About Marcy Kennedy

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Using Deep POV to Capture Readers’ Emotions

Image Credit: LastClick/www.freeimages.com

Image Credit: LastClick/www.freeimages.com

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

The books that we remember the best are often the books that made us feel something. Those are the books we recommend to our friends. Those are the authors we seek out to see if they have more books that will provide us with that vicarious experience again.

So it makes sense that when we create our own stories, we want to provide that same emotional experience for our readers too 🙂

One great way to create emotional involvement in our readers is through deep POV.

Please join me today at Jami Gold’s blog for the rest of this post!

What’s Coming Next? I’m guest posting next week as well at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University about writing your book’s back cover copy, but then I’ll be continuing with my series on dissecting books and reading as a writer here the following week.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Dissecting Books: Reading as a Writer Part 1

Dissecting a NovelBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

One of the pieces of advice that every writer hears until it makes us sick is “you need to read.” And that’s true and valid advice. (And if you don’t love to read, why are you writing?)

Here’s the piece that most people miss though. It’s not enough to just read, as if the knowledge we need will be magically absorbed into us. The truly great books make us forget we’re reading, which also means…you guessed it, we’re not paying attention to how they made that book awesome.

We need to read mindfully.

So I decided to create a mini-series to take the “writers need to read” advice deeper and show you ways you can dig into published books to learn and grow as a writer. Dissecting a book to understand how and why it works is a skill in itself. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone.

This week, we’re going to do it for free using Amazon’s preview feature to explore the opening hooks of books in our genre.

Head over to Amazon. (I’m using Amazon because it’s the easiest tool for this exercise.) And my apologies to my international readers, but it’s also best to use Amazon.com for this one.

Select BOOKS, then KINDLE BOOKS, and then the category that you’re writing in. Each genre category has slightly different conventions, and it’s important that you study what you’ll be writing. I’ll use Mystery, Thriller & Suspense as our example for today.

Now pick Best Sellers. For this particular exercise, we want to learn from the books that are grabbing enough readers to hit the lists.

Now we’ll need to dig a little more into the sub-category we’re writing in. Let’s go to Suspense > Psychological. (You don’t want to go any deeper into the categories than that, even if given the choice. We want books that are moving a lot of copies every day.)

Here’s what I found for Psychological Suspense.

Psychological Suspense Bestsellers

We want to collect a sample of at least five books out of the top 10.

Out of the top 10, cross off all books that aren’t a standalone or the first in a series. Mid-series books sometimes start differently because, ostensibly, readers are coming in already familiar with the characters and what’s happened before.

Now cross off any duplicate authors. You want a diverse sample, so if an author has more than one book in the top 10, pick just one of theirs.

Eliminate any obviously cross-genre books. For example, #6 in my screenshot failed the test because it’s more horror.

Also, eliminate books that seem to be at a promotional price compared to the others on the list. We can’t be sure whether they ranked because they’re great or because of the price. For example, the #1 book in my screenshot is priced at 99 cents compared to a $2.99-$5.99 average price.

Here’s the list I came up with:

  • The Girl You Lost by Kathryn Croft
  • The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen
  • The Good Girl by Mary Kubica
  • Orchids and Stone by Lisa Preston
  • Kill Me Again by Rachel Abbot

Once you have your list, it’s time to read the samples.

When you finish each one, ask yourself these questions.

(1) Did the first line hook me? Why or why not? How did they hook me?

The why is important. I’m going to be writing a whole series of posts on openings later this year, but for now, let’s look at the opening lines of the five books above.

On the night I asked my father the question, my family had been five years in the basement – The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen

Daphne didn’t quit college to become a roofer – Orchids and Stone by Lisa Preston

It had been easy to get him alone – The Girl You Lost by Kathryn Croft

It was raining when they came for me – Kill Me Again by Rachel Abbot

I’m sitting at the breakfast nook sipping from a mug of cocoa when the phone rings – The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

The first four opening lines all hook the reader by making them ask a question. What question did he ask his father and why had their family been in the basement that long? Why did Daphne quit college? Why did she want to get him alone? Why did they come for her and who are they?

The final three opening lines hook by creating fear and suspense as well.

