What is Your POV Motive?

Photo credit: JohnPotter Pixabay

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Why does a writer choose to tell a story from a particular point of view?

Recently, Chuck, a regular TKZ reader, emailed me with questions about omniscient point of view. He wanted to write the first chapter of his revenge-theme murder mystery from the omniscient POV.

Right away, I knew I wasn’t qualified to advise him. I’ve never written anything  omniscient. The books I read rarely use it because my personal taste has always favored close, intimate POVs.

So I dove down the research rabbit hole to learn more about this mysterious POV.

Masterclass.com offers this definition:

An omniscient narrator is all-seeing and all-knowing…The narrator may occasionally access the consciousness of a few or many different characters.

Some writers use this perspective to create a more “godlike” or deliberately “authorial” persona that allows them to comment on the action with the benefit of distance.

Before TV, films, internet, and streaming, most people didn’t venture far from the places they were born. Travel was the domain of the wealthy.

Charles Dickens – Wikimedia

Therefore, books were ships that carried readers to distant shores they would never personally set foot on; to exotic worlds constructed from the author’s descriptions; to smells, sights, sounds, textures, and tastes readers could only imagine.

World building was crucial. 

Leo Tolstoy – CC BY-SA 3.0

 

 

 

 

Authors like Dickens, Tolstoy, and Tolkien spent many pages explaining the physical, social, religious, economic, historic, and psychological elements of the story world.

J.R.R. Tolkien – public domain

 

 

 

But as communication increased and the world became smaller, authors no longer had to paint such detailed pictures.

Reader interest shifted to characters who were fascinating or with whom readers could identify. They wanted go deeper into the characters’ hearts and minds to vicariously experience their fears, elation, rage, joy, doubt, guilt, pride, disappointment, lust, etc.

In today’s book market, close third and first person POVs are the most prevalent, although epic fantasy with its detailed world building still uses omniscient POV.

According to a 2016 New York Times article by Elliott Holt:

The effects of omniscience are authority and scope; novels with such narrators seem especially confident. The characters may be uncertain, but we sense the controlling force above them. Omniscience reinforces that we are reading fiction.

Some readers like that quality while others see it as authorial intrusion.

Holt goes on to say:

We know we’re being watched, by traffic and security cameras, by our employers, by the N.S.A., by random people taking pictures with their phones. We’re aware of the threat of hackers and cybercrime…Technological transcendence is “spooky”: Perhaps omniscience taps into this collective fear about loss of privacy.

Hmm. That explains why I personally avoid omniscient POV.

The most comprehensive article I found about omniscient POV is by John Matthew Fox of Book Fox at this link.

John provides clear, understandable explanations. For instance, in discussing show vs. tell, he says:

Third person omniscient is often more telling than showing, because the narrator is an objective observer. It’s like you’re telling someone about a movie you just saw.

He defines two types of third-person omniscient POV:

Objective: The narrator knows all, but they’re an observer. They can’t get into the characters’ heads, but are telling the story from somewhere outside.

Subjective: The narrator is an observer with opinions. We get a sense of what the narrator thinks about every character, in a judgy kind of way.

He says one advantage is the narrator “can dispense information that no character knows.” But he cautions: “many writers slide over into head hopping.”

He goes on to elaborate:

Where this gets confusing, especially for new writers, is in third person omniscient. Some newer writers think that head hopping and third person omniscient are the same thing, or at least close. This is not true. Third person omniscient tells a story from one perspective: the narrator’s. The narrator shouldn’t tell us the thoughts and feelings of all the characters, or any of the characters.

The narrator shows us how the characters feel through action and dialogue, not by hopping into the character’s heads to reveal what they’re thinking. The story is told from the narrator’s perspective, like the narrator is a character.

Here is John’s most compelling argument against using omniscient POV:

Literary agents and publishers are so reluctant to consider third person omniscient, and they’re not going to do it for a new writer. If you really want to try third person omniscient, do it for a very limited time, like the first chapter, to describe the setting. Sort of like a wide shot in a movie, writing the first chapter in third person omniscient can work.

~~~

As writers, we like to experiment with new ways to tell stories. Some experiments work, others fall flat, and a few explode in our faces.

After researching, my suggestions to Chuck are:

Examine your motive for using omniscient. Why is it the absolute best way to introduce your story? If it’s merely a gimmick or experiment, rethink the choice. 

Run the first chapter by critiquers and beta readers. They’ll help you judge if it works or not.  

Before submitting to agents or editors, understand that many are predisposed to dislike it.

If you use omniscient POV, be darn sure it’s done correctly and effectively.

~~~

TKZers: Please share books you’ve read that use omniscient POV. Which work and which don’t?

