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What is Your Editing Process?

What Is Your Editing Process? (An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop Post)

This post is part of the monthly Author Toolbox Blog Hop, organised by Raimey Gallant, with over 40 blogs participating. To find more posts, click here to check out the main page, search #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop on Twitter, or click here to find us on Pinterest.

I’ve recently read Write Like a Boss! by Honoree Corder and Ben Hale. It’s an excellent short book, and I recommend it. If you write fiction, it’s worth the purchase price simply for Chapter Four, where Ben Hale details his personal revision and editing process.

Ben says:

My draft process is thirteen drafts. But it didn’t start our that way. My first book went through twenty-four drafts, and still has errors.

Wow. Just wow.

I have two initial comments about Ben’s editing process:

  1. His process is actually fourteen steps: he doesn’t count his initial detailed outline as a draft. Ben is obviously a plotter, not a pantser. I suspect a pantser would need more drafts.
  2. Ben is an experienced fiction writer. A less experienced writer, who doesn’t know some of the “rules” of fiction, will need more drafts. For example, if you write in third person but don’t know what headhopping is, you’ll probably need one full pass through your manuscript to identify headhopping, and one full draft to fix your point of view. Maybe two.

As a freelance editor, I found it interesting to see where Ben’s copyeditor fit in the process. His copyeditor sees the fifth draft of the book—he goes though the full book another eight times before he publishes, which shows there is more to editing than many authors realize.

So here is an outline of Ben’s editing process with my comments (if you want Ben’s comments, buy the book!).

Draft 0: Outline

Ben write in series, so his outline includes a series outline, outlines for the individual books, and even the chapters. Outlining means he will already know the genre, plot, story arc, characters, theme and the aims for each scene before he starts writing. If you don’t outline, this may mean four to six additional drafts to make sure you’ve nailed these essentials.

A critique partner may help brainstorm some of these plot and character issues at the outline stage.

Draft 1: Finish

The aim here is to get a completed manuscript to edit. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo next month, this is probably what you’re aiming for.

Draft 2: Content

Fill in holes and add detail. I suspect this is where a lot of authors think their work ends. Now they send it to an editor and that’s it, right? Nope.

Draft 3: Alpha Reader

Ben’s alpha readers ignore grammar and typos and focus on the big picture issues: what’s working in terms of the big issues of plot, character, story, and theme, what isn’t working, and what’s missing.

Some authors may work with a critique partner who fills this role. Others may hire an editor to undertake a developmental edit or manuscript assessment.

Draft 4: Character Building

Use comments from the alpha reader to fill out the characters and make them real.

A pantser may need to add another draft in here around plot: filling in the plot holes, and deleting extraneous scenes. After all, you don’t want to pay an editor to edit 3,000 words that don’t drive the plot forward.

Draft 5: Editor

Always submit the best possible draft to your editor. It will help keep the cost down if you’ve already removed the hundreds of adverbs, that’s, very’s, and other overused words, and fixed all the typos you can find. It also means your editor can focus on the things you can’t fix.

Draft 6: Post Editor Partial

Accept or reject minor changes (e.g. spelling and grammar), and undertake sentence-level improvements e.g. adding rhetorical devices, adding fresh descriptions and body language (no “he nodded” or “she shrugged”). If you have no idea what I mean, head on over to Lawson Writer’s Academy and sign up for Deep Editing, Rhetorical Devices, and More.

Draft 7: Post Editor Full

Now the story is free from Track Changes, address any major story issues (like that scene you should have cut and didn’t).

Draft 8: Word Draft

Polishing: checking character names are spelled correctly and consistently, and haven’t been used in other books. Run spell check. Fix the typos and mistakes you introduced in Drafts 6 and 7. Review your editorial letter and make sure you haven’t added back any of the adverbs the editor “suggested” you cut. (Because it wasn’t a suggestion. It was an order.)

You might ask why the editor didn’t catch some of these things. They may have, but they might miss tiny things while they fix big things. Your editor might not know that you called the character Jaime in the last book, but this book calls him Jayme.

It’s also a numbers game. It’s not unusual for me to suggest 10,000 changes in a 100,000 word novel. Even if I’m 99.9% accurate, I’ll still miss 100 changes. And the author might add a few hundred more as they revise and edit. This is why trade published novels go through at least three rounds of editing … and still aren’t perfect.

Draft 9: Beta Readers

Ben suggests at least five beta readers, and they have to be honest. You need your beta readers to find what’s wrong, not gush over how clever you are that you’ve written a whole book all by yourself. Please. You’re not five. Adult up and seek honest critical feedback. (But you don’t have to accept mean feedback. People can be critical without being mean).

How to pick beta readers is probably a whole separate blog post. Like this one from #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop participant JR Creaden: 5 Things To Do Before You Beta Your Book.

Draft 10: Post Beta Reader

Add changes suggested by beta readers.

Draft 11: Vocal Drafts

Reading out loud is a great way of catching sentences that don’t quite make sense, or don’t sound right (especially in dialogue). I’ll often read awkward sentences out loud when I’m editing for other people as a way of finding and fixing a problem.

Draft 12: Final Beta Reader

One final read-through to catch last-minute typos. I think it’s best if this person hasn’t read the full story before (although they may have add early input at Draft 0 or 1). The reason for this suggestion is that we often see the words we think are on the page, not the words which are actually there. For this draft, you want someone who is going to read the words on the page, not fill in the blanks because they’ve already read the story almost as many times as you have.

Draft 13: Final and Format

Fix final typos, format, and add front and back matter (make sure you double check the spelling of any people you thank. It kind of takes away from the buzz of being mentioned if the author spells your name wrong. True story).

This draft process is not for everyone. In fact, it probably only works for me. But hopefully it helps you get a start on your own if you don’t already have one.

This process (or something like it) will be useful for me as a writer. It’s also going to be useful for me as a freelance editor, as it shows clients where Editor-Me falls in the writing and revision process.

As I said, I do recommend Write Like a Boss! It has heaps of great tips for both fiction and non-fiction writers.

Do you have an editing process? What does it look like?

This is the final #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop post for 2017. We figure everyone will be busy with NaNoWriMo in November, and Christmas in December. We’ll be back in January 2018. Meanwhile, I’ll still post every Wednesday (writing or marketing) and Saturday (Best of the Blogs). Well, except for Christmas and New Year.

Meanwhile, check out more #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop posts:

Click here to check out the main page.

#AuthorToolBoxBlogHop is on Twitter.

Click here to find us on Pinterest.

Understanding the Use of Chekhov’s Gun in Fiction

I’ve mentioned Chekhov’s Gun in two of my recent posts, Kill Your Darlings and Show, Don’t Tell. There are variations of the rule floating around the interwebz, but here is the version I first read:

If there is a rifle on the mantelpiece in the first act, it needs to be fired in the third act.

I believe this rule basically centres about meeting reader expectations.

Each genre has its’ own conventions, and as authors we need to abide by those conventions, or twist them in an acceptable manner.

For example, a romance novel must have an emotionally satisfying ending (aka a HEA, or Happy Ever After, although a HFN aka Happy For Now is also acceptable). And a romance novel must follow the stories of the hero and heroine. Some authors will use an Other Woman or Other Man trope (think of Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home, Alabama). But savvy readers identify the true hero and heroine early on—they are the two viewpoint characters.

Mystery novels have their own set of conventions, illustrated to great effect in Rules of Murder by Julianna Deering. The detective can not be the murderer. The murderer must be one of the characters. All the characters (including the murderer and the victim) are introduced early in the novel—this gives the novel a double layer of tension as first we wonder who is going to die (and how), then we have the tension of watching the character try and solve the crime.

The principle of Chekhov’s Gun is an example of the literary technique of foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing

Michael Hague defines foreshadowing as:

Giving greater credibility to a character’s actions and abilities by laying the groundwork for them earlier.

