The claustrophobia of one mind

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Starting today, readers signed up to my list will have had a chance to take a look at my newest book, Voro. In a little over a week, it will be available on Amazon for 99¢, so make sure you get your copy. I’ll make a posting when it goes live. The 99¢ sale will only run for a few days before it goes to the full price.

Fans of my work will notice some differences in the way the story was told. I’m going to go over one of the key decisions I made when writing Voro that gives it that unique feel among my other works.

Third person limited omniscient narration

Readers of my work know I typically write in third person omniscient. For those unfamiliar with the term, it means the “narrator” of the book can see everything, up to and often including the internal thoughts of all the characters. When you read a book like And Then There Were None by the late, great Agatha Christie, you notice she jumps from head to head to give the reader insight into the motivations and reasoning behind the characters actions and words. This can be a very powerful tool for an author as it lets us really dig in to all the characters.

When I think of books people call “character driven stories” I often think of third person omniscient, because it’s the easiest way to make a story more about the characters. It’s not more work to write one way than any other — each style of narration brings its own set of rules and best practices. I’ve gotten better over the years with how I employ third person omniscient, primarily because I started studying how it was done in other great works, and read up on the best ways to approach it – by the way, if you’re thinking of writing and wondering what person you should put your narrator in, I highly recommend Ursula Le Guin’s book, Steering the Craft. She has a whole section on narration choice, including prolific examples of each form presented alongside the perks and problems with each.

I choose to write this way because I like the freedom of exploring all the characters fully. That being said, I knew when I started writing Voro that it was a different kind of story. For one, it’s a horror story. I felt like some of the mystery of the story might be diminished if the reader was able to see so much of everyone’s thoughts. While a book like the aforementioned And Then There Were None uses head hopping to keep the reader guessing whodunit, I didn’t feel that would work so well with my story due to the much smaller main cast. Christie’s seminal mystery has at least ten main characters, thirteen if we include the inspectors, which allows a lot more room for mystery to unfurl. Voro has three main characters and a smattering of side – though important – characters.

Secondly, I wanted the narrative to feel claustrophobic. I wanted the reader to actively feel like there was knowledge out there that could ease their uncertainty, but be unable to access it. The best way to do this was to make my third person omniscient constricted as well, by limiting the viewpoint to one person. For the majority of the book, you only see things through the eyes of the main character, Casey. In the opening scene, you are in the head of a young woman. But that’s the last you ever see of her. In a later chapter, towards the end of the book, I go into one other head – I won’t say who here, so as not to spoil anything for readers. The narrator can see things Casey doesn’t see, but I only used this sparingly, to note specific things. In fact, I can think of only one place in the book where the narrator calls out something Casey can’t specifically see.

Limited third person omniscient can be employed in this way — probably the most famous current example is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one character. That means what you’re “hearing” in the narrator’s voice is tinged with the opinions of the character’s perspective. Cersei might perceive herself as a victim in one scenario, whereas another character at that same point and time might see what happens to her as justice. Third person limited omniscient is a powerful narrative device that can help get a reader to empathize with an otherwise despicable character, something Martin excels at, as well as slowly revealing a full picture of events as seen through different character’s eyes.

In the case of Voro, I’m using it to close in on the reader, to restrict their access to knowledge — to keep them in the dark. I want the reader to be just close enough to the truth to be frightened of it without giving away the true terror until I’m ready. I want the reader to invest in the character of Casey before I let them in on the horror. Limited third person omniscient provides a way for me to control pacing as well as atmosphere.

This was a new style of writing for me, so it took me longer than usual to finish the book. The closest I think I ever came to third person limited omniscient was The Arbiter — most of that story is told from Drystan’s perspective – though I was less aware of what I was doing at the time since it was the first book I wrote. Since then, I’ve been more purposeful with my choices in narration. I think it’s made my stories better, smoother and easier to read.

I do look at my reviews, and I take in the criticism with a careful eye for what is simply someone who doesn’t like my style versus someone making commentary about the craft of the story. If I get a review where someone complains about, for instance, too much “relationship stuff,” I take that to mean my stories probably aren’t for them. But, over the years, I’ve seen a lot of comments that use the phrase “head hopping” to describe my work, and not in a positive way. I have taken this comment to heart, and upon re-examining some of my earlier work, I can see that the transitions between character’s thoughts were sometimes jarring. I’ve since been more conscientious about these transitions, and have been working harder to make them feel more natural. Voro is probably the most constricted I’ve ever felt writing a book, in large part because I couldn’t just explore the other character’s thoughts; everything had to be relayed through Casey’s eyes and feelings. Writing this book helped me get a better grasp on the techniques of storytelling, and I feel it shows in the work I’m editing now – a fantasy series told in traditional third person omniscient.

My next post will be about some of my influences in writing Voro, including horror masters, as well as ancient stories older than the written word. Thank you for reading!

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