Point of View

Anyone who has ever worked with me knows that I am a POV purist—one point of view per scene. Some may argue that there are bestsellers on the market today that do not stick to this rule. Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia—these use multiple POV in the same scene. My answer to that is that these writers have a firm control and strong execution of POV so they can do what they want with it, and do it effectively. Their character POVs don’t flop around willy-nilly. Each switch happens with precision and for good purpose. Each character’s voice is distinctive and able to draw us into that character’s perspective—into their head.

New writers should learn POV technique, learn to control it, and learn to wield it with experience before trying to play around with different ways of using it. In the same way, a basketball player will first become proficient at making baskets before trying fancy moves with the backboard or bouncing the ball off someone’s head to make a basket. A pianist must learn to play the piano proficiently before tackling Mozart. A stunt cyclist learns to ride a bike before he begins flipping off buildings. If you try variations on the basic technique before you have even mastered the technique, it usually won’t work and will have your readers screaming, “head-hopping!”

There is no reason to avoid the one-POV-per-scene rule. It helps you immerse the reader fully into that one character for his or her scene, letting readers experience the world through his/her eyes. Readers want to connect deeply with your character as if they are living the story themselves. When you avoid tossing the reader around among several characters like a hot potato, they can let their guard down and sink into the character. Then when you have a need to switch, add a scene change and your reader will follow. She will also appreciate the warning.

A favorite book of mine that does a wonderful job of POV control is The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards. Edwards wrote her book using multiple POV’s, but uses quick scene changes to show us both perspectives. Each character has his/her spot in the emotional spotlight for each event, but each POV sections is separated by back and forth scene swaps. Sometimes they are only a paragraph long and there are several per page. Readers always know when the change is happening because of the line breaks and faithfully follow.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is a powerful and moving story about a couple falling out of love after a tragedy during childbirth. We the reader know how each truly feels, although the characters can’t bring themselves to confide in each other. And so we must watch them drift apart when we know that either one of them could save their relationship if they only had the courage to open up.

Another reason I preach POV purity is for reader intimacy. Each jolt caused by an unexpected swap pulls the reader away from the story. Each bit of distance wedged between the reader and the story keeps them from connecting with and empathizing with the character. Enough jolts and your reader loses faith in you and stops trying to connect with your character. Then you have to work that much harder to gain them back.

And don’t even get me started on multiple first-person POVs!

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August 20, 2013 · 1:17 am

Contests–are they worth your time?

Most writers have had their experiences with contests and they are not always positive. After reading and commenting on countless discussions on FaceBook and LinkedIn, I decided to post this on our blog. I wrote it in response to skepticism about contests in general.

As some of you may know, Critique My Novel runs an annual contest for novels.

I agree with what was said about most contests. I used to do the rounds myself and wondered about the results. I never got any notice of my place or even who the winner was. Now that I’m on the other side of the fence, I have tried to take all that I used to hate and do things differently.

I have always liked feedback in every aspect of my life. As writers, we need feedback more than ever to help fix what needs fixing and to know where and when we are doing something right. Can you imagine taking a major exam in school, but never knowing your score? This would be torture for me.

For our contests, every single person who entered gets an e-mail telling them their novel’s score in judges’ points, and its placement in the contest. If they want to see the breakdown of the score and the comments each judge gave, I will mail them the sheets. (I pay the postage. It’s just a stamp.)

In addition to offering some great feedback, we also have the honor of two wonderful guest judges: two literary agents who have agreed to help. I spent months researching and emailing agents who accept a wide range of genres and who accept new writers. Most never responded; a few said they didn’t have time for this. But two accepted! Each has also agreed to offer feedback and consider representation to any of the top three novels. Other contests offer to publish in their own anthologies, (Yes, I have a poem in one of those and paid $50 to buy a copy) but we are not affiliated with either of these agents, nor do we make any promises that they will represent any novel.

