One Thing You Should Never Do in a Novel (And How To Avoid It)

I love writing in first person. My two favorite manuscripts are written first person. My favorite one is written first person male and that lead character is my favorite son. He’s also head strong, opinionated, and difficult to manage, but that’s another post!

Writing in first person comes with inherent risks. It’s such a turn off to some people, they won’t even consider a novel written in first person.

Some publishers, editors, and agents have the same reaction.

The first person point of view naturally limits the amount of information you can share with your readers. Because one character is telling the story, that character can tell only what he or she experiences, knows or assumes.

First person also, therefore, challenges the writer by forcing him or her to find creative and believable ways to present necessary information to the character and, through the character, to the reader.

But there is another aspect of first person story telling that’s more important than all the regular rules.

One Thing You Should Never Do in a Novel

What is this most egregious of writing errors?

Putting yourself too far forward in the writing.

We can’t avoid showing up in our work. It’s just not possible. The stories we write reveal who we are and what we believe about the world. The things we write about and the way we write about them are influenced by our personal beliefs. They are part of what makes our author voice unique.

But there’s a huge difference between the platform on which your stories are written (your worldview) and you standing up on that platform and shouting your worldview to all and sundry.

The first is highly recommended.

The second is not.

Novels are not just another platform for the rant of the day. Yes, you can rant through characters, but make sure those characters also believe those things and that there’s a purpose for letting the character rant beyond venting yourself.

I do believe some things need to be said.

I also believe some characters are more suited to delivering a good rant than others. And some stories beg for characters who feel strongly enough about something to rant. Else, where would be the conflict?

Having said that, however, every writer needs to be careful that every character they create is unique and personable, his or her own person, and that they honestly and truly believe what they’re saying. Don’t put words into the mouths of characters just because you  want to say them and need a platform from which to speak them. Every part of a novel has to fit the story world, the situation, and the characters or it becomes just another rant.

If you write in first person, you need to be especially careful of author intrusion, but it can happen in any voice and in any genre.

This is one of my struggles as a writer. I’m certain other writers face the same challenge. That’s okay, so long as you recognize the weakness and take special care to root it out of the manuscript during editing.

How do you most show up in your novels?

What Is the Favored POV Among Best Sellers?

2015-02-20 Old Books (4)A guest post by Allison Maruska

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Over the past couple of years, I’ve read an increasing number of self-published books. They’re often cheaper, and many of them are quite good.

BUT

There’s one thing I see in a lot of self-published books, and more often than not, it makes me stop reading: head hopping.

2016-02-01 Favored POV among Best Sellers

Head hopping is when the point of view suddenly jumps from one character to another. One minute, we’re in Bob’s head thinking about donuts. The next minute, we’re in Dana’s head thinking Bob should consider a juice diet. There’s no scene or chapter break. This happens from one paragraph to another, or sometimes within the same paragraph.

Now, there is one type of POV where head hopping is theoretically okay: subjective omniscient. Or broken down:

Subjective = we know what’s going on in a character’s head.

Omniscient = we can know all the things in the story, including what’s going on in other chatacters’ heads.

BUT

I said theoretically for a reason.

I see head hopping so often in self-pubs that I started doubting my own advice to my CPs – namely, don’t effing head hop. It’s harder to relate to the MC and it can be confusing.

2016-01-20 books ebooks ereader ipad kindle reading readerI’ve been reading nothing but self-pubs for a while, so I decided to do a little research with this question in mind: what is the favored POV among traditionally published best sellers? If they use subjective omniscient, maybe my preference for limited third or first – where you’re inside one character’s head and only know what he knows – is just my own preference and I need to give my CPs a break.

But maybe – maybe – my decades of reading have taught me something. Maybe there’s a reason head hopping bothers me.

I know there are some self-pub authors who couldn’t give half a crap about traditional publishing standards, and that’s fine. You can write your book in Sanskrit if you want. Just don’t expect to sell as many books if you do that.

The point is this: if you wanna play with the big dogs, it’s a good idea to know what they’re doing.

So I read chunks of every well-known, best-selling book in my kindle. Then I went to Amazon and read the sample pages of some top selling novels I don’t own. I’ve arranged the list this way: author – title – POV

But first, a couple of disclaimers:

1. This is a minuscule sample size compared to the total number of traditionally published books. There may be some out there that use subjective omniscient. Feel free to look around and comment if you find one.

2. My inclusion of these books should not be viewed as my endorsement of them. Yes, I loved most of them. But two were so poorly written that I stopped well before the 50% mark in spite of the tight POV. I won’t tell you which ones those were. That’s not the point.

To the list!

