Thursday, September 15, 2016

Editor's Notes #24: Points of View Part 2—How Do I Choose?

My previous post began to explore points of view and how to choose which one is right for your story. Many of you said your characters dictated what POV they wanted you to write from. I'm not surprised. Though I suppose an author can have one that's more comfortable for his writing style, each story is unique and should never become a cookie-cutter presentation. Nobody wants boring and predictable, after all.

We've already explored the first-person point of view, with its advantages and limitations; the next step is to look at the third-person point of view—a commonly-used way of showing what's going on in more than one head.

The four major players are the same: author, narrator, viewpoint person, and protagonist. However, their roles are divvied up differently this time.

In the third-person POV, the author is still the author, but that's pretty much the only similarity. The narrator doesn't actually participate in the action this time. The author and the narrator in third-person POV are the same . . . but they aren't, which can be confusing. Whereas there's a clear line to divide the author from the narrator in a first-person piece (because the narrator is the viewpoint person), the narrator in a third-person story is seen by the reader in a different light.

Harvey Chapman (from the Writers After Dark link I shared last time) explains it like this:
The author of a novel is a real-life person who has made up the events and written the words. 
But in order to feel like what we are reading actually happened, [we] readers need to forget about the author and imagine instead that the words have been written by a kind of invisible witness to the events—a person with godlike powers, perhaps, who can look down upon reality from above and describe it to the readers. 
The crucial point here is that this godlike narrator, as unlikely as such a figure might be, witnesses something that actually happened—whereas authors merely write about events they have made up. 
And so readers will ignore the author's name on the novel's cover and imagine instead that they are being told about the events by someone who actually witnessed them firsthand.
Also unlike the first-person POV, the narrator is not the story's viewpoint person. The narrator in a third-person POV is basically someone who gets us from here to there: this happened, and let me tell you all about it. Otherwise, narrating is kind of a thankless job: readers care about the characters, not the narrator . . . so, dear Narrator Person, please don't give us your opinion. Just enough facts so we can picture it all in our heads, and then step aside so the characters can speak.

Next is the viewpoint character, but the third part of this three-part series deals with viewpoint, so I'll only touch on it here. In short, if you tell the story through one person's eyes, there's a single viewpoint. If you choose to write from multiple viewpoints, different sections or chapters will feature different eyes to see through—aka different viewpoints. This deserves a good deal of detail, so look for it in my next post in two weeks.

Finally, the protagonist comes into play. The protagonist in a third-person POV novel is the leading or central character. The character the book is written about. The main attraction. The big Kahuna. He or she is the entire reason we're reading this story.

The protagonist may or may not be the viewpoint character. If you have a single viewpoint, then the protagonist will most definitely be your viewpoint character. However, if you have multiple viewpoints, there's no guarantee that these two roles will mesh. Imagine reading a novel based on two of my favorite cartoon characters, Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy (yes, I'm an unapologetic fan of SpongeBob). Mermaid Man may be the protagonist, but perhaps his adventure is told through Barnacle Boy's eyes. Sidekicks come in handy that way. And since sidekicks typically idolize the heroes whose sides they're kicking, it might be a pretty good gig to have if you're the hero, because your story from his view will make you sound even better than you are. Unless you have a rotten, bitter sidekick who has always wanted to be #1 but you've never given him the chance to shine. In that case, "interesting" is probably the best you can hope for.

Until next time, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Not all of them . . . just the good ones.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Editor's Notes #23: Points of View Part 1—How Do I Choose?

I have this glass (from one of my favorite websites, Despair, Inc., home of demotivational everything), and in addition to always making me smile, it reminds me that different people can look at the same thing in a variety of ways. Often, this helps to fill out the bigger picture of an issue. Other times, it only serves to confuse things, like when writing a book.

It takes real talent to write from multiple points of view. Some people do it without even realizing it, but that's not what we're discussing today. Well, maybe we'll use those people as bad examples, but for now, the ones we're talking about today and next time are those writers who actually do it on purpose.

