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1 of N does not equal N—Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

Thumb_Nail_Novel_WriterArrghhh. Math. Sorry, but it’s the best way I can explain this concept. What this formula means is that just because you can buy a best-selling book written by so-and-so, the famous writer that does not mean you can write a similar book and get it published.

What I’m talking about is those people who sit there and complain that their book is just as good as such and such and, damn it, they should not only be published but have a bestseller. Also, those people who look at book number 5 from a best-selling author and complain about how bad it is. Yes, there are many book number 5’s from best-selling authors that if they were book number 1 from a new author, would not get published. But the primary thing that sells a book is the author’s name. I’ve always said Stephen King could write a book about doing his laundry and it would be on the bestseller list. Stephen King earned being Stephen King and to misquote a vice-presidential debate, I’ve read Stephen King and you ain’t no Stephen King. Neither am I.

Another thing people do is they see a technique used in a novel and use the same technique, and then get upset when told it doesn’t work. They angrily point to the published book that has the same technique and say, “SEE.” Unfortunately, what they don’t see is that that technique is part of the overall structure of the novel. It all ties together. I’ll discuss book dissection to study various aspects and techniques and I still stand by that; however, I also remind you of the story of Frankenstein. Just because you can put all the pieces together, that doesn’t mean you can necessarily bring it to life. There are some techniques that only work when combined in context of other parts of the novel; thus using it in isolation can be a glaring problem. You can’t take the beginning of one bestseller, tie it in with flashback style from another, and have a similar flashy ending as another and expect the novel to automatically work.

Every part of a novel is a thread connected to all the other parts. Pull on one piece and you pull on them all. Tear apart a novel or a movie and see the pieces, but then be like a watchmaker and see if you can put them all together again as the writer did and if you understand why they go back that way.

For example, Quentin Tarrantino ignored the classic three act screenplay structure with Pulp Fiction. Yet the movie was a great success. So therefore, a number of new screenwriters decided they didn’t need the three act structure. However, what they failed to see is that it was not so much the unique story structure that made Pulp Fiction such a success, but rather the intriguing dialogue. Tarrantino’s structure without the Tarrantino dialogue would have spelled failure.

It is also more important to figure out what is working and why, rather that what you feel didn’t work in a book you read. An attitude that will serve you little good is the there’s so much crap on the shelves in the bookstore. I admit that there are times when I am looking for something to read, and I stand in the local supermarket looking at the paperbacks, that I really can’t find anything I want to read or that sparks an interest. But that doesn’t automatically mean it’s all crap.

I had to do this many times. I’d read something I might not like, but it seems to be selling quite well. Instead of dismissing the rest of the world as stupid, I try to find what it is about the book that people like. That doesn’t mean I’m going to do the same thing, but it does broaden my horizon.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with a little fire burning deep inside believing you are better than those people getting published, but I think that’s the sort of thing that should be used to fuel your writing, not expressed loudly so everyone can hear it.

John Gardner once said that every book has its own rules. Remember that when you examine a book to see what you can learn from it. Look at the parts from the perspective of that book’s specific rules.

backgroundBlack Tuesday finalThe Novel Writers Toolkit, Write It Forward, How We Made Our First Million on Kindle, 102 Writing Mistakes, and Writer’s Conference Guide.

And coming 24 August and available for pre-order: Time Patrol: Black Tuesday


More on Point of View– Craft at Write on the River

Toolkit_TNYou have to consider point of view before you begin your book and before you write every scene, much as a movie director has to. You have to determine the best point of view to get across to the reader the story you are trying to tell. Decide where are you going to place the camera to the best advantage of the story.

Say you are going to write a thriller about a female FBI agent tracking down a vicious serial killer. You want to open your book with a scene that will grab the reader and set the stage for the suspense of the novel so you decide to open with a killing. What point of view will you use? Now, remember, no point of view is wrong—you just have to understand the advantages and disadvantages of your possible choices and make a knowledgeable decision. And remember, you will most likely be stuck with that point of view for the entire manuscript.

First person might be a bit difficult. After all, this would most likely mean your narrator actually witnesses the scene. This isn’t impossible, but it could be awkward. Perhaps you use first person from the protagonist’s point of view and she witnesses the murder but is not in a position to take any action? Using first person from the POV of the victim means the book is rather short, unless the victim survives the attack and swears vengeance. First person from the killer would make for a dark book, but it has been done.

You can decide to use third person from the point of view of the victim. This can build tension well, but also means the chapter will end abruptly.

You can use third person from the point of view of the killer, but remember that the killer knows who he or she is and therefore you have to be careful how much insight into the killer’s head you allow. A technique some use to overcome that limitation is to have the killer think of himself in different terms than his reality. The killer is Joe Schmo, but when he’s in killer mode he thinks of himself as Captain Hook, thus hiding his identity from the reader in third person insight.

Or, you could use omniscient, placing your ‘camera’ above the scene. Here, though, you have to be careful not to show too much and give away the killer’s identity. Much like a director might choose a dark basement where the viewer can’t see the killer’s face, you will do the same.

