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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Slushpile Survival Guide

Continued from last week...

One more thing I want to add to last week's column on file format, and I really can't believe I have to say this: but after you've written your story; after you've poured your heart and soul out onto the page; after you have (it is devoutly to be wished) proofread and polished your words to the shining pinnacle of perfection; after you have written the perfect obsequious and ingratiating cover letter; as you are poised at the very moment of submission, with your virtual finger hovering over the virtual Send button—

Take one more look, to make certain your manuscript file is attached to your cover letter, before you hit Send.

Hard to believe, I know, but roughly every other day we receive a cover letter without an attached submission. It is true that we editors have incredible powers, bordering on the superhuman, but even we can't read and comment on a story that you haven't actually sent.

Today, I'd like to take a minute or two to talk about point of view. Not in the traditional writing group sense of, "Is it better to use first-person or third-person?," or anything like that. As far as that goes, I say, go ahead: use whichever point of view you think works for the way you want to tell your story. Heck, tell it all in second-person future tense, if you think that works best for this story and believe you can pull it off.

But once you pick a point of view, use it consistently.

Again, no, not in the writing group sense of "Never shift point of view." Third-person limited, alternating point of view, can work. Even alternating first-person and third-person can work. And sometimes, a sudden dramatic shift to a different point of view is the only way to really carry the ending off with impact.

But in the moments when you are seeing the story unfold from a given character's perspective, really think about what that character can actually see and hear in that moment.

Your point of view character is stumbling through a pitch-black cave, his torch has gone out, and suddenly he feels a deadly Brown Recluse spider crawling up the back of his neck? Whoa, wait. It's pitch-black. How can he possibly know what species it is? How can he even be certain it's a spider?

We see this sort of thing often. Characters routinely see things with the naked eye that they couldn't possibly see without a telescope, a microscope, night-vision gear, or high-speed slow-motion photography. Conversations revealing key plot points take place after the point-of-view character has left the room. Characters have information that they could not possibly have, given where they were and what they could see and hear at the time the event in question took place.

It's a cinematic story-telling technique, and you can get away with it, in a script. When it comes to movies and TV programs, we are all used to the idea of being that all-seeing invisible giant eyeball that's floating around the set, looking into whatever seems interesting at the moment. In fact, when filmmakers try to shoot from the first-person point of view, it's an obtrusive effect that really calls attention to itself and is tolerable only in small doses.

But our brains process stories presented in images differently from stories presented in written words, and in print, it's these superhuman flashes of momentary omniscience that become obtrusive and pull the reader out of the story. And whatever other effects you may be trying to achieve with your writing, one thing you don't want to do is to make the reader stop reading, step back from the story, and ask, "Huh? What the heck is [author name] trying to pull, here?"

Hope this is useful to you. Will write more next week,
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