The Editor’s Perspective: POV and you! …And you… and…

POV and You!

This week we’re exploring different POV styles and how to use them effectively.

Point of view mistakes in writing make up a bigger portion of my editing tasks than you would believe. Many burgeoning new writers may not take the actual method of different points of view into account when they’re working and trust me… it shows. Point of view is an insanely important part of writing; it can make or break a scene, a chapter, or even a book. It’s incredibly important to be aware of the different types and why you should recognize when to use them and how to remain consistent in that style. When I see a book come across my desk with bad POV mistakes, it makes me question the validity of said book being there.

This is NOT the impression you want to make on potential publishers, editors, or readers.

We’re going to take a look at the different types of point of view, or POV for short, and give you a brief break down of why and how to use them, and keep you from making a huge rookie mistake and switching your POV mid-sentence.

(Yes, I have seen this happen… more than you know.)

For the purpose of maintaining consistency in your writing, I am also going to show examples of head-hopping and tell you why you shouldn’t do it!

First, the different points of view:

First Person

Second Person

Third Person

     Limited

     Omniscient

First Person

First person is a cool way to literally have your writer ‘slip’ into the character’s brain and see the word from this perspective. The use of the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘me’ or ‘my’ are going to dominate this POV. Why? Because you are the protagonist. You experience the world with the immediacy of someone who’s there and witnessing it firsthand.

Example: I didn’t want to go to the mall, and shook my head curtly. I could already see tears welling up in her eyes, no doubt in an attempt to guilt me into going. I stomped my foot.

“Not again, Clarissa!” I shouted.

First person is used often in genre fiction like Y.A., autobiographical writing, or memoirs. It is never used in academic writing, so please never write your assignments this way!

Adult fiction can be written in first person, but I personally don’t see it done well very often. This POV can often be tricky, but we’ll cover that another week!

Second Person

Second person is unique in that it’s more informal and conversational with the reader. When you write on your blog (as I’m doing now), you are speaking directly to the reader and addressing them as though they are in the room with you. ‘You,’ ‘your,’ and ‘yours’ are going to be the words du jour with second person, since your ‘narrator’ is going to speak directly to them.

Example: Henry’s always getting fired up over nothing, but that’s the sort of thing you’ll come to understand about him. He’s probably just blowin’ off steam, so I wouldn’t take it too personal, if I were you.

Second person is often used in direction/instruction writing, advertisements, songs, blog writing, or occasionally in speaking. It’s not often used in fiction writing, unless your narrator/protagonist is attempting to directly speak to the reader, otherwise known as “breaking the fourth wall,” which pretty much means that your protagonist is expressing awareness of the fact that s/he is being observed by an outside source.

Think of Deadpool’s dialogue… even in a video game, he expresses plenty of awareness of his surroundings by addressing the player directly, and even grabbing health bars to beat other characters with. He is the epitome of a second person view, because he has no problem telling you right where you can shove those bars, either.

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Definitely one way to show sentience…

In fiction writing, you have to have a particular style and skill in order to switch successfully in and out of second person and any other POV, so this should be used sparingly.

Third Person

Third person is the most popular POV to use in American fiction. Most novels you will read in America (and probably some other English speaking countries!) will be written in third person limited or third person omniscient, which I’ll cover in a moment.

Third person limited is more preferable to omniscient, at least in my experience, and is most typically what you’ll come across in modern fiction. It gives your narrator’s voice the ability to describe the world from an outsider’s perspective (like if you’re watching it through a video camera), while still focusing on the main protagonist and relaying their thoughts and feelings. ‘She,’ ‘he,’ ‘it,’ ‘they,’ ‘them,’ ‘her,’ ‘him,’ ‘his,’ ‘hers,’ and ‘its’ are going to be common in this POV.

Example: Amy held her breath, back pressed against the wall. The cold seeped into her bones, but she couldn’t move. The tip of a broken floor tile jammed its way painfully into the underside of her boot, but she didn’t dare make a sound. He might hear it.

Third person omniscient means that your narrator is still looking at things from an outsider’s point of view, but instead of expressing just one character’s intentions, it can express all of them. Third person omniscient means that your narrator is essentially invisible and watching the characters do their thang. They are not a character in your story. They do not express personal thoughts, feelings, or emotions. Something that is important to remember is that in third person omniscient, your narrator is an outside observer, which means that they cannot understand the internal thoughts your character has, and therefore, cannot describe thoughts or feelings that the characters themselves have not already expressed.

Correct:

Harry ran down the sidewalk, his tie furiously flapping over his shoulder. He waved frantically to the bus as it pulled away from the curb. “Wait!” he screamed. “Wait!”