Why do you like or dislike omniscient POV?

~~~

 

In Debbie Burke’s thriller Eyes in the Sky, a drone gives an omniscient–and sinister–point of view. Please check it out at these links: 

Amazon

Other online booksellers

First Page Critique: Innocent to a Fault

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a novel entitled ‘Innocent to a Fault’ and, although we don’t have a genre specified, I’m assuming it is going to be a mystery or a thriller. The fact that this isn’t clear is indicative of some the key issues facing this page – which you can see discussed in the comments that follow. I’m looking forward to getting input and support from our TKZ community to help guide our brave submitter on how to address the issues raised and turn this into a compelling first page. Here we go!
INNOCENT TO A FAULT
Thirty-three years ago, on a sunny October afternoon, driving a classic GTO that he’d just stolen from his neighbor’s carport, a teenager murdered our parents. Celia was 18, Katie was 16, and I was 12 when the Springville police notified us about the horrible accident. Because the kid was about my age, he was given a rap to the knuckles as punishment. At that devastating time, I didn’t know who I hated more—the delinquent for destroying so many lives, or the legal system for saying, “Boys will be boys.”
Nana said the hate I felt harmed me more than anyone, so I tried keeping it in check. But I failed badly, mainly because I needed to feel something and since I couldn’t love my parents any longer, hate filled the void.
During those early days of loss, feeling more anger than a child ever should, I came to two conclusions. One, that sometimes hating a person feels good, no matter how self-destructive.  And two, people who hurt others should face punishment, with no excuses allowed. Or more simply, if they couldn’t do the time, they should not have done the crime.
I know some will disagree, but I believe those who commit crimes are selfish to the core. They figure what they want is more important than what’s right. If selfish behavior could be obliterated, murders, thefts, rapes, all crimes would go down significantly.
My sister Celia is of a different mind. She believes sometimes good people do bad things, and each situation should have room for wiggle, which was why her daughter turned out the way she had. Reni had been wiggling out of trouble since puberty, with Celia always nearby, excuse in hand.
A few weeks ago Reni got involved in trouble that even Celia couldn’t justify. The scheme was criminal, and it all hinged on me. I learned about the plot during an unexpected visit from my niece.
With little preamble, Reni presented me with two choices: commit a felony, which would keep my family safe, or refuse and see my family destroyed. It was then that I understood Celia’s wiggle room philosophy that sometimes a good person has only bad options.
I thought about those bad options—while being more scared than I’ve ever been in my life—and made my decision.
I don’t know if I would make the same choice today.
(end of Chapter 1)
 
Overall Comments
The most significant concern I have with this submission is that it reads like a synopsis not the first page to a novel. Not only have we been given the entire backstory to the narrator’s current situation but we’re also being told the entire set up for the novel without having any action, dialogue, character development, or inciting incident. All we really have is exposition and explanation that robs the first page of all dramatic tension and makes it feel like the summary of a plot rather than the start of a work of fiction. That being said, we do get some sense of the conflict that (I assume) forms the backbone of the story in the choice presented our narrator (“commit a felony, which would keep my family safe, or refuse and see my family destroyed.”) What we don’t have is a dramatic scene unfolding to show us this choice.
This first page introduces us to five characters without giving us any real sense of them as people. There’s the narrator (who is in his or her mid 40’s – the fact that we have no idea even about gender is indicative of the lack of character development); his/her sisters Celia and Katie, Nana, and Reni, Celia’s wayward daughter. That’s a lot of characters for a first page especially in the absence of action or dialogue, and when we don’t yet have any setting or real sense of time or place (everything is presented in the past tense). What we do have is a lot of explanations, theories, and beliefs – all of which could definitely come into the novel as we learn more about the narrator, but which seem very ‘non-fiction’-esque when laid out so fully in a first page. Despite these significant issues, however, there are definite stirrings of a voice for this narrator.  Brave submitter, I think that if you use this first page as an exploration of your narrator’s voice and POV, then you have a solid foundation on which to build a compelling first page.
Specific Comments
Given the major concerns I raised in my overall comments, I thought the most useful feedback I could give was to highlight specific issues and recommendations in bold/italics throughout the text of this first page. I hope these will be received in the spirit in which they are intended – as honest and helpful feedback that our brave submitter can use to start drafting a great first page. Again, here goes!
INNOCENT TO A FAULT (Odd title choice – doesn’t really seem to mesh with the story outline that follows)
Thirty-three years ago, on a sunny October afternoon, driving a classic GTO that he’d just stolen from his neighbor’s carport, a teenager murdered our parents. (This first line has too many details and yet is still strangely distancing – my recommendation is to either start with a visceral/vivid flashback to that day 33 years ago, or start with a scene in which the narrator is reminded of this traumatic event. We need to be taken straight into a scene and shown the full impact of this event on the narrator’s life. At the moment everything is merely being told to us as readers.)
Celia was 18, Katie was 16, and I was 12 when the Springville police notified us about the horrible accident. (We have nothing to ground us in the scene or make us care about the narrator or his sisters – age specifics seem unnecessary when we can’t picture who any of these characters are) Because the kid was about my age, he was given a rap to the knuckles as punishment. At that devastating time, I didn’t know who I hated more—the delinquent for destroying so many lives, or the legal system for saying, “Boys will be boys.” (Too much telling. Let the reader see the scene in the courtroom when he was sentenced. You need to decide in this first page whether your scene is set in the past or the present – at the moment we’re just being told the backstory.)
Nana said the hate I felt harmed me more than anyone, so I tried keeping it in check. But I failed badly, mainly because I needed to feel something and since I couldn’t love my parents any longer, hate filled the void. (Too much telling. We don’t know anything about the family let alone the character of Nana. Show us why the narrator was harmed more than anyone. Have the story unfold about the failure and how hate filled the void.)
