May 26, 2016
I could write a whole book about first person point of view, but I won’t. It’s a very common writing technique (hereafter abbreviated to POV). Some people hate to read it or write it. I love first person, though, and I’m going to write just a bit about it now.
First person POV in a nutshell is the one where the narration is “I” did this, “we did that.” It’s easy to spot. (Third person can be either close or distant, or omniscient. Those distinctions make knowing which sort of third person you’re reading more difficult than with first person. Also a few books and short stories have been written in second person: you did this or that.)
The strength of first person is that the reader is firmly in the heart and mind of one character. The weakness of first person is that the reader is firmly in the heart and mind of one character. That identification with one character is both the main strength and weakness of first person POV.
At first glance, first person seems to be easy to write. It isn’t. The character through whom the reader will experience the story must be worth spending time with. That voice must be distinctive and interesting. Otherwise, the reader will check out.
When writing first person POV, you can show only what that character sees, hears, feels, knows. Therefore, a set of sentences like these will jar the reader. I followed Joey down the hall. His eyes were focused on the closed door, and he bit his lip nervously. If your narrator is following Joey, he has no idea what Joey is looking at or if he’s biting his lip. All your narrator can see is the back of Joey’s head. You’d think this sort of thing would be obvious, but I read these things all the time. As a writer, you must constantly think, “Can I really see this? Can I know this?” If the answer is no, you must rework the sentence until you can answer yes.
Or this. Bob sat at the bar, nursing a beer. I sat two stools down, pretending to drink a Bloody Mary. Bob sighed, worried about his job. Okay, granted that’s some less-than-stellar narration. The point is, the narrator couldn’t know what Bob was thinking, not unless he said something to her. I read these sentences even more often than the first example.
The strength of first person POV remains the ability to see things from one person’s perspective. To be inside that one person’s mind, heart, soul. The writer cannot scrimp on the emotional content. Just showing us what’s happening without letting us see what the POV character is thinking and feeling will leave us cold. If the writer does show us the POV character’s reactions and emotions, we will feel them, too. We will live the story right along with the POV character.
In the hands of a skillful writer, no other POV allows us such access to the depths of a single character’s mind.
Jun 16, 2015
Really? You have? Well, don’t be the one to say so in your ads. One of the things that will totally turn me off a book is an ad/promo like this one WHEN POSTED TO A WRITER’S SOCIAL MEDIA AND WRITTEN BY THE WRITER HIM/HERSELF: This is a great book for horror readers! OR This is a wonderful book for children ages three to five.
When I promote other writers’ books, I might very well say the same things, but when a writer says that about his/her own book, it sounds desperate or self-aggrandising. I mean, what writer doesn’t think his/her own book is great and wonderful? Still, let others toot your horn; don’t do it yourself.
Let your readers say how wonderful, amazing, insightful, awe-inspiring, great, moving, and hilarious (all words I’ve seen just in the last few months applied by writers to their own work) your book is.
Photo credit: Patrick_Denker at EveryStockPhoto.com
May 4, 2015
The other day I was searching on Amazon for a good book to read. I like zombie fiction, and that’s the specific genre I zeroed in on on this particular day. I found one that looked interesting. Nifty, though a bit crude, cover. Good reviews. An editor listed in the description.
Because I didn’t know the writer’s other work, I followed my usual procedure and clicked “look inside.” I was a bit annoyed by the way the e-book was laid out – reviews, copyright information, table of contents, and so on all at the front, thus cutting down on the amount of actual book text I’d be able to read in my “look inside.”
Then I got down to the text.
I found a grammatical error in the second sentence. I found weak writing (to put it kindly) in the second paragraph, followed by several more examples of poor grammar, bad punctuation, and weak writing in the two or three pages I slogged through.
Did I pick up this book? No. No, I didn’t. Not even at the low-low-low price of free was this book worth it. The story sounded interesting. The writing turned me right off.
Now I have to add that a perfectly grammatical story peopled with cardboard characters and weighted down with a blah or confusing plot will also turn me off. I just can’t detect those flaws in the first two or three pages of the book.
Do you need an editor? Yes. Do you need an editor who’s not afraid to tell you what’s wrong? Also yes. Do you need an editor who knows his/her stuff? So much yes. Sometimes an editor has to be the Bad Guy and tell her client that a section isn’t working, that a word doesn’t mean what the client thinks it does, that the client is relying on the same word or phrase too much. When we do that, it’s not because enjoy crushing a client’s creativity or voice. It’s because that’s what the client is paying us for: finding those errors before they turn off the readers.