The purpose is often to make some later action seem believable, to allow us to avoid deus ex machina endings. For example, you might not be convinced by a novel ending with a shoot-em-up scene in which the petite heroine picks up a shotgun and shoots the heart out of the bad guy from 100 feet.

But you’d believe it if you’d if the hero had phoned her while she was at the shooting range, or if the description of her house included a dusty shelf of shooting trophies, or if the heroine had once tried out for the Olympic shooting team.

Unfortunately, foreshadowing has a poor cousin, telegraphing.

Telelgraphing

Telegraphing is foreshadowing taken too far. With good foreshadowing, the reader reads and absorbs the information, but the importance of the information is only apparent later in the book—perhaps at the climax. With telegraphing, it’s less subtle, as though the writer is shouting, “Pay attention! This is important!”

Rachelle Gardener says:

Telegraphing is giving away too much, too soon, thereby ruining the suspense or the impact of the event.

It’s essentially sending the reader a signal—a telegraph—about what’s going to happen. Sometimes it’s in the form of an author intrusion: little did they know, that telephone call would change everything.

Sometimes it’s telling. An example would be characters discussing their plan to rescue their colleagues from the evildoers. If the rescue goes according to plan, it’s telegraphing—you only need to say it once, and it would almost always be better to show the actual rescue than tell the plan.

Sometimes it’s pretending to be a red herring—having the characters discuss the rescue plan because the rescue isn’t going to go according to plan. Unfortunately, that’s a device that’s been used too often, and the reader is likely to work out, consciously or subconsciously, that the reason they are being told the rescue plan is because something is going to go wrong. That’s telegraphing.

Foreshadowing is good. Telegraphing is not.

Exceptions to the Rule

As with many “rules” of writing (and life), there are exceptions. Two accepted exceptions to the principle of Chekhov’s gun are the red herring, and the MacGuffin.

Red Herring

A red herring is a staple of the mystery plot—something which distracts attention from the real issue. Agatha Christie novels are full of red herrings (no doubt why I can never figure out whodunit). A good red herring is plausible, and leads the reader towards a convincing yet wrong conclusion.

I think the reason a red herring works as a literary device is that the mystery reader subconsciously expects the author to include red herrings.

We see the gun on the mantelpiece. We see a character killed by a gunshot. We expect the character was shot with the gun on the mantelpiece, and we wonder who could have stolen the gun, killed someone, and returned the gun in the time allowed.

We wonder … but we’re not surprised if it turns out that there were two guns.

MacGuffin

Merriam-Webster’s define a MacGuffin as:

an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance

The term dates from 1939, and was first used by Alfred Hitchcock. A MacGuffin is something the characters care a lot about, but which the reader doesn’t care about. Examples include the One Ring from Lord of the Rings, the plans for the Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope, and the Holy Grail in movies such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (and probably every other movie mentioning the Holy Grail).

In each case, the MacGuffin is purely a device to motivate the characters and drive the plot forward. Used well, it’s a great device. But be careful not to introduce something you think is a MacGuffin, but which the reader sees as Chekhov’s gun. The key to a good MacGuffin is that the promise is fulfilled. The One Ring is destroyed. The plans highlight the weakness in the Death Star. Indiana Jones does find the Holy Grail.

Basically, that’s what Chekhov’s gun comes down to: fulfilling the promise to the reader. And that’s the key to all great fiction.

Can you think of any excellent examples of Chekhov’s gun in practice?

Show, Don't Tell How to Identify Telling

Show, Don’t Tell: How to Identify Telling

Last week I discussed one of the major writing rules, Show, Don’t Tell, where I looked at what telling is, why it’s bad … and when you need to use it. But how do you identify telling in your manuscript?

Today I’m going to share my top tips for identifying and removing telling , based on the most common telling errors I see in the manuscripts I assess and edit. They are:

  • Telling through Dialogue
  • Telling through Internal Monologue
  • Telling Tags
  • Telling the Emotion

Telling through Dialogue

Dialogue is usually considered showing, because it’s a form of action. But dialogue can be telling.

Characters will sometimes tell each other things they already know, as a way of informing readers of something the author thinks they need to know. This could be two police officers discussing the appropriate procedures for collecting evidence, or two medical professionals discussing the best way to draw blood, or how to calculate the correct dose of medicine. This may look like showing, because it’s dialogue, but it’s not. It’s telling, because there is no plot or character reason for those characters to have that conversation.

The only reason for the conversation is to get information across to the reader. That’s not good writing.

The best (worst?) example of this is Coming Home by Karen Kingsbury. In it, the married couples got for long walks and remind each other how they met (which might be acceptable if there had been a mass outbreak of amnesia). If you’ve never read one of the 20+ Baxter Family novels, Coming Home provides lots of useful catch-up on a large cast of characters. But if you have read the novels, it’s unnecessary telling.

We all know someone who retells the same stories over and over at family parties … and we avoid that person. Unless your character is that person, or has some kind of mental health problem, avoid having them repeat the same information over and over. It doesn’t ring as true to the reader.

Ask yourself: would real-life people have this conversation?

If a conversation is the only way you can get vital facts or backstory across to the reader, consider introducing a third character who reasonably wouldn’t know the information, but needs to know. If educating that character is the focus of the scene, it is more likely to be showing than telling.

Telling Through Internal Monologue

If you’re writing in deep point of view (and I hope you are), then all the narrative should be filtered through the viewpoint character. We should see what she sees, hear what she hears, touch what she touches, smell what she smells, taste what she tastes … and know what she thinks. It’s great to read a novel when an author really gets inside a character’s head and the reader effectively becomes that character.

It’s less great when the ongoing action of the story is disrupted by long passages of internal monologue.

This is usually the character reacting to what has been said or done. The internal monologue might be fascinating, but if a line of dialogue shows up in the middle of a long passage of internal monologue and I, the reader, have to turn back three pages to work out what the dialogue is responding to … then the internal monologue has switched from showing us the viewpoint character’s state of mind to telling us her every thought.

Ask yourself: has your internal monologue turned into telling?

If you’re writing an action scene, sprinkle the internal monologue throughout the scene rather than dumping it all at once. A word here, a sentence there, perhaps even a paragraph while she waits for the kettle to boil … but no more than a paragraph. Otherwise you run the risk of turning your internal monologue into telling.

Telling Tags

One common way authors tell where they should be showing is through dialogue, and dialogue tags. Newbie authors often add adverbs to their dialogue tags which explain the dialogue—in effect, telling what the dialogue should be showing:

“Attention!” the sergeant barked.

Dogs bark. Not people. People shout. (The exception might be if your sergeant is actually a weredog or werewolf. They might bark.)

“I don’t want to go to school,” Johnny grumbled.

We’ve all heard (and perhaps even said) those words. We all know that tone. The dialogue shows us Johnny is unhappy. There’s no need to use the dialogue to tell us as well. It’s unnecessary repetition. Browne and King say:

If your dialogue doesn’t need the props, putting the props in will make it seem weak even when it isn’t.

“I’m sorry,” Beth said apologetically.

Yes, I’ve seen that in a manuscript. As you can probably tell, the adverb is unnecessary (and telling) because the reader has already figured Beth is sorry from the dialogue (a form of showing). Browne and King say:

Ly adverbs almost always catch the writer in the act of explaining dialogue—smuggling emotions into speaker attributions that belong in the dialogue itself.

Ask yourself: are you explaining your dialogue with telling tags or adverbs?

Telling the Emotion

Authors often tell the emotion. It’s easy to spot:

  • Beth felt tired.
  • Beth was sorry.
  • Beth wanted to run away and hide.

Felt, was, were, wanted, had, thought, wondered, knew, looked, gazed, heard … these are all telling words. They are telling us what the character is thinking or doing, rather than showing us.

Instead of telling, show the action or show the emotion. How do we show?

