Common Writing Mistakes: Point of View and Filtering (Part 1)

Happy Thursday, squiders! I’m doing #SFFPit over on Twitter today, so if you follow me there I apologize for the amount of pitch tweets you may or may not be seeing.

Before we get going, I just want to talk briefly about filtering. This is something I didn’t know about, or least didn’t have a name for, until earlier this year. Someone read my first chapter for me and pointed out a couple of instances. Just to show you that there are always new things to learn.

Anyway, on to it!

First off, to review, your point of view is, according to Google’s dictionary, “the narrator’s position in relation to the story being told.” In almost all cases, this will be either first or third person.

If you get confused, I like to compare it to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The “person” in this case refers to how close the reader is to the narrator. In a first person narrative, the reader is directly in the narrator’s head. First person point of views are characterized by using “I,” “me,” and associated words when referring to the character.

Example: I realized that, once again, I was cutting my blog writing close. I would need to leave soon or I would be late.

Third person is more distant, and the character is referred to by their name and the appropriate “he,” “she,” “it,” etc. words.

Example: Kit realized that, once again, she was cutting her blog writing close. She would need to leave soon or she would be late.

Third can be further broken down into limited and omniscient viewpoints. With third person limited you’re in a single character’s head at a time, going along with them, hearing their thoughts and experiencing their feelings. It’s similar to first person, but a step away. Third person omniscient is like you’re in a hot air balloon looking down on what’s happening. You can see what a bunch of people are doing at once. Some people also make a distinction between omniscient and what can be called third person objective. In an omniscient point of view, like a god, the narrator knows what everybody is thinking or feeling. In an objective, they don’t.

Understanding and sticking with your chosen point of view can be hugely helpful in solving a ton of issues.

(NOTE: Second person is rarely used, but you may see it occasionally. In second person, the narrator is talking to “you.” Example: You are reading this blog post. You may or may not realize that this post is late.)

Issue #1: Not sticking with your point of view

It is surprisingly easy to slip out of your chosen point of view. Your character can suddenly know something they shouldn’t, for example.

Perhaps the easiest and most common way people slip out of their point of view is by “head-hopping.” This is where you jump from your viewpoint character’s head into another character’s head. In an omniscient third viewpoint, you can get away with this (provided you are using omniscient properly), but in every other viewpoint it is jarring.

Example: Jane bit her lip, watching Jared walk away. God, how she hated to watch him leave, despite the great view. How could he leave her like this?

Jared looked back over his shoulder. Jane looked like she might cry.

Do you see the point of view slip? It’s a bit subtle. We’re in Jane’s head, hearing her thoughts, her feelings. We see what she sees.

Can you see what you look like? No. That’s Jared’s point of view.

NOTE: You can use more than one point of view in a book. Just stick with one at a time. Using our above example (and, indeed, many romances are structured this way), you could do one chapter from Jane’s point of view, the next from Jared’s, etc.

Issue #2: Choosing the wrong point of view

In most cases, it’s pretty instinctual what point of view will work best, based on the story you’re trying to tell, your genre conventions, how many characters have viewpoints, etc. But it is possible to choose the wrong one, and it basically boils down to your chosen viewpoint not having–and not being able to get–information necessary to the completion of the plot.

Sometimes the character you pick initially just isn’t the right person to tell the story.

That’s not to say that there aren’t published books out there that do this (if you try hard enough, you can find most of these common mistakes published somewhere), but the story tends to be unsatisfying, sometimes in a way that a reader can’t put their finger on.

A way that authors get around this with varying degrees of success is to include one or more chapters from a side character to provide the information.

Issue #3: Too many viewpoints

This one is highly subjective and depends on the genre as well. In a romance, you’re going to want one or two viewpoints. In a thriller, you can have one off chapters from any number of unimportant characters that never have viewpoints again.

The issue tends to be the most apparent when you have several viewpoints that are all vying to be important in some manner. Important viewpoint characters need to be important to the plot, which means you need to check in with them fairly regularly, they have to be advancing the plot or a subplot every time they show up, they have to be interesting, they might need a character arc, etc.

If you have two characters, this isn’t bad. Three? Sure. Some people can manage five or even seven. But eventually, there’s too much going on, too much to keep track of, too much, too much, too much. A lot of times those characters can be cut or combined to make a tighter, more enjoyable read.

Other viewpoint issues, squiders? We’ll talk about filtering in part 2 next week.

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Introducing Jorge

I realized I never introduced you guys to Jorge.

My sister likes to think she’s funny, so for my birthday (back in October), she got me a llama (or possibly an alpaca?) cookie jar.

My first thought was “What the heck am I going to do with this?”

But then I embraced the madness and named him Jorge.

