Tag Archives: critique

The Fault in No Stars

I had a great chat about my fantasy novel Diffraction with a co-worker today. A few days ago she joked about how she neared the end of the book and thought, “Holy cow, he has a lot of plot threads left to deal with if they all get resolved in this book.” Then of course she realized this is meant to be part of a larger series.

But that simple off-hand comment gave me a valuable reminder. I’ve written about seven chapters of the first draft of Diffusion, the next book set in the Bordermarches. But I hadn’t given enough thought to what questions a returning reader might have. This helped me go back and tweak the first couple chapters to not only provide a refresher on how various systems and mechanics work (like elemental magic, and the Gracemarks that give divine power), but it also highlighted moments where I could sum up what happened in the previous book to let readers know I’m aware some of their questions are as yet unanswered.

The other fun part of the conversation today was that I got yet another opinion on the setting, the magic system, the tweaks to old fantasy tropes, and the characters. One of my fears is that the female characters might come off as “ugh, this was so obviously written by a guy.” And thankfully, some key moments of interaction between two female characters were described as spot on. 

All that to say, I’ll ask the same of readers that I asked of my co-worker. If you read Diffraction, would you be so kind as to post a review or at least a rating on Amazon or Goodreads? I don’t need flowery praise (but of course I welcome it). I’d love some honest ratings or reviews for no other reason than to show that people actually looked at this thing and came to some conclusion about the quality of the writing. If you feel it merits one star, have at it, and if you want to lay out all the things I did wrong, I’ll take the critique. If you’re willing to give it some stars, and maybe say what you did or did not like, all the better. I’d rather a customer see several honest assessments than only two or three. Anything is better than zero or only a few reviews. 

If you know someone who self-published, I guarantee they’re interested in getting such feedback posted to primary sites like Amazon and Goodreads. Other than purchasing their book, nothing shows support and encouragement more than taking the time to post a rating or review. 

If you’re willing to do so, I deeply appreciate your time. Thanks!

Best Indentions

I should be posting a link to a published novel on CreateSpace right now…

Instead, I’m uploading a revised copy of the manuscript, after which I’ll have to wait (again) for the review process to complete.

Warning signs are usually placed for good reasons...
Warning signs are usually placed for good reasons…

Being this close to putting a novel on the market is exciting and a little nerve-wracking. Like a cold pool on a hot summer day, I just want to dive in and get the initial discomfort over with.

But the very first lesson in my Elements of Critique e-book is about proper format and appearance.

And when I saw a missing paragraph indent on the very first page of the novel, despite a couple thorough reviews, I knew I needed to take another look for more issues.

I fixed three: the original offending indent, a quotation mark all by its lonesome, and an overlooked * * * * * I often use between scenes in my manuscripts.

None of those would have been the end of the world. But I know how easily I become critical of self-published but poorly edited works. I know how distracting a missing punctuation mark or misspelled word can be.

If you’re going to do something, they say, take the time to do it right. No one will care that I had the best intentions to release a proper draft. All they’ll see is the result of my effort. So I need to make sure that the final product is correct.

Plus, when I pause to consider how different this process would be a decade or two ago, I have no reason to complain. Within a day, I’ll have a corrected proof copy ready for me to approve, and the book will be available. I don’t have to wait weeks for a letter from a publishing house, then wait a few more to send back the updated draft, then wait still more for a rough copy…

Yep, I have nothing to complain about.

The book is titled “Not to the Swift,” from a verse in Ecclesiastes that reminds us the victory in a race is not always to the fastest, nor is triumph in battle always to the strongest.

The “race” to publish quality work takes time too, which is frustrating.

But I’ll be happier with the end result, and more importantly, so will the readers.

So… deep breath, sip of coffee, back into the cover selection process…

Details Details

Nothing draws a reader of out the story like a glaring error.

(Did you catch that one? I bet some of you cringed at the sight of it.)

Despite my comments about Cinema Sins and other such critics that love to tear apart every film or TV show released, there’s a valuable lesson from seeing one of their reviews.

They point out glaring errors. These might not be glaring to you or me, but to someone it’s obvious that Katniss was holding the bow in her left hand, and suddenly it was in her right. Or Hawkeye had only one arrow left, and then he had four in the next scene.

They catch mistakes in movies where it was daytime when the main character arrived at a building, then suddenly it’s nighttime when the characters are near a window, then it’s day outside again when they leave.

