When I set fingers to keyboard and began to write about a little alien girl splashing her feet—no, her peds in a brook, I didn’t have the faintest idea what I was doing. Oh, I knew the mechanics of putting words together; I did that very well and always have. But there were a few particular notions that I, as a new writer, had never encountered until my first real editor pointed them out to me.
1. I head-hopped.
In the interest of clarity, I will define this as switching points of view from one character to another without a scene break, as distinct from omniscient POV, in which the narrative voice knows things the characters don’t.
Head-hopping is a debated technique in modern times, but it was less remarked-upon in earlier literature (head-hopping is rife in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, for example). In the twenty-first century, it’s more accepted in romance genres, in which you can argue that the relationship is a character in and of itself, and readers want to know what both main characters are thinking. There, if head-hopping is done properly (i.e., without confusing the reader), and it serves both to further the romance and to cue the reader in on what the romantic leads are thinking and feeling, then more power to it.
I, however, was blissfully ignorant of the whole controversy. So of course, the point of view in the first edition of my debut novel bounced all over the room. Sometimes I didn’t even start a new paragraph before looking out from behind another character’s eyes. It was the result of the way I saw the action happening in my own head: as if it were a movie, and the POV changed every time the camera switched angles. It worked, and the novel won a prestigious award.
Unfortunately, when I went from indie-publishing to small press, my new editor was a self-proclaimed POV Nazi. She hated head-hopping, and took the time to show me how I had weakened my own story-telling by using it. I learned another lesson at the same time: if you want to sell a book in today’s publishing world, head-hopping is problematic, and there’s a good chance you’ll end up having to rewrite the head-hopping out. Which, for me, led to…
2. I have too many POV characters
My first novel had seven POV characters. That was bad enough, but the next one also had seven, plus an eighth point of view from the eyes of an alien whale. My third novel, a sprawling space opera of a book, has six, all basically human this time. I think. I may have lost count or missed one.
It must have horrified my new editor, bless her soul, but she only showed it in pointed suggestions to add scenes introducing all POV characters in the first third of each book. Even then I usually managed to break that rule.
All in all, it took me three novels to learn that the problem with having so many POV characters is that it’s difficult and a lot more work to give the reader a deep, emotionally satisfying experience when they’re in a different head every time they turn the page. Difficult, I say, but not impossible; some stories can’t be told in any other way. But I’m fairly sure I could have written my first novel, a sweet scifi romance, from just two points of view without sacrificing the depth of the story.
It is far easier to give the reader a deep experience by sinking into just two or three characters and consistently painting in words what they think and feel.
3. I don’t always know where the story starts.
This is a really common problem, and it’s one reason why writers need editors. A couple of years ago at a science fiction convention, I overheard Jim Butcher, the author of the bestselling Dresden Files series, comment that his editor told him his story started forty or fifty pages after the beginning of one of his manuscripts. It was comforting to find out that it happens to the best of us.
Me, I went the other way. That little girl splashing her peds in a brook, in my first novel? Yeah, that was the first scene I wrote, and even I could tell it wasn’t the beginning, especially after the story took a left turn at Albuquerque and the budding romance between her father and her tutor took over. (Did I mention I’m a pantser?) I’d started in the middle of the story. After writing The End, I went back and wrote nine more chapters leading up to the scene at the brook.
Doing it that way avoided the infamous “sagging middle” problem and got me closer to the real beginning of the story, but I still missed the mark. When the manuscript landed back in my inbox, bleeding red pixels, my editor had attached a comment bubble to the heading of the second chapter that read, “Your story starts here.”
Kicking and screaming, I reexamined the first chapter, and dang if she wasn’t right. There were precisely four pieces of information in chapter one that the reader needed to know, which I could easily insert into chapter two. Plop! There went 3,400 words. It felt like amputating a piece of my soul, but it made the book stronger, and writing a strong story is what it’s all about.
Learning the craft of writing is an adventure. Don’t be afraid to listen to any and all advice you get, but be equally unafraid to reject it if it doesn’t work for you. Step back and look at your story from the reader’s point of view. Then turn it into a truly compelling reading experience.
Award-winning writer Christie Meierz writes space opera and science fiction romance set in a civilization of empaths on the edge of a dystopic Earth empire. Her published works include her bestselling debut novel, The Marann, and its sequel, Daughters of Suralia, and two prequel short stories published in Into Tolari Space ~ The First Contact Stories.
Christie has spent a night and/or eaten a meal in all 50 U.S. states, plus Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Currently, she lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with her mathematician husband and an assortment of stuffies. When she’s not writing, she writes about writing on her blog, Meierz Musings, and Facebook (facebook/christie.meierz and facebook/tolarispace), where she welcomes comments and friend requests.
As bitter enemies scheme against each other with the fate of Tolar in the balance, Laura Howard, made a powerful empath by the Jorann’s gift, loses everything—again. Now she must recover and find her place, and herself, while fighting against the ghosts of her past and the expectations of everyone around her.
Loss after tragic loss shakes the Paran to his very soul. With his allies vying for control of the planet and his own province caught in the middle, he must risk his life as well as that of the woman he loves to take the one action he never thought he would: fight for leadership of the ruling caste.