Thursday, October 18, 2012

POV: Three's a Crowd!

Point of View is something that besets and often bedevils many writers. It took me ages to work out the nuts and bolts of this technique. However, I could not explain it to anyone in terms that they would understand. Luckily for writers out there, here's an excellent article by Randy Ingermanson, and all is revealed.

Is Headhopping A Sin?

 Every so often, the issue of "headhopping" comes up among writers, and the fur soon begins flying. It came up recently in a circle of novelists I belong to. Some writers insist that there is no sin more vile than headhopping, except possibly teaching the cat how to smoke. Other writers claim that headhopping is an acceptable practice in romance, where many readers like it and a few editors even insist on it.

Is headhopping a sin? If it's so horrible, then why does Joe Bigname Author hop heads like crazy? Is headhopping just another "gotcha" invented by writing teachers to put newbie writers in knots? Isn't headhopping just the same thing as the omniscient viewpoint?

First things first -- we need to define "headhopping."
To do that, let's review the main alternatives. The two most common points of view in fiction are first-person and third-person.

1st and 3rd person POV
  • In first-person POV, the author writes as if she is one of the characters, using the pronouns "I" and "me" to refer to that character. When you write in first-person, you put your reader firmly inside the head of that one character and it would be unnatural to get out.
  • In third-person POV (the most common POV these days), the author chooses one particular character in each scene to be the viewpoint character. The author uses the pronouns "he" and "him" or else "she" and "her" to refer to that character.
When you write in third-person correctly, you put your reader firmly inside the head of that one character. You show only what that character can see, hear, touch, taste, smell, or feel. Nothing more. So third-person is very much like first-person, except for the pronouns you use.

Either first-person or third-person puts your reader on intimate terms with the viewpoint character for the course of any given scene. This makes it easy to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience, which I believe is the main goal of writing fiction.

Now of course it's possible that a writer will do a bad job of writing either first-person or third-person, which means that the reader will have no Powerful Emotional Experience. But tens of thousands of professional novelists use these viewpoints effectively because they work.

Two or more POV
 Now we can define headhopping. Headhopping is like third-person, except that the author uses two or more viewpoint characters within a single scene. In headhopping, you put your reader firmly inside the head of one character for a while and then hop into another character's head for a while.

Let's look at those questions we raised at the beginning of this article:

Is headhopping OK?

My own opinion is that it's OK to do this IF you do it well. But it isn't easy to do it well, for two reasons.
  • First, those pesky transitions from one head to another are hard to get right. If you confuse the reader, then that's a speed bump in the reading experience and that's bad.
  • Second, even if you do the transitions well, doing them too often will make your reader feel jerked around.
 Why does Joe Bigname Author use headhopping in his novel?

Good question. Some authors actually don't know any better (and neither do some editors). Some authors know that headhopping is risky but do it anyway because they believe they can do it well and the rewards are worth the risks.

Is headhopping just an invention of selfish writing teachers who want to earn more money by putting up more roadblocks for new writers?

Three's a crowd!
Not that I can tell. Headhopping is hard to do well, and very often it just plain doesn't work. Headhopping by novice writers almost always doesn't work. Writing teachers spend most of their time working with novice writers, so they spend a lot of time telling them not to hop heads.

Is headhopping exactly the same thing as the omniscient viewpoint that was used so successfully by the great 19th century writers?

In my opinion, no. I believe that omniscient viewpoint means that the narrator is actually omniscient and can know things that NONE of the characters know. I am tempted to say that all right-thinking people must agree with me, but I know at least one writing teacher who believes that headhopping is the same thing as omniscient.

I'm afraid that rational discussion will never settle this argument. However, kicking, biting, scratching, and hair-pulling might, so I have hope that someday all writers will agree with me on this point.
Let's fight about it!

So should you hop heads? Will you suffer eternal torment if you indulge in the forbidden fruit of headhopping? My own opinion is that if you're a new writer, then it's best to avoid headhopping, for two reasons:
  • Headhopping requires that you master third person viewpoint AND that you master transitions from one head to the next. It's easier to master one skill than two.
  • Some editors will reject you outright for headhopping.
 Once you've learned to write third-person Xtremely well, then you'll have the skills to try hopping heads when you have a scene where you believe it makes sense.

At the very least, if you're going to hop heads, you should be aware that you're doing it, you should have a reason to do so, and you should make it work.

The goal in writing fiction is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. Do whatever it takes to do that.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 32,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.

Randy Ingermanson Publisher, Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine

Thursday, October 4, 2012

5 Easy Steps to Better Writing

John Yeoman has a novel approach to writing—he suggests a lazy 5-step program to improving your writing. Lazy? LAZY???? Does the word even feature in any dedicated writer’s vocabulary? Aren’t writers supposed to slog all hours that God gives in order to squeeze out some creative scribblings that may or may not be the next Amazon bestseller? I must admit, I feel guilty if I miss a day of writing. I read the phrase “It’s like having permanent homework” somewhere and it’s true. However, John has some very good advice in his article, which I have reproduced here with his kind permission.

