Diverse Books and Writing What You Don’t Know

rainbow book(revisiting this post from 2015)

Write what you know. It’s a trite piece of advice for writers struggling to find a subject to which to put their pen, and a dire warning to those embarking on literary excursions into the unknown.

Many feel this saying is a load of crap. After all, if we can only write what we know, then we have no business even writing a memoir: our view of ourselves and our experience is so myopic, and our blind spots so extensive, that we can’t claim to truly know even what’s going on in our own lives. However, when we plunge into writing about something we don’t know, it pays to be cautious. After all, when you’re an “outsider” with respect to your subject matter, those on the inside are going to know if you get it wrong.

I’ll start with this piece of advice: Write what you want. Writing is an art, and stifling that art with a bunch of rules and warnings isn’t going to help anyone. You have something to say, and so say it, with your whole heart and to the best of your ability. But I’ll add this caveat: if you’re going to write about a type of character or situation that exists in contemporary life and yet is outside your personal experience, I advise you give it deep thought. The agonizing, soul-searching variety of deep thought. Your characters, and your readers, deserve no less.

Most of us have heard of the We Need Diverse Books movement. It is a worthy cause. Stories, both fiction and nonfiction, are an integral part of social change. Books help connect readers with people and situations that they may never encounter in their day-to-day life, and can broaden understanding and acceptance in a way that no amount of preaching or direct social activism can do. Books are a safe way to explore situations that we’d be frightened to become involved in in real life, and can help to lessen our fear and misunderstanding of those situations. For instance, a person frightened of foreign travel might be more comfortable after reading a million guidebooks. The more different cultures, lifestyles, and ways of being people are exposed to in books, the more comfortable they’ll be with it in their real lives.

It is precisely for this reason that we need to be mindful of how we portray our diverse characters. I’m not saying that we should never let a diverse character be anything other than a shining beacon of perfection, so that we don’t give readers the impression that all people of that diverse group are “bad”. Quite the opposite. What I’m saying is, the character has to be realistic. We have to be comfortable in that character’s shoes. We have to know them like we know a human being, and relate to their struggle, before we write about them. Otherwise, we’ll get it wrong. We’ll portray them as an issue, instead of a character, and we’ll miss an opportunity to let readers identify with them on a human level. And yes, we can end up doing actual, measurable harm to real people by reinforcing stereotypes and misconceptions.

I love it when books have diverse characters, but when I hear editors or agents say, “If there’s no diversity in your books, don’t worry: it can be added,” I cringe. It is possible to deliberately add diversity in this way and still have a great book. But, if you’re adding diversity purely for diversity’s sake, be very cautious. After all, if you’re inserting a diverse character just to make the novel more marketable, then you are exploiting the group to which that diverse character belongs. If you’re changing the color of a character’s skin, giving her a limp, or modifying his religious practice, take a long moment to get to know that character again, because you have changed who they are. Make sure you don’t overlook, misunderstand, or gloss over the issues that the character might face in their daily life. Otherwise, you run the risk of your character being a blue-eyed guy with shoe polish on his face asking John Wayne to smoke-um peace pipe.

You’ll have readers that identify with your diverse characters, and if you tell their story incorrectly, you’re selling those readers short and hurting them on a personal level.

This concept also applies to characters who are members of groups which may not traditionally be viewed as “diverse”. If your character is dealing with issues of any kind that you haven’t dealt with personally, make sure you put thought into it. For instance, I’m a recovering heroin addict, an ex-con, and a victim of physical and sexual abuse. I have thrown books across the room and cursed authors’ very souls for, in my view, misrepresenting these issues. I’m really tired of reading about poor, battered women who suffer their completely evil, idiot husbands stolidly until the day they rise up with unblemished inner strength to assert themselves. I know it may sound counterintuitive to some of you, but I feel belittled by this narrative. Abuse is ugly; it changes you. It weakens you. And it can make you stoop to the level of the abuser, because you know no different, and because you’re so scarred and hurt that you can’t function in a healthy manner. I do recognize that not all survivors of abuse see it this way, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling that my story is being exploited and told incorrectly for profit, when I read a book that gets it “wrong”.

Additionally, I’m tired of seeing drug addicts portrayed as objects of pity or contempt; complete hot-mess wastrels; soulless beings with no hope, intelligence, or inner life. I especially hate this narrative when said addict ends up seeing the light, and becomes a pink-cheeked, happy and productive member of society within the course of 350 pages.

It’s also annoying just when people get details wrong: heroin addicts with dilated pupils (opiates contract the pupils), or about a character “melting” black tar heroin in a spoon (it doesn’t melt; you have to dissolve it in water). The details are easy to research, and the rest, well, all I can say is that drug addicts are people, too. Drugs can make people into a hot mess, it’s true; but that hot mess can be interesting to examine, and you’ll make your story better if your character is well-rounded.

And, as a psychotic person, when a book about a “psycho killer” comes out, I have a legitimate fear reaction. People like me are beaten, imprisoned, and killed because of wrongful stereotypes like this. The same for some other marginalized groups. Misportrayals can do real harm, and you don’t want that on your conscience. So, do your research if you’re writing about characters from different walks of life as you. And, the best research is not academic research, but experience*.

If you want to have marginalized characters in your books, but don’t share that marginalization, I say go for it…but put thought into it, and seriously consider having your diverse characters be side-characters, and not main characters. Also, don’t write characters with marginalizations that you’ve only read about. If you don’t have a diverse group of friends, then you might not be the right person to be repping diversity in literature. But, seriously, we all have diverse friends, right?

I have a lot of Mexican-American characters. I speak Spanish and have lived most of my life in areas with a huge Mexican-American population, so I’m comfortable writing about the culture—usually from an outside point of view, because I may not know the internal issues of being Mexican-American, but I can speak to my experience as an observer, and so my characters can as well. I also have Mexican-American beta readers, so if I mess up, as I always will, they can help me with it.

I also often write about characters with mental illness/neurodivergence. I am mentally ill, autistic, and have psychosis. However, when I was writing a book with a schizophrenic main character, I reached a point where I felt like I was getting it wrong. So, I went down to the local park and made friends with a young schizophrenic man I’d seen hanging around.

My friendship with Phoenix was never about writing a novel. I don’t hang out with him because of his mental illness, but because I enjoy his company. He’s an amazing, intelligent, and hilariously funny person.

Hanging out with him taught me a lot about myself as a neurodivergent person, and opened my eyes to the way ableism affects us all. We were kicked out of bars, restaurants, casinos and libraries because people were uncomfortable with his behavior (mine too, to be honest); I had to intervene with the cops and the courts when he was arrested for no crime other than being schizophrenic. I spent horrible, anguished days and nights, crying and worrying, when he was institutionalized, or in the hospital after someone misinterpreted something he said and beat him into a coma. Certain experiences with him have triggered my own episodes of psychosis, as well, which were of course frightening and draining.

My Other Place Series wouldn’t be what it is without Phoenix. I would have missed so much of the joy, the beauty, the horror, and the subtleties of the schizophrenic experience if I hadn’t spent time with him, because seeing psychosis from the outside, and really being part of someone else’s experience, is different than experiencing it myself. The more insight we have into life and people of all kinds, the better our writing will be.

Just like I don’t hang out with Phoenix because he’s mentally ill, I didn’t write my book about the schizophrenic character because he is schizophrenic. I wrote it because he’s an interesting character, with a really good story to tell. Readers will identify with characters, and want to spend time with them, if they’re interesting people, and not just a list of symptoms and diagnoses or character traits you gleaned from internet research.

Putting thought into it doesn’t make you exempt from criticism, however. Nothing will. If, someday, a reader gets angry at me for getting a Latinx character wrong, well, it will upset me, and I’ll listen, but I’ll have the consolation of being able to talk about it with my Latinx beta readers and friends and do better next time, so it won’t destroy my love of writing.

And, y’all, I get criticism about my own voices characters. Nothing makes you exempt. Criticism is part of being a writer. Even when we are writing from experience, we won’t know all facets of that experience. Every experience is valid, and incomplete. (Note: please don’t harass own voices writers because their experience doesn’t match yours. Truly.)

Even if they don’t resonate with everyone, I am comfortable with and proud of my books. I think they can add to people’s understanding, rather than detracting from it by creating false impressions.

This is what we should strive to do when we write, whether it’s from a diverse perspective or not, and whether our tale is a lighthearted romantic comedy or a dark “issues” novel.

Always treat your characters (and your readers) with the respect they deserve, and you will be able to bear any criticism with dignity.

*For the love of God, man, don’t apply this concept to writing about drug addicts and ex-cons. I’d rather your characters be trite and wooden than for you to go get thrown in the slammer for a PCP binge you embarked on for novel research.

Elizabeth Roderick is an author and freelance editor. You can find THE OTHER PLACE and her other books on Amazon.

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How to Be a Writer

I hate advice on how to be a writer.

People say, “Real writers use pen and ink. They write every day. They have inborn talent; are obsessive about grammar; and subsist on tea, chocolate and cat kisses.”

My least favorite writing advice is that old nugget spouted by Hemingway, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” I truly don’t mean to call folks out, but there was a writer on my Twitter timeline the other day who coughed up this particular oft-polished gem. “Writing isn’t relaxing. It’s not musing. It’s not a journey. Each word is ripped from your soul like a malignant tumor, and splatted onto the page, while you writhe in anguish.” I’m paraphrasing; it was something to the effect that writing was a process akin to trench warfare or medieval torture, that any of us are lucky to survive intact, but I can’t retrieve the original tweet, because when I responded “naw” and suggested that maybe writing was a bad fit job for him, the guy (it’s always dudes who have this particular advice, it seems like) blocked me. Some folks can’t dig my snark.

The thing is, writing is whatever you make it. Whatever method (or lack of) you use to get words onto a page, to tell your story, is the right way.

For most of us, writing is sometimes hard, sometimes easy. Sometimes it makes us laugh, other times it makes us scream like we’re getting our teeth pulled without anesthetic (what, you guys aren’t screamers? I get the paramedics called on me at least twice a week).

For me, writing is a coping skill, and a job. For others, it’s a hobby. And some think of it more as a lifestyle.

All of us are writers.

None of us have a monopoly on what it means to spew words out onto a page, and none of us have the ultimate secret of how best to accomplish it. Ultimately, it’s just something you do, for whatever reason.

Do You Need an Editor?

At some point in a writer’s life, we’ll likely wonder whether we should hire a professional editor for our manuscript. I’m an author, as well as a freelance editor, so I wanted to chime in with my opinions and advice on this subject.

Most articles fall squarely in one or another category: YES you ALWAYS need an editor, or NO, they’re a WASTE OF MONEY. In this piece, I’ll discuss both the pros and cons, as well as how to choose an editor if you decide to get one.

If your goal is self-publishing, you probably want to hire at least one editor. Successful indy authors often hire two: a developmental editor, and a proofreader. You will feel more confident about your manuscript if you go through an editing process before publishing, and readers will thank you with their dollars and positive reviews if you do.

I personally would never publish a book without having it go through an editing process, even though I’m an editor myself. We truly can’t see our own work with objective enough eyes to be sure it’s our best effort. Hiring an editor isn’t cheating, or selling out your voice. It’s just part of the process of publishing, and of creating good art.

However, if your goal is getting traditionally published, you may be on the fence about whether you should get an editor before querying. After all, if you get an agent, they will often give developmental critique, and a publisher will always put your manuscript through an editing process before publication. So, why should you bother paying for one yourself?

Hopefully this article will help you decide whether it’s right for you.

PROS

If you’ve spent any time being a writer, you’ll know the value of getting other eyes on your work. No matter how skilled or talented we are, it’s difficult to be detached enough to see our own errors, weak spots, and inconsistencies.

Critiquers and beta readers are invaluable in the revision process, and help us to spot our story’s weaknesses and strengths. However, even if these folks aren’t our family and friends, they might have difficulty being fully up-front with us about our work. If we’re also helping them with their own manuscripts, they don’t want to risk angering us. And besides, who wants to be mean?

Editors, however, are professionals. We get paid to be honest about your book. That shouldn’t mean we’re rude or cruel, but we have no qualms about telling you exactly what we think; after all, it’s our job. You expect it from us. And, we have a vested interest in seeing you published, because that will be another notch in our headboard, so to speak: a point of pride, and a means of getting further clients.

Whenever one of my clients gets a request or an offer, I feel almost as if I’d gotten one myself. I put some of my heart and soul into their book, and my clients always (so far) put me in the acknowledgments when I’ve worked with them. If my name is on something, I have a huge investment in making sure it’s the best it can be.

As much as I enjoy being a CP or beta, it just isn’t the same.

Editors also have more experience than critiquers or beta readers. Our experience can come in a lot of different forms; some of us worked for publishers before hanging out our freelance shingles. Others have degrees in English or Literature. Some, like me, just got our starts with a lot of practical experience such as writing books, short stories, queries, and pitches; judging contests; and being involved in a million critique partnerships.

This experience matters a lot. Writing and editing aren’t innate talents, like some seem to think; they’re skills that we hone through practice, and an editor will bring this skill to bear, helping you craft your novel into something you can be even more proud of.

