The Trouble With Omniscient Voice

By Lisa Alber

Since the fall, I’ve been working on a standalone mystery I’m calling The Shadow Maiden. It takes place at a girl’s school, hehe, has a gothic vibe, and features a back story that’s complex enough to need a secondary story line.

For the back story, I’m dabbling in omniscient voice. Ay yi yi, talk about masochistic! I’ve been fooling around with omniscient voice off and on since 2006 when I first tried it out in a workshop taught by Elizabeth George. I got hooked on the challenge of it, I guess.

There are many reasons not to use omniscient voice:

  1. It’s not exactly in fashion in the publishing world.
  2. If you don’t watch out, you’ll end up in head-hopping third-person point of view.
  3. It’s challenging in the most subtle way ever because although the narrator can tell the reader anything—because the narrator knows everything—you can’t be inside the characters’ heads in the telling. It’s kind of like knowing a person so well you can talk about what she’s thinking, but not her exact thoughts.
  4. Maintaining a consistent voice that’s not any of the characters’ voices will drive you effing bananas.
  5. We’re used to reading novels that read intimately—first person or close-in third—so writing from a more detached perspective feels awkward.
  6. Why make our writing lives harder than need be?

Given all that, then WHY oh why this infuriating choice on my part? (FYI: The main story is in first person, so we’re intimate with my protagonist Tessa. The secondary story will probably be about thirteen chapters out of fiftyish.)

First, my sense of the story (which I hope I can convey) includes a presence that hovers over Grayvale Mansion (girl’s school inside a mansion, hehe), the surrounding lands, and the local lore. I imagine this as the voice of my omniscient narrator who understands how certain events in 1986 in the life of the mansion and its inhabitants (including Tessa) come to bear on a crime in the present day.

Second, on the practical side, omniscient voice provides an ensemble method of sharing what’s going on with many characters at once, which is what I need. Otherwise, I’d have to use alternating third-person points of view—which is the done thing these days, don’t get me wrong—but I’d rather only have two voices in the novel: Tessa’s and the omniscient narrator. Otherwise, the second storyline will read too splintered for my taste. (Is that complicated, or what?)

Anyhow, all this is to say that I’m having a ton of fun writing my new novel. We shall see!

Here are a few posts I found about omniscient voice:

Deadline Heaven and Life Management Skills Hell

heaven-or-hellBy Lisa Alber

Our fantastic webmistress of the ShadowSpinners world, Christina, sent me a nice email just now pointing out that yesterday makes twice in a row that I’ve missed a blogging deadline. The funny thing about deadlines is that I’m quite good at making them.

So, what’s my excuse this time? Why am I preoccupied enough that this blog has slipped my mind?

The answer is—deadlines! Yep. Coupled with a tendency to be chaotic. In December, I spaced out about this blog because I was feverishly finishing up my Labyrinth of Souls (yay!) novel for a December 31st deadline. So excited about it—can’t wait to tell you more. That and holiday stuff and regular work deadlines were enough to put me under.

And this month? A Feb 1st deadline for a short story that will appear in an anthology in about a year. You’d think a short story wouldn’t be that big a deal, but they are for me since I don’t write them that often. That coupled with my usual seasonal affective disorder and even more regular work deadlines was enough for this month.

However, since I have a new day planner for 2018, I’m going to write down a standing reminder for the first of each month: Check Shadowspinners blog posting deadline. Doing it now … Did it!

Despite not being up on everything in my life—for example, my garage door broke over a month ago; just got it fixed yesterday—I’ve been in heaven with these deadlines. I have a sense of purpose in life anyhow, but deadlines give the purpose a nice ooomph. I like that, especially when I’m having so much fun with the writing projects. Both the LoS novel and the short story were a blast to write because they were outside my usual voice and story space.

Now I’ll be returning to my regularly scheduled writing project: the next mystery, a standalone set in California in a genre I’m calling “California gothic.” I can relax a bit with this one, but the truth is that there’s always something to cause static, isn’t there? This month it will include money stuff because my wee dog Fawnie needs double knee surgery (poor thing!) and that’s expensive. So I’ll be working more than ever.