When an author sits down to put pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard, or crayon to napkin, or Sharpie to forearm—the story that flows usually takes on a voice that's easily discernible. Sometimes it's in the form of a first-person narrative, sometimes a third-person "outside voice."

There is no "right choice" that an author can make for every occasion. Each book's POV choice should be as individual as its plotline. It all depends on what you hope to accomplish, and that's where a few guidelines help.

I recently read an article featured on the Writers After Dark website, titled "The Complete Guide to Point of View," by Harvey Chapman. Not only did the post feature the two most common points of view (first person and third person), but it linked to another article (same author) which explained the logic behind the different choices. According to Chapman, many authors are tempted to skip the fundamentals and simply look at the pros and cons, but there are a few things which should be understood before choosing.

The theory and logic behind choosing a point of view boils down to the roles of four people: the author, the narrator, the viewpoint character, and the protagonist. Now of course, the author is the author, but the narrator (the one who tells the story as compared to the one who writes the story) takes on a different role, depending on the POV chosen.

In the first-person POV, the narrator is also the viewpoint character. We see what he sees, but only what he sees. This can keep things simple and focused, but can also be tricky in a few ways. Anything that happens "offscreen," so to speak, can only be learned through conversation or eavesdropping. In other words, if the main viewpoint character wasn't there, it didn't happen . . . unless the event is discovered through other means.

First-person narrative also has the tendency to give us a not-so-objective "truth" as we read along. Think of any occasion where there is more than one person. There will be, of course, more than one opinion, and each person is sure his is the right one.

Chapman's article points out another interesting aspect of the first-person narrative: because a first-person narrator/viewpoint person is retelling something that happened in the past, the viewpoint may change, depending on whether that action or event happened in the immediate past or many years ago. As he states, ". . . if a forty-year-old adult tells us something that happened to him as a thirteen-year-old kid, that makes the narrator twenty-seven years older than the viewpoint person. And which of us can claim to be the same person at forty as we were at thirteen?"

The first-person narrator/viewpoint person may also be the protagonist, but this not a hard and fast rule. The person telling the story may just as easily be recounting a tale that happened to his best friend.

The important part is to know why you're choosing the point of view you're working with, and the rest should sort itself out much easier as the writing progresses.

Part 2 of this post will explain these roles (author, narrator, viewpoint person, protagonist) in the context of the third-person point of view.

Do you have a favorite POV to write from, do you have to think about it at great length, or does each book just present itself to you with a POV already chosen by the characters? I'm curious.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Editor's Notes #22: The Importance of Having a Critique Partner

If we are honest with ourselves, we would always choose to believe our work is great. I mean, what's not to love? We're creative. We're innovative. We think of things no one else can possibly come up with, because we're smarter than all of them.

BUT . . . what if . . . what if, in fact, we're capable of error? Not us, of course, but all those other people: the ones who are not us. What if our their ideas are not as genius as they first appeared to be during those late-night writing sessions? Who is there to shout, "The emperor has no clothes!" when it needs to be said?

Your critique partner, that's who.

Everyone needs at least one. Sometimes more than one, but definitely not zero. Critique partners are often the only thing stopping a person from making a huge mistake, sometimes with a simple phrase like, "When reading your manuscript, I noticed something . . ."

What is a critique partner? A CP is someone with whom you trade manuscripts with the intention of reading and offering suggestions to each other for improvement. Ideally, that person should be an author. Even more important, he should be an author who writes at least as well as you do if not better. A critique partner needs to be able to look at your work from a number of angles and give sound advice and suggestions on how to improve.

This is not to say that your critique partner can't be a cheerleader, but the biggest, most important qualification when seeking one is honesty. Are they willing to be honest with you so your work will improve, even if it might make you temporarily unhappy? If they write in the same genre as you do, will they allow a competitive spirit to cloud their judgement? Face it: you don't need someone to tell you how he would have written it. You need that person to tell you how to improve what you've already written and called your own. They should be able to sprinkle praise in the middle of it all, but if the feedback is all at one end of the spectrum or the other, it won't be nearly as helpful.

Critique partners are a gentle way of thickening your skin for the not-nearly-as-kind reviewers out there. If no one has ever read your work prior to publishing, or if you've only ever had attaboys from friends and family, then that first negative review just may crush you.