Man, that’s a long meeting!

The reason I bring this up is because the same can be true in our writing… especially with the rise of self-publishing and a decline in use of services like professional editing.

When I write, sometimes there are facts I need to research, something I’m worried would expose my limited knowledge on a subject. More often, there are details I haven’t sorted out yet. Or there are names, places and descriptions I jotted down weeks ago (let’s be honest, months ago) which I don’t remember right now.

I normally deal with this, if I remember exactly where to look, by double-checking the applicable part earlier in the draft. Or I take advantage of being a “planner” writer–I keep lengthy spreadsheets and scattered files documenting all future plans and essential plot details.

I don’t know how “pantsers” do it (that is, those who write by the seat of their pants, no significant planning involved).

But that fact-checking kills momentum, and when I’m writing in the moment, I want to keep it going as long as possible.

So I leave notes. But I’ve ignored those in the past, so I leave notes in ALLCAPS, and yes, in bold, underlined italics… maybe even turned RED.

IMG_0927.PNG
See? I’m not kidding.

I’ll type:

“a cool autumn day — IS IT REALLY AUTUMN??”

“Jo revealed her Gracebrand — is that what I gave her?”

“Lyllithe saw no sign of the Mudborn — check name”

I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve even sent out critique pieces with these included.

But the fact is, these details matter. People notice. Lazy writing throws off readers, who then throw out books (or give bad reviews online).

Since we all have to go back and edit anyway, might as well take the time to get the little things right.

What fact-checking / detail-noticing plan works best for you? Let me know in a comment.

Cinema Sins

There’s a YouTube channel I admit (with some guilt) I find entertaining.

Cinema Sins posts clips from various movies, and they count up the number of terrible clichés, plot holes, and cheesy lines to give the movie a score. Needless to say, this game is like golf: the less points the better.

Their slogan is that no movie is without sins.

I watched the “review” of Divergent, which did not fair well. And while some of the critique might be valid, I began to wonder about what exactly they’re going for.

On the positive side, I can appreciate the criticism as a useful tool. As an aspiring novelist, they show great examples of what I might be doing wrong–instances where I might think “Wow, that’s cool” but then realize it was cool in those 15 action movies that each used the same scenario, plot twist, or snappy retort.

But on the other hand, I have to ask: What movie are these guys putting out there? What great amazing story are they writing?

Because it’s easy to sit back and look at everything Hollywood releases, tallying up sins and saying “Oh that’s so lame, that’s so overdone.” But it’s another story when you’re trying to create something unique, something special. (And arguably none of our stories are really all that unique. Most follow structures we’ve learned from other stories.)

Regardless of how many "sins" Cinema Sins finds in your plot.
Regardless of how many “sins” Cinema Sins finds in your plot.

I can’t help but think of the Roosevelt quote, always a great reminder:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

So there.

 

Ok, now I’m gonna go back into my draft and change some overdone plot twists.

Critique Group Freebie

In April I participated in the annual A-to-Z Blog Challenge, with “Elements of Critique” as my theme. I wrote from A to Z (plus 3 extra posts) on everything to look for when critiquing someone’s writing, as well as a suggested method of running a critique group.

The series was well-received, and I committed to compiling the posts into one handy document.

Finally, the 64-page PDF is available, set up for easy digital viewing with hyperlinked chapters and table of contents.

It’s free for personal use, because I’d love for other writers to get the benefits and joy I received from attending a positive and helpful critique group.

Elements of Critique

If you find it useful, I’d love to know. It’s also going to remain on a permanent page at the front of my WordPress site.

Thanks for the encouragement along the way. I hope this serves you well.

Elements of Critique: Wordiness

In three months of limited mobility after a couple months of relaxation, I ballooned up to 250 pounds. No judgment of any readers intended in that statement–but the Air Force does not look favorably on an active duty service member gaining so much weight.

Over the last two months or so, I’ve put in hours on the bike and elliptical every week, while carefully tracking every bite I eat. I started programs to build back my push-ups and sit-ups to where they once were. I’ve eaten carrots while my friends enjoy carrot cake.

Today was my first PT test since surgery. I lost 30 pounds, hobbled through a 16-minute 2K powerwalk, more than doubled the push-ups I was able to do at first, and improved my sit-ups to my second best score ever.

