The right way to be an all-knowing narrator

One of the numerous reasons why I HATED The Book Thief was the gimmicky, smirking, know-it-all narrator and his endless parade of spoilers. That’s seriously not the way to do omniscient POV. The modern-day writer using third-person omniscient (or an all-knowing first-person narrator) properly must learn to strike a delicate balance between all-knowingness and compelling storytelling.

I love third-person omniscient because it provides a relationship with all the characters, a chance to get to know all of them instead of only one or just a handful. This is why this POV has long been the standard in historical and fantasy, because of the large ensemble casts and sweeping, epic scope. It offers more flexibility, creativity, and intimacy than any other POV, since we’re not stuck in one person’s head for the entire book, or alternating back and forth among a few characters. It also provides more objective distance, telling the reader a story about these characters instead of telling the story through a particular character’s eyes.

However, sometimes you can bend the rules a little and slip into a quasi-God-mode. I still use this method of narration sometimes, but I’m very, very careful and selective about it now. This style works when there’s a reason to break the fourth wall and write as the all-knowing narrator. These are a couple of examples which I feel merit quasi-God-mode:

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“This is how Lyuba, Iván, and Tatyana finally leave Russia, running for their lives across the border in the ice and snow, a riot in Pskov, Cheká agents out searching for Iván, no looking back allowed, no crying.  Lyuba will remember this day for the rest of her life, the day she left her Motherland and wasn’t allowed to look back, scream, or cry” (You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan, Chapter 21, “Goodbye to the Motherland,” probably 1999).

That kind of emotional reflection wouldn’t be possible if I were just relating the story about these characters and describing how they fled across the border by the skin of their teeth.

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“Mrs. Troy has carefully planned the celebration this evening.  School has just let out, and she’s going to use the occasion to have a festive supper in honor of Lucine and Jacob’s supposed upcoming marriage, and to celebrate Giovanni’s first birthday.  She’s also ordered Ernestine to come over.  Little does she know Lucine went into her room and stole her suitcase, now packed and sitting under Lucine and Emeline’s bed.  She also has no idea Gemma’s planning to use the occasion to give a piece of her mind to her family and to deliver some shocking news to Francesco” (Little Ragdoll, Chapter 14, “Gemma Gets Out,” December 2010).

This serves to emphasise the coming humiliation and shock about to be delivered big-time to Mrs. Troy. Right now she’s completely unsuspecting of anything, so this villain is in for an even bigger catastrophe than if she suspected her oldest two daughters are about to revolt.

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“….Five-year-old Adah had announced one recent day she was going to marry Alyoshka. She was no longer being dumped in his parents’ mansion, but they were in kindergarten now and constant companions. It was anyone’s guess as to what Aleksey Greenblatt would’ve thought of his young namesake being born and raised Jewish, after his fifteen last years on Earth, safe in America, he’d worked so hard to blend in and appear to be a Methodist from England, not some boy who’d lived in the Ukrainian shtetl till a pogrom in December 1902 left the family standing in the gutter with nothing. His shame was now the pride of the family, presided over by a man nearing eighty-five, the five-day-old son he’d masked their identities for the sake of. Aleksey Benjamin, after Aleksey Veniaminovich. Not the Anglicised and by now somewhat antiquated name Alexis he’d adopted. Nowadays Alexis had become a feminine name. Alyoshka, like the little boy in the shtetl.

“Not just a future marriage into the prestigious Green family, but a marriage to Cinnimin’s grandson. [Sparky’s] miracle seventh child would produce children through which would flow blood shared by Cinnimin Rebecca Filliard Kevorkian, Kit Theresa Green, and Katherine Abigail Brandt, the same way their three streams of blood had been running together through Cinnimin’s veins ever since that nightmarish July Fourth in 1964” (conclusion of Part XXXVIII, Saga V of Cinnimin, “Isaac’s Miracle Cure,” August 2002 plus my just-now edits).

This one I really like, because it lets me use my knowledge about the past, present, and future, and weave them all together without pontificating, making value judgments, or giving away any real spoilers. Just about all my childhood sweethearts marry, so there’s no ruined surprise here, and nothing else about their future relationship is revealed. No value judgments are made about the elderly Mr. Green’s late father either. And the name Alexis had become more feminine than masculine by 1987, so that’s hardly me providing my own opinion. You can’t do that kind of distant, wise, all-knowing narrative voice in any other POV.

