Writing | Point of View

POV1

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One of the most important decisions facing a writer when they embark on the creation of a novel is choosing the point of view from which to tell the story. A different point of view can change the entire feel of a story, and a writer should take care to select the option they feel best suits what they are trying to do. Here are some thoughts on different POV options.


First Person

POV_1st person

First person POV allows the reader to experience a story as close as possible. This POV puts the reader smack dab in the character’s head. Sometimes first person is set up like the character is talking directly to the reader, while others an “interview” setup is used. (For example, the main character is recounting the events of the novel to a reporter, or a cop, or some other person… in that end they are ostensibly speaking to that other character.

When a story demands the reader be up close and personal with the main character, first person is the way to go. Be wary of head hopping in first person. If the character narrating the story can’t see, hear, feel, or know something, it shouldn’t be described. For example, if a character is hiding in a dark closet while burglars ransack the house, all the description of what the burglars do should be conveyed by sound. Describe noises that suggest what they might be doing, or share the characters thoughts on what they think the burglars are doing. If the narrator describes the thieves picking through her dresser drawers or trying to work the dial on a combination safe, and she hasn’t opened the closet door to peek at them – it’s an error, as she can’t see them doing it without leaving the closet.

Writing in first person allows the reader to share every emotion, thought, and feeling of the main character while dosing everything liberally with the character’s opinions and attitude. Some stories demand this POV as without the ‘tone’ of the main character’s opinions, they’d come off completely different in feel. The below excerpt is from “The Far Side of Promise,” a short story that demanded I write it in first person.

Futility was something I had long gotten used to since arriving on Planetoid R1840M. Some nimrod in a fancy suit, impressive office, and ridiculously expensive chair decided to name it ‘Promise’―as in a ‘bright new future with Far Horizon Mining.’ The only thing a day here promised was another fourteen hours of ass busting work extracting Mithrinium ore from an obstinate lump of rock. The surface was mostly hard and brittle as glass, with some large swaths of softer dirt and the occasional patch like driving a seventy-ton collector into a lake of wet baby shit.

Yeah, this is paradise.

That’s what the M stood for, by the way. Mithrinium, the highly volatile metallic salt somehow vital to the process of faster than light travel. I’m no chemist; all I know is the crap is worth a fortune, and the last guy to light up a butt within twenty meters of the stuff is probably back to Earth by now―without a ship. Either way, my ass fell for their bullshit story of a better life. Sure, the money isn’t bad, but it’s all waiting Earthside. Not like there’s anything to spend it on out here in the ass end of nowhere, anyway.

In first person, changing the POV character and staying in first person can confuse the reader. For example, in a nonexistent novel, Chapter 1 is Jenny getting ready to go off on a date with Clark, and Chapter 2 is Clark being all nervous about the upcoming evening. If both chapters are written in first person, it can mess with the reader’s head. After chapter 1, they’re acclimated to thinking of “I” as Jenny and hearing things in her voice. When they hit chapter 2 and they hear “I pace around the house, unable to sit still,” it gets confusing as to who “I” is.

While it is possible to pull off rotating POVs with first person it’s a lot harder to keep the reader from getting lost. (One trick I’ve seen done is to have the main character use first person POV and for chapters where someone else is the POV character, use third limited. That way, if the reader is seeing “I do this” and so on, they know whose head they’re in.

Tension and Mystery: for first person, the reader should not be made aware of things the character isn’t. If they’re heading into a building where a bomb has been planted, the reader is going to be as shocked and surprised as the character when they find it. (Hopefully with enough time to run away, or the story’s going to be short.) Likewise, if the protagonist is investigating a murder, the reader is not going to know who the killer is until the end (and the character solves the mystery – or doesn’t).

Inner monologue: sometimes novels present a character’s inner thoughts as dialogue, letting the reader ‘hear’ the little voice in the character’s mind. This is set off by italics.

Wow, coming here was really stupid of me.

In first person, as the entire narrative is told from the POV of being inside the characters head, inner monologue is attributed to the protagonist by virtue of it being inner monologue. They are not going to hear the mind voice of another person (barring telepathy). There is no need to use dialogue attribution for inner monologue (tacking an “I thought” onto it) as by virtue of it being first person, inner monologue is known to be coming from the narrator character.

Pros

Brings the reader right into the character’s head.

High immersion.

Allows dialogue conventions into the narrator voice, as the entire story feels like the main character talking to the reader. Colloquialisms and dialect are usable outside dialogue, and grammar rules take a back seat to the ‘feel’ of the narrative.

Cons

The reader can’t be made aware of anything the character doesn’t experience or know.

A frequent tendency to overuse “I,” as in sentences: “I do this. I do that. I see this” and so on.

Everything is presented in the framework of the main character’s personality. If a reader doesn’t like the character’s tone, it can put them off the entire story.