  • Show Beth’s facial expression. Does she look as though she’s about to cry, or about to punch someone? What does that look like?
  • Show Beth’s body language. If Beth is truly sorry, she’s likely to be slumped over with her head down. If she’s defiant, she’s likely to be standing tall, perhaps with her arms crossed.
  • Describe Beth’s voice—the tone, pitch, volume, or rate at which she speaks.
  • Use an action beat instead of a dialogue tag, to show what Beth is doing.

Ask yourself: are you using telling words?

I hope this gives you some practical tips on how to show, not tell. For more detailed advice, I recommend:

What tips do you have on showing, not telling?

Show, Don't Tell

Show, Don’t Tell (#AuthorToolBoxBlogHop)

Show, Don’t Tell is part of the September #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop, hosted by Raimey Gallant. Click here to find other blogs participating in the Hop and read some great writing advice! Or follow the #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop on Twitter, or visit our Pinterest board.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve discussed two oft-quoted pieces of writing advice (or bad writing advice, depending on who you ask):

I’ve covered what each phrase means, and how you can apply it to editing your manuscript. Today I’m going to cover another common writing tip: Show, Don’t Tell, which is one of the major rules of modern fiction (whether contemporary or historical, genre or literary).

But what does ‘Show Don’t Tell’ Mean?

Telling a story is the classic way of structuring a novel—think Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, or Charles Dickens. They told their stories as the narrator, able to see into the minds of all the characters at once.

But telling is now considered outdated by publishers, and readers. Modern readers don’t need pages describing a jungle, a panther, and how a panther moves through the jungle. We’ve seen that on the Discovery Channel.

Modern fiction writing relies on showing the story through a series of scenes. We need to show our reader the scene, rather than telling them about the scene. We need to allow readers to watch and experience the story for themselves.

This isn’t new. Sol Stein said this in 1999:

A writer who wants to be read by contemporary audiences … will find it useful to study through example the differences between narrative summary and immediate scene. Keep in mind that narrative summary is telling and immediate scene is showing.

So instead of telling the reader she was frightened at the noise in the dark basement, let us hear the noise and show us her reactions—her conscious actions, her unconscious visceral reactions, and her internal monologue:

There was a thump in the basement, a pause, then scrapes and scratches as though something—or someone—was moving furniture across the wooden floor. Then steps. Footsteps. Climbing the stairs. She froze in place as her heart beat in time to the heavy footsteps, da-dum, da-dum, he-is com-ing. Where could she hide?

As Renni Browne and Dave King say:

You want to draw your readers into the world you’ve created, make them feel a part of it, make them forget where they are. And you can’t do this effectively if you tell your readers about your world secondhand. You have to take them there.

We need to show the action (and reaction) that relates to the main plot and subplots. We need to show the action and reaction that impacts on the character’s goals, motivations, and conflicts—their character arc.

But we don’t need to show everything.

I’ve yet to read a novel where a character visits the bathroom (to use the American euphemism). This is a good thing. We know the characters must need to visit the bathroom on occasion. But it’s detail we rarely need.

Narrative summary has its uses, the main one being to vary the rhythm and texture of your writing … Just make sure you don’t use it when you should be showing rather than telling.

We can tell the transitions between scenes. If scene A takes place at home, and scene B takes place in the office, we don’t need to show every detail of how our character gets from A to B—unless it’s directly relevant to the plot, or to the character’s personal arc.

This comes back to the principle of Chekov’s gun, which I touched on last week:

If there is a rifle on the mantelpiece in the first act, it needs to be fired in the third act.

Readers know and understand this principle, even if they can’t articulate it:

  • We know that if a novel shows character scrabbling for her car keys in the dark of the parking garage, there will be someone waiting behind her car (or in the car).
  • We know that if the novel shows character using her car key to open the car remotely, there will be a bomb in the car.
  • We know that if the character is shown squeezing toothpaste onto a toothbrush and cleaning her teeth, that there’s either something nasty in the tube of toothpaste, or someone has cleaned the toilet with the toothbrush.

There has to be a reason for any detail. If there is no reason to show the detail, that’s when you tell. We don’t want to disappoint our readers by leading them to believe something is important when it isn’t.

Next week I’m going to share three ways authors tell when they should be showing, and how to fix those “tells”.

What questions do you have about Show, Don’t Tell?

Kill Your Darlings

Kill Your Darlings

Kill your darlings is another of those oft-quoted pieces of writing advice. It’s sometimes quoted as murder your darlings, but never fear. No actual killing or murdering is required.

No, the saying relates to the revision and editing process. It refers to the need for us to revise or delete (kill) any word, any sentence, any paragraph, any scene that doesn’t add to the point of our writing.

What Are Your Darlings?

These are called darlings because they are often the part we like best as the writer—the interesting word, the original turn of phrase, the scene that makes us laugh (or cry) and confirms we can actually do this thing. We can write. We are writers.

This could be because our darling doesn’t move the plot forward, or because it reveals too much information too soon. It could be because it doesn’t aid in characterisation, or because it is inconsistent with the character as he or she has been established. Or it could be because it takes readers off on an unnecessary tangent, like the time …

Sometimes these are our favourite parts, hence killing our darlings.

But killing your darlings isn’t a bad thing. Done properly, it makes your story better.

Why Do Your Darlings Have to Die?

In non-fiction, you have to kill your darlings because you need to keep your readers on track. You are making a point, and every word, every sentence, every paragraph needs to reinforce your argument. Yes, you can tell stories in non-fiction. But they must relate to your central point. For example, I could add in a couple of paragraphs over the origin of the phrase, Kill Your Darlings, with an in-depth examination of who reportedly said it first. That might be interesting, but it doesn’t add to the central point of this post.

Fiction is similar—we need to keep ourselves and our readers on track. There is an assumption in fiction that everything is important. This is the principle of Chekov’s gun:

If there is a rifle on the mantelpiece in the first act, it needs to be fired in the third act.

(I could now go down any number of rabbit holes expanding on whether it’s a gun, a riffle, a pistol or a sidearm, but again … kill those darlings.)

In fiction, each scene needs to move your plot forward and deepen characterisation. Any scene that doesn’t needs to be strengthened, or cut. Even though you spent hours writing it. Kill those darlings. Take the information the reader needs and sliver it into the plot. Ignore the rest, or turn it into a short story or something else that can be downloaded from your website as a gift to email subscribers.

How to Find and Kill Your Darlings

I’ve found killing my darlings isn’t the hard part. The hard part is identifying them in the first place. Some are easy to find and easy to kill. Others are much harder. Three darlings that need a swift death are:

  • Weasel words
  • Wasted words
  • Writerly words

Weasel Words

Most authors have weasel words—words like just, quite, really, that, or very—which don’t add to the writing. Other overused words include smile and shrug and nod. It’s not that they are bad words. It’s that they are overused to the point they become boring and predictable. And who wants their writing to be boring and predictable?

Kill those darlings.

Wasted Words

Some words are wasted words—words that don’t add anything to the story or deepen characterisation. At best, these are just words. At worst, they are sentences or paragraphs or scenes. Sometimes these wasted words are examples of repetition, where we’ve said the same thing more than once. Where two or three different images are used to give the same effect. Where we’ve repeated ourselves.

Like in that paragraph.

It’s not fun to read. So use the strongest image, and delete the others. Sol Stein has a formula: 1+1= ½ . It means the more different images you use to show something, the weaker the overall writing.

Here’s an example, taken from Stein on Writing:

He had time to think, time to become an old man in aspic, in sculptured soap, quaint and white.

I like the image of an old man in aspic. It’s original, and it gives the impression of someone who is so old they are almost preserved. But the image of soap detracts from the first image. The author also explains the soap image: quaint and white. Stein points out that we usually think of soap as white unless a colour is stated, so that’s redundant. And since when was soap ‘quaint’?

Kill those darlings.