Hey, it's even biblical: "Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses" is right smack dab there in the middle of Proverbs (27:6, if you don't trust me and want to look it up). You need to be able to trust the person to love you enough to hurt you, which is an odd concept, but honesty from a friendly voice is always easier to handle when you know that person risks much by their honesty.

Critique partners can be many things, but I'd say "invaluable" is the best way to describe them.

Do you have a critique partner? More than one? Never heard of the concept? Do you go through them like they're disposable? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Editor's Notes #21: DO. THE. RESEARCH.

I could have subtitled this "A Short Rant on Why I'm Not Doing Your Work for You." Seriously.

My name is Lynda. My middle name is Ann, the same as my mom, my grandma, and most of my aunts on that same side of the family (no one was very creative back in the mid-1960s, I suppose). One of my good friends has long maintained that my middle name is Hershey Kiss-Cheesecake, but that's a story for another day.

What my middle name is NOT:

  • Google
  • Webster
  • Language Arts Grade 5, first edition
I should perhaps preface this by saying I really like the people I work with. Some of them I even love. When editing their manuscripts, I always, always want to do my best so their work is at its best. Editing sometimes—okay, always—involves looking things up, fact-checking, spell-checking, and a little research here and there to make sure I'm doing my own job properly. I spend a lot of time in my Chicago Manual of Style, in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Edition (or the online version of it), on a variety of editing help sites, and cuddling up with classics like Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay and The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed. (Yes, it's a real book and it's terrific.) On my Amazon to-buy list is Kiss My Asterisk: A Feisty Guide to Punctuation and Grammar.

As a copy editor, I correct spelling, grammar, punctuation and the like. If I am expected to do more, I get paid for doing more. There are times I'll suggest things or make note of a plot oddity—partly because I can't ignore something that may hurt the book, and partly because most readers think an editor is supposed to catch everything, regardless of what type of editor has gone over the book. I don't mind doing things like that, though if the book is practically being ghostwritten by me because the plot or sentence structure is so poorly done, we've now crossed the line into another type of editing and . . . yep, it costs more because it takes a LOT more time and effort.

However, I've run into the occasional author who doesn't know the basics and who doesn't seem to realize it's his or her job to learn them. I don't expect someone to know all the editing rule differences between the US and the UK, or why "riffling" is the correct word (not "rifling") when going through someone's belongings, but I do expect them to know that when people talk, their speech is put inside quotation marks. I expect them to know that an entire book is made up of more than one lonnnnnnggggg paragraph, and I expect them to know a little thing or two about punctuation in general. They may not be as well-versed in using the "track changes" and other editing features in Word that I am, but they should have a basic understanding of their word processing program so they're not completely baffled when I make a suggestion in the digital margin of the manuscript.

I'll give assistance and instruction to a certain point, and then I hit my limit and start to wonder why that person isn't just doing their own research. It takes literal seconds to Google something. That's how I've found out all kinds of things, and I'll bet you have, too.

At what point is it considered rude to say, "You need to figure these things out on your own; I'm not a writing coach"? I will be the first person to tell you what's wrong with your sentence structure, but I can't sit you down and reteach grade-school language arts. Well, technically I can, but frankly, I don't have the time.

When I suggest to someone that their scene is flat—that it needs some textures or smells to make it come alive in the reader's mind—I honestly don't know how to answer a question of "How do I do that?" without actually writing the additions for them. I can't tell someone what's in their head; they need to figure out how to express that on their own.

I love to help people. Sharing things I've learned is something I enjoy. When I get a manuscript, I'm typically pretty excited about it, because it's new, in many cases no one else has read it yet, and there are all kinds of possibilities waiting to tickle my brain. But when someone never lifts a finger (or ten of them) to do any research on their own, my first thought is usually along the lines of, I'm already dreading the idea of editing this book if they can't even figure out basics and won't try. How awful is that?

