Tag Archives: prose

What exactly are “unnecessary” words?

Never hire a Dalek to edit your manuscript. They don't understand nuance.

Never hire a Dalek to edit your manuscript. They don’t understand nuance.

One of the problems with writing rules is that writing deals in words, and we, as writers and readers, experience words differently.

The term “rule” implies (to me) a black-or-white statement with no nuance. Do not drink bleach is a pretty good rule. Get rid of words that do not add meaning, however, is more complicated. Applying that rule without nuance may not leave you with the best-possible finished work.

Look at my post title as an example. On a mechanical level, the word “exactly” is unnecessary. Without it, “What are unnecessary words?” is still an easy-to-understand construction. But on a subtextural level, is does not at all mean the same thing as “What exactly are unnecessary words?” The addition of that single word says, Eric is skeptical about something, and this post is going to challenge the status quo. Not bad for one of those crappy old adverbs everyone hates.

If writing served the solitary, utilitarian purpose of conveying information, banishing words that do not add literal meaning would be a sound objective. But writing isn’t solely function; it’s also art. Art has style, rhythm, form, and flow. In the previous paragraph I wrote that “What are unnecessary words” does not at all mean the same thing as “What exactly are unnecessary words?” At all does not add surface-level meaning. A robot would not glean additional information from it.

However, I’m not writing for robots, I’m writing for humans. I added at all because I like the rhythm of the sentence that way, and I like how it flows with the rhythm of the sentences before and after. You may look at that sentence and say, “I would not have written it that way,” which is fine, but, see, it’s my sentence. Write your own blog post. Damn it.

Danger, Will Robinson. You are forgetting why you started writing in the first place.

Danger, Will Robinson. You are forgetting why you started writing in the first place.

If you have taken a writing course or read books on said subject, you’ve likely been presented with an essay showing the power of lean, simple, crisp writing from which all unnecessary words have been excised. No doubt the essay was at once like a cool breeze blowing off the ocean and a bright blue sky with life-renewing sunlight washing over your body. You were suitably impressed by the writer’s (and editor’s) expertise.

Of course, those essays are great lessons for the rest of us. Learn how to be a lean, mean writing machine! But what if you are going for gothic dread or satire or noir? Sometimes you need those “unnecessary” words to lend weight or make people laugh or perfect the timing associated with stylized storytelling.

I do not suggest that when writing teachers talk about “words that do not add meaning” they lack the insights presented in this post. I do think, however, that the nuance of this message gets lost by the time it filters out to inexperienced writers and novices, leading some of them to obsess over rules and, in the process, lose the unique character of their writing.

Most times, extraneous words are exactly that: Clutter that must be cut away to reveal your voice and bring your story to life.

Sometimes, though, a word that adds no meaning can change everything.


I Wish I’d Written That #1

Jacques-Louis David "Patroclus"

“Patroclus” (1780) by Neoclassicism’s most revered painter, Jacques-Louis David

I scarcely need to ask: Have you ever come across a sentence or phrase so exquisitely capturing an idea or feeling that you were compelled to shout, “Why didn’t I write that!”

Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde might be popping into your head about now.

It happens to me all the time, but I then I forget because I’m a flake. Well, guess what. I’m going to keep track now.

Today’s entry belongs to art historian Hugh Honour and appears in his book Neo-Classicism, which was published in 1968 but not discovered and bought by me until two weeks ago at the Princeton Public Library’s used book section for $1.

Honour was talking about conventions so familiar to writers and artists that we master their use but no longer think about what they mean on a cultural or philosophical level.

He called such conventions “Furniture of the Mind.”

You have achieved total victory, Hugh Honour.*

*unless someone else thought of it first and I’m too much of a Philistine to realize that Honour was simply borrowing it.

Please share a thought or phrase below that made you go, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

As if the world needs another post about Adverbs.


Standing in a circle, we face each other, panting and glazed with sweat. Blood-smeared clubs dangle from our hands, heavy now from all the blows. On the ground before us lies a mass of pulverized meat, guts, bone, and hair.

It’s the Adverbs Suck horse, and we have killed him across all the known universes of the cosmic alliance. He is ready for the glue factory, little in the way of processing needed.

Then Baker says, “Can I just make one more comment about adverbs?”

The rest of us groan.