Top Ten Tuesday—Top Ten Book-Related Problems I Have

Top 10 Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly feature of The Broke and the Bookish. A full list of instructions and future themes can be found here. This week’s topic is Top Ten Book-Related Problems I Have.

1. I’ll never have enough bookmarks!

2. Not enough time to finish or get to all those enticing library books, even with maximum renewals. It doesn’t help matters that one of the local libraries, which I prefer out of all the local libraries due to its awesome upper level with peaceful carrels, only loans for three weeks at one time, not four like the other libraries.

3. Not everything I want to read has been translated. I recently read an interview with Ignat Solzhenitsyn (who rather resembles his famous father apart from not being a redhead), in which he said there aren’t any immediate plans to translate the rest of his father’s books into English. This includes the second half of his massive Red Wheel saga, March 1917 and April 1917. There’s not enough of an audience anymore, as evidenced by the lacklustre sales of November 1916 and the unexpurgated The First Circle.

4. Forgetting about library books till I have no more renewals.

5. Those times I forget about due dates and end up having to return them late and pay a small fine.

6. None of the local libraries having a book I really want to read.

7. Out of print books only being available for unrealistically high prices.

8. Not having enough time to read all of a book I checked out for historical research. I’ve gotten out so many library books to research things for my writing, like D-Day, the Pacific Theatre in WWII, Americans in concentration-camps, polio, and fashions of the various decades of the 20th century, only to not have time to read everything. They looked so tempting, but I only read or skimmed the relevant parts and put off reading the whole book for later.

9. All the long-unread books on my shelves.

10. Not having an entire huge room for a library. Should I ever have a mansion, I’m so going to have a real library, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves of the finest wood, luxurious carpets, comfy chairs, tables, artwork on the walls, a fireplace, and even one of those trick shelves that reveals a secret room or at least another side with even more books. My character Kit Green’s father has just such a trick shelf in his library, to hide all his Jewish books and other evidence of his birth identity as Filip Alekseyevich Greenblatt, until his middle daughter Lovella discovers the family secret and he has to hide the books elsewhere.

Sweet Saturday Samples—Building the Sukkah, Continued

This week’s excerpt for Sweet Saturday Samples concludes Chapter 12, “High Holy Days,” of The Very First, as it’s Sukkot-themed, and the holiday continues through Monday. The conclusion of the festival is Simchat Torah on Monday night and Tuesday.

***

Mr. Small and his sons came back carting plywood and armfuls of the green schach, meant to cover the spaces on the sukkah’s roof.  As soon as he was done hammering the plywood into place, Mr. Green went to get a ladder and made himself useful by tossing schach onto the makeshift sukkah roof.  While they were doing this, Sparky went into the box of decorations she and her brothers had made a few evenings ago and started hanging them on the walls.

“Would you like to have dinner with us sometime during Sukkot?” Mrs. Small asked. “Guests are always welcome.”

“No, I think I know my place.  Just helping neighbors is enough.” Mr. Green bit his lip to avoid breaking out crying at the memory of boyhood celebrations of the holidays, before his parents had died in that boating accident in 1917.

“Are you still in touch with your Jewish college friends?” Sparky asked.

“They, uh, don’t live around here.  There’s no real college in Atlantic City, so I had to go elsewhere.  The one college in town is such a joke, I don’t think their diplomas are worth the paper they’re printed on.  No one who wants a real job or to be taken seriously goes to a no-name college in a beach town.” He descended the ladder and got more schach.

“They have a local college?” Barry asked. “What’s its name?  Maybe I can go there so I won’t have to worry about beating a quota like Gary will.”

“Atlantic City College, or College of Atlantic City.  I forget which name it goes by.  It’s not much more prestigious than a junior college, except that it grants bachelor’s degrees and goes for four years.  A lot of people in this town go there, just because they can’t bear to leave town even for four years.  You’d think leaving town in this day and age were tantamount to braving the Old West or living in Siberia, and that you’d fall under a magical spell that would tempt you away from ever returning home.  I hate provincialism.”

“If we’re going to stay here and not move to a bigger city, and if most of the other kids are going to go to that school, then that’s where I’m going to college someday too,” Sparky declared. “I don’t want anyone thinking I’m better than them or that I’m not a real American.  And I wouldn’t know anyone in a new town.”