This is Jorge.

jooooorrrgggeee

The small, mobile ones adore Jorge and they keep him well-stocked with cookies. (And then I eat the cookies.)

My sister has, of course, been quite pleased by Jorge’s new place in our lives.

Anyway. Here’s Jorge. We may be seeing more of him in the future.

Common writing mistakes on Thursday. We’ll be talking about point of view issues. Ta, squiders!

Common Writing Mistakes: Tenses and Passive Voice

Hi, squiders! Today we’re going to talk about tenses and passive voice, since they tend to be related, and because this is a good segue from our grammatical issues into our storytelling issues.

Tense in this case refers to the form of verbs used in the prose. In English we have three major tenses: present, past, and future. In most cases, you be writing in either present or past tense.

Present tense: I type this while I wonder where I put my tea.
Past tense: I typed this while I wondered where I put my tea.

NOTE: Just because you have a main tense for your writing doesn’t mean you won’t occasionally use other tenses WHEN APPROPRIATE such as in dialogue or in complex sentence structures.

Voice in this case refers to the voice of the verb. In English, verbs can be active or passive.

Active voice: I type this.
Passive voice: This is being typed by me.

The difference between active and passive voice is in the subject. Is the subject doing something (active) or having something done to them (passive)?

Problems with Tense

By far the biggest mistake made with tense is tense consistency, i.e. staying in the tense you’ve chosen for your writing. Have you ever started writing something in past tense only to find that somewhere along the line you accidentally switched into present? This can happen for a number of reasons: you were writing in a non-preferred tense and your brain switched over to your normal one automatically, you started a new day of writing without remembering where you were or what you were doing, you switched tenses for a particular reason–such as a flashback–and forgot to switch back, etc.

The good news is this is pretty easy to catch when you read back through your work. Tense switches stand out. They’re a bit harder to fix, however, because you need to go back through and correct verb forms throughout, and also make sure the sentence still makes sense grammatically.

If you find you’re often switching tenses without noticing, it may help to put a note somewhere obvious–such as a sticky note on your monitor or even a note in the header of your document–about what verb tense you’re using. (It can be as simple as “Past tense.”) This can also be helpful for remembering point of view, which we’ll discuss next week.

Problems with Passive Voice

Passive voice is okay in small doses–and, indeed, in some cases, it’s preferable to use passive voice. When you want to emphasize something, if you don’t know who is doing a specific action, when the person doing the action doesn’t matter, if you’re stating a general truth, etc.

In general, however, using passive voice creates clunky, unclear sentences that can drag down your pacing and the flow of your writing.

Examples:

This post is being written by me. It is being written on a computer. It should be stopped soon so I can run an errand.

The sword was swung by the hero toward the villain. Dodging, the villain’s spell was released.

Passive voice can often by identified by some form of “is”: is, are, was, were, has been, etc. And if you take a closer look at the sentence, the “active” party (whatever or whoever is doing something) has been pushed into the object portion of the sentence while the object has become the subject.

(Back in the day, Word used to have a feature that would tell you what percentage of your sentences were passive. We’re talking ages ago. I was a teenager and didn’t quite know what a passive sentence was. They also had an Autosummarize feature which has also gone by the wayside, alas.)

Using a passive sentence here and there is fine. But routinely using them doesn’t work in most cases (excepting academic papers in some fields). Unfortunately, if you find that you’re using a lot of passive voice, you’re probably going to have to train yourself out of it, or else face a lot of rewriting in your revision process.

Luckily, changing from passive to active voice is pretty easy, in most cases:

Passive: This post is being written by me. It is being written on a computer. It should be stopped soon so I can run an errand.
Active: I am writing this post. I am writing it on a computer. (Or even better: “I am writing this post on a computer.”) I’ll have to stop soon so I can run an errand.

Clear as mud, squiders? Questions about tense or passive voice, or other issues you’ve noticed with these subjects?

Readalong Announcement: Dream Thief by Stephen R. Lawhead

Well, squiders, I’ve gone through my bookshelves and picked a book for us to try for our first stand-alone book readalong.

(Of course, since I was looking for a standalone, I found a ton of duologies and trilogies, because that is, of course, how this goes.)

I’ve picked Dream Thief by Stephen R. Lawhead, which is a science fiction novel from the early ’80s. I think I picked it up from Goodwill at some point some years ago. I was originally looking at Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, but at almost 1200 pages I thought that might be too long for this sort of thing.

(Let me know if you are on board for reading 1000+ page novels over a couple of months. Maybe we could do monthly check-ins and break it down more. It’s an idea.)

Dream Thief is slightly under 500 pages, at least in my copy, which is from the mid-90s, and has fairly large font, so it shouldn’t be too bad. I’m going to give us until January 16 to read this so we have plenty of time to survive the holidays and whatnot.