Writerly Words

Fictional darlings can include words or phrases that you like, but that don’t add to the story. Sometimes they are what Margie Lawson calls writerly words. Words that don’t sound natural for your character or story. Words that sound like a writer wrote them. These are often the hardest darlings to kill, because they are the words we struggled to find. But just because we searched three thesauruses (thesauri?) to find the right word doesn’t mean it’s the right word for our character.

Kill those darlings.

But How Do I Find Them?

The best way to find your darlings is to put your manuscript aside for as long as possible so that when you read it again, you read it with fresh eyes. This means you’re better able to look at it as a reader, and more likely to pick up mistakes … and darlings. The longer the manuscript, the longer the time needed between writing and editing.

You may have darlings that serve a purpose—moving the plot forward, deepening characterisation, or both. Great. They can live. But cut what you can. Everything you cut is something your editor doesn’t have to cut for you, which means your editing fees will be lower.

Kill those darlings. Your editor with thank you.

Write What You Know

Write What You Know

Three of the most commonly quoted pieced of writing advice are show, don’t tell, kill your darlings, and write what you know.

Of these, I suspect write what you know is the least useful.

I have no scientific proof for this, but for the sake of argument, let’s agree and move on (if you don’t agree, leave a comment with what you consider to be the most oft-quoted piece of useless writing advice).

Write what you know. I’ve spent too many hours on Amazon over the years, and I’ve yet to find a novel about a middle-aged stay-at-home working-from-home still-married mother living in a mid-sized city in a small country nowhere near anywhere.

A little boring, perhaps?

Apart from anything else, the fiction I read tends to favour big city or small town settings (and mostly US settings). It favours characters with no children (or small children). It favours single characters (who end up married).

Fiction favours characters who are dealing with some huge drama in their life. And I’m not. This is good. I have no need to fill my life with drama—I can watch the TV new or read a novel if I’m looking for drama.

Write What You Know

A lot of people write about things they know little or nothing about from personal experience. At least, I hope all those authors writing thrillers about serial killers don’t have personal experience. But they can still write about serial killers—and write well.

I’m not convinced write what you know is great writing advice.

I’m not alone. I’ve read a lot of blog posts and online articles twisting the “write what you know” mantra. Here are some of my favourites:

Write What You Feel

This one makes a lot of sense. The best fiction is fiction which makes the readers feel. This is what attracts some people to writing—the ability to manipulate their reader’s emotions. The ability to make their readers laugh. Or cry. We can all feel, so we can all learn to channel those feelings into our writing.

Write What You Want to Know

This comes from a post by author Vicki Delany, published at Romance University. Delany echoes my own issue with write what you know: that most of us know some pretty boring stuff that no one wants to read about. In her case, that’s designing computer systems for the banking industry.

We can learn what we don’t know. We can visit locations. We can study the theory. We can ask people who are experts in the area. As Delany says:

“Write what you want to know” and you’ll meet some wonderful people, and learn some marvelous things along the way.

Write What Scares You

Caroliena Cabada heard this advice in a creative writing class at university in Sydney, Australia, from writer Nakkaih Lui. She doesn’t mean write something that literally scares you, like a horror novel. Instead, she means we need to step out of our writing comfort zones and write something different, perhaps something we said we’d never write. This might mean writing in a different genre (horror vs romance), or in a different (a play instead of a novel).

Write what scares you.

A lot of authors say they don’t like writing blog posts or book reviews. Perhaps those are the things which scare them … the thing they should try writing. For me, writing a novel is scary. It’s long. Much longer than the reviews and blog posts I’m more comfortable writing.

Write Who You Are

This take comes from a novel—The Writing Desk by Rachel Hauck. I think this has a ring of truth—many novelists say they find inspiration for their characters within themselves, or they write to answer their own questions.

And our attitudes and beliefs will come through in whatever we write, fiction or non-fiction. Many people are writing to find truth, or to share the truth as they see it, the good and the bad. Steven James puts it like this:

I believe that when it comes to fiction, we should tell stories that express the full measure of humanity—stories that reveal both the glory and grandeur of life, while also honestly acknowledging the darkness and deviance that is there as well.

In Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card says:

Every story choice you make arises out of who you are, at the deepest levels of your soul; and every story you tell reveals who you are and the way you conceive the world around you

As Christian writers, this means we’re writing from a Christian world view, from the believe that God is Truth. Ann Tatlock says:

Anything a Christian writes must reflect the truth of God’s account. If as a Christian we don’t write from a biblical worldview, we’re not portraying reality as it is.

I believe that holds true whether we’re writing for the Christian market or the general market. What do you think?

What’s your favourite spin on “write what you know”?

Cutting the Diamond (Self-Editing Your Novel)

Cutting the Diamond

In our series on Creating Diamonds from Coal (aka self-editing):

Today we’re going to work on what might be the most difficult part of the self-editing process: cutting.

Yes, there are words in our manuscript that have to be cut in order to allow us to see the final shape of our diamond, to allow it to shine.

And that last sentence is the perfect example. There’s nothing wrong with it—the spelling, grammar, and punctuation are all correct. But it could be improved with a little judicious shaping and cutting to turn our blah to brilliant:

We must cut the unnecessary words and allow our manuscripts to shine.

Thirty words to twelve.

What Needs to Go?

Back Story

Back story is what happened before the novel began, the events that formed our characters, that led them to believe a lie.

Writers need to understand this back story so they can write a convincing character arc. After all, if we don’t know where the character has come from, how can we show readers why they need to change?

We don’t need to tell the reader every detail of back story—especially not in the beginning. Going into the past can halt the forward motion of the plot, and I’ve read novels where the back story goes back generations. There is a writer maxim that we should leave back story for the back of the story and there is an element of truth in that statement.

We don’t the beginning of our novel to be bogged down with back story, but we also don’t want to leave our readers wondering why the main characters are the way they are.

There has to be a balance. The trick is to reveal back story a piece at a time. Margie Lawson says to think of back story like a pane of glass.

Write everything we know about the character, all their back story, on that pane of glass.

Then smash it.

Now we can pick up the pieces one at a time and insert them into the story, sliver by sliver, at the place where reader needs to know that sliver of back story. Nothing more, and nothing less.

If cutting your backstory makes you bleed, consider two things:

  • Cutting is going to make your story better.
  • You can repurpose your deleted backstory for marketing.

For example, you could use your deleted back story as the basis for a series of blog posts introducing your characters, or as a lead magnet to incentivise people into signing up for your email newsletter.

Clichés

You’ve probably heard the advice that writers should avoid clichés like the plague. But has anyone told you why?

Because clichés are predictable.

And we want to avoid predictable writing. We want to write (and read) fresh, original writing. Writing that encourages us to keep reading, because we don’t know what’s coming next. If we read the start of a cliché, we know what’s coming next … so what’s the incentive to keep reading?

If you’re going to use a cliché, twist it. Change it. Make it your own—better still, make it your character’s own. A twisted cliché isn’t predictable, so it keeps the reader engaged (and perhaps gives them a laugh).

Dialogue Tags

Dialogue is an area new writers struggle with, both with the actual words the characters speak (the actual dialogue) and with the way the is identified (the dialogue tags).

There are several common problems with dialogue:

  • The ‘dialogue’ isn’t dialogue at all: it is back story, with two or more characters telling each other what they already know. This slows the story down.
  • The dialogue is too formal for the character.
  • The dialogue is monologue. Dialogue exchanges should be brief—no more than two or three sentences at a time.

Know your characters, and ensure their dialogue is consistent with what they would say in terms of vocabulary, sentence construction, and tone.

