, one or more speakers present speeches or observations, and the audience--including many individuals you know in varying degrees of intimacy--are seated in tables clustered about the speaker's podium.

Your favorite moments at such gatherings come after the main course has been served, pounced on, investigated for its potential, its disagreeable components shoved aside under some garnish. You've already has the opportunity to chat with those at your table; now you're free to table hop, taking coffee or tea with individuals you've spotted at other tables. More often than not, you enjoy this table-hopping aspect of the gathering more than the gathering itself, and invariably more than you enjoyed the meal. Table-hopping conveys to you the delights of catching up with acquaintances and being caught up on.

Your favored moments in reading come at the moment when the main course equivalent has been served, when Dorothy Gale, for instance, discovers she's been yanked from Kansas, plunked in the middle of Oz, and wishes to return home. Better still for your purpose, Wilkie Collins' novel, The Moonstone, in which the eponymous gem has once again been stolen and you, once again, are allowed to trace its adventurous trajectory.

Your least favorite moments, literary equivalents of the rubber chicken served at so many banquets, are those in which you are given the inside track to the thoughts--often suspicious or guarded--impressions, and feelings of a character you've been given reason to understand is the narrative filter for the entire story, only to have that impression dashed by one or more characters in the same scene sharing their thoughts, feelings, suspicions, and perhaps even grudges. 

This condition earns the name head-hopping; it is most definitely a deal breaker so far as chances for acquiring representation from a literary agent and being taken on by a publisher.
The conventions in serving meals call for serving from the left (of the patron) and clearing from the right. The conventions for presenting narrative call for presenting the inner workings of only one character per scene. You may chose any character you wish, but once you've done so, the only way out is to end the scene, then begin another.

Some emerging writers are this very day being taught a point of view referred to as omniscient, in which the reader has privy to the inner life of any and all characters who appear in the scene and, in some cases, even a few words of description or explanation from the author. We're far enough into the twenty-first century for this approach to be a deal breaker.

The notable exception to being able to head hop and/or use omniscient POV is to have a track record with one or more publishers in which one or more of your published works earned out its production and overhead costs and, in the bargain, brought the publisher a notable profit.

Your reason for the earlier mention of Wilkie Collins' excellent novel, The Moonstone,pivots on its engaging narrative, as filtered through an ensemble cast of characters, made visible to us one point of view per chapter. In more recent times, you've found the use of the multiple point of view as deployed by the suspense writer, Robert Crais, a satisfying diet. Crais not only gives you an intimate peak at the inner life of his good guys and miscreants, he adds to the tang by allowing his principal character, Elvis Cole, to tell his part of the story in the first-person filter.

The recently departed Irish writer, William Trevor, published dozens of novels and short stories using the omniscient, head-hopping approach. You've been a great fan of his work ever since you discovered it. His work continues to remind you how easy he makes head hopping seem and gives you to understand why so many emerging writers think to use it as their main narrative filtration system. But the closer you look, the more you're able to see that it isn't easy at all; Trevor had a grand ability to keep the story moving smoothly along what for most writers is an extremely bumpy road.

One character per scene. You want to know what someone else is thinking, you have your main character ask them. You can't tell us. The character does the work. You get to sit back, manage the traffic, keep your own POV quiet.

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