Be sure you choose the right editor for your manuscript, however. If you get one who isn’t right for your book, it will be a waste of your money.

Being “right” for your book doesn’t always mean someone who is expensive, or even someone with decades of experience. It means they believe in your manuscript and share your vision for it. They need to have a good handle on your personal voice and style, and be willing to work with you instead of against you.

They also need to be good at what they do, however. The only true way to know this is to do your homework before hiring them.

Always research potential editors, ask for references, and have them do a free sample edit (usually first couple pages of your manuscript) to make sure they are not only qualified, but a good fit for you. Make sure they seem enthusiastic about your book, and that their sample edits make sense and seem right (give them time to sink in before deciding this, because often the best editors will strike a nerve, and sometimes it’s difficult to keep from getting defensive when that happens). Email a few of their references and make sure they were happy with the editor’s work. Triple bonus if those clients got requests, agents and publishing contracts after working with them.

Make sure you’re really comfortable with someone before you give them money and hand over your word-baby. A good editor will give you the space and the information you need in order to make the decision, and won’t hound you.

A NOTE ON SENSITIVITY READERS:

There is a lot of bad press out there about sensitivity readers lately. I am myself a sensitivity reader. I’ve worked with many clients, including some of the Big Five publishers, on books containing neurodivergent/mentally ill characters, and characters with addiction issues. I love sensitivity reading, and I’m willing to die on this hill to defend the process.

If your manuscript has a character who is marginalized, and especially if you don’t share that marginalization, please consider hiring a sensitivity reader. We aren’t here to censor your book, but to make it better. We want your book to succeed. A good SR won’t be defensive and actively looking for problems. We will fact-check, and bring more soul, more feeling, and more humanity to your marginalized characters by virtue of our lived experience. Being a marginalized person is complicated, and it’s not something outsiders can easily understand. We can help you to understand, and your book (and your life) will be richer for it.

Most writers would love to have an FBI agent read over their manuscript with an FBI agent main character, correct? They’d delight in having someone to help them on the small details, and let them know how it feels to be in certain situations. It would help the narrative to really come alive. So why is there pushback over hiring sensitivity readers?

The answer, unfortunately, is often bigotry. People are defensive and frightened about confronting their prejudices and misunderstandings which might come through in their writing. That’s normal, and it’s okay, because you can’t grow without confronting these things. Don’t be scared. A good sensitivity reader won’t spend their time berating you. They’ll be relieved you reached out, and will genuinely want to hold an open (if sometimes difficult) conversation about your characters.

Again, be sure to connect with a SR before hiring them, to make sure they’re a good fit for your book, and that they communicate in a way that works for you. Always be respectful of the amount of emotional labor it takes to be a SR, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. As long as you’re truly listening to us, we’ll be happy to answer.

CONS

There can be cons to hiring an editor, believe it or not.

If you put effort into finding good critique partners or beta readers, and put a lot of time and thought into revising your own book, you can get an agent and/or publisher without getting your manuscript professionally edited.

The most obvious argument against hiring an editor is the expense. I haven’t yet engaged an editor prior to sending a book out to agents or publishers. It’s not that I don’t believe in it, I’m just very poor. If you have a few hundred bucks you’ll never miss, you don’t have much to lose by getting professional eyes on your manuscript, but few of us have that luxury.

Another con is that an editor is only one person, and their opinions, while hopefully informed, are opinions and are therefore subjective and personal. Even if their critiques and suggestions make sense to you, that doesn’t automatically translate into revisions that will land you a contract more easily. I have gotten suggestions from professionals (both editors and agents) which resonated with me, only to have a different agent tell me they didn’t agree with that advice, or give me the exact opposite suggestion. So who should I listen to?

There is no right or wrong way to write. This is a subjective business. Being careful in choosing an editor—finding one who is both skilled and shares your vision—can mitigate the amount of “bad” advice you get, but even if you find the perfect editor for your book, not all of their suggestions will resonate, and you can never consider their opinions to be foolproof.

Developmental editors aren’t there to “fix” your manuscript; they are artists, like you, and can only be a partner in crafting your story, not a doctor who cures it of any ills.

Those are the only cons I can think of, but you definitely should take them into consideration.

Hiring an editor is a personal decision. If you’ve already been querying and have had little to no success; if you’re getting conflicting advice from betas and CPs; or if you really want to have full confidence that your manuscript is ready for querying, an editor might be the answer.

Please let me know what pros and cons I failed to touch on. I always love to hear from you.