The Good Girl does it in a subtle way. We’re primed to expect that phone call will bring bad news. (She also builds on this in the rest of the paragraph with images of dead leaves, clinging lifelessly and an overcast sky.)

(2) Did I want to keep reading? If I did, what made me want to keep going? If not, why not?

Again, the why is important. Why did we want to keep reading? Was it an interesting premise? A setting you wanted to explore more? A quirky character whose voice you wanted to keep listening to?

Don’t just stop there. Think about the specifics. If it was an interesting setting, how did they bring it to life? What types of details did they use? What made it interesting to you?

If you didn’t want to keep reading, what made you want to stop? Sometimes this can be personal preference—for example, we don’t like that particular writer’s voice. I’ll personally stop if a book contains too much profanity.

Sometimes it can be something specific that they did—for example, did you lose interest because nothing seemed to be happening (i.e., the story was taking too long to get rolling)? Were you turned away because the viewpoint character was too unsympathetic?

(3) What was the viewpoint character doing? How did you feel about them? Why?

You’ve probably noticed the why again there. In that sense, writers need to be like children. Asking why is how we learn.

Openings are tricky because we need our characters to be doing something interesting, while also making the reader care enough about them to read on. (Don’t confuse that with being likeable. Readers will stick with an unlikeable character pursuing an intriguing goal that matters to the character.)

What’s important here is to see what works and what doesn’t and then figure out how the writer made it so.

Now apply all of this to your opening.

If you have a finished book or even a work-in-progress, read approximately the same amount as you saw in the samples.

Does your book do any of the things that made you stop reading? Can you incorporate some of the elements that made you want to keep reading those other books?

What other things would you suggest fellow writers analyze in those samples? Anyone brave enough to share how their book’s opening compared to the bestsellers in their category?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue, Description, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Image Credit: Lynn Lopez/freeimages.com

Creating Promotional Copy That Works: Tag Lines

Janice Hardy Fiction UniversityBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

As is the case with many elements of being an indie author, the complete control we have over writing our promotional material is a double-edged sword. We’re not saddled with promotional copy written by someone who might have read only our synopsis, if that. We’re also on our own, without experienced copy writers to make sure we’re creating the best possible selling descriptions for our books.

Today I’m kicking off a new series looking at those uncomfortable promotional materials we need to create ourselves—from the back cover copy to swag—starting with tag lines.

Please join me for my regular monthly guest post at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)
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Want a Page-Turner? You Need Deep POV

DeepPointOfView 1By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I’m posting at Kristen Lamb’s blog this week. She’s been doing a series on deep POV, and I have the honor of being her guest “expert.” I’m talking about how deep POV can make even the less exciting parts of our books, like description, into page-turners.

I hope you’ll join me there!

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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The Fine Line Between Confidence and Arrogance in Writers

Meet Kassandra Lamb

Meet Kassandra Lamb

I have a special guest poster for you today. I’m always looking for books I can recommend to newer writers, and so I bought her book Someday Is Here!: A Beginner’s Guide to Writing and Publishing Your First Book. As you might have guessed by the fact that I then asked her here to guest post, I found a book I’ll be recommending in the future to writers who are starting out. She takes the time to define a lot of terms, recommend additional resources, and walk burgeoning writers through what to expect. And she does it all in the voice of a friend. Her book is on sale through the weekend for 99 cents.

So let me introduce you to her, and then I’ll turn the blog over to her capable hands.

Kassandra Lamb is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer who now spends most of her time in an alternate universe with her characters. The portal to that universe (i.e., her computer) is located in northern Florida where her husband and dog catch occasional glimpses of her.

She has two series out, the Kate Huntington mysteries and the Kate on Vacation novellas and is a about to release the first book in a new series, To Kill A Labrador, A Marcia Banks and Buddy Mystery. She has also written a short guidebook for new authors, Someday Is Here! A Beginner’s Guide to Writing and Publishing Your First Book. You can connect with her at http://kassandralamb.com. (Sign up for her newsletter there and she’ll send you the first Kate on Vacation novella for free.) She also blogs on psychology, writing and other random topics at http://misteriopress.com.

Take it away, Kass!

