Stories like Rawhead Rex have taught me bad habits that I am still trying to shake. I’ve been writing strong since the late eighties, and I taught myself the craft of fiction through reading incessantly. I had some favorite genres, but in general, I would read anything. I took notes on everything I read – what worked for me, what didn’t. Then I purchased, with my own money (quite a thing for a child), every book on writing that I could get my hands on, so that I could find out why some things worked while others did not.
by Steve Bissette
In the last few years, I’ve had a handful of stories get the same criticism – more than one point of view per scene is wrong. I had a hard time wrapping my head around this, because I could name a hundred or more of my favorite writers and stories that did it and did it well. I assumed I did it well too, because I always made sure the reader knew whose head I was in with every shift. My intent was to give the reader the full experience, shifting to the character that had the most to give at that moment, or shifting away from a character that would reveal too much. It was all very calculated.
Because of these criticisms, and because of what I have researched in the last few years, I am constantly telling the people I edit for or critique for to limit the POV per scene to one character, or to make a hard shift with a double line break between POV changes. It doesn’t matter if the shift is easy to follow. It doesn’t matter if I know exactly whose head I am in at any given point. It doesn’t matter if it seems to work for the story. If it breaks the POV rules then it DOESN’T work.
Now, I am not talking about omniscient POV, because I rarely see that written these days and I don’t think stories like Rawhead Rex really come off as omniscient -- when Barker is in a character’s head, he is IN their head until he shifts. It’s an intimate distance in the way Third Person Limited is intimate. This is what I once went for when writing ensemble scenes, and I would switch back to standard limited when the story called for it. But apparently that’s wrong. Think someone should tell Barker? Send him an e-mail maybe?
It almost makes me feel like there is some secret cabal of writing wizards who have decided what works and what doesn’t, and we all must follow the rules strictly. Until someone doesn’t. Until someone magically manages to get their odd little experiment of a story published despite the rules. Then, surely, the rest of us have a license to do the same, yes? No, not really. If someone does it anyway and finds some meager or even grand success with it, they for some reason get flagged as the exception to the rule. If you ask one of the writing wizards why this worked for the author of the exception, and why it won’t work for you, you usually get a response along the lines of, “Well, they did it right. And that is almost impossible to do, so stick to third person limited, okay?” I can’t find anywhere a list of rules of how to do it right, just rules that say not to do it. It seems to me that what they did right was simply ignoring the wizards and writing a damn good story.
All that said, despite Barker being quite well known and loved, I don’t think he had a great command over his POV choices in Rawhead Rex. Clarity really became an issue throughout, and I understand that clarity is one of the biggest reasons those writing wizards hate what they term “head hopping.” It seemed like Barker was generally unfocused throughout the story, and it almost read to me like a rough draft that needed quite a few more passes in revision before it ever saw the light of day. For example, the beginning sounded to me like a writer’s throat clearing device that might have been served better by being cut entirely. It struck me as being along the same lines as opening a story by talking about the weather – it held off the story, rather than beginning it.
Then there were issues such as this one:
As she fell backwards she saw Amelia's tear-stained face, doll-stiff, being fed between those rows of teeth. Then her head hit the banister, and her neck broke.
As it is written, the “her” in the second sentence refers back to Amelia, not the mother falling down the stairs. The pronoun does not agree with the antecedent, and no one likes a disagreeable pronoun. Language like this makes his shifty POV even more difficult to follow.
Writing aside, I kinda liked the story. As always with Barker, he delivers on shock value, and I often found myself covering my eyes and shaking my head at some of the imagery he created, and some of the things he would say. I’ve read a lot of Barker, and Rawhead above them all makes me wonder if the guy has serious issues with women and heterosexual sex (seriously, if you have ever read a Barker love scene…They are more horrific than his monsters). Not that I mind a bit of the author’s point of view slipping into the narrative – if we’re not going to soapbox a little, what’s the point of trying to be heard? And on some level I agree with Barker and sympathize with Rawhead – I wouldn’t eat a woman on her period either….nasty creatures.