 

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Elizabeth Roderick is an author and freelance editor/writer. You can find her on Amazon. Information about her editing services is here.

About Writing “On Trend”

IMG_1163As a professional writer, it always pays to keep an eye on the industry. No one wants to write a book that they then have to shelve simply because it’s a played-out trend. But, as others have said over and over again, you should never try to write “on trend”. I personally believe that means you should not fail to write “off trend”, either: you shouldn’t decide not to write a book that you really want to, just because you’re afraid it won’t sell.

For one thing, you never truly have shelve a book if you don’t want to. Some things will always be in fashion, and other things come back into fashion again. It’s like when my 23-year-old boyfriend put on Abbey Road, then got miffed when I sang along with all the songs. He apparently thought The Beatles were some great band he’d rediscovered, not knowing that they’d never been un-discovered. Or it’s like when his 19-year-old best friend asked me, “Have you ever heard of this awesome band System of a Down???” Psh, step aside, little man. I was howling along with those fools when you were teething, but I’m glad they’re cool again.

If it doesn’t turn out that your genre is a trend that’s here to stay, and you don’t want to wait until it comes back into fashion (as it undoubtedly will one day), self-publishing and indie publishers are viable options. There is absolutely no shame in either, nor will you ruin your chances of hooking an agent with future books by taking that route.

Let’s look at how a trend generally happens (I’ll use genre trends as an example): someone writes a book that becomes really popular. Agents who really liked the book are excited to sign authors who write similar ones, and publishers snap them up, because readers are voracious locusts who will feast unrelentingly on that fresh crop of books until the stores and libraries are barren dust bowls.

Later, though, agents get tired of seeing query after query for the same darn thing (because writers also loved the book that started this whole mess, too…or because they unfortunately think deliberately writing “on trend” is a good idea). Publishers also eventually stop buying books in that trend, because the market is saturated. It isn’t because readers have stopped loving books in that genre, it’s just that there is now such a thriving crop of them that the locusts will have a hard time devouring them all in their lifetimes, and so it’s hard for one book to stand out and make money. That’s why, like I said above, self-publishing and indie-publishing are viable options for off-trend books: those books still have an audience, and you (or your indie publisher, who might specialize in that niche audience) can find them.

HOWEVER, just because you’re writing in a supposedly played-out trend doesn’t mean you’ll never find an agent or a big publishing deal, even before the trend comes back around. Say you write a spectacular vampire romance. You aren’t trying to copy Twilight, you just have this really powerful story that you HAVE to write, in your own new and different way. If that’s the case, you could probably find an agent that sees that greatness, and realizes they can pitch it with a spin that appeals to publishers.

With regard to trends besides genre trends, specifically the “first person, present tense fatigue” that I spoke about in my earlier piece…I’m sorry, but I find this “trend” hilarious in a way. I was wondering if this sort of thing would happen, since a while back a lot of agents were lamenting that they wanted to see more YA written in first person present. The thing about tenses and points of view is that, unlike genres, there are very few of them. As long as you’re choosing the ones that are best for your characters and story, and aren’t just writing or failing to write it in a certain way because you’re worried about trends, a reasonable agent won’t turn you down just because of that. Unless, perhaps, if it’s second person or future tense (though you could find the right agent for these if you are skillful).

Writing is indeed a business, but it is first and foremost an art. You should write the books that are in your heart, and write them the way you want, whether it’s on trend or not. There will always be more books for you to write in the future, and you will never lose out by telling the stories you hold dear now.

 

Choosing a Tense and Point of View

12061-strict-woman-teacher-stern.1200w.tnI’m going to talk a little bit about how to choose a tense and a point of view that’s right for your story and characters.

For those who aren’t followers of my blog, I’ll tell you little about myself so you know my qualifications to opine on this subject. First of all, I’m a writer, so I love to see myself write in the same way that some people love to hear themselves talk. I also think my opinions are of paramount importance, also due to the fact I’m of the artistic persuasion, so I will state my views loudly over the boring drone of other people stating their own opinions.

Actually, I hope the above is not true. At least too much. I am, indeed, a writer. I have three published books, and a contract on two more that are set to come out on 3/7/17 and 5/2/17. I have written fifteen books in all (which are in various stages of revision and pitching), and am in the midst of drafting another. These books are in all manners and mixtures of tenses and points of view (though I’ve not used second person or future tense, and I don’t write in omniscient).

I’m also a freelance editor, and an active beta reader/critique partner, which means I’ve helped or tried to help a lot of other people decide the best tenses and points of view in which to write their own stories.

And, of course, I read a lot, and pay attention to how other professionals use tense and point of view as style and literary devices.

Okay. Here we go.

The default tense and point of view for fiction writing is third person, past tense (at least in English and Spanish, the two languages I’m familiar with). This makes sense when you think about the oral storytelling tradition. In most stories, myths, legends, and parables, the narrator is telling about something someone else did in the past. The exception to this is, of course, when someone is telling a personal anecdote. Then the narrative would be in first person, past tense. In the oral tradition, using present tense would be awkward, because that would actually be running commentary of what’s going on at the moment. Listeners might find that creepy: “The savory scent of stewing venison washes over me as Miriam adds carrots and potatoes to the pot. She bends over to fetch the peeler from the bottom drawer, and the hem of her skirt creeps upward, giving me a view of the smooth, delicious curve of her bare thigh.

“Miriam turns to scowl at me. ‘What the hell did you just say?’

“I rub the back of my neck sheepishly. ‘Sorry, Miriam.’ I really shouldn’t think things like that about my mother-in-law.”

Anyhoo, the oral tradition has influenced the written tradition, and it seems most common for books to be written in third person, past tense (this is especially true of older novels). However, you can use whatever tense and point of view you want—it’s no longer uncommon to use first person or present tense in fiction. I’ve also read stories written in second person, though I can’t think of anything I’ve read in future tense.

I will now tell you about how I go about choosing a point of view and tense for my stories. I don’t always consider the following things in the same order I list them below. My mind just isn’t that organized. My thoughts generally resemble a sluggish river roiling with piranhas and crocodiles, but it usually calms down in there eventually and I figure stuff out.

Genre Considerations, In General

One of the things to consider is the genre, although this, I think, is the most minor consideration, unless you’re writing memoir: that’s almost always first person past tense, because you’re telling about something you did or experienced in the past. I think I did read one supposed memoir that was first person present, and I found it so contrived and douchy that I had to put it down…though you definitely could pull that sort of thing off if you did it correctly.

There are other genres that are sort of traditionally third person past tense, such as mystery, westerns, and historical romance. But even with those genres, as with all the others, it’s basically free-for-all: you can do any tense and point of view you want, as long as it works for your character and story.

As a side note, I did have someone recently tell me on Twitter that an agent said they had “first person, present tense fatigue” with regard to YA. I wrote a whole tirade about “trends” here, but it ended up being 700 words. So I took it out and gave it its own post, here.

Back to tenses and points of view…

The biggest things to consider with regard to choosing your point of view and your tense are your main character (or characters), and the nature of your narrative.

Point of View

Let’s look at point of view. First ask yourself, what kind of person is your main character? Do they pull you straight into their head and show you how they think? Are you intimately involved with their thoughts? Is the story at least partially crafted by how your main character sees the world? Then you should probably tell the story in first person, so you can let your character’s voice dictate the narrative.

First person is very useful when you have an interesting main character with a strong or different voice; or an unreliable narrator that sees the world differently than others do, and part of the story relies of the reader having to figure that out. For example, my book The Other Place, which has a schizophrenic main character, is written in first person—his character voice is strong, and the way he sees the world provides a lot of tension and interest to the story.

Conversely, if your character is stand-offish and doesn’t tell you a lot of their inner thoughts (perhaps even their motivations are in question); or the story is very plot-driven and relies on seeing events and character interactions from the narrator’s standpoint, then tell it in third person.

Additionally, if the “vibe” of the book depends a lot of the setting or scenery; or if the narrator voice is what’s really interesting (as is the case in a lot of humorous books, like Terry Pratchett’s or Carl Hiaasen’s), then you should write in third person.

If the book is very much driven by the narrator voice, and relies on the humor or drama involved in seeing events from more than one character’s point of view within a scene, then third person omniscient is warranted. Be careful with omniscient, though; it’s the easiest point of view to do badly, and you’ll end up confusing and putting off readers if you spread them too thin and make it difficult for them to identify with any one character, without letting them identify with the narrator voice. It’s better to choose one character’s point of view, or change POV only in chapter/scene breaks.

If you have a very hands-on character who tells you all your thoughts, but perhaps their voice isn’t as distinct, or part of the story relies on being able to see character interaction and other environmental factors from outside the main character’s head, consider writing in third person close point of view. That’s when it’s in third person, but you have a lot of inner dialogue (and no head-hopping at all).