Never Use Adverbs 98% of the Time

So I happened upon a dude’s blog the other day in which he discussed the “ly” thing. I got the feeling he didn’t think they were the worst thing ever, but also that they weren’t great and should generally be avoided.


Yeah, I used an adverb.

I’ve long maintained here that writing rules aren’t rules but firm guidelines. When you begin to view rules as absolute, you lose sight of the story. Would you wreck a sentence that works to ensure it conforms to rules?

I agree that adverbs can be indicators of lazy writing and that they tell instead of showing, the main knocks against them. I don’t agree that they are absolutely unacceptable under any circumstances.  See, I just used another one, absolutely. It works for the sentence. It lends dramatic emphasis to “unacceptable.” I could find another way to write that sentence, but the sentence would be equal, not better, and it might even be longer.

Adverbs can make a point in an economical manner. Or, they can do it “economically,” which is more economical. Ready for some blasphemy? Sometimes telling is OK, like when it’s necessary to connect the interesting bits of the story with a line of exposition so quick you won’t even notice it’s exposition. Every writer uses exposition, and everyone who freaks out over one line of it is too worried about rules and not enough about enjoying the story. Dickens’ “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” what some may argue is (AKA arguably) the most famous line in all of fiction, is exposition.

I’ve digressed. Adverbs are 98% bad for the reasons often cited. Here are my guidelines for when not to use them:

horse21. When integrated into the action. This is the lazy part people mention.

He struck the horse angrily, as if somehow killing something already dead would make people realize that JJ Abrams ruined Star Trek, despite the movies being pretty good, winning acclaim, and being successful.

A better choice: He struck the horse until his palm stung…

2. When integrated into a dialog tag. This is the telling part people mention.

“I’m going to keep hitting this dead horse until you admit I’m right,” Pinky said passionately yet frustratedly.

A better choice: Pinky’s face knotted and he challenged Mina with a glare. “I’m going to keep hitting this horse until you admit I’m right.”

3. When it makes you cringe.

You know, this is a pretty good guideline for any component of writing. If it sounds awkward, it is.

The moral of the story: Adverbs are not great, but neither is unbending compliance to and enforcement of any single writing “rule.”

Thoughts? Comments? Abuse?


Bonus content!

Gender stereotypes are silly, and few are more silly to me than the notion that a woman carries a purse and a man does not.  I’ve got a wallet, a big wad of car keys with two remotes and a bunch of store cards, a Samsung Galaxy phone, lip balm, nail clippers, minty sugarless gum, and sometimes a CD or two to carry around. You think all that junk is going to fit in the pocket of my jeans?

So here it is, as requested by my blogging buddy Janna Noelle, a picture of me with my brand new man purse. No, it’s not a “messenger bag.” It’s a purse. I grew a beard and scowled just to accentuate my manliness. That is, if this Chuck Norris-like bucket of testosterone can carry a purse, so can you, fellas.

Baker and his man purse. You gotta prollem widdat?

Baker and his man purse. You gotta prollem widdat?

Eleven Rules for Freelance Editing

eleven car

Have you ever thought of taking up freelance editing? It’s a good gig for writers because you put your language skills to work and get paid for it, often earning more money than your client will as the author. And with the abundance of folks self-publishing their projects, opportunities are plentiful. After all, every writer needs an editor.

The bad news: Editing is skilled labor, not something you can pick up over a weekend. Before you spill a drop of red ink over anyone’s precious manuscript, you must know these eleven rules of freelance editing:

1. Write. Write some more. Write until knowledgeable people say you are a good writer. You have to understand the rhythm of language to edit.

2. Read. Read some more. Read all kinds of stuff, because it will help you understand the rhythm of language even better.

3. Know language mechanics and grammar rules (but don’t let them rule you).

4. Think expansively. You’re not simply editing words. You are editing words in a format within a genre using a language that serves a culture containing multiple sub-cultures. A book about the history of hip-hop in Los Angeles requires a different application of language than does a guide to refinishing antiques or a historical romance novel. In other words, “get” the material.

matt smith25. Respect your client’s voice. If your author styles herself after William Faulkner and you emulate Tom Clancy, you edit with William Faulkner in mind. Your job as an editor is not to make the story sound as if you (or Tom Clancy) wrote it. Write your own book.