Some people commented about contestants of some contests getting notices of other services pushed with along with the contest. I suppose it is understandable if the company has other things to offer that they want to let you know, but I don’t agree with being pushy. All of our services are listed on the website if you want to look, but no one will try to sell you anything. I do give a voucher towards our service for the top three winners, but it’s basically just a gift certificate that you can use or give away. Certainly no pushy sell tactics.

The question of fees is always a touchy subject. I have to charge a fee because I have to hire judges. And I can’t pay the prizes out of my own pocket. Large companies have the resources to do this, but we are small and unable to.

So the moral of this story: Even of you don’t win, you get some great feedback from four different judges. That should make the entry fee worth it. If your novel places high enough, it has a guarantee to be read by two agents.

What are your experiences with contests?

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Details

From the editors of Critique My Novel:

        He reached his right hand across his body to slip it into the inner breast pocket of his overcoat. He frowned and withdrew his empty hand. His phone wasn’t in that pocket. Patting his outer pockets with both hands, his nodded when he felt the bulge of his phone in the left one. He slipped his left hand into the pocket and withdrew the source of the incessant buzzing. 

       Still holding it in his left hand, he used his right hand to flip open the phone. He stared at the screen for a few moments before closing the phone, as he had decided not to answer the call. He switched the phone to his right hand because he decided he wanted it in his left breast pocket. He then slipped it into the pocket inside his coat.

What is wrong with this paragraph?

First of all, the reader is bogged down with so many extraneous details of the manner of how the guy answered (or didn’t answer) his phone that any significance that could be found in the section is buried.

Anything that is given so much attention signals to the reader that it is significant. But when it turns out that none of this was significant, it can be frustrating to read. Show what he does, not every step he takes to do it.

We DO need to see that he took it out of his pocket, as opposed to showing that it was already in his hand, or that he had it hidden in his shoe. But we don’t care how he takes it out of his pocket, unless it is significant. (Perhaps we think he has a detonator hidden in his palm, and the fact that he uses the opposite hand to remove his phone would increase the likelihood of this. Or if we need to know his dominant hand… or if he is hiding this fact and using his non-dominant hand to throw off whoever is watching.)

Second problem: There are several places where the reader is told something unnecessarily. When he withdraws his empty hand, readers know that what he was looking for isn’t there. The fact that he doesn’t answer the call shows that he decided not to answer it. When he puts the phone into his breast pocket, we can deduce that this is where he wants to store it.

Don’t treat readers as if they are too simple-minded to figure things out. It isn’t usually an intentional mistake, but sends the same message—that you don’t trust your readers to pick up on all the nuances of what you are trying to show.

Those were the main issues I wanted to cover, but I’m sure we could come up with many more things wrong with this passage. Comment if you would like to add anything.

Here is a shortened version:

       He pulled the phone out of his jacket pocket, flipped it open, and squinted at the screen as the phone continued its incessant buzzing. With a scowl on his face, he closed the phone, finally silencing it, and shoved it back into his pocket.

What did you get out of this paragraph that is 44 words long, as opposed to the passage that is 137 words long?

phone          crazy            dude

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Descriptions

From the editors of Critique My Novel:

“Be specific.”
I find myself writing this over and over when working my way through a manuscript.
“Specific details help us picture the scene.”
However, I should point out that this only works for the important details. Mundane details, such as the specific order in which the character dresses, what side of the bed she rolls out of, or what type of soap she uses in the shower, are NOT needed.
Summarize the mundane details; be specific with the important ones. These are the details that show the scene, that are unique to the character, that vary from the norm.
It takes practice and talent to decide which details are important and which are not. Next time you are giving details, ask yourself if those you choose are details that paint a picture, or details that don’t really tell us anything.

