Friday, 12 March 2010

Head Hopping and Heavy Rain

Good morning everyone. I'm afraid I'm at work today, but I've managed to give myself an hour or so off and I've booked the Mayor's Parlour for our coffee morning. There are expensive M & S goodies and proper coffee, as well as a variety of posh teas. Please help yourselves (to tea, coffee and biscuits – not the silver!)

A few months ago my friend decided to conduct a little experiment and I was the subject of the hypothesis. It went something like this:-

'Can a writer identify why a particular novel is not such a good read as others published by the same author.'

She handed me a second-hand paperback which she had covered with brown paper to hide the author and title and told me I mustn't 'cheat' and try and find out who had written it. She had torn out the acknowledgement pages etc.

I have to say it was a mediocre novel. It wasn't memorable, and yet it wasn't that bad either. I wasn't able to identify the author from the work and I hadn't read the book before. There was a proliferation of various speech tags, for example 'he growled', 'she boasted', 'she sighed' and 'he said menacingly'. There were also quite a few splatterings of adverbs, but I honestly couldn't see any of this detracted from the enjoyment of the reading in any way.

I decided to mark the sections of the book that flowed well, and where I wanted to gallop to the end of the chapter, and then mark in a different colour the parts that didn't seem to work.

And then, eureka, I had it! It was head hopping that slowed the pace and made me lose interest. In several places the author had head hopped within a particular sub-section and in a couple of chapters there were three or more points of view batted back and forth within a couple of pages. Where the author had stuck to one point of view, either for an entire chapter or sub-section of a chapter, the story flowed much better.

It was a useful exercise and made me realise how important it is to tell the story from the right character's viewpoint for a particular scene, and to keep to that viewpoint for the entire section. If not, it will slow the pace and the reader will lose interest.

Now to Heavy Rain (there's a review on this website for those of you who might be interested) This computer game isn't 'played' in the traditional sense - it's like writing a story on screen as you go along, and it reminded me of the brown paper covered novel experiment. You can choose whose point of view you want to use and there are, I think, four choices. Within those four choices, you can decide what actions the character will take. It's like drawing a mind map or a decision tree and just like planning a novel. The story itself is a compelling and gritty murder mystery. There are different storylines, sub-plots and endings depending on the point of view you choose and the decisions you make as the game progresses. I didn't play it myself, but was completely absorbed when my son was playing it the other day.

Have any other Novel Racers analysed a published novel to find out what works and what doesn't? If so, what did you discover? Also, what do you think of the concept of computer games like Heavy Rain?


L-Plate Author said...

When I was with my first agent, one of the best pieces of advice she gave me when starting out was to take three months off from writing completely and read ten new books from my favourite authors (or favourite books I had read from that author) and analyse them. Why exactly did I like them.

I did this and eventually went on to read and analyse another ten in the genre I was trying to crack. Some of those I liked, some I didn't. It's funny to look back on it now but I did a spreadsheet with set questions and I really learned a lot from it.

I reckon with every book I read, I learn something new, just by absorbing it into my sub conscience. That is when I find time to read the many books I have waiting. I daren't even get started on games...x

JJ Beattie said...

I've never actually done this although I know I should. My mentor told me to read Rebecca because my novel shared certain similarities with it and I did. I stuck little labels in all over the place for the first half, and then I stopped reading like a writer and just got sucked into the story!

Leatherdykeuk said...

I've not gone into the depth you have, but at least these days I can put down a novel and say why. Usually it's because a story is too passive but once in a while (and this happened with the book of someone online I admire) the printing was so terrible I couldn't read it.

Chris Stovell said...

I find head-hopping within a section very disconcerting, but happy to go, as you say with bigger passages. I do try to step back from the writing to analyse it but, like JJ, I get sucked in if it's a good story!

The brown paper exercise sounds good.
I don't know anything about gaming and don't think I should start!!

Denise said...

I'm definitely in the mood for some posh M&S goodies!

What an interesting idea, I might try that. I find I do start analysing novels if they lose me, and I start thinking about what in particular annoys me. If I'm enjoying it, I don't notice why and just read. I'd like to try and work out what I love about my favourites, could be very useful.

I'm also a bit scared of going to look for Heavy Rain. My lists of distractions are already enormous!

Debs said...

Thanks for the goodies.

I haven't really analyzed any books, but when I come across something particularly clever in the writing I try to think how the writer worked up to that point. I also can't help thinking where the story is going, but I'm one of those painful people that does that with films too.

I know nothing at all about games, so wouldn't have a clue about this or any other one, I'm afraid.

Graeme K Talboys said...

I have done this. Sadly, all the things I like in novels are all the things that agents tell me are not commercially viable these days.

Head hopping can work, but it's an exceptional author that can pull off the trick as it tends to break the reader's immersion in the story.

The only game I consistently enjoy is backgammon. The only time I ever tried a computer game my 'character' kept shooting himself in the foot. Clearly as inept as I am in real life.

Sorry. Shouldn't be here. I'm working hard on my book. :-)

CC Devine said...

