Contest Entries, Part 2: Understanding POV

Laura Threntham~ By Laura Trentham 

This is Part 2 of my observations from judging lots of RWA contests for unpublished manuscripts. I really love judging, not only to give back to a process that gave me my start in publishing, but by critiquing someone else’s writing, I discover weakness in my own.

Part 1 focused on the actual beginning of your story and the delicate balance of backstory in the first three chapters. Now, I’m going to discuss a craft item that affects not just your first chapters, but you entire book. Deep POV.

First, let me say, this is a very brief overview of the subject. There are craft books and blogs and courses that delve deep into the subject. (I really enjoyed Margie Lawson’s Empowering Characters’ Emotions.) But, what I learned from judges’ comments on my first contest entries was that I had a BIG POV problem. And, upwards 75% of the contest entries I judge have POV issues, some major, some minor.

POV=Point of View

Deep POV=Immersive storytelling

Generally, an author tells their story from one to three different characters’ POVs. Usually in a romance, it’s the hero, heroine, and/or maybe a villain. (Or H/H or h/h or H/h/H, whatever genre you’re writing. For simplicity, I’m going with H/h.) With Deep POV, your goal is to get the reader into the character’s skin. Your reader should see what the hero sees, feels, touches, hears, smells… You want to break down as many walls between the reader and the character as possible. Writing in Deep POV will help you do this.

Head Hopping

Old school romances were often written with one paragraph detailing the heroine’sinternal thoughts, then the next paragraph would jump into the hero’s head, all in the same conversation—back and forth, back and forth. Think 80’s and 90’s romances by Kathleen Woodiwiss or older Julie Garwood books like The Bride, which I love. That style has gone out of fashion with good reason. Nowadays, an author will spend an entire scene or half a scene in ONE character’s head and then switch.

(As an aside, I wrote THREE books (90k+ words each!) head hopping like a jackrabbit on crack. And, yes, I revised them all after learning about head hopping from a contest judge.)

But staying in a character’s head for a scene is only one aspect of mastering Deep POV. The other aspect is…becoming the character. That’s the only way I know how to put it. You should become your hero, heroine, or villain, and describe everything as it filters through your character’s senses.

Sense Words

You want your reader to feel, hear, see everything as your character does. This means most of the traditional ‘sense’ words—heard, saw, smelled, felt, thought, wondered, realized—are unnecessary.

For example: She heard the bell ring and startled.

Better: The bell rang. She startled.

In the first, you are removing the reader from the immediacy of the moment. In the second, the reader is experiencing the bell ringing right along with the heroine.

Let’s delve into the sense of sight for a moment. Unless you’re writing about a lumberjack, avoid using the word ‘saw’ or any of its derivatives. Assume anything you describe while in your character’s POV are things he/she can see.

For example: He saw the man creep out from behind the bush.

Better: The man crept out from behind the bush.

The reader understands that your POV character can see the man.

Internal sense words like thought, knew, wondered, and realized are often redundant.

For example: He knew he was falling in love.

view finderBetter:  He was falling in love.

For example: She wondered if the man would gather the courage to approach her.

Better: Would the man gather the courage to approach her?

The most frequent transgression I come across is overusing the word ‘felt’ as it pertains to feelings. In my opinion, the word ‘felt’ is often a cop-out.

For example: He felt angry.

Better: His hands curled into fists, and he shuffled into a fighter’s stance.

Instead of stating the feeling, like the first example, push yourself to find a more interesting way to depict the emotion. Using ‘felt’ does work beautifully sometimes, but really examine every single time you choose to use it and determine if you can make a stronger, more revealing sentence.

Authorial Intrusion and POV Slips

Beware authorial intrusion. This is when you describe something your POV can not see.

For example: Every man’s head in the room turned to watch the woman slink around the tables. Every man, but Jack, who stared into the brown dregs of his coffee.

Jack is looking at his coffee, not the approaching woman. This is a no-no, unless you’re going for an omniscient POV, which I’ve never attempted and is difficult to pull off convincingly.

More common than major authorial intrusions are simple POV slips, like the heroine describing something about herself she can’t see/know. An example from one of my WIPs:

Fire burned in her gut. As if nature itself felt her fury, a salty breeze lifted from the sea and plucked her auburn hair like tendrils of flame around her face.

I love that passage, but I knew when I wrote it that it was a POV slip. Do you see that in my heroine’s POV, she can’t describe her hair as ‘tendrils of flame’? Delete, delete, delete…

I read so many descriptions from a POV character about their own eyes. ‘Her eyes flashed with anger.’ Except a character cannot describe her own eyes this way. Better to write a physical reaction to the anger. Ditto with saying something like, Tears welled up in her brown eyes. A character is never going to think about the color of her eyes like this. Don’t use it as a shortcut for physical description.

This is by no means a comprehensive guide to writing Deep POV, but hope this post helps some budding writer to avoid the mistakes I made. If this made a lightbulb go off about your own writing, then go forth and learn and practice, practice, practice.

An award-winning author, Laura Trentham was born and raised in a small town in Tennessee. Although she loved English and reading in high school, she was convinced an English degree equated to starvation. She chose the next most logical major—Chemical Engineering—and worked in a hard hat and steel toed boots for several years.

She writes sexy, small town contemporaries and smoking hot Regency historicals. KISS ME THAT WAY, Cottonbloom Book 1, is a finalist for the Stiletto Contest and for the National Readers Choice Award. THEN HE KISSED ME, Cottonbloom Book 2, was named an Amazon Best Romance of 2016 and is a finalist for the National Excellence for Romance Fiction. TILL I KISSED YOU, Cottonbloom Book 3, is a finalist in the Maggie contest. When not lost in a cozy Southern town or Regency England, she’s shuttling kids to soccer, helping with homework, and avoiding the Mt. Everest-sized pile of laundry that is almost as big as the to-be-read pile of books on her nightstand.

Visit her at www.LauraTrentham.com or connect on Twitter at @LauraTrentham or on Facebook or Pinterest.

Contest Entries, Part 1

Laura Threntham ~ By Laura Trentham 

I really love judging RWA chapter contests for unpublished writers (both contemporary and historical manuscripts), mainly because I got so much out of the contests when I was pre-published, including my agent! I credit contest feedback for teaching me to write. That sounds hyperbolic, but it really isn’t. My degree is in chemical engineering. I don’t have a home RWA chapter. It was years before I found a critique partner. Besides being an inhaler of all books, I had never attempted to write before I sat down in January of 2012 to start a book. A historical romance actually.

About six months into writing, I discovered RWA existed. I joined and got my first RWR with the list of chapter contests in the back. I entered seven (7!) that fall, sure I was destined to win them all. (Spoiler alert: Didn’t happen!) I made about every newbie mistake possible. But, guess what? I fixed all those mistakes and went on to sign with an agent who was a final judge of one of the contests and sold five books in three months. I want this for you!!

With my background out of the way, I’m going to jump into the mistakes I commonly see when I judge entries, starting at the beginning. Literally, the beginning of you manuscript. That’s the thing about a contest that only looks at the first 20-30 pages of your book. Your beginning must draw the reader in and be memorable.

It’s no surprise the biggest issue with first chapters is managing backstory. Two big problems I see:

  • The “Coming Into Town” beginning. This can be in a car or carriage and usually involves the hero or heroine ruminating on what is bringing them back to their hometown or why they’re moving into a new town. It’s usually a big fat stinky info dump. Doesn’t matter if the heroine is describing the scenery in between introspection about her family drama or getting fired from her job. Unless something active happens, like she gets pulled over by the cops or gets beset by highwaymen or rammed in the bumper by a man who turns out to be a villain/hero, just skip it. It’s often boring for the reader. The other issues with this type of beginning is that it’s very common and doesn’t stand out. Three out of four manuscripts in one contest I judged were “coming into town” beginnings. Look, this is not a hard and fast rule, but really think about why using this type of beginning is critical for your character’s arc and not a convenience.
  • Mirrors: Don’t have your heroine (or hero) stand in front of a mirror and describe herself to herself. At this point in your writing journey, maybe you’re rolling your eyes and saying, of course not. Well, guess what, I DID THIS in the first scene of my first book draft! I didn’t know any better at the time. I needed a contest judge to tell me.
  • The “As You Know” conversation. For a new author (or even experienced one) it can be a deceptive backstory dump. I typically see this conversation taking place between a main and secondary character. For example, maybe it’s the heroine giving the lowdown to her best friend. Except, it’s really a sneaky way of imparting backstory to the reader. If you can add in phrase “As you know” before dialogue, you have a problem.

red pen and paperAs you know “I had to come home because my grandmother is sick.”

