The One on Perspective

HELLO FRIENDS. It's been a while, eh? June was outta control busy for me, but things have since calmed down to a nice, even flow of work-work and book-work. I'm still trying to finish up Sequel, so if I disappear again, you'll know why... I had a total blast at ALA Annual this year! Thank you so much to everyone who stopped by our signing and the librarian presentation. I loved hanging with Rachel, Dan, and Tamara again, too!

I'm so exhausted in this picture, y'all have no idea. ALA is incredible in that there's just SO MUCH to do and see and attend--it was a rare night that I made it back to my room before 11 PM, and then it was up the next morning at 7 to start it all over again. The only day that really killed me was Sunday, when I woke up around 5 for the Coretta Scott King breakfast and didn't head back to my room until around 12 AM after the Newbery Caldecott Banquet. But, bonus!!! I got to see Sarah who was there attending with Bloomsbury.

Anyway, anyway, like I mentioned before, I'm still not quite done with Sequel yet. It had been my goal to finish it in May, but then April happened and... well... I'm not beating myself up over it. I am a little frustrated. though, that I can't seem to ever write a first draft that's under 150,000--and I always feel like SUCH a jerk when I send it to my critique partners being like, "ummm can you read this in under a week?" Ah, well.  Hello, my name is Alex and I am an over-plotter.

One of the areas that I've been hyper-focused on while writing Sequel has been perspective. Point of View, if you will. For one hot, crazy second I thought about abandoning Ruby's POV and switching to another one of the main character's, but it just didn't make sense to me story-wise. It really is Ruby's story to tell--her growth, her struggles, her friends and family. But Ruby's story is not without some complications.

I took two writing courses in college, both of which were focused more on non-fiction writing, and both of which have been extremely helpful in learning to write fiction.  We talked a lot about point of view and perspective in those classes--why you would choose to change tenses, how to convey a sense of urgency in voice, and why a writer might pick third person vs. first person vs. second person when they sit down to pound the story out.

My natural inclination is to write first person; I like the immediacy and intimacy of it, the direct connection you have with the reader from the first line. My professor put it another, far more interesting way: you should choose the first person POV when your main character has  secrets to reveal. It makes sense, too, because in framing a story this way, your character is often confiding things to a reader they won't admit aloud to anyone else in the story, out of fear, out of shame, out of a fierce need for privacy, etc. A narrow point of view limits what the reader can know at any given time to what the main character knows, making it easier (for me) to add unexpected twists and mysteries to plots.

This is going to be a little messy since, apparently, I've never tried to really describe my "process" for POV/perspective.  Honestly, it's not even a process so much as a series of questions I ask myself as I'm working.  I'm going to put the rest of this entry under a cut, as I talk about the way I approached POV in The Darkest Minds.  There are some light spoilers and a few brief passages...

I did, indeed, choose to tell the story in first person because I knew Ruby had a big secret on her hands (the true nature of her powers) and the internal and external conflict she'd face with that secret felt nice and juicy.  From the very beginning, though, I knew that Ruby's voice was going to be a challenge.  While I was writing, I constantly battled with the following: what Ruby could know about the world around her, what she'd want to know about the world around her, AND how she'd have the information she didn't know relayed to her in a realistic fashion.

On a very basic level, she's someone who, while naturally intelligent and curious, didn't get to finish out the fourth grade before she was taken to a rehabilitation camp.  In earlier drafts of the manuscript, these camps did have a very light educational program.  The kids would be given workbooks they could use if they wanted to, but there were no required lessons to attend or anything like that.  The camps became bleaker with each draft, until I finally realized that the people in control of it wouldn't want any real mental stimulation for them at all.  Needless to say, Ruby's formal education is EXTREMELY limited, and her emotions ARE stunted--if she feels young to you while you're reading, this is why.  (That, and you do get flashbacks to 10 year-old Ruby.)  You can (hopefully) see this present both on a macro and micro level.  She feels uncomfortable around Chubs and Liam at first because she's been so restricted in interacting with boys, she's developed coping mechanisms for the camp but not for real life, and she really struggles with the idea of "making friends." Likewise, for the rest of my life, I will underestimate how important word choice is in conveying character.  It was somewhat of a painstaking process to look closely at what words Ruby would and wouldn't know, and even how she'd phrase something.

On a bigger level, she doesn't know all that much about how the government works, nor does she really get the financial reality of the country until she's staring the devastation square in the face.  She doesn't know how to drive a car, she doesn't know how to read a map--most of what she DOES know is the direct result of growing up with the parents she did.  Her dad loved classic rock and cars, so Ruby can still identify bands and car types.  She has a good grasp on the geography of Virginia because her parents would take her camping.  She occasionally has weird sayings she picked up from her grandmother.  And so and on so forth.

Ruby's world is very small at the start of TDM.  Very small.  Her days literally consist of the same rotation of  Cabin --> Work in the Garden --> Mess Hall --> Work in the Factory/Cleaning --> Mess Hall  --> Cabin, with the same girls over and over again.  It is intentionally soul-killing.  While she's lived in the camp system for six years, she would never, ever claim to be an expert on how they work, because she's aware of how very little she actually sees of the machinations that run it.  Her base of knowledge of how the camp controllers and PSF system works is gleaned from glimpses and rumors other kids spread.

