POINT OF VIEW

This is so basic I'm probably telling you what you already know, but I see so many examples of POV mistakes that it seems worth reiterating this fundamental technique of narrative.

When you begin a scene you are telling your story—and  this is relevant for both fiction and non-fiction—from someone's vantage point. Strictly as a hypothetical, if you start by saying: “Shelly had long considered the house inadequate. Now, speaking to John about why it could not be sold, she must make a different argument.” You have established he scene as being in Shelly's POV. You cannot then tell us what John thinks. You have instead to tell us what he says and/or what Shelly believes he thinks.

When you end that scene and you are no longer reporting that particular conversation you are perhaps free to invoke a different POV. (Unless, of course, you have set up this particular story as being in what's called limited third person. In that case you are telling the story entirely in Shelly's POV, but using third person: “Shelley had long considered.” Rather than, “I had long considered.”)

A really skilled technician can break this rule and tell a particular scene from multiple points of view, but doing so can seriously mess up your pace. Something you don't want to do.

Or you can elect a different approach and divide your story precisely according to who is doing the telling. In the opening of Gillian Flynn's runaway bestseller GONE GIRL she starts with Nick's POV and says: “When I think of my wife I always think of her head. The shape to begin with.” Later she will switch to Amy's POV and tell the same story from a very different perspective. The point is to make the reader consider which of the two major POV characters is telling the truth. Flynn thus played with what proved to be a game-changer in commercial fiction, the unreliable narrator. In my novel BRISTOL HOUSE the story is told in the alternating points of view of three main characters, one in twentieth century London and two in that same city in Tudor times.  Moreover, Flynn and I are in good company. The likes of Paul Scott and E.M. Forster have employed similar techniques.

Returning to the question of applying this principle to non-fiction—whether article or book length—the same considerations apply. In non-fiction you're more likely to have begun by immediately establishing who Shelly is and why we should care what she thinks about a particular house, whereas in a novel you might choose to let those reasons unfold as the drama moves forward. But in terms of POV it comes to the same thing.

Readers want to be—indeed almost always need to be—in the head of one person at a time.

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Working with Beverly

I've had the joy of working with other writers for a number of years and I enjoy it very much. I get to interact with people who love to do what I love to do. Often I can be of real help to them. And they are always of help to me because I get to flex my editing muscle (to a greater or lesser degree) and that makes me a better editor of my own work, and that of the next client. What's not to like?
Essentially of course if you're a writer thinking about working with me you're seeking publication. And if you're considering having me on your team, you're after traditional publication. (I have done a little self-publishing of a few of my own old novels, but I'm no expert on that subject.).
Bringing me to rule number one. To get a traditional publisher you need an agent. Helping you achieve that is what I do in two different ways. You can read about each of them in detail here  and here. But before you click we need to be clear about the essential difference between the two. (And why one is a lot more expensive than the other.) In one case I'm saying, “These are excellent choices of agents for you to approach with your work and here's how I think you should do it.” In the second, I am—as my salesman dad would have said—fronting you in. I am personally recommending your work to the agent and my name and reputation are going on the line with yours. Before that can happen I need to read your ms and discuss it with you in great detail. And you probably need to do some more work. Then, if and when it's ready, I will take it to some likely agents. There's no silver bullet in this business and I have none to offer. But if you're ready to take a crack at prime time, maybe we should talk.

Don’t Begin at the Beginning

Nothing is harder to do than to start writing. And when you look for advice you're quite likely to be told to begin at the beginning. Personally I think the beginning is an awful place to start.

Whatever truth you're about to tell—the opening of a thriller (N.B. no good novel is ever untrue) or the first paragraph of an article for the local paper—your task is to grab the reader's attention. That's never been easy to do. Nowadays there are so many competing demands on what used to be called “reading time” it can be a monumental task.

You need to look for the heart of your story—what makes it alive—and start there. Maybe you're writing a memoir about your life singing with a blues band. Please promise me you won't start by talking about your mom and dad back in Omaha, and how the only music they cared about was produced by the church choir.

Much better to start with perhaps the first time you set foot on stage. How you came on after the guy with the harmonica had been waving you forward for what seemed like forever. And then, when you finally worked up the courage to walk on stage, you were so overwhelmed with the smoke drifting up from the audience you were sure you'd choke as soon as you opened your mouth. And how that's exactly what happened.

As for the folks back home in Omaha and how they got there, you'll get to that. And you won't forget how the family reacted when Grandma married her sixth husband. But this is a story about what happened to you, not them. So begin with something that actually still lingers deep in your gut, Do the head-parts, the stuff you know but don't necessarily feel, in flashback. (And I promise a piece on flashbacks in the not too distant future.)

Agent Research

Agent Research was started in 1997 by my late husband, Bill Martin. Back then the Internet was in its infancy and for years writers had never had any objective information about what agents had actually accomplished for their clients. (Additionally the business was full of scammers who promised the earth and had never actually sold a book to a real publisher.) Bill, whose background in the co-operative and consumer protection movements had given him a very real rage for justice, set out to change that. And did.

From the first I was involved with helping Bill's clients make decisions about which agent was likely to respond to their work, and how the writer should approach that agent.

Nowadays there's a lot more hard info out there, and most of the scammers have been driven out of the agent business. But while I do a lot more with some writers in some instances, I've learned there's still a place for even a limited application of my kind of professional input. So here's how what we used to call the Customized Fingerprint has evolved.

I will read the first ten pages and the last ten pages of your ms (I won't make editorial suggestions, but I will have some idea of your voice). I'd also like to see a single paragraph synopsis of the story. Then I'll probably ask some questions. After that I will make agent suggestions with info about the agents and my thinking, and then work on the query letter with the writer. The cost for all this is a single all-in price of $469.00. You can order that service here.

 





My Books

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"Near perfect historical fiction…" –LOS ANGELES TIMES

"Fast paced, complex…compulsive reading that informs and entertains." –BOOKLIST

"Enthralling, evocative, and entertaining…" –PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

"Compulsively readable."—THE NEW YORK PRESS

"…a great swirl of plots and counterplots. Riotously entertaining."—THE WASHINGTON POST

"Nimbly weaves fact-based history and fast-paced fiction into a vivid tableau…"—ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

"Rich, amusing, and sensual."—CHICAGO TRIBUNE

"The glitz of Broadway and the golden age of television…life in the fast lane…back then."—THE NEW YORK TIMES

"Winning, a grabber…and great good fun."—KIRKUS REVIEWS

"A fine-tuned understanding of the pulls and torments of women trying to find their own way in today's life." —HOUSTON CHRONICLE

"Sweeping…masterful…"—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

"Genre-blending… back and forth through time…"—BOOKLIST

"Intricately woven plot with voices from the past…"—KIRKUS REVIEWS

ESSAY; A Line Drawn in the Sands of Time

ESSAY; A Line Drawn in the Sands of Time

By BEVERLY SWERLING
Published: September 8, 2002

FOR the first time in memory no one could come. The dream was interrupted.

On Sept. 11, at 9:17 a.m., 14 minutes after the second plane hit, the Federal Aviation Administration shut all airports in the New York area as well as the rest of the country. Four minutes later, the Port Authority ordered every bridge and tunnel closed. We were isolated. For some 24 hours the activity that defines New York stopped.

No one arrived bearing that special unseen baggage, that carry-on, which in these cynical times in this often most cynical of cities is a tenderness regularly on display. The dream-bearers couldn't get in. First time ever. Probably since the original American Indian crossed the land bridge looking for who knows what: food, shelter, safety. Something better than what was. A dream.

Some events draw a line through history, create a solder mark that leaves a permanent scar. Whole generations of people speak of things as occurring before or after the war, and don't have to add anything to indicate that they mean World War II. In New York we speak of buildings as postwar or prewar with no need to add the dates. And prewar is more desirable, a mark of quality.

Sept. 11, 9/11, has rapidly become just like that. If you were here on that day, if you placed your bet on the city before the attacks, you belong in a special way. You secured your place in a long line that stretches back hundreds of years.

The record is unclear about which Indian tribe bargained with Peter Minuit in 1626, the year Manhattan was supposedly bought. Most likely it was the Canarsee, and that they did not think they were selling the place called in their Algonquian language, Manahatta, the High Hills Island. They were merely giving the Europeans leave to peacefully use the land in return for 60 guilders — $24 — worth of ”duffel cloth, kettles, axes, hoes, wampum, drilling awls, jew's-harps and diverse other wares.” (Or something close. No bill of sale exists, but we know Minuit paid just that for what he referred to as the Staten Eylant.)

The Canarsee themselves were only summer residents. In winter, they lived on Metoaca, the Long Island. In summer they paddled over to Manahatta to do business. Their campsite on the southern tip of the island stood about where Wall Street is now. And since the Canarsee were reputedly the makers of the finest wampum in Ur-America, members of other eastern tribes arrived to trade. The Canarsee moved the store after Minuit cut his deal, and doubtless the 270 Walloons who were the first settlers of New Amsterdam felt more secure.

The agreement also meant that the canny men of the Dutch West India Company — who, different from the founders of cities like Boston, Philadelphia and Providence, were interested in earning power rather than theology — were free to invite the rest of the world. So many came from so many places that a 17th-century commentator described standing on the corner of Wall Street and the Broad Way at noon and hearing at least 18 different languages.

A long line indeed. But what of those who came after the divide, who stand on the other side of the wound? A friend who moved from Long Island to a new building on Chambers Street two years before the attack speaks of neighbors who fled in those first hours and decided not to return. My friend has new neighbors now, but she does not think they understand her grieving for what existed before the chasm opened.

In the blackness after Sept. 11, there were many small miracles. Surely among the wonders were those who decided to come to this city anyway, to arrive schlepping that special piece of bound-for-New York luggage. On Sept. 12, the bridges and tunnels were slowly reopened; two days later, a few planes took off and landed. And, undoubtedly, well before the tourists began to trickle back in a tentative stream, some gutsy someone packed up a dream and brought it here.

I know one 23-year-old who came from New Mexico six weeks after the attacks, because, she says, that had always been her plan. Come to New York and take pictures and write. She admits she called a friend who lives here and asked if he thought it was safe. ”What's safe?” he asked.

That made perfect sense to her, so she got on a plane and came. Now she lives in Brooklyn across the street from a firehouse, and she has become friendly with the firefighters whose silent witness seems to her an explanation and a bridge to all that happened before she arrived.

A MAN of 30 tells me he's from a small town in Iowa and has been waiting to come to New York since he was 11 and realized that he was gay. Easier to come out here, he thought. His mother, a widow, had progressive multiple sclerosis, so he waited until she died and didn't need him. A computer programmer, he got a job with a dot-com connected to a fashion house. His plane ticket would have brought him here on the afternoon of 9/11. He came a week later, and still regrets that he was not here before it happened.

He, too, sees the attack as a dividing line, something that separates real New Yorkers from the rest. I tell him to rejoice. He was among those who brought healing.

History matters, even in a city like this one where almost nothing from the past is allowed to remain standing. Because our European period began with the Netherlanders, whose practice it was to live above the store, we do not zone ourselves into the divisions between residential and commercial use as neatly as other American cities.

In New York, even brand-new luxury apartment buildings put a supermarket on the ground floor. Because the city's purpose has always been the generation of wealth, and laborers are a form of capital, in 1809 we laid down a grid. The early city planners recognized that you can get more people into a smaller space that way. Ever since, at least on the High Hills Island, we have lived with the intersection of population and transportation the grid requires at every corner. Like it or not, it is that constant friction that generates our energy.

It has always been the lyricists who remind those of us who live here that we are inside the dream, populating the mirage.

”Another hundred people just got off of the train, Stephen Sondheim wrote in ”Company,” and we nod and indulge a secret smile, because we're the ones who stayed, came in our 20's or 30's and proved we can make it here, so we can make it anywhere: thank you, Messrs. Kander and Ebb. And the Bronx is up and the Battery's down, and New York, New York, is a wonderful town, as we know because Ms. Comden and Mr. Green told us. Born here or more likely brought here, we sucked in self-belief along with oxygen; that's the New York way. But it remained for this generation's balladeer, Bruce Springsteen, to sing of the boarded-up windows and empty streets in our city of ruins.

Not permanently, however. Among those first Americans, the wampum-makers, it was the custom after a battle to select a few defeated enemies as captives and bring them home to be adopted, replacements for fallen warriors. Such tactics can never heal individual wounds, but they do much for collective loss. Rise up, rise up, Springsteen admonishes the ruined city. Few of us doubt that the rising will happen.

How can it not? Another hundred people, another hundred dreamers, got off the train and the plane and the bus maybe yesterday.

Beverly Swerling is the author of ”City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan.”

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About me…

If you heard me say “park your car in Harvard yard,” you wouldn't ask where I'm from.

Growing up in the Boston suburb of Revere (in those days defined by having both a dog track and a horse track, and lots of gentlemen with binoculars doing sub-rosa checks of the totes from assorted windows)I learned early that I could make people pay attention if I told stories. They were whoppers, usually involving secret caves and mysterious codes, that I insisted were true. Soon I realized that if I left an episode at an exciting point everyone came back for more.

My future was obvious. I was either going to be a novelist or a pathological liar.

Writing fiction, however, is a leap into a void—anyone who's tried it will tell you so—and my first published work was largely journalism. Eventually I mustered the courage to make things up and submit the result for publication. I've now done that successfully eighteen times and seen the results in a variety of languages. Which astonishes me, but it's true. You can see more about my books here.

I was privileged to be married to Bill Martin and be the mother of Michael Martin. Now untimely gone. We lived in many parts of the US and Europe including for a short time northwestern Connecticut, which has among its many charms the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis. For which reason I'm back there now.

My Catholic faith defines my life, along with deep respect and gratitude for the rich legacy of my Jewish heritage.

Happens I'm also a huge soccer fan (Liverpool! Liverpool! Liverpool!) and if you are as well you'll know A/that it's really hard to score goals in Soccer, and B/that many players when they do score make a public gesture of thanks to God. Me too. 

In all things, ad majorem Dei gloriam.