Editing for POV

Point of view is one of the most subtle and powerful tools in the writer's toolbox. It's also one of the most troublesome.

I would guess 90% of the work I read from my peers and clients has at least some POV issues. Whether it's an unclear POV, too much narrative distance, or unwelcome POV shifts, most writers struggle to master POV. I myself, have yet to master it, but I've found it helpful to draw some very clear borders between POV types. I've already written a lengthy article on the subject, but let me go over it again.

I distinguish between two main types of POV, each with their own sub-types:

  • First Person - "I"
  • Third Person/Omniscient - "He", "She"
[Note: In the aforementioned article, I discuss Second Person as well. It plays a role in other POVs, but I do not consider it a viable option for an entire work of serious fiction]

With first person, you have two main subtypes:

  • Present tense, where the POV character narrates events as they happen
  • Past tense, where the POV character is recalling events that have already happened to them.

When I'm working in first person past, I always decide on some definite period of time between the events happening to the narrator, and the narrator relating those events. It helps me decide how much perspective to provide. If the narrator has just finished living through the events, they won't have as much perspective as they would if they were separated from the events by several years. The narrator's feelings on the events will color the prose, and that color deals with a concept I call Narrative Mood (see this article for more on the subject).

Another first person subtype related to mood is the conversational style. But conversational first person isn't as simple as you'd think. When considering any POV, you need to ask yourself whether the narrator is aware that he or she is narrating, and in turn, if he or she is aware of who they are narrating to. It might also be helpful to ask if the narrator is aware of the medium in which the story is delivered, or if the narrative is a transcript of some other means of delivery.

For example, does the narrator know their words are being read as a book, or are they speaking the whole story aloud to a fictional audience? In an epistolary novel like Dracula, the narrative may well be in first person, and the narrator may well be speaking to an audience, but the narrator is not necessarily aware of the reader, nor that his or her narration is being read as part of a story. Additional dimensions like the epistolary technique can enhance a story's sense of realism, but they also require an extra degree of care on the author's part.

I view third person as a sliding scale, with narrative intimacy on one side, and narrative distance on the other. A story written in an intimate third person will read very similar to first person, just with different pronouns. All events will be filtered through a single POV character at a time. You can have multiple POV characters, but in every case, the POV character is distinct from the narrator (more on that in a moment). A story written in omniscient sacrifices almost all of its intimacy in the name of perspective. Omniscient provides more facts about the story, but less emotion, and less character. It has its uses, but it's difficult and risky, because it's often less engaging to the reader.

In most forms of third person, the narrator is a faceless, nameless non-being--a camera, essentially--who exists for the sole purpose of conveying the story. This camera can be zoomed in or out as needed, and that is the true strength of third person narrative. But it's important to understand what the camera can and can't see, and to know when the camera should be turned on and off.

It is also possible for a third person narrator to have a personality, and this can be particularly effective in omniscient. It has been done to great effect by the likes of Charles Dickens and Douglas Adams. A third person narrator might also be a non-central character in the story, like Ishmael in Moby Dick.

The main thing in all this is to take time to carefully consider who or what your narrative voice is, what spatial and temporal relationship they have with the events of the story, and what feelings, if any, they have about the events.

These decisions are best made during the plotting phase of your story, because it's a lot of effort to change your POV after the fact. But that doesn't mean there's no POV work to do during the editing phase.

In most cases, a POV change in the editing phase will necessitate rewriting the story entirely, or close to it. But there are very good reasons to do it. First off, you should always choose the right POV for the story, not just whichever suits you best. It's better to change your writing to serve the story than vice-versa. (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!). Second, even if you're an obsessive plotter like me, you won't always know exactly where your story is going. You might go on a detour that changes the essential nature of your story, or makes one character more important than originally intended. When this happens, sometimes it's necessary to change the POV to suit the new story.

Say you started off in a fact-laden omniscient, but as the plot developed, you found yourself falling in love with a particular character, and following them more than others. It's probably worthwhile to consider rewriting the whole story through that character's POV, either by making them a first person narrator, or by developing an intimate third person relationship with them.

If you're happy with your original POV choice, that still doesn't mean there's no POV work in the editing phase. Even if you're skilled in this area, you need to read your manuscript with a keen eye, to make sure you haven't written any accidental POV shifts.

Third person allows you to throttle the narrative distance up and down, but the transition needs to be smooth. It works just like zooming a camera lens in and out. Professional film makers modulate the distance of each shot, and zooms are a common technique, but it's rare to see a fast zoom in or out because it's jarring to the eye. The same is true in novels; rapid, careless modulations of POV are jarring to the mind.