“You’ve got quite a few years before you’ll be old enough for college.” Mr. Green went down the ladder again for more schach. “But just a word of advice from someone who knows what he’s talking about, in more ways than you’ll probably ever know.  Don’t ever let anyone try to tell you you have to change your name, your religion, or your customs to try to fit in and become a real American.  Society has come a long way in the last few decades.  You no longer have to choose between whitewashing yourself to become a real American or living in a self-imposed ghetto where you pretend you never left the old country.  It’s too late for many older people, but new immigrants are still open to honest suggestions.  So long as you can live in both worlds without giving up too much of one in exchange for the other.”

“I’ll try my best.” Sparky went back to the box for more decorations.

“Kitty’s dad is very wise,” Cinni said. “Most grownups are pretty stupid, but he gives good advice and tells it like it is.  Violet’s mom is also pretty decent, and Julie’s mom is pretty good too.  But that doesn’t mean I want you to start listening to only grownups.  I’m still the one who’s teaching you to be a real American.  I know what I’m doing, because I’m Most Popular Girl.”

Sparky nodded as she pulled out the rest of the decorations and went around the sukkah hanging them up.  Right now it still seemed easier said than done, but Cinni and Mr. Green probably did know what they were talking about, and it was starting to seem a bit easier and slightly more natural when she did things.  It hadn’t been quite three months since she and her family had arrived in America, but already it seemed as though she’d been here for a lot longer.  Perhaps all she had to do was continue observing how things were done and how people talked, and try her best to imitate them.

Sweet Saturday Samples—Building the Sukkah

This week’s excerpt for Sweet Saturday Samples also comes from Chapter 12, “High Holy Days,” of The Very First, since it’s Sukkot-themed, and Sukkot begins on Sunday night. While Sparky’s family are constructing their sukkah on the Filliards’ back veranda, Mr. Green comes up with plywood and schach (greenery for the roof) just as promised.

***

The next afternoon, as Mr. Small, Gary, and Barry were constructing a sukkah around the Filliards’ back veranda, Mr. Green appeared in the backyard.  Cinni and Sparky, watching the action from a corner of the yard, looked over at him.  So he had been serious when he mentioned the idea yesterday.

“I took another day off work so I could get you some extra schach, and some extra plywood, just in case you needed it.  Remember, my wife doesn’t know I’ve been taking days off.”

“Who are you?” Mr. Small asked. “Do you go to our synagogue?”

“I’m Phillip Green, the father of Cinnimin and Sparky’s friend Kit.  We live on Lennon Avenue.  Yesterday I was taking a walk on the beach and ran across the girls, and offered to bring you extra supplies for your sukkah if you needed it.  It’s been awhile since I’ve been involved in this, but I do remember you need extra just in case you end up too short.”

“If you’re a Methodist, why in the world would you have built a sukkah?” Gary asked.

“I, um, had some Jewish friends in college, and I, uh, sort of helped them with religious celebrations.  I’m not someone who only cares or knows about his own kind, or who thinks every religion, race, and culture should be separate and not even equal.  Now enough questions.  I came here to help you.  Would anyone like to help carry it from my wagon?”

“You didn’t bring it in a big dumptruck?” Barry asked. “You could’ve just driven it back here and dumped it in a big pile.”

“I breed and train horses.  It’s second nature to use horsepower.  Most people back in the—in my family’s original hometown—used horses to get around too, even though cars weren’t so new anymore when I was born.”

“When were you born, Mr. Green?” Sparky asked as her father and brothers headed out to the parked wagon. “Are you younger than my parents?  My parents were both born in 1906.”

“December 1902.  I think my love of horses stems from my sign.  Sagittarius is the centaur, half man, half horse.  Even my name means ‘friend of horses.’  My kids love horses too, though my youngest, that little pipsqueak Sammy, ain’t too keen on them.  My wife spoils that boy rotten, and then whines about how I treat Kitty like my own special pet child.  Maybe I do spoil Kit a little, but at least Kit ain’t shielded from real life the way my wife shelters Sammy.”

Sparky just stared at him, still not over her shock at how people in this strange town thought nothing of sharing such personal information instead of keeping it behind closed doors.  Here Mr. Green was announcing his disdain for his youngest child as though he were announcing the weather.

Mr. Green propped up one of the plywood planks he’d carried over with him and bent down for a hammer and some nails. “It’s nice to see some new faces in town, and for Kit to have a new friend who wasn’t born into our town and social circle.  Differences are good.” He started hammering.

“It’s nice you came to visit us and help,” Mrs. Small said. “We’ve never had a real housecall from any of the neighbors or townspeople yet.  They don’t ignore us if we see them, but they haven’t come over to the house to specifically welcome us.”

