Who’s Telling This Story?

If you’re about to begin writing a novel, you will have definitely thought about which point of view you’re going to use.

Whether you’re writing a short story or a full-length novel, you have to decide:   

  • What is the best point of view for your story?
  • Whose point of view will engage the reader most effectively?

In the olden days, when things were so much easier, we’re told, novels were often written from an omniscient narrator’s point of view, hopping from head to head to get everyone’s perspective. This strategy gave the reader access to all the characters’ thoughts and feelings as the story progressed, and allowed them to be in on the action from inside the heads of all the characters.

This device gradually lost favour as ‘head hopping’ was deemed confusing, and the novels that followed used either the 1st person pov, where the reader is inside the head of the main character –the ‘I’ of the story – and all the action is seen through their eyes, or the close, or limited, 3rd person, where the story is told from the perspective of one character – usually the ‘he’ or ‘she’ of the story. In practice, this means that the reader only sees and hears what that character experiences. We can’t solve the problem or guess the ending ahead of time because we don’t have all the story. It can only unfold as the character discovers each element.

Unlike TV and movies, where the camera can focus on secondary characters and convey an enormous amount with a single facial expression or gesture, the narrative in a novel will only concentrate on the character who is telling the story. 

However, I’ve noticed in my reading that many modern novels are bucking this trend. They aren’t going back to the old omniscience per se, but they are presenting the story from various directions, moving between the various characters’ heads through the chapters. The reader is kept abreast of the action as it develops within the lives of the main protagonists, though the characters themselves are kept in the dark about the way the rest of the story is unfolding until everything dovetails in the last pages.

They say that trends resurface every seven years and this is a way of reinventing a good idea. The technique avoids the use of clunky, revelatory dialogue and awkward chunks of flashback to fill in the backstory and when used skillfully it can be a satisfying method of working through a complicated, many-stranded plot. It also gives the writer the opportunity to tell several stories that would have been almost impossible to explore using a more traditional one character point of view.

This leapfrogging is a very effective device but it needs careful handling to maintain tension and keep the reader guessing (and drawing the wrong conclusions). Reveal too much, too soon and the suspense is diluted, or dissipated entirely. It makes for a very satisfying ending for the reader as they disregard the red-herrings and put all the pieces together successfully.        

I wonder if the omniscient narrator is making a comeback, albeit in disguise.

Are You Ready For Your Close Up?

I’ve just discovered how to embed a Kindle preview in my social media posts.  It’s a very useful addition to the self-publisher’s promotional arsenal, as, like the ‘Look Inside’ facility already offered by Amazon, it gives our readers a chance to sample our work before buying. This has got me thinking about those all-important first chapters and how they’ll stand up to this scrutiny, divorced, as they are, from the rest of the narrative. Is your work polished enough to withstand such a close up, critical examination?

The same rules are in operation as in the usual submission process, but how many of us who are going it alone actually apply them before hitting the ‘publish’ button?

I’ve read some pretty awful previews – bad punctuation, poor grammar, non-existent editing. You might think these things aren’t important any more, but if you’re hoping to attract a wide readership, with positive reviews, you should aim to tick as many of the boxes as possible. The professional services of editors and proofreaders might be beyond the budget of most self-publishers, but there’s still a lot we can do to help ourselves. We want to produce the best manuscript we can, which means paying attention to all the things mentioned above. Your story has the potential to be a best seller, a real page-turner, so you don’t want to turn prospective readers off before they’ve even started.

And that’s another thing – if you’re guilty of admitting, ‘the story doesn’t really get going until chapter six’, you need to take a long, hard look at the structure of your novel and consider starting it in a different place, such as a point of conflict, or where the action begins. A preview two or three chapters full of meandering, irrelevant material will not reveal your master plan or show off your story-telling skills to their best advantage. Tempt your readers in by laying a trail of tasty breadcrumbs that they can’t resist. 

I’m presuming that now you’ve reached the point of publication you’ve already got all your tenses agreeing, points of view sorted, spelling checked, punctuation and grammar perfected. But have one final read of your opening chapters with these questions in mind:

  • Do they entice the reader with a promise of a cracking good read?
  • Is there too much description? Be honest!
  • Does the reader know immediately whose story you are telling?
  • Are the characters too numerous for the reader to distinguish?
  • Are the introductions rushed, or too brief?
  • Are there too many adverbs/adjectives?
  • Is the story already too complicated? Or not interesting enough?
  • Does it start in the right place?
  • Is there too much irrelevant backstory?

