I recently read a novel that challenges some of the important lessons I’ve learned about writing. I wanted to dislike the book because it is so flawed. But the fact is I’ll probably read it again because the author 1) pairs two unforgettable characters in an improbable relationship, & 2) tells a darn good story.
The novel is Paulette Jiles’ News of the World, a National Book Award finalist. Here are my problems, which I’ll describe in mostly general terms so as not to include spoilers:
- The author writes dialogue without quotation marks. Most of the time it was clear who was speaking, but there were times I had to back up and re-read a passage. In John Gardner’s book On Becoming a Novelist, he extolls “the fictive dream,” a state that writers like me labor to achieve so that the reader gets so caught up in the story as to suspend disbelief. Writing that causes the reader to check back for clarification breaks that fictive dream.
- More troubling for me is the jerkiness that occurs when Jiles “moves the camera,” so to speak, i.e., we’re seeing something through the eyes of the Captain & then she describes the expression on his face, something he cannot see. Even more egregious is a gunfight presumably viewed through the Captain’s eyes. His adversary is approaching from two hundred yards when the Captain fires after which we see his adversary’s forehead looking “as if his head had been suddenly printed with hyphens.” This & other occurances of improbable camera movement jerked me out of the fictive dream during one of the best scenes in the novel.
- Another problem writers usually try to avoid is shifting point of view (POV) in a scene. In most novels, one or several characters have POV so that the reader gets to know their internal thoughts, opinions, feelings, etc. As a rule, in any given scene the writer gives POV to just one character, the person who has the most at stake. This keeps the reader engaged with that character. POV shifts are to be avoided, but not in Jiles’ world. And to tell you the truth, it doesn’t bother me much. I’ve long suspected that readers don’t care that much about shifting POV. (I’ll hear about this in my writing group.)
The Take-Away: Read this book. You’ll love it.
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