During those early days of loss, feeling more anger than a child ever should, I came to two conclusions. One, that sometimes hating a person feels good, no matter how self-destructive.  And two, people who hurt others should face punishment, with no excuses allowed. Or more simply, if they couldn’t do the time, they should not have done the crime. (Show us this and structure a scene to demonstrate this to us. A conversation between siblings perhaps on the anniversary of their parents death (?)…)
I know some will disagree, but I believe those who commit crimes are selfish to the core. They figure what they want is more important than what’s right. If selfish behavior could be obliterated, murders, thefts, rapes, all crimes would go down significantly. (This reads as an opinion piece not the opening to a novel)
My sister Celia is of a different mind. She believes sometimes good people do bad things, and each situation should have room for wiggle, which was why her daughter turned out the way she had. Reni had been wiggling out of trouble since puberty, with Celia always nearby, excuse in hand. (Again we’re just being told characters’ opinions and behavior. We need to inhabit a scene where this is shown to us. Maybe this first page has Reni and the narrator and his sister Celia at a family function where this plays out in terms of action and dialogue.) 
A few weeks ago Reni got involved in trouble that even Celia couldn’t justify. (Too vague.) The scheme was criminal, and it all hinged on me. (Again too vague – is it petty crime, is it murder? – could be anything.) I learned about the plot during an unexpected visit from my niece. (Let us see this visit. Let us see the confrontation. It sounds like it is the pivotal event which sets the story in motion so we have to see it.)
With little preamble, Reni presented me with two choices: commit a felony, which would keep my family safe, or refuse and see my family destroyed. (We need may more details about the family dynamics and characters to understand this. If this is the critical conflict in the novel we need dramatic build up and a real scene to see this play out…) It was then that I understood Celia’s wiggle room philosophy that sometimes a good person has only bad options. (Again we have no real sense of character yet so why as readers should we care about the narrator’s dilemma or Celia’s philosophy?)
I thought about those bad options—while being more scared than I’ve ever been in my life—and made my decision. (At this stage the reader has no idea why the narrator was scared or the basis for making the decision. We don’t even really understand the basis for the ‘bad options’ being presented. We need a real story presenting this dilemma in dramatic terms)
I don’t know if I would make the same choice today. (I like this as an end line but we need a scene before this that builds character and dramatic tension so it can resonate)
(end of Chapter 1) (I don’t understand this either – this is only a page – how can it be the end of Chapter 1 when nothing in dramatic terms has actually happened?)
 
So TKZers, I’d love to hear your guidance and feedback to help our brave submitter on his/her path to producing a great first page. Looking forward to seeing your comments!

Write Yourself a Power Blurb

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

As you know, I’m a fan of the old pulp magazines. They sold like hotcakes to a reading public that wanted their stories fast and entertaining. The key to sales of these mags was, first, an attention-grabbing cover. Since men were the primary readers, tough guys and fetching femmes were prominently featured. The imaginative Weird Tales, for example, specialized in scantily-clad women from other worlds.

Then it was up to the story titles and/or author names to close the sale. An intriguing title like Murder in the Ring or a popular name like Gardner, Chandler, Hammett, or Ballard would incentivize the buyer to part with two bits.

In the 1950s, covers got steamier. A trendsetter in this regard was Confidential Detective. The stories inside, accompanied by photos, were nonfiction (“Every Story True!” the cover blared). But the selling principle was the same. Grab with a cover, entice with a title and a blurb.

Check out this cover from April, 1960. Alluring blonde prominently featured. Titles appealing to our insatiable curiosity about the criminal mind, especially with a sex angle.

The table of contents for this issue had the following blurbs:

BIG-TIME MOBSTER AND THE BLONDE MURDER JINX
She was a gorgeous bundle of hard luck—especially to racket bosses and Murder, Inc. hoods. But Little Augie wasn’t scared—till the night her jinx worked on him.

SHE STABBED HIM—RATHER THAN SHARE HIM!
With a swift motion, she drove the knife into his chest—up to the handle. Then she yanked the phone from his hand and yelled to the blonde at the other end: “Listen to him moan…I killed him!”

BACK-DOOR LOVER’S DOUBLE-DEATH REVENGE!
Behind every blind in town, and in every bar—there were whispers about the judge’s pretty wife. Then, one night the gossip was confirmed—in bullets and in blood…

TORCH-SLAYING HELLCAT
The fire that ate her love rival’s body roared for hours, but it didn’t consume all the evidence of the blonde’s furious passions.

PARADE OF THE GRAVE-BOUND REDHEADS
One by one, Frankie promised his girls the moon—love, marriage…But when they tried to collect, he paid them off—in cold murder.

JEALOUS FURY KILLS THE NIGHT-CLUB HOSTESS
“Put down the gun,” she begged. “I’ll never, never look at another guy…”

“THE DAMES ALL DIE FOR ME!”
The startling story of a first-class heel who used lies, bigamy, even murder to keep his women in line.

There were marketing people for these mags whose main task was to come up with what I call “power blurbs.” What a job! Come into the office in Manhattan and hammer out a few headlines. Grab a three-martini lunch. Come back to the office, nap, write the subheads.

And it got me to thinking, what if I were tasked to come up with similar allurements for some famous novels? How would I entice the browser to make the purchase? Eschewing the martinis, I knocked out a few:

The Silence of the Lambs

“HE ATE A CENSUS TAKER FOR DINNER—AND I DON’T LIKE THE WAY HE’S LOOKING AT ME!”
The brilliant psychiatrist with a yen for human flesh tried to outfox a young FBI trainee who was haunted by dreams of slaughtered lambs. Was there any hope for this couple?

The Old Man and the Sea

MAN-EATING SHARKS SURROUNDED HIS BOAT—AND DEMANDED TO BE FED!
He was just a little old fisherman with the catch of a lifetime—but jaws of death weren’t going to let him keep it!

The Great Gatsby

OBSESSED WITH ANOTHER MAN’S WIFE!
“She’s mine, Old Sport,” he told his friend. “And I mean to get her back!”

1984

“THEY SAY HE’S MY BIG BROTHER, BUT HE WANTS TO MAKE ME HIS SLAVE!”
He thought two plus two made four—until they messed with his mind.

Then I gave it a whirl with one of my own:

Romeo’s Rules

THE BAD GUYS BET THEY COULD KILL HIM—SO HE MADE THEM PAY!
“I was tied up. My hands behind me. I was in a semi-fetal position on a hard floor. That’s when I got mad.”

It seems to me that writing out a power blurb can really help you nail the selling point of your novel. If you do this early in your writing it will keep you focused as you create your scenes. Or it can be used as a laser beam when it comes time to edit a first draft. Heck, you might even use it as the lead for your book description on Amazon. Why not? “WE WANT TO SELL BOOKS,” SAID THE AUTHORS GATHERED AT THE BAR. And they were willing to do just about anything to do it!

Anyway, it’s fun. Why don’t you try it? Give us a power blurb for a famous novel. Or one of your own if you like. Make us part with two bits!