Second Person

POV_2ndperson

Second person is (thankfully) rare in fiction writing, as it can be quite awkward to read. In this POV, the narrative speaks to the reader. “You approach the end of the corridor. Rusty patches mottle the door in front of you where the grey paint has peeled away.”

Perhaps my eighties are showing, but this tense always makes me think of the “choose your own” adventure type novels. This POV is rare in fiction writing and tends to show up more in “self-help” books, how-to manuals, roleplaying game books, and writing of a similar nature.

Tension and mystery: With second person, the narrative is presenting information to the reader as the reader becomes aware of it, so, like first person, nothing the character/reader is unaware of gets presented. Tension originates from wondering what happens next.

Inner Monologue: Considering the protagonist of second person writing is the reader, there likely isn’t much need to even use inner monologue here.

Pros

If you can pull this off, you’ve joined a short list of novelists who can.

Cons

Awkward.

Prone to overusing ‘you’ in the way that first person can overuse ‘I.’


Third Person (Limited)

POV_3rd person

Limited third person is arguably my preferred POV as a writer. It combines the exclusivity of the POV character’s experience with a wider “camera angle” so to speak. While everything presented to the reader in limited third must remain within the grasp of the protagonist’s knowledge as in first, this POV does not read like the main character is telling their story.

It is a slight step back from first person, one I compare to standing next to the character as the story unfolds (rather than being the character), but still standing right in the scene with them. Here is an example of third limited from my upcoming vampire novel, Chiaroscuro: Forsaken of Heaven.

Devoted to his preparations, Father Antonio Molinari weathered the bumps and sways of a moving coach while attempting to decipher the rather rushed handwriting of Pope Pius IX. The task would’ve been daunting even in stationary surroundings and without the horrors of Vienna still fresh in his mind. Whenever he closed his eyes to sleep, he found himself surrounded by it again: the chill upon his back, the smell of death, and the sound of fear―a pounding heartbeat in his head. His work for the Order of Saint Michael brought him face to face with sights that defied the science of mankind to explain, and the soul to withstand.

When he could no longer tolerate staring at blurry smears masquerading as words, he wiped at his eyes and sighed. Crumbled bits of red and white wax flaked onto his black pants as he rearranged the pile of missives in his lap, a modest parcel of cloth in the facing seat his only traveling companion. Warm air streaming through the window carried the scent of meadow grass and pollen.

He grasped the red-padded wall when the wheels hit a rough patch. Two lanterns hanging outside the carriage swayed and thumped against the sides. His surroundings pitched and rocked, and the tall grass rushed by, dotted here and there by white sheep and goats. Two teenaged boys and a dog attempted to keep them grouped; the sheep seemed compliant, but the goats went wherever they pleased.

Once the road smoothed, he settled against the plush bench and spread open the letters. The topmost, he had already read four times. A man, Henri Baudin, claimed his daughter suffered the harrowing of Satan. His words were terse, earnest, and packed with desperation. The condition of the paper, worn and refolded, supported the story it had been passed through many hands.

Beneath it laid two replies from local clergy to an inquiry Father Molinari had sent in response to the man’s request. The first, penned by a Father Michaud, claimed the young woman seemed normal to him, and showed little sign of external influence. A deacon from an outlying chapel also wrote to say he believed the woman was only seeking attention. While no one claimed to have witnessed any arguments, the deacon believed she wished to delay or avoid an imminent wedding.

Somehow, the case had been elevated to a bishop who had seen fit to refer it to Molinari’s immediate superior, Cardinal Benedetto.

He’d barely set his bundle down in his room before the summons came.

“No rest for the wicked… or the righteous.” He rubbed fatigue from the bridge of his nose, offering a halfhearted smile at his belongings, as if the lump might answer.

With third limited, it’s possible to change POV among characters, but it should be done in an organized fashion. Ideally, the use of breaks or entire chapters to separate one character’s POV from another. Each section should have a specific character who “owns” the point of view, and the events and thoughts described therein limited to those of the POV character. When something slips in that shouldn’t, like a statement of intention or knowledge the POV character couldn’t possibly be aware of, that’s a “head hop.”

For example, in a chapter where William is the POV character, if he’s talking to a shady character named Carl, and something like this happens:

“Didn’t you tell us the mine would be opened in a week?” asked William.

Carl looked down, chuckling. He needed a few more hours to get the bodies out of there, and couldn’t let anyone – least of all the son of the owner – find them. “Maybe I did, but there’s been an issue with the struts in Shaft C. Inspector’s not lettin’ anyone down there yet. Go on home. I’ll call ya as soon as we get the go-ahead.”

