Under A Wandering Star: Reining In Points of View

Editors often warn of the wandering point of view, sometimes called head-hopping (a term I don’t love for reasons that will become clear). This is the practice of switching from one person’s point of view (POV) to another during a scene. It often gets listed as one of those Things Editors Hate, like the frankly ridiculous blanket ban on disembodied body parts, or submissions in Comic Sans, and as such some authors don’t think it’s a big deal, and/or don’t notice themselves doing it. Well, it is, and you should.

Here’s an exaggerated (but not by much) example of classic head-hopping.

Lucy opened the door. Happiness rushed through her as she saw Jim. “Hi Jim!”

Jim didn’t feel at all pleased to see her, rather than Moira. She had a smudge on her face that she obviously hadn’t noticed and he thought she looked tired. “Hi Lucy, is Moira in?”

Lucy felt devastated. Why would Jim ask for Moira straight away? “No, but…” She plastered on her brightest smile. “She’ll be back in a moment, why not come in?”

That was nice of her. Maybe Lucy wasn’t going to stand in his way when he asked Moira out. “Thanks,” Jim said, meaning it.

This passage has more problems than its predictable love triangle. We are in Lucy’s head, feeling her happiness. We jump to Jim’s perspective in the next line, feeling his sensations and seeing Lucy through his eyes. Then we’re back in Lucy again, this time right in her head with her unmediated thoughts. And then we switch to Jim’s deep POV, which in this case shows us that he’s been fooled by Lucy’s fake smile.

This is bad writing, not because wandering POV is against some manual of style, but because it’s confusing, distancing and expositionary.

Confusing: in the fourth line, the reader can’t tell if ‘That was nice of her’ is Jim reflecting on Lucy’s behaviour or Lucy reflecting on her own behaviour. We have to read on to work out who’s thinking. That can be a useful puzzle to set the reader in a crime novel (when we’re in the villain’s head without knowing who s/he is), but here it just breaks the flow for no useful purpose.

Distancing: Because we go from head to head, we don’t get to inhabit a character. We see what they’re feeling but we don’t get carried along into experiencing Lucy’s hidden resentment or Jim’s selfishness.

Expositionary: The passage is just telling us things. Lucy feels happy. Jim feels cross. Lucy feels devastated. Jim is fooled. The boy throws the ball. Topsy and Tim go to the circus.

Here is the scene written from Jim’s point of view.

He’d hoped to see Moira, but it was Lucy who opened the door. Her hair looked greasy, there was a smudge on her face, and the wide goofy smile she gave Jim made his heart sink. Please let her have got over that stupid embarrassing crush from last term. “Hi Jim!” she chirruped.

“Hi Lucy, is Moira in?”

Her smile got even wider and brighter. “No, but she’ll be back in a moment, why not come in?”

Jim felt a wave of relief. That was nice of her. Maybe she wasn’t going to stand in his way when he asked Moira out. “Thanks,” he said, meaning it.

I’m not saying this is epic writing, but some things to notice:

  • You get a much better sense of Jim as a person (the prick).
  • The passage flows, instead of jerking. We build up a picture of what Jim feels/knows/assumes. We don’t learn what Lucy thinks but there’s a hint (the inappropriate smile) that Jim’s interpretation of her isn’t reliable.
  • There are fewer first names in the narrative. I didn’t do this on purpose: you just don’t need to use names as much when you’re in one person’s POV, so it’s less clunky.

This much, this obvious. There is another form of POV wandering that’s much less easy to spot, which I’m going to call the Embedded Feeling.

Alex scowled at his grandmother. He loved her dearly but she should know better to interfere in his love life. “Gran, I’m a millionaire at thirty, I don’t need a wife, and particularly not that clumsy cardigan-wearing librarian!” Even if he suspected she might look better without the glasses. “Why would you set me up on a date with her?”

Gran looked unembarrassed. “Well, why not, dear?” She stood, her knees complaining at the movement. “She’s my bridge partner’s granddaughter. Meet her at seven.” Alex made an outraged noise, but she just smiled infuriatingly. “Don’t be late.”

Did you spot the jump?