Wood, Writing, and Wacky Ideas

by Steve Hooley

I love wood—growing trees, harvesting lumber, cutting firewood, making things out of wood. There’s no official name for a lover of wood, but someone proposed “lignophile” (ligno – Latin for wood + phile – Greek for love). That would be me.

I grew up in rural Ohio in a house on a wooded lot. As a boy, I roamed the woods, built a treehouse, mowed the trails, and repaired the fences. I didn’t realize how much my early years had affected me until I finished college and got married.

Being the typical newlywed with very little income, a family to provide for, and free furniture sitting on every curb for anyone to take, I began hauling old furniture home to my garage and repairing it. The style of our house was “early marriage.”

After a few years of doing this, I became interested in building my own furniture and began collecting tools. When I returned to my home community after medical school and residency, I began heating our house with firewood, cut, split, hauled, and stacked from the family woods.

Fast forward forty years, and I purchased the family property (house and 28-acre woods) from my parents. My wife and I now live in my enchanted forest, where I continue to be terminally afflicted with lignophilia.

We heat our house in the winter with firewood harvested during September and October. It is hard work, my wife continues to remind me, and we are getting older. But I enjoy keeping the house a toasty 74 degrees while the wind is blowing and the temperature outside dips below freezing. A heating bill of zero is a nice bonus.

I am always looking for easier ways to handle the firewood. We burn 8-9 cords a winter. That’s a lot of wood. And this year, because of above-average rain with soft soil and several windstorms, we’ve had five large trees blow down in our yard and on the forest trails, extra wood to cut, split, and stack.

I’ve cut up those trees into firewood, but I’m running out of places to stack it. And that introduces the topic of this post, experimentation and trying new ideas. I hate the extra time it takes to build an end to a wood stack (a crisscrossed, log-cabin-style, wood column). I’m eventually going to burn it, and then I have to build another one. What a waste of time. So, this year, I stacked the extra wood between trees. But I’m running out of trees in the wood-storage area.

And that’s when I tried a colossal, stupid experiment. I didn’t want to build any ends to brace the stack, so I thought, “Why not build the stack in a big circle? No ends, right?” So, I tried it.

Well, the stack reached about two feet. Because the circumference of the outside circle (created by the ends of the wood farther from the center) was greater than the inside circle (created by the ends of the wood closer to the center), the outer end of wood pieces dropped into gaps, and the pile started to lean.

Being a fan of experimentation, I was too stubborn to start over. “Let’s see what we can learn from “our mistake.” (I had now pulled my wife into my insane plot.) I began gradually moving subsequent layers in toward the center of the circle as I stacked higher to compensate for the leaning. Now my stack was starting to look like an igloo.

No, we couldn’t junk the idea and start over. We needed to finish what we started, learn any more lessons that could be gleaned from “our experiment.” So, we labored on.

The pile survived at 4-5 feet high without falling. We’ll see if it withstands the winter winds. The Roman arch is supposed to be a strong design element, right?

I was just beginning to close the circle, when my wife said, “How are you going to get inside the circle to put the tarp on and off the wood?”

Oh, yeah, I hadn’t thought of that. I should have put in two posts (creating an entry into the circle) that the pile could lean against on either side. But I might as well have dug a post hole at either end of a long straight pile, and I was too lazy for that. That was the whole purpose, to save time, right? And then another idea hit me. I could put in an open box structure—open on both ends to walk through, no digging required—so the wood could be stacked against both sides, supporting itself, and I would have a doorway into my magic garden.

My wife groaned. We left a “dip” in our pile at about two feet high so I could climb over it. I might yet build that box, maybe, unless I get another idea.

Bottom line, my genius circle of success, turned out to be a giant dome-shaped debacle. But…I had not given up. I stuck with my junker, wacky idea all the way to the bloody end, “learning” from my mistakes. Or as the politicians say when they’ve created a disaster, “We must investigate this, so we can prevent this failure in the future.” Right.

So, now to you, TKZ community. How far down the road that’s not working do you drive your clunker of an idea before you abandon it and scurry off to the new manuscript lot? Do you hang in there, try to repair the clunker, and see what you might learn from a “failed experiment?” Or, do you quickly trade in the old beast for a shiny new one?

Tell us about one of your “failed” experiments. Catharsis is good for the soul.

Chatting With The Pros

By John Gilstrap

Top left is Ann Hawkins of John Hawkins & Associates. Center bottom is my editor, Michaela Hamilton of Kensington Publishing.

I don’t think I’ve posted this here already, but if so, it’s probably worth another look from people who are interested in an insider’s view of the traditional publishing game. In this video from my YouTube channel, I sat down with Anne Hawkins, my agent, and Michaela Hamilton, my longtime editor at Kensington Books to get industry professionals’ views on the kinds of topics that are often discussed here on The Killzone.

I thought it was a bit of a coup to get everyone together at once, so the video is admittedly a bit long, but I also think it’s well worth the time. If you want to jump around, here are links to the individual topics:

00:00 Introduction

02:00 Do editors and agents work well together?

04:09 Managing author expectations

05:16 Do publishers nurture new authors?

08:33 The slush pile: What happens with unsolicited manuscripts?

10:16 Do authors need agents?

10:53 Deal points: the author’s advance is only one consideration

12:53 Deal breakers, clients from hell, & you’ve got to do your research

16:12 Traditional publishing is starving for new writers

19:09 What it means for an author to have a platform?

23:20 Are conferences important?

I hope you find something useful in the video. If nothing else, you can watch really great people hanging out with me.

How To Properly Introduce
Your Protagonist

Pleased to meet you! Hope you guess my name.
But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.
— The Rolling Stones, Sympathy For The Devil

By PJ Parrish

Life is a cocktail party, as Mike Jagger once sang. So is fiction when it comes to introducing your protagonist. (tortured metaphor alert. More to come.) I’ve noticed a trend in our First Page Critique submissions of late. Our submitting writers are having trouble introducing their main characters to their readers.

Most recently, James dealt with this issue in his Sunday critique of a self-described “comic noir” submission titled The Book Shop. James wrote:

The narrator is passive. Maybe that’s intended at the start, but at least give him some feeling—annoyance, aggravation, mad because his wife left him—anything. (Note: We don’t know what sex the narrator is, and that’s a problem. I’ll assume for discussion purposes that it’s a man. But do something on this page to clue us in.)