******************************************************************************************

The Fine Line between Confidence and Arrogance

By Kassandra Lamb

One of the hardest things that writers deal with is a lack of confidence in our writing. Frequently (sometimes daily), we do battle with that niggling doubt that maybe our words are not all that great. We refer to this doubting part of ourselves as the Inner Critic and view it as a detrimental roadblock to writing.

And it is, very much so, especially during the early drafts of a work when we need to forge ahead with great confidence (even if it’s fake-til-ya-make-it confidence). We have to get something down on paper. As the saying goes, “you can’t edit a blank page.”

But there comes a point when confidence can become detrimental.

I recently, quite foolishly, offered to proofread a family member’s manuscript. I assumed, because this author said it was so, that the manuscript was ready for publication, having been beta read, self-edited and tweaked to a fare-thee-well.

Ah, yeah. About that….

It was a good story, with interesting characters, but there were a lot of writing mistakes–ones that are common amongst new writers. Mistakes I myself made as a newbie.

Mistakes that back then–in my ignorant arrogance that I presumed was confidence–I firmly believed were not mistakes, just differences in writing styles. That is until enough experienced authors and editors told me they were indeed mistakes, and I finally got down off my high horse and listened.

Mistakes this writer/family member was convinced were not mistakes.

I was in quite a bind. I care about this person and their success as a writer. But I also knew that unsolicited criticism from me probably would not be well received. I debated with myself and finally just corrected the typos and sent the manuscript back, with a mild suggestion that it should be professionally edited before it was published. As I suspected it would be, that suggestion was blown off.

Two lessons learned from that experience:

  1. Never edit or proofread for a family member.
  1. As much as we struggle to maintain our confidence as writers, there is such a thing as too much of it.

Writing is so subjective! It is so hard to know when to take others’ feedback to heart, and when to trust that gut feeling that we’re right and they’re wrong.

Here are two perspectives that may help.

First, let’s separate out the concept of talent from that of expertise.

New writers who are confident that they’re talented often don’t realize that’s not the same thing as having expertise in writing. No matter how well you can craft a sentence or outline a plot, you don’t know as much about writing as an experienced author.

If you’ve loved to write since you were coordinated enough to hold a writing implement in your hand, then you probably have talent. If you’ve received far more positive than negative feedback about your writing through the years, then you probably have talent.

But you won’t have experience until you’ve written a lot of stuff and published a lot of stuff and made a bunch of mistakes.

I knew I had talent when I stepped into the world of fiction. I’d been writing non-fiction for years. I’d had editors rave about my work. The positive of this was that I didn’t struggle quite so much with the demon Inner Critic (although he still raises his ugly head at times).

The negative side of this confidence was that I didn’t listen when several people told me I was head-hopping. I thought they were criticizing the use of multiple POVs, because I didn’t know the difference between the two.

The problem with ignorance is that we don’t know it when we suffer from it.

(Hmm, I think I’ll make a Facebook meme out of that one.)

The second thing that may help is to realize that in writing, as in life in general, there are gray areas.

There are a lot of rules about writing fiction. And all too often those rules are presented as black and white. Never use prologues. Guess what… prologues are quite common and quite acceptable in the mystery genre.

When new writers encounter rules that don’t feel right to them, they tend to react with misplaced arrogance. “I have to be true to my art,” they say. And they proceed to break the rule with abandon (I speak from personal experience). And in the process, they may make mistakes that turn off readers and mark the author as an amateur.

The key to not making amateurish mistakes is not just to learn the rules but to learn the reasons behind the rules. Once you know those reasons, it will be a lot clearer which rules you can bend or break and which you can’t.

When I was a novice writer and had head-hopping and multiple POVs confused, I thought I was justified in breaking the rule against head-hopping. A lot of my readers had told me they loved knowing what was going on inside all of the important characters’ heads.

Then the reasons behind the rule were explained to me (by Marcy!)–that frequent shifts between POV in the same scene confuses the reader and actually distances them from the characters. Okay, that made sense!

There’s also a rule about writing dialogue in dialect. It’s a no-no. This is one of the rules that, in it’s black and white form, I think is dead wrong. Everywhere else we “show, don’t tell” but we’re supposed to always write dialogue in standard English and then tell the reader it was said in a Southern accent. Huh?