It's also important to make sure POV modulations are warranted. If most of your novel is written with a fair amount of distance, but you have one important, steamy love scene, or an important, heated battle scene, it's probably worth it to zoom in on the character, and temporarily close that narrative gap. But if the scene isn't that important or intense, leave the distance where it's at.


Editing for POV is tough. There's no two ways about it. But like most tough things, it's worth doing. A well-controlled POV will distinguish you as a professional.


Be Forewarned

Simultaneous original creation is one of the surest signs that there's nothing new under the sun. For example, the first novel I ever wrote was a sprawling, experimental mish-mash about several people from different points in human history being magically transported to a supernatural realm, taking part in a handful of strange trials, and ultimately providing the impetus for the apocalypse. I quiver with embarrassment at how juvenile my writing was back then. I, like many first time authors, was so intoxicated by the act of creation that I never paused to consider my story's inherent flaws, or how my writing might be improved.

Then one day, I bought a copy of Into The Electric Castle by the Dutch band Ayreon. It was an extended prog-rock opera that told the story of several people from different points in human history being magically transported to a supernatural realm, taking part in a handful of strange trials, and ultimately providing the impetus for the apocalypse.

And it was absolute garbage. (Listen to Ayreon's prodigious excess on Youtube)

Don't get me wrong, Ayreon brings together a diverse and talented group of musicians, all of whom are virtuosos in their own right. In terms of technical ability and musical composition, the album is a triumph. But there isn't a single truly memorable moment in its 100-minute run time, and the story is ham-fisted, trite, and full of mind-numbing exposition. And this made me realize that my first novel suffered from exactly the same problems. (The whole album might be tongue-in-cheek, and in that case it's probably a masterpiece, but to me it's impossible to tell)

If you've been writing for a while, you may have been through something similar. I'm convinced it's a necessary learning experience. The simple fact is, there are only so many stories the human mind is capable of telling. Depending on how you break things down, there are as few as seven.

That doesn't mean there's no hope, though. People create original, engaging stories all the time. I'm even arrogant enough to think that I've managed it once or twice.

Unfortunately, I can't really tell you exactly how to avoid cliche, and I doubt there's anyone out there who claims to have the recipe for originality (having the recipe kind of precludes the idea of originality, doesn't it?). However, there are plenty of resources when it comes to avoiding cliches. Some stories have been told and retold--usually with the best of intentions--so many times that people started recognizing the pattern, and speaking out about it.

Strange Horizons, an online speculative fiction magazine, keeps an archived list of "Stories We've Seen Too Often", and it's a great warning for spec fic authors like my illustrious self. I am guilty of writing or planning to write two or three of the things that appear on this list.

Writers find inspiration everywhere. I often find it in movies, books, and the struggles of daily life. But it's important to remember that many, many people have access to the same sources of inspiration as you. It's not unusual for two people separated by time and distance to arrive at more or less the exact same idea. So it pays to be aware of what's already been done to death, and save your poor tired fingers from banging out a story that was already done to perfection thirty years ago. While you might still want to write your own telling, awareness will help you temper your expectations for the story's performance on the open market. Writing is never a waste of time--I mean that, never--but trying to sell a story mired in cliche is an emotional flogging you could do without.

If you're a spec fic author, and you're thinking about submitting your latest work, take a look at Strange Horizons' list, and save yourself some pain and anguish. But don't feel guilty if your story is on that list! It's a natural part of the process; like falling off a bike. If you keep getting back on, and keep learning from your mistakes, there's no reason you can't get to the Tour de France.


Editing Characters

Good characters make the difference between memorable stories and forgettable ones. If you're like me, you spend hours poring over character sheets, writing journals and scenes, and collecting details to enrich your characters. Character development is an essential part of plotting.

But what about when the first draft is finished?

Like all facets of novel-writing, character development doesn't have clean borders. The process does not stop and start at any given time. I'd be willing to bet J.K. Rowling is still finding out new things about Harry Potter nearly ten years after the last book was penned.

Don't be scared to edit your characters after you've finished your first draft. In fact, you must do this. Because no matter how carefully you plan them, a good character can still surprise you. In editing, your job is to find those surprises, and react to them.

The first thing I look for when editing characters is places where they have deviated from the character sheets I created during the plotting phase. Sometimes this will be something minute like the color of their eyes, other times it will be something gigantic, like their backstory, or an emotional reaction you would not have predicted from the character sheet.