I had exactly the same reaction on the two points James mentions. First, I assumed the narrator was a woman! Which tells you there is a very basic problem. And second, as James says, the narrator is passive in feelings and thought. And the other character, the old woman, is vividly drawn, which intensifies the problems.

Maybe this post is going to sound too basic for some of you. But I think we need to review how to properly introduce your protagonist. This came up in a thread on my Facebook feed recently. Here’s some interesting comments from both readers and writers:

  • Mary Ellen Hughes: I tend to get a mental image pretty quickly. Some physical description will come into that mental image, but other parts get ignored. And I can’t tell you which parts my brain picks up on and which it doesn’t. My only request, as a reader, is that you give me a hint quickly. Don’t tell me on p 250 that the MC is a short redhead if you haven’t told me that before — b/c she’s already a tall blonde to me.
  • Anonymous reader: I like getting a few clues, especially about things like height and weight that will affect their ability to do certain things or anything that would make them stand out in a crowd.
  • Barb Goffman: As a reader, I don’t love a lot of description. I often will find that even with description, the image I get of a character in my mind is different. What I often tell my clients is to very early on, when we first meet a character, tell the reader one memorable thing about the character’s appearance. And let the reader decide the rest for themselves. Too much detail annoys me. About the third time you describe your character’s “startling turquoise eyes” as being “startling” and “turquoise,” I’m going to get a little techy. I like a moderate amount of details.
  • Steve Liskow: Behavior is much more important than description, unless you’re talking about a giant or a dwarf. I submitted a story to a market last week, and only as I was writing the email, did I realize that not only did my character have no description (except male, by implication), he didn’t even have a name.

So how do you do a proper how-do-you-do? It’s not as easy as you might think. Consider first, what point of view you’re working in. If you’re using first person, you are greatly limited in what you can describe because everything must be filtered only through your protagonist’s “camera.” But there are pitfalls even in third-person POV.

Now, not all books open with the protagonist. Some might have a prologue or an opening chapter say, from the villain’s POV. But whenever your protag does appear, you must establish two things immediately:

  • Gender
  • Name

Here’s another thing that bugs me. Gender-neutral unisex names are popular now. Especially in fiction. So if you’ve chosen a first name like Blair, Casey or Jordan, you darn well better be clear if it’s a he or she. I just finished Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel. Loved it more than I can say, but the first chapter is titled “Vincent In The Ocean” and it took me at least four chapters to get used to the conceit that Vincent is a woman. (a rather twee reference to the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay).  Don’t be coy about this, please. It just annoys readers.

So how do your gracefully slip in your protag’s name? Third person is no problem, just slip it in as soon as possible. I always put “Louis Kincaid” somewhere on my first page. But for Heart of Ice, he doesn’t show up until chapter two:

He stood at the railing of the ferry, the sun warm on his shoulders but the spray on his face cold.

Twenty-one years ago he had stood at the bow of a ferry much like this one. Then, the air had been filled with the smell of diesel but now the ferry left nothing in its wake but a plume of white water and shimmering rainbows.

Then, it had all been about leaving behind the ugly memories of his foster homes in Detroit and going “Up North” to the magic island just off the tip of the Michigan mitten. It had been about eating all the fudge his stomach could hold, seeing a real horse up close and racing the other foster kids around the island on a rented Schwinn.

Now, it was all about her.

Louis Kincaid looked down at Lily. She was peering toward the island so he couldn’t see her face. But he didn’t need to. He knew what this trip meant to her. He wondered if she had any idea what it meant to him.

Only seven months ago had he found out he was a father. It had been a shock, but from the moment he saw Lily he was grateful Kyla had not done what she had threatened to do that night in his dorm room. He could still hear their angry words.

Hers—I’ll get rid of it.

And his—Go ahead.

He looked down again at Lily’s crinkly curls.

Thank God…

This book is about Louis connecting with the daughter he didn’t know he had. So I felt compelled to go a little heavy with backstory to “introduce” both Louis and Lily. But this is all you get. The forward plot takes over.

But first person is much harder. One graceful way is to deal with it in dialogue via a second person. James does this in his first book Romeo’s Rules on the first page:

She put out her hand. “Nell,” she said.

“Mike,” I said.

“Happy to meet you Mike. Except…”

“Yes?”

“You don’t look like a flower man.”

“What do I look like?”

“A football player, maybe?”

Name. Gender. Done. And a nice little physical descriptive detail to boot. Harlan Coben uses this technique often. Here’s an example from The Woods.

You can also be direct as Sue Grafton famously did in her opening of chapter one, book one:

My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the State of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday, I killed someone and the thought weighs heavily on my mind.

Likewise, Jack Reacher needs no introduction. Yet Lee Child is always careful to insert the guy’s name at the get-go. Although we have to add a caveat here: In Killing Floor, Child switches to first person for Reacher and we never get his name. When you’re a international bestseller with 25 books under your belt, you can do this, too.

In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn is working in first person, toggling between husband Nick Dunne and Amy Dunne POVs. She titled each chapter with their names. This obvious ploy works mainly because she is also using a ticking-clock timeline with the fake abduction. Not recommended for beginners.

Another thing to establish as early as possible: exact age or age-range of your protag. And you should begin to establish the world view, education level or sophistication (or lack). Readers want to bond with and root for your protag and the sooner you can give them elements to grab onto, the better.

What should you not do when introducing your character?

  • Too much physical description. A nice hint, as James does with Mike Romeo above, is always good. We get a quick visual that Romeo is a muscular kinda guy. That’s enough to tweak our interest. But don’t get bogged down in this too early.
  • Too much backstory. I gave you my own example from Heart of Ice above as an example that is borderline maybe too much. But I thought it important to clarify Louis’s anxious feelings toward his daughter. Think of backstory as going to a cocktail party. When a stranger introduces himself to you do you want to hear this?

Hello, my name is Norman Feckless. I’m a really successful gynecologist with a practice in LA. But I grew up in Fresno and I can’t tell you what a hell hole that was. God, you should meet my mother… Nothing like my wife Janet. Janet is hot, man. But I meet a lot of gorgeous women in my line of work. In fact, I married three of my patients. Of course, not all at once. Did I mention that Janet left me last month? Just ran off with her yoga instructor, Nancy. I got to keep her cat, though. That damn cat hates me…

Another issue to consider — ethnicity. My protag Louis Kincaid is biracial. It is pertinent to his character arc and in a couple books directly figures in the plot. But via reader feedback, I found over the years that if I don’t somehow slip this fact in early, readers feel misled. I recently did a critique for charity and in 30 pages, the writer failed to convey the fact that her protagonist was Black. I mention this only because race was directly related to her plot, especially in the tense interactions with her white husband. Is “white” now a vestigial default in fiction? Given the dazzling and expanding range of ethnicity of crime fiction protagonists, do we still need to mention it? I would like to hear what you all think about dealing with this.

Last point, and this goes back to the problem James had with his First Page submission: It is important, when introducing your protag, that he or she not be a cipher. In the submission, the secondary character, an older chubby chatty woman is well drawn with idiosyncratic dialogue and description. The protag, by comparison is pale and emotional impotent.

I was engaged by the seal woman. The poor soul with no name — well, he’s that guy lurking alone in the shadows with a scowl and a glass of scotch.. Don’t leave your protag sitting on the sidelines. Introduce him with a few good lines and get the party going.

Monday Tips and LOLs

I should’ve had a first page critique for you today, but it’s my birthday, you see, and I gave myself the gift of time. By that I mean, rather than juggle nine million tasks, I spent an uninterrupted Friday, Saturday, and Sunday morning inside my fictional world (except for a quick trip to TKZ to read Rev’s top-notch advice about agents and JSB’s superb first page critique). Sunday afternoons I reserve for football. 😉

Most of last week I spent redesigning my website and Murder Blog. Then tweaked it to death in between working on the WIP, engaging on social media, marketing, newsletters, virtual events, updating email subscribers and SEO, etc. etc. etc. So, allowing myself to pull away from it all, crawl into my writer’s cave, and block out the world freed my soul.

Today’s dedicated to birthday shenanigans. If the sun parts the storm clouds, Bob and I will head to one of my favorite places—Squam Lakes Natural Science Center—for a relaxing stroll through the wildlife trails. It’s the simple things in life that bring the most joy. Don’t you agree?

I’ve got two writer tips to share, then let’s party with a few Monday morning laughs. Sound good? Cool, let’s do this…

NEWSLETTER TIP

If someone Unsubscribes from your email list, be sure to Archive their name. Mailchimp and other email providers still charge you whether or not that person ever receives another newsletter. You’re billed for Contacts, not Subscribers. Technically, the person who Unsubscribed is still considered a Contact. They can’t charge for Archived Contacts.

WEBSITE/BLOG TIP

Poor SEO (Search Engine Optimization), an outdated design, lost backlinks, broken links, and/or a slow or unresponsive website theme murders organic traffic. If bot crawlers aren’t happy, they might skip your site, and all the years you’ve spent writing content will be wasted. Did you know most people read blogs on handheld devices? I am not one of them, but the experts swear it’s true.

ZOOM TIP

HOUSEHOLD TIP

Umm, about five minutes ago. Did you know this?

UNEXPECTED OBSERVATION

SAD, BUT TRUE

WRITER PROBLEMS

I plead the fifth, Your Honor. 😉

AND MY PERSONAL FAVORITES

Who can relate?

Feel free to steal any of these for your social media. Hope you have an amazing week!

via GIPHY

Don’t Gild Your Lilies

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s first page comes to us, it appears, from across the pond. The author identifies it as “Comedic Noir.” Let’s have a look at it, and discuss:

 

The Bookshop

I step over a shard of a broken concrete paver, its exposed edge a looming obstacle in the fine drizzle.

A raincoat-clad woman is leaning in against the shop front window. Rain water runs in rivulets off her black mac, the gloss and her shape, has me thinking of a wet seal. Her hands cup her eyes and she peers into its shadowed recesses. Red ankle socks cut into her stout doughy legs. It’s mere idle curiosity I’m sure. After all, the advert, secured by a rusty drawing pin to the general dealer notice board, was curling and crisp with age. Nobody’s been interested in these premises for a while. 

She startles at a squeal from the sole of my sneaker and jumps back guiltily.

‘Oh my goodness, where’d you pop up from? I didn’t hear you.’ Her voice is grumbly and hoarse, sort of Nina Simone.

‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to alarm you.’ I approach the door and fish the key out of my pocket.

‘Ah, you’re opening up. Great, I’d like a mosey inside. Any idea of the rental? I should’ve asked Daisy.’

‘I’m hoping to sign a lease on it.’ It comes out harsher than I’d intended, sort of snobby and possessive. I do know the monthly rental, but I don’t want to compete with anyone for occupancy. I unlock and push the door. It doesn’t budge. It’s wedged closed with months of accumulated dirt and rotten leaves. I scoop the slimy vegetation away with the toe of my shoe and push again.

‘Here, let me.’ She clutches the handle and puts her shoulder on the frame of the door giving a grunt and a heave. It swings open, taking her with it.

She stands inside, legs and arms akimbo, blocking my access. ‘Spiffy. Plenty of space. Ooh, I like the one raw brick wall, gives character. I can work with that.’

I could shove past her but she’s dripping water like a beached walrus. I clear my throat.

‘Oh sorry.’ She steps aside and makes her way to the right where there’s a wooden counter with pewter coloured cupboards. They contrast well with the red brick of wall.

A pungent mustiness of damp tickles my nose. I hear her opening and banging the doors but I’m drawn to the windows at the rear. They’re splattered with raindrops and the splotches of countless dead midges but when cleaned, they’ll give a great view of the village green. I can picture fellow bibliomaniacs curled in chunky armchairs, soaking up the view and the late afternoon sun.

She’s hollering to me. ‘Any idea about the wiring?’

Who is this woman? 

JSB: Let’s mention the POV off the bat. Obviously it’s First Person Present. We recently discussed this, so I’m not going to go over the same ground. As long as the writer has considered the pros and cons, I don’t have a problem with the choice. I’ll only mention that for fans of classic noir it might be a slight speed bump.

Overall, the scene is mildly interesting. But we don’t want mild in an opening page. We want to be grabbed and pulled in. I’d love to see more conflict here—more attitude, more intensity. The narrator is passive. Maybe that’s intended at the start, but at least give him some feeling—annoyance, aggravation, mad because his wife left him—anything. (Note: We don’t know what sex the narrator is, and that’s a problem. I’ll assume for discussion purposes that it’s a man. But do something on this page to clue us in.)