A Lazy 5 Step Program to Make Your Stories Glow
Yes, and a thousand writing mavens on the web will hustle to reveal it to you. Truth is, there’s only one formula that succeeds, time and again. And here it is... the 5-step program that most top authors use, although they’ll rarely spell it out for you.

#1. Don’t be afraid to write dross: We’ve all heard that we must write every day, and it’s true. But what shall we write? Perhaps we’re developing a story or novel. We know where it should be going, but we’re stuck for words. Solution? Write garbage. And write it fast.

Drop in the first phrases that come into your head. Your object is not to write great literature—just to get that wretched episode finished! There’s no point in playing word games. Not just yet. Probably you’ll junk that whole episode anyway at the final ‘cut’.

Amazingly, the garbage approach works. We have no problems going back to a page of rubbish and, with an amused sigh, editing it into something sensible. Writer’s block? Forget it. There’s no anxiety in this approach so our mind stays calm. We can hack out 1500+ words a day, without pain. Make it your goal to draft total nonsense for an hour. How can you fail? You can then have fun improving it later.

#2. Study television dramas: Now you have a great excuse for watching television. Study how the actors in sitcoms and soaps behave. Every five minutes, somebody will insult, distress or romance somebody else. Watch their faces, lips, and body movements. Also hear how their voices change. Jot it all down. True, the actors overact. But you could use that body language, toned down, in your stories.
Also take careful note of every ‘scene hanger’, the way an episode closes. Maybe it’s an unresolved question or note of alarm. That uncertainty will tease us into the next scene, even across a commercial interlude. Adapt those scene hangers and you’ll soon have a wealth of ways to link the episodes in your own stories, so the reader stays hooked.

#3. Act as a walking tape recorder: Christopher Isherwood inspired the phrase ‘I am a camera’. It described his work. He had reproduced, without judgement or interpretation, what he actually saw and heard in post-war Berlin. You can do that in conversations that you overhear. Take a discreet note of every colourful turn of phrase. Folk say the most amazing things that you would never be able to invent for yourself.

Okay, we know that ‘real’ people do not speak the way they do in books. But you may be amazed at how often people fail to complete a sentence, or reply to a question, or even speak coherently at all. Almost all communication is done ‘between the lines’. If you get that sub-text into your stories, your characters will seem ‘real’.

#4. Find something boring to observe: Boring? Yes. Here’s a wonderful way to make a walk productive. Stop at random, wherever nobody can see you. And just look. Are you staring at a shop window? A poster? A car-filled motorway or a placid park? And is the scene boring? That’s wonderful! Why? Imagine what a child would make of that scene, if they had never seen it before but possessed an uncanny gift with words. A bare brick wall becomes a magic landscape. A mundane street is an adventure to be explored...

Write a description of that scene, using all the five senses—as if you had never seen anything like it before. And pack all that sensual detail into one sentence. Now is not the time to be lazy. Use words that precisely convey the uniqueness of that moment. In effect, write a haiku.

True, this is a tough exercise. How can we describe, say, a graffiti-covered wall in words that make it fascinating? But it’s the key skill of a great writer. Master it and you’ll be able to ‘switch on’ this habit of perception instinctively.

I once had lunch with a popular UK author. ‘Look over there,’ she said. ‘Who?’ ‘The man with a face like a pork pie.’ She was describing her publisher, who had just entered the restaurant. I wager that phrase found its way into her next novel (if not her conversation with him). Point is, she couldn’t stop herself using colourful phrases, even in casual observations!

#5. Acknowledge that your story will never be perfect: Can you write a perfect story? Of course, not. Nobody can. Even Shakespeare’s plays have lines that make no sense at all, even to scholars. (Perhaps he was drunk...) Point is, you have to re-write a story at least a dozen times before it’s fit to present to anybody, let alone a publisher.

One painless way to do this is: get your story as good as it’s ever going to get (you think). Then drop it into a closet for a month. Drag it out and try not to laugh at how bad it has become, all by itself. That wonderful paragraph you spent hours on? Dross. And why do your characters drone on, and on...

The ideal time to re-write a story is when it has spent a year in limbo. Of course, you can’t afford to leave a story on the shelf if you write for a living. Professional authors have to make do with getting their work 80% perfect and letting their agent and copy editor tidy up the rest. Still, everything they submit will have gone through the ‘closet’ process a good many times.

Yes, there is a sure-fire formula for writing stories that succeed. It’s the one above and it has been around since stories began. Of course, no formula will work unless you have some writing talent. If you have, it’s just a matter of developing good habits, like those above. It's how every pro author started...

John's free book How to Win Story Contests for Profit and free 14-part course in story writing for the commercial market can be found at:

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