I barely met the standards, but I passed the test. A half-inch more on the waist, or a couple less push-ups or sit-ups, and I would have failed.

Wasted words have a similar effect on our readers. We never know when a reader will say “That’s one too many,” and put down our writing. So I look for wordiness when I critique writing.

Sometimes my writing gets fluffy, bloated with excess words. Paragraphs fill up with empty “calories” and sentences struggle to push their meaning to the reader. Unnecessary words weigh writing down. It becomes sedentary and slow, when it should be direct and dynamic.

There are two kinds of wordiness that I look for: flowery and flabby.

Flowery is the elaborate description or long, drawn-out paragraphs that say nothing while sounding artistic. When a writer describes a table for a couple paragraphs, discussing the waves in the grain of wood as though the years reflected in the tree’s core like the tides of the ocean, leaving small traces of life… stop. Please.

Flowery is the woman who wears makeup and perfume to the gym, who spends most of her time pretending to exercise while attracting attention. It’s the guy who spends more time flexing in the mirror than lifting any weight. It’s writing that says, “Look at me, aren’t I just the prettiest sentence?”

In other words, flowery wordiness serves no purpose in a piece of writing and doesn’t belong. Critique should point this out and politely suggest a cut.

Unlike flowery wordiness, flabby wordiness at least tries to get the job done. But it huffs and puffs, pushing through exhaustion because of the added weight it carries.

Flabby wordiness shows up when included words say nothing to strengthen the point of a sentence. In critique, I point these out when they appear to offer no benefit to the intended meaning.

I’ve made part of a sentence with several examples of empty words I look for. These words add weight we don’t want our writing to have to carry around:

What I took out “was just that which very suddenly has really had” enough usage.

In almost all these cases the offending word can be removed with no significant loss of meaning. There are instances where they should be used, but these are rare.

Was verb-ing is a frequent structure that shows incomplete action. Incomplete action reads weak compared to completed action. Reword where possible. A similar problem word is “started,” as in “he started to verb.” There’s no need for that unless the writer is saying how long ago a thing began, e.g. “I started playing piano when I was eight years old.”

Just is often used as filler, as a way to show some slight difference. “Just after 9 PM…” “Just when I got back from the party…” Since the difference is so slight, it is unnecessary. The reader will get the meaning without this filler.

That is often used in a passive style of writing. “It was after 9 PM that I got back from…” “She is the one that Mr. Smith saw…” We want to write active, not passive. We want cardio writing, not couch potato sentences.

Which is similar to ‘that.’ It specifies certain details to distinguish this one from that one or from all others. But the structure is often unnecessary, and often brings ‘was’ along with it. Consider: “The bird which was in the tree eyed the cat which was climbing toward it.” vs. “The bird in the tree eyed the cat climbing toward it.”

Very is horrible. It’s telling the reader instead of showing, but it doesn’t even tell anything. “The loud noise” vs. “The very loud noise” shows no significant distinction. Find a different word. “The very mean old man” could be “The old curmudgeon” or “The cruel miser” or “The aged tyrant who ruled the kingdom of Front Lawn.” Anything is better than ‘very.’

Suddenly is telling. “Reader! Something happened! Be surprised! It happened ‘suddenly’ so you should gasp or something!” Exclamation points are clearly the punctuation version of this. If showing sudden change is necessary, then we should show it in the reaction of a character to the event.

Has is usually found in “has been verb-ing.” This is still not past tense complete, so it’s still not as strong as it could be. Ironically, writing an action in the completed form makes it sound more alive and exciting to the reader, as if it’s happening right now.

Really is another attempt, like ‘very,’ at trying to show emphasis. In the same way, it offers no measurement or indication of how significant an emphasis. We can use a stronger word instead. “The night air felt really cold” vs. “The frigid night air”

Had is often used to show an action took place long before the current scene. Sometimes “had” is used in flashbacks. Inspired by the noble rules of grammar and a desire to avoid any possible confusion, some writers turn into Sir Galahad’s brother, Addahad. They make every verb into “had verbed” because the reader has to know this is a flashback! However, if the sentence clearly shows the time the action took place, well before the current action, then there’s no need for “had.” Likewise if the flashback start point and end point are obvious, the reader doesn’t require “had” before every verb. They’ll understand.