6. Respect your author’s story. If you think chapter one is dull and needs an action scene to grab the reader, suggest that to your client. If you think your author’s inner-city drama about a middle-aged, married, white woman falling in love her 25-year-old gay, black, male parole officer would work better as a medieval-era papal conspiracy thriller about a robot triceratops discovered under the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, shut up and write your own book.

7. Understand that editing is a multi-stage process. Shaping the document involves reading the entire manuscript and identifying the parts that don’t work or the parts that drag or the sequences that confuse, and then suggest rewrites. In the line-editing stage, you will go line by line, eliminating redundancies and tightening prose until you have successfully removed that which blocked the full expression of your client’s voice. Proofing is the final pass, during which typos, grammar missteps, and punctuation mistakes are fixed.

8. Develop an eye for unnecessary words. Read:

“In the National Hockey League, 16 different teams make the playoffs at the end of the season each year, though only one of them will be able to skate away with the Stanley Cup raised proudly over their heads.”

Editing that, you can cut at least 15 words and up to 20, depending on the audience and the tone you seek. I hope your client writes less clunky constructions than the one above, but not all writers are equal.

Here’s the minus-15 version:

“In the National Hockey League, 16 different teams make the playoffs at the end of the season each year, though only one of them will be able to skate away with the Stanley Cup raised proudly over their heads.”

“In the National Hockey League, 16 teams make the playoffs each year, though only one will skate away with the Stanley Cup raised proudly.”

With 20 words removed, slicker but with less emotion:

“In the National Hockey League, 16 teams make the playoffs, though only one skates away with the Stanley Cup.”

9. Be consistent. If a movie title is italicized in Chapter One, it shouldn’t be placed in quotes in Chapter Four and bolded in Chapter Nine. You may not be ultimately responsible for formatting, but don’t set bear traps for the printer or publisher.

Lloyd10. Be prepared to fact check. Editing isn’t all limos and invitations to party with Justin Timberlake. Sometimes you have to make sure your author gets dates right, attributes the right quotes to the right real-life serial killers, and so on, whether you’re editing fiction or non-fiction. I recall reading a novel that mentioned a J.S. Bach symphony. I happen to know something about classical music, and I know that Bach did not compose symphonies; he composed concertos (there’s a difference). I can’t remember much about that book, such as its name for example, but that flub is still vivid.

Note that in my entry for rule #6 above, I joked about a robot triceratops found in medieval times under the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. Thing is, St. Peter’s was not finished until the Baroque era. How embarrassing! Keep your flub radar on at all times when editing.

11. You have to be on, all the time. You can’t zone out halfway down the page. You must read every single damn word in the entire manuscript and look at every last comma. You have to look at them hard and interrogate them. You must outlast the text. If you have a short attention span, editing is probably not your gig.

For real meaty editing talk, visit Candace Johnson’s blog Change it Up Editing, the top of the food chain for such things. And feel free to tell me what I missed in the comments!

Writing Dialog, Part II

My darling Anastasia

My darling Anastasia

“Eric, are you giving more advice about dialog writing?”

“Yes I am, Anastasia. Don’t judge me!”

“No, Eric, please. I’m not judging you, Eric! I just wonder… ”

“What do you wonder, Anastasia?”

“Well, Eric. I wonder what you love more, me or giving writing advice. My love for you is so deep, Eric, yet I feel like you are shutting me out.”

“Don’t, Anastasia. Don’t say it.”

“But Eric!”



You’re probably thinking, now that’s a fine example of dialog. I’m so glad I clicked in here today. The sad truth is, you’re wrong. That is not good dialog at all.

Seriously, I can’t believe how of often I see name swapping in books. I read a novel last year written by a professor of writing at a posh private college in New York, and I only got 10 pages in before I started banging my head against the metaphorical wall of irritation and frustration. Every stinkin’ line of dialog included the recipient character’s name.

“Seth, don’t you think it’s time you came home?”

“I’ll come home when you quit drinking, Brad.”

“Seth, don’t you dare bring up my drinking when it was you who killed Mary in that accident.”

“Don’t, Brad. How dare you!”

How could a professor of writing think it’s acceptable to name swap? How did he get that job when he does not recognize such a basic flaw?

Knight? Or...

