Q. You marked the phrase “the wounded man” in my manuscript and said it was a shift in viewpoint. Why?
A. Some point-of-view (POV) shifts are quite subtle but just as important to correct as any others. You’re telling your story In the first person, so only that one "I" person can have the POV in each scene, which is your main character Conrad. To maintain his POV, you must always say “I." The POV slips away from him when you refer to him as “the wounded man,” because he would not refer to himself that way (and neither would you if you were wounded). Only another person would do that. Therefore, you have shifted from first-person to third-person narration.
Q. I have seen point of view shifts within a scene in some novels, so why can’t I do that?
A. Yes, I’m sure you’ve seen POV shifts like that. I have, too, and it makes me a little crazy. Writers can get away with many viewpoint variations in the contemporary novel, but most people in the business agree that “head-hopping”—bouncing the POV around from one character to another in the same scene—is something to avoid. If I wrote a novel, I’d follow that rule, knowing that “feeding my reader” through a single consciousness is the most effective way to advance and unify the story and develop characterization and that it’s the best way to avoid reader confusion, thereby keeping that one-person audience focused and turning pages. Your writing in each scene should be confined to the single POV character’s sensory impressions, thoughts, emotions, and intentions—the last being narration where you might write something like:
He had to find out where the killer hid those photographs. They were the only clues usable in court.
Why do intrascene POV shifts occur in published material? Good question. Part of it, I’m sure, reflects the current state of the publishing industry, where first readers are only a memory, young, entry-level “editors” should have their job title in quotes, and many senior editors have become something more akin to administrators and marketers than editorial red pencil-pushers. In the case of big-name authors, I’m convinced that some manuscripts aren’t even read by editors let alone vetted thoroughly. Manuscripts submitted by lesser lights and newbies are certainly read and copyedited, but some things fall through the cracks. Editors in the mold of Max Perkins are, alas, all too few. It’s a sad state of affairs, but c’est la vie. All the more reason to work with a savvy, professional editor who can help you hone your writing skills and submit a well written and well edited manuscript. That's the mission statement of Thayer Literary Services.
A few writers head-hop and even scene-hop because that’s their style and because editors let them do it on purpose in their kind of book. See Tim Dorsey’s wild and wacky Florida novels, for instance.
Q. Is it possible to “oversanitize” a manuscript and erase an author’s voice and style?
A. I think so, yes. Just review any issue of the Reader’s Digest, where the rigorous editorial mill grinds out hamburger for the masses (and where, in my view, the process of “condensation” seems to be a general dumbing-down). My goal at Thayer Literary Services is to coach and encourage writers, to share what I’ve learned, and keep them out of the weeds as much as possible by communicating all I can about the craft of writing. The last thing I want to do is smother a voice or homogenize a unique style, and I don’t want writers to produce cookie-cutter novels. But at the same time I want my authors to fix anything that may get the manuscript rejected.
Q. Do you think I have an aptitude for writing fiction?
A. I think aptitude and talent are slippery words, much like beauty, love, honor, and other abstract terms. If aptitude means "a natural ability to do something," where did that ability come from? Genetic inheritance? Heaven? I think it's partly genetic, but only in the general way of being left-brained or right-brained. Some people work better with words, some with numbers. That just means that they are better equipped to work with one thing than the other. If given the opportunity and the choice, people will act accordingly. As far as I know, science has not isolated a writing gene. Writing is both craft and art. You can’t write well with only one or the other. You have to learn a craft before you can create art. If you want to be a painter, you must first learn the basics of drawing, color, perspective, etc., all the while carefully studying the works of other successful painters, past and present. To write well you have to "fill your toolbox," as Stephen King puts it. Without all the right tools, you can't get the job done. I think writers are better off concentrating on developing their craft rather than wrestling with the words talent and aptitude. When you have mastered the craft, your expertise will be perceived as talent.
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