Here, the narrative presents knowledge that is both Carl’s intention (to keep William from going into the mine under false pretenses) as well as knowledge William couldn’t have (there are dead bodies in the mine). In third limited, the above example is a “head hop.” Things should be limited to what William can see or know. However, in omniscient third, the above section would be fine.

Tension and mystery: In third limited, let’s say your protagonist is about to go into a building where the “forces of evil” have planted a bomb. Neither the character nor the reader knows the bomb is there until the character finds it. This creates a sensation of surprise and shock.

Another example of this could be a story about a detective and a killer. Neither the protagonist nor the reader has a clue who the killer is for sure, and every other character they interact with might potentially be the murderer. The reader finds out when the character finds out. Tension comes from not knowing and wondering who it is / trying to figure it out along with the protagonist.

It is possible to present more of a “thriller” than a mystery even in third limited, but it would require a POV shift to show the “bad guy’s” side of things. An alternate chapter where the reader sees out of the killer’s eyes, so the reader knows who the killer is but the protagonist still doesn’t, or the reader gets a POV out of the person planting the bomb before the protagonist shows up at the house.

Inner monologue: Like first person, in third limited, the inner monologue (indicated by italics) represents the current POV character’s mind voice. This inner monologue line appears like dialogue, but in italics, and it does not need dialogue attribution (tags or beats) as it is identified as belonging to the POV character by virtue of it being inner monologue.

For example: [ Coming here was a really stupid idea, he thought. ] is an error as inner monologue in third limited doesn’t need attribution. It’s already attributed to the POV character by virtue of being inner monologue.

Pros

Keeps the reader close to the action (though not quite as close as first person).

Useful for stories where multiple POV characters are used in a rotating basis. (Telling multiple stories that intertwine.)

It is a common POV readers are comfortable with.

Cons

Lends itself to filtering words. Saw, heard, felt, realized. Filtering (while not an error) lessens immersion and weakens the writing.

May tempt writers into head hopping when the narrative presents things the POV character couldn’t know or experience.


Third Person (Omniscient)

POV_omni

Omniscient third is another step back away from the character. If third limited equates to the reader standing in the scene near the character, omniscient is more like the reader is watching the story on a screen. They’ve been removed from the scene and are no longer limited to the thoughts and experiences of one character at a time.

Many beginning writers gravitate to omniscient narration for various reasons, presumably out of a desire to “show everything” to the reader. Paradoxically, omniscient is more difficult to write well than third limited. A lot of new writers mistake excessive head hopping for writing in omniscient third. There are times when writing done in third limited looks identical to writing done in third omniscient, the difference lies in the nature of the information presented to the reader. It’s a common mistake to set out to write in omniscient third, but produce what is essentially third limited with a ton of head hops. The primary difference lies in being objective versus subjective.

True omniscient third uses an objective perspective where the narrator has no emotional bias or perspective skew in favor of any of the characters. Third limited, by default, is subjective toward the POV character, tinting things with that characters opinions and bias. A poor implementation (where an attempt to write in omni produces head hoppy third person) creates a confusing tangle of rotating subjective perspectives.

The challenge when writing in omniscient (and why I will admit I am not a fan) is the distance it creates between the reader and the characters/action. With the extra layer of separation between characters and reader, creating that feeling of being immersed in the action becomes more difficult. When done well, it allows for complex multi-layered stories, but it’s easy to wind up with a book where the reader never quite gets past that feeling of “staring at words on a page” rather than being in the world.

I often grumble about filtering and how it lessens immersion. Omniscient narration is another type of removal from the action. In third limited, filtering makes the reader feel like they’re watching the story happen on a screen rather than being in there with the character. Omniscient narration also feels like the story is happening on the screen. Filtering inside omniscient narration is like having the television on in the other room and all the reader’s getting is the audio. (For more information on filtering check out: http://www.matthewcoxbooks.com/wordpress/2014/03/28/writing-on-filtering/ )

Tension and Mystery: with omniscient, the narration contains all sorts of information from a “top down” view that the character doesn’t know. Rather than take the reader along while the bomber plants the bomb, the narrative may simply use a device like “Bob walked into the house, unaware that Dave planted two pounds of C4 in the basement on a six minute timer.”

In omniscient writing, the tension comes from knowing things the protagonist doesn’t, and watching them careen toward the apparent disaster they’re blithely unaware of. Also, the narrative is free to add deeper and deeper bits of information that the character has no way to know. For example, the narrative might mention something that the previous owner of the house did fifty years ago before the protagonist was born, and a long-standing feud between them and some corporation. Another example: Consider a scene where characters miraculously survive, say, a train crash. The narrative may tell us that the empty lot their train car rolled through once contained a house destroyed in a tornado… and the only reason it remained an empty lot (and didn’t have another building there which would’ve killed the characters) was that the insurance company continued fighting the claim.

Inner monologue: in omniscient third, the reader is never “in anyone’s head” specifically, so inner monologue needs attribution like other dialogue, as it has no default POV.

Man, coming here was a damn stupid idea, thought Ronald.

Pros

Allows the author to show things to the reader that the protagonist does not know. Also allows showing things that no characters know.

Useful in stories where the inner thoughts and feelings of multiple characters need to be shown to the reader often within the same chapter, and scene breaks / POV shifts would be too numerous or clumsy otherwise.

Cons

May lend itself to long swaths of exposition that interrupt the flow of a scene as unnecessary details are presented.

Low immersion. The reader is not brought as close into the story as other POVs.

More difficult to pull off well than other POVs. Easy to mistake third limited with head hops for omniscient.


Tense

I once read something in third person present tense, and never quite managed to pierce that feeling that “I am reading a book” versus being part of the story. Third present sounded like I’d had the auditory captioning turned on for a TV show, a voice-over narrator describing what the character did. I suppose it didn’t help that the writer made consistent use of short, choppy sentences:

Bill sits at his desk. Bill turns on the computer. The screen lights up. Bill opens a program and starts typing. The phone rings. Bill picks up the phone.

Most of the book read like that, and it didn’t do much for me.

Other than that, the choice of past or present tense is a style decision. First person present (I walk to the window and look down at my parents unloading the car.) vs past (I walked to the window and looked down at my parents as they unloaded the car.) doesn’t have as much of an impact on the feel of the story as the decision between first or third person. The most important thing to do with tense is to ensure consistency. Be careful not to drift back and forth from one tense to another, especially if you are trying something new (present tense) that you aren’t used to writing in.

Tense can also be used for effect, such as a story wherein the “real time” events are narrated in present tense while frequent flashbacks are written in past tense. In this way, tense can provide a subtle clue to the reader to reinforce that the flashback parts are in the past.


Choose Wisely

When you’re planning out a story, take some time to consider what point of view will help the most. Is it important to keep the reader in the dark along with the character? (Choose first or third limited). Is it vital that the reader knows what everyone is thinking at all times? (Choose omniscient and put on a helmet). Are you writing a manual, guidebook, or doing something quirky? (Consider second but be wary).

Happy writing!

-Matt

Cover Reveal | Hair In All the Wrong Places

Greetings all,
I’m happy to be participating in the cover reveal for Andrew’s upcoming paranormal tale about a kid who gets a little more than the usual explosion of hair at puberty. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading this one yet, though I have read his earlier books. Anyone who likes the type of humor found in Monty Python and in Douglas Adams books should check out Stiltskin and Death, The Devil, and the Goldfish. You won’t be disappointed!
Today Andrew Buckley and Month9Books are revealing the cover and first chapter for HAIR IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES! which releases June 7, 2016!
Check out the awesome cover and enter to be one of the first readers to receive an eGalley!!
 
Here’s a message from the author.

Hair in All the Wrong Places is the result of a misspent childhood watching late night movies about werewolves and other creatures that go bump in the night. The story follows Colin Strauss; an outsider in the small town of Elkwood who, in addition to dealing with the struggles of puberty, also finds himself being turned into a werewolf. As if dealing with homework, bullies, and an unrealistic crush on the hot goth girl wasn’t enough! I love this cover because it perfectly captures Colin’s character and his discovery that he might indeed be growing hair in all the
wrong places.

 

Title: HAIR IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES
Author: Andrew Buckley
Pub. Date: June 7, 2016
Publisher: Month9Books
Format: Paperback
& eBook

What has he done? 
What’s happening to him? 
And what on Earth is that smell?
 
For Colin Strauss, puberty stinks.
Blackouts, hallucinations, and lapses in memory are the perils of growing up
werewolf.
 
Worse than that, Colin worries he might have had something to do with the recent attacks on townspeople. He may have eaten a person. It doesn’t matter that it’s someone he doesn’t particularly like. What kind of boy goes around eating people?
 
Foolishly, all Colin can think about is how Becca Emerson finally kissed him for the first time. Yep. Hormones are afoot. Or at hand. Yikes.

But girls will have to wait. Collin better get himself under control before someone else ends up hurt . . . or worse.


 

Excerpt

First, a word of warning …I don’t want to get too scientific here, but there are a few things you should know before you sink your teeth into this book. I’ve tried to keep it simple enough that anyone twelve and up could read and understand it. Werewolves were everywhere in Europe in the late sixteenth century. Go to a party, there would be a werewolf. Go to work, you’re probably working next to a werewolf. Bump into a stranger on the street—werewolf!

They were slowly killed off in Europe as the true nature of a werewolf is a terribly hard thing to control. Eventually you get that urge to eat someone. And let’s face it; eating people is just rude.

Now here’s the scary bit, the bit that concerns you. While werewolves ceased to be a part of the world, they didn’t necessarily leave it. On the contrary, humans evolved to repress the werewolf gene out of the fear they would be decapitated, shot with a silver bullet, burned alive, or a terrifying combination of all three. What this means is that every single human being is still carrying the werewolf gene. You, right now, sitting right where you are, has the werewolf gene swimming around somewhere inside of you.

Genes are strings of DNA. DNA makes you who you are. You have that werewolf gene inside you. It’s just not active. Not yet.

To fully activate that werewolf gene, you’d have to be bitten by another werewolf, someone who turns into a giant wolf-like creature when there’s a full moon. So fear not! As long as no one has bitten you recently, you’re likely okay.

So why this warning? You’re probably thinking there’s no chance I’ll turn into a werewolf because I haven’t been bitten. That is absolutely true. However, while it’s impossible to turn into a werewolf unless you’re bitten, it is very possible to awaken that sleeping werewolf gene by learning too much about them. This book will teach you a lot about those hairy creatures of the night, so I want you to be extra careful while reading it.

If you notice any of the following things, stop reading immediately:

– You find yourself looking at other humans and thinking lunch.

– You start to notice smells you never smelled before.

– You growl at people instead of talking to them.

– Your nails begin to grow at an alarming rate.

– You scratch your head in public using your leg.

– You greet your friends at the bus stop by sniffing their butts.

– You begin to grow hair in all the wrong places.

You’ve been warned.

Chapter One
Loser

Colin looked directly into the reflection staring back at him from the bathroom mirror and with absolute conviction said, “You are a loser.”

His reflection agreed.

Much as he had done almost every day for the last year, Colin evaluated his body. He was tall for a thirteen year old, with lanky limbs and broad pointy shoulders that bordered on skeletal. His face looked to be at odds with the rest of his body with its gaunt features and perpetually dark circles beneath the eyes. Pale skin stood in stark opposition to his unruly dark and stringy hair. Trying to sharpen his vision, he squinted before fumbling with his glasses.

His reflection didn’t look any better with them on.

After drying off, Colin got dressed and headed downstairs.

“Why are you dressed like that?” snapped his grandmother from her usual place in front of the TV. She hadn’t even looked at him yet, not that it mattered. Colin didn’t know what was more disturbing: that despite his grandmother being completely blind, she still watched TV religiously and commented on his clothes every day, or that he still felt the need to defend his choice of clothing to her. He was wearing jeans and an oversized hoody.

“It’s school today, Grandmother. I’m dressed for school,” he murmured.

“I know that!” she spat.

Nothing wrong with her hearing, though.

“Do you need anything?” he asked.

His grandmother sipped tea from a china cup. “I can take care of myself, you little ingrate. Get to school. You’re going to be late. If you don’t get an education, I’ll never get your lazy butt out of here.”

There was no point in arguing.

“And comb your hair before leaving the house. I don’t want people thinking I’m raising a hobo!” she said.

As Colin walked past the living room, his grandmother turned around in her chair and stared in his general direction with gray eyes damaged irreparably by cataracts. Blind eyes followed him as he walked to the door as quickly as he was able. It wasn’t until he was outside with the door firmly closed behind him that he allowed himself to breathe again.

Colin’s grandmother had always terrified him. He couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t blind or cruel. Colin’s parents lived in Seattle and over the past thirteen years had managed to have as little to do with their only son as humanly possible. They were young when his mother had discovered she was pregnant, and the following nine months had put a severe dent in their career plans. They were both up-and-coming lawyers at large firms, and as soon as they could be rid of Colin, they’d passed him off from one distant relative to another. Beyond that, they had no parental aspirations whatsoever.

Just over a year ago, after a short stint living with an uncle and aunt in Ohio, Colin had been sent to the small town of Elkwood to live with his only living close relative—his grandmother, Beatrice Strauss.

She hadn’t welcomed him, there were no hugs, no loving relationship, just a bitter old woman who spent most of her days parked in front of the TV and commenting on what a disappointment Colin was. He’d tried to help her, but she never wanted it. Despite being blind, she was more than able to get around and take care of herself. The only time she left the house was to attend the monthly town hall meetings to which he was never invited.

Colin was twenty feet from the bus stop when the school bus flew by. The mocking grins of students plastered the bus’s back window as it disappeared over the hill. Thankfully, the school was centrally located, which meant he’d be only slightly late.

On his way to school, Colin passed Mrs. Flipple, a kind old lady who walked her tiny, yappy dog, Jinx, each morning, rain or shine. As per usual, Jinx went straight for Colin, yapping in that high-pitched bark that only small, irritating dogs can make. Colin nodded politely to the old lady and held on to a secret hatred for that little dog.