 

 

*** Big Sesame-Street-like space for you to think about it. I’m not doing all the work here. ***

 

 

We are in Alex’s POV. Unless Gran’s knees are literally complaining in an anthropomorphic Clive Barker sort of way, he cannot know what her knees feel like. This needs to be something Alex observes:

She stood, a little awkwardly—evidently the arthritis was troubling her.

Even better, something that earns its keep by telling us something about Alex as well as Gran:

She stood with a wince at the movement, and Alex felt his annoyance wash away at the reminder of her advancing age. If this was important to the daft old coot, he’d do it.

And this is important, because mediating the whole scene through Alex’s point of view allows the author to deepen his character continually and subtly. We don’t need his feelings on everything spelled out, that would be lethal, but what he notices, doesn’t notice, misinterprets or reacts to are all ways for the author to reveal him. That’s what his point of view is for. Telling us Gran’s feelings directly adds nothing to our knowledge of Alex, or to Alex’s knowledge of Gran. (If she said, “Oooh, me knees,” Alex would be learning something about her.) And given Alex is our hero, this is a problem.

Of course, maybe it’s plot crucial that Alex doesn’t know about Gran’s bad knees. (No, I don’t know why.) In that case, the author needs to find a way to convey the information to the reader or to hide it, as required, but in a way that’s consistent with Alex’s POV. Thusly:

“Get that jug off the mantelpiece for me?” He turned to retrieve the object. When he turned back, she was standing.

Now, here’s another even more deeply embedded POV shift. What’s wrong with this passage?

David brushed the rain off his short-cropped black hair as he hurried down the street. He needed to get a taxi, otherwise he’d be late to meet Gemma, and she’d have his balls on a platter. She was the least forgiving woman he knew.

 

 

*** Another educational pause. Come on, then, let’s see some hands. You–yes, you at the back… ***

 

 

The word ‘black’ is a POV shift. Obviously David knows what colour his own hair is. But there is nothing about the act of brushing a hand through hair to remind him it’s black. He might feel its coarseness, or its curl, or the weirdness of it being short when up till yesterday he had dreadlocks, but he can’t feel its colour. And by dropping in a sight reference (the hair’s look) for something we can’t see when we’re in his POV, the author jerks us out of immersion. We’ve gone from being in David to looking at David in that one word. This is why I prefer ‘wandering POV’ to ‘head-hopping’ as a term: we haven’t gone into anyone else’s head here. But we have gone from David as subject to David as object, which is why it jars.

So keep your POVs under control (here’s some discussion of different POVs and their benefits). Watch for the little wanders as much as the big hops. And don’t, whatever you do, spend the rest of the day with Lee Marvin’s ‘I Was Born Under a Wandering Star’ as an earworm.

You’re welcome.

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KJ Charles is a freelance editor and writer. Her Society of Gentlemen trilogy is published by Loveswept. She is also opinionated on Twitter @kj_charles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being Edited, or How to Take Criticism

Let’s start with the obvious: nobody likes it.

Any aspiring author will read plenty of blog posts telling you to suck it up / not be a special snowflake / fall on negative criticism with cries of glee. You should like criticism. Love it. You should be like a kung-fu movie monk, immersing his hand in boiling tar to become stronger. Etc.

That’s just bobbins. Even unjustified criticism can hurt like hell; even trivial throwaway comments can sting for years. Negative criticism feels bad because it’s negative; you shouldn’t feel even worse because you aren’t Superman about it. Take your emotions out (BUT NOT ON TWITTER OKAY), give them an airing to the cat, scream in the bathroom. Face how you feel. Because, all the people telling you to suck it up? They feel just as bad when they get their MS slammed. And if they don’t, if they indeed have asbestos hands for criticism and shrug it off, I’m afraid I question their commitment to their work. I don’t care is a fine thing to say but if you actually don’t care about your book, I’m pretty sure I won’t either.

Negative criticism is a painful and unpleasant necessity. The problem is that as a species, humans tend to believe that painful unpleasantness should be avoided at all costs. Wasp stings hurt like hell, so we kill wasps. That god-awful friend of a friend zeroes in on our every failing: we spend the party on the opposite side of the room. We avoid painful experiences. And thus authors may decide not to have their MS read by anyone other than their mum and a few trusted sycophants friends (which is a fabulous way to get more negativity than you can shake a stick at when the book publishes). They try to control reviews. And even the most sensible of us often try to deal with negative criticism by persuading ourselves it’s wrong.