Many authors overcomplicate the speaker attributions—how the author indicates which character is speaking. Browne and King say:

  • Start the paragraph with dialogue, not an action.
  • Ensure the words in your speaker attributions are the right way around—he said, not said he.
  • Avoid creative speaker attributions (e.g. Beth clucked, Beth chided).
  • Avoid using adverbs in your speaker attributions (e.g she said smilingly).
  • Don’t explain your dialogue (e.g. Beth said, astonished). If Beth’s dialogue hasn’t shown the reader Beth is astonished, telling us won’t solve the problem.
  • You can use a speaker attribution (Beth said) or an action beat (Beth nodded), but there is no need to use both (Beth said, and nodded).
  • You don’t need to add any dialogue tag if it’s obvious who is speaking.

You can also use a dialogue cue. Writing instructor Margie Lawson coined this phrase to refer body language and vocal cues (such as volume and tone of voice) which show subtext in the character interactions.

Getting the dialogue tags right is an easy way to improve your manuscript.

Repetition

The deliberate repetition of words, phrases or ideas can be used to great literary effect. However, most of us have words, phrases or stylistic habits we tend to repeat unconsciously (for example, I have a bad habit of using ‘however’, and tend to use parentheses too often).

There are several kinds of repetition:

Repetition of a single word

This could be using the same word twice in quick succession, or repeatedly using an unusual word or one that doesn’t fit in the style of the novel.

Repetition of an expression or movement

Many characters do nothing but nod or shrug or smile or sigh. In The Word Loss Diet, Rayne Hall says:

If your novel contains four smiles, each of them creates strong emotions in the reader. If it has a thousand smiles, the effect wears off.

It makes us wonder if the character has had Botox, that they can’t manage any other expression. It makes the character seem as genuine as The Joker.

It’s good to use actions to show us how a character is feeling. It’s not good to use the same action over and over and over. Brainstorm original ways of showing emotion. Invest in a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglasi. Write fresh.

Repetition at the beginning of sentences or paragraphs

Common issues include starting sentences with -ing words, with he or she, or with the character’s name

Repetition of an image or idea

Many authors give two different images to describe a scene or an object. This is the most difficult to spot, but the most important to notice and delete because it can weaken your writing.

Revise any repetition that is not specifically intended for emphasis or effect.

Weasel Words

Weasel words are words we don’t need, words which drag down our manuscript and make it more wordy than it needs to be. To illustrate, the second clause in the previous sentence (everything after the comma). The first seven words were sufficient to make the point.

Common weasel words include:

It

Either unnecessary or confusing. If you can cut it without changing the meaning of the sentence, do so. Otherwise replace ‘it’ with the noun it is referring to. (Can you see the potential for confusion?)

That

If you can cut that without changing the meaning of the sentence, do so. I find I can cut at least half.

Adverbs

An adverb is describing a verb, attempting (and failing) to make the verb stronger. Instead of using an adverb, replace the weak verb with a stronger version. Or cut the adverb.

Adjectives

Instead of using a string of similar adjectives, use a single strong adjective that best describes the noun.

Weasel Phrases

There are also weasel phrases:

  • She nodded her head (what else would she nod?).
  • She nodded her head in agreement (nodding rarely signals anything other than agreement).
  • She stood up (no one is going assume anything else).
  • She crouched down.
  • He clapped his hands (a small boy might clap his feet. Otherwise, we’re going to know what you mean).
  • She thought in her head (yes, some people say this. But it still sounds silly).

 Overused Words

New writers often overuse words like look and turn (and their synonyms: gaze, watch, glance, study, observe, peek, peer, stare, and glare). I’ve never counted, but Rayne Hall says:

A bestselling novel by a top author contains around five ‘look’ and five ‘turn’, while a new writer’s book uses them five hundred times each.

Writers also use unnecessary words like begin and start. As a rule, we are either doing or not doing. I am either writing or not writing. I am not starting to write.

Remove Qualifiers

Instead of saying really well, find a single strong adjective that gets the point across. Weak or meaningless qualifiers include absolutely, actually, basically, certainly, completely, just, literally, much, only, quite, rather, really, somehow, somewhat, that, therefore, totally, very, and well.

Most of us have a unique set of weasel words. I recently read a manuscript where the author used some variation of magic five times in the first chapter—magic, magical, magically. Used once, magic is an interesting word. Used five times in one chapter, it feels out of place in a novel that’s not about magic.

Find your weasel words, and cut them.

Telling Words

Many authors use words like saw or felt or thought. These words are telling where you should be showing. They’re a sign you’ve slipped out of deep perspective point of view and telling the story yourself, rather than showing the story through the point of view character.

If you’re using point of view correctly, the reader knows anything seen is being seen from the perspective of the viewpoint character. To say the viewpoint character noticed something is unnecessary. So instead of:

Beth saw Jan wore a long black trenchcoat and knee-high boots.

If we already know Beth is the point of view character, the ‘Beth saw’ is redundant, and adds unnecessary narrative distance. We only need:

Jan wore a long black trenchcoat and knee-high boots.

Telling words to watch for include past, present and future tense versions of:

  • See (notice, watch)
  • Feel
  • Think (ponder, wonder, realise, understand, consider)

Sentence Structure

Many new authors want to vary their sentence structure from the traditional subject-verb-object. Many hit on the idea of starting sentences with ‘as’ or with present participles (-ing words). This introduces two other issues:

It can weaken your writing by making it less active. Browne and King explain:

Two common stylistic constructions are:

Pulling off her gloves, she turned to face him.

and

As she pulled off her gloves, she turned to face him.

Both of these constructions [as and –ing] take a bit of action (“She pulled off her gloves”) and tuck it away into a dependent clause (“Pulling off her gloves”). This tends to place some of your action at one remove from your reader, to make the actions seem incidental, unimportant.

Starting a sentence with ‘As’ or an -ing word

This implies the two actions are occurring at the same time, as in the examples above. But many authors use this sentence structure to describe what becomes an impossible series of consecutive actions:

Climbing out of the car, she ran up the steps.

Not even Superman can run up steps while he’s still climbing out of a car. Our sentences need to reflect the correct order of our character’s actions:

She climbed out of the car and ran up the steps.

Sentence Structure

This is the standard sentence structure of noun-verb-subject (she-climbed-car), with the added modification of conjunction-verb-subject (and-ran-stairs).

Using the same sentence construction all the time can feel repetitive. But it’s better to use the correct repetitive sentence structure than an incorrect alternative (verbing, noun subject) that leaves the reader wondering what you meant.

Instead, use a combination of simple, complex, and compound sentences to vary your writing. Add sentence fragments

Consider sentence length. Short sentences feel fast. They increase pace. Long complex and compound sentences slow the pace as they meander across the page, which means you can use varying sentence lengths to increase or decrease the pace of your scene, or to manipulate the reader’s perception of time.

Writerly Words

‘Writerly words’ is a Margie Lawson phrase, meaning something that doesn’t sound natural, something that sounds as though a writer wrote it. This makes it a subtle form of author intrusion—where the author uses a word they like, but that’s too formal to be consistent with what the point of view character would say or think.

Conclusion

Cutting unnecessary words and phrases will tighten your writing and reduce your word count—in a good way.

These are suggestions, not rules. You don’t have to follow them all. In fact, you don’t have to follow any of them. But every time you’re tempted to leave an adverb in, or explain an emotion, think:

Does this make my story stronger?

Be honest. If you’re not sure, save your darlings somewhere then delete them from your manuscript. You can always add them back later if you get feedback from readers or editors that something is missing.

You’ve put the pressure on your diamond, examined the rough diamond, shaped the stone, and cut the stone. Give your manuscript one final polish, to make sure you’ve got the spelling, grammar, and punctuation right.

Now let it shine!

#AuthorToolboxBlogHop: Shaping the Diamond (Showing, not Telling)

Today I’m participating in a new venture: the first Author Toolbox Blog Hop. You can find more post by clicking the link, or find us on Twitter at #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop

Author Toolbox: Shaping the Diamond

Using Show, Don’t Tell to Engage Readers

Last week, we talked about interior monologue—a technique some writers overuse. This affects the pace of the story because it takes the reader away from showing the action into telling the character’s internal reaction. Remember: show don’t tell.