But wait, before you run back to your manuscript and make that Cajun character’s dialogue indecipherable, there’s a reason for that rule. Pure dialect is hard to read. And anything that’s hard to read tends to pull the reader out of the story. And that is the ultimate no-no!!

So here’s the gray area: Use a light touch. Give a hint of the dialect through word choice and the occasional change in spelling or truncated ending, and then identify it in the dialogue tag if need be.

“I been wantin’ to tell ya about that for a long while,” he said in a Southern drawl.

Here’s how it would look if it were more pure dialect: 

“I bin wantin’ ta tell ya ’bout that fer a long while.” Waaaay too hard to read.

I’d like to say that it gets a lot easier to hit the right level of confidence in your own work once you’ve been writing and publishing for a while. It does get a little easier, but judging the quality of any writing is still subjective, and we’re often too close to our own to see it clearly.

That’s why it’s good to get feedback from multiple sources and listen to that feedback with an open mind. My philosophy is that all feedback is useful, even if we end up disagreeing with it. Because that feedback made us go back and reassess our words and determine if we really did want to say it in just that way.

Then we can move forward with more confidence that our work is good, and perhaps win at least most of our tussles with that blasted Inner Critic.

a SomedayIsHere FINALAbout Someday Is Here!

This easy-to-read, how-to guide is full of both practical advice and emotional support. Psychotherapist turned successful mystery writer, Kassandra Lamb takes novice writers by the hand and walks with them on their journey, pointing out pitfalls along the way, some of which she discovered through stumbled-head-first-into-them experience.

From the decisions to be made before setting pen to paper to whether to submit to agents or self-publish, from the basics of writing craft to the nuts and bolts of copyrighting and ISBNs, from promotion strategies to the perseverance needed to make your writing business a success, this overview of the writing and publishing process is a must-read for new authors who aren’t sure what they’re getting themselves into.

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon CA | Amazon AU

Kobo | Barnes & Noble | Apple

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Do You Find Artificial Intelligence Creepy? Meet Nadine

Image Credit: Oliver Brandt/www.freeimages.com

Image Credit: Oliver Brandt/www.freeimages.com

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Confession time. I don’t like Siri—the voice that speaks to you from iPhones.

I probably should. I love the concept of artificial intelligence. Data from TNG and The Doctor from Voyager were two of my favorite Star Trek characters.

But I just don’t like her.

I’m sure part of it has to do with how my husband delights in demonstrating what happens when he asks Siri to marry him.

Perhaps it’s also that I worry what will happen if I’m wrong about humans’ inability to create sentience in robots. What will happen if we ever do break that barrier? Very often humans create, invent, and explore before we’ve sufficiently considered the consequences of our actions. (That’s another post for another time, I suppose.)

But I think my dislike of Siri (and her non-Apple compatriots) mainly has to do with the fact that Siri, for all her programming, always translates to my brain as slightly off, not quite human but trying to pretend to be.

In other words, she’s creepy.

So when I saw this video from SciShow about what could be causing my reaction to Siri and her embodied friends, I knew I wanted to share it here. Because if I thought Siri was creepy, she’s got nothing on Nadine.

What do you think about Siri? Or about Nadine? Creepy, cool, or a combination of the two?

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Writers – Value Yourself and Your Work

Image Credit: Michael Faes/www.freeimages.com

Image Credit: Michael Faes/www.freeimages.com

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Over the last couple of months, an online debate has risen about whether creatives deserve to be paid for their work or whether they should work for free or for “exposure.” By creatives, I mean those who produce intellectual property or the like for the purpose of entertaining an audience—writers, musicians, dancers/performance artists, etc.

(If you’re a reader rather than a writer, this post isn’t for you. Instead please read Kassandra Lamb’s excellent post A Reader’s Look Behind the Curtain Re: eBook Pricing and Kindle Unlimited. She talks about what readers, rather than writers, need to know about the issue at hand.)

On one side of the firestorm sits Kristen Lamb. In her post “How the Culture of Free is Killing Creatives,” Kristen put out the call for writers to stop allowing themselves and their work to be exploited. Is this a career for you? Then you should be paid for your work. As Will Wheaton said in his post on the topic, you can’t pay your rent with exposure.