The town was always overcast, and it rained almost every day of the year, which suited Colin’s depressed personality. He was thankful he didn’t live in a warmer climate as he’d have a much harder time being pale and awkward.

He’d survived the seventh grade at Elkwood School with above-average grades and a below-average number of friends. He was still considered a stranger here. His lack of personality, athleticism, and sense of humor didn’t help in the slightest. He wasn’t handsome enough to be popular or ugly enough to be ignored. He was just weird enough that students could be heard wondering aloud about him as he walked by. Now in the second week of his eighth grade year, Colin had one sort of friend, one unrealistic crush, and was the constant focus of several bullies who were determined to make his life miserable.

Loser.

He reached Elkwood School just as the second bell rang to indicate the start of classes. On average, each grade at the school contained only twenty to thirty students, and because of a limited number of teachers, some classes taught more than one grade or subject.

As Colin ran up the steps to the main entrance, a dark, looming shape confronted him. He looked up into the face of Principal Hebert.

“You’re late again, Mr. Strauss.” His voice sounded like rumbling thunder.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Hebert. I missed the bus.”

“While I admire your use of a classical excuse, I’d prefer if you’d made an attempt at originality. Had you been more creative, I would not feel the need to place you in detention.”

“I’m really sor—”

“But as you’re still trying to apologize rather than give me something interesting to work with, I’ll be seeing you after school.”

Colin studied his feet carefully. “Yes, sir.”

“Run along.” Mr. Hebert gestured, pushing his hand ahead of him in a forward motion.

Colin made his way into the building and chanced a glance back to see Principal Hebert slowly shaking his head. Hebert was a former marine and rumored war hero who had retired to Elkwood almost ten years ago and although he had absolutely no qualifications had been appointed as the school principal. He was a massive hulk of a man with the sort of physique that suggested he could bend large metal things with his bare hands. Principal Hebert was a firm believer in detention and hard work and often liked to combine the two. Most detentions involved cleaning something. Colin made a mental note that his day was not off to a rip-roaring start.

Can’t get any worse.

Colin’s day quickly got worse.

He moved down an empty corridor, his sneakers squeaking loudly on the clean laminate flooring before entering the last classroom on the right.

The entire class turned to look at him. Some groaned, others laughed, a few smirked. Mrs. Davenport was the substitute teacher again today for Biology, and she greeted him with a warm smile.

“Good morning, Colin. Please take a seat. We were just getting started.”

Colin shuffled over to his seat next to Jeremy Rodson, the only person in Elkwood Colin could refer to as a friend. Everyone liked Jeremy even though he had never really joined one particular group. He played on the basketball team, so the jocks liked him. He was smart and maintained decent grades, so he was accepted by the smart kids. He was a good actor, so the creative types liked him. Colin had met him on his first day, and Jeremy had introduced him to the school. With so many commitments, Jeremy wasn’t always around, so Colin was still forced to maintain his unhappy, loner lifestyle.

“No Mr. Winter again?” Colin asked quietly.

“Apparently he’s sick,” said Jeremy and grinned. “Why are you so late?”

“Missed the bus.”

“Detention again?”

“Yup.”

“Pay attention, boys,” said Mrs. Davenport with a smile. She was flipping through a PowerPoint presentation about pheromones.

As the only substitute teacher in the small Elkwood School, Mrs. Davenport was never short of work. She was also the kindest teacher that Colin had ever encountered. Her presence had a calming effect on the students that Mr. Winter could never manage.

Mr. Winter was a jerk. It wasn’t just Colin’s opinion but more of a collective agreement throughout the entire school, including the teachers. An uptight individual in his late thirties, he had a particular hatred for students, teaching, other teachers, and did I mention, students? A few years ago, Mr. Winter’s entire family—wife, parents, grandparents—had been killed in a car accident, and rumor had it that the insurance settlement had been sizeable. The rumor quickly proved true when Mr. Winter started travelling the better part of the school year.

“Pheromones indicate the availability of a female for breeding.” Mrs. Davenport was met with a round of sniggers. “Well, it’s true,” she said calmly. “All animals excrete pheromones, and they can indicate a variety of things. Anything from sex to marking territory, and it can even act as a defense mechanism.”

“Colin, you should get yourself some pheromones,” said Gareth Dugan from behind a textbook. His cronies laughed in honor of their leader’s display of wit.

Gareth was a bully with scraggly hair and a troubled complexion. Having been raised on a farm on the outskirts of Elkwood, Gareth had always struck Colin as being quite large for his age. Gareth didn’t like Colin, but then, the feeling was mutual.

“Why would I need pheromones?” shot back Colin. “Your smell already overpowers everything in the room.”

That probably wasn’t smart.’

The entire room agreed with him by sitting in absolute silence.

“That’s enough,” said Mrs. Davenport and cheerfully continued to describe other chemical factors that trigger social responses.

