Shaping a novel: How many points of view is too many?

I am about to start the final quarter or so of my novel, and I realize that this weekend I’ve already decided on three new point-of-view characters.  Two of them ought to be first-person narrators, in my humble opinion.  I’ve now lost track, but I’m pretty sure I’m approaching 20 different points of view, some of which only show up for a few pages.  This currently feels completely right to me, but what do I know?

To recap: Portal was entirely a first-person narrative.  Its sequel, Terra, continued the first-person narrative for about 90% of its length, and then unexpectedly (I imagine) switched to a couple of third-person points of view at the end.  Here we are in Barbarica, and the idea is to switch constantly among points of view, only to return to first person at the end.  (Hmm, maybe that’s a spoiler.  On the other hand, it’s not too late for me to change my mind!)

Is this a good idea?  The narrative strategy you choose for a novel is pretty much the most basic decision you have to make about it.  In this case, it’s turning out to be a cumulative set of decisions.  Let’s hear what this character has to say, then this one, then this one…  I like this approach a lot for this particular plot.  I just hope readers agree with me.

“Arrival”, time paradoxes, and me

I was eager to see the movie Arrival because my novel Forbidden Sanctuary is also a first-contact story involving a linguist and a bunch of aliens.  There isn’t much overlap between the stories, though.  My aliens are pretty human-like — that’s the point of the novel, really.  Arrival‘s aliens are spectacularly, um, alien.  The plot involves Amy Adams desperately trying to understand what they’re saying before various bad things happen. And it’s really well done, up to the point where the movie springs its science-fictiony twist on us to tie things up, with the result that we’re desperately try to rethink everything we’ve seen as the movie rockets to its conclusion.

Spoiler coming.

I don’t think the twist works.  The idea is that, when Amy Adams finally has her breakthrough and understands the aliens’ language, her perception of time is altered at the same time, such that all time is a continuous now to her, instead of a linear progression from past to present to future.  (Or something like that.)  So that some events that we perceived as flashbacks were actually flash-forwards — except that they weren’t, not really, because they are all part of the eternal now.  (Or something like that.)  So she is able to use information from the sort-of future to solve the crisis happening in the sort-of now.  And over this is layered the personal story of the sort-of-future Amy Adams deciding to have a child, despite knowing that the even-more-future Amy Adams will see that child die, and her husband will leave her when she tells him what he’s done.

This is not the kind of complexity that a viewer can deal with while linearly watching a movie. I am OK with time paradoxes — I have read Jeffrey Carver novels, and I generally understand what is happening (that may be a bit of an exaggeration).   But even I couldn’t completely follow what was happening in real time while watching Arrival, and I wasn’t interested enough to re-watch the thing.

As a writer of science-fictiony novels, I am always worried about how much time I should spend in a novel explaining stuff — inventing some bogus theory about how the portal works in my Portal series, for example.  Or, perhaps more important, making sure that whatever bogus theory I have in my head about the portal is internally consistent, so that readers don’t get annoyed at plot developments that don’t quite make sense.  My sense is that readers will forgive a lot of minor inconsistencies if the story is interesting enough.  But I don’t want to piss them off.

I’m afraid that Arrival, for all its virtues, ended up pissing me off.

From “Portal” to “The Portal” to PORTAL

Got that?

I originally named my novel “Portal”, but my publisher thought that one-word titles weren’t commercial, so they talked me into “The Portal”.  But now that its sequel TERRA has debuted, we have decided to use “The Portal” as the name for the entire series.  At the same time we changed the novel’s title to single-word upper-case PORTAL; it’s also now Book 1 in The Portal Series.

I’m sure sales will skyrocket.

Also, the new cover, featuring the new name, has made its debut on Amazon, although the softcover version still features the old cover.  That will change before long.

That one special scene

In my talk to those wonderful sixth-graders I discussed why I wrote The Portal.  It wasn’t because of the science-fictiony adventure story; the reason I wanted to write it was the encounter between the protagonist (Larry) and another version of his family, one struggling to stay alive in wartime in the alternative universe he is trapped in.  And I read them my favorite scene from the novel, where Larry has to view his own grave.  In this world, he died as an infant and was buried behind the family farmhouse:

Mom got down from the wagon and led us into the woods. We came to a small clearing after a while, and in the middle of the clearing a few crosses stuck up through the snow. My head started spinning as I stared at those crosses. Kevin gripped my arm. Mom pointed to a spot in the snow. “Cassie needs to go here,” she said. “Beside her brother.”

I looked at the cross next to where she was pointing. Two words were crudely carved on it:

Lawrence Barnes

I was staring at my own grave.

“That’s the boy who would have been just about your age,” my mother was saying to me. “My baby.”

I think maybe I forgot to breathe for a while. “It’s okay, Larry,” Kevin whispered to me. “Take it easy.”

Kevin and I’d had talked about what would happen if we ran into our other selves in this world. Would we both explode, or destroy the fabric of the space-time continuum or something? Stupid. We never talked about this.

Nothing happened, of course, except that I was as spooked as I could possibly be. But I didn’t do anything. I just stood there in the snow. I was alive, the earth kept spinning, and that other me—the baby who didn’t make it—was still at rest in the cold ground.

And now we had to lay his sister—my sister—to rest, too.

We took turns using the pick and shovel to dig the hole in the frozen, rocky soil. I did most of the work, though—Kevin still didn’t have all his strength back, and it wasn’t the sort of task Stinky enjoyed. It seemed to take forever. It grew dark, and my muscles were screaming with pain after a while—the most digging I’d ever done was a little bit of snow shoveling, and I’d usually complain about having to do that. But we kept at it, and at last the time had come. We lifted Cassie’s body out of the wagon, then slid her down into the ground and covered her up. After that we stood around the grave as darkness fell and said some prayers, while I felt sorry for every mean thing I’d said to her in every conceivable universe.

That scene wasn’t in my original conception for the novel.  But when I thought of it, I couldn’t wait to write it.  It took a while, though; it occurs about two-thirds of the way into novel, and I write my novels straight through from the beginning to the end.

So anyway, here I am writing the third book about Larry and the portal, and today I finished the equivalent chapter in Barbarica–65,000 words in, I finally get to the scene I’ve wanted to write from the very beginning.  Of course, the wise folks in my writing group may tell me that it doesn’t work at all and I should drop it.  Still, I very much enjoyed writing it.

By the way, sixth-graders don’t have a very good sense of how many words there are in a novel (maybe few people have this sense).  Their guesses about the length of The Portal ranged from two thousand words to two million.  It actually contains 103,678 words, according to Microsoft Word.

Sequels and sixth-graders

So I walked into the auditorium for my talk to a bunch of sixth-graders, and one of them is helping to set up the AV.  I tell him my name, and he says, “You wrote The Portal?”

“Yep.”

“I loved that book!  Have you written a sequel?”

“Well, it just so happens…”  And I pull a copy of Terra out of my briefcase.

“Cool!”

By the end of my talk, though, I was beginning to worry a bit about getting these kids to read the sequel.  The protagonist of The Portal is in the seventh grade, and he’s already interested in girls.  In Terra, he’s heading in to the eighth grade, and things are heating up a bit.  He meets a girl.  They are thrown together in a bunch of adventures.  He kisses her.  He sleeps with her snuggled up against him.  He sees her naked.  He has… reactions.  Who am I to say if this is appropriate fare for a sixth-grader?

And, I have to say, those particular sixth-graders looked awfully young.  The teacher told me that each class has a personality, and this year’s group was on the immature side.  He didn’t seem worried about pushing them a bit towards maturity.  But I sure don’t want to have to explain myself to their parents if they find any of this stuff objectionable.

It’s tough being a writer.

The paperback version of Terra is now available!

It’s $14.99 and worth every penny!  Available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  (I have no idea how there is already a used copy for sale from a bookseller on Amazon.)

By the way, we’re in the process of coming up with a new cover for The Portal to give us continuity in the series.  I’ll post a draft when we have it.

Terra cover

First customer review of Terra

And it’s a good one!

A really intriguing and rather different coming of age story. Alternate universe, strange portals to travel through and a planet called Terra. Earth, but not Earth. A place where the Roman Empire never fell, although with some very big differences. The first being that power resides in the hands of the priests, who control the portal, the Via. A schism has developed in the priesthood with the head priest (pontifex) attempting to corrupt the ideals of the finder of the portal and original priest of the order.

This is the second book of the series, having not yet read the first story of Larry and his portal hopping I was concerned it would be difficult to follow. It wasn’t. There were enough explanations to give one a basic understanding of what had occurred in the first episode so that the characters motivations could be understood, without destroying the suspense and giving away the previous storyline.

The combination of alternate universe travel, the Roman Empire still existent, some wonderfully complex characters, a high level of suspense and many twists made for an edge-of-the-seat read.

Highly recommended.

One of the many tough things about writing a sequel is trying to make the novel intelligible on its own.  I’m glad to see this reader enjoyed Terra without having read its predecessor.