Case in point, compare “When I had originally written this, I had been sitting in Starbucks where I had an iced Americano” with the following:
“When I originally wrote this, I sat in Starbucks sipping an iced Americano.” Eighteen words in the first version, thirteen in the second. Five words isn’t much, but this is one sentence.

Imagine reducing a plethora of sentences by five words each. That would be like spending hours on the “writing craft treadmill,” cutting down flab and achieving tighter writing.

And who knows? That might be the last bit standing in the way of passing a test and getting published or winning a lifetime reader.

Elements of Critique: Voice

Watching kids learn to speak is one of my favorite parenting experiences.

I had my three year old in the car on a quick errand. We decided to bring lunch home to wifey and the other kidlets, so I asked my son where we should go.

“Umm… we need… cake pop!” (He recently tried a Starbucks cake pop for the first time.) “And I want… Power-ate!” (He has also developed a love for blue PowerAde.)

“So, Starbucks for cake pops, then McDonalds to get lunch and PowerAde?”

He replies, “Yeah. That is good idea!”

No one intentionally taught him the concept of a “good idea.” He’s learning and developing his own patterns of speech from what he hears us saying. He’s developing his own voice.

I have four children. I know what each of them sounds like, but I also know innately how they speak. Give them a bit of information to communicate, and it’s going to come out four very different ways–no surprise, because we each have our own way of speaking.

When critiquing, I look for a consistent voice that seems authentic to the character or the writer.

Consistency matters because once a voice is established, any break in it will create a distraction. If a character speaks with a drawl and drops the ‘g’ in all ‘-ing’ words, then I expect to see that telltale sign in the dialogue throughout the entire story. (Of course, writers must beware. The difficulty of reading altered spelling to depict an accent or dialect might outweigh any desired benefit.

If a character speaks with formality, thus she does not use contractions or vulgar speech, that may be a fine way to give her a voice. I will watch to see if she breaks that form at some point for reasons that don’t advance the story. (The prim and proper lady who curses in the face of mounting difficulties might be a way to show the reader how the stress is affecting her.)

In non-fiction, the writer’s voice still shines through, and must be consistent. If the piece is informal, such as a blog post, then maybe levity and an “at-home” sense of freely flowing speech would be appropriate. The writer might type out exactly what he would say out loud if the reader were sitting across a table. On the other hand, if a piece is more academic, then levity and familiarity in writing would not serve the purpose. That shift in voice would probably feel out of place or even inappropriate.

Consistency builds up the authenticity of the character or writer. Once I know how they “speak,” I come to believe them. They seem more real or influential as I read.

Authenticity comes from the writer knowing their own style or that of the character. I know I have missed something concerning authentic voice when a reader says, “I can’t hear the hero saying that. It sounds wrong to me.” I will note that if I am critiquing and find such an instance.

The problem might be a choice of words that doesn’t match the setting or tone of the piece. I had a teenager in a fantasy novel replying to an adult woman in an argument with “Lady.” Not “my lady” at the end of a statement, but “I don’t know what you expected, lady.” The biting tone might have been correct, but the word choice sounds far too modern.

Word choice can also trip writers up when we grab words without a good understanding of their nuances. Like a child using a word the wrong way because they don’t fully grasp its meaning, a writer armed with a thesaurus can be a dangerous thing. Without careful attention, we might see constructs like “the aroma of sewage” and “the stench of fresh-baked pie.” The words are correct for which of the five senses is utilized. But clearly they’re not the right words for the job.

Similar issues might arise from “Word of the Day” aids, new words we discover and love, or attempts at showy and evocative description. The words we select must feel natural; writing that calls attention to itself misses the point. Usually this is where I find metaphors that don’t quite translate and descriptions that fall flat.

In most of these cases, I will highlight, offer what that passage said to me, and offer a suggestion on how to clarify or fix the issue. That way writers can learn how readers receive their words, and make appropriate changes.

That creates a better piece now and a stronger voice and more consistent writer down the road.

And that, for certain, is “good idea!”

Elements of Critique: Unclear

Imagine trying to get anywhere if directions on Google Maps had a “shuffle” setting like an iPod.

“Turn down 10th street then drive 5 miles on Highway 20? How do I get to 10th? I’m still on Washington, I have to get on Highway 20 to even reach 10th.”