Knight? Or…

Think about the conversations you have with family, friends, co-workers, medieval knights, male strippers, and other people you run into every day. Better yet, listen to your conversations as you conduct them. How often do you say your counterpart’s name? Not very.

Here are the times we say the name of the person with whom are interacting: When we pass them in the hall at work, sometimes when we greet them for the first time that day, and when they are our children and they piss us off. That’s about it.

Here’s a much more realistic version of the exchange at the top. Let’s assume I set up the narrative so that we know it is Anastasia talking to Eric:

“Are you doing another post about dialog?”

“Yeah. Is that a problem?”

“What the hell? I was just wondering.”

“You were wondering what?”

“Well, since you’re being such a bitch about it, I was wondering if you even give a shit about me anymore. You pay way more attention to your stupid blog than you do to me.”

“Oh, I’m sure that’s what’s happening.”

“It is! I’m a blog widow.”

“Knock it off. I’ll be done in five minutes. What’s with the drama-queen act?”

I wouldn’t leave eight consecutive lines of dialog untagged in an actual story, but I did here to emphasize the point of today’s post. Read the first version aloud, and I dare you not to imagine it’s from a soap opera. Then read the bottom version aloud, and you’ll start inflecting and adding emotion, because the pretense is stripped away and you can focus on the meat of the exchange.

If your manuscript doesn’t feel quite like a pro wrote it (or like a certain professor of writing in NY wrote it), strip out all the name swaps between characters. You’ll notice an instant, marked improvement in the realism of your dialog.


Please pardon me as I shamelessly plug my eBay auctions for the week.

Fans of ‘80s horror unite in bidding for the 11 horror-related collectibles I’ve made available, including the rare Fangoria postcard magazine, issues of Gore Shriek, a Japanese Godzilla book, out-of-print books about Tom Savini and Lucio Fulci, and a special Fangoria issue autographed by Alice Cooper. The auctions end between Sunday and Thursday. Hope to see you there!


A Real-Life Editing Demonstration

A few days ago I threw out a challenge: Who was brave enough submit a short piece of writing for me to publicly edit? Many quickly volunteered… to buy popcorn and watch.

One fearless soul sent me an e-mail with an attachment.

That fearless – and talented – soul is Aisha of Aisha’s Writings, who has permitted me to do a line edit on her roughly 200-word story below. It’s just what I was hoping for… a well-written piece that only needs what every good story or essay needs. A once-over by an editor.

A line edit is what it sounds like: The editor goes line by line through a body of text to eliminate extraneous words and tighten prose. Maybe flip a sentence or two. It happens after you complete the revisions your beta readers or agent suggested but before a copy editor scrubs for typos and punctuation.  A good line editor not only preserves the writer’s voice and message but removes obstacles to finding them. We are an invisible liaison between writer and reader.

Below is Aisha’s original piece, a moving and poignant narrative essay about humans’ innate ability to connect with other humans, no matter the barriers, followed by the edit demonstration.

Aisha’s story:

It was in Year 7, my first day at The Westminster School. I walked with slow steps towards my class. Searching my name in every class list, I was feeling nervous and shy. Talking to people instantly wasn’t my nature. I finally found my class and as I entered I saw new faces everywhere. There were Lebanese, Indian, Syrian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Philippines, Japanese, Turkish, Egyptian, Moroccan, and so on. I felt my stomach ache with tension because I knew it won’t be easy making friends.

As time flew I had not one or two but a whole bunch of friends. To name a few very close and good ones, Saba, Fajr, Maryam, Raeya, Hifza, Saba, Bushra, Arwa, Fatima, Amna, Ayesha, Samima, Faiza, Naima, and I could just go on writing down the names till forever. Years passed and my family of friends kept growing. There was no question of leaving anyone behind but rather walking side by side. We were truly a ‘One Big Family’.

And then the day came, it was the last day of our examination and it was time to say good bye. With a heavy heart and tears in my tears I hugged each one of the people I had ever met in TWS and left to face another challenging world all by myself.

With edits visible:

It was in Year 7., < It was my first day at The Westminster School. <<I walked with slow steps towards my class with hesitant steps. Searching my name in every class list, I was feeling felt nervous and shy. Talking to strangers people instantly wasn’t my nature. I finally found my class and, as I entered, I saw new faces everywhere. There were Lebanese, Indian, Syrian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Philippines Filipino, Japanese, Turkish, Egyptian, Moroccan, and so on. I felt m My stomach ached with tension. because I knew I It won’t wouldn’t be easy making friends.