Colin dared a glance back to see Gareth glaring at him like a lion eyeing an injured antelope.

Gareth would inevitably seek revenge. Colin didn’t need a chemical factor to trigger a social response. All he had to do was open his mouth.

He tried his best to concentrate on his textbook, opened at random, but his thoughts remained fixed on how to save himself a beating Jeremy, who remained happily oblivious and completely free of any such dealings, leaned over enthusiastically.

“Did you take a look at Tori yet? Classic Tori outfit.” He grinned and subtly tilted his head backward. Having developed earlier than any other girl in school, Tori was the blond bombshell of Elkwood. Okay, she was more like a small nuclear explosion. To aid the raging hormones of teenage boys, she made a habit of wearing low-cut shirts complimented by extremely short skirts.

Mrs. Davenport turned to the whiteboard, and Colin glanced back three rows on the right to see Tori conveniently perched on the edge of her stool wearing a short powder-blue skirt and knee-high boots.

Colin’s eyes followed the curves of her body upward until he realized she was looking directly at him with a wry smile. He blushed instantly, but the awkward moment was suddenly interrupted as a textbook smashed into the side of his head, sending his glasses skittering across the desk and onto the floor.

The class laughed as Colin slipped from his stool and crawled around in front of the desk, searching for his glasses.

Mrs. Davenport whirled around, spied Colin on the floor, and asked, “What was that? Colin, what are you doing?”

“Sorry, Mrs. Davenport. Just looking for my glasses.”

The bell rang before any further interrogation could be made, and the class headed for the exit. Colin still couldn’t find his glasses.

Ironic. If I was wearing my glasses, I’d have no trouble finding them.

The side of his head was throbbing from where the textbook had struck him. No doubt Gareth or one of his minions to thank for that.

Colin stood and came face-to-face with Becca Emerson, his heartbeat doubling in speed.

“I found your glasses,” she said, handing them over.

“Uh, thanks, B-Becca.”

The rest of the class had cleared out. He put on his glasses, and she came into focus. Around his height with fiery red hair and pale skin, Becca displayed a standoffishness that made most people avoid her. She wasn’t developed like Tori, but neither were most cover models. Becca was a little like Jeremy in that she didn’t associate with any one group, but where he belonged to everyone, she tended to avoid all people. Her dad was some sort of government worker, which translated to “spy” to most middle schoolers.

Becca always wore dark makeup and dark clothes making her look paler than she actually was. She maintained high grades, avoided large groups, and Colin had loved her since he first saw her. It was, of course, a secret love because there was no way he could ever work up the nerve to do anything about it.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

Oh, that voice.

“Uh, yeah. Just another head wound. Probably won’t be the last.” He attempted a half-hearted grin.

They awkwardly stared at each other as Colin’s mind raced for something smart to say.

What do I say? You’re gorgeous? Want to share a slushee? Marry me?

“Okay, well have a good day,” said Becca, and left.

Smooth, Strauss. Very smooth.

Not the most suave guy at the best of times, Colin managed to be even less so around Becca. How would he ever be able to ask her out, let alone have an entire conversation with her if he didn’t even manage to open his mouth?

***

Having made it to last period unscathed, Colin was busy staring at Becca as the minutes on the clock clicked by while he planned his escape. He would have to move fast, get out of the school, and off the grounds. He’d skip the bus altogether—

“Wonder what Hebert’s going to have you do for detention today? My money is on cleaning the gym floor,” said Jeremy.

Detention!

“I’m so screwed.”

“It’s not that bad, just cleaning.”

“Not that,” groaned Colin. “Gareth got detention in third period.”

“Well at least you’ll have company,” said Jeremy unhelpfully.

The bell rang, and Colin’s heart skipped a beat.

“Just once Jer, just once I’d love to be as oblivious as you are.”

“You got detention today, Colin?” asked Becca.

Colin almost dropped his books. He hadn’t noticed her approach. “Uh, yeah. I was late today.”

“I know. I was there.”

“Right.”

“I was wondering if I could talk to you. Alone. I can walk you to your detention.”

“I’ve got to run anyway. Catch ya later.” And with that, Jeremy bounced off.

“Y-yeah, of course,” said Colin. This was new territory. Other than the occasional passing pleasantry, Colin had never had a full conversation with Becca. They walked down the south corridor toward the detention room at the back of the school.

“I know it hasn’t been easy for you,” said Becca without looking at him. “It must be strange to move here. Most people are born here these days.”

“Uh, yeah, I’ve heard that. No one ever moves to Elkwood.”

“The people here aren’t open-minded. They only know what they know. And who they know. This probably isn’t making any sense.”

“No. I mean, yeah. Well. No, no it’s not.”