All that said, it’s also true that a lot of readers don’t know the nuances of grammar. That doesn’t mean they won’t know when the meaning of a sentence is unclear. They might not know why they’re uncomfortable, but they’ll know they are. After all, a person doesn’t have to understand music theory or be able to read music to know when someone’s singing off-key.
Indie writers have to be especially careful, I think. Readers are, unfortunately, a lot harder on indie writers than those published by Big New York Publishers. It’s like that old saying, “You have to be twice as good to get half the respect.” Is it fair? No. Will this perception change? Probably. Does that probable change matter now? Nope.
photo credit: gregparis at morgueFile.com
Apr 30, 2015
No. No they won’t. And if they do, chances are you won’t even recognise your idea after it’s worked its way through that other writer’s psyche.
I have heard several (inevitably new and/or unpublished) writers say things like, “I don’t want to join a critique group or give my work to a beta reader or an editor because they might steal my ideas.” I shake my head when I hear this sort of comment.
I have been in workshops where a dozen writers were given the same writing prompt (in other words, the same story idea) and produced a dozen entirely different stories. I’ve never been in a workshop where two writers wrote the same – or even a similar – story from the same prompt. Never.
The other day I was talking with a writer friend, J.M.Cornwell, and she began discussing an idea she had. Her idea sparked an idea in me which took off in a different direction entirely from my friend’s idea. I sketched out a story, and then became a bit concerned that J.M. might think I had appropriated her idea. When I mentioned it to her, she said, “For crying out loud, write the story! Your story won’t be at all like mine, and you know it. Go for it.”
So I did. The story’s still in the notes and planning stage, but when I write it, I know two things: It’ll be my story, not my friend’s; and J.M. Cornwell will be okay with my taking off on her idea.
I have never worried that my critique group, beta readers, or editors would steal my ideas. After all, how many variations on “boy meets girl, boy woos girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again” have you read? Or variations on “guy murders other guy and detective brings the murderer to justice”? Or maybe “the zombie apocalypse erupts and only a few people survive”? Honestly, you could write variations on variations on variations of those basic ideas from now till twenty minutes past forever.
Idea-theft should be the least of your concerns. Write the doggoned story. Get it critiqued, beta-read, edited. Rewrite it as needed. Make it the best, most polished bit of writing you can. And there you have it. A finished piece worth reading.
Apr 28, 2015
Let’s talk vampires. Not the undead creatures of the night, neither the sexy version so popular now nor the hideous Nosferatu of a hundred years or so ago. I’m talking about energy vampires, those people who drain your energy and creativity till you droop and swoon like a Victorian maiden who’s recently entertained Count Dracula at a midnight soiree.
Who is an energy vampire? It’s the person who drains you, makes you feel useless or worthless or not-good-enough. If you’re a writer and you get a good review, the vampire will have gotten a better one. If you got a bad review, the vampire will have gotten a worse one. If you just finished a short story, she finished a novel. If you signed a contract with a small publisher, she signed one with a major New York house.
Or maybe he makes you doubt yourself. He reads your story and hands it back to you with a limp, “That’s nice.” Perhaps he asks what you’re writing and, when you say, “Romance,” or “Horror,” or “Mysteries,” he blinks a few times and then murmurs, “Oh, I write real literature.”
Or perhaps she’s one of those human-shaped walking black clouds. She never sees the good around her because it’s always raining where she is. She spreads negative energy wherever she goes.
We all know these vampires. (And, yes, everyone has moments or even long stretches of time when everything we touch goes wrong. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I am talking about people who engage in this kind of behavior, often without realizing it, their whole lives.) So what do we do?
First of all, don’t even think about wooden stakes. That way lies a charge of homicide.
I’ve read articles urging people afflicted with vampires to love them and try to show them a better way. That might work. Sometimes.
My own preferred tactic is to go into non-engagement mode. Stay civil. Be polite. And don’t get into their drama. They thrive on drama and want you tangled all up in it. If you stay out of it long enough, they’ll take their fangs out of your neck and go bother someone else. Or maybe they’ll learn a less negative way to deal with their own issues. Either way, you’ll be in the clear.
Photo credit: AvinaKRSaha at morgueFile.com