As t Time flew, and soon I had not one or two but a whole bunch of friends. To name a few very close and good ones:, Saba, Fajr, Maryam, Raeya, Hifza, Saba, Bushra, Arwa, Fatima, Amna, Ayesha, Samima, Faiza, Naima, . and I could just go on writing down the names till ‘til forever. Years passed and my family of friends kept growing. There was n No question of leaving anyone one was left behind but, rather, we all walked ing side by side. We were truly a ‘One Big Family.

And then the day came., it was t The last day of our examinations, and it was time to say goodbye. With a heavy heart and tears in my tears eyes, I hugged each one of them people I had ever met in TWS and left to face another challenging world all by myself.

Edited version:

I walked toward class with hesitant steps. It was my first day at The Westminster School. Year 7. Searching my name in every class list, I felt nervous and shy. Talking to strangers wasn’t my nature. I finally found my class and, as I entered, I saw new faces everywhere. Lebanese, Indian, Syrian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Filipino, Japanese, Turkish, Egyptian, Moroccan. My stomach ached with tension. It wouldn’t be easy making friends.

Time flew, and soon I had not one or two but a whole bunch of friends. To name a few very close and good ones: Saba, Fajr, Maryam, Raeya, Hifza, Saba, Bushra, Arwa, Fatima, Amna, Ayesha, Samima, Faiza, Naima. I could go on writing names ‘til forever. Years passed and my family of friends kept growing. No one was left behind but, rather, we walked side by side. We were truly One Big Family.

And then the day came. The last day of examinations, and it was time to say good-bye. With heavy heart and tears in my eyes, I hugged each of them and left to face another challenging world by myself.


Outside of a demonstration like this one, I would only recommend these changes to Aisha, not implement them. You’ll note I did not make much effort to correct grammar. In fact, I introduced “errors” in spots, because doing so sharpened the emotional edge. In prose and narrative non-fiction, grammar is subservient to art. It’s not a textbook, so I didn’t edit as such.

Let’s give a big round of applause to Aisha for volunteering and for donating her talents to this exercise!

Image source: I can't remember. Sorry.

Image source: I can’t remember. Sorry.

Don’t Write Boring – Part II

Overzealous editing?

Overzealous editing?

Last week (before my anti-virus software went rogue and hijacked my laptop), I wrote about chopping the boring parts out of a story to make it better. I meant your own story! The managers at Barnes and Noble are very cross that you smuggled in a pair of scissors and attempted to edit their inventory manually. If you do that again, I shan’t post anymore! Got it?

So anyway…

Writers are known post the beginnings of their manuscripts on online writing forums for critique and feedback. I’ve seen ‘em do it! Many times the opening goes something like, “There were five of us living in the little ranch house on Maple Street. It was my Mom and dad, my brother Jimmy, who was a year older than me, my twin sister Mary, and me, Lisa. Even though the house was small and we didn’t have a lot of room, we were pretty happy. Then, in the summer of ’92, when we went to Mexico for vacation, everything changed forever.”

Writers have many intriguing options for starting a story. What I just wrote is not one of them, but developing writers do it all the time. They begin by explaining.  Just as movie making is so much more than pointing a camera toward pretty people and saying action, writing a good story is so much more than explaining what happened to the characters. For starters, writers have to decide what parts are worth telling.

In the example above, we have five family members, not wealthy, who go to Mexico for vacation, where something happens that changes their lives. With only that information to go on, each of us would take the tale in a different direction. Some of you would write a poignant tale of love and loss. Others would build a mystery. At least a couple of you would turn out an epic saga, and still more would unnerve readers with biological or psychological horror.

I haven’t figured out what type of fiction I’m good at yet, but  I’m not a poet who composes lyrical prose or a worldbuilder gifted at setting up a 10-volume series. I try to skip the exposition and reveal my characters and their lives through action and dialog. I’d start my version of this story with Lisa and clan already on their way to Mexico, flying into a sudden storm, and about to experience a hair-raising landing.