At the stop next to him, Francine flipped her arm over and frowned down nervously at the watch on her wrist. “Thirty minutes ‘til the next one,” she said with a sigh.

Incorrect:

Harry ran down the sidewalk, feeling his lungs almost burst inside of his chest. Ugh, he thought, if I keep this up, I’ll get a stitch in my side.

At the bus stop, Francine glared down at her watch. Thirty minutes, she told herself, biting her lip. I’m gonna be late on my first day!

Third person omniscient is a trickier style to use, because when some writers attempt this, it becomes third person limited with… HEAD-HOPPING. (You thought I’d forgotten, didn’t you?) The incorrect example is actually a perfect example of something you shouldn’t do.

Let me let you in on a secret: Most editors and publishers are going to hate head-hopping, and most newbie writers are going to do it. Why? Because they don’t know how to consistently write in a proper POV, or because they think they can tackle third person omniscient, and… they can’t. That’s not a dig. If you’re not quite there yet with your ability to write in third person omniscient, keep trying but don’t submit that work until you’ve been able to clean it up once or twice at least and make sure you’re not making us feel like  we’re hearing voices.

(Unless your character, is, in fact, schizophrenic, in which case, okay, cool!)

Don’t ever put two characters’ independent thoughts on the same page unless you’re writing in third person limited and putting page breaks in between them to signify a POV switch from one character to the next.

(A page break is easy: three or four pound keys or hashtags, as the kids call them nowadays (###), or three or four asterisks (***) mid-page will do the trick.)

By head-hopping, you will end up creating a muddled, confusing scene in which we are simultaneously reading different characters’ minds. It’s not pleasant, it’s not good writing, and as an editor, it’s literally one of the most frustrating things to fix because I basically have to reconfigure entire portions of story to best fit who I think is the main protagonist based off of your writing. Basically, it becomes character Jenga, which is not as fun as it sounds.

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Like this except more tears. My tears.

Whether you are writing in first, second, or third person, make absolutely certain that you don’t deviate into another style. How can you keep track of this? Double check the pronouns from each of the styles, and pay attention to what you’re writing.

Does your third person limited style end up head-hopping? Figure out which person is your main character, and then focus on them. Make sure your first person style focuses solely on one character, like you’re in Being John Malkovich staring through his head. If you go second person, make sure your style is addressing the reader as though the character is aware of their presence and doesn’t question their narration of important parts of their life to an invisible stranger.

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I said don’t question it!

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At any rate, it’s really easy to accidentally make your writing sloppy by skipping around these various points of view… and more people than you realize end up doing this by accident.

Remember: Pick ONE and stay with it. You’ll save yourself (and future publishers!) a lot of headaches in the end.

 

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The Editor’s Perspective: Too Much Information

Too Much Information...

One of the things that I consistently see—and am guilty of myself—is the habit of over-sharing.

Writers often have the difficult task of not only making up absolutely every part of their story down to where their character has an unsightly mole or embarrassing birthmark, but to do this mental and physical creation for every single character in their story. It’s exhausting!

Think about it: Imagine your friends or coworkers, or even family members. We’ll say just pick three at random. What do you know about them? Favorite color? How many fillings they have? When they were born? Their parents’ current city? The place they lost their virginity? Their first car? Their pet’s name from when they were ten that they use as a password? The amount of their bank account/s?

Now imagine their personal drives, inspirations, or fantasies.

Do they have a tortured secret from their past that haunts them to this day? Was their first love a con artist? Father an abusive drinker? Do they hate alcoholics for that reason? Are they one themselves? What’s their ultimate goal, their dream in life? What makes them keep going, even in the face of complete and total hopelessness?

Hell, what’s their favorite position in bed?

Likely, you won’t even have half of the answers to questions that specific, and probably not at all to that last one about your family members.

 

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Please, no Jaime and Cersei Lannister jokes… except this one.

Moving on…

A writer may not have this specific information, but imagine knowing a person on a much more in-depth scale and then having that depth of knowledge for 10 other people in your book—or even more, if we’re going with Game of Thrones again. Now imagine that you have three stories that you’re working on concurrently, and each of those people also has those individual properties, and not to mention they’re in different genres, so it’s an entirely different type of world…

Oh, and some of them may only exist for one page. Or not even show up in the story at all.

What I’m saying is, there is a lot of information going on in a writer’s head at any given time, and sometimes it’s hard to compress that information to determine what goes into your book and what stays off the page.