On the other side are opinions like that expressed by Joe Konrath on his blog: “No one owes me a living. A sense of entitlement is a dangerous thing. If you’re lucky, you’ll find readers. If you’re really lucky, you’ll make a few bucks. But just because you can string a few pretty sentences together doesn’t mean you get to earn a living.”

Many other posts have followed, including Jami Gold’s practical take on it in “Should We Work for Free?

At the bottom of all of this is a question of value. Do you think what you do is valuable? Do you believe your work is valuable?

Because if your work has value, then you do deserve to be paid for it.

I’m not a fan of people claiming a situation is black and white. The truth is that most of our world is greyscale. It’s nuance. It’s caveats and exceptions.

So look carefully again at what I just said: If your work has value, then you deserve to be paid.

Something of value is something that people want.

We don’t deserve to be paid for what we write if it’s not good and if no one wants it. No one is obligated to pay us just because we decided to write something. If I went out and bought a box of cookies, brought them to your house and left them there, then expected you to pay for them, that’d just be crazy. It’d be even crazier if those cookies were moldy or soggy or covered in dirt.

If, however, someone enjoys our work, if someone wants to read it, then yes, we should be paid for that. That’s not entitlement. It’s supply and demand. If you asked me to buy those same cookies for you, and then refused to pay me back for them, that’d be rude, wouldn’t it?

There’s a big difference there. Will Wheaton pointed it out in his post. He didn’t contact Huffington Post asking to write for them. They contacted him. They wanted his work, but they weren’t willing to pay for it. Performance artist Revolva said the same thing in her open letter to Oprah Winfrey when she was contacted by the producers for Oprah’s The Life You Want tour. She didn’t ask them if she could perform. They sought her out. But they expected her to perform for free.

But wait, you might say. If you query a magazine or a book publisher, you made the first move. Does that mean you shouldn’t expect to be paid?

Nuances, remember? Who approached whom isn’t the only factor in whether you deserve to be paid or not.

If someone wants to use your creative property to make money, then you deserve to make money too.

You know what it’s called when one person uses another person’s hard labor to make money and doesn’t reimburse them for their hard work, right?

And we’re not talking about volunteering to help a charity or a good cause here. We’re talking about a for-profit business earning income from someone else’s work without paying that person for the work.

To quote Taylor Swift’s response to Apple’s plan to not pay musicians, song writers, and producers for three months, “It is unfair to ask anyone to work for nothing.”

(Jami does a great job in the post I linked above about discussing whether or not the payment always needs to be money. I agree with what she said, so I’ll direct you there for the answer to that inevitable question.)

The point of all this is that if we don’t value and respect ourselves and our work, no one else will. If we don’t draw our line in the sand somewhere, eventually we won’t have the option of earning money for our creative work. Eventually it won’t matter how good our work is because we’ll have accepted non-payment for so long that no one will value what should be valuable.

And that would be a sad day not only for creatives but for our society and culture as a whole.

So, creatives, value yourselves. Value your work. Work hard to make something others will value. Then expect to be paid for it.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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When To Hire Help And When To Do It Yourself

By Marcy Kennedy (@Marcy Kennedy)

Janice Hardy Fiction UniversityOne of the most frustrating parts of indie publishing is how conflicting the advice can seem. One of the areas where I’ve frequently noticed this advice dichotomy is in whether or not we should hire out the non-writing work involved in our business.

Some people will tell you to do as much as you can yourself to minimize costs (allowing you to “earn out” quicker and bring in profits). Others will tell you to hire out everything you can because you’ll end up with a more professional product and have more time to write.

So how’s an indie supposed to know what to do?

How we handle it will depend on our individual situation. Anyone who tells you that their way is the only right way is…well…wrong.

We can ask ourselves some questions to figure out what solution is the best one for us.

Today is my regular monthly guest post at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University. I hope you’ll join me there to read the rest of this post.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Four Crippling Misconceptions About Deep POV

DeepPointOfView 1By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Myths and misunderstandings abound no matter what skill we’re trying to learn. An important part of learning is sorting out the misinformation surrