Thursday, 26 May 2011

Here's the good news - you do learn as you write!

I'm editing one of my old unpublished books for e-book, and it's interesting to discover lots of craft points that I now bring up with writers starting out.  Most obvious of these is viewpoint again.

First off, there are too many extra viewpoints (though I will have to hang on to a couple as I don't want to wholly rewrite the story).  Second, there is head-hopping like mad.  Third, the viewpoint when there is not polished.

A common mistake on the latter:  characters allegedly in viewpoint are spoken of as if someone else is talking - eg "a reminiscent smile rose to his lips".  No!  He can't see himself smile.  He can only feel the reminiscence, and if he smiles, he smiles.  It's in viewpoint, it has to be active.  We are not in the smile's viewpoint!

In essence, this type of writing is authorial.  In other words, it's author intrusion - telling the reader, which makes it passive, rather than showing it in the character's head/heart, which is active.  The result is to distance the reader from the character.  Head-hopping has the same effect because the reader has to switch identity from one character to the other.  This is why most writing advice suggests keeping one scene to one character's viewpoint.

I'm not going to be able to iron out all these errors, but I'm doing as much as I can without getting into major rewrites on the story.  What's good about it is that all these years down the line I've learned the craft so well I can spot this stuff easily.  And it isn't as if I've "studied" it.  I've just written and written and written.

So don't be dismayed if you are only on your third, fourth or even tenth book, and you still find you're making this sort of mistake.  (This particular book was in fact my 12th full length novel!)  You are learning and you will get to the point where you can do it fully in viewpoint almost without thinking.  And your writing will get better and better because you will pull your reader into the story and hold them there.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

You don't have to write in first person to write in viewpoint

This may be old hat to most, but I've recently helped someone with this problem, so it's worth going over it again for anyone who just doesn't know.  It's a craft point, and it's really simple.

Viewpoint, or being in the character's head, gives a story immediacy.  Even though you are writing in the past tense, it feels to the reader as if everything is happening now. Your objective is to pull the reader in so that they are seeing, feeling and thinking along with the character.  Then you can inject "information" about actions and it doesn't interrupt the flow or the viewpoint.

Reduced to simplicity, you write just as if it was "I" but substitute "he" or "she" and add the character's name every so often for clarity.  Thus:

First person:  "I raced hell for leather down the alleyway, shoving aside without apology a kid wearing a hoodie.  I could just see the black-coated figure ahead of me.  If I could only get a spurt on, I'd overtake him in seconds."

Third person:  "He raced hell for leather down the alleyway, shoving aside without apology a kid wearing a hoodie.  He could just see the black-coated figure ahead of him.  If he could only get a spurt on, he'd overtake the guy in seconds."

Almost exactly the same, except for identifying "the guy" instead of "him" to save confusion because we already have several "he's" along the way.

Frankly, that's really all there is to maintaining viewpoint inside the character's head.  Too much is often made of viewpoint, but if you stick to this really simple formula, it's easy.  You've got action, thought,and characterisation in three sentences.  When things calmed down a bit, you could add feelings too, along with using the other senses.

Writing doesn't need to be complex, honestly. Stick to simplicity and you can't go wrong.