Don't let your POV character get lost in a blizzard.A Lesson by Kathleen Rowland aka Rudyard Rowland
Congratulations! Here you are, giving up precious time to work on your craft. Commitment means you will make it as a published writer or improve your writing. “Overnight success” doesn’t happen overnight. There is no such thing. Writing requires time, actually years to develop. A best seller might take a decade to conceive, make its way to print, and sometimes to the screen. As you know, many successful romance novels become Lifetime movies or even make it to the big screen.
Point of View is one of fiction writing’s most difficult elements to master. POV is important to the publishing world. When considering a submission, this is the acquiring editor’s typical reading routine: first the book’s blurb and then the synopsis. Editors need to know if the story fits their line. Let’s assume it does and is captivating. The editor won’t see POV problems until reading the manuscript. (Just an aside, both the blurb and synopsis are written “bird’s eye” style in present tense.)
Feel free to skip this paragraph if you are familiar with the blurb and synopsis. The blurb is a catchy paragraph for the back cover or for an eBook, the online description. The blurb grabs attention, and the longer synopsis tells the complete story. If an author submits online, the blurb can be placed in the body of the email, and the manuscript (partial or full) and synopsis (two pages, double-spaced) will be rich text format (rtf) attachments. The synopsis for a romance highlights attraction and conflict between the hero and heroine, the two people who fall in love against the odds of their personalities or goals. Or, the author may have submitted a romantic suspense with an antagonist or problem standing in the way of the hero or heroine. The synopsis illustrates turning points or an intriguing three steps forward and one step back routine. There’s a tense and dark moment, the then, viola, the writer creates a satisfying ending. If the acquiring editor likes the story shown in the synopsis, he or she will pick up your manuscript and read (usually no more than five pages). If he finds point of view problem, he’s usually done reading. Swish, the manuscript hits the waste basket-shredder.
Faulty point of view is the second most common reason for manuscript rejection. The first is a lackluster story. In the market today, a point of view (POV) switch within a scene is deadly. Editors call it head bobbing. Point of view is one of fiction writing’s most difficult elements to master. Once you have learned it, you will never read another book with quite the same innocent enjoyment. But until the light bulb goes on, you don’t have a clue to what horrors you’re missing. For romance, there are two points of view allowed in commercial fiction. For romantic suspense, a third point of view of the villain can be added for depth.
Perhaps you are not writing romance. If you are writing a personal saga, you might try first person. The POV of first person is popular (present or past tense) with personal sagas.
From MORE, NOW, AGAIN, Elizabeth Wurtzel writes her memoir of addiction. This book was a best seller and much of the text came from her diary, written in first person past tense, below.
I was a cutter when I was young, twelve or thirteen. I would go into a fugue state, fade into a trance, often while hiding away in the girls’ locker room in school or along in my bedroom late at night. Wurtzel had problems completing her second book, B***H. During the period in which she was supposed to be writing it, Wurtzel first became addicted to Ritalin, then to cocaine and, finally, to pornography. She got clean. She relapsed. She checked in and out of rehab. She had a series of unhappy relationships. Eventually, she ended up moving into the offices of Doubleday, her New York publishers, where the book had to be forcibly extracted from her, page by page, by her long-suffering (ghost-writing?) editor. After all this, the book had mixed reviews and so far, has been her last. If she finds sobriety as many people do, she will surely succeed again.
Another example of first person point of view is BLACK OLIVES, Martha Tod Dudman’s second successful book with Simon & Schuster, and I suspect Dudman will write many more although she’s also busy professional fundraiser. BLACK OLIVES is a fictional account of a woman’s heartbreak, written in first person, present tenseà
Nine months later, I run into David for the first time since our breakup. All year I’ve been dreading this moment, but always dressing in expectation of it, because when I see him finally, I want to look good. I’m standing in Rogerson’s Emporium, over by the olives, when it happens.
THE THIN MAN by Dashiell Hammett is written in first person, past tenseà
I was leaning against a bar in a speak-easy on Fifty-second Street, waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me.
One last example of first person is J.D. Salenger’s THE CATCHER IN THE RYEà
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Thank you, Mr. Salenger, for not boring me with back-story.