Stephen King – The Stand – limited 3rd

Steven Becker – Wood’s Relic – limited 3rd

Marissa Meyer – Cinder – limited 3rd

Dan Brown – Da Vinci Code – limited 3rd

Stephen Chbosky – Perks of Being a Wallflower – 1st

Ted Dekker – The Circle Series – limited 3rd

Dean Kuntz – Lightning – limited 3rd

Douglas Adams – The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – omniscient

Suzanne Collins – Underland Chronicles – limited 3rd

Stephen King – The Shining – limited 3rd

Kathryn Stockett – The Help – 1st

Suzanne Collins – The Hunger Games Trilogy – 1st

Sandra Brannan – In the Belly of Jonah – alternating 1st/limited 3rd

Jerry B. Jenkins – Riven – limited 3rd

Stieg Larsson – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – limited 3rd

Naomi Novik – His Majesty’s Dragon – limited 3rd

Matthew FitzSimmons – The Short Drop – limited 3rd

David Baldacci – The Guilty – limited 3rd

Janet Evanovich – Tricky Twenty-two – 1st

Philip K. Dick – The Man in the High Castle (1962) – limited 3rd

Vince Flynn – The Survivor – limited 3rd

Kristin Hannah – The Nightingale – 1st

And for fun, let’s include some self-pubs:

Hugh Howey – Wool – limited 3rd

Sean Platt & Johnny B. Truant – Invasion – limited 3rd

I was originally going to include fifty books on this list, but I think you get the point with half that number.

Side note – many of those limited third titles did include the POV of more than one character, but not within the same scene. A break of some kind occurred before jumping to a new head.

One book was written in omniscient POV – Hitchhiker’s Guide. It’s told from the view of an omniscient narrator, like someone telling a story around a campfire. We occasionally know what a character thinks or feels, but there isn’t the inclusion of what I would call head hopping. If you’re considering writing a book in omniscient POV, please read this classic as a guide.

So what conclusion can we draw from this exercise? For me, I’m more confident in my stance that limited third and first work better for storytelling (perhaps to the chagrin of my CPs). For you? Well, that’s for you to decide.

What is your favored POV for storytelling? Does this list sway your opinion?

About the Author 

Allison Maruska headshotAllison is a YA and mystery/suspense author, writing/humor blogger, teacher, mom, wife, coffee and wine consumer, and an owl enthusiast. She published her debut novel, The Fourth Descendant, in February, 2015, and it has been on Amazon’s historical mystery best seller list since April. Her newest book is a YA dystopian/urban fantasy called Drake and the Fliers, which she released on November 20th, 2015.

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About Her Book

Allison Maruska - The Fourth DescendantWhen Michelle receives a call from a Richmond historian, she sees the chance for a much-needed adventure. All she has to do is find a century-old key.

Three others – a guitarist, an engineer, and a retiree – receive similar calls. Each family possesses a key to a four-lock safe found buried in a Virginia courthouse, though their connection is as mysterious as the safe itself. Their ancestors should not have interacted, had no apparent reason to bury the safe, and should not have disappeared thereafter.

Bearing their keys, Michelle and the other descendants converge in the courthouse basement and open the safe, revealing the truth about their ancestors – a truth stranger, more deadly, and potentially more world-changing than any of them could have imagined. Now it’s up to them to keep their discovery out of the wrong hands.

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New Release! 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing (Part II)

CS Lakin - 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction WritingIf you enjoyed the excerpt about omniscient POV last week from the book 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction, we have great news. We have a Part II! I’m in possession of an advance reader copy of this book, and from the bits I’ve read, I have to say, I’m captivated!

What sets this book apart is not just the five editors who together give a very round view of twelve writing sore spots, but the way they show before-and-after texts to illustrate what they really mean.

This excerpt is written by C.S. Lakin and digs even deeper into omniscient POV. And if you didn’t win the giveaway drawing last week … we’re doing it again! (Details at the end of the post.)

2015-11-23 Subjective Omniscient POV

Subjective Omniscient POV

2015-11-23 eyes see woman girl female person peopleSubjective omniscient POV features a narrator with a strong voice who can show the internal thoughts of the characters within the scene. An omniscient narrator can hop around into heads and go where he wants. And it can be very effective to have that narrator react to the thoughts and feelings of the other characters.

This is a fairly uncommon POV, but it can be done well and powerfully. Such a narrator has his or her own voice, and everything that is seen, felt, and experienced by the characters gets filtered through this narrator’s mind and personality.

Sound confusing? It can be. That’s one reason it’s rarely used. It is also a bit tricky to do well. Sure, it limits the POV violations—because when you’re omniscient, you can know anything and everything. But that doesn’t make it a great default POV for your story.

Unless it serves your premise specifically to have an omniscient narrator with a unique storytelling voice, don’t use this POV. It can be imposing and distracting to have this “main character” controlling the story. But again, when it’s used well and to good purpose, it can be terrific.