<shrug, that’s life>

One of my goals for 2018 is to minimize static and chaos. That sense of not being able to keep up, of having life itself feel too complicated and rushed all the time. It’s an ongoing process of improvement, for sure. Here are my top four strategies, for the moment, subject to change:

  1. Less social media. Social media increases static, wastes times, and distracts. Enough said.
  2. Write things down. Said day planner – yes, actually use it in a proactive way. Chunk out sub-tasks so things don’t feel so big. At the end of the day, give it a look to see where I am and plan for the next day. This it time management 101 stuff, but I’ve always gone by the seat of my pants and kept things in my head—which increases static big time. Writing it down releases it.
  3. Embrace a few routines and rituals. I’m not into routines or rituals—I tend to free-wheel it through life. I get bored and restless. I need variety and to change it up. That said, a few small routines could help streamline my life. For example, readying the coffee, food, clothes, etcetera, for the next day before I go to bed. That way, I’m not muttering around in daze when I could be getting straight to the writing.
  4. If it’s a little task, like sending an email, just get it done then.

You’d think I haven’t been functioning well as an adult for eh-hem number of years. I have to accept the fact that I’m getting older and can’t keep everything in my head anymore, plus life is that much more complicated these days. What’s “normal” is ever a-changing!

What strategies do you employ to lessen static and chaos in your life?

Writing a Labyrinth of Souls Novel

By Lisa Alber

You may have noticed that every once in awhile one of us ShadowSpinners will mention “Labyrinth of Souls” (LoS), which is a Tarot-inspired solitaire card game with a role-playing aspect to it, created by our own Matthew Lowes. “Labyrinth of Souls” also refers to the companion novels that most of us are writing or have written already. I signed on during the summer, and I’m nearing the end of my first draft—it’s been a blast. And highly educational for me to step out of my usual genre.

I chose a bad-ass beauty, the Queen of Wands, as my inspiration/theme. My novel will be called “The Bog Queen,” and is also inspired by Celtic/Irish lore–and bog bodies!

I write crime fiction. Dark fantasy is new, new, new to me. I find it liberating to write in a world that doesn’t need to be grounded in reality, a world that includes mythological creatures and adventures that can defy the basic laws of nature. The sky can be permanently reddish. My hero can accidentally pollute a stream because of his very humanity. Ravens can turn into a triad goddess. My imagination crackles along in the most fun fashion.

Recently, a bunch of us LoS-ers spent a writer’s retreat weekend on the Oregon coast. For me, part of the purpose was also to ground myself in fantasy—i.e. to ask for advice. I was reminded that in terms of storytelling, these stories are pretty straightforward. I don’t have to worry about planting clues and red herrings, as I would with a mystery. My hero’s on a journey, and the outer journey through the labyrinth reflects his inner journey toward some kind of change. This isn’t so different from any story, but with mystery you have an extra-added whodunnit? puzzle layer.

Instead of the mystery layer, I’m wrestling with the world-building layer. Wow. Just wow. I’ve always admired the imagination that fantasy writers wield, but now I truly get it. Halfway through writing my first draft, I realized that I’d have compartmentalize the world-building writing aspect since I’m coming at this skill as a newbie. So the first draft is all about figuring out the world and the challenges it poses to the hero along the way. This is the plot, essentially.

I normally start with character, so starting with the plot is an interesting twist in my usual writing process all by itself. For my second draft, I’ll return to character and deepen the internal plot line, add more description in some places, and so on.

Questing Beast makes an appearance in “The Bog Queen.”

It feels strange not to have mystery elements to fall back on as the scaffold for the story. Instead, I have the equivalent of a ticking clock. My hero will be annihilated if he doesn’t figure out his shit and defeat the challenges the labyrinth places in his way. It’s a thriller, basically, another type of story I’ve never written before.

I’ve now read the LoS novels that have already been published, and what I love about the project is how different our versions of the labyrinth are and how different our stories are. Check out the other Labyrinth of Souls novels here.

What’s a “MacGuffin” Anyhow? A Little Investigation of my Own

By Lisa Alber

Since the last time I wrote here, my third novel, PATH INTO DARKNESS launched. Woohoo! It’s always a fun thing, the culmination of at least two years of hard work. Along with the launch, come the reviews, which I try not to notice all that much … (yeah, right).

But then, last week, I got a nice surprise: my local alternative paper, the Willamette Week—bastion of Portland, OR, hipness and snark—featured a review of the novel. Color me shocked, to be honest. I’d never seen an actual full book review in the newspaper. Maybe it was a slow news week in the land of hip, I don’t know. I was hesitant to read the review. Snark doesn’t tend to be magnanimous, and, indeed, the reviewer had a nice way of coating what might considered a positive aspect of the novel with the glow of ambiguity.

But, it’s all good. I was thrilled to see the review and picked up about ten copies of the print version. 🙂

One sentence sticks out near the beginning of the review: “…the murder is just the MacGuffin, a hedge mower clearing the underbrush to look at the gross stuff underneath.”

Using the term “MacGuffin” in a book review interests me. That’s a writing craft kind of word, the kind of concept that the average reader won’t understand or care about it.

First thought: Really? Thanks for letting me know.

Second thought: What’s a MacGuffin again?

Third thought: Is that a bad thing?

I get what the reviewer is saying, maybe: The murder of Elder Joe at the beginning of the book is the least of the events and mysteries to sort out. One thing leads to another, and before you know it there’s a whole ‘nother thing going down that could be related to Elder Joe’s death, but maybe it’s not, and maybe there’s some more bad stuff brewing.

What can I say, this is the world of dark crime fiction — shit (or maybe “shite” since the story’s set in Ireland) happens. When you’re writing mystery, that’s pretty much the point!

I’m not sure the reviewer used the term “MacGuffin” correctly, so bear with me as I investigate. Review aside, I am interested in the MacGuffin concept anyhow.

Here’s what I know to start with: MacGuffins are plot devices. Too bad the term “plot device” always seems to come along with a sneer, like it’s a bad thing, like if you’re a writer using a plot device, then you’re basically a hack — so-called “literary” writers don’t use plot devices, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

We could mine that topic until the next eclipse …  To continue, looking around the Internet, I see that “MacGuffin” is typically defined as the object (person, place, thing) around which a plot revolves, and said object may or may not be all that important. The Maltese Falcon statuette, the Holy Grail, a lost manuscript, the lost city of Atlantis, and so on.

If you want to get all technical about it, I guess you could say that a dead body is an object around which a mystery plot revolves, therefore, a MacGuffin. But that seems silly. Might as well say that the love interest the heroine meets at the beginning of a romance novel is a MacGuffin.

On WikiPedia, the definition includes, “Other more abstract types [of MacGuffins] include victory, glory, survival, power, love, or some unexplained driving force.”

Well, huh. Every story, I mean every story ever written, has a MacGuffin then, which renders the term pretty useless. If a story doesn’t revolve around something, then what’s the point of it? So I reject that wider definition. I’ll remain a purist on the topic, which is more the Hitchcockian way of thinking of MacGuffins.

I have a go-to writing book that I dip into now and then for inspiration and reminders: Elizabeth George’s WRITE AWAY. Since she writes crime fiction, I’m curious what she has to say about MacGuffins within our genre. She considers MacGuffins a craft element that you can use to increase suspense. She says, “… it’s the race itself — the race to possess the MacGuffin in advance of the other characters — that creates the suspense.”

OK, yeah, that makes sense — a lot of sense.

My conclusion? I have a more purist definition of “MacGuffin,” so I don’t think a murder at the beginning of a mystery counts as one, even when said murder ends up not being the point of the story. (Like the Maltese Falcon statue itself not really being the point of the story.)

Did the reviewer misuse the term? Meh. Not sure. Kind of. You can argue either way. It’s just not fully apt, in my opinion. In my literary jargon, Elder Joe’s death is the inciting incident — the event that gets the plot rolling so that I can, as the reviewer so descriptively put it, examine deeper and darker territory.

What’s your take on the MacGuffin? Do you define it more in the Hitchcockian way? Or include abstractions in your definition? Do you even care?

The Art of Creative Frittering (and Creative Napping too)

By Lisa Alber

On July 1st, I began writing a brand-spanking hold-your-horses new first draft, and it was a little painful, to be honest. Wait, what, I need to use my right brain now? But I want to analyze my idea to death into foooorever … It takes me awhile to disengage from the left brain and just start. It’s like wandering off a cliff; we’d all resist that, wouldn’t we?

Luckily, I’ve walked off this cliff enough to know that I float rather than fall. Or maybe I fall a little, but I never do the Wiley Coyote kersplat. Writing first drafts ends up being a wild ride, that’s for sure, but I always survive.

I have to give myself a hard start date, whether I feel ready or not. Hence, July 1st. I’m calling the draft “The Shadow Maiden.” My goal is 1,000 words (about four pages) per day for July, and then I’ll pause to engage my left brain in a little analysis: Does the story have chops? What have I learned about the story, characters, their motivations, and so on? What adjustments should I make now so I can continue in a better-thought-out direction?

That will be fun, but right now, I’m Little Miss Right Brain with my brainstorming novel notebook and Kaizen creativity tiny steps and pints o’ beer to help lube the wheels. (Not every day, but, yes, sometimes.) I’ll revise the shit out of anything, and I’ll do it with focus for hours, but first-draft writing? Some days it goes smoothly; other days I spend all day to get my 1,000 words.

ALL DAY. I’m not sure why this is. To an outside observer, I probably look addled. Walking around. Sitting down at the laptop again to tap out a hundred words. Unloading half the dishwasher and wandering away. Staring into space while scratching my dog’s tummy. Spacey. Distracted. It’s not relaxing, per se, because I can feel my brain inside my head (like, literally, man), heavy with unconscious processing.

I call this creative frittering, and it has a different feel from generalized putzing or procrastinating or being lazy.

Summer is my best season for writing first drafts because gardening provides a perfect outlet on creative frittering days. In fact, I’m proud to say that Manolo, the man who helps me out a few hours a month (big yard), always comments on how good the yard looks, especially the weeds — or lack of them, I should say. Yep, that’s me on creative frittering days, doing his job for him. But the garden does look pretty darned good, if I do say so.

Is there an art to creative frittering? I think so. It’s waking with the intention to write that day, but then, oddly, giving yourself the time and space to “be” without striving for the end outcome. Most of us don’t have much time to spare, and that’s true for me too. Yet, my creative process orders me to allow space for creative frittering anyhow. Mind you, it’s not every day. Maybe once a week at most. Maybe my brain needs to fill up its well, I don’t know. And sometimes, nothing works, and I don’t get my 1,000 words in, and I have to be OK with that because I’m only human.

The art of creative frittering also includes the art of creative napping. Straight up, no joke, scout’s honor. TRUTH. Here’s a great example: Last Saturday, I was particularly restless, not knowing what to do with the current scene or with myself in my body. Even gardening didn’t work. Then I realized I might as well do the exact opposite, lie down. Weird realization: The reason I couldn’t sit still to write or do much of anything was because I actually did need to rest awhile. I was so relaxed on the couch with Fawn, my eight-pound little nugget pup, nestled against me, picturing the characters in the scene, dozing off … And then, A-HA! followed by a mad dash to find my novel notebook before I lost my brilliant idea.

See? Napping, the next best thing to frittering.

I hope you enjoy these pictures of my garden, the end result of last year’s creative frittering while writing PATH INTO DARKNESS (out in a month!) and this year’s.

What say you to creative frittering, or just frittering? Do you get impatient with yourself or go with the flow?

Marilyn, Perfectionism, and Quitting

MarilynBy Lisa Alber

I spend last Friday night with Mom. One of our Friday movie nights. My mom is 85 years old and has dementia. She still lives at home with my sister who lives at home (not because of Mom, she just does) and two caretakers who come and go. We like to watch old movies together. Mom seems to be able to follow them, well enough anyhow.

Last Friday we watched an old Marilyn Monroe movie from before she hit sex symbol status. “Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952), a noir-ish thriller in which Monroe plays a deranged babysitter. I was fascinated by her performance. She was still herself, that Marilyn thing, but she wasn’t yet typecast or peroxide blond or shimmying rather than walking. She played dramatic quite well.

When I think about Marilyn Monroe, I think about perfectionism. It’s said that she was a perfectionist, and that this was one of her obstacles (among many) to getting to the set on time, to knowing her lines, to being prepared. She wasn’t a flake; she was crippled by the need to be perfect. It’s a low-self-esteem, all-or-nothing, kind of thing.

I know about this. I’m on that spectrum, but not extremely so. Thankfully. But just enough that I’ve had good discussions about it with my therapist. I had never considered myself a perfectionist. I mean, come on, I rarely make my bed. In person, I’m the disheveled sort. No perfectionism here!

Yeah, no. That’s not what perfectionism is, though it can look like perfectly coiffed hair and made beds. My perfectionism is more the getting-straight-As thing. The problem with perfectionism is that it is an illusion, and living in the land of illusion only causes suffering. I was thinking about all of this in March for my last post: A Confusing Lesson in Resistance and Illusion.

Perfectionism is all about trying to create your worth because your internal sense of self-worth isn’t the best ever. You think people will only like or love you if you’re perfect. You don’t have the sense that you’re worthy all on your own, just as you are. Isn’t that the sense we get from Marilyn Monroe? That she was chasing this illusion?

How exhausting. For me, like I mentioned, it’s more about getting As. I want to do well in my chosen activities. Novel writing is the activity that causes me the most suffering. Seriously. I could be as perfect as I could possibly be, write the best novel I know how to write, and get no joy — no contract or no sales or no reviews. That’s where the illusion lies: that I need all this stuff to be happy as a novelist, because then it will all be just PERFECT.

So what ends up happening? Instead of having a dream, the dream has us. It owns us. Everything is the illusion of that future place where everything is perfect, if only we could get there. So we strive, and strive, and find no satisfaction in our current place because we aren’t at that future perfect place yet. And, oh the suffering, because no matter how well we write (or do whatever it is) or fast we write, or how well we engage in social media or go on book tours that we have to pay for ourselves, we aren’t on the bestseller list — !

I’m exhausted just having written that. I’ve been in that striving place since 2001-ish. And, as I told a friend last night: “This may sound pessimistic, but I give up. I’m not going to strive anymore. I want to live my life, and I want to write novels as part of that, but I give up on being owned by the dream.”

I’ve decided to quit the dream. That’s it. And that may sound horrid, but it’s not. Because quitting the dream is quitting the illusion and the perfectionism and the unhealthy striving that goes along with all of that. In fact, “quitting” is quite possibly the healthiest thing I could do for myself right now. Quitting isn’t a bad thing even though it has a bad rap.

I’m not quitting writing — no way — and you’ll see a new novel out in August, and I’m working on something totally different right now. I’m just quitting the Marilyn Monroe.

If you’re curious about the quitting topic, check out this NPR “Freakonomics” broadcast about quitting:

And here’s an article I found about perfectionism versus *healthy* striving, which clarified a few things for me:


A Confusing Lesson in Resistance, Ego, and Illusion

By Lisa Alber

A few weeks ago, I happened on a funny little book at the New Renaissance bookshop in Portland. After scoffing at a book about how to analyze my issues by observing my dog’s behavior, my gaze stopped on a title that read, I Don’t Want To, I Don’t Feel Like ItHow Resistance Controls Your Life and What To Do About It.

If I believed in the metaphysical, I’d have said it was a sign from the book gods. I knew I had to buy the book when I opened it and read at random:

“If you recognize this trap [i.e. nasty internal voice naysayers], perhaps as a result of years of failed self-improvement plans, you’ve most likely spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure out why this is happening. “Why do I keep failing?” And, you’ve probably heard plenty of internal “advice” about what you should do differently, usually amounting to “just try harder.””

It’s as if the author wrote to me personally. Having grown up in a positive-thinking, self-improving family, I am the Queen of Failure when it comes to self-improvement plans. Sometimes I despair of myself, and I do ask myself why I keep failing, and I do have a voice that always demands that I “just” try harder.

“Just” — such an awful little word.

I’m no stranger to pondering the notion of resistance. I’ve talked about it enough in psychological terms and in terms of creativity. This little book comes at it from a Buddhist point of view. The book defines resistance as an ego-identity maintenance system. It’s all about how the “I” maintains control and its status quo.

Our egos want to survive above all, and when we set out to change the status quo, the ego brings out the nasty little internal voices that rationalize, accuse, blame, shame, taunt. So, we fall back into old patterns and feel rotten about ourselves.

OK, I can see that, but then the book talks about illusion. As in, what the ego presents to us is illusion: worries, anxieties, shoulds, coulds. All these thoughts about how our lives would be better if X. These are just stories. They aren’t real and the thoughts behind them aren’t real. It’s all illusion.

We tend to believe our thoughts, don’t we? But our thoughts are just thoughts; they’re not indicative of any kind of truth about ourselves. But we believe them and we suffer.

I know I suffer a lot. I feel like I’m always striving, trying to outdistance my voices. Try harder, try harder.

The galling part is that the more I read this book, the more I realize how ego-driven I am. MASSES of ego. Ego all over the place. Oozing ego almost every waking moment — and maybe while I’m asleep too.

Thing is, I’m reading this book and gaining insight, but I’m not sure what lessens the resistance … Awareness? I think calling out the thoughts as the unhelpful beasts they are and taking a few breaths to bring myself back to the moment could be helpful.

Of course, the most interesting thing about delving into a book about resistance is that all the while, I’m resisting my writing. So my quest to lessen resistance is itself resistance?

Hmm … Seems confusing, this Buddhist philosophical stuff. Oh wait, is that resistance again?  That is, was that a naysayer thought about reading the book, just to get me to quit reading the book?

And is this tendency of mine to overanalyze yet ANOTHER example of the ego’s resistance tactics?


What do you do to lessen resistance?