Arrghhh. 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.
And coming 24 August and available for pre-order: Time Patrol: Black Tuesday
You 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.
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. 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.
Camera is above, all-seeing and all-knowing
Must be the story psychologist
Good for action scenes
Be careful of head-hopping
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!”
This point of view has its advantage in that the narrator is telling his/her own story. The major disadvantage is that the reader can only see and know what the narrator experiences and knows. You, as the author, are absent in this mode, thus you surrender part of your control in writing. Remember, the first person narrator is not you the author, but rather the character in the story. The narrator can be a witness or a participant in the story.
Note that there are certain types of genre that fit first person very well, most particularly mysteries/detective stories. That’s logical if you understand the advantages of first person: by using that mode, the writer can bring the reader along for the ride, disclosing clues as the narrator discovers them.
The major disadvantage of first person is that your narrator has to be present in every scene. Because of this, many writers make their narrator the protagonist. A problem can crop up in that the narrator will then be a critical part of the plot and have many things happen to them and around them. Will the narrator be able to react realistically while still telling the story in a coherent form?
Another problem can be the logistics of getting your narrator to all the key events in order to narrate them. I have seen writers end up with very convoluted, and unrealistic plots in order to do that. If the narrator isn’t present at these important scenes, then they find out about them by other means, which can lessen suspense and definitely lessens the immediacy of the action in the story as you have major action occurring offstage.
Some authors use a narrator who isn’t one of the main characters—what is known as a detached narrator. The narrator is more of an observer. This has some advantages. Think of the Sherlock Holmes stories—who is narrating? Watson. Why? Because this allows the author to withhold what Holmes is thinking from the audience.
Something else to think about—should the reader believe your narrator? If everything your narrator says is fact, then there might not be much suspense. But think about the movie The Usual Suspects. The story is narrated by a character, who it turns out, is the man everyone is searching for. In a book, you can raise suspense if your first person narrator is caught in a small lie early on in the story—the reader will then have to be more judgmental about everything else the narrator says.
Another big issue of first person narration is the issue of tense and time. There are two ways to view time in a first person story:
I remember when. In this case, the narrator is telling the story in past tense, looking backward. This immediately reduces the suspense of whether the narrator survives the story. There is also the issue that the narrator is thus withholding information from the reader—the narrator obviously knows the ending, yet chooses not to reveal it to the reader.
In real time. The narrator is telling the story as it unfolds around him or her. A problem with this is what happens when the narrator is involved in an emotionally overwhelming event? Will he still be able to narrate the story?
The big problem with time sense is that even the best writers tend to mix 1 and 2 above. At times they will be in real time, then every so often slip into past time. Additionally, to give you an even bigger headache, both are usually written in past tense. So how do you write a real time story in past tense?
A further problem with first person is many writers tend to slide from first into second person point of view. Any time you put you in your narrative, addressing the reader, you have moved from first to second person.
There are ways to get around the disadvantages of first person. Examine some first person novels and you will discover them. Interview With A Vampire by Anne Rice is an interesting use of first person and the title tells you why. She has the first person of the reporter start the story but shifts into a first person narrative by the vampire Louis through the medium of the interview. She can go back in time with Louis and then return to the present with the reporter, both in first person. She has two levels of interest and suspense: the present fate of the narrator, and the fate of the vampire in his own tale.
There are other novelists who have come up with novel ideas (pun intended) to tell first person stories while getting around some of the disadvantages. Present tense is an option.
I place great emphasis in my own writing career and when teaching upon reading and also upon watching movies/videos, but I watch videos and read books in a different mode as a “writer.” I study them for structure. To see what the author/ screenwriter/ director did with the subject matter. How it was presented. When you pick up a novel, the first thing you should note is what person it is written in. Then ask yourself why the author chooses that point of view. What did the novel gain from that point of view?
When I give examples in a little bit, you will see more clearly the advantages and disadvantages of first person.
One thing about first person to keep in mind. It is the voice most novice writers naturally gravitate to, but it is one of the most difficult voices to do well. Because of that, there is an initial negative impression among agents and editors when confronted with a first person story.
Narrator is not the author
The narrator always has the camera
Narrator has to be present in every scene or get information second-hand
Works for mysteries
Hard for thrillers
Detached narrator: Sherlock Holmes
Believable narrator: The Usual Suspects
First Person Time Sense
I remember when . . .
Already know what happened and are withholding
No suspense over fate of the narrator
In real time
Come along with me
Emotionally overwhelming events
Both are usually told in past tense. which further confuses things
You usually end up mixing the two modes
And coming next month, 24 August: Time Patrol Black Tuesday. 6 missions, all on 29 October, six different years; all in order to save our timeline. Roland fights with Vikings against kraken and berserkers in 999 AD; Scout is in the era of free love and more at UCLA in 1969 when the very first Internet message is sent; Mac is there in 1618 when Sir Walter Raleigh is to be beheaded; and three more years.