Common mistakes in writing

What I'm not sufficiently experienced to understand - and, hands raised, it's my problem - is when is switching from mind to mind allowed? Because surely writers like Ed McBain, John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett must have done it all the time, given the ensemble natures of their storylines.
The way I see it (and, no, I'm not published), writers can afford to switch between POVs if they know how to handle it well, and if they already are published, which means book buyers and publishers will have confidence in them. I'd say if you're starting off on the "unpublished" rung of the ladder -- which is the lowest of the low -- don't write anything that may get you rejected. Remember, your work has to stand out from the hundreds of submissions agents/editors receive in a week.

So I'd say the answer is never. Never switch into someone else's head. There are ways around the drawbacks -- have your character guess what the other people are thinking; this saves switching POV. Example: Robert knew just by the look on Darren's face that he felt uneasy with the situation. Or (and this way saves too much "telling"): Show your lesser characters behaving slightly differently, then we'd guess what's wrong with them (if you've made your writing --and the character's motivations -- clear).

Unfortunately, it is an ingrained method of my current style and I'm not sure I wish to abandon the concerns of all my characters to favour just one. I want to know as much about the assassin's motives as the victim's terror, probably because I started life writing for screen, stage and radio, and I've directed more plays than I've had hot dinners (I eat a lot of salads). So I would sell the family silver for guidance in this area - you know, obviously, if the family had any silver worth selling.
I'm in the same boat as you. I have no recommendations, no previous publishing credits, nothing.

As for your story -- why do you have to sacrifice the rest of your characters? If you want the reader to hear the thoughts of other characters, you just finish off the scene you're currently working on, put a couple of line breaks, then retell the next scene from a different character's perspective. You could have one scene with the hapless, bumbling hero, then the next you could show your scheming villain plotting your protagonists downfall. So you would allow the reader to see into the heads of both (and many more) characters. Thus you can play tricks with your characters; have the reader know some plot that the evil guy is setting in motion, then when they read the hero's next scene, Mr Hero would be bumbling away, quite blissfully unaware of his imminent downfall. Yet we, the reader, would be saying "No! Don't go in there! Mr Evil is waiting behind the door, and he's got an axe!". Effective, no?

So, will this adherence to a style that is considered 'bad' be my ultimate downfall and the source of all my longest-standing regrets? (That might be rhetorical - please don't say 'yes' just yet.) Or are there acceptable exceptions? (I'd love a little 'yes' in there, if that's ok, but I'd appreciate it even more if you'd expand a bit on it.)

I suppose if your work is good enough, people will want to read it regardless. But -- and I'm being completely honest -- you're already getting rejections, which means maybe it's time to start looking at your work again with a fresh eye.

Ultimately, if you find you can't write in any other way, just write to make yourself happy. If a publishing contract comes along that would be a bonus, but that's a big if...

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As I said, there is a way of doing POV changes in omniscent viewpoint where it goes along so smoothly that no one notices the switches. The problem with this is that it only gives a shallow impression of what each character is thinking and feeling. It works well in, for instance, a light, comical piece, but not at all well when there are complex motivations and interactions that the writer wants to convey.

For the more complex motivations, you need to go deeper, and to do that effectively you just can't go flitting from mind to mind throughout a single scene. But of course you can switch viewpoints each time you start a new scene -- or, in a long scene, if there is a logical dividing point (perhaps after some dramatic turning point or revelation) you can put in a text break and make the switch there.

Say that you are writing a scene where two characters are in conflict. You decide which character should be the viewpoint character for that particular scene, and you only tell what that character sees, hears, thinks, feels. The reader comes to understand that character's viewpoint completely because the other character's thoughts and feelings aren't there as a distraction. Then the next scene (or a later scene) begins with the second character reflecting on the events of that previous scene as he goes about ... whatever he is supposed to be doing at that point in the story. Now the reader begins to understand his thoughts and feelings while still retaining an understanding of the previous character's motivations and reactions. From this point on, the reader knows each character well enough that it isn't necessary to tell exactly what he or she is thinking in every single scene, because the reader is able to put together more subtle clues, such as body language. Of course you will return to each viewpoint from time to time, so that the reader's understanding of the character deepens.