It's helpful (to me, at least) to have a character who is "new" to the world; one who learns about it at the same time the reader does.  (It's one of the reason "Alice in Wonderland"/portal stories are so prevalent, I think.  It's just an easy way to communicate information to the reader.) The America in TDM isn't totally unrecognizable, but it's very changed (also, surprise!, a challenge to convey).  And, for the most part, it's still very small to Ruby.  You'll see that the story takes place in one tiny section of the country--that's because the story is designed to expand over three books.  Sequel has been kicking my butt left and right because it has more of a national focus.  Third will have an international focus.  There's a finite number of pages to include worldbuilding in any book. Believe me when I tell you this is not an excuse, but one of the hardest aspects of worldbuilding is choosing what information to reveal and what information to cut or sit on for later books.

When I make a decision to include something, I try to look at it through the main character's perspective.  Is this something they would naturally stumble upon?  Is it an answer to a question they would think to ask, or one they'd even be interested in knowing?  Likewise, you have to ask yourself: is this something crucial to moving the story forward? Ruby's primary focus in TDM is survival.  In that sense, she needed a broad look at what the political and economical reality of the world was, she needed to know about what transportation might be available to her, and she needed to know who and how someone could potentially hunt her down and return her to one of these camps (or worse).  On a similar note, it's not really in her personality to be all that curious about, for example, if Hollywood is still making movies or the finer points about the home mortgage crisis.  I try to sprinkle in details here and there because I know readers  might be interested in some of it, but if it's not crucial to the story... it generally gets snipped or saved for later.

Just as important as deciding what information to include is deciding HOW this information is relayed.  The crucial tasks here, for me at least, is to avoid the oh-so-easy info dump and to vary the way the characters (and therefore the reader) is given information.  BUT!  Here again, it's also important to remember that the delivery is not only affected by the realities of your world, but also whether or not a character realistically has access to this information.  In TDM, the Black Betty crew are on the run for 90% of the book and don't have access to television or the internet.  Thus, I ended up with three primary ways Ruby/the reader gets information:

1) From other characters:

“Why is Gray in New York and not Washington?” I asked.

“They’re still rebuilding the Capitol and the White House, only it’s not going so well, since, you know, they defaulted on all of their debt,” Liam said. “He spread the government out between Virginia and New York for their protection. To make sure none of the fugitive Psi groups or the League got any ideas about wiping them all out at once.”

“So the Federal Coalition . . . they’re against the camps? The reform program?”

Chubs sighed a little. “Hate to break it to you, Green, but something you’ll learn pretty fast is that we’re not exactly a priority to anyone right now. Everyone’s more focused on the fact that the country is broke as a joke.”

“Who do we like, then?” I pressed.

“We like us,” Liam said after a while. “And that’s about it.”

2.  From (old) newspapers:

I flipped the sheet over, looking for any actual news. I skimmed over an opinion piece that celebrated the rehabilitation camps and was more amused than offended that Psi kids were now being openly referred to as   “mutant time bombs.” There was also a short article on rioting that the reporter claimed was “the direct result of escalating tensions between the West and East government on new birth legislation.”

3.  From the car's radio:

“—children are in containment for their own good, not just the safety of the American public. My well-placed sources in the Gray administration have informed me that all instances in which a child has been removed from rehabilitation early have resulted in their untimely death. There is simply no way to reproduce the routine of medication, exercise, and stimulation these rehab centers are using to keep your children alive.”

Liam punched a knuckle against the volume button, trying to turn it off. Instead, the tuner jumped to the next available station, and this time it was a woman’s voice delivering the bad news. “Sources are reporting that two Psi fugitives were picked up on the Ohio-West Virginia border, traveling on foot—”

The U.S. government has a pretty tight control over what news actually becomes available to the public, and you'll notice right away that most of what does get out is very manipulative.  Each of the three main political players in the story--President Gray, the Federal Coalition, and the Children's League--all have competing narratives they're trying to construct in order to win over or placate the public.  People are constantly telling half-truths to Ruby, or complete lies.  It's one of the reasons why Liam tells her that he considers truth to be the only real currency in the world, because so little of it is actually doled out.

One last note, while we're on the topic of point of view... enough can't be said about minding your main character's emotional state, and letting them that inform how they relate and see the world.  Ruby & Co. are resilient, but they've also been severely traumatized by their experiences.  It manifests itself in different ways.  Zu doesn't speak.  Chubs is hyper-protective of their group.  Liam can't outrun the guilt.  With Ruby, it's all  self-loathing.  She hates herself and lives in terror of what she can do.  That colors all of her words, all of her actions, and the way she processes the things she hears.  It's hard for me, as her creator, to have her constantly refer to herself as a "monster," when it's clear she's not--but it makes her an interesting character to write.  She lies her ass off to even people she cares about, she says one thing then does another because she can't bring herself to trust her own instincts, and she feels totally and completely unworthy of love and friendship.  A brighter view of the world and her hope for the future don't emerge until the others help her discover her own self-worth.


Anyway, anyway, that's just a little look at how I approach POV in my stories--I don't think there's a right way, or a wrong way, but this is definitely my way.  :)