Monday, March 1, 2010

Writing Pitfalls 1: POV

Read Before Writing
After reading many paranormal romance short story submissions, I need to share more content and style writing tips with Cliffhanger Books’ prospective authors. You will learn how to make your fiction come alive, flow better, be easier to read and satisfy your audience more.

POV Confusion
You may be tempted to write like you, the author, are summarizing a story you heard. Maybe you think you can address your audience directly as you. Perhaps you want to use the old-fashioned style of an omniscient narrator telling the story from every character’s point of view at the same time. Or you might think you can reveal everything a mobile movie camera sees from every angle and hears in multiple locations including everyone’s voice-over thoughts.

So you won’t feel alone, I used to write according to my last two statements. Through research and practice, I’ve updated my writing style. Read on to discover the current method of one character’s POV per scene.

Limiting yourself to one point of view at a time may seem confusing because you’ve read books with omniscient POV and narrators. Most have old publication dates before POV style changed. If you’ve read a recent book by a prolific famous author, he or she may still be using those outdated practices. While a new writer views this as unfair, a well-established author gains the right to break POV rules by sustaining a substantial fan base. And some publisher’s today still allow omniscient POV.

At Cliffhanger Books, we believe using a narrator distances readers from feeling a real emotional connection with characters. So for our submissions, please adhere to the following single-POV-per-scene rules.

Third person is the most versatile and prevalent POV because you can get into the heads of multiple characters. But write in just one person’s POV per scene. If that’s a challenge, realize that you’re used to this is real life when you interact with others. As the POV character in your life, you don’t know what others are thinking. But as an author, you can experience someone else’s POV in the next scene. Putting yourself in one character’s place per scene will help you reveal more senses, thoughts and reactions genuinely.

Writing in first person may make you think you are the “I” character, so you can interject your own opinions into the story. Instead, remain in that person’s POV. You may be tempted to write as he or she would in a diary. But stay in the moment instead of summarizing what happened earlier.

Become each POV person’s eyes, ears and senses. Mention only what he or she can see, hear, taste, smell and touch. That means this character can’t describe his or her own appearance. Don’t paint a word picture of what he or she sees in a mirror. That’s so overdone. Only another POV person in a separate scene can notice another’s appearance. Don’t mention things the POV character can’t see behind him or in another room. Likewise, don’t describe what he or she can’t hear while asleep or in a different room.

Besides the five senses, use the sixth sense of perception. Especially in a romance, readers want to know what the POV character thinks and feels. But don’t include anything that wouldn’t be running through his or her mind in that exact moment. Some paranormal characters get to have extra senses and powers, so get creative.

Instead of head hopping (switching between POVs in the same scene), the POV character can guess what everyone else thinks. Facial expressions, body language and tone of voice may reveal what’s in others’ minds and hearts. Writing as the POV character, you may use describe another’s appearance and say, “He/She seemed sad.” But don’t include anyone else’s thoughts or observations in the same scene.

Write in past tense, but don’t fall into the trap of sounding like you’re retelling a story you heard. Show; don’t tell. Keep the POV character in the moment in every scene — even when thinking or remembering. Such immediacy helps readers feel like they’re experiencing the story as it happens. Showing scenes as they occur is far more interesting and exciting than reporting what happened long ago. This approach allows readers to feel a stronger emotional connection with your characters. Since you know what’s going to happen, be careful not to let a character give something away before it transpires.

What’s Next?
Practice the writing tips in this and my other blog posts. Keep checking the Cliffhanger Books website for announcements of selected stories, publication dates and future anthologies in this and other genres.

Writing Pitfalls 2: Characters

Restrained Characters
For your story to ring true and hold your audiences’ interest, you must create well-rounded, believable characters who are expressive and evolve. Some submissions we’ve read approached characterization in limited ways. The following advice will help you reveal your characters’ personalities more so readers will connect with them better.

Character Confusion
One main couple and a few more minor characters integral to their relationship are enough for a short story. A large cast of extras who aren’t part of the plot will overwhelm readers. We’ll forget about ones who crop up seldom or appear just at the beginning and/or end. Give characters distinguishing names, appearances and personalities. You’ll confuse readers if you use such similar names as Rob, Rod and Ron or if multiple characters look or talk alike.