Just a reminder that we’re playing with the readalong format here. If we don’t like the standalones, we can go back to the series, or we can do a mix of standalones and series moving forward.

This should be interesting, anyway. Older science fiction and fantasy can be so hit or miss, and even if things are good, they still often include aspects that wouldn’t fly today. (A friend once recommended a book called The Voyages of the Space Beagle, which is about a crew of about 1000 scientists of various fields flying about exploring space, but not a single person onboard is a woman.)

So, read along, as usual, if this sounds interesting, and we’ll discuss in mid-January.

Oh, and as a FYI, here’s the book description from Goodreads:

Every morning Dr. Spencer Reston, dream-research scientist on space station Gotham, wakes up exhausted with the nagging feeling that something terrible is about to happen. Spence soon discovers that he has become a vital link in a cosmic coup masterminded by a mysterious creature known as the Dream Thief . . . and all civilization hangs in the balance.

Common writing mistakes on Thursday! See you then!

Common Writing Problems: Dependent Clauses

Good morning, Squiders! I think this will be the last of the bad grammar sections we do before we move onto different storytelling elements.

To start off with, let’s review what a dependent clause is. A clause, according to Google’s dictionary, is “a unit of grammatical organization next below the sentence in rank and in traditional grammar said to consist of a subject and predicate.” Clauses come in independent and dependent types. An independent clause expresses a complete thought. A dependent clause does not.

Examples of dependent clauses:

  • during the summer
  • after class
  • in case of emergency
  • when I said that
  • because she said so
  • when I was young

As you can see, these are not complete thoughts and require more information to make sense.

NOTE: Dependent clauses can further be broken down into adverbial, adjectival, and nominal types, but they all function more or less the same way, so we won’t be going into that level of detail here.

Dependent clauses can go at the beginning of a sentence:

When I said that, I didn’t mean it.

The middle:

My brother, who is younger than me, studies finance.

Or the end:

I didn’t mean it when I said that.

Dependent clauses can be delineated with commas, but whether or not they should be involves the meaning of the sentence. Let’s look at an example.

I ran away after the dog chased me.

I ran away, after the dog chased me.

Do you see how the meaning is slightly different? Adding a comma loses the sense of immediacy, making it seem like the dog chasing wasn’t the cause of you running away. Whether or not commas are included depends on whether the clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence.

But the biggest issue I’ve seen with dependent clauses as an editor is a problem with subject/verb/object agreement between the dependent and independent clauses of a sentence.

Look at this sentence:

Dancing away, my eyes lit up.

Let’s parse this out. Dancing away is the dependent clause. It can’t stand on its own. The independent clause is my eyes lit up. The subject of the sentence/independent clause is “my eyes.”

Which means the subject of the dependent clause is also “my eyes.” My eyes are dancing away?

Here’s another one:

Hanging in the lobby, I noticed the new pictures.

The subject of the independent clause is I. I noticed the new pictures. When you apply that to the dependent clause, I am hanging in the lobby, not the pictures.

This is a tricky thing to notice. We’re taught as writers to make sure we’re varying our sentence beginnings, lengths, etc. to make sure our writing doesn’t sound or feel repetitive. Adding a dependent clause to the beginning of a sentence–and this issue is almost always only found on beginning sentence clauses–is an easy way to do this.

It’s easier to see with shorter clauses like these, but occasionally you’ll have a longer dependent clause at the beginning, practically sentence length, that is so far separated from the main body of the sentence that it’s easy to miss that the subject of the clause is different than the subject of the main part of the sentence.

They’re hard to catch as well. A lot of times they’ll sound okay when read out loud, or they’ll sound slightly wrong but it won’t be immediately obvious what the issue is. If something seems wrong, look at your clauses and check what subjects they’re pointing to.

Well, squiders, thoughts on dependent clauses? Subject agreement? Ways to teach yourself not to do this?

Dress rehearsal tonight, then practice for the other concert. Wish me luck!

Aaaaaaahhhhh

Good afternoon, Squiders! (Though it’s inching onto evening at this point…) I hope you all had a lovely weekend! I didn’t have to host anything so mine was quite nice indeed.

We’re into tech week for my musical review. We started on Sunday, and on we go, three hours a night, until Thursday. Friday’s off, and then the performances are on Saturday. Ha. Haha. We got a new song last night which tells you about the general put-togetherness of the whole thing.

The music sounds lovely, for the most part, though there are still a few songs that are a bit shaky (ironically, the new song actually already sounds pretty good). Mostly it’s songs where we’re expected to do something as well as sing, but not always. Also there is a children’s choir singing songs which I was unaware of until Sunday. Ha. Haha.

