Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Tips for a Writing Beginner: Part 1 - Point of View

We all have to start somewhere.

My first two novels were published almost fifteen years ago. They were pretty successful, and they're being republished this year. Unfortunately the manuscripts have been lost. It was several computers ago (they're probably on a 5¼" floppy disk somewhere) and my publishers didn't keep them, so I'm having to retype them into the computer from the original copies of the books.

And boy, was I a terrible writer back then!

There are so many really basic things that I did wrong that I'm amazed that I was ever offered a publishing contract. I'm lucky to have this opportunity to set things right, but this, coupled with the fact that I've recently started doing some editing and reading self-published works, has made me realise that many writers seem not to know the basic rules and guidelines of writing a book.

So here it is. Novel writing 101, in bi-weekly instalments.

1. Point of View

This is the very necessary rule which states that, in every scene, you choose whose perspective you are telling the story from, and stick to it. If Mary and Jane are having a conversation, and Mary notes to herself that Jane appears tired and ill, you cannot then say that Jane wondered why Mary was being unusually thoughtful and sympathetic. Even if that scene is in the third person, jumping from head-to-head is extremely confusing for the reader. It is also unrealistic, because in a real-life conversation we only know what one person is thinking - ourselves.

This is what I was worst at starting out, and I'm having to rectify it in my first two books. It's easily fixed, though. In the example above, I might have a scene break (a gap of a couple of lines, or a new chapter) and then switch to Jane's point of view. Maybe it's a little later and she's reflecting on her conversation with Mary and wondering why Mary had seemed so caring and concerned.

The worst example I read of this problem was a self-published book which was written in the first person, from the point of view of a girl who, we learn, has some strange but as-yet-unspecified superpower. We watch as a cop drives up to our house. "As he navigated the potholes, he thought about how attractive I am, about how he might ask me to dinner once this horrible business had played out." Aha! I thought. That's her superpower! She can read minds!

It wasn't. She couldn't read minds. It was just a horrible POV error on the part of the writer.

So that's rule 1. Pick one point-of-view to tell each scene from, and stick to it. Like superglue. Otherwise your manuscript will come back from your editor with "POV" scribbled in red all over it. Still trying to figure out why mine didn't.

Practice Exercise: Try writing a well-known scene from a novel from an alternative point of view. So, for example, Darcy's first proposal in Pride and Prejudice from Darcy's viewpoint, rather than Elizabeth's.

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