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Billy Summers

Last updated Jun 20, 2023 Edit Source

I’ve just finished reading Stephen King’s Billy Summers and it was a good read. I didn’t love it as much as I did The Outsider, and it got a bit “explainy” in the third act (crime novels are tough planes to land), but King’s talent for characterization and description always thrill me. Some have complained that the book is a slow burn, but when aren’t his books a slow burn? He lets the pot simmer for a long time before the shit really hits the fan, and personally, I love it.

Skip Billy Summers if you avoid stories that include sexual assault.

Read Billy Summers if you like relatable antiheroes, or Stephen King books in general.

# Thinking about Voice & POV

Lately, I’ve been thinking about authorial voice. Namely, how to develop one, or how to bring it out more strongly.

In first-person narrative, I have an authorial voice. It’s not quite the same as my blogging voice. Then again, I’ve only written one series in first person, and it includes the first book I ever wrote, so Kat’s voice has similarities to my own.

In third-person stories, I haven’t found my voice yet. Don’t get me wrong, I can string a paragraph together and my characters are distinct people. But that’s all different than having an authorial voice. Despite writing a bunch of third person stories, I still struggle with letting my tone and style flow through into third person.

For my last few books, I’ve been working to improve my deep perspective. That means taking the third-person POV camera off the character’s shoulder and shoving it deep inside their skulls, behind their eyes. It’s an important skill to have.

But what if I need my “camera” to be more mobile than that?

To describe what I mean, let’s start with a sentence of inside-the-skull POV (third-person limited) from Billy Summers:

She stops again and wipes her eyes with the sleeve of her jacket. It’s cold out here. But the stillness is exquisite. This early even the crows are asleep.

Now, here’s a sentence of third-person narration from Nora Roberts’ Hideaway:

When Liam Sullivan died, at the age of ninety-two, in his sleep, in his won bed with his wife of sixty-five years beside him, the world mourned.

Note how the camera is more distant. It’s almost omniscient! And here’s that same narrator (I think) describing the perspective of a specific character:

“How many stories do I have to hear about the great Liam Sullivan?”

Once he’d thought she understood his thick braided family ties, then he’d hoped she’d come to understand them. Now they both understood she just tolerated them.

Roberts’ first sentence comes from an introductory section where the family history is described. It’s disconnected from any particular scene. But that same not-quite-in-the-skull narrator picks up and narrates the POV from the rest of the characters in the story. The narrator is head-hopping, you might say, diving in from skull to skull. Nora does it well, so I can tell which thoughts belong to which person.

I wonder, is “voice” expressed through character POV, or does it happen via the narrator’s voice? I suspect it’s both.

Check out this bit of narration from Billy Summers:

The living room is as long as a Pullman car. There are three chandeliers, two small and one big. The furniture is low and swoopy. … There’s a grandfather clock that looks embarrassed to be here.

Frank Macintosh, the leg-breaker turned manservant, brings them drinks on a tray.

I wonder: who are these observations coming from? Are they Billy’s observations, or King’s? It feels blurry to me, but I don’t much care, because I’m having fun. But let’s drop down a paragraph or two:

He reaches into the pocket of his suitcoat – enough fabric there to clothe an orphanage, Billy thinks – and produces a wallet.

Okay! Here we’ve got the Billy thinks tag, making it clear that the observation came from him, not the narrator.

The role of the narrator seems important. But narration is such a slippery concept in third-person perspective. Hmm… Is good third-person actually an omniscient narrator who keeps her mouth shut a lot?

I don’t know, but I’ll keep on reading and thinking until I figure it out.