You, dear author, have an obvious felicity with words. But felicity can get you into trouble if you don’t watch it. I’m going to be tough on you because I know you can write. So hang in there!

In Shakespeare’s play King John, Salisbury says:

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily…
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

Somehow that’s come down to us as “gild the lily,” probably because it sounds better (I don’t think Bill S. would mind). It means to dress up what is already beautiful, to add a layer that is not only unnecessary, but actually dilutes the intended effect.

This piece has several such instances. The good new is that there’s an easy fix. It’s called the delete key, and the benefits are immediate.

I step over a shard of a broken concrete paver, its exposed edge a looming obstacle in the fine drizzle.

We already know a shard is something broken. We know that if he steps over it, it has to be exposed. We also know that drizzle, by definition, is fine. All those adjectives are gilding the lily. They weigh the sentence down. That’s fatal, especially for noir. Here’s the rework: I step over a shard of concrete paver, its edge a looming obstacle in the drizzle.

Much stronger, but there’s still more work to do. I’m not enamored of looming obstacle. For one thing, it isn’t looming. It’s right there under his foot. Nor is it much of an obstacle if a guy can just step over it.

Here’s a radical idea: ditch the whole thing. This opening line doesn’t add anything to the scene to come. In good noir style, let’s start with the woman!

A raincoat-clad woman is leaning in against the shop front window. Rain water runs in rivulets off her black mac, the gloss and her shape, has me thinking of a wet seal.

We know that shop windows are in front. Cut front.

We know that rain is water. Cut water.

The second sentence is compound, and the second comma is misplaced.

The word leaning is also puzzling. You tell us in the next sentence that she’s peering. But leaning could mean resting her head on the glass because she’s tired, etc.

You can clear up everything this way: A raincoat-clad woman is peering through the shop window. Rain runs in rivulets off her black mac. The gloss and her shape has me thinking of a wet seal. Red ankle socks cut into her doughy legs.

You’ll notice I cut the word stout because that’s the same as doughy. Don’t gild the lily—or the legs!

It’s mere idle curiosity I’m sure.

Cut mere, for that is what idle curiosity is by definition. You also need a comma after curiosity. Or you could write, I’m sure it’s idle curiosity.

After all, the advert, secured by a rusty drawing pin to the general dealer notice board, was curling and crisp with age. Nobody’s been interested in these premises for a while.

A couple of things jolt me here. After all sounds like an expression directed to the reader, rather than the flow of narrative. Also, you lapse into past tense with was curling. And the two sentences seem on the wrong side of each other. I’d suggest: Nobody’s been interested in these premises for a while. The advert, secured by a rusty drawing pin to the general dealer notice board, is curling and crisp with age.

She startles at a squeal from the sole of my sneaker and jumps back guiltily.

Do we really need guiltily? How does he know it’s guilt and not just surprise? Anyway, any adverb here dilutes the strong picture of her jumping back. Let the action itself do the work.

‘Oh my goodness, where’d you pop up from? I didn’t hear you.’

You can gild dialogue, too! After her first statement we don’t need her to say I didn’t hear you. Plus, she just jumped back at his approach. We saw that she didn’t hear him.

Her voice is grumbly and hoarse

Grumbly and hoarse are virtually synonymous. Choose one.

sort of Nina Simone.

Okay, we have to talk about this. Normally, I’m okay with a few pop culture references, so long as they are easy to identify and help set the tone.

But how many current readers, unless they are jazz aficionados, know Nina Simone?

And when I think of her music I picture Nina at a piano singing deep and soulful blues in a smoky café. That is directly opposite the impression I get from a doughy-legged woman crying, “Oh my goodness, where’d you pop up from?”

In short, this is an old and obscure reference, and works against the comic-noir tone you’re trying to create.

‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to alarm you.’ I approach the door and fish the key out of my pocket. 

Give the guy some attitude. Create tension. E.g., ‘You mind telling me what you want here?’

‘Ah, you’re opening up. Great, I’d like a mosey inside. Any idea of the rental? I should’ve asked Daisy.’

Ack! He’s going toward the door with a key. We don’t need her to tell him (or us) ‘Ah, you’re opening up.’

‘I’m hoping to sign a lease on it.’ It comes out harsher than I’d intended, sort of snobby and possessive.

Again, too passive. Let’s have some attitude, e.g., ‘I’m going to sign a lease, if that’s what you’re thinking.’ Then you wouldn’t need to gild it by telling us it’s snobby and possessive.

I unlock and push the door. It doesn’t budge. It’s wedged closed with months of accumulated dirt and rotten leaves.

I’m unsure of the physics here. Are “months” of dirt and leaves enough to wedge a door closed? And even so, if they’re on the outside and the narrator is pushing inward, where is the wedge?

‘Here, let me.’ She clutches the handle and puts her shoulder on the frame of the door giving a grunt and a heave. It swings open, taking her with it.

If she’s swept inside, her shoulder wouldn’t be pushing the frame, but the door itself.

‘Oh sorry.’ She steps aside and makes her way to the right where there’s a wooden counter with pewter coloured cupboards. They contrast well with the red brick of wall.

The word well, like the word very, should almost always be cut. Too bland. Also, that little of doesn’t do anything. Just write: They contrast with the red brick wall.

A pungent mustiness of damp tickles my nose.

Mustiness already implies damp, so the of damp is gilding the lily. The sentence is sharper without it.

Man! Seems like a lot of cutting, doesn’t it? But that’s what excellent writing often comes down to—trimming the fat for leaner and meaner prose (especially important in noir.)

Now let me end this on an upbeat note! I like the way the page ends:

I hear her opening and banging the doors but I’m drawn to the windows at the rear. They’re splattered with raindrops and the splotches of countless dead midges but when cleaned, they’ll give a great view of the village green. I can picture fellow bibliomaniacs curled in chunky armchairs, soaking up the view and the late afternoon sun.

She’s hollering to me. ‘Any idea about the wiring?’

Who is this woman? 

It’s a nice contrast between the narrator’s vision and the sudden hollering of the woman. Your description here of the splotches and midges and chunky armchairs is solid. You need a comma after midges, but I’d suggest making two sentences out of it: They’re splattered with raindrops and the splotches of countless dead midges. When cleaned, they’ll give a great view of the village green.

