Before I delve into today’s topic, I’d like to remind you that my new book, Write That Book You Keep Talking About: How to stop planning and start drafting, comes out July 1st! It’s available for pre-order now at the price of $4.99, which will increase on May 17th.
Point of View, referred to often as “POV,” and perspective are critical elements of your book. Establishing a strong perspective from the beginning can make or break the entire story.
As an editor, I frequently work with books written from a multitude of perspectives, and when I write I generally enjoy first-person or a limited third-person. Take a look at your work in progress; how would you describe the perspective?
A story written using “I/me” pronouns is first-person.
A story written using “you” pronouns is second-person.
A story written using “he/she” pronouns is third-person.
Third person can be open to interpretation, and it usually falls into one of two categories: “close” (or “limited”) and “omniscient.” As you can imagine, a “close” POV directly follows one character’s line of thought as events progress. We can see only into that character’s mind, predict only their actions, and interpret things from their perspective. Third-person omniscient (or “omni”) gives us a broader picture, following several characters without really being tethered to any one person. Especially for new authors, this is an incredibly difficult POV to write as it often leads to “head-hopping,” the act of showing characters’s thoughts and perspectives directly, but doing so from the perspectives of several different characters in one scene. There is a fine line between writing in omni and head-hopping, and as such I generally suggest sticking to a third-person close or first-person for your early works.
A good example of third-person omni is Douglas Adam’s Hitchiker’s Guide series. The narrator tells the story from an omniscient perspective, walking you through what each character is experiencing without creating too close a perspective for any one character.
“Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card is a good example of a story written in third-person limited. The story is told from one perspective, and we see the world through that character’s eyes.
An example of first-person is The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. They follow Katniss as though she is the person relaying the story directly to the audience.
Some authors switch between perspectives, even flipping between first-person for the main character and third-person-close for secondary characters. How you write your story is your decision to make, but you can avoid confusion if you select only one character and one perspective and stick to it through the whole story. In order to do this, you must understand who your main character is and how much of their thoughts you want to divulge to the audience. I especially recommend this if you’re writing your first or second book, as it is easier for you to track and it is easier for your audience to track.
Once you’ve established a strong narrative voice, that’s the time to start playing with perspectives and mixing it up! Until then, remember that practice makes perfect, and it’s good to start with the basics.
Beyond just the perspective, you should be writing in either present or past tense. I like present tense, because it allows me to relate and narrate the story to my readers in real time, bringing them on the journey with me. I know I’ve talked about this in previous blogs; present-tense isn’t necessary in order to keep your reader with you, and I’ll delve more into that on the 19th. Today, we’re just talking about perspective.
Look at your WIP. Do events happen in the past or in the present?
Often times I see mixed tenses within a piece of literature where, rather than having events all happen either in the present or the past, they are mixed up throughout the manuscript.
Present: He stands up and shakes his fists.
Past: He stood up and shook his fists.
Mixed: He stands up and shook his fists.
While it may seem obvious in this example what the problem is, a lot of times I run into issues where the conjugation of words becomes a little muddier and, if you aren’t a master of the language, it can be hard to make the distinction and know how to conjugate the verb you’re trying to use. A prominent example is “lie/lay,” as one applies to a noun performing an action (active voice) and one applies to an action being performed upon a noun (passive voice…sort of). Lie and Lay are two of the most difficult words to conjugate, and I often find myself really considering if the correct word has been used, even employing Google in difficult situations.
“She was lying on the couch.”
“She was laying things out on the couch.”
“She lies on the couch.”
“She lays things out on the couch.”
In situations like this, there is absolutely no shame in using a search engine or thesaurus. However, in order to know which word to use, you must understand what tense you are aiming at.
Unlike with perspective, it’s really never stylistically pleasing to mix it up with tenses. This will only confuse you and your readers. If you are writing in present tense, unless you are directly relating something from the past (that happened before the story you’re telling), you should always write in present tense. If you are writing in past tense, keep everything in past tense. Likewise, avoid past participle as much as you can. One of my first blog posts was about the word “had,” and how it can make your reader feel left behind. “She had ordered pizza and was happy when it arrived.” It gives the impression that you’re just trying to catch your reader up, rather than walking them through the scene with the character. “She ordered a pizza and was happy when it arrived.” It may seem small, but little tweaks like that are going to give you a stronger narrative voice and help establish perspective.
Your homework this week will be to look at your current WIP. Do you have instances of mixed/muddy perspective or confusing tense? If you aren’t sure, please feel free to reach out, and I’ll help you figure out what perspective you’re aiming at and how to adjust moving forward!
I’ve made some adjustments in my schedule, and I’m now in a position to take on several manuscripts, as well as to help with the editing process while you are still working toward completion of the first draft! Please feel free to email with questions or to send a quote request in from the website.
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Steven Brust has announced his work on a writer’s conference project in Minneapolis, Minnesota! The event will be from July 12-14, and you can register at Narrativity.fun. Early registration ends on June 21st. I’ll be there with several copies of my book to sign and hand out, and I’d love to see you all there!
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As always, thank you all for reading, and feel free to email with additional questions or leave them in the comments here!