I recently reviewed a book by first time indie author, a gifted natural story-teller. Her book centered upon a long-ago tragedy in a small, tight-knit backwoods town. I found the story difficult to follow, because of frequent POV shifts, sometimes as often as every few paragraphs. There is usually a double drop between these shifts, but she also had a habit of changing voice. Sometimes the new POV is first person, sometimes third. Occasionally, I found myself stumbling from first person to third person subjective, or yanked straight out of the story by bursts of the venerable 18th Century third person omnipresent. Many of her narrators are unreliable, as well, and there are many, many characters, almost an entire town, but few of them are well fleshed out. However, each one, Rashomon-like, has a unique piece of information about the pivotal event.
As compelling as the idea was, I’d have to say thumbs down. Unfortunately, her tale is both interesting and important—and probably still inflammatory in some quarters. Local people no doubt remember with horrible clarity where they were on the day when a labor dispute went terribly wrong and police waded into strikers, killing one of them.
Elaborate Point of View shifts are tricky business even in the hands of more far more skillful writers. If I’d been her editor, I know we could have worked it out, but she clearly had problems making a choice about who her main characters were to be. Although it might have created new difficulties in telling the story, the loss of focus that resulted from all that switching around made my job as a reader far harder than an author has a right to ask.
My diagnosis is that the story hadn’t jelled when she began to write. In her rush to get the inspiration down, to cover all the bases, she created a huge maze of information and very nearly couldn’t unravel it. A novel, (which is, after all, an artificial creation and not reality) needs a core character(s) and a core point of view. This gives the reader a place to stand among whatever whirligigs of narrative and event the author can contrive.
So, if you are thinking of finally writing “that book,” decide who/what/where/when before you get going. Laying the groundwork, pouring the foundation, you might say, is the place where a writer truly has to start. Find the eyes you want to see events through, and please don’t, for the reader’s sake, use too many pairs!