It’s notoriously difficult to read your own work objectively, to look at it with new eyes and spot the problems that a dispassionate reader would notice immediately. But I promise you it will be a worthwhile exercise and result in a more engaging opening if you give those initial chapters a little more attention.

10 Ways To Lose Your Readers

There’s a plethora of advice for out there for new writers about how to hook readers in, how to engage their interest and keep them turning the pages. Sympathetic and stimulating characters, a cracking plot, an unusual setting; they all appear on that list. But there’s not quite so much guidance for the new writer about what not to do.

In these days of easy self-publishing and downloads at the press of a button, it’s ever more difficult to get your voice heard above the clamour. It’s tempting to just get your work out there, in front of that very discerning audience.  But to avoid it sinking without trace, or worse, garnering the sort of reviews you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, it stands to reason that you should do all you can to avoid the pitfalls that will have readers pitching your book across the room and choosing some other novel, or, after reading a sneak preview online, not buying your book at all.

It’s surprisingly easy to turn readers off; sometimes it’s the tiniest things that will do it.

Getting the nuts and bolts right is as important as designing an attractive cover and creating an exciting and appealing story. To give your book the best possible chance it pays to be aware of the hazards, so here are my top ten mistakes that drive readers nuts:

  1. Poor Editing.

Whether you’re planning to pitch to agents and publishers or to go down the self-publishing route, you owe it to yourself to get your manuscript into the best possible shape. If you can’t afford a professional editor (sometimes you can find deals and special offers on the internet), at the very least get a trusted friend who is also a reader, to proofread it. A fresh pair of eyes will see things that slip by on a computer screen. They’ll also spot glaring holes in the plot, tense changes and non sequitors. Read your work aloud; you’ll hear clumsy sentence structure and clunky dialogue.

  1. Accuracy

If your facts are wrong, you’ll lose the trust of your readers. You can bend or ignore the truth to a certain extent to fit your story (it’s your novel, after all), but make sure you get the basics right. Readers notice everything and they will not forgive you for being lazy. Dates, places, events – somewhere, someone knows the truth. Don’t try to fool them. So, no $9 bills (yes, I’ve seen this in a story set in present day America), no driving from Cornwall to Norwich in two hours (not without the benefit of teleportation), and if you’re going to quote something familiar, make sure you get it right. On the television last night I heard someone say, ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the eye.’(If you can’t see what’s wrong with this, go to the bottom of the class)

  1. Bad Grammar and Punctuation

It’s an insult to your readers if you can’t be bothered to sort out proper grammar and punctuation. It’s is a tricky area, as publishing styles change organically. Today the trend seems to be towards fewer commas, but you still need to know where they go. Ration your use of exclamation marks. In fact, erase them altogether; they’re the sign of an immature writer. As for apostrophes… make it your business to know where and why they apply.

  1. Too Many Characters too Soon

The introduction of your whole cast of characters in the first couple of pages will turn many readers off.  It’s a common complaint that too many names are difficult to take on board in one hit and readers don’t know who to ally themselves with. Who to be sympathetic towards? Who to love, who to hate? Who will disappear after the first chapter? If it’s too confusing, some readers won’t be prepared to invest their time trying to find out, and they’ll just give up.

  1. Mind Your Language

Some readers are offended by swearing, others don’t mind it. Some markets frown on it, others see it as an integral part of the story. It depends who’s reading, and in what context. You won’t find much bad language in a story for a women’s magazine, for instance, but thrillers and crime novels almost demand it. Be sensitive to your audience and don’t put swear words into a character’s mouth if they’d be unlikely to utter them.

  1. Bad Spelling

There’s no excuse for this. A spellchecker will do most of the heavy lifting, but you can’t rely solely on it. It won’t, for instance, pick up an error if it’s correctly spelled word used incorrectly, such as a homophone (words that sound the same but have different spellings) eg: to, too and two; witch and which; there, their and they’re. It’s up to you to make sure you check for basic errors. Use a dictionary.