Writing is like a road map for the mind. This is particularly true of non-fiction pieces with an academic style. The writer is giving the reader directions to follow the story or topic.

If the reader hits a giant Detour sign and wonders how they arrived at this point, something has become unclear. Good critique looks for lack of clarity in a submission.

Sadly, this is one area where “no news is good news.” It’s more difficult to search for good transitions and sufficient descriptions than to note their absence. I don’t think of all the times I’ve driven home with no delays, but every time road construction blocks my path, I remember it.

I’ll give some examples of what I look for, to ensure my point is clear.

For fiction, this may mean when we encounter whatever weird creative stuff is in the story, the writer needs to provide some additional description or information. The writer knows the world and can picture all the details of setting. Significant thought has gone into the backstory of each character, giving them real motivations and reasonable goals. The writer understands the rules of the society or culture and how those impact the scene.

The reader knows none of that until it’s put onto the page in a way the reader can understand.

Any time the writing slams the brakes on my reading and makes me ask what’s happening, I note that reaction in critique. That’s not what we want for our eventual readers, so it deserves the writer’s attention.

Similarly, with non-fiction, if the topic is unfamiliar or the knowledge presented is obscure, more description or background may be necessary. That will depend on the purpose of the writing and the audience for whom it is written.

A pamphlet might cover a problem with a broad brush approach, touching on many things while not going into deep detail. This will differ from a self-help book with entire chapters devoted to each symptom of a problem. A persuasive speech will make its case and potentially overlook the reasonable counter-arguments that might weaken the writing.

The rule of tight writing is to include only what the story or piece needs. Unclear writing might happen with both too much and too little information. It’s hard to define boundaries here. When critiquing, I have to trust my inner reader a bit and go with how a piece feels to me. If nothing else, that might be small feedback that confirms what the writer has heard from others.

Beyond “too little” or “too much,” there’s a bigger issue: a lack of transition.

Whether it’s an action scene, a detective chasing down a lead, or an article giving advice on writing critique, there has to be a sense of following a trail, going down a path, getting to the point. Writing can’t bounce around like a super ball.

When writing jumps from one point to another, that’s a place to highlight for critique.

Try having a conversation with a teenager. Their minds race and their mouths jump from topic to topic without any seeming rhyme or reason.

“I went skating with my friend – no, not Amanda, it was Vickie – hey did you know that Vickie got first place in the band competition? I want to learn to play the flute. Did I tell you about the sleepover tonight? I didn’t? Oh. I need five bucks for a gift for Tiffany. Who’s Tiffany? She’s Johnny’s sister. Who’s Johnny? Ugh… I told you about him last week. Can I go skating tomorrow? I need five bucks for that too.”

There’s a thought process that takes the teen to each of those points. But we can’t see it, so we can’t follow it. The same is true of writers and readers. The reader can only follow what the writer gives them as road signs and directions.

A good transition touches on both what came before and what’s coming next. It connects where we were to where we are now. Crossing that bridge in writing tells the reader the previous point has been made, and it gives them an idea of what’s next.

The purpose of writing is to communicate thought–a multitude of individual thoughts, in fact, arranged neatly in a logical progression into either a story (fiction) or a presentation of facts or opinions (non-fiction).

In critique, when bad directions, detours, and orange cones block the flow of those thoughts, make it clear to the writer. That way, the bad news becomes good news. The error can be fixed, the path smoothed out, so that future readers can take that same road trip and simply enjoy a clear view of the scenery.

Elements of Critique: Quotation Marks

There’s an arguably crude joke about the Oxford comma (the one that you may have been taught does or does not go before ‘and’ within a list of items).

Consider the difference:

“The Secret Service agents brought the strippers, JFK, and Stalin to the party.”
vs
“The Secret Service agents brought the strippers, JFK and Stalin to the party.”

Maybe JFK and Stalin have a more colorful history than I knew.

Punctuation matters. But so does point-of-view, which is why that got the ‘P’ slot in this A to Z list. So today, I’ll focus on Quotation Marks (and other punctuation).

It’s my blog. I can cheat.

Quotation mark rules are easy to follow, but the marks are easy to miss, judging by the critiques I’ve done thus far. I watch for marks at the start and end of the quote, and I check whether the marks enclose required punctuation such as a comma, period, or question mark at the end of a phrase or sentence. And if the quote includes the speaker reciting a quote, then single quotation marks surround that recited quote within the double quotation marks.

There is one case where a question mark might not be enclosed in the quotation marks. If the speaker is asking a question using a quote, the question mark belongs outside the quote. For example:

“Did God really say, ‘If you eat the fruit, you shall die’?”

The fact that the first example I can think of is from Satan might be a clue that it’s easier to simply avoid this structure if at all possible.

Another note, with quote marks, is that you don’t have to end a paragraph with a quotation mark if the next paragraph starts with the same speaker speaking. The next paragraph starts with a quotation mark, and a quotation mark goes at the end of the speech, however many paragraphs it lasts.

Also, I look for new paragraphs to start with each new speaker. Having multiple speakers in one paragraph, even with proper punctuation, is a nightmare to the reader.

Enough about quotation marks; on to commas!

I started with a comma joke, and mentioned the Oxford comma. This is an example where either way is considered correct depending on the style required by whoever the writing is for. If it’s being submitted to an editor or publisher who wants it a certain way, then of course follow that guidance. Otherwise, I look for clarity or lack thereof, and critique as needed.

Comma overuse is the most common issue. Some of us probably learned to include commas wherever there might be a verbal pause. This can lead to some clunky writing. For me, commas separate clauses in a sentence, identify amplifying phrases, and establish lists of related items.

“She went to the store, but it was closed.” Separated clauses (independent first, dependent second)

“When writing, as with many creative endeavors, originality is of paramount importance.” Amplifying information phrase

“When he saw her, he waved to get her attention, but, shocked by the frustration on her face, he cowered.” Stuff like this just needs to be split into two sentences.

Shorter sentences with less modifiers read clearer than long, winding structures full of elaborate phrases. Those are things I look for in critique.

One special case of punctuation peril is the semi-colon. Sometimes we try to use them because they are often neglected, and it’s a nice change from the mundane. Contrary to what I often see, semi-colons only join two related independent clauses. That means if the semi-colon is removed, two complete sentences remain.

Both the independence and the relationship of the clauses matter. Wrong use looks like this:

“I try to use semi-colons sometimes; a neglected form of punctuation. It makes my writing look flashy and trendy; not mundane or mainstream.” In this case the problem is the latter phrases are not independent clauses.

“Sometimes I try new things in order to be creative; the semi-colon is a neglected form of punctuation.” The relationship is off here. I see this problem in fiction where two unrelated bits of description are thrown together with a semi-colon, like pulling ingredients out of the cabinet and throwing two at random into the pot, hoping for a good meal.

Semi-colons are a special kind of punctuation. They are almost never a case of must; we only use these when we should.

Finally, there is the ellipsis, those three dots symbolizing an omission of words from a quote. This can be in the middle, showing skipped words, or at the end of the quote, showing that the original quote goes on further but is not reproduced in the writing at hand.

Right example: “Four score and seven years ago…”
Wrong example: “I was reading Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, and… ugh, history is so boring.”
They aren’t designed or intended to be used as a symbol for lost train of thought, or walking into the middle of a conversation, or awkward pauses, or suggestive questions, and so on. Writers sometimes do this, and even get away with it. But that’s not the purpose of this punctuation mark, so I critique it. Misuse might draw unwanted attention (read: rejection) from prospective readers and editors.

You can quote me on it, so long as you use quotation marks properly.

Elements of Critique: Point of View

What I wouldn’t give to be able to jump into her head and know what she’s thinking…

Married couples can relate easily to that thought, I’m sure.

But all of us at one time or another have looked at the inscrutable expression of someone whose opinion we value, and wondered what was taking place in those dark recesses of their mind. Or we’ve made assumptions about their thoughts, only to find out later that our guesses were way off.

If only telepathy was possible.

Well, surprise, it is.*

With some routine training, we can jump into the heads of other people and read their thoughts as if they were words written on a page.

*Offer void outside of works of fiction

Yes, today is P on the A to Z Blog challenge, and for my series that means looking at critiquing Point of View.

Once I know the point of view characters, or POV characters, and the overall style, I look for anything that disrupts the selected point of view. Maybe it’s a thought the POV character can’t know, or access to information they can’t have.

So that means knowing the basic options available to choose:

First person: Written as if someone is telling the story personally. The reader is in the head of one character and sees only what that character sees. They can hear that character’s thoughts only. The POV character’s eyes are the “movie camera” showing the story to the reader.