As I said up top, writer friend, you have a way with words and promise as a writer. I suggest you write your pages, then come back the next day and look for those gilding-the-lily spots. Pay special attention where you’ve used two adjectives in the same sentence. Almost always cutting one of them makes the writing stronger.

Thanks for your submission. Now let’s hear from the TKZers.

Fishing For That Agent, Part Deux

So there I was at my inaugural writers conference back in 2011, sitting in the audience at Sleuthfest gathering in Florida, waiting for a panel to begin. I’d met John Gilstrap the day before and we closed down the bar (the first of many…and I mean many bars), and was sucking down a large coffee to absorb some kind of food for the brain.

Another swallow of scalding coffee. It was some kind of flavored stuff, but that didn’t matter, because I’d scalded my tastebuds with the first sip, so the black liquid was essentially flavorless.

Panelists drifted up to the front and took their seats. A gentleman on the front row opened a tripod and attached a video camera (yeah, it was ten years ago). I watched with interest as he dug out a stack of notebooks and settled himself in for the event.

The room filled. The panel on finding an agent began. I wondered why I was there. I’d just met my new agent, the one John said I needed to fire, so I didn’t need to be in there, but I couldn’t help myself.

I wanted to hear what Miss Lily had to say (of course that’s not her name, but I have to call her something). She was a presence in the bar the night before and people gathered around as she held court, but I was too green to join in, so I figured that she’d have plenty to say in that session.

The moderator barely had enough time to welcome everyone when the back door opened and a tardy Miss Lily blew in and made an entrance.

How do I say this delicately…humm.

Somewhere around six feet tall, she had a mane of dark hair, and wore oversize, comfortable clothes that were accessorized by lots of concealing scarves and big earrings. She came down the aisle like an expressive train.

Miss Lily took control of the conversation, and fielded dozens of questions as the hour progressed. I had a hundred questions, but the session recessed, leaving me reeling and feeling as if I’d been drinking from a firehose. With John’s previous recommendation about putting Starter Agent in a shallow grave, I was already wondering if I’d made a mistake.

I was in over my head.

The next panel didn’t interest met, and since I it was around two in the afternoon there in Florida, I wanted to absorb a little sunshine. The hotel had apparently learned their lesson and the bar was open. Taking my drink, I found a shaded table beside the swimming pool and settled in to ponder this new career.

That’s when Miss Lily blew through the doors and into my serene world. Cigarette and highball glass in one hand, and a cell phone in the other, she paced the pool, sending out great puffs of smoke and talking somewhere around AC/DC decibels.

She noticed that I was near the deep end of the pool, and established her territory near the shallow water. After ten minutes, and half a dozen cigarettes, she ended the call and shot me a look.

I gave her a smile in return.

She took a table several yards away and lit another.

I waved. “You can join me if you like.”

“No, thanks. I’m smoking.”

“The wind is in your direction. It won’t bother me.”

The Hairy Eyeball. “No, thanks.”

“Look, I know you’re an agent. Heard you inside a few minutes ago, but I won’t pitch to you. I already have an agent. I’d just like to talk about the business for a little while and get to know people. I’m on a learning curve since I recently sold my first manuscript. Come on. Sit down.”

A beat.

A second beat.

A third beat, and she gathered up a pack of toonies, cell phone, and a purse big enough to hold a case of beer. “All right.”

She joined me and noted my hat that was resting crown down on the table. “You a cowboy? You write westerns?”

“I’ve cowboyed some. I’m from Texas, but I don’t write westerns.”

We introduced ourselves and she lit another. “So what do you want to know?”

“So much I’m not sure where to begin.”

We talked for the next forty-five minutes or so, about writing and her end of the business. She told me how to write a query letter, though I didn’t need that particular bit of info, then we drifted on to our lives and exchanged brief histories.

My glass was empty, and so was hers, when conversation kinda dried up. “I need another drink.” I stood. “Can I get you one?”

“Sure.” She opened her purse.

“I’ll get it.”

“No. Men don’t buy me drinks, and especially writers.”

“Like I said, I’m from Texas. I’ll get it.”

Half expecting her not to be there when I returned, I crossed the patio. “Here you go.”

She took the glass and peered at me over the rim. “So, what’s your manuscript about?”

“It’s a historical mystery.”

“Tell me about it.”

*

Now, in the shade of an oak fifty years earlier, my Old Man taught me how to fish. Sitting by a lazy creek, he cast a bright top water lure. “Bass like things that are big and flashy. The idea is to throw your lure out into a likely looking place and watch it splash down. Be patient. Let the ripples expand and disappear until the lure is still.”

I’d unconsciously pitched out a big, flashy lure to Miss Lily. “Can’t tell you about my book.”

“Why not?”

“I said I wouldn’t pitch to you.”

*

The Old Man’s lure drifted slowly with the current. The rings expanded and disappeared. He shifted the chew in his cheek. “Then you give that lure a twitch. If nothing happens, give it a second twitch a few seconds later.

If you’re lucky, the water will explode when that big ol’ bass blows up from underneath.

*

“Who’s your agent?”

I told Miss Lily.

“I’ve never heard of her. You should get someone with more experience.”

“Someone’s already told me that.”

“They’re right. Get someone in New York. Like me. So what’s your book about again?”

*

The bass that had been eyeing the Old Man’s lure launched itself toward the surface. The water exploded and it grabbed the lure. “Then you set the hook!” He yanked on the rod and the fish was his.

*

It was at that moment that understanding dawned on me in Florida that day. I’d pitched out a lure, and Miss Lily couldn’t stand it. She wanted it, and struck. But unlike fishing, I wouldn’t set the hook.

“Said I wouldn’t pitch to you. I keep my word to people. I was raised by folks and grandparents who borrowed money from the bank on a handshake. That sense of honor reaches into many corners.”

She frowned, not understanding. “I’d consider representing you. If you write like you speak, I can market that voice.”

“I’m honored. And two or three months ago, we’d get serious about this, but I’ve signed with someone else. You understand.”

She didn’t. Miss Lilly spent the next two days working on me, trying to get me to pitch my manuscript. I was polite, but turned her down, the same way I’ve done it in the years since. Every time I run into her at a conference, we talk and she invariably asks me to send her something if my current agent and I part ways.

So, like I said in my post a couple of weeks ago, do your research, talk to agents if and when the opportunity presents itself, but don’t come roaring in with pitches in inopportune places. Go to the bar, or the pool, or anywhere we gather and meet those agents. Talk to them. Get to know them. They’re hammered on a daily basis by hopeful writers. Be restrained, but have that pitch polished and shiny and ready when they ask.

Then throw out that lure and give it a twitch.