I love when I'm talking with one of "my" authors and they mention a book they've read recently on writing, the process of it, the polishing of it, or anything that suggests they're researching their topics and constantly in the pursuit of bettering themselves. Something clicks, every time, in my head, and it says, yep. That's exactly why they're so good at what they do. They don't assume they are "good enough," ever.

If you're an editor, have you dealt with this situation—and how did you handle it? I'm looking for a balance between kind but firm, knowing where to draw the line without being seen as a complete jerk. I don't enjoy feeling mean and petty inside but have a difficult time cutting the cord.

Because most of my blog visitors are authors, I'd love to know if you've ever experienced this with a critique partner. Did you ever get stuck with one you regretted, because the writing quality was so vastly different than your own?

Thanks for visiting, and thanks (always!) for commenting! I love finding out what people think.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Editor's Notes #20: What Makes You Stop Reading a Book? Part 2 of 2

So in Part 1 of this topic, I told you all how I never allowed myself to stop reading in the middle of a book . . . until I started reading some really horribly written stuff when I got a Kindle a few years ago.

Now that I've given myself the okay to JUST STOP, I've found my tolerance level has gotten lower with each passing year and each subsequent novel. The hours in any given day are much too precious to waste on a bad book. I read for money when I edit. I read my Bible each morning. I read and correct my daughter's writing assignments. I read for my day job when my boss gives us a book for the management team to discuss, chapter by chapter. IF there is any time left between editing jobs or assigned books, I read for the sheer pleasure of it. Needless to say, if there's no pleasure involved, I'm not going to bother reading for long.

Here are a few things that will make me put a book down and never look back (unless I'm physically throwing it over my shoulder in the trash):

  • No edits. This is a non-negotiable item for me. If there are grammar/spelling errors, poorly constructed sentences, misuse of words, or worse (though I can't imagine what "worse" would entail), that book practically shuts itself.
  • Characters that are caricatures or stereotyped. The bad guy who has no depth because he's always bad, and not even interestingly bad . . . just "B" movie bad. The protagonist who's good at everything: sports, school, parents love him, no zits . . . you get the idea. The mysterious stranger who's not even mysterious for a good reason. The wise elderly person. The clumsy beautiful girl with low self-esteem.
  • If I have no desire to read beyond the third chapter. I need to care about someone—anyone—or something that happens in those first few chapters, or I'm done. If I find myself skimming to see if it gets better, then why continue?
  • Unrealistic dialogue. If an author writes a seven-year-old child into a book, that child should act and speak as a seven-year-old child, unless it's a creepy book where the child is possessed by an ancient being who speaks like . . . um, an ancient being . . . and everyone knows this isn't the way that child would normally speak. 
  • Plot inconsistencies. If I am confused, I tend to think that's everyday life. However, if I'm confused while reading fiction, I'll flip back through what I've read to see if I somehow missed a major plot point. If I haven't missed anything and I'm still confused, then I'm going to assume the plot somehow went from A to C without a Point B in the middle. This happens when an author makes major structural changes from draft to draft but neglects to look at the work as a whole to see if it still makes sense. Every detail matters, and that's where a good beta reader will be indispensable prior to a book's release.
  • Believability. Even the craziest fiction has to have some degree of believability or the reader will be drawn out of the story time and again. I always think of Martyn V. Halm (whose Amsterdam Assassin novels are pretty terrific and incredibly well written, by the way) talking about verisimilitude and his insistence that things at least seem like they could be real in order to keep the reader immersed in the created world, no matter how out-of-the-box that world may be.
I'm sure I have many more peeves that cause me to be harshly judgmental* about a book someone may or may not have worked hard at writing, but these are the biggest ones that come to mind easily. *Let's face it: I'm only kind and tactful if I already like the person.

What makes YOU stop reading? Do you look for things I haven't listed here? What's your number one deal breaker that causes you to shout, "Enough!" I'd love to know so I can add it to my own list of things to gripe about. And if you've read the list above and recognize something you do in your own books, then my best advice is STOP IT. Stop it and get a beta reader to politely and tactfully tell you all these same things, only for money.

I've placed a good guideline below. If you get "BINGO" from any of your manuscripts, it's time to start rewrites so others won't stop reading.