Becca turned to him. Her eyes were a deep hazel color, he’d never noticed before. She put a hand on his shoulder, and suddenly his insides were on fire. It was only a moment, but Colin felt as if she was looking through him.

Colin was way beyond his comfort zone and didn’t know what to do. Was he supposed to say something? Did she want him to kiss her? Or was he misunderstanding her? When it came to reading girls, he was dyslexic. On the flipside, Becca Emerson was actually touching him! With her actual hand! But then she took her hand away and for a moment looked sad.

“I’m sorry, Colin. I thought maybe … but no.” She sighed. “I don’t know if you’ll ever be able to see things clearly here.”

Colin had no idea what she was talking about; he was still reeling from her touch and for once actually managed to say something. “Maybe you could help me?”

Did I just say that?

What was he thinking?

“I have to go. My dad will wonder where I am. Good luck in detention.”

And just like that, she was gone.

The ominous voice of Principal Hebert floated down the hallway. “Nice of you to join us, Mr. Strauss. Are you going to just stand there, or do I need to drag you into detention?”

Colin entered the room, noting the other attendees. Two students, Micah and Nathaniel Cross, otherwise known as the goth twins. They were pale with black tattoos, long black coats, tight black clothing, and permanent frowns plastered across their faces. Gareth sat with his feet up, smirking at Colin.

“Listen up,” began Principal Hebert. “You’re here because you did something or you didn’t do something. All I care about is what you do from here on out. Gareth and Colin, you’re on garbage cleanup. Nathaniel and Micah, you’ll be sweeping the gym floor. One hour, people, and then I expect you back for dismissal.”

Colin’s heart sank in his chest, down his legs, and through the floor. He was a dead man.

Gareth clapped his hands with false cheer. “All right, Colin, buddy. Let’s get to it!”

They grabbed a couple of garbage bags and headed outside. Without saying a word, Gareth just started picking up garbage. Colin, braced for an attack and watched him for a moment before hesitantly bending to the task too. ’It was getting dark, and the rain made the job all the more miserable.

After half an hour, Gareth had vanished around the other side of the building, and Colin began to think that maybe he had been worrying needlessly.

As he rounded a corner toward the back of the school, he saw his mistake. Sam Bale and Kevin Hadfield were sitting on one of the permanent picnic benches. They both looked menacing, as usual. Backtracking quickly, Colin turned and bumped into Gareth who shoved him.

“Where you going, buddy?” He spat that last word.

Colin dropped his garbage bag and backed right into Sam and Kevin, who were standing behind him.

“We don’t have to do this,” pleaded Colin.

“You don’t belong here, Colin,” said Gareth.

“I know. You’ve told me before.”

Gareth stabbed a finger to his chest. “And that smart mouth of yours really doesn’t belong here.”

“It’s attached to the rest of my body; I really don’t have a choice in the matter.”

Gareth faked a punch, and Colin flinched.

“Please, just tell me what to do,” begged Colin, fighting to keep the tears at bay. He’d been here before; he knew what was coming.

Kevin and Sam grabbed one of Colin’s arms while Gareth stood inches from his face. His breath stank. “I want you to go away. That’s all. You don’t belong here. Sooner or later you’ll get the message.”

Gareth punched him hard twice in the stomach and then once in the kidneys. Colin dropped to the ground and curled into a ball. Sam and Kevin began kicking him and then stripped him down to his underwear until finally, they left. Colin lay sobbing on the cold ground, half-naked and in pain.

This had been Colin’s life for over a year. Feeling like he’d failed at life in general, Colin had been reduced to living in a state of constant fear and humiliation. He had suffered bullying and his grandmother’s hatred.

Colin knew he was a loser, but he hated that everyone else knew it too.

The only positive he could think of was Becca and the strange, brief conversation they had shared. He picked himself up, feeling his bruised ribs, wincing as he walked barefoot across the parking lot away from the school. Hebert would be angry that he didn’t return for the end of detention, but he didn’t care. He didn’t intend to come back. He had to do something or he was going to end up dying here in Elkwood.

Colin decided he had to go to Seattle to see his parents.

Tonight.

 

Andrew Buckley attended the Vancouver Film School’s Writing for Film and Television program. After pitching and developing several screenplay projects for film and television, he worked in marketing and public relations, before becoming a professional copy and content writer. During this time Andrew began writing his first adult novel, DEATH, THE DEVIL AND THE GOLDFISH, followed closely by his second novel, STILTSKIN. He works as an editor for Curiosity Quills Press.
Andrew also co-hosts a geek movie podcast, is working on his next novel, and has a stunning amount of other ideas. He now lives happily in the Okanagan Valley, BC with three kids, one cat, one needy dog, one beautiful wife, and a multitude of characters that live comfortably inside of his mind. 

Andrew is represented by Mark Gottlieb at the Trident Media Group.Website | Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads

 

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