Another example of considering how to write a scene is if you have two characters meeting in a pub for an important exchange of dialogue. They sit across from each other. How are you going to ‘shoot’ this scene? From third person of one of the characters? That means you get that character’s thoughts and you describe the other character’s reactions—i.e. the camera is on your POV character’s shoulder. Is it important that the reader know one character’s thought more than the other’s? Or is it more important to show one character’s reactions than the others?

Or, do you keep switching the camera back and forth across the booth, going from one to the other? If you’re Larry McMurty and won a Pulitzer Prize you might be able to do that, but for most of us, such a constant switching of POV is very disconcerting to the reader. Or do you shoot it omniscient with the camera off to the side and simply show actions and record dialogue?

Consider this scene like a date. If you were out with someone and you knew exactly what they were thinking, and they knew what you were thinking, would there be any suspense to the date? Taking too many points of view can greatly reduce your suspense.

Black Tuesday finalI’ve written in all the above points of view. I tend to go with omniscient now as it’s the voice that works best for me, but it took me almost forty manuscripts to figure that out.

Coming 24 August: The Time Patrol: Black Tuesday

Six missions on 29 October to six different years, from 999 AD to 1980. Each operative has 24 hours to maintain our timeline or else everything snaps out of existence.


Omniscient Point of View– Craft at Write on the River

Thumb_Nail_Novel_WriterOmniscient point of view. This is also known as authorial narrative. When I first began writing I felt I had to lock in third person on a character for every scene. And that worked. But the more I wrote, the more I wanted to use an omniscient point of view. I also realized that most of my favorite authors wrote in omniscient voice.

I liken authorial point of view to the camera getting pulled back in the hands of the author in order to show the viewer more. There are times you might want to pull back so you can tell the reader more information or show the reader more than the characters who are in the scene might be able to see or know.

For example, a battle scene can be written much better from omniscient point of view if you want the reader to understand the battle. But if you want the reader to see how one specific character is responding to the danger of combat, you might stick with third person from that character’s point of view.

One of the most difficult obstacles for me as a writer was accepting that I could write from the authorial point of view. That I can describe things as they are or were using my own voice as the author of the work. The more I write, the more I find it important to be able to do this. There may be some information that is not going to fit using third person. Also, you may get very tired of writing “he thought” over and over again and the reader may grow weary of seeing it.

Starting sentences with the word THE shifts you up into omniscient quite a bit.


Authorial narrative

Camera is above, all-seeing and all-knowing

Must be the story psychologist

Good for action scenes

Be careful of head-hopping

More authoritative

BURNERS(fist)For more on all of this: The Novel Writers Toolkit.

Coming 6 October: Burners. What is more valuable than money?

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world!”

Third Person Limited– Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

NovelWriterIs when you give the camera to various characters and they record the scene. Everything in the book is channeled through your point of view characters.

A key concept here is the concept of a ‘cut’. When a film director yells cut, he means one of several things: first, in all cases, he’s stopping the camera that is currently filming. Then he is going to:

Leave the camera with the current point of view character, but is moving that character off-screen to another time and/or place and then restarting the camera.

Take the camera from the current point of view character and give it to another character who will then ‘film’ the scene. This scene could be in the same place or a different place. It could be the same time or a different time. If it’s the same time, then the reader is getting the same scene from different POV characters and you must have a very good reason for doing that because it’s head-hopping.

Regardless, what you must do is make sure the reader knows you, as the author, have done a cut. The reader must know within the first paragraph after a cut which character now has the camera. I recommend against doing a cut in the middle of a scene unless you have a specific purpose for doing so.

Another factor in third limited is that each point of view character is literally going to have a different point of view. Each is going to see the same situation differently. As the author this requires you to shift your perspective as you write to the various POV characters and even write each one slightly different in terms of style.

There are what I call first-third stories, where the book is written in third limited, but there is only one point of view character. An author might choose to do this as an alternative to the problems of first person POV.

How many points of view can you handle? Exactly how schizophrenic are you? It’s a question of your ability as a writer. If you aren’t an expert at POV I’d recommend limiting the number of POV characters as much as possible. One thing I stayed away from in my thrillers was getting into the POV of the antagonist. Because the antagonist knows his dastardly plan and I don’t want to reveal it to the reader. Remember, you can’t cheat your reader by going into the POV of a character and withhold information they know from the reader.

There are several problems with too many POV characters beyond just your ability. If you have too many POVs, you will reveal a lot of information to the reader, but not to the other characters. Thus your reader will end up knowing more than your characters, which could end up being an awkward situation as you try to get some characters up to speed on information they need to know but which the reader already knows. You could end up writing some really boring scenes for the reader.

Another problem with too many POV characters is you diffuse attention from your protagonist. The reader spends so much time in points of view outside of the main character that they lose focus.

Third Person Limited

Everything is channeled through various characters’ points of view

Cuts have to be very clear to readers

Each POV character must be distinct

First, third stories

Cutting in the middle of a scene: is there a purpose

How many points of view can you—and the reader—handle

Too many POV characters:  The reader ends up knowing more than any of the characters

Diffuse attention from your protagonist

The line between Third Limited and Omniscient is a thin one

BURNERS(fist)And coming on 6 Oct: burners

“My candle burns on both ends;

It will not last the night.

But oh my foes, and oh my friends;

It gives a lovely light!”


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