#AuthorToolboxBlogHop

Telling a story is the classic way of structuring a novel, but it is now considered outdated by publishers, and by readers:

There has been a drastic change in storytelling in the twentieth century… Writers need reminding that we’ve all had exposure to movies [and] television … a visual medium. Today’s readers have learned to see stories happening before their eyes. They tend to skim or skip long passages of description or narrative summary,
– Sol Stein, Solutions for Novelists: Secrets of a Master Editor

Therefore you need to show your reader the scene, rather than telling them about the scene.

Our readers want scenes and action, not to be told what happened through description and narrative summary (and narrative summary includes long passages of interior monologue, especially if it’s in the middle of a scene). Readers need to be able to see each scene, see what is happening:

A good scene will enrich character, provide necessary information to the audience and move the plot forward.
– Les Standiford, in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing

Jack Bickham says:

Show, don’t tell. Don’t lecture your reader; she won’t believe you. Give her the story action, character thoughts, feelings, and sense impressions as the character would experience them in real life. There are four essential steps:
  • Selection of, and adherence to, a single character’s viewpoint
  • Imagining the crucial sense or though impressions that character is experiencing at any given moment
  • Presenting those impressions as vividly and briefly as possible
  • Giving those impressions to readers in a logical order

In other words, use deep point of view. Sol Stein gives a useful list of questions to review for each scene:

  • Is the scene described in terms of the action that takes place? If there is no action, there is no scene. The frequent fault of new fiction writers is that they unravel the thread of the story instead of keeping it taut like the gut strings of a tennis racket… Leave the reader in suspense.
  • Is each scene visible throughout so that the reader can see what is happening before his eyes? If the action is not visible, you are probably sliding into narrative summary of past events or offstage events.
  • The reader is not moved by the writer or a narrator telling him what one or another character feels. The reader is moved by seeing what is happening to the characters.
  • Which character in the scene do you have the most affection for? How can you make the reader feel affection or compassion for that character in this scene?
  • Is there a character in this scene who threatens the protagonist subtly or openly, psychologically or physically?

Browne and King apply the ‘show, don’t tell’ principle to the interior monologue and feelings of characters, where authors often use unnecessary adverbs or description to explain what a character is feeling:

This tendency to describe a character’s emotion may reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the writer. So when you come across an explanation of a character’s emotion, simply cut the explanation. If the emotion is still shown, then the explanation isn’t needed. If the emotion isn’t shown, rewrite the passage so it is.
– Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Yes, it’s harder to show than to tell. But make the effort. Your readers will thank you.

Balancing Show vs. Tell

Scenes that show the reader what is happening are harder to write, so writers have a tendency to revert to narrative summary, which is telling. That is not to say that authors should eliminate all narrative summary:

Narrative summary has its uses, the main one being to vary the rhythm and texture of your writing … Just make sure you don’t use it when you should be showing rather than telling.
– Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

That’s not to say we should show everything. Yes, we should show everything that’s important. But not everything is important, and there are some things we don’t want to see up close. This is when we can increase narrative distance.

Using Narrative Distance

Narrative distance is the distance between the reader and the point of view character. There is little distance in deep perspective point of view (which tends to be showing). There is a lot of distance with cinematic or omniscient point of view (which tend to be telling).

Good writers know how and when to manipulate narrative distance to maximise reader engagement and prevent the story getting boring.

Imagine film in which the camera stays the same distance from the characters, never moving back or in. Boring, right? The same is true for fiction.
– David Jauss, On Writing Fiction

For example, a murder mystery necessarily includes a murder. But readers don’t necessarily need to see the murder take place. It might be enough to see the body, to give the reader some emotional distance from the violence, and allow us to focus on what’s most important in a murder mystery: solving the crime.

Handling point of view is much more than picking a person and sticking with it. It involves carefully manipulating the distance between narrator and character … to achieve the desired response from the reader.
– David Jauss, on Writing Fiction

Chekhov’s Gun

We also don’t need to see every insignificant action your character takes, every irrelevant thought he has. This means focusing on what’s important.

The more words you devote to an action (or a speech, or a thought), the more importance that action will have in the reader’s mind. This is the principle of Chekhov’s gun: if there is a gun on the mantelpiece in the first act, it should be fired by the third.

If your character is undertaking some mundane, routine action such as squeezing toothpaste onto his toothbrush, then the reader is expecting this to be relevant in some way. Maybe the maid cleaned the toilet with the toothbrush. Maybe there is poison in the toothpaste. Maybe his wife is being murdered in the next room, and he can’t hear over the sound of the running water.

If you’re mentioning mundane details, make sure they’re relevant to the plot. Give the reader the payoff they subconsciously expect. Otherwise, it’s best to tell:

The key is to show the intense scenes and tell the less important transitions (the narrative summary) between important scenes. As a guide, if what you are writing has the possibility of present-moment dialogue, it is a scene and should be written as such. If not, you’re in summary .
– Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Revision and self-editing is about examining our rough diamond and working out how best to shape and cut the rough stone to produce a final product that will shine. How will we manipulate the reader experience through careful use of point of view? How will we get the proportions right in terms of showing vs. telling?

The way we shape our rough diamond at this stage determines the look and value of the final cut and polished product. If we want to maximise the impact of our rough stone, we need to shape to produce a brilliant cut. I’ll be back next week to talk about cutting. I’ll also have a special offer, so don’t miss it!

What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to showing, not telling?

Don’t forget to visit the main Author ToolBox Blog Hop page for more great writing advice.

Using Point of View to Engage Readers

Shaping the Diamond Part One (Using Point of View to Engage Readers)

Last week I looked at the types of point of view we use in fiction. This week I’m looking at point of view from another perspective—why it’s important. The main reason we need to use deep perspective point of view is because it’s a great way to engage readers by making them feel part of the story:

As the distinction between narrator and character blurs, the distance between them shrinks, and so does the distance between reader and character.
– David Jauss, On Writing Fiction

This is especially useful in genres such as romance, women’s fiction and young adult fiction, where readers want to feel part of the story.

As an added bonus, proper use of deep perspective point of view helps prevent some of the most common issues I see in fiction manuscripts:

  • Headhopping and Author Intrusion
  • Writing Character’s Thoughts
  • Telling, not showing

Today I’m going to cover headhopping, author intrusion, and writing character’s thoughts. I’ll look at showing and telling next week.

Headhopping

Changing the point of view character in a scene is referred to as headhopping, which can be confusing for the reader. For example, the following paragraph shows three viewpoints in three sentences, first Alice, then Ben, then Dr Cook:

It was all too much for Alice. She turned, clung to Ben’s lapels and sobbed. Her heart was breaking. Ben held her against his chest and allowed the grief of years to be brutalised by hope. Dr Cook looked on benignly, waiting for her grief to subside before he continued with his examination.

This should be revised so the entire paragraph is from the viewpoint of a single character, the character who is most affected by the actions in that scene. This character should be named first, so the reader knows who is the point of view character in the scene.

Remember, a scene has a specific structure (which I discussed when I visited Seekerville). Adding a line break and *** does not create a new scene.

Yes, I’ve seen it done.

I think the author was breaking up the narrative into “scenes” to show she understood the rule of only having one point of view character per scene. But my reaction was that either she didn’t know how to write a proper scene, or that she was too lazy to revise her manuscript properly. Either way, the substandard writing showed a lack of respect for her potential readers.

Author Intrusion

If you’re using deep perspective point of view properly, the story is being told through the eyes of your characters. Author intrusion is when you slip out of the character’s viewpoint and tell the story as the author. An author intrusion can be as simple as one wrong word—an English character who says y’all or pavement. An American who says boot instead of trunk. A high school dropout who talks about serendipity.

For example, I have blonde hair courtesy of an excellent hairdresser. I might look in the mirror and think it’s time to get my roots touched up, but I’m not going to think of my hair colour if that’s not the focus of the scene:

The wind blew Alice’s carefully coiffured blonde hair everywhere.

It’s boring, right? Instead, deepen the point of view:

The gentle breeze whipped into a frenzy, blowing Alice’s hair everywhere–in front of her eyes, into her mouth. So much for the half-hour she’d spend drying and styling a professional coiffure for her job interview.

Author intrusion can also be more noticeable moralising and editorialising—the kind of preachiness which once gave Christian fiction a bad name (I think most authors now know better).

To avoid author intrusion, remember that every word needs to be consistent with what your viewpoint character can see or hear, or what they would think. Nothing more.

Writing Character’s Thoughts

There are three ways to show character thoughts in fiction, but only one I recommend—interior monologue. I’ll discuss the other two so you know why I don’t recommend them.

Quotation Marks

I have seen people ask how you tell the difference between character thought and character dialogue. The rule I learned in school was to use one quotation mark for character thought (‘like this’) and two for dialogue (“like this”).

That’s a useful rule to remember if you’re reading fiction from the 1950’s or earlier, but this approach is now considered wrong:

Never, ever use quotes with your interior monologue. It is not merely poor style; it is, by today’s standards, ungrammatical. Thoughts are thought, not spoken.
– Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

In the same way, don’t use thinker attributions (e.g. she thought). These indicate you’re using a distant point of view rather than deep perspective:

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London. ‘I should be grateful I’m not in a regular prison cell,’ she thought. ‘The room is warm, and the food is as fine as I eat at home.’

Thinker attributions signal to agents, publishers, editors, and readers that you don’t know (or don’t understand) deep perspective point of view.

Direct Thought

Many authors choose to use italics to indicate direct thought:

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London. I should be grateful I’m not in a regular prison cell.

However, there are disadvantages to this approach as well:

  • Italics are only effective for a few words or a short sentence. Any longer, and they become difficult to read.
  • Italics can slow the pacing of the scene.
  • Overuse of italics will annoy the reader (and my reader view is that most authors who use italics do overuse them).
  • Direct thought in italics changes the point of view of the scene from third person to first person present tense and back again . This change can be jarring for the reader.
  • Direct thought is telling where the author should be showing.

Interior Monologue

Interior monologue is what your point of view character is thinking, expressed in his or her own voice. There is no need for thoughts to be identified as such, because the rules of third person narration from a specific viewpoint character (or first person narration) imply this is the character whose interior monologue we are reading.

Interior monologue is favoured because:

  • It is showing, not telling.
  • Interior monologue doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story the way italics do, because it is the same tense and font as the rest of the story.
  • It forces the reader (and author) into the mind of the point of view character, which helps them know the character better. The better the reader knows the character, the more likely she is to empathise and feel the character’s emotions.

Interior monologue is stronger writing. It’s the writing which most engages me as a reader. If you want your reader to engage with your characters and experience their tragedies and joys, use interior monologue and deep perspective point of view.

Thinking Aloud

Some authors write scenes where a character appears to be talking to himself or herself, in that their words are set in quotation marks. But they’re alone in a room, so who are they talking to? As shown above, this can give a scene a slightly ‘off’ feel.

It’s rarely a good idea to have your characters mumble to themselves or speak under their breath… it’s almost always going to come off as a contrivance.
– Angela Hunt, Point of View

Prayer

Note that prayer is different from thinking aloud, because we’re talking to Someone (God). Prayer can be:

  • Spoken out loud (indicated by quotation marks).
  • Direct thought (indicated by italics).
  • Interior monologue.

The right choice will depend on your character and the situation—she might normally be a pray-out-loud type, but she’s likely to pray silently when she’s hiding from the maniac with the gun.

Italics

As shown above, italics can be used for direct thought. They can also be used for emphasis. However, it’s easy to overuse both, so my view is it’s best to avoid the problem by not using italics for direct thought or emphasis at all. Instead, only use italics where they are the only correct choice:

  • Book and magazine titles
  • The name of a movie, TV series or play
  • Words from other languages
  • Specific names of ships, trains or planes (e.g. the USS Enterprise)

When italics for emphasis are overused, they are telling where the author should be showing. It’s the typographical equivalent of laughing at your own joke, or asking ‘did you get it?’.

I’ll be back next week to share the other way we can use point of view to engage readers: through showing, not telling.

Meanwhile, do you have any questions on deep perspective point of view?

Understanding Point of View

Point of view is one of the most important aspects of writing craft for fiction, yet it one of the major issues new writers struggle to understand.

This post will:

  • Describe the basic approaches to point of view.
  • Discuss how to choose the right point of view for your novel.

Approaches to Point of View

The basic approaches to point of view are:

  • First person
  • Second person
  • Third person

First Person

First person uses ‘I’ as the personal pronoun. This takes the reader inside the mind of one character. The reader can only think, see and experience from the viewpoint of this one character:

I sit waiting, waiting, waiting. These might be the Royal quarters, as befits my station as Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII, God rest his soul, but it is still the Tower of London. It is still a prison. Amidst the luxurious wall hangings, a warm fire, and the fine food, I sit here, waiting. Waiting upon the pleasure of the popish Queen. Mary. My half-sister.
My enemy.

First-person point of view gives narrative intimacy, the feeling that they are getting to know this character’s deepest thoughts and emotions. In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Browne and King say:

In order to succeed in the first-person point of view, you have to create a character strong enough and interesting enough to keep your readers going for an entire novel, yet not so eccentric or bizarre that your readers feel trapped inside his or her head. Also, what you gain in intimacy in first person, you lose in perspective [because] your readers get to know only one character directly.

Note that some readers don’t like novels written in first person. Some publishers don’t accept first person manuscripts, so choosing this option might limit your market.

Second Person

Second person uses ‘you’ and ‘your’, putting the reader inside the story:

You sit waiting, waiting, waiting. These might be the Royal quarters, as befits your station as Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII, God rest his soul, but this is still the Tower of London. It is still a prison. Despite the wall hangings, a warm fire and the fine food, you are still sitting here, waiting upon the pleasure of the Queen. Mary, your half-sister, your enemy.

This feels contrived to me. You are not Princess Elizabeth, so are you really going to sit through a 90,000 word novel and pretend that you are? Second person works for instructional non-fiction, and is the mainstay of ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ books. But it’s not considered appropriate for novel-length fiction.

In the words of Newman and Mittlemark (authors of the tongue-in-cheek How Not to Write a Novel):

Certain late twentieth-century novelists used the second person singular successfully—notably Italo Calvino in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and Jay McInerney in Bright Lights, Big City. But there it ended. In fact, it was named the “second person” when McInerney became the second person to get away with it and it became clear he would also be the last. Very occasionally, an editor sees past the contrivance and buys such a book—on the condition that the author revise it completely into a traditional third-person narrative.

Unlimited or Omniscient POV

Some people see omniscient point of view as one end of a continuum of a range of third person viewpoints. Others see it as unique and separate from third person. It is written using the grammatical rules of third person, and uses he/she and his/her pronouns:

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London as the guard entered with her breakfast. She should be grateful she hadn’t been placed in a normal prison cell. At least the walls of the Royal apartment were covered in fine tapestries to keep the heat in, there was a large fire to fight London’s cold winter, and the food was freshly cooked and still warm when it was served to her.
He knew many people who didn’t have these luxuries at home, never mind in prison. Elizabeth was waiting upon the pleasure of her half-sister Mary, the Catholic Queen.
Mary was afraid of Elizabeth, afraid of her popularity with the common people, and afraid she might fight for the throne as that wretched Jane Grey had. She was dead now. And Elizabeth may yet join her.

The advantage of omniscient point of view is that the reader gains a level of perspective over the whole story, because the narrator knows what is going on in the minds of all the characters.

