Last month, I offered some “easy tips” on writing. Let’s face it, though, nothing is easy about writing, even if you really really really really like it. Don’t just take my word for it — in a few days we have a Maine Crime Writers group post on the hardest things about writing. There are many.
That said, some things are harder than others. This came to mind last week as I read a couple books in a series (not by a Maine Crime writer!). I’m enjoying this series a lot, but the books brought to mind one chronic issue that I’ve seen many times as a book editor, and as a reader. It’s kind of a cat-herding thing — so much going on that some things are going to get away.
Before I delve in, I want to point out that it’s hard for a writer to keep all the cats herded. There are many. These metaphoracal cats range from things like spelling, punctuation and sentence structure to a couple of the ones I’m going to talk about today. It’s easy to overlook some things when you’re immersed in the writing. It’s a can’t see the forest for the trees thing. Or maybe can’t see the bushes for the trees, or can’t see some of the trees because of the other trees. Or all of those things.
While there are too many elements of writing a book to mention in a list, three came to mind with recent reading and I’m going to focus on them today.
Wait, whose head are we in?
First is point of view. I know there are some really succesful and famous authors who shift point of view in the middle of a scene, or even a paragraph. As an editor and reader (rather than a writer who’s not nearly as succesful or famous), I’ll posit that they’re successful despite that slippage, not because of it.
Even when written in the third person, point of view is important. Whose head are we in? Whose perspective are we seing things from? A reader’s imagination is a powerful thing, but a major way to draw the reader fully into the story is to put them in someone’s head. If there’s no point of view, then readers are more detached. Just as jarring is if the reader is in one character’s point of view and then suddenly in another with no signpost. Readers need a signal that the point of view is changing — ideally a new scene, with an immediate signal as to who’s head they’re in now.
As a reader, you may not always notice point of view slippage. You may like the book and don’t really care. What you’ll never know is how much more you would’ve liked the book and its characters if the writer kept a firm hand on point of view.
At worst, point of view slippage can damage the narrative arc or dramatic tone. That happened to me with a book I was reading this weekend. A point of view shift (combined with a big block of unnecessary background exposition that even basic editing should have excised), made me think a character knew something about another character that he shouldn’t have. I took it for what it was — badly placed and unncessary exposition — and knew the character whose point of view we had been in didn’t know those things. Particularly since the exposition was written generically, not how the character as we’d come to know him would think. But a new reader to the series, particularly one who isn’t as obsessive as I am about things like that, would’ve thought this character knew something about another character that he didn’t, spoiling a lot of the dramatic arc of the story.
But I thought he was a nice guy!
Another issue is making sure characters stay in character. From small things to big things, it’s important to be mindful of every action a character takes, even if it’s not a major one, and make sure it’s something he or she would do. This goes for what they say and think, too.
In one series I recently read, the protagonist, a polite and gentlemanly guy, though a little blunt at times, would “push” someone aside when he got urgent word of something and needed to get going. Usually it was a woman standing in a doorway who he was interviewing. I just couldn’t see him pushing, or sometimes “shoving,” anyone out of the way. And if that’s what the author actually intended, it should’ve been remarked on in the narrative.
I think the writer caught on eveuntually, because after about half a dozen books in the series, the protagonist stopped pushing women out of the way and started finding a more polite way to get out of rooms when he was in a hurry.
In another recent book I read, a character had just come back from serving as a nurse in a really ill-conceived war. She had very strong opinions on war and its place in the world and is hot-headed and not afraid to express them. Yet, in a scene that’s in her POV, when she sees another character talking to a child about how awesome war is and how many more there’ll be (Victiorian England!) that will allow the kid to be brave and honorable, her reaction is pleasure that someone is paying attention to the child. She has no reaction to the startling pro-war-any-war, subject matter.
The author was likely focused on the main point of the scene — the child being paid attention. But the strong convictions of the protagonist didn’t have to disappear to make the scene happen. If the author deliberately intended for the character to let go of her convictions because she was so delighted someone was being nice to the kid, that should’ve been mentioned. There are a lot of different ways the scene could’ve played out that would’ve kept the intention there, but also not had the character slippage.
Where did that thread go?
Another thing a writer whould pay attention to is all the different threads. And there are so many in a mystery novel.
In a book I just read, a character had a life-changing, devastating issue with the muder victim, who was a close relative. Everyone knew it and it was remarked upon frequently to the detective. It made her a major suspect. Yet when he went to talk to her and asked her what she liked and didn’t dislike about the person, she didn’t mention it. He didn’t ask about it. Now, it could be possible the detective was testing her to see if she’d bring it up. But if that was the case, it would’ve been part of the narrative.
My thought in reading that scene was the that writer was focused on a lot of different things that were going on, and while it was in her head, it didn’t make it to the page. [An aside — an editor also should do several reads, one just as a reader. But that’s a blog post for a different day.] Meanwhile the reader, if they’re paying attention at all, is screaming “WHAT ABOUT THE BIG THING? ASK HER ABOUT THE BIG THING! THE ONE THING THAT MIGHT HAVE CAUSED HER TO HATE HIM ENOUGH TO KILL HIM!”
Also, the character being interviewed by the detective was described as mentally ill by many others in the book. There are hints by the authoer that she it’s possible she’s really not mentally ill, just mistunderstood and incredibly frustrated. She certainly does not act as she had been described when she talks to the detective, but instead is thoughtful, intelligent, rational and not overly emotional. So, my guess is it was the writer’s intent to show the juxtaposition between what other people, some with an ax to grind, want to depict and what the reality is to the detective trying to find out why the murder happened. But that juxtaposition was never made clear. Or, it could’ve just been that the thread that the woman was mentally ill got dropped. The reader will never know.
Back to the cat herd
None of what I’ve written about here is intended to put down or criticize a particular author or any specific books. But specific examples work best. And it’s a good reminder that even seasoned authors have trouble herding all the cats. When I was a freelance book editor I frequently felt in discussions with first-time writers that they wanted some kind of easy button to get past all the mundane tedious stuff. They often didn’t want to hear about the kind of work they had to do to tighten things up and get their great thoughts into a form that would allow readers to get the most out of it.
One thing I do when writing my own books is to try to make sure I have these issues in hand is do revisions for each character and their plot thread as one of my post-first-draft revisions. What that means is, I read the manuscript for Character A, making sure everything he says and does is in character, that all his threads are tied up, that every scene that’s in his POV doesn’t slip into someone else’s, or into a POV no man’s land. Major characters, in particular, take a lot of time and effort. Minor ones not so much, especially if there are no POV scenes for them. But you want to make sure they don’t sneak their POV into someone else’s scene.
Other writers may have different methods. But there is no easy button, no matter who you are or what your process is. The important thing is to understand that it’s easy to overlook one thing because you’re focusing on another.
Writing in general is a lot of fun. Getting that story down, the big thoughts, seeing it all come to life is one of the most satisfying experiences a human who writes can have. But the only way to keep as many cats with the herd as possible is to do the tedioius work of grabbing them and… OK, let’s stop using the cat metaphor. You get what I’m saying — there’s ofthen still work to do, even when the “writing” is done.
Well said. Cat herding is certainly a challenge.
Some of my biggest issues when I’m reviewing a manuscript, esp. head hopping and characters acting out of character. Great post, Maureen.
I will so take this practical advice, to follow each character’s thread in the revision phase! Including the dog! Thx