Here’s one way the passage from last week’s post could convey a subjective omniscient POV:

Diane Chandler stood on the ledge of an eighth-floor office windowsill, her eyes closed and her hands gripping the wrought-iron railing that framed the window. She inched out on high heels. Wind whipped at her, making her wobble.

Her life was in shambles, and she knew it. But she saw no other option. Even though her death was going to destroy more lives, at this moment Diane Chandler only cared about one thing—ending her pain. She had extorted money from her company and gotten caught. It had been foolish for her to think her coworker John wouldn’t have ratted to the boss. She’d always been kind of naïve that way. Quick to ignore the signs. Thinking everyone was honest and upstanding. Like she had been. Once upon a time. If only someone had pointed that out to her years ago.

Moments passed as the traffic below moved in fits and starts.

Diane stiffened.

“Wait!” A man’s voice came from behind her, from inside the office. Ronald Moore, her boss.

Seeing Diane on the ledge came as a shock. But he had to stop her. He couldn’t tell her how he really felt, how he didn’t care about the money she took. He knew the trouble she was in, her dark and troubled past. Her criminal record she failed to disclose on her application. He didn’t care about any of that. He loved her. Well, maybe he should have told her. That might have changed everything. Moore knew, though, it was too late. His heart ached. He always was a sucker for “bad” women.

Diane kept her eyes closed, her head tipped back. She did not turn around.

“Diane, please. We’ll work this out. You don’t have to do this.”

Diane shook her head, not daring to turn to look at him. He didn’t understand. Couldn’t understand. He could sweet-talk her all he wanted. She’d still go to jail.

Sadly, leaving Angela with her sister, Judy, was not going to work, but Diane couldn’t know that in this moment. In this moment, her sister was on the Interstate, talking on her cell phone to her boyfriend, and was about to get smashed by a truck veering across the divider due to the driver having a seizure. Angela was facing a life in the Child Welfare system. But would Diane have stepped off that ledge had she known? Who’s to say?

Moore pleaded. “Listen, just listen. Don’t move. Just take my hand—”

She loosened her grip on the railing and sucked in a breath. Then, to Moore’s shock, she stepped out into the air. Oh well, he tried. He would suffer many years of nightmares of this moment—of reaching out and just missing her fingertips. But in time, he would get over her. Like all the others that had slipped through his hands . . .

There are lots of ways I could have written this, including more or less of Diane’s subjective thoughts and feelings, adding more of Moore’s, going into their past. Or I could have amplified the narrator’s subjective voice—more opinions, more personality. Again, it all depends on the premise and plot of your story.

Ask: Does my story need a narrator? If so, why and who? The narrator is palpably present in such a story, and so needs to serve a purpose in being there. He may show up in the story at some point as a visible character, or he may stay invisible—heard, not seen.

Using omniscient POV can be a lot of fun, but watch out for traps—especially the tendency to use excessive telling instead of showing.

In Conclusion . . .

2015-11-23 binoculars sky see eyes targetMastering POV takes work. You need to pay close attention to who is experiencing a scene, and then be faithful to that character’s purview.

Before you start to write a scene, think through your objective. Consider what key plot points you plan to reveal and how they would best be revealed and by whom. Then write your scene sticking faithfully to that character’s POV.

You may decide you want to try your hand at omniscient POV. It’s your story, so you get to choose. But choose wisely so you can tell the best story possible, and consider what’s common for the genre you are writing in. Then follow the POV rules so you don’t get ticketed for egregious violations!

The Book Giveaway

Susanne and her fellow author/editors have one more free copy of 5 Editors Tackle the Twelve Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing for our readers – an ebook edition, any format. To enter the drawing, just scroll down and leave a comment in answer to this question: What POV violation really bugs you when you read a novel? We’ll pick a winner based on our favorite answer! The drawing will end on Sunday, November 22, 2015 at 11:59 p.m. CST. Good luck!

About the Author

CS LakinC. S. Lakin is the author of sixteen novels and five writing craft books. Her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive gives tips and writing instruction for both fiction and nonfiction writers, and her Writer’s Toolbox series gives fiction writers everything they need to know to create compelling, solid stories.

The newest release—5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing—is available here and features more than sixty detailed Before and After examples of flawed and corrected passages to help authors learn to spot flaws in their writing.

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About Her Book

CS Lakin - 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction WritingFiction writers often struggle to improve their craft. And the biggest challenge comes from the inability to see what isn’t working. The prose feels off. The scene isn’t gelling. The dialogue sounds stilted or clunky. But they don’t know why or how to fix it.

This book lays it all out.

5 Editors Tackle the Twelve Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing demonstrates the deadly dozen pitfalls on the road to a strong story, along with revisions that show writers exactly how to avoid novel failure. Buy it on Amazon!