Here is an example:

    Carrie opened the red door to the hotel room. She saw a king-sized bed with a hotel-issue floral-patterned bedspread. She sighed. This would be her home for a while, so she needed to get used to that fact and make it work. She shut the door and dropped her bag with her clothes and toiletries on the cheap wooden dresser. By the window was a small table where she stacked her dictionary, her laptop, and a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. She flopped onto the bed and turned on the bedside lamp. There was a second lamp on the other side of the bed, as well as one by the TV.

Is anyone still awake after reading this? I almost fell asleep writing it. Can you picture this room? It’s just a generic hotel room. We know it has a bed a table and lamps. Don’t all hotel rooms have these? So why did we have to sit through that? And after a description like that, do we even want to continue reading? Maybe to battle insomnia.

If there isn’t anything specific about the room, then don’t waste your words describing it. You can add some detail if needed using active descriptions. Active descriptions are those where the reader is given details as the character is interacting with the object/setting instead of stopping the story to describe it.

       Carrie pushed the door open with her hip and wrestled her duffel- bag through the doorway. She dropped it in front of the dresser, plopped her book bag on the table by the window and after locking the door, she finally sat down and took a deep breath. Safe.  This room would be her home for a while, but she didn’t mind as long as she was safe. No one could find her now.

It seems that in this paragraph, the layout of the room isn’t the main focus. Her plight is. Who cares about the room?

If, however, you do want the room to be a focus for mood or tone, then pick out the unusual details that do this. The telling details.

        Carrie’s suspicion about the age of the hotel had been confirmed when the desk clerk handed her the key. Not one of those new key-card keys, but a metal key dangling from a stained plastic fob. And now as she struggled to roll her suit-case over the cracked sidewalk toward the room, she wondered if she had made a mistake.

       After she fiddled with the lock to the point of frustration, the door finally opened. The odor of musty carpet mixed with the twang of too much air deodorizer hit her in the face. She wondered how long it had been since this room had fresh air. This is the last place anyone would ever think to look for me, she thought, and went into the room.

       She plopped her bag and suitcase on the bed, which had a definite depression in the center, and sighed, wondering if it was safe to sit on this bed-spread. Safe? Compared to what she had been through the past few weeks, a spotted bed-spread wasn’t gonna scare her off. Even after she saw the paint chipped off of the wall behind the headboard. She crinkled her nose.       

      She walked to the window and pulled the curtains back. The glass was dusty and several dried-up moth carcasses littered the sill, with a few more ground into the carpet below. Once again, she crinkled her nose. This was going to be her home for a while and it was all she could afford. Luxury was not an option. She just needed to borrow some supplies and clean the room herself. That made her feel better and she stood watching the dark clouds roll across the sky.

Yes it’s longer, but can you get a feel for this room and how it ties in with her plight?

motel                           window.914338_std

                          

Your descriptions are great.
Anya

     Thanks, Anya. I think maybe I should add that if you are describing a room we haven’t seen, then you can give some other details such as the type of furniture and anything else that shows the room. I use the example of a hotel room because we have all seen one and don’t need the basics described to us.


Thanks for this description of important details. Maybe, instead of telling or showing, on should say \”feeling\” details, those that create a mood such as you did.
JKopp

That is a great way of describing the details. It is a much more ‘specific’ term isn’t it? Thanks for your input.


 Great post and wonderful examples of the good and the bad. Would like to see you offer more tips like this.
Mary

I hope to do more posts. I’ve always been bad at keeping up with blogs, but I will try to do better. This one was fun, and people are actually reading it (as opposed to other blogs I’ve written). Thanks for commenting.


I think I am guilty of this. I was trying to write a graveyard scene last night and worried that I didn’t have enough details about the surroundings. I even went to a cemetery and snapped 36 photos so I could use them later. Now I’m thinking I wasn’t being descriptive in the right way. Your post helped put things in a different light for me.
Logan

I recently read a manuscript that managed to go from town to town, forest to forest, mountain path to mountain trail without any defining or identifying descriptions. The travels became repetitious and hard to enter into, because they blurred together without anything to differentiate where or when the characters were.
Esther

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