Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How Many POVs Do You Need?

As a fiction editor and evaluator, the most common problem I encounter is with point of view. The advice I constantly give writers is: Stick with one POV for chunks of text, then signal the change if you need to tell part of the story from another character's point of view.

Chester Campbell—career journalist and author of two mystery series featuring private investigators—takes the subject further and discusses the pros and cons of different POV approaches.

In my Greg McKenzie mystery series, the stories are all written first person from Greg’s point of view. This has become sort of standard for private investigators. I did vary it in the first two books with third person prologues. That gave me the ability to provide the reader with background information on the books that Greg was not aware of until later in his investigation.

The first person viewpoint gives a feeling of immediacy, allowing the reader to follow along with the detective, picking up the clues as he does. But it also means neither he nor the reader gets to see what else is going on nearby, out of sight or earshot, as they say. Greg’s wife, Jill, who becomes a partner in McKenzie Investigations, appears only as Greg sees her, or as she reveals herself through her dialogue.

When I decided to write a new series with a different protagonist, I switched to third person so I could use multiple points of view. That permitted the reader to learn what was going on in different areas than just where the main protagonist was involved. I was aware, however, that switching too often and involving too many different viewpoint characters could become confusing to the reader.

I gave my main character, Sid Chance, an unusual sidekick to share the viewpoint, sometimes with separate scenes in the same chapter, occasionally through separate chapters. She’s a successful businesswoman, board chair of a chain of truck stops founded by her father. But she comes with an intriguing past. Early in life she was kicked out of the family by her aristocratic mother for wandering into such unsophisticated circles as Air Force Security Police and championship professional boxing. She was a Metro Nashville policewoman before returning to her father’s good graces after her mother died.

Jaz LeMieux gets her first shot at the viewpoint in Chapter 5, after learning that her housekeeper’s grandson has disappeared. What has happened to the grandson becomes a crucial subplot and provides most of Jaz’s opportunity to take the spotlight. This subplot is woven in throughout the book, right up to the end.

Using the old technique of the thriller, I also tossed in a few brief POV shifts to update things from the bad guys’ viewpoint. It was designed to ramp up the tension. One thing I’ve avoided is shifting viewpoints within a scene. Most critics highly recommend against that technique, although I have seen it done effectively.

From my observation, it seems that the objections to changes in points of view are becoming more moderate. I’ve read several comments lately from authors who feel it isn’t as troublesome as previously thought. I suspect most readers, outside the sophisticated folks found in places like the DorothyL listserv, have little familiarity with the technicalities of point of view. Their only concern is that the story reads smoothly and they don’t have to re-read parts to find out who is talking or whose thoughts they are listening to.

If we achieve that goal, our multiple POV manuscripts should be successful. With readers, that is. With editors, that’s another matter.

Readers: How do you feel about multiple points of views?
Writers: Have you struggled with this issue or had editors request POV changes?

This is next to the last stop on Chester’s blog book tour for The Surest Poison. Leave a comment and you will be eligible to win some of his books. The final drawing tomorrow night will be for an autographed copy of The Surest Poison and the grand prize, a copy of all five of his books, including four in the Greg McKenzie series.

Chester Campbell has written four Greg McKenzie novels featuring a retired Air Force investigator and his wife. The Surest Poison is the first book in the Sid Chance series. Campbell worked as a newspaper reporter, freelance writer, magazine editor, political speechwriter, advertising copywriter, public relations professional and association executive. He's also the secretary of the Southeast Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and president of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Kindle Readers Aren't Snobs

“It's really expensive,” she [Sara Nelson, ex-editor of Publishers Weekly] said of the Kindle 2, which Amazon sells for $359. “If you're going to pay that, you're giving a statement to the world that you like to read - and you're probably not using it to read a mass market paperback.”

What? Kindle readers are too high-minded for mass market paperbacks? Hah! Do Kindle readers have a type? If I had to guess, I'd say they have two shared characteristics: they love to read and they're not afraid of new technology.

What is Nelson saying anyway? Because the Kindle is expensive, you shouldn't read genre fiction on it? You mean like drinking Budweiser out of a champaign flute? As though there's something low-class about mass market paperbacks!

The article went to say when people read on Kindles, you can't see their book titles, so you can't make judgments about what they're reading. It's about time. That's why I sell more copies of The Sex Club on Kindle than anywhere else. People don't have to ask out loud for it or let anyone see their purchase, which readers have admitted was embarrassing for them.

Meanwhile, here's the top 10 selling books on Kindle last week. If they're not mass market paperbacks now, most of them will be in a few months.
  1. Long Lost by Harlan Coben
  2. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer
  3. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  4. Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer
  5. Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer
  6. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  7. Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto by Mark R. Levin
  8. The Shack by William P. Young
  9. Just Take My Heart: A Novel by Mary Higgins Clark
  10. Handle with Care: A Novel by Jodi Picoult
Do you own a Kindle? Do you download books for the masses every once in a while?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Publisher, an Agent, and a New Novel

I recently completed my third Jackson story—working title, Thrilled to Death. Most of my early readers think it’s the best Jackson story yet. We’ll see. The first person I sent it to was an editor at Berkley who asked to see in January while I was still writing it. She read the first two stories, The Sex Club and Secrets to Die For, and loved both. But she didn’t think she could sell the edgy, controversial themes to her sales reps. So she reluctantly passed, but said, “Please send me the next Jackson story and anything else you write.”