 

  1. Getting Lost

Geography doesn’t figure a lot in most of our lives, until we read a novel that distorts the atlas, then all hell breaks loose. If your novel is set in an identifiable place, don’t mess around with the topography; someone is bound to notice and will delight in telling you, probably in a review. So if there isn’t a Waitrose on the high street of your recognisable town, don’t add one just for the fun of it.

  1. Backstory

Info dumping – the introduction of too much background about your characters in one big chunk is boring and unnecessary. Worse, it shows you up as an amateur. You should be able to trickle vital information into the narrative, in the interplay between characters, or in the dialogue. Like introducing too many characters, too much information at the start of a novel is confusing. At this stage, readers don’t know if it’s essential, useful, or merely padding. You, the writer will need to have the facts to hand – they inform your storytelling – but do your readers benefit?

  1. Head Hopping

Having decided which character(s) will tell the story, it’s not a good idea to keep jumping from head to head. This omniscient method of storytelling has fallen out of favour, though I still come across the occasional novel that manages it well. Are there several narrators in your third person narrative? If so, keep confusion to a minimum by restricting each point of view to one per chapter, perhaps. If you have multiple points of view, consider using line breaks to make this clear, or using different fonts when different characters are centre stage. If it’s a first-person story, remember that you can’t jump into another character’s head and reveal some vital piece of information that the narrator couldn’t possibly know.

  1. You Can’t Please Everyone

Regardless of all I’ve just said, do remember that it’s your story and you can tell it how you like. I’ll end with a tale of my own:  after I had finished my first novel, No News is Good News, and before I sent it out to be considered for a competition, I had the first three chapters professionally edited. This was a rigorous process, to say the least, and I benefitted enormously, as did my manuscript. One thing the editor suggested was a reworking of the opening sentences:

Working in one of the UK’s busiest television newsrooms meant that Eleanor Wragby was often disturbed in the early hours and this morning was no exception. She hauled herself into consciousness, groping for the mobile phone vibrating silently under her pillow, and squinted at the tiny letters of the text message.

The editor advised me to drop Eleanor’s background (info dump!) and combine the two sentences to give a more fluid impression:

The insistent vibration under the pillow brought Eleanor into bleary consciousness and, groping under her pillow, she squinted at the tiny letters of the text message.

I made the changes and sent the manuscript off. It didn’t win the competition, but it was accepted for publication by Accent Press. I only mention this because one of the first reviews I received objected to this new opening sentence on the grounds that it described actions that couldn’t possibly be executed at the same time. One star.

And here’s me thinking that this graceful economy of words would convey a series of actions that follow each other logically and concisely. What do I know….?    

Short Story Writing

We’ve been doing a lot of work on what makes a satisfying short story at the writing group, and here’s an easily digested summary of what we’ve discussed.

A memorable short story will say something about the human condition, encapsulating one idea succinctly, with each scene building towards a crisis point, followed by a point of realisation or moment of clarity. The issue you address at the start of the story should be the issue that is resolved at the end.

A good short story starts in the middle of the action and as close to the climax as possible. At the end of the story, the main character should be in a better place than at the beginning, enabling them to move forward.

Once you’ve chosen an idea, remember these basic steps: Continue reading

Positive Outcomes

I’ve never been one for New Year resolutions that involve any sort of deprivation. So I don’t resolve to lose weight, drink less alcohol or give up eating chocolate. I much prefer positive resolutions – those that require some action or input on my part – so I might decide to take more exercise or adopt a healthier lifestyle, or, more usually, read and write more.

Continue reading

Who deserves top billing?

Apart from a few preliminary jottings and an introductory chapter, I haven’t committed much of the new novel to paper or screen just yet. Something is preventing me from getting started and the nub of the problem is this: I want to explore the use of various narrative voices and experiment with different points of view, but I’m not sure I have the expertise to do this. On the other hand, if I don’t try, I’ll never know.

Continue reading

Criticism….can you take it?

As writers we are often called upon to critique another’s work. Maybe in a creative writing class, a writing group or even a friend who needs some independent input. But whenever we produce a sizeable piece of work ourselves, we should also be able to take a step back and look at it dispassionately. Just as we have a mental checklist to guide us through an assessment for a third party, so there are a number of points to check when reviewing our own work. This list is presented in no particular order of relevance or importance.

Continue reading