I stepped into the office and saw Mr. Smith waiting for me, back turned, staring out the window. What could this be about? I hope he doesn’t know I’ve been hacking government computers on my off-time.

‘Hello, Mr. Anderson,’ he said in that slow, dragging monotone as he turned to face me. “You’re late. Again.”

Man, I hate his condescending voice.

Third person limited: Written from one or a few characters’ points of view, but only one at a time. The reader hears the selected POV character’s thoughts, and no others. They see what takes place around the selected character and are aware of only what that character might know or witness. The “camera” can only see what the POV character sees, though there are likely a few POV characters to choose from throughout the course of the work.

Even though the summons seemed urgent, Anderson strolled down the hall. What does Smith want now?

He turned the corner and saw the office at the end of the hall. Sudden panic twisted up his insides. I hope the company hasn’t figured out I’ve been hacking government computers on my off-time.

With a deep breath, Anderson rapped the doorframe once and stepped into the office.

Mr. Smith stood at the floor-to-ceiling window, looking out at the hazy city. His lanky figure and balding head made a silhouette in the bright sunlight.

“Hello, Mr. Anderson,” he said as he turned toward the door, his mouth in that perpetual almost-snarl. “You’re late. Again.”

Man, I hate his condescending voice.

Third person omniscient: Written with as many POV characters as the writer desires. The writer can jump into anyone’s head and show any scene desired to tell the story. The “camera” can go anywhere.

Haze settled over the city like every other morning. The streets filled with bodies plodding to and fro, eyes glued to their cellphones, hands desperately gripping cups of coffee. The corporate headquarters of Neodyne Information Systems loomed over the skyscrapers surrounding it, and swarms of workers rushed in the main doors to start the day.

Inside a sea of cubicles, Anderson got a message from the manager’s secretary. “Smith wants you. Urgent.” Great. What now?

He sipped his coffee, set the cup down on the desk, and strolled down the long aisle to reach the hall. What does Smith want now?

* * *

In the large office, Mr. Smith looked out the floor-to-ceiling windows. Sunlight filtered through the haze, and Mr. Smith almost reached for his nondescript black sunglasses.

He paused.

No need to look like an Agent. I don’t want to give Mr. Anderson any ideas.
A rap sounded at the door. Mr. Smith checked his watch and turned toward the new arrival. “Hello, Mr. Anderson. You’re late. Again.”

Mr. Smith thought of what he’d seen in Anderson’s file. He shows a callous disregard for authority and a problematic lack of discipline. The records showed several letters of counseling over the last two years of employment.

This one matches the profile of a trouble-maker. And I really hate his face.

There are other points of view but they go beyond the scope of this blog post.

Hopefully those scenes give a rough idea of the differences. So, what do we watch out for when we critique a piece?

Does the POV character ever know something from a scene where they were not present? Does jamming the POV character into a scene in order to give us access to that moment feel forced, unnecessary, or awkward?

Similarly, does the writer show us something the POV character can’t see? In first person and third person limited POV, that character’s eyes are the movie camera from which the story is told. Anything that character can’t see is “off camera” and thus doesn’t belong in the story.

Does the writer ever give us insight into the thoughts of someone other than this POV character? The POV character can only assume the thoughts of another. This distinction has to be made clear, or it might appear the writer is telling us thoughts we shouldn’t have access to.

Also, sudden shifts in POV should be corrected. A piece of writing can’t start in first and jump to omniscient.

And if there’s more than one POV character, shifts between those characters should at the very least come as a new paragraph. Better yet, wait for a new scene to shift the “camera” view. Books often use some centered squiggles or symbols to show the break between POV characters. The three asterisks in my last example are meant to mimic that.

What about non-fiction? If the piece contains a story or anecdote, the rules of point of view still apply. If the piece is more academic or factual, then the only possible breach of point of view is the writer injecting opinion or a personal voice into the writing. Whether that is acceptable will depend on the purpose of the writing. A blog post on a historical event might be fine with the writer sharing thoughts on how that event mattered. A research paper not so much.

Whatever style we use, the purpose of writing is to communicate thought. Understanding the rules of that special form of telepathy helps us write clearer and avoid pitfalls that distract. This will better ensure the reader sees the topic from our point of view.

And that’s the whole point.