Managing Point of View

Inexperienced authors have a rude awakening when their manuscripts are rejected, in part or solely, because of “head hopping.” That term of derision is applied when the point of view shifts from one character to the next within the same scene. Yet oftentimes the omniscient narrative voice is chosen precisely because the writer wants to convey the thoughts and intentions of multiple characters. 

The imperative for this open-ended narration is greatest during a climax sequence. The author wants to convey not only the point of view of the villain, but of the protagonist and possibly a character in grave peril because of the villain. So, three points of view, and the author wants to keep switching in order to heighten the suspense of each step along the way. The feat can be pulled off by employing four tools.

First, a chapter can be broken into multiple scenes, with a line-space break in between them. You’re not head hopping, because you’ve switched to a new scene. When you look at an exciting chapter closely, you’ll see that one character will tend to dominate a sequence for paragraphs at a time. You’re not making the reading too jagged by switching every page or so, or even a half page at a time.

Second, when you’re switching for only a single paragraph, see if it can be moved to the next time that character assumes the point of view. For instance, if the villain throws a victim into a closet, the next paragraph’s descriptions of the victim being bruised may not have to come immediately afterward. The reader already knows what happened. If you make the reader wait a half page to record the bruises, no one is going to notice. Such transpositions apply especially to the protagonist hunting for the villain. If the capture isn’t imminent, does that step in getting closer really have to go right there? 

Third, look at single paragraphs and ask if they are needed at all. You may find that you’re repeating that step in the sequence, only from a different point of view. Yes, you do have the slight shading, and the reactions of the second character are useful for suspense, but does that outweigh the need for the smoothest narrative—the least breaks—possible?

Finally, the feeling of choppiness can be eased by breaking more frequently to a new chapter. It is common practice in a climax sequence to employ short chapters. The break itself creates suspense, because it leaves the reader hanging. An even better idea is to see, as much as possible, if you can have each chapter either end or start with a scene featuring the protagonist. Now you’re creating dramatic emphasis when in fact you’re using the narrative gambit for another reason entirely.

“This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”  —Oscar Wilde 

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Don’t Hate the Copy Editor

The core reason that a copy edit can turn into a clash concerns the varying roles that an author and copy editor play in the publishing process. The writer desires freedom of expression in order to tell a good story. A copy editor tries to corral an author’s exuberance within boundaries that make the reader’s experience error-free. It is no wonder that where to draw those lines can become so problematic.

An author needs to explode within the work. I encourage this among all the writers I work with—get it out on the page. Don’t let a character’s thoughts remain inside the author’s head. Describe action in minute detail to put us inside a character’s shoes. Place us all in a character’s surroundings.  That is a writer’s most important job: to make us vicariously enjoy a character’s experiences. The more deeply a character is explored, the more we will enjoy the book.

In the desire to throw everything out on the table where the reader can see it, errors can be made. An author is focused on the big picture, not all the details that compose sentences. A very common concern for a copy editor is the series comma (with three objects in a row, a comma is added before the “and”). An author may regard the matter as negotiable; sometimes it feels right and sometimes it doesn’t. Yet a copy editor needs to make the usage consistent, for a very good reason. Readers take cues from every element of the text, and a missing comma can cause them to falter, wondering if a mistake was made. If this concern seems petty, that’s because it is. Yet this tiny variance can occur hundreds of times within a manuscript, which means hundreds of possible momentary flickers of doubt in a reader’s mind—all of which are unnecessary with consistent application of the rule. 

The unending onslaught of such small corrections can infuriate an author, particularly if the copy editor decides that certain rules “must” be applied. Once she has applied it once, she then must be consistent with her change and mark it every time after that. This license can be taken imperiously. After all, she has worked on possibly hundreds of manuscripts, and she knows what the standard rules are. The author is regarded as a bumbling fool. That can mean the copy editor is acting like a cop, and it isn’t her duty to police authors but to help them. 

The conflict is compounded by the fact that authors can be arrogant themselves.  They can be irate if anybody dares touch anything they write, no matter how well grounded the cause. The level of rage, I should point out, usually corresponds to an author’s familiarity with grammar rules. 

How do you avoid this struggle? You should be aware of good grammar practice. The rules are not meant to hem in your exuberance of expression. They are part of a compact between you and your readers, so their reading experience is seamless. An experienced copy editor will bend when that is sensible. You too, if you are not a hot dog, have the right to ask that a change be restored. But don’t hate the copy editor when, most of the time, they are trying to make you look good. You are simply engaging in an age-old struggle between creativity and analysis. You are the creator: you can confer forgiveness. 

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Using One Attack

The business fable had its genesis as part of a logical progression. So many books in this genre are forms of exhortation written in a personal vernacular that connects directly to its reader. “You can do it!” is not a far cry from an entire chapter in which a fictionalized business leader shows their work force how to do it. In addition, the fable frees a business writer to expand into fiction, albeit in a circumscribed way.

In a more formal narrative a writer can also employ another favorite of the genre: a numbered or bulleted list. Many business people like to work in this format, since it is an extension of a daily or weekly to-do list. Indeed, I have edited manuscripts in which it’s hard to tell what should dominate: narrative or the lists. They are useful especially at the end of a chapter, because they can summarize points that are considered important.

What does not work so well is a melding of the business fable with the list format. They are two extremes of narrative style, and switching back and forth between them is jarring to the reader. It is easy to understand why. Narrative nonfiction flows smoothly, with personalities and dialogue, and the reader is engaged by the lifelike interactions. The entries in a list, on the contrary, are designed to be brief and succinct, hammering home point after point. At the end of a dramatic chapter in a fable, a list can seem like a stern teacher—these are the takeaways!

Sometimes a writer will try to avoid the contrast by spinning out the entire fable first and then tacking on an extended list for the second part of the book. This approach makes the matter worse. Readers grow used to the effortless and fun rhythm of a fictionalized story, and they may put down the book after reading only a few of the imperatives the list demands. Oh, brother, here are the takeaways.

What works better is melding the two completely. Why does a topic of discussion need a number? A writer can compose the list as a separate entity to start. Then each point will become clear. Then the written material can be inserted into the fable. It has to be refashioned somewhat to fit the looser style, but that way you are buttressing what you know works.

Exercise: Once you have drawn up the list, go back to the fable portion of the manuscript. As you read, look for places where a topic from the list would logically fit. Drop those in as you go. When you are finished, you merely need to go back and make the list text into asides that the lead “character” in the fable tells directly to the reader.

“Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.”  —Frederic Bastiat

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.