Don’t Read This Book Like a Writer

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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4 thoughts on “Don’t Read This Book Like a Writer

  1. I agree with everything you said! But the story is so compelling I couldn’t put the book down.Your observations are superb! I am looking forward to reading another book by Giles to see if her style is the same

  2. I loved this book and found it was a fabulous study of omniscient storytelling in which the narrator sees things the character cannot (his own facial expressions), and – when necessary – into the thoughts of multiple characters. I thought it did a good job with ‘psychic distance’ as well — that zoom-out view of the scene, down to the zoom-in view of characters’ thoughts. It was most effective, I think. Did you not feel this was an omniscient story? I’m curious, as I’m always analyzing point of view and studying ‘why’ a novel works or doesn’t (and often trying to dissect WHAT POV was used).

    1. Yes, Melissa, I agree it was omniscient. The POV shifts don’t bother me much, but it did bother me when the “camera” jumped from inside the Captain’s head to something outside his range of vision and back again. As I said, I want to read this story again.

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