If you use an androgynous name, find an inconspicuous way to indicate if that character is male or female early. Also indicate each character’s age bracket if not exact number. Mentioning someone’s in college or has been working a certain number of years gives readers a general idea.

Not Introducing Characters
Find an appropriate way to introduce every character’s full name as he or she enters the story. Provide each person’s occupation or pertinent personal information early. Readers need to understand his or her function and relationship to others. But don’t state these facts like a narrator summarizing backstories. Work these details in subtly through thoughts and dialogue. Several stories I read had one or more characters who would have been confusing if I hadn’t already learned specifics from synopses. Make sure your story stands on its own without that summary.

In third person, don’t use “he,” “she” or “they” for the first reference in any scene. Establish the POV character by using that name first. After that, switch to “he” or “she” because this character wouldn’t refer to him or herself by name. Exception: Use the name as needed to differentiate between two characters of the same sex in the same scene. Don’t describe the POV character as “the handsome doctor” or “the voluptuous redhead” because he or she wouldn’t describe him or herself that way. Think as the POV character when you write his or her thoughts.

Introducing the POV character in first person can be awkward. I read some stories where I thought the unidentified “I” character was the opposite sex for several paragraphs or pages. That’s a basic fact readers need to know up front, so clear up that confusion. Don’t address readers by stating, “My name is ….” The POV character wouldn’t think that way. But he or she can make that type of introduction when meeting someone new. Or have someone else call the “I” character by name at the beginning. Otherwise, we’ll wonder who it is and if it’s male or female.

Limited Conflict
Without adequate conflict, your story won’t move forward, be interesting or keep readers wondering what will happen next. A tale that starts and ends with a happy couple on an even keel is a dull read. The two main characters need flaws and must grow as individuals before they can become a couple. Or they may be a former or current pair facing a challenge or crisis. Include some obstacle or conflict that keeps them apart and makes their future uncertain.

Your audience will keep reading to discover if they find love. Use the plot to overcome the dilemma or hindrance to bring them together by the end. You may opt for a tragic ending if their romance progressed before it.

Emotional Connection Missing
In every romance sub-genre including paranormal, the power of the heart helps fuel the main characters. That’s also one element that entices readers. But if you tell instead of show, your audience won’t develop an emotional connection with your characters. And we’ll think your couple doesn’t feel it either. So don’t report what characters do or let them rely on logic alone. Show us how they feel about what they and others do and say.

To make one-dimensional characters come to life, include heartfelt facial expressions, physical reactions and verbal responses. Don’t state that his touching words overwhelmed her with joy. Have her act that way (smile, sigh, hug or kiss him, say he made her feel special, etc.). When she reveals her innermost thoughts and emotions in her POV, readers feel them too. This also is true from the male’s perspective in his POV scenes.

Don’t let a character profess love or propose prematurely. Readers will feel cheated if you skip over the progression of a budding romance. If we haven’t seen their attraction grow into a serious relationship, we won’t believe this sudden leap forward. We need to feel and understand why they want to be together. If we don’t, we won’t care what happens to them. Readers want to get caught up in the gripping emotions along with the characters.

Think as the current POV character as you write. Go beyond describing what he or she sees and hears. Add tastes and smells in addition to how people and things feel to the touch. Make those details unique to each character. Then go deeper inward and delve into the POV character’s heart and mind. Flush out the characterization by using a wide range of senses for a richer, more personal and well-rounded portrayal. Readers will develop a personal investment in multi-dimensional characters who emote from within in dialogue, thoughts and actions.

What’s Next?
Practice the writing tips in this and my other blog posts. Keep checking the Cliffhanger Books website for announcements of selected stories, publication dates and future anthologies in this and other genres.

Writing Pitfalls 3: Common Mistakes

Forgetting Your Goal
The goal of paranormal romance fiction writing is to engage and entertain readers with a unique story, enthralling human and supernatural characters and an intriguing plot that touches the heart and haunts the mind. Do this in a suspenseful style that’s enjoyable to read, and you’ll hold their attention. But if you include outdated elements or novice mistakes, you’ll minimize the chance of your audience finishing and liking your story. Read on to learn how to avoid common writing pitfalls and please your audience.