By taking these viewpoints one at a time, you establish a stronger identity for each character. Another advantage is that scenes usually have better pacing this way. In some cases (and where it's appropriate to the story) each fresh viewpoint can come as a revelation to the reader, which adds a certain dramatic punch. There are other advantages, as well, but I won't go into them because that would turn this posting into an entire article.

Could your failure to stick with one viewpoint per scene be the sole reason your stories have been rejected in the past? That's unlikely; a story is seldom good or bad for one reason only. But the more you learn about the kinds of details that add or detract from the overall effect, the better your writing will become. The POV switch happens to be one of the more obvious mistakes that inexperienced writers make (therefore a red flag for a lot of editors), but it is also, fortunately, a problem that can be easily fixed once you recognize it.
Without you, I wouldn't have known the issue to exist. Without you, I wouldn't have been bothered by the concerns I've been enjoying this week. Without you, I wouldn't be re-working my current novel and planning the same for the others I still have plans for.

Have I fallen into the Terrible Trap? Yes, but not as seriously as I had at first thought. So far, I seem to have performed naturally some of the acrobatics you have both suggested for getting out of one head and into another, but there are definitely, definitely a few places - only a few, so far - where I have committed the sin of doing so within the same para - most notably where two (or towards the end of the book, more than two) major protagonists appear together in the same scene.

This writing lark is tough, isn't it? Not just perdy words and car chases, is it? God alone knows how many other red flags I've been sending up which I am in absolute ignorance of (and God and I haven't exactly been on speaking terms since I let Richard Dawkins explain to me how He doesn't exist an' all).

Thank you both again, I can't begin to tell you how refreshing it is to get this kind of informed guidance. Other boards, other people, can get so snotty and self-important sometimes, can't they?

Just me, then.

Ta, fer now
Interference, just a thought, maybe you could post a short extract of your writing in the critique section-not that I'm saying you need the assistance, but the friendly peeps on here do tend to pick up other "red flag" mistakes that as the author we just don't spot ourselves. I posted a few draft pieces, and the advice was great. I haven't used all the pointers, but the points made had me rethinking about the actual writing style- which I have put to good use in the new stuff I'm working on. POV was a big issue for me too, but I have managed to be brutal, and decide which characters would give my story the most depth, by allowing us inside their heads.
Writing is hard isn't it?:)
Nice idea, daisybee, I'll cobble some samples together and post 'em for a critique. Then hide. I'm so insecure since the coalman started blue-pencilling my notes ("You persistently ask for 'two bags of coal'. However, as this is a smokeless zone, it would jeopardise my career to comply. Please do not ask me to break the law again! Sincerely, The Smokelessfuelman").

Writing is hard isn't it?:)

If it was easy, everybody would be doing it, and their biggest fans would be their mums.
Ha! Insecurity is the curse of would be writers- when the whole point is to have as many people as possible read our work! Or at least a few that think it's worthwhile.

I have actually lost my mother as a fan, since being brutal and destroying oodles of writing and leaving her hanging with a half written story in her head. She now refuses to read anything untill it's FINISHED. Wise woman.:D
I'm glad I've been of some help. If you post in the critiques section, Interference, I'll be sure to give you some comments when I have time! :)

Keep at it, that's the key. Your work will never improve otherwise. ;)
I'm feeling a bit like I've hi-jacked this thread, sorry, guys.

Thanks for the help, it's all been very valuable to me. I hope you'll get a chance to skim over my submission in the Critique section.

Thanks again. Someone else can take over from me here ... :D
I suppose I'm guilty of switching POV somewhat. I'd like a critique of the little I've written to see if I handle it ok or if it's too "jarring" Thanks for the links.
I think I can safely say I've never fallen into the trap known as POV. But I was wondering, Raymond E. Feist does seem to use POV at certain times and it's sometimes actually refreshing when this happens.
Only the way he does it is, he has the viewpoint character leave the scene, then the other characters (usually two) discuss with each other about the previous viewpoint character.
It happens within one paragraph, though. Personally, I prefer reading this to having a new paragraph that still happens within the same scene.
I guess another good way of doing it is have a completely new scene with another character thinking about what happened earlier.