Why? One, because nobody cares about Lisa’s ranch house or how long she’s lived there or what shoes she packed or what brand of dental floss she prefers. We’ll find about her life as we go, through little details and bits of dialog that give clues. Two, because “Lisa’s fingernails clawed helplessly across the stainless steel armrest as the jet bumped and plunged its way through the giant black cloud that came from nowhere” is a much better opening line than the bland drivel I wrote 5 paragraphs ago. And, three, because her frightening descent foreshadows the fact that she will later get sucked into a sandpit in the Yucatan and discover an underground kingdom of mole people who intend to sacrifice her twin sister in honor of their giant black insect god, Garfoobel, at midnight.

Hey, this is my story and I want mole people in it. You gotta pro’lem widdat?

Not everyone writes action-packed commercial fiction, so I’m not suggesting all novels have to begin with a thrill ride. I am suggesting they start with something other than banality. What is your strength as a writer? Emotion? Imagery? Elegant prose? Start there.

Writing Rule #1: All stories are better with Mole People in them.

Writing Rule #1: All stories are better with Mole People in them.

Don’t Write Boring

It seems obvious, but writers do it anyway. They leave boring bits in.

Read a book that became a film—it has to be one of those “faithful” adaptations—and then watch the movie. You’ll notice only about 10 percent of the book is on screen. The film is essentially the novel in bullet points. The most important bits, in other words.

If your beta readers say your story (or non-fiction narrative) has good parts and a good concept but put them to sleep anyway, don’t chuck the whole thing; cut the boring bits. If you aren’t sure what’s boring, start here [you know these are weighty concepts because I capitalized each word. I’m all about gravitas, which sounds even cooler if you roll the r]:

1. The Expository Beginning

Wake me up when something happens.

Wake me up when something happens.


The Expository Beginning is a writer letting you know a story is about to start. For example, I could have begun this post with:

Welcome back and thank you for continuing to support this blog. We’ve talked about many writing concepts in the past, as you know, and today will be addressing something that I’ve seen crop up all too often recently. Whether you are a beginner or have been at the writing game for a few years, it’s possible to fall into the trap of…

**CLUNK! (face hitting desk from sudden-onset narcolepsy)**

Stories, narrative non-fiction, and essays do not require a pre-game show. They should start with the first interesting thing that happens. Notice how fellow blogger and writer Jill Weatherholt begins this essay from earlier today: She doesn’t tell us about the weather, about putting her golf gear in the back of the SUV, or about eating a bowl of Lucky Charms before heading to the links. It starts with her already on the course, already having taken her shot, already having watched the puck go over the glass and into the stands.

Sorry, I know more about hockey than golf. I know this though: She didn’t mean to hook her shot, but she did mean to hook us in, which she does successfully by skipping the exposition. Despite what everybody says, a writer has to use a little exposition here and there. Just not on page one.

2. Explaining What We Already Know From Context

Right, then. Can you get on with it?

Right, then. Can you get on with it?

The human brain is a remarkable, if expensive to repair, invention. It can recognize patterns and fill in blanks better than any computer could hope to. Readers, many of whom come equipped with a brain, understand that if chapter 3 ends with Lazlo the Potato Sculptor’s car sliding off the road in a snowstorm and heading toward a tree, and chapter 4 begins with Lazlo in the hospital with his leg in traction, that an ambulance came, that he survived, that he was transported to the ER, that he was treated by a doctor. Unless the ambulance driver and the doctor are suspects in a murder Lazlo is investigating (he specializes in carving a forensic likenesses of victims from a russet potato), we don’t need it. Like Lazlo, a writer should be smart yet bold in cutting away that which is not required to create an artwork.

If someone said your story is dull, look at the spaces between the action and character moments. Does it matter that Carlos, the poor kid from a bad neighborhood who dreams of one-day becoming World Pogo Champion, is brushing his teeth and combing his hair and clipping his nails before he goes to the prom, or can we start with his mom adjusting his tie and gushing over how handsome her Carlito looks? We can surmise he already did the other, boring-to-read stuff.

From the beginning of each scene in your story, go line by line and ask, “Why do I need this sentence?” If you don’t have a good answer, cut it. The first sentence that argues back is the real beginning. Whatever remains after that should drive the plot, build the character, paint a world, reveal your voice, and entertain the reader.