This was the favoured point of view in the past. However, it can be confusing for the reader (see how the example moves from Elizabeth’s mind to that of the guard, then to off-stage Mary?). Modern fiction prefers a more intimate point of view where the reader can see inside the mind of the main characters—but only one character at a time.

Many readers dislike the omniscient point of view, because it can lead to moralising author intrusions (‘she should be grateful’), and is thought of as old-fashioned and patronising.

The other disadvantage of omniscient is that it is hard to write well. The above example isn’t true omniscient: it’s third person with head hopping. True omniscient point of view has a separate narrator with a distinct voice, as in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or The Princess Bride.

Outer Limited or Cinematic POV

Outer Limited describes the action through the eyes of an external narrator who sees the external, observable actions and dialogue but none of the thoughts or feelings of the characters. James Scott Bell describes as this as Cinematic POV. For example:

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London. The room wasn’t a typical prison cell: the walls were covered in fine tapestries to keep the heat in, there was a large fire to fight London’s cold winter, and the food was of high quality. Elizabeth sat, waiting upon the pleasure of her half-sister Mary, the Queen, a Catholic, and her enemy.

Like omniscient, cinematic point of view tends to tell rather than show, and doesn’t give the much-needed emotional engagement with the characters. It can be useful in certain circumstances:

  • It is often used in thriller and suspense novels to show what is happening away from the sight of the main characters (e.g. the villains making their plans).
  • It provides narrative distance, which can be useful when describing certain scenes (e.g. physical violence).

Third Person Limited

Third person inner limited puts the reader in the position of observing the action through the eyes, ears, and thoughts of a single character. It’s much like first person, but written in the grammatical third person language of he/she and his/her.

Note that the reader can only know the thoughts of the point of view character: unless the character is telepathic, the character can only observe the actions of the other characters in the scene:

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London. She knew she should be grateful she hadn’t been placed in a typical prison cell. At least the walls of the Royal apartment were covered in fine tapestries to keep the heat in, there was a large fire to fight London’s cold winter, and the food was as fine as any she had eaten in her Hatfield home: freshly cooked and still warm when it was served to her. She sat, bored, thinking of her half-sister Mary, the Catholic Queen who was now her enemy.

This example feels distant as a reader, as if you’re watching a scene rather than being drawn into that scene. You can see some of what is going on inside Elizabeth’s head, but words like ‘knew’ and ‘thinking’ place an invisible narrator between the character and the reader.

Like Cinematic point of view, Inner Limited has some uses in modern fiction, but can feel distant when it fails to engage the emotions of the reader.

Third Person Deep Perspective

Modern readers favour a more intimate third person (especially in genres such as romance and women’s fiction), as this pulls the reader into the scene and provides a degree of narrative intimacy and emotional engagement more like first person:

She sat, drumming her fingers on the desk. These might be the Royal quarters, befitting her station as Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII, but it was still the Tower of London, still a prison. She gazed around the room. Perhaps the view had changed. No. Still the same wall hangings, showing that awful hunting scene. The poor stag. It hadn’t deserved to meet that grisly end at the hands of her father. That was back when he was married to Catherine of Aragon, before he split from the Roman Catholic church to divorce Catherine and marry Elizabeth’s mother.
At least the fire was warm and the food was as good as that served in her Hatfield home. But there was nothing to do. No new books, nothing to sew, and no one to talk with. It was luxury compared with the hovels most people lived in, but it was a prison. So she sat, praying, watching, waiting. Waiting upon the pleasure of her half-sister Mary. The Queen. Her enemy.

The reader should be able to feel Elizabeth’s boredom and impatience. If this was done really well, the reader would also be able to sense Elizabeth’s underlying fear: that she may have to die in order for Mary to secure her throne. That is the beauty of deep perspective: done well, it shows us things the character themselves may not even be aware of. But the example above also shows one of the problems of deep perspective. It takes more words to show than to simply tell.

Choosing The Right Point of View

How do you choose which point of view to use? In modern fiction, the only real choice is between first person and third person.

Genre may play a part in your decision:

  • Women’s literature and cozy mysteries often use first person point of view.
  • Romance novels may be first person or third person.
  • Thrillers or suspense are usually third person.
  • Middle Grade novels are likely to be third person, and may use omniscient or cinematic viewpoint.
  • Young Adult and New Adult novels tend to be first person or third person deep perspective.
  • Fantasy novels are likely to be third person, and may use omniscient.

Overall, most adult fiction uses third person point of view. The more character-driven the plot, the more likely the novel will use third person deep perspective. Browne and King say:

What degree of narrative distance is right for you? Broadly speaking, the more intimate the point of view, the better. One of the most difficult tasks racing a writer is creating believable and engaging characters, and an intimate point of view is a terrific way of doing this.

Using Multiple Points of View

Most novels are written using multiple points of view, as this provides variety and interest. However, multiple points of view can get authors in trouble.

There are three main ways of using multiple points of view in fiction:

  • First person point of view with multiple characters.
  • Combining first person and third person point of view.
  • Third person point of view with multiple characters.

Multiple characters in first person is not a technique for beginners. Done well (e.g. Gone to Ground by Brandilyn Collins), it is excellent. Done badly, it is virtually unreadable. As Browne and King say:

[some authors] write in the first person but from several different viewpoints—with different scenes done from inside the heads of different characters. This technique can be highly effective in the hands of an experienced writer.

Orson Scott Card explains the problem in Characters and Viewpoint:

Switching first-person narrators mid-story is usually ineffective and always difficult, because it violates the illusion that the character is “really” telling the tale.

Gayle Roper uses the technique of combining first person and third person successfully in Shadows in the Sand. She uses first person for her heroine, and third person for two secondary characters and for the villain. This is not a technique for beginners, because the constant change between first person and third person can draw the reader out of the story.

This is why most authors stick with the tried-and-true options:

  • Writing first person from a single point of view.
  • Writing multiple characters in third person point of view.

Choosing Your Point of View Characters

The final question in is how many point of view characters your novel should have.

Fewer is better:

  • If you are writing in first person, the ideal number of viewpoint characters is one (unless you’re an expert writer).
  • If you are writing in third person, the number of viewpoint characters will vary depending on word count and genre.

The purpose of point of view is to create intimacy with the characters, to make the reader care about what happens to the character. These guidelines are based on what I see as a reader:

  • Category romance (e.g. Love Inspired, approximately 60,000 words) has two points of view: hero and heroine, with approximately a 40/60 split between the two.
  • Contemporary or historical romance, women’s fiction (90,000 words) has two or three points of view: hero, heroine and significant other character. This may be a best friend, or it may be the heroine of the planned sequel.
  • Romantic suspense (90,000 words) has between two and four points of view: hero, heroine, significant other character and villain.
  • Thriller (90,000 words) may have up to five characters hero, heroine (if there are romantic elements) and two or three seemingly-unrelated viewpoints, one or two of which will be the villains.
  • Science Fiction or Fantasy (up to 120,000 words) will have up to five characters: hero, heroine, sidekick, mentor, villain

Each character is someone you want your reader to get to know, to understand. If you have too many viewpoint characters, you reduce the ability of your readers to know and understand your characters and their motivations. As Ronald Tobias says in Twenty Master Plots:

The more characters you add to the mixture, the more difficult it will become to keep up with all of them and to keep them in the action.

Three Golden Rules of Point of View

The general rules of Point of View are:

  1. There must only be one point of view character in each scene (more than one is referred to as ‘head-hopping’).
  2. The point of view character should be the individual most affected by the actions in that scene.
  3. The first name mentioned in a scene should be that of the viewpoint character.

In almost every case, the viewpoint character should be one of the main characters. It won’t be a minor character who only appears on one or two scenes in the entire book. The exception might be if you’re setting this character up to be the protagonist in the next book in a series.

I’ll be back next week to discuss the most common problems new writers have, and how the correct use of point of view can help. Meanwhile, what’s your biggest struggle with point of view? Let me know in the comments.