It’s human nature. The king surrounds himself with courtiers who assure him that his subjects adore him, even while the mob is hammering at the palace doors. We don’t want to hear this stuff, because it hurts. Unfortunately, you need to face the negatives to improve, and we all know it.

So, a few tips from me in my capacity as an editor who hands out criticism, a writer who has to take it, and a human being who screws up.

Constructive v Negative

People make a big point of how criticism must be constructive. Reviews should always be constructive, apparently. (For the record, this is arrant nonsense. The reviewer is not a post-publication beta reader.) Nobody should say “this is bad”, we are told, they should say “this is how it can be better.”

Well, yes/no. An editor or beta reader who’s just there to sneer is a waste of time (a full blog post on this topic here). But actually, not all readers know how books can be made better. That’s quite a complicated skill: we call that person a development editor. It’s perfectly reasonable to say what’s wrong (“I just felt the hero never got sympathetic”) without identifying which chapters and conversations were the lost opportunities.

And sometimes things are bad. Sometimes the correct editorial response is, “You should cut this chapter”, “You should cut this storyline” or “I’m afraid this MS doesn’t work and we decline to publish.”

Here’s the thing: most people hate giving that out. It is very hard to be the bearer of bad news, particularly because so many people shoot the messenger. (I rejected a book once at work and the author was still blanking me at a conference five years later.)

Some people are just malicious, of course. But sincere well-meaning negative criticism is hard to write and deliver, and it should be considered seriously. If you don’t feel like you can tell the difference any more, ask a writer friend for a second opinion.

The more it hurts, the harder you should look

“If it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working” is bobbins, just ask an anaesthetist. But I am aware that the crit that makes me flinch most is the stuff I was worried about on some level. If you tell me, “I hate your crappy badly written book,” I’ll merely hope you get a disfiguring skin disease. If you say, “The book falls into obvious halves because of the clunking character arc,” I will be up all night rearranging scenes in my head because you’re right. (You bastard.)

“Well, they’ll just have to like it.” (Hint: they won’t.)

It takes a fair bit of nerve to write, and a lot of self belief. You need be true to your story, follow your dream, all that inspirational poster stuff. However, if you conflate that with believing your book is perfect, you will have a problem. The time to tell yourself “haters gonna hate” and sail serenely by the negative reviews is after publication, not at editing stage. Without negative criticism, you won’t get better.

But this is my book!

As an editor, I believe passionately that the book is the author’s: her voice, her choices, her style. However, sometimes it is the author’s badly written or unpublishable book. As an author, I won’t make changes that go against the spirit of my book and the soul of my characters, but you better believe I’ll listen if my editor/readers tell me things that suggest I’m failing in what I was trying to do, or the words I chose to do it.

What, me?

The edits received in the stoniest silence of all are the ones that cut at the writer’s goodness as a person. This scene seems to me to be verging on rape, and I don’t think you intended that. This comes across as racist. A lot of readers will find this offensive. People struggle to accept that they’ve been hurtful. Authors tend to be high-empathy people and women in particular are socialised to be nice. Most of us don’t want to accept we’ve been crass or prejudiced. And it is human nature to reframe the story in a way that shines a flattering light on our own character. I’m not prejudiced or ignorant: you’re just oversensitive. God, lighten up!

I’ve caused offence with clumsiness, and been called out for it. I did not enjoy receiving that criticism, any more than I expect the complainers enjoyed making it, and it would be a lot easier to reassure myself that I’m a Nice Person and the complainer is oversensitive, rather than accept that I’m not actually the super-considerate person/writer I’d like to think.

But I’m really not. And if I want to be better, as a writer or a person, I have to look hard at painful criticism, not in a defensive spirit but with an open mind. Because denying I was wrong will not help me do better, but listening thoughtfully might.

***

We all get stuff wrong. There’s nothing wrong with getting it wrong. Just grit your teeth, swear at the cat, and make an effort to get it right next time.

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KJ Charles dishes it out as an editor and attempts to take it as a writer. Her latest book is A Fashionable Indulgence, out now from Loveswept.

Which comes first–chicken, egg, book?