But anyway, what do you guys think about the way Feist handles it, and would you say it's "okay" to do or should be steered clear of?

Well, it is interesting, and I've seen quite a bit of the terms mentioned; however, some of it just doesn't make sense to me. It is quite possible that this is true because I'm not a writer - though one would think that an avid reader like myself would be able to understand this kind of thing even if I couldn't put it to use. Particularly puzzling are these:

The Motherhood Statement
SF story which posits some profoundly unsettling threat to the human condition, explores the implications briefly, then hastily retreats to affirm the conventional social and humanistic pieties, ie apple pie and motherhood. Greg Egan once stated that the secret of truly effective SF was to deliberately "burn the motherhood statement." (Attr. Greg Egan)
I also don't get this one. Could someone explain it?

Squid on the Mantelpiece
Chekhov said that if there are dueling pistols over the mantelpiece in the first act, they should be fired in the third. In other words, a plot element should be deployed in a timely fashion and with proper dramatic emphasis. However, in SF plotting the MacGuffins are often so overwhelming that they cause conventional plot structures to collapse. It's hard to properly dramatize, say, the domestic effects of Dad's bank overdraft when a giant writhing kraken is levelling the city. This mismatch between the conventional dramatic proprieties and SF's extreme, grotesque, or visionary thematics is known as the "squid on the mantelpiece."
I think what they mean to say is, if you have a really powerful weapon or character in your book, you either need to use him ASAP or you're gonna need a very convincing reason why he's not getting involved.
For instance, look at Marvel Comics. They had a series where Superman teamed up with less powerful characters such as Batman etc. They had to come up with a reason why Superman couldn't save the day in every episode, or else the other guys had nothing to do.

False Humanity
An ailment endemic to genre writing, in which soap-opera elements of purported human interest are stuffed into the story willy-nilly, whether or not they advance the plot or contribute to the point of the story. The actions of such characters convey an itchy sense of irrelevance, for the author has invented their problems out of whole cloth, so as to have something to emote about.

Robert Jordan, anyone? This one has ruined alot of otherwise good books for me.
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False Humanity
An ailment endemic to genre writing, in which soap-opera elements of purported human interest are stuffed into the story willy-nilly, whether or not they advance the plot or contribute to the point of the story. The actions of such characters convey an itchy sense of irrelevance, for the author has invented their problems out of whole cloth, so as to have something to emote about.

Robert Jordan, anyone? This one has ruined alot of otherwise good books for me.

ROFL! Excellent advice, and an excellent example of why you need an editor willing to tell you, "No".
I think there were some clever and well-considered responses to this thread just prior to the Great Crash Of 0ught-8, and hopefully the responsible contributors will be back to repeat the performance for future generations, but in the mean time here are my thoughts on Ivaron's two main questions above - and I'm well aware that what follows has very little edivencial data to boulster it, but here goes anyway ...

"Chekhov said that if there are dueling pistols over the mantelpiece in the first act, they should be fired in the third"

My recollection of this from drama classes was that he actually said that if you saw duelling pistols on the set, they were bound to be fired in the play some time. It was more a comment of the frugality of stage-dressing. But it's just as valid in films and even dialogue or narration in novels/stories. If a female character says she feels a bit dizzy, she's pregnant. If a character says they were a racing driver once, there's going to be a car chase. If there's a scene in a cave, you're eventually going to meet the bear who normally lives there.

The trick as I see it is how to include these small details without telegraphing that you intend using them later, probably to help your hero escape the villain's lair (or whatever).

However, the alternative point is also taken, that nothing you introduce should be forgotten or ignored - like that Superman can solve every problem any other character faces (if Superman had Batman's villains, the show would have been over by Detective Comics #28. Same Universe?) or that your hero's mobile phone was out of credit when he tried to phone in late for work, so how come he's using it to call a taxi for his injured girlfriend now?

I suppose the Motherhood Statement is to do with returning to the status quo after some epoch-making event has just taken place, or not exploring properly the ramifications of that event. Certainly, life goes on and you'll still need a shop to buy a pint of milk from, but have you considered whethere there are enough cows left on the planet to provide the milk? Have supermarkets been replaced with Magic-Marts or something? Can you still laugh and joke and think the way you laugh and joke and think now if you know that there are vampires in the sewer?

Anyway, I'm at a loose end at work so if this reads a bit waffly, you'll understand why :)
Is there a term for the use of modern language in period settings?

My own grammar is far from great, but half the time in recent media set in a fantasy land there is dialogue that sounds like it's written without any consideration to be authentic for the period it's in, but more suited in a story set in the modern world. The film 'In the name of the King' and the TV shows like ' Merlin ' are two examples of late that seem to have this. It's also a trait which I feel will date very quickly and want to avoid it – well avoid it for any reason.

I guess it's to gather a younger audience, but it just destroys any credibility for me and eats away at my enthusiasm to watch it (though sometimes it’s the bad acting delivering it as if they are in a modern soap than medieval Britain).

I'm not expecting such literal authenticity as if everyone's reading Shakespeare (or Latin/Gaelic etc, though if subtitles were provided I wouldn’t mind) . I prefer dialogue like that in The Tudors, Gladiator, Excalibur and LoTR which is still modern by historical accuracy standards, but just feels a lot more authentic and doesn’t attract attention to it.

The trick, I think, is to avoid anything that is overtly modern -- like 20-21st century slang -- and then when it comes to using more archaic words, don't just stick them in at random, but be sure to use them when they convey shades of meaning that their modern counterparts do not.

But above all don't use words you don't understand yourself, don't try for period grammar if you don't know the rules, and don't overuse certain words because you think they give a period feel. (Some people I know go crazy for the word "most." "You are most kind, Your Majesty." "You are most welcome, My Lord." My own personal downfall is "great." "They came into a great hall with a lofty ceiling and crossed a great expanse of floor between the door and the dais where stood the great throne." OK, I've never done anything that bad, but you get the idea.)

The thing to do it is to try to get inside your characters' heads and consider whether the words you were about to put into their mouths genuinely convey the kind of thoughts appropriate to the type of society they live in and the positions they hold within it.
How about this one?

Atlas Shrugged Syndrome
: When an author becomes so preoccupied with pushing their agenda/philosophy/ideals that it impedes them from telling the story.

Basically it's when the author doesn't trust the reader to get the point. I know that I really loved Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead," but I could never get through "Atlas Shrugged" because by the time I got to Galt's Speech there just didn't seem to be a point. Everything that he was going to say in the proceeding 30-odd pages had already been repeated incessantly for the previous 900. It got to be too much, and no matter how badly I want to know how the book ends that barrier of tedium seems insurmountable.
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Its a tough one. The reason is because as a writer, you want to deliver a message. So getting that across to the reader can become quite a task and less experienced writers try to push that to the limit on where the reader will put down the book and move to next one. Compare it to the speech a preacher can give to their audience.
My personal beleife is that you should never treat your readership like idiots.

I'm also a big beleiver in the Magician's credo; "Do your act, take your bow, and get the hell off the stage before they figure out how you did it!" :D
I'm a huge supporter of the Assuming-Your-Readership-Is-Comprised-Entirely-Of-Intelligent-People-Capable-Of-Following-A-Story-Without-The-Need-To-Take-Them-By-The-Hand-To-Point-Out-As-Obviously-As-Possible-All-The-Facts-They'll-Need-On-Their-Journey-Through-Your-Story-If-They're-To-Stand-A-Chance-Of-Understanding-The-Ending school of writing.

I would definitely say that simplifying, dumbing down, or in anyway modifying the text to reflect the belief that without your added efforts the reader wouldn't be able to figure it out for themselves is a HUGE mistake.

I would also say that making an overly complicated piece of prose that happens to desperately need a road map, GPS directions, an interpreter and a sherpa is also a big mistake.

Somewhere in the middle would be nice. :D