Editing my novel The Red Men for digital publication, I changed pretty much every line of the third chapter. Why? Simple. Point of view.
The Point of View Police are known to any creative writing student. And the point of view gets complicated with The Red Men. Raymond, the protagonist in the first third of the book, is very oral. The energy in the early drafts came from his way of speaking. Raymond relates the action to Nelson, the first person narrator, and so the action is framed by their dialogue.
For this edit, I let this technique ride with the second chapter introducing Raymond, so that we could meet him through his words. But as the action proper begins, having Nelson report Raymond telling a story adds layers of commentary. The issue of point of view gets even more complicated later on when Raymond drops out of the novel and Nelson takes over the second section.
Raymond’s voice provides much of the comedy. But is there too much comedy for a novel whose main affect lies in horrific science fiction? And does Raymond’s registering of disbelief at the world he is discovering snap the reader out of accepting it? Yes and yes, I think so. The answer is to merge Raymond’s voice into the third person descriptions to create free indirect speech. Free indirect speech combines the immediacy of first person with the solid orientation of the third person.
So here is Raymond relating his job interview at Monad, taken from the published print version of The Red Men, with his speaking voice embedded within the third person. The action is being related at a later date in a conversation between Raymond and Nelson. So how far away is the reader from what is going on?
Eventually, a female PA came down to escort Raymond to the elevator. “I stared at her skin. Its radiant milk-fed blush, the way she had tried to age herself with a bob and a formal suit. She was an intoxicating mix of severity and young flesh. I was grateful just to share oxygen with her. And then the elevator doors opened, and I stepped into an office full of beautiful people. It was as if human genetics had emerged from the dark ages of our generation into a Renaissance. Women walked by, their stockings abrading in iambic pentameter. The movement from face to breast to hips to thighs was a soliloquy of flesh. I said a silent prayer to you at that moment, Nelson.”
In the new edit, this paragraph is put standard third person. It is shorter and the action progresses more smoothly. I want to move the reader more quickly through the text, and to stop trying to wring affect out of an action as mundane as a character getting out of an elevator.
Eventually, a female PA came down to escort Raymond to the elevator. He stared at her skin, its radiant milk-fed blush, the way she had tried to age herself with a bob and a formal suit. She was an intoxicating mix of severity and young flesh. He was grateful just to share oxygen with her.
Why not put the entire novel into third person with free indirect speech? Well, Raymond drops out of the action and Nelson becomes both narrator and protagonist. What happens to him is intensely interior. I could render that in free indirect but having a contemporary narrator in a work of science fiction was an inherent aspect of my desire to make the novel feel proximate to the present day.
Reducing Raymond’s verbosity, folding it into free indirect where it is crucial, reduces the amount of riffing in the text is part of prioritising narrative profluence over cute paragraphs. I’m not so much killing my darlings as massacring them in the service of the continuous dream of character and plot in action. This ruthless attitude to sections which I spent years putting together culminated, today, in the decision to cut an entire chapter of ten thousand words. More on that decision next time.
For now, I’ll leave you with another paragraph with the point of view shifted, and an example of how I am taking the opportunity to update some of the tech in the novel. The flexible organic screens of the print version remain, but I’ve put in more haptic interface as befitting a post-tablet world. Here is the original version, with Raymond commenting on the action as it unfolds.
Raymond took an immediate dislike to Eakins.
“He was a malign baby. With his round shoulders and a recessed chin, he looked like he was still being breastfed. His comfy jumpers gave off a sour milky odour.”
Morton unrolled a screen upon the desk, took an aluminium stylus from his top pocket and tapped out a spreadsheet.
‘I’ve never seen a computer like it. It was just a thin sheet of grey transparent film. Did you know such things existed? He actually flapped the screen in front of me, like it was something he’d caught in the sea. “This is a genetically engineered virus, left to dry on a substrate. Under the right conditions, viruses can be encouraged to behave like the molecules in a polymer. We line them up to form a three-dimensional grid of quantum dots, replace strands of the virus with conductive filament, and hey, a jelly computer.”
I laughed. ‘Does the fact that I don’t know what you are talking about mean I have already failed the interview?’
Here is the same scene in third person, with Raymond experiencing the action as it unfolds. His sarky remarks are moved into the third person and toned down. Let the reader see Morton without Raymond telling them how to see him And the screen now flip-flops around in response to Morton Eakins’ haptic gestures.
With his round shoulders and recessed chin, Morton Eakins looked like he was still being breastfed. His comfy jumpers gave off a sour milky odour. Morton unrolled a screen upon the desk and tapped out a spreadsheet. The computer was a thin sheet of grey transparent film, which Morton flapped in front of Raymond as if it was something he’d caught in the sea.
‘Do you like our tech? This is none of your Chinese crap. This is high Cambridge biotech. The screens are formed from a genetically engineered virus left to dry on a substrate. Under the right conditions, viruses can be encouraged to behave like the molecules in a polymer. We line them up to form a three-dimensional grid of quantum dots, replacing strands of the virus here and there with conductive filament. The user interface combines standard haptic gestures with the screen’s ability to extrapolate user intent from a sensor similar to galvanic skin response, although similar only in terms of how we conceptualise it. Organic light emitting diodes provide the imagery and the power is drawn in wirelessly.’
Raymond laughed, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about. Does that mean I’ve already failed the interview?’