I said that the list was not exhaustive and I was planning to do some rounding off later to cover points I missed. However, Rowena Cory Daniels over on Ripping Ozzie Reads here pointed out that I missed some important ones. Actually I could probably wax lyrical on the subject till the end of time, but I have limited time and so do you.
So what did I miss?
Rowena mentioned point of view and world building. World building I was going to cover on a later post when discussing full manuscripts. This is because world building issues become more apparent in the full manuscript. Sometimes they can be disguised in a partial, unless they are fairly well marked.
I’ll also add plausibility and structure to round off this post. Also I will relate some insights from others about ms submissions. I really should be writing myself, or cutting, as I think is what I’m meant to be doing.
Point of view
This is the person telling the story. There are different types of point of view, the all seeing god-like view (omniscient), first person, the story told from the “I”, the third person, “he/she” perspective and sometimes the second person, “you”. For example—you walk up the stairs and push open the door and see blood pooling on the hearth rug. It puts the reader in the firing line. I won’t elaborate here, except to say that it can be done, if done well, but it is a rarer form of narrative. I recollect that Stephen King also mentioned progressive third person, which was how he approached The Stand.
Omnipresent point of view is used, particularly in older works. However, there are issues with this approach. Distancing the reader from the character can be an outcome of this approach. Also, it can lend itself to head hopping.
First person point of view puts the reader in the narrator’s head. I must admit to dreading the next first person narrative in the submissions pile at one stage because when done badly it can be grating. So I have no real prejudice against first person narratives but I have noticed that some people use it to add way too much of everything or try to be funny. In this case sometimes more is less.
So, what do I mean.
A character walks into the bar and they are narrating what they see, feel and hear. Then they stop and say:
I’m six feet tall, with great shoulders and I’m a real chick magnet and with my physics degree I can pull chicks with my grin. Already five chicks are eyeing me off as I approach the bar and my dick hardens at the thought I’m going to get laid. (Haha maybe I’m doing this too well).
I think there are lot of issues here. The CV approach to character description; the thoughts that aren’t entirely relevant, unless you want your character to sound like a dickhead; and the sort of not well disguised info dump and telling nature.
So first person narrator leaves you with choices. They are telling the story or are you sitting in their heads hearing, feeling everything? Moral is you get the closeness but sometimes you get too much detail. Also it can be limiting as your character doesn’t see everything. One author I know who used first person in an epic fantasy is Glenda Larke (she’s on my side bar) in her Isles of Glory series. She uses a series of first person narratives.
Third person narrative allows for you to be close to the character, particularly if it is quite tightly written. You can have multiple points of view so that many persons tell their side of the story. However, here is the clincher: keeping to your point of view.
Some of us call this point of view violations, point of view slippage or just plain sloppy writing. I also noticed, too, when reading a couple of submissions that point of view changes distanced me from the characters and the story as they happened too quickly or suddenly.
A short chapter from one character and I’m almost starting to bond with them and get with the story and the short (very short in some cases) chapter ends and I’m thrust into new character and new scene. Same deal, I’m not getting enough time to actually understand the change in character and scene. Then enter chapter three with new character and new scene. It was choppy and I lost interest. There has to be a judgement there of how many characters are needed. Do they all need to be in the opening scenes? Is the scene long enough to hook the reader? It might work for a Bruce Willis action movie, where you have music and visual cues, but in a text based medium it didn’t work for me.
Then there is the dreaded head hopping. This is where there is one scene with multiple characters and the reader is getting all of it. The worst case is where you can’t tell who is thinking what. Or you think it is this character and then it drifts to another character and you shake your head and feel totally confused. There are lots of books and advice written on this. Some recommend keeping to the same point of view in the one scene or chapter.
There are books out there with head hopping in them. If you read them yourself and become annoyed then you know why. Some writers signal the change in point of view well so it is an easy slide.
Another aspect is the character whose point of view you are in reports things they have not seen or could not reasonably know about. This can be minor inconsistencies that get corrected at the edit stage but you want to minimise them.
This is related to world building and also to character building. I am a real fan of steampunk. However, it is very difficult to do well. There are issues with language. In my opinion, you can’t be a purist Victorian style writer as that type of narrative may not appeal to a modern reader so you have to do enough of the style and language to give it a flavour and even then that is hard to do well. Then there are the characters. They need to be products of their time, or if they aren’t acting like a well brought up Victorian woman then we really need to understand why. Also, you would want to understand that her peers are reacting in the way they ought to too.
This includes the scenario I mentioned in blog post three where you have a demon hunter who doesn’t do a plausible job of killing demons.
Then there are stories where the setting is historical and some things happen way too easy for that period of time without good explanation. If you are using well researched periods like World War 1 and World War 2, you need to have done the research or your bones get picked clean by the avid historians (professional or amateur). This includes naming items like cars, tanks, planes, cities etc.
And that leads us to
The main issues with world building are to do with how the world is portrayed and flaws in the thinking process. If you are using a historical past but you change one thing then you really need to think through what that means. It might sound really groovy but by the end of the MS you’ve come unstuck and I’ll probably send you a list of things you need to consider and a list of inconsistencies you need to address.
Other mistakes include:
- setting up a world and rule system then breaking it;
- not setting up the world and rule system so you can do whatever you want;
- using a broad brush to setting up the world, where choice details probably works better;
- being contradictory;
- using modern vocabulary or tech references that should not exist in your setting.
For example, you have a setting in which the Victorian era never happened but you describe something as a Victorian gothic nightmare.
This discussion is not exhaustive by any means. I’m happy for people to add more through the comments.
Structure of the story
This is another way of looking at the things in blog post three. You have a story with a beginning, middle and end. You have a good start. However, these days you can’t wait to kick the story off in chapter three. You need to be kicking things off much sooner. In some cases, the first line and in other by the end of chapter one. Unless you write like a genius and the writing itself is so mesmerising and then you can do whatever you want.
Once you have your beginning, middle and end, you need to sculpt it so that you are telling it cleverly. This is hard. I find it a challenge. You have to make decisions about that girl in the room with the dead body (see post number three). You have to get her out of there as fast as you can and have her deal with how she got there, how the person died etc, while she is running away and maybe being chased.
I was on a panel at an SF con with a bunch of writers, in particular, Garth Nix. Not sure if you know he was a literary agent for a long while until he retired to write full time. Anyway, he related in this panel how sometimes he would get submissions from people who would say to him. ‘It is really great in chapter five.’ I’ve really taken that comment to heart. You can’t expect people to wait until then, not if you are wanting to publish popular fiction.
I had a bunch of beta readers read my new manuscript and I had comments like “It really takes off in chapter three.” I thought of Garth’s comment and realised I had to fix it so that it took off in chapter one.
Also, when I was about a third of the way into my submission reading and the back story issue was really apparent, I had to look at a novel submission I have out, just to check I had not done that. I was relieved to find there wasn’t a skerrick of back story. The MS probably has other issues but at least it didn’t open with back story. Phew!