“Your brother should be helping,” her best friend said.

As you know “He’s been drinking too much and parties every night.”

If the two characters are close, then it’s a conversation they would have already had. Plus, it’s usually all telling with no showing. Better to start with the brother coming in drunk and the sister confronting him in the wee hours. That packs an emotional punch and builds sympathy with both characters.

A last word on backstory: The best piece of advice I read about backstory came from a Margie Lawson class (I think she got it from someone else, though). Imagine writing all the tidbits of backstory for your characters on a pane of glass. Then, shatter that glass. Pick up only the most important facts. Facts that the reader must know. Sliver them strategically throughout the first third of the book. Discard the rest.

A few other things I want to touch on:

  • Balance. There should be a balance between introspection, action, dialogue, and description from the beginning. I’ve read contest entries whose entire first chapter is all introspection. Don’t do this! Another trick I picked up from Margie Lawson (if you haven’t taken any of her on-line classes, I highly recommend them) is to get four different colored highlighters. Use one to highlight dialogue, one to highlight actions, one to highlight scene/character descriptions, and another to highlight introspection. You want to have a nice mix of all the colors or else your pace and flow suffers.
  • Prologues. I’ll admit, I love the damn things, but the overall consensus is to avoid them. My way around this? CALL THEM CHAPTER 1! My first three Cottonbloom books start with an incident between my hero and heroine that took place many years in the past. That scene was needed to frame their present. But, make sure it’s absolutely necessary. Don’t use a prologue as a means to impart backstory. It must reveal something vitally important about your hero or heroine or their relationship with each other (not necessarily romantic.) If you can lose the prologue and still understand the story, then…lose the prologue.
  • The often heard advice: Start your book with action! I would posit that the advice should really be “Start your book with the inciting incident!” The inciting incident is what upsets the balance of your characters’ lives and sets the story in motion. This “incident/action” doesn’t have to be a fight or a car crash, it can be something much more subtle.
  • More well-intentioned advice: your hero and heroine should meet in Chapter 1. I do agree you should get them on the page as soon as possible (don’t wait three chapters!), but sometimes the inciting incident only involves the hero, and it snowballs to include the heroine. I have at least two books where the hero and heroine don’t meet until Chapter 2 or very late in Chapter 1. On the other hand, sometimes the hero meeting the heroine is the inciting incident. This is often the case for a romance. For example, maybe the man who rear ends the heroine on her way back into town is the hero. And a cop! AND her first love! That would be fun, right?

In the next post, I’m going to discuss what was nemesis when I started and something I see a lot in contest entries…Head hopping and Deep POV.

Do you have any advice for beginnings?

An award-winning author, Laura Trentham was born and raised in a small town in Tennessee. Although she loved English and reading in high school, she was convinced an English degree equated to starvation. She chose the next most logical major—Chemical Engineering—and worked in a hard hat and steel toed boots for several years.

She writes sexy, small town contemporaries and smoking hot Regency historicals. KISS ME THAT WAY, Cottonbloom Book 1, is a finalist for the Stiletto Contest and for the National Readers Choice Award. THEN HE KISSED ME, Cottonbloom Book 2, was named an Amazon Best Romance of 2016 and is a finalist for the National Excellence for Romance Fiction. TILL I KISSED YOU, Cottonbloom Book 3, is a finalist in the Maggie contest. When not lost in a cozy Southern town or Regency England, she's shuttling kids to soccer, helping with homework, and avoiding the Mt. Everest-sized pile of laundry that is almost as big as the to-be-read pile of books on her nightstand.

Visit her at www.LauraTrentham.com or connect on Twitter at @LauraTrentham or on Facebook or Pinterest.