Choosing a Character POV

cyclopsTell me if this is weird: As a writer of fiction, I never think about character point-of-view. My process is

1) Get a story idea

2) Start typing

Now that I’ve been poking around WordPress for a year, I realize I have a choice! I can be the main character. You can be the main character (don’t worry; I won’t do that to you). I can report on my main character. I can report on everybody. Or I can pick a different character altogether and start over. Who knew?

Yes, I’m being silly. I just think it’s boring to drag out English-teacher phrases like “Third Person Omniscient” right away. Yawn. But I’m serious that I never think about POV. So far, the POV demons have made the correct choices for me.

[For the unsure, there are no such things as POV gods, because gods are busier with more important things like cake and sports. I tried to hire POV angels, but they were like, “Yeah, right.”]

What about you? Do you have a hard time deciding between first and third person? Are you ever uncertain about which of your characters should be the reader surrogate? Here are some choices I’ve made and why:

1. I play the main character

I often use first-person narration for shorter pieces because it gives me a chance to play with different writing voices, like “crazy” or “evil,” that might become annoying in a longer work.  I typically combine first person with present tense, which lends immediacy.

First person is also useful for studying someone else’s character arc. Few of us walk around in life saying, “And that’s how I learned that relationships are more important than money!” If the first-person narrator learns something in such a telegraphed manner, the story is going to seem like an after-school special. If you have been reading this blog recently, you know I’ve been tossing around the idea of self-publishing a short-story collection. In the micro-novel I intend as the lead tale, the primary arc belongs to my narrator’s counterpart. He grows as a person as well, but he doesn’t notice, because it would be hokey if he did.

The pitfall of first person is you have to be in every scene, potentially limiting the scope the story… unless the whole novel is letters from different people or newspaper clippings or whatever, but that’s a tough sell. Also, with a novel-length work in first person, the reader is eventually going to ask, “Now when did this vampire sit down to write a 317-page novel?”

2. I am in my main character’s head… or at least hanging from his uvula

Perhaps I want to do an action-oriented piece, a character observation, or something heavily metaphorical, and I can’t imagine a scenario by which the main character could have taken time or had the inclination to write it down. Also, this approach lets me describe events on a scope that is beyond the character’s perception or awareness. It allows the reader to be intimate with the character yet not be trapped in her head.

Unless one is incredibly insightful, this narrative option might be useful when writing a character who is a different gender or ethnicity or is dramatically distant in age from the writer. Such a thing can be done in first person, but it can be done quite poorly.

I probably use this method to please readers and rule makers rather than myself, and I’ll elaborate in a minute. The pitfall for limited third-person POV is the same as that of first person. Your main character has to be in every scene, so you’re out of luck for simultaneous narratives you intend to unify later.


3. I am God, and you will do my bidding!

If you have several story threads going at once and a lot of characters, you kinda have to go with third-person omniscient. You know more than your characters know, because you are everywhere. You report the best bits to us.

I like this approach for writing novels. Especially the one I’m working on (cough cough). I have four story threads, each one told in third-person limited, but at some point they will all come together, and I can’t abandon three of the main characters for one, can I?

So this is what I was talking about a minute ago when I said I use third-person limited to please readers and rule makers: I know I am in an extreme minority here, but I think it is absolutely possible, as a narrator, to be a brain jumper. My pal Jodi at My Literary Quest, whose recent post inspired this one, disagrees with me adamantly. But I believe it’s only a problem when it’s done poorly. When it’s done right, you don’t notice.

The great mystery writer Agatha Christie was a genius at brain jumping. Read “And Then There Were None,” or any of the early ones not narrated by Captain Hastings. She jumps from person to person multiple times within one scene, and it works. My first full-length manuscript, written in 2008-09, wasn’t good, but one thing I did well was get into the heads of my two lovers and show them learning about each other as they fumbled along. Well, until the murders started, that is. Do I look like Nicholas Sparks to you?

I’m discovering something interesting about the so-called omniscience in my WIP: My characters are all under 15, so, though the narration is TPO, I’m omitting observations and awareness I feel are excusive to mature, adult thinking. This particular god, though able to create a universe, in only as clever and dimensional as the young characters he placed in it.

Your thoughts, ideas, arguments?