Sara Gruen wrote Water for Elephants in first person present tense from the perspective of Jacobà
I am, as far as I can tell, the oldest male virgin on the face of the earth. Certainly no one else my age is willing to admit it.
I have one last comment about first person. To do it well, a writer must possess sensational and clever prose. Sometimes when I am reading a book written in first person, I become bored. I want to know what someone else is thinking, feeling, or doing.
Some novels are written from an all encompassing bird’s eye view. This was a common style in the past. Leo Tolstoy wrote ANNA KARENINAà
All happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.
Here is a line from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austenà
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
You might know of successful contemporary authors (Lawrence Shames, Nora Roberts, and Cassie Edwards) who write with a bird’s eye, but most editors do not prefer it. Although Cassie Edwards switches between third person and omniscient bird’s eye, she made the hundred book mark in with another love story rich in Indian loreà
The sound of horses’ hooves made Chief Running Fox realize that someone was approaching. He knew who it was without even looking. These sentences were written in third person POV. The young chief of twenty-six winters was tall, muscled, and handsome. This mixed-in omniscient viewpoint makes it seem that he is bragging. To a purist editor, it would be better if the heroine saw him (in her scene) and thought this. There is a heroine, and this would be easy. The reader could make a stronger personal connection.
We want to get published and might as well write with the POV most preferred by editors today. It is past tense, third person, the POV of the hero and the POV of heroine. In the movie JAWS, which went from book to screenplay by Peter Benchley, someone sees the shark, which makes it a third person POVà
The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tale.
An excerpt from (Harlequin) The Prince’s Texas Bride by Leanne Banks, third person past tense in the heroine’s POVà
Eve felt more than heard footsteps approaching and, even before she turned, her nerve endings went on alert. Turning, she saw Stefan’s strong, tall form. Emanating a restless energy and power that reminded her of the stallion, he wore black riding pants and a half-buttoned shirt. His gaze was intent. “I’m the only person who rides Black,” he said.
Eve refused to be intimidated. This was her job now. She would own it. “How often do you ride him?”
Here is a third person sample from my historical novella within the anthology, BLACK ROOTS AND COWBOY BOOTS with Whiskey Creek Pressà
A few more hours, Truth Hannah guessed, and the train of mail order brides would reach the depot at Big Bend, Texas.
It was late afternoon, and the temperature was cooling some. Truth slid the rattling window shut and saw thick black smoke from the locomotive pass by. She rested her forehead against the window and found the vibration soothing. She stared at the desert and hoped her intended would be a good man.
As a writer, you want your reader to experience your story through the mind, eyes, and all of your main character’s senses. For romance, you will write two experiences. Remember—over half of all mass market paperback sales (fiction and non-fiction) are romances, and that is why Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and other aspiring writers started there. Because of romance publishers’ preference, we’ll focus on third person.
You will learn how to do write POV with the camera-on-the-head technique. Bear with me for just a moment. You need to recognize a POV problem because an editor will. Read the following couple of pages. It is from an intergalactic romance written by a friend of mine. In her case, the story was so stunningly original that the editor asked for a rewrite. A couple of months later, the author corrected the POV problem and was offered a contract. Below, it appears in its original state. From reading the blurb and synopsis, the editor knew it was a romance and assumed the POV belongs to Drew Johnston (hero, right?) because he is the first person talking. Unless a romance starts out with a prologue with a villain’s POV, the editor will automatically attribute the male POV as the hero. As we read, pretend to be Drew Johnston. Imagine that a flashlight is mounted on top of your head. This passage should be what you as Drew Johnston sees and thinks. For clarity, I have underlined problematic mixed POV and in red, offered possible fixes.
“Grab that one, Lincoln,” shouted Drew Johnston, the his ventilation mask making him sound like a robot. It successfully stripped the humanity from his voice along with the pollutants in the air. Better: He was certain his ventilation mask made him sound like a robot, the way it stripped humanity from voices along with pollutants in the air. “Let’s get her done before lunch.”
Lincoln grunted a reply through his own metallic mask. His scrawny arms shook with strain, his knees threatened to buckle at any minute were buckling as he hoisted the scoot covered object from the ground. Huge sweat droplets glistened from his greasy black-buzzed hair. The satellite dish’s singed and partially crumbled face bobbed and weaved in Lincoln’s mechanical-gloved hands as he took deliberate and careful steps stepped slowly to the gigantic trash receptacle at the edge of the impact site.
“Make sure you pick up the pieces that weigh within your gloves’ range,” Drew added, laughing under his breath as he witnessed Lincoln’s second day on the job unfolding in near misses and clumsiness. As the senior officer, he often witnessed near misses and clumsiness.
Being a space cowboy wasn’t for everyone. There was easier and simpler work than this.
Lincoln said, “I’m beat.”
Drew’s eyebrow arched. He can’t see himself arching his own eyebrows. Drew felt impatient. “You’re serious? It’s been two hours. You’ve lifted what, two items?”
Now the editor is getting antsy. She goes back and reads the blurb. Oh, no! The hero is Lincoln. The editor pushes the manuscript aside but thinks about it because she liked the story.
Okay, no sweat. A committed writer can fix things.
How about you? Maybe you’ve done some writing. Do you have the feeling you need to go back and look at it for POV horrors? Before this week is over, I promise you will be a whiz. As you write, pretend to be your character and keep the flashlight-on-your head. That means you will only write what your character sees. This is good because it quickens the pace. For today’s fiction (even if you are writing a historical) you want to write in the moment. Your character takes quick glimpses of things. Of course, if something has tremendous impact on the character, you can add detail.
Break for Practice
Pick a character (who has a POV in your story) and fill in a worksheet. None of this is a waste of time. When your cover artist asks, you can describe. (By the way, you need to know these things about secondary characters as well. Their job in your plotline is to parallel or illuminate the central story. They might have a contrasting situation.)
Personality Profile: (What’s inside that sets him/her apart?)
Memorable characters are a bit flawed. Readers resent a righteous saint. No one is all good or all bad. Give your villain one likable quirk.
How others see her/him:
Eccentricities: (If your character is bizarre in some way, that’s always good. He/she can be normal in most other ways, but something unusual grabs the reader’s attention.
Most defining characteristic:
Relationships that influence the plotline:
Length and Proportion of a Character’s scene
Beginning writers err on over-describing and over-explaining. To quicken pace, you do not need to include every bit of dialogue. It is possible to give the gist of a conversation. For example, a marital wrangle (from the husband’s POV) can be summed upà Courtney said her affair had to die off naturally. She refused to budge, though he’d begged her to end it. After an hour he gave up. “You’ve always had your way,” he said.
“Guess I’ll chalk this up to one more victory.”
“Sure. But you’re a winner at a losing game.”
He loves her. When will he have had enough? Maybe you are writing suspense, and something pulls him out for awhile. After various actions, he’s becoming a different person. Perhaps at the end of the book, she falls in love with him all over again . . . or transformed, he moves on. It’s fine if your story changes as you write it, but it needs to have a beginning, middle, dark moment, and end. Whatever you write, you write from your story outline so that you don’t weave all over the place.
One of my favorite authors, Linda Howard, holds to one point of view per chapter. Like the rest of her lightening fast, sexy romantic suspense tales, UP CLOSE AND DANGEROUS from Ballantine, continues to be a hot seller in available in both ebook and print formats. Howard oesn’t disappoint because her characters’ dialogue and behavior stay true. Heroine Bailey Wingate’s scheming adult stepchildren are surprised when their father’s last will and testament leaves Bailey in control of their fortune. Bailey is no wimp and war ensues. A year later, while flying from Seattle to Denver in a small plane, Bailey nearly dies herself when the engine sputters–and then fails. As the plane crashes with two people in it, she thinks about dying with the pilot, whom she knows doesn’t like her. Cam Justice, a standoffish Texan pilot, manages to crash-land the aircraft. As the survival story unfolds, she talks in rather lengthy discourse about how her stepchildren hate her. He is a man of fewer words but takes control of their disaster.
Finding your Voice
You know when you’ve found your voice when you’ve reread a scene you wrote, and it’s exactly what you wanted it to be. You gave yourself goose bumps.
Voice is a style, a confident use of language so that characters sound like themselves. The voice of a character must ring true. Here’s an “inside the head” excerpt from FAST WOMEN by Jennifer Cruiseà
The man behind the cluttered desk looked like the devil, and Nell Dysart figured that was par for her course since she’d been going to hell for a year and a half anyway.