It feels pretty amazing and exciting to have this direct connection to a publisher. But I keep hearing that I still need an agent. The more I think about it, the more sense it makes. I need someone to read, understand, and represent my entire body of work, including my standalone thriller, The Baby Thief, which features Jackson as a minor character. I also would love to sell my work in other countries. (Wouldn’t we all?)

So I wrote a query and e-mailed it to an agent in the Trident Media Group. She responded the next day, asking to see all three Jackson manuscripts. I like her already, because she’s interested in the series from the beginning and wants to see the body of work. She also has extensive foreign rights experience. This could be great.

But I’m not holding my breath. I’ve signed with great agents and had one call me and say, “I’ll have an offer for you next week,” then have it fall though. I’m not counting on Berkley either. She’s turned me down twice. So the queries will keep going out.

I feel like I have a new momentum though that’s different this time. Once the next book comes out in September, I’ll feel like I actually have a little street cred too. I can’t wait for that. Come on Echelon Press!

So now I’m working on a fourth Jackson story, Passions of the Dead: The outline is complete, and I have a thousand words on the page. I’m trying a slightly new structure, and I’m excited to write this story.

Here’s the first paragraph:
Jolie's first hint that today would be worse than most was missing the homeless vet on the corner of 7th and Washington. She always handed a dollar out the window to the old guy with no teeth as she approached the intersection on her way to work. Sometimes when the light was green, it was tricky, because the person behind her got impatient and honked. But Jolie didn’t care. Giving away the dollar had become a talisman that she hoped would keep more shitty things from happening to her.

Does it make you want to keep reading?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Your First Draft Doesn't Have to Suck

I guest blogged today about how to write a great first draft. There's lots of helpful information. Stop in.
Working Stiffs

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Feeling Powerless

As the publishing industry evolves and new models are tested, it will be interesting to see if the role of the author changes. Specifically, I wonder if authors will gain more control over the product they create.

Currently, in the traditional publishing world, authors often feel powerless. They have little or no control over what the book is named, when it’s released, or how many copies are printed. They also have no guarantee that their publisher will pick up their next book. For non-bestselling authors, every novel feels like starting from scratch in the process.

This is the reason some authors self-publish. They want control over their product and how it’s presented to readers. They like to know their work will reach the market, regardless. They choose not to feel powerless. Who can blame them?

This subject is on my mind today because I evaluate manuscripts for a large self-publishing company. A few of the stories are good, many are unreadable, and many are written by doctors. Why are doctors writing and self-publishing novels?

My theory is they sometimes feel powerless too. Doctors’ novels are always about an individual MD making a dramatic improvement in the healthcare industry. I can only assume some physicians must also feel powerless to change a system they’re entrenched in and dependent on. So they write out their fantasies and pay to get their stories to the public.

This is the only power writers have: to create a story that entertainers, enlightens, or simply shares their way of looking at the world. For everything else, we must cross our fingers and hope for the best.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Staying True

Sometimes “no” is the right answer.

In early February I started a job at the Register-Guard, our local newspaper. I work 19 hours a week with no benefits, and I have one responsibility: write copy. It’s perfect (except for no health insurance). I work three days a week and write chunks of my novel every morning before going in. I supplement this income with freelance editing and manuscript evaluations.

Three weeks after I started, a full-time job opened in my department (special publications). Of course, I applied for it. In this economy, it makes sense to seize an opportunity for a nice steady paycheck, plus health insurance. Part of me really wanted the job too. I thought it would be a nice change of pace to concentrate my money-making energy into one place. As a freelancer, I’m scattered in many directions at once, and it gets a little crazy. I also wanted the health insurance and the security. Not that anyone working at a newspaper has job security.

But I didn’t get it. And when my boss told me I had not been chosen, I have to be honest and admit that my first physical and emotional reaction was relief. It would have meant a major lifestyle change. It would have meant that writing novels was no longer my primary focus. The job would have come with a lot of responsibility. It’s not the kind of position you can walk away from at the end of the day and forget about. My husband thinks it would have made me unhappy.

I see this as a sign from the universe that I need to keep novel writing as the focus of my life. It’s scary and exciting and insecure. But I’m wrapping up edits on the third Detective Jackson story this week. Early readers love it. By Friday the manuscript will be in the mail to an editor at a major publishing house, who is waiting to read it.

Everyone comes to these forks in the road. I’m glad I got pushed in the right direction. Have you an experience like this? What helped you decide which path to take?