I’ll touch briefly on second person. It can work well if your character is a certain kind of crazy (I am myself “crazy”, as I tell you about endlessly in my other blog posts, so please humor me in my use of this word, because I love it for some reason). I’ve seen second person used to great effect with characters who see themselves as not being exactly in control of their own actions, and yet still at the center of the universe. I don’t know if that makes sense, but if you can’t describe exactly why the narrative of your story needs to be in second person (or at least have a very strong sense of why), you probably shouldn’t write it that way.

It also works best, in my opinion, if only portions of the book are written that way, so readers don’t burn out.

And as for first person omniscient… just don’t, unless your character is a supernatural being of some sort.

Tense

Moving on to tense. This choice is also driven mostly by your character and your narrative. If you’re writing about someone who sees the world as very immediate…perhaps they don’t do well with taking the “long view” and contemplating their actions before they act, or they experience what’s going on right now very strongly for one reason or another, then present tense is the one you want to use. The best example of this type of character, as opposed to other types, is in Carl Hiaasen’s Native Tongue. Most of the book is written in third person (sort of omniscient), past tense, but when the narrative slips into the point of view of Pedro Luz, it goes into present tense. Pedro Luz is this completely steroided-up, bullheaded bully who is heavy on the action and not huge on thinking things through, so the change in tense is completely organic. Hiaasen does it so well that you hardly notice, and just slip naturally into the character’s point of view.

My book The Other Place, which I mention above, is also written in present tense, because the main character experiences the present so strongly that it sometimes takes over his whole perception and makes it difficult for him to remember that this too shall pass.

Also, if your narrative relies on the feeling that the character arc and story arc are unfolding in real time, as opposed to being told by someone looking back on events as an older, wiser person with knowledge above and beyond that which they had at the time, then it’s best to go with present tense.

If none of the above things are true, you might be better off defaulting to past tense. Still, it’s your call, and you can definitely choose either tense or point of view on a mindless whim and make it work.

As for future tense…I’ll leave discussion of that to someone with a graduate degree in literature.

If anyone has other thoughts on how to choose a point of view and/or tense, I would love to hear them!

 

 

Six Writing Tips that Work Across Styles and Genres

Simple(ish) tricks to make any style of writing better

I’ve done a lot of critiquing, beta reading, and professional editing. I work with people who write in all different styles and genres—even ones vastly different from any I usually write—and I’ve learned to appreciate them all on their own merits.

I see a lot of writing advice out there, and a great deal of it frustrates me, because it amounts to a style critique rather than sound writing advice, especially if applied indiscriminately. This sort of writing advice tries to regiment style and can impede creativity.

There are some pieces of advice, however, that I’ve found work across all styles and genres. These are some of the tips and tricks I use when writing and editing my own work as well as pretty much every other piece I look at. It’s the stuff that always seems to make writing better (although there are exceptions…I broke some of these same rules when writing in Justin’s schizophrenic character voice in The Other Place and its sequel. There are always times to break every rule, as long as you’re doing it on purpose.)

So, with that small caveat, here are six things I’ve found (almost) always improve all types of writing:

  1. Avoid dialogue tags whenever possible.

This is a common piece of writing advice that is sound, on most occasions. If you only have two people in the conversation, you don’t need a dialogue tag with every line of the conversation, because readers understand who’s talking as long as they’re oriented now and again.

You can also use action tags in the place of dialogue tags. Action tags usually precede the dialogue (though they can come after), and describe something a character is doing while they speak. Action tags are super great because they can perform quadruple duty: let us know who is speaking, develop character, create a mood or vibe, and put a vivid image in the reader’s mind. For instance:

“I just don’t know,” Marla said.

As opposed to:

Marla chiseled the dried blood from beneath her fingernails with her hunting knife. “I just don’t know.”

Of course, if you’ve already let us know that she’s cleaning her nails, choose another image. Also be careful of saying things like, “She smiled” or “She cocked an eyebrow”; I myself am guilty of overusing these action tags, and often they don’t add anything, and/or are already implied by the dialogue. In those cases, sometimes the normal dialogue tag is better.

  1. Adjectives and adverbs are okay; redundancy isn’t.

If the adjective or adverb is already implied by the scene, dialogue, or action, you don’t need to use it. For instance:

The bright Southern California sun shone intensely on their faces.

Neither “bright” nor “intensely” are really needed here, and don’t add much as to style, either (you probably don’t even need “on their faces” in most cases, if you want to get technical.) Or:

“We need to get out of here!” she yelled urgently.

You really just need the dialogue there, without the “yelled” or the “urgently”.