I recently edited a short piece where the author randomly decided in the middle of an unrelated paragraph to go into detail about the character’s very specific job, her age, the length of time she had been at said job, the people she liked there, what she hoped to accomplish at the job in a couple of years, and the respect she hoped she garnered from her co-workers. It was random, it was waaaaaay too in-depth, especially given the parameter of what she had been talking about before, and it was absolutely over-share.

The toughest part? Not one single thing about that woman’s job mattered to the story at all, and given its awkward delivery and general unimportantness, it had to be completely cut. Do I feel bad when I make these suggestions? Yes, I do. Someone worked really hard to come up with a believable character with believable background information and wants to show that information. Are the changes necessary?

Let’s just say this: Nine times out of ten you can cut entire paragraphs of over-share from a book and not just make it shorter, but make the story better.

I thought you were supposed to be detailed in writing?

Absolutely! When world developing, it’s good to be as thorough as possible. There are numerous sites whose soul purpose is to help develop worlds and characters with intense detail. In the past, I’ve used LitLift to keep track of specific things about characters from their shady pasts and emotional and physical scars down to height, weight, eye, and hair color. Not all of these things make it into the pages of a book, and honestly, not all of them should. That does not mean you shouldn’t have that information before you write.

Think about how much more information J.K. Rowling was able to divulge about her Harry Potter series after the final book came out. The information you keep back can oftentimes be important to the development of your character or world, but still not entirely pertinent to the story itself.

Confused yet?

Writing differs from world building in that you have to be far more selective about where, when, and even if that information you’ve worked weeks, months, or years on makes it into the final cut. It’s basically having a giant bin of Legos and having to sift through it for all the exact right pieces. Could you use all of those pieces to build a cool spaceship? HELL. YES. Legos are amazing. All of those pieces would fit together one way or another.

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But would they be the streamlined, coherent, amazing spaceship you saw on the box? Uhm… maybe, if you tweaked it here and there, and kinda squinted your eyes and tilted your head…

Okay, no. But that’s basically what writing a book is like.

So how does a writer determine what goes into the story?

This part is going to be difficult, no matter how many times you write a book. You have allllll that information rolling around in your head, itching to get out. Sometimes you know your character’s personal information better than you know your own. Being that close to it, you literally can’t see the forest for the trees. So what helps cut down what the necessary information isn’t?

Outlining and plotting out your story like a well-crafted blueprint, that’s what.

When I was younger, there was no way in hell I was going to outline my work before I wrote. It wasn’t that I was against it, but I’d get the idea and I’d just go for it, full throttle, no easing back until the words had left me.

As I got older and went to school for writing, I started to learn more about the Hero’s Journey and other methods of crafting your story, and outlining became MUCH easier. Using even a vague pattern for outlining your story will give you a better idea of where it’s going, what your important plots and subplots should be, and if you really need to crack that joke on page 156, or divulge your character’s reason for doing that thing on page 79.

Can you sew a pair of pants by hand? Sure, but it’ll be messy as hell. Can you use a pattern to make it much more neat and then clean it up when you’re done? YES. Nobody’s going to want a pair of jeans with seventeen buttons on one pant leg and no fly, or a scarf that’s way too big—

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Never mind. Sorry, Mr. Kravitz.

What I’m saying is that giving yourself time to plan and outline the story before you start writing will give you knowledge about the highlights and important areas in your story, and also tell you which parts can get chopped off right away. Sometimes people write out of order because the parts come to them that way. I do this sometimes when I find the urge to write a particular scene before I’ve gotten there. It can work because I’ve outlined specific instances to happen, so my brain is still working out how they go together, even if I have several pages from the beginning and end done with no middle sections.

Your outline should always be in the order that your book needs to go, regardless of how you write. It gives you a ladder that you can follow to reach the top, even if you’re hopping from the third rung to the eighth.

Does outlining guarantee your story will be right the first time?

In no way does any planning you do beforehand guarantee that everything will work perfectly in the long run. There are always complications in writing, and sometimes, your character will simply run you into a corner before you realize what’s happened. Sometimes the outline needs to change because you realize that parts of it won’t work or don’t suit the direction you’re trying to go. Maybe the goal changes and you need to rewrite that super sweet space battle or remove it entirely.

Just like your writing won’t be perfect the first time around, your outline will often change as the story develops and fleshes out. It’s the nature of writing. It’s a living, moving, writhing, sometimes bratty piece of work. It occasionally has a will of its own and will make you feel like you’re trying to convince a toddler not to stick that shiny thing in their mouth. But the important thing is to push through it and get to the end, whether you’re happy with it or not…

…And then hire a crazy awesome editor to clean it up for you. ;p