Typically, whatever has "accidentally" flowed out onto the page is preferable, but not always. Sometimes you'll write your character acting one way, only to remember that you had a very good reason for planning him another way.

For example, I might write a scene where my exorcist priest character hears the confession of a colleague. It might have been the natural thing for him to do in the course of the story. But I might look back and recall that my exorcist priest is supposed to have lost his faith, which gives him a character arc to go through. Depending on the timing of the scene, I might want the exorcist to refuse to help his colleague because he's still battling with his lack of faith.

If you're writing a series of books, you might plan certain character flaws that enable the character to remain interesting or active in your sequels, but in the haphazard process of drafting, you might inadvertently cause the character to overcome those flaws, leaving them with no internal demons in the sequels. In that case, you're probably better off revising your current book such that the demons remain.

Spontaneity is one of the joys of writing, but don't necessarily change your character sheets because it seems like less work. Sometimes it's better to revise the draft back to your original plan. Most of the time, however, the organic development that comes from drafting can produce great results. Whatever you do, make sure to balance what's in your draft against what's in your plotting notes, and choose the direction that results in a better story.

Another important thing I do when editing characters is take a step back and see if there are too many. In my post on character roles, I outlined Dramatica's model of the story jobs available to characters. While the model has some flexibility, it's true that it is seldom a good idea to have two characters fulfilling the same role. Even if you're set up with one character for each job, you might still have too many character arcs cluttering up your novel's emotional space. When I finish a novel, one of the first things I look for is the opportunity to combine characters.

Something magical happens when you take two developed characters and mash them into a single person: you create automatic internal conflict. Not only that, you end up with someone fresher and more original than what you had going in.

Say you have a love interest character in a detective story. She's a typical damsel in distress; you've developed her well, and you like her, but she's not exactly jumping off the page. Then say you have a minor antagonist or a contagonist (see this post for more on what a contagonist is) in the form of a nosy cop. What if the girl was the cop? What if the damsel-n-distress routine was just a ruse to get in the detective's good graces?

Changing characters' motivations and roles can be a tricky business, and it can result in a heavy workload. That's why I recommend doing it in the developmental stage, when you'll be making the biggest changes. Think hard about the possibilities, and be willing to put in the extra work. More than any other element, your characters are your story. It's worth a few extra days at the keys to make them the best they can be.


Ten Things About Revision (FenCon Writer's Workshop Part 5)

Revision is war. It's the toughest part about being a writer; so tough that amateurs often skip it altogether. But if you want to be a pro, you're going to have to do it at some point.


The following series comes to us from guest blogger and author Tom Howard.

Learn more about Tom by visiting his Amazon Author Page, and check out Tom's latest story in The Good Fight, an anthology of superhero vs. monster stories.


FenCon--a long-running science fiction and fantasy convention in Dallas, Texas--hosts an affiliated writers workshop every year, where professional writers share their own experiences with beginning writers in intensive workshops.

My own writing is at a too comfortable plateau, and I attended to learn some new skills to improve my writing. I've enjoyed FenCon writing workshops before and always find something to take away.

I attended the workshop with my friend and frequent collaborator, Belinda Christ. I think she has attended them all. Like me, she's always searching for community and new tools to improve her trade.

This year, 2015, urban fantasy writer, Jaye Wells, did a four-day class for a dozen writers on critiquing each others' work. Ms. Wells used our comments as a springboard to present sessions on structure, conflict, and the other areas writers need to learn their craft.