Here’s “Taking in the View” by Kansas, a beautiful, unjustly forgotten song. Worth three minutes of your time!

Writing Motivated Characters

Prose is a mixture of technique and artfulness. In my previous posts, I’ve felt confident enough to talk about aspects of the writing craft that are, in my view, technique oriented. Creating good characters, on the other hand, seems like an art form to me.  Let’s see if I can take the fun out of it and get technical!


Each writer has her own way of building characters, but we all share the same goal of making those literary creations authentic and interesting. Where to start? First I want to consider the major components of a character. I’m no expert, so feel free to add your thoughts or tell me what I missed:

1. History

2. Motivation (Today’s topic. I knew it would come up!)

3. Dialog

4. Action

In regard to history or backstory, many writers create bios of each character, especially for stories with complex family trees, royal bloodlines, or a multi-generational timeline. Others are comfortable with a general sense of their characters’ pasts. When it comes to dialog and action, our literary creations must say and do things that are consistent with who they are.

Which brings us to motivation. We, as writers, should ask ourselves what our heroes, villains, and supporting cast members want to accomplish. Although bit players can be purely functional, our stars must have objectives. Why write a story about them if they have nothing to do?

But is an external objective enough on its own to make someone real or interesting? Think about yourself. I’m sure you have goals, but you also have the push and pull of your intrinsic nature, which sometimes helps you and other times holds you back. For example, I know I am motivated to control outcomes, and I don’t like surprises. I relax like a turtle does a back stroke: Very poorly. On the other hand, I’m empathetic and see value in other perspectives. If you put me in a zombie apocalypse story, I’ll be the guy telling all the knuckleheads to calm down so we can make a survival plan in a logical, collaborative manner. I have a goal – to survive the zombie onslaught – and an intrinsic nature, which is to impose order and control while still respecting others’ views.

Here’s my formula for character motivation:

External motivation (goal) + internal motivation (intrinsic nature)

Internally, each of us is a cauldron of motivations that are often invisible to others. However,when the stakes are high, our intrinsic natures come to the fore. Going back to the zombie scenario, I can’t be the controlling guy with the diplomatic personality in one scene and the hysterical guy who loses his temper every five minutes in the next. A more plausible dynamic is for me to be frozen by inaction when I’ve imposed my plan but the zombies manage to breach the fortress anyway, since (warning: theme coming) efforts to control outcomes in life are ultimately futile. As I’m being devoured by the undead, perhaps I can say, “You know, I learned a valuable lesson here about living in the moment!”

Motivation: Find lunch

Motivation: Find lunch

Think about the people you know, dig below the surface, and imagine why they act the way they do. Have you ever met someone who puts people down to make up for her own lack of self-esteem? How about someone who tries too hard to please the boss because she needs validation as a human being and doesn’t know how to find it in herself? Combine those internal qualities, give the character an external goal (getting the heroine fired), and – voilà – you’ve got a secondary villain. The main villain is a serial killer hiding in the air ducts, by the way.

Here is a tiny sampling of intrinsic motivations that can be combined with others and, when coupled with an external goal, make one’s literary offspring more authentic:

Wanting to win at all costs and dreading failure. This character often makes the people around him miserable with all his ups and downs, and the world is all about him.

Striving to win approval and craving attention. This person may seek praise from authority figures and try to make others feel guilty. Passive aggressiveness, in other words.

Seeking variety and distraction. This character can get lost in what he’s doing and let people down who were counting on him.

Avoiding social interaction. No one knows what’s really going on behind her nerd glasses!

Assuming all people see things the way you do. He buys his wife a football. She wanted Sex and the City: Season 1 on DVD.

Trying to get everything done yesterday. She’s so wired, she makes the people around her tired just looking at her.

A character is bland if all he has is an external goal.  He needs dimensions. The next time our hero and his sidekick go on a quest to retrieve a magic sword, let’s make the hero a controlling, pushy type with no concern for others’ feelings, and depict the sidekick as an unassertive people-pleaser who gets walked on. The sidekick shouldn’t exist simply to help the hero find the sword. Give her a reason to overcome her anxieties and stand up for herself… even better if doing so is integral to the plot. While we’re at it, let’s teach the  hero a humbling lesson in empathy as he looks for that stupid sword.

On second thought, don’t make the sword stupid. People won’t want to read that.