We finally got the order of the show sometime at the end of last week and are expected to have it memorized by Saturday, which may be wishful thinking. Said show flow also included a ton of new lines for people, so that’s also been interesting. (My sole line–“Uh, I don’t think so”–has luckily been easy to remember.)

This whole thing has been very interesting. I love the people and the music is super fun, so whether we sink or swim on Saturday is kind of moot for me (also it is a free show and the audience shall be plied with cookies and cocoa). I think we’ll probably pull it together. Everything always seems to do so, no matter the odds. And, as I said, the singing sounds good, and isn’t that really what you need out of a musical review?

In other news, people from the shows have been bugging me to join the choir, and so I have, at least for the big Christmas concert. This is an hour-long concert that they do during church service, so I figured we were talking 3-5 songs (since there are children’s choirs and bells and brass and all sorts of various musical groups included) but I got handed 10 different songs last night, all of which are 4 or 8-part pieces. And the concert is on the 10th.

Ha. Ha?

At least for choir, we get to hold the music in our hands. So thank goodness I don’t have to memorize all those, just know how they go.

Just know that I will probably be a little frazzled for the rest of the week.

And probably next week.

We should still have a common writing problem on Thursday. But I’m going to hold off on picking a readalong book until next week or the week after. I’ve done what I tend to do around the holidays, and that’s descend into cozy mysteries. I mean, if everyone’s into cozies we can totally do that, though it’s somewhat out of the scope of this blog.

(I’m on my third in the last two weeks. I read a Poirot book, and then the latest Meg Langslow–How the Finch Stole Christmas–and am now onto the first of a cozy series called To Helvetica and Back which was recommended by the cozy mystery group on Goodreads. And I love punny titles and also font jokes, so…)

Anyway! If you have cozy recommendations, let me know. I’m not generally one for baking-related cozies, but other than that I’m pretty open to themes, and if the baking ones are good, I’ll read them too. I’m really not picky. And otherwise, I shall see you on Thursday!

Common Writing Mistakes: Pronoun Confusion

Full confession, Squiders–this is something I had problems with for a LONG time. (Doing this today because I make no guarantees about Thursday.)

What is pronoun confusion? Well, take a look at this example:

Doug and Larry decide to go to the coffee shop from some of their seasonal coffees. He decides to get a peppermint mocha while he decides to get a pumpkin spice latte, because miraculously this shop offers both at the same time. Unfortunately, his coffee is burned and the whole thing tastes bitter.

Who’s doing what?

Who knows?

Pronoun confusion is where you have a pronoun that either cannot be directly tied to the proper noun or is tied to the incorrect noun.

As a quick refresher, a pronoun is a word that replaces a noun, such as he, she, they, or it.

The above example shows a situation where the pronoun “he” cannot be tied to either Doug or Larry, so the reader has no idea who is doing what.

Here’s an example of a pronoun tied to the incorrect noun.

Laura and Susie are on a tour of wine country. They have decided to ride bicycles between the wineries just in case. At their first winery, Laura decides to start with a nice, big Cabernet Franc. She decides to have a Riesling.

Who is “she” in that last sentence? If you think about it, you’ll probably decide it’s Susie, since we already know what Laura is having. But you don’t want to have your reader have to stop and think to figure out what’s going on.

Our brains automatically assume that the last appropriately-named noun that fits is the one that goes with the pronoun. So in this case, a reader’s first thought is going to be that we’re still talking about Laura.

These are fairly simplistic examples. The real issue comes when you have two characters (usually of the same gender) doing a complex action together. Fight scenes can be the worst offenders of this, with “he drew his sword to fend off his blow” and other such sentences, but pronoun confusion can sneak in anywhere.

So, how to you guard against pronoun confusion? The first step is just to be aware that it exists. Keeping “Is it clear who is doing what” in your head as you write can help a huge amount. It can also help to re-read complex sentences after you write them to make sure all your pronouns are pointing the right way.

Take special care with “it.” It’s especially easy to stick in without properly referencing an appropriate noun. Here’s an example.

Georgie has three pets: a turtle, a cat, and a dog. It is especially friendly.

Which pet do we mean? Who knows?

To fix a sentence that has an improperly used pronoun, you have two options:

  1. Add the noun in in place of the pronoun. (“Laura sighed and put her arm around Susie’s shoulders,” as opposed to “Laura sighed and put her arm around her shoulders.”)
  2. Rewrite the sentence so the pronoun is either not needed or obvious. (“Bob told Jerry that he didn’t like the way he looked at his wife” versus “Bob said, ‘Jerry, you don’t like the way I look at your wife.'”)

How about it, Squiders? Is this something you’ve had issues with? Any other advice for avoiding it?