Another line from Cruise that describes Nell’s disappointment in Gabe for not being at the officeà
It was like pushing hard on a door that opened easily. She felt stupid and clumsy all at once.
Here is a description from Jennifer Cruise about Nell’s lingering numbness from her divorceà
No hunger, no lust, she wasn’t even sure she could feel pain. The cut on her cheek hadn’t hurt at all, now that she thought about it. Maybe she was dead and she was just too dumb to lie down.
Never tell your story someone else’s way. You are the person who best knows your story and your characters. Kill off the good girl/boy inside your head before she/he kills your voice. Having a pen name and not telling your critic what it is can solve the problem. Cast aside your fear and worry if you want to be successful.
Define your voice.
Where does your voice best fit?
Accept that you are not going to please everyone. Don’t worry about the opinion of others, particularly your mother’s. I have a bit of advice about critique groups. They can help us understand what we do well as writers. Sometimes they can help us see something about our character of ratchet up the plot, but do it with your own words. They can also tempt us into telling our story their way. It’s fine to listen to ideas.
When we read dialogue, we should be able to distinguish between each character even without tag lines, simply by the way they speak. In DEEDS OF DECEIT the voice of my heroine Bayliss Jones gets squeaky when she gets excited. If she pushes Sheriff Byron McGill, he answers in clichés because she isn’t privy to certain information. He pauses between words.
In addition, pay attention to the physical gestures that accompany speech, such as neck scratching, eye rubbing, ear tugging, etc. These gestures can help suggest the attitude or emotional state of the speaker. They also provide visual cues to help the reader “see” the characters while they are speaking.
Dialect is dialogue that is spoken either with a foreign or regional accent. Don’t overwhelm your readers with pages of phonetically spelled dialogue or whole speeches in a foreign language. A few choice phrases will turn the reader’s ear to the dialect. In my work-in-progress (which is a rewrite of a former story) FALLEN EVERMORE, the secret immortal mayor, Cord Smith, once rode for the Pony Express. Sometimes a bit of western lingo creeps into his speech. Tara has just rear ended his shiny Lexusà
When she pushed open her door, she collided with a hard chest. The hotshot mayor looked down at her.
She staggered back. “Clumsy of me, bumping into you. I mean both you and your car.”
“I’m obliged to say, I didn’t move with the light.” His brooding expression took her aback.
Here is a checklist that I use when I’m rewriting dialogue:
Does each line of dialogue have a purpose?
Does the conversation sound natural or pompous?
Is the dialogue appropriate to the time period, character, and locale?
Does the dialogue flow easily?
Does the pace relate to the action, tension, or suspense? Long sentences slow the pace. Short sentences reflect tension and suspense.
Does each passage of dialogue lead to the next? If a character asks a question, it should either be answered or acknowledged.
Is there a balance between narration, dialogue, and internal dialogue?
Is each speaker easily identified?
Do you show contrast between characters? A voice must be unique and also within keeping with the character’s knowledge.
Have you broken long passages of dialogue with action and narration?
Have you punctuated correctly?
Have you used dialect or foreign words too often?
Is humor overdone? Told too much?
Does your dialogue sparkle?
Point of view is the most effective tool a writer can use to manipulate a reader’s emotions. You need to constantly ask yourself whose POV would be best to convey the emotion that you’d like to evoke. Try using the opposite person’s POV rather than the one most involved when you want to heighten the emotion.
Show, don’t tell. Keep the action in the moment.
“He felt sad” is telling. You want the reader to experience emotional involvement. Use a simile or metaphor. The child cowered like a dog expecting to be kicked.
“He hated hospitals” is telling. The next example is from HALF MOON BAY by Meryl Sawyer. The antiseptic smell and the low drone of machines that clicked and sputtered and gurgled reminded him of the hours he’d spent at his mother’s side when he’d been little more than a kid. The memory triggered a raw ache, a profoundly depressing sensation that knocked him back in time to when he’d been young and vulnerable to the point of helplessness.
Added on July 20, 2012
Last Updated on July 20, 2012
Kathleen Rowland aka Rudyard Rowland
AboutHello fellow writers. My genre is multicultural romantic suspense, sensuous and dark. I teach point of view workshops for RWA chapters. At the moment I'm writing a young adult fantasy under the p..