Info Dump
To write a story about a paranormal entity, you do research to describe its special traits and powers. But if you interrupt a scene of action or dialogue to insert one or more paragraphs of description or facts, that’s info dump. Reporting the history of vampires or the powers of witches in the middle of an ongoing scene brings it to a screeching halt.

An out-of-context summary changes the tone, voice and focus, detracting from what’s happening in the present. When you digress, you stop writing as the POV character and start sounding like a narrator explaining a supernatural being’s abilities. Worst of all, this narrative pauses your characters’ interaction. The transitions before and after an info dump usually are awkward because the forced middle section takes readers out of the scene. None of this helps your audience keep its place in your story.

If you need to include some of those details, incorporate them through the POV character’s thoughts, dialogue and actions. Make sure that character really would think your exact words at that very moment so you don’t switch to a narrator-type voice.

Telling Backstory
You have a lot of information you want readers to know about your characters. But be careful how you present it. Years ago, an author used a narrator to summarize a character’s backstory. A long narrative might not have a setting or time period. It was a pre-story historical recap with countless facts and details. The non-character narrator would summarize/report/explain someone’s relationships and what had happened in that character’s life before the story began.

A form of info dump, unloading anyone’s past over paragraphs or pages prevents the scene and story from moving forward. Read the short example below. Then follow the advice to write as the POV character, and you’ll avoid this second technique that brings the present scene to a screeching halt.

“Sam Baker grew up in Boston and earned a Harvard law degree. He joined a prominent legal practice in New York City where he met Jill Hewitt. When he hadn’t proposed after three years of living together, she moved to London. He hasn’t dated since.” This boring recitation of past facts devoid of emotion sounds like a narrator imparting Sam’s backstory simply for the audience’s benefit. As the POV character, Sam knows his own history. So he wouldn’t summarize his life in his mind like an uninvolved outsider. You must keep all his thoughts believable.

The mark of a great modern fiction writer is devising artful ways to sneak in relevant past details without sounding like a narrator proclaiming them to get readers up to date. Sprinkle backstory snippets periodically through the POV character’s thoughts, memories and dialogue in subtle ways. Tease your readers by allowing a feeling, caring POV character to reveal ongoing tidbits of his personal life in genuine ways. And you’ll hook them until the end.

Lengthy Flashback
Current writers don’t use the flashback as much as our predecessors did. A long diversion to the past stops the momentum of the in-the-moment scene and forestalls the progression of your entire story. But if someone really needs to flash back to his or her past, keep it short. No one can recall a lengthy decades-old conversation word for word or what everyone wore and did.

The flashback works best when a character is alone with his or her own thoughts. Or instead of replaying a pre-story scene, have the character use in-the-moment memories and thoughts to make decisions about his or her life. Like info dump and telling backstory, the flashback puts the brakes on the driving force of your story. So keep it brief if you can’t present that scene in the present. Transitions before and after a flashback may sound awkward, so make sure readers can follow the shift back and forth in time.

Before including a flashback with two characters, realize how the scene plays out in the present. The one reliving an earlier time in his or her head for pages appears to ignore the other. This puts any interaction between them on hold. So this is the third way you can bring the current situation to a screeching halt. While one reflects, the other is bored or worse because nothing is happening in the present.

Unless you want to portray the daydreamer as insensitive, this type of flashback is a poor choice. If the lost-in-the-past character treats the other as invisible for a long time, the neglected person shouldn’t be in that scene. You’re better off keeping the action and conversation moving. Try turning the memories the flashback generates into dialogue. If the character can’t reminisce aloud in conversation, he or she should be somewhere in seclusion to reflect alone.

Setting and Time Period Vagueness
Establish the setting and time period early in your story. Make any changes clear at the beginning of each subsequent scene. If you use an actual place, make sure all references are accurate. And just because you know a real setting well, don’t assume all readers will too. Years ago, novels began with lengthy descriptions of the setting long before any action or dialogue. Today, describing characters’ surroundings isn’t as important as their interactions and relationships. Every single scene requires a setting. Even in a short scene when someone is thinking or remembering, place your character somewhere specific at a particular time.

If you stated in a 2009 story that a 25-year-old character was born in 1984, the math doesn’t add up in 2010 or later. Instead of specifying a year, supply current references like cell phones, internet, satellite TV, etc. to indicate modern times. For historical periods, mention outdated things like corsets, oil lamps or Model Ts. Work in the month or season directly or through weather references. Unless you invent a new universe, realism will resonate with readers.

What’s Next?
Practice the writing tips in this and my other blog posts. Keep checking the Cliffhanger Books website for announcements of selected stories, publication dates and future anthologies in this and other genres.

Writing Pitfalls 4: Style

Minimizing the Importance of Style
You may reduce the impact and likability of a great story idea by being lax in its execution. If your unpolished style makes readers try too hard to figure out what you’re expressing, you may lose them. Follow basic style, grammar and punctuation rules to create prose that’s easier to read and understand.

Too Many Elements in One Paragraph
Cramming too much in one paragraph has been a big problem in many submissions we’ve read. This can confuse readers. Separate elements to simplify interpretation for your audience. People will give up if they can’t figure out who’s talking, thinking and acting.
• Put each person’s dialogue in a separate paragraph.
• Limit descriptions of a character’s thoughts, actions or observations in his or her dialogue paragraph. Put long details of each of these three elements in separate paragraphs.
• Never include one character’s thoughts, actions or observations in someone else’s dialogue paragraph.
• Attribute dialogue occasionally.
• Shorten too-long paragraphs. When you write in our digest-size format, you see how long paragraphs will be when published. A page with just one or two excessively long paragraphs looks like a daunting task for the reader.

Style, Grammar and Punctuation Mistakes
• Change scenes after a time lapse in the present, when moving to different location and when changing POV.
• Strive for a balance between dialogue, actions, thoughts, feelings and observations.
• Don’t mention anything that you don’t tie up by the end.
• Characters need to react to what others’ say and do.
• In third person, don’t use “I” when expressing a character’s thoughts. That’s clear in that POV.
• Don’t follow someone’s thoughts with: , she thought. That’s clear in her POV.
• Divide run-on sentences into easier-to-digest sections. Don’t just add a comma and keep on going for multiple lines.
• I saw lots of subsequent sentences starting with the same word. Repetitious words and sentence structure make your writing sound stilted.
• Watch out for passive voice. Things don’t just happen; someone or something has to enact them. Readers feel a stronger connection when characters behave, relate and think actively.
• Subjects and verbs must agree. Make sure a plural noun doesn’t have a singular verb or vice versa. Don’t refer to one person as they.
• Many people used misplaced modifiers and misused there and it. Refer to my Storyteller Tips Blog 4 for details.
• None of these words end in an “s”: toward, backward, forward, upward, downward, anyway.
• Don’t write that a character’s eyes darted, bounced, peered, cut, etc. Use gaze instead so eyeballs are flying around.
• Replace “alright” with “all right.”
• Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.
• Limit incomplete sentences to an occasional dialogue comment or thought. (“No problem.” “Will do.” Never again.) Note: A complete sentence (independent clause) has both subject and verb.
• When you combine two independent clauses in one sentence, separate them with: , and/but. (Holly opened the door, and she screamed.)
• But to join an independent clause and a dependent one in one sentence with and/but, omit the comma. (Holly opened the door and screamed.)
• A dependent clause requires a comma before an independent one. (When Holly opened the door, she screamed.)
• An independent clause must precede and follow a semi-colon. (Holly opened the door; she screamed.)
• Commas and periods go inside quotation marks. Place other punctuation according to construction.
• Wrong dialogue punctuation style: “I’m glad.” He said. Change to one sentence: “I’m glad,” he said.
• Missing comma when addressing people: “Hi Tom.” Change to: “Hi, Tom.”
• Read more advice on these topics in my Storyteller Tips blog before you begin writing or making corrections.
• Don’t add or omit punctuation arbitrarily. Search the web for help with any other questions I haven’t answered in my blogs.

What’s Next?
Practice the writing tips in this and my other blog posts. Keep checking the Cliffhanger Books website for announcements of selected stories, publication dates and future anthologies in this and other genres.