Part Five - Ten Things About Revision

  1. Ice, ice, baby: After you finish the first draft, let the story chill. Go get some sun. Write something else. Go talk to actual people instead of imaginary ones. A couple days is okay. A couple weeks is better. Ideally, you'd have a couple of months. You need distance so you can read it with cold, critical eyes. When you're ready, read your story like a reader in one complete pass. Don't worry about commas. Make quick notes about things that need fixing, but don't get too anal about it. This read is about seeing the big picture of your story as it stands.
  2. Arm yourself for battle: For me, this means redoing my storyboard (more on that below) to reflect scenes that need rewriting, shifting around, or deleting altogether. I go chapter by chapter and plot out what needs to be added or deleted, so once I'm in the thick of the swamp, I won't lose my way. I can hear the pantsers out there whining, but revision is about taming that wild beast of a draft into a readable story. A plan will go a long way to making your vision come through for the reader.
  3. The red pen of doom: Revision is not a time for the muse. It's not that liminal spot where you're floating through fluffy creative cloud of drafting. Send the muse to the basement with some red wind and reruns of Buffy. Then rip the duct tape off your internal editor’s mouth. Chuckle when she bitches about the pain. She’ll be torturing you soon enough. Give her free reign over the red pen and let her go to work. Encourage her to be merciless. By the time she’s done with the second read of the pages, it needs to look like a murder scene – the blood of your pen everywhere.
  4. Get naked: There are a few experiences for writers more terrifying than asking for critique. It feels a little like stripping down in front of a group of catty sorority girls and asking them to circle all your fat in Sharpie. Obviously, being an awesome person, you're too smart to ask for critique from malicious people. No, you need someone you know is tough but fair. Tell them exactly what sort of you need. Even with my published author CPS, I still tell them exactly what I need. "Don't worry about sentence level stuff. I just need a bird's eye." "Hey, can you read this and tell me if the subplot is working?" If you do it right, letting yourself be open to constructive criticism will result in a stronger story.
  5. Every chapter, every scene, every sentence: Nothing goes unanalyzed. A book is a complex system with lots of moving parts. You need to make sure they're all working together or face a massive malfunction. While we're at it, every character must have a purpose, every plot twist must build upon the last, and every subplot must braid into the main plot to highlight your themes and conflicts. Sounds like a lot, right? Welcome to the big leagues, son.
  6. Sing it, sister: Read it out loud. Yes, all of it. Does the dialogue sound natural? Is the rhythm authentic? If not, fix it. Don't do this in the middle of revision, but after the story is pretty tight and you've done a lot of the heavy lifting of revision. Pace around your house and read the story to your dogs or the dust bunnies. You will be amazed how many mistakes you missed and poor turns of phrase you discover. You might feel like an idiot, but do it anyway.
  7. Seven-later dip: In addition to fixing plot holes, revisions also allow you to add complexity to your characters and world. You'll be amazed how much of a difference a well-placed sentence or line of dialogue can deepen characterization. Layer in details that flesh out your scenes and expand your world. Finding opportunities to add these little gems should be on your Must Do List.
  8. Get thematic: By the time you're ready to do your first cold read, your themes should have begun to make themselves known to you. Maybe you set out with certain ones in mind, but ones you don't consider have a way of sneaking in when you're not paying attention. If you're writing genre fiction, you need to use a deft hand when it comes to theme. No one wants to be conked over the head with meaning. One way to subtly buttress them, though, is to instill your sentences with theme words. Come up with a list of words that help infuse your story with the right mood and thematic symbols. For an overview of this, read Alexandra Sokoloff's Screenwriting Tricks for Authors.
  9. Don't panic: Bi-polar writer's syndrome is a real thing. One minute, you're all "I'M A GENIUS! THIS IS THE BEST BOOK EVER!"  Then it hits you that there is a distinct possibility you could die before you're about to share this work of amazement with the world. Luckily, you listened to me and left a detailed revision plan. You email it to your baffled spouse. "No matter what happens, don't let my publisher hire my nemesis to finish this novel. This is my LEGACY!" Five minutes later, you're slumped over your keyboard howling, "MY EDITOR'S GOING TO TAKE A CONTRACT OUT ON MY LIFE. REVIEWERS ARE GOING TO CHASE ME WITH PITCHFORKS AND FIRE!" You might daydream about quitting writing altogether or getting into an accident so you don't have to finish the book. My advice? Learn to be patient with yourself. Try to enjoy the ride. Also, have a friend on speed dial who will bring you chocolate/bourbon/chocolatey bourbon.
  10. The fat lady: There is such as thing as too much revision. Someone once said that novels are never done, just abandoned. At some point, you're going to realize you've just spent four hours deleting and reinserting the same comma. This is a signal, friend. It's time to let go. If you're not under deadline, you have the luxury of revising as long as you want. But the wise writer won't waste years of his or her life trying to turn a three-legged dog into a show pony. Set it in a drawer, send it out for critique, or submit it. Then move on to something new. A lot of wannabes have wasted good years using revisions as an excuse to start something new. Don't let that be you. Listen to the fat lady. She'll tell you it's over. Move on. You've got new worlds to create.

General Revision tips:

Storyboard your novels. Use a horizontal whiteboard with post it notes. Put each act on a line with mini-climaxes and resolution. Use different colors for different points of view.

Backloading: put the most powerful word at the end of the sentence. The brain remembers the last word it reads.

Use a list of colors or themes and integrate them into your story. Example: water, moon, chaos. Every paragraph is an opportunity to focus on your theme. Be subliminal.

The problem with character sheets is that we make them before we get into our story and it restricts the author's input. The author should not drive the character; the character should develop naturally.

The 90 Day Novel is a great resource for characters.