Monday, February 28, 2011

Archaic Points of View?

I was poking around the various bookshelves in my house recently, trying to find something I'd not read before (or at least not in a while), when I found a Robin Cook novel that came with my wife. (A bookreading spouse is a definite plus in my opinion, and one who doesn't mind when I attempt to be funny is even better!)

The book, Godplayer, was not one I was familiar with, but within 35-40 pages, I had a fairly good idea what was going on and who the probable bad guy was (turns out I was wrong, which is a good thing.) But what I'm writing about today isn't about whether a story is predictable or not. Rather, I'm speaking to the passage of time.

A long time ago, in a readership far, far different from what we see now, it appears that commercial fiction allowed things to happen that are frowned upon by we sophisticated 21st century readers. Two points in particular caught my attention: dialogue tags and shifting points of view. First a couple of definitions for those Bookshelf readers who might not be familiar with the jargon of writers.

A dialogue tag is the stream of "he said, she saids" that sometimes accompany dialogue. It can also include those annoying Tom Swifties. For example, "I won't wear the snow plow," Thomas tooted haughtily. The adverbial descriptor is not only unnecessary, it distracts the reader from the story.

Elmore Leonard is a proponent of using "said" almost exclusively. But Leonard also doesn't add words that needn't be added. The following would probably piss Elmore off:

"I shot him," she said.
"But why?" Crispy asked.
"Because I couldn't stand the idea of him leaving me," she replied.
"But he wasn't leaving you. He was breaking up with her. He told me so himself," Crispy said.
"Oh no! What have I done?" she sighed.

Ok, aside from it being terrible dialogue, I think you'll understand what I mean. This conversation takes place between two people, so we don't need to identify who is speaking each and every time. Context means something.

The other thing I wanted to address was point of view shifts. Perhaps this helps:

Without turning on the light, Sandy threw her coat on the bed. She missed Derrick, and it pained her to have to spend another night alone. As she unbuttoned her blouse, she stroked her hand along her cleavage.

"I would be happy to help you with that, if you'd like," Derrick said.

She jumped at his voice and stumbled into the closet door.

Derrick smiled. He wondered whether she was happy to see him or whether she'd forgive him for sneaking into her apartment. ...

Did you see that? All of a sudden, we're in Derrick's brain. How'd that happen?

While I've read lots of older books in which perspective hops from head to head in subsequent paragraphs, the approach is frowned upon these days — at least by many readers I know and talk with. One reason is because it's annoying. A reader likes to feel like she's in the character's mind, seeing everything from that perspective. Then, faster than you can say "Being John Malkovitch," you're in someone else's head!

Back to Godplayer. What I noticed in Cook's book is that not too many years ago, head-hopping was publishable. Today, not so much. You can still jump from perspective to perspective, but you need to show breaks — asterisks between paragraphs or empty space between paragraphs — to allow a reader to understand that things were changing.

Like I said, sometimes the tool can be effective. It can help show a scene in a camera-like manner. But if you do it too much, it's more annoying than the hand-cam view that's become popular in films since The Blair Witch Project.

Will head-hopping and flagrant dialogue tags ever come back into vogue? I doubt it. What do you think? And what other literary tools do you think have outlived their usefulness?

Monday, February 07, 2011

Platform vs. Credentials

This was originally posted in the nonfiction forum I moderate on AgentQuery Connect. I thought I'd share it here. Comments are always welcome.

While reading through agent blogs recently, I came upon a wonderful distinction that sums up quite well one of the challenges that frustrates writers of nonfiction: Platform vs. Credentials.

For example, say you're the president of a small company that produces widgets. You started in the field as unpaid internship in widget making, got a full-time job after graduating widget school, and worked your way up the ranks to be chief widget operator and finally president. You're a big wig in your little widget world. Congrats. You have credentials.

But do you have platform? Not necessarily.

You're running a small regional operation that until recently was struggling to make payroll, remains virtually unknown outside of the widget world, and makes decent widgets but is not recognized as an innovator. To make matters worse, you cancelled your subscription to Widget World Times ten years ago. I mean, who does that?

You don't have a great platform. As far as the widget world is concerned, you're a dinosaur. In fact, if it weren't for your son, you might be facing difficult decisions about the future of your little company.

Your son, who you hired a year ago after he earned his masters in widget management even though he followed at your heels since he was a kid, not only gets a subscription to Widget World Times, he's been quoted dozens of times in its competitor publications and has a column in the Widget Gazette. In addition, his blog,, is quickly becoming a must-read for the widget cognoscenti. Not only does he boast of his hundreds of blog followers, his frequent Twitter posts get retweeted regularly by the 4200+ followers he has there. And comments? Jeez, he pays your teenage son $10 a week (and supplies him with a six-pack of beer on occasion -- but you didn't hear that from me) to moderate the comments on Widgetwatcher.

Your son is developing a strong platform. If he can help you grow that company, then his platform becomes even stronger. Because he doesn't quite have the credentials yet. Maybe you and he could write a book together.

Does that help?