I have analysed a couple of books in the same genre to mine and found it very useful. I've focused on the character arc which is where I have fallen down with my own work. It's a very useful exercise and I must do more of it.

One of my major weakknesses with my first draft was too much head-hopping. I agree with Graham in that it can be done but only by a very experienced and skilled writer. Most of us fail miserably!

sheepish said...

I suppose I am too late for the goodies as it's nearly time for a glass of wine so I will make do with that. It sounds like an interesting exercise. I have recently been more willing not to finish a book if I don't think it is to my taste, I decided life is too short!! I try and think what it is that I don't like so that I can avoid the same pitfalls but it's not always easy. And for me reading is first and foremost for enjoyment.
As for computer games I want to feel that I am learning something not empire building or indiscriminately killing people!!!! But maybe I am a bit behind the times with what is available.

HelenMHunt said...

I love the sound of the brown-paper-covered book exercise, although I felt a bit sorry for the book having its pages torn out! It sounds like a brilliant exercise.

I keep trying to analyse Kate Atkinson, and why she's so good. But it's difficult because I do get carried away with the story, and I also think she's so clever that it's difficult to see how she's done what she's done.

Rowan Coleman said...

What an interesting post and kind of pertinent to me at the moment. I have been lucky to get several blogger review NEARLY DEPARTED and many of them have been surprised that it is written in the thrid person from all characters POV - but luckily they have liked it! It never even occurred to me to write it first person, but I think you are right, if you muddle the POVs too much or too little the pace can drop. Like L plate I think that every books I have read I have done so to learn from, its easy to get stuck in a stylistic rut and sometimes its really refreshing to see how other people do it.

Captain Black said...

I'm sure the refreshments have all gone but I don't care because I'm on the beer!

The novels I most enjoy reading usually have many characters in them and have complex plots and twists. For this reason, they're almost always written in the third-person; it's impossible to write from first-person if that person is not in a particular scene. And there are usually many scenes in many locations and times.

The stories I liked to write were understandably of a similar structure. So with all these characters and scenes, there can't really be a single MC throughout the book. Which begs the question: how on Earth can you avoid changing viewpoint? The answer is you can't but, as I discovered to my cost, head-jumping is not the solution, even if you're using the omniscient voice. By the way, one good thing about certain scenes in Insight was our accidental use of omniscient voice (i.e. no viewpoint). It gave a sense of detachment to the company board room scenes, which I think actually works quite well.

Anyway, I digress. When I was in full-steam writing mode, I stopped enjoying my reading as much as I used to. This was because I found myself analysing too much and not getting immersed in the story. Only a few authors were able to break me out of that. Now I'm glad I can enjoy books without being tempted to mentally dissect them.

I've never had much time for computer games.

Btw: we badly need to refill the coffee rota! I have one great question for a coffee break, so I don't mind hosting a couple. Please sign up soon though.

Annieye said...

L-Plate - I get scared about reading while I am actively working on a first draft in case I inadvertently copy someone's work. I tend to only read something else while I'm only editing.

JJ - Lol - that's what happens to me. Full of good intentions and then before I know it I've finished the book.

Leatherdyk - I now take all the passive voice out of my work-related writing, too, and it makes it much easier to read.

Chris - I think it can be done, but you need to stay in a character's head for long enough for the reader to catch up!

(Sorry folks - gotta break off and go to work. I'll respond to everyone else later today)

Denise - I think what I was getting at with Heavy Rain is that if the concept takes off, authors will have to write the stories! Might be an opening, there.

Debs - I do that, too. I try to work out why something is really good and then emulate it.

Graeme - The only way I can make progress when I'm actively writing is to keep off FB and the blog. I know its the only way!

CC Devine - Agree totally. Perhaps it comes with experience, and when we are all 10 books down the line we will be able to pull it off, too!

(Sorry folks - gotta break off and go to work. I'll respond to everyone else later today)

Annieye said...

Sheepish - I find I'm not enjoying reading half as much as I used to, because I've got half an eye on technical details.

Helen - I'm in the middle of 'Behind the Scenes at the Museum' and loving it.

Rowan - it's all very complicated, isn't it - but when I'm actually writing I just ignore all the rules and just get it down (then agonise over it all afterwards!)

Captain - You might recall that JM told me that the clever use of the omniscient voice can be very powerful. She called it 'the voice of the author as God'. I didn't know what it meant at the time, but we had a long chat about it, didn't we. I have used it at strategic points in all my novels and have seen it used in others, too. It does pack quite a punch when used properly.

Sylvia Phoenix said...

I think I'm going to have to cut down on how much head-hopping is in my writing. I hadn't even realised I was doing it. I shall also follow your advice about using published books to see how writers do things that work well, although what works well is probably a subjective thing, yes?
I hope I'm not breaking any rules by joining in here, plus sorry for the late comments.
Best wishes,

Annieye said...

Hello Sylvia. No, of course you're not breaking any rules!

I think you are right about reading being very subjective and, like you, I even found I had done it myself without realising.