However:

He leaned on the dented bumper of his car, eyeing her lustily.

Both “dented” and “lustily” add something here, if we don’t already know those things from context.

  1. Description is fine, but diagraming is generally not.

I love it when the author creates a bizarre, beautiful, or bleak image that sticks with me. However, I get really confused and any image in my head is destroyed whenever I read something like this:

The house was three stories tall, with three rows of five windows off to the right of the main entrance, and three rows of eight windows to the left of the entrance. The front door was tall and stately, a double door, with carved frescoes of cherubs and nymphs all along the edges.  Inside, a hallway led off in front to the state rooms. Another to the right led to the ballroom, which had windows on one side and framed mirrors on half of the other walls, with portraits on the other half.  A large, curved staircase…

You get what I’m going for. This happens even in traditionally-published novels more than I like to say.

The point of writing is to give readers an image; a feeling; an idea of what’s going on. Their imaginations will fill in the rest. In fact, you need to let readers’ imaginations do the rest, because that’s part of the fun of reading. They don’t need to see exactly what you’re seeing, they just need enough to get their own picture. In the passage above, the idea the writer is trying to convey is of a grand, old-style mansion. You can give us this impression with little images dropped here and there throughout the dialogue and action, preferably when the characters interact with their surroundings. We don’t need a layout of the house, especially all at once.

  1. Inner dialogue and exposition are fine, but be careful of telling the reader stuff they already know, or don’t need to know.

He pressed his lips to hers. She gave a little gasp, and her body melted into his. I want him so badly, she thought. I’ve never felt like this before about anyone.

Now, you can get away with a lot of inner dialogue and exposition, especially in romance, but in the above passage, we don’t need that inner thought at all. Even if we do perhaps, in some cases, need to see that thought once, we don’t need it every time he kisses her. We actually feel the moment and the romantic tension more if the inner dialogue is mostly implied by the characters and the situation, and left to the imagination.

Also, giving backstory or detail that doesn’t even play into the story is a double no-no. Backstories on minor characters that only appear once in the book; memories of events that aren’t relevant; long descriptions of job duties when the whole of the novel takes place while the character is on vacation—these sorts of things are often dead weight that slow pacing and bore readers.

  1. You don’t need to say something using the fewest words possible, but avoid repeating yourself, or telling something you’ve already shown.

Some people can go on and on and on without losing the reader, because their style is engaging for one reason or another. Not all of us are exclusively into the Spartan style of writing. But, even if you’re prone to wordiness, you don’t need to say things more than once. For instance:

She drove quickly down the road. She was in a hurry. She was late for a meeting, and would be in trouble with her boss.

Those three sentences basically convey the same idea a bunch of times.  You could say the same thing by showing her honking her horn and swearing at traffic, and letting us know by context that she’s on her way to a meeting; or if nothing else by saying something like She drove like a maniac to get to the meeting.

Or:

She hated chocolate pie. She poked at the chocolate pie with her fork, wrinkling her nose. “I hate chocolate pie.”

You really just need the action there. You could also have the dialogue if character-appropriate, but the first sentence should never be there. It just tells before it shows, and thus reduces the impact of showing.

  1. Avoid sensory words such as “saw” “heard” “smelled” or “felt” as much as possible.

This is the hardest one. The trick here is to put the reader in the story; you do this by  describing what’s going on instead of saying so-and-so saw or heard it going on. For instance:

Jeremy smelled jasmine.

As opposed to:

The scent of jasmine wafted over him.

The second makes you feel more like you’re there, right? Sometimes you need the sensory tag for emphasis; for instance, if your main character is in the other room and can’t see the door opening, you can’t say the door opened. You have to say they heard the door opening…or you could say The door creaked as it opened, or something, if appropriate. Also, I use the saw tag when I want to make it clear someone is noticing something that they were not meant to notice. Abraham saw Fred tuck his shirt over the butt of his pistol. That makes it clearer that it didn’t just happen, it happened surreptitiously.

The “feel” tag is harder to remove. It’s best if you can write the scene so it’s obvious what someone would be feeling. If you’ve done your character development, scene setting, and dialogue right, this is often possible. But, at times, you really do have to say things like George felt like she’d hung him by his nuts from the flagpole. There’s just no other way to get the point across and keep the reader along for the ride.

What writing tips and tricks do you use? I’d love to hear them. I’d also love to argue with you if you don’t agree with some of mine 🙂

Elizabeth Roderick is the author of two published novels, with more upcoming. She is a professional freelance editor.