“Some of the people in this town are snobs, not that you heard such gossip from me.  They’d like to think they were all born here and swimming in millions of dollars, when quite a few of the neighborhood’s richest, most prominent families are not American bluebloods who’ve been here since Colonial days.  My own family had to earn our riches the hard way.  We don’t take our millions for granted like that uppity family next door to you, the Hitchcocks.  Kitty says young Violet can be really unbearable.”

Sweet Saturday Samples—Yom Kippur Beach Walk

Last Saturday I won the short story contest at the blog YA Stands! If you’re interested in reading my historical love story, set in 1946 France and centered around a 16-year-old Hungarian couple, it’s under my new “Writing Samples” tab and called “Kálmán Runs Away.”

This week’s excerpt for Sweet Saturday Samples is another scene from Chapter 12, “High Holy Days,” of The Very First. It’s October 1938, Yom Kippur, and Cinni and Sparky are taking a walk on the beach in the afternoon. Since Sparky hasn’t reached the age of bat mitzvah yet, she isn’t obligated to fast all day. As they’re taking a walk, they see their friend Kit’s father and wonder what in the world he’s doing out of work. Mr. and Mrs. Green (who also happen to be blood third-cousins) are hiding a secret about their origins from everyone, but Mr. Green feels extremely guilty about it and sometimes does things in secret from Mrs. Green to get in touch with his roots.

***

Cinni stopped talking as Mr. Green came within earshot. “Hello, Mr. Green.  Taking the day offa work?”

“I have reasons of my own for taking off work today.” He turned towards Sparky. “May you be sealed in the Book of Life, Miss Small.”

“You know today is Yom Kippur?” Sparky asked. “I didn’t know normal Christians knew or cared.”

“I have reasons of my own for knowing.” He pulled on his collar.

“We’re not that stupid,” Cinni said. “At least, not all of us.  I’m sure idiots like Adeline’s family don’t know or care, but some people would know if they’ve got Jewish friends.”

“Did you know anything about it before you met me?” Sparky asked. “Maybe you knew the name, but I don’t think you knew any specifics.”

“I know you sing a prayer called Kol Nidre at night.  That’s a really beautiful prayer, from what I remember of it.  It’s been awhile since I heard it, but not too long.”

“You heard Kol Nidre?  I thought you’d never been to a synagogue, and I haven’t seen any records of famous cantors in your collection.”

“It was in a movie at the Rerun Theater.  The Jazz Singer, with Al Jolson.  I was kinda disappointed when it turned out to be mostly silent, after all the talk I’d heard about it being the first real talking movie.  But that was onea the sound parts.”

“So I suppose tomorrow your family will start building your sukkah?” Mr. Green asked. “If you need additional plywood or schach or anything, you can let me know and I’ll loan you money or even buy it for you.”

“How do you know about schach or just Sukkot?” Sparky asked. “I didn’t think most Christians had ever heard about that holiday.”

“I’m not like most Christians.  Maybe more than anyone will ever really know.” He pulled on his collar again, then ran a hand through his hair, which he was constantly thankful was blonde.

“Thank you for your offer.  I’ll tell my parents and get back to you if they need help.”

“I can even help you construct it, if you need extra hands.” He turned pale as his stomach rumbled.

Sparky stepped back a bit. “Mr. Green, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were fasting for Yom Kippur.  If you’re hungry, you should go home or to a restaurant.”

“No, my wife thinks I’m at work.  She’d be hysterical if she found out I was taking the day off.  I try my best to avoid scenes with her.  Sometimes I regret marrying her, even though it was the right thing to do.” His eyes drifted to the waves lapping against the shore. “Well, I’m probably boring you girls.  Have a good rest of the day.”

Cinni stared at him as he walked off towards the other end of the beach. “Kit says he acts goofy like this from time to time, but she can’t figure out what causes it.  Sometimes it really ain’t best to fool around in grownups’ business.  You might find out stuff you wish you hadn’t known.”

“Do you think Mr. Green is secretly Jewish?”

Cinni laughed. “He might have some strange secret, but there’s no way that could be it.  He goes to church every week, knows all the prayers, eats non-kosher food, has an English name, and has blonde hair and green eyes.  And his parents were named Alexis and Josepha.  Who knows, maybe someday we’ll all find out the reason for his goofy behavior.”

Sparky watched a seagull landing. “Would you like to help me and Barry set up the food for my family’s break-the-fast before Barry and I have to go back to synagogue?  Poor Barry’s gonna be hungrier than me, since he’s expected to fast a lot longer.  He’s only three months away from bar mitzvah.”