My husband has an idea for a book. It’s a great idea based on a bit of real-world technology that would make a cracking thriller. He’s been brewing this for a year or more. Finally, he asked me plaintively, “Okay, I’ve got the idea for the book, but how do I get the characters? How do I know who should be in it? The people would be different depending on where I take the plot, but the plot depends on the characters—which comes first?”

Welcome to my life.

I’m told some people get a character pop up and demand a story. For me it always starts with a nugget of inspiration: a setting, a weird historical fact, a concept. But how do you take a concept and add the characters? And when you have a concept and characters, what about a plot?

You see this go wrong a lot. Thrillers where it’s quite obvious that the author had a brilliant idea, worked out a plot to maximise it, and bolted in some plastic people to go through the required actions. Romances where an adorable pair of lifelike characters have a meet-cute and then not very much actually happens.

It is hard to do right. It feels really hard every time I start thinking about a new book. What’s it about, who’s in it, what’s going to happen? Which comes first?

Short answer: neither. Neither comes first, because it’s a push-me-pull-you, back and forth. Crossing over the same ground, over and over in different directions and permutations, weaving the threads. This is all getting a bit metaphorical so here’s how a story I wrote recently happened:

I know that I want to write about X thing.

Hey, the Victorians had waste-men who collected and sold on used paper! Suppose one of them got some paper he shouldn’t have?

Start thinking about characters. I write romance so I need a pair.

The waste-man, obviously. And the guy who’s looking for the papers, who has to spend ages going through the waste-heaps with bonus sexual tension developing. Who is the other guy? Lawyer, maybe, looking for a missing will?

How does the concept lead to a plot?

The lawyer is searching for the document and…eventually finds it? Meh. What’s this about anyway? What’s at stake here?

Go back to the concept.

The waste-man has paper that’s dangerous. To him, or to other people? How’s it dangerous? If it’s a will, who knows he’s got it? If it’s state secrets, ditto.

And the characters:

The waste-man is going to blackmail the lawyer—no. Or is the other guy an agent of the state? But he could just seize it. The waste-man is going to sell—no. The waste-man is illiterate, maybe, so he doesn’t know to give it back? Um. Or is the paper in a foreign language…

It’s magic paper, you spanner. That’s what it is. It’s magic paper, and the waste-man doesn’t do magic, and it does, I don’t know, VERY BAD THING TBC, and the other guy is a magician.

Leap to the plot!

Because someone lost some papers and the magician has to find them and the papers do VERY BAD THING TBC and they have to work together to stop the thing. Which is when they fall in love.

But wait! Who are these people to be in this situation? What about them causes them to clash with each other and with the plot?

Um. The waste-man is working class, the magician is his opposite… the magician is in a panic and the waste-man has to talk him down… the waste-man is a decent guy…

Hang on, hang on. If these papers are so bad and dangerous, what was the magician doing with them?

Plot and Character answer together: He was doing bad things.

There was a lot more to be braided in from here. The magic system: it’s got to have to do with writing, because paper, and it’s got to cause the VERY BAD THING TBC, and we have to know why the magician would do bad things. Which takes us back to the characters: why would the magician do that? Is he a bad person, and if not, how was he brought into it? What about him means the waste-man works with him–or is he forced to? Which takes us back to the plot…

charmed-cover-200That is a very very short summary of how the story ‘A Queer Trade’ came together, or alternatively a very long way of saying that plot is character in action. You shuttle back and forth, from concept to character to plot, with each step leading to the next. If X, then Y. If character A is like this then he can’t behave like that, so he behaves like the other instead, and therefore character B will do this

It can start from anywhere. I could have thought of the VERY BAD THING TBC first and worked from there; I could have imagined a stoic Victorian labourer faced with a panicking and slightly fey magician and wondered how they met. And it can go anywhere. In a different mood I could have taken the lawyer route and written a lovely missing-will story with no external threat and a character-based plot. As it happens, I was in the mood for animated corpses. I so often am.

It doesn’t matter where you start, and you don’t need to know where you’re going. What matters is that you weave plot and character together as you go. Because if you try to develop one first and then fill the other in on top, you might have a brilliant plot, or a marvellous character study, or a genius concept, but you won’t have a book.

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‘A Queer Trade’ appears in the anthology Charmed and Dangerous.

My most recent release is A Fashionable Indulgence, the first book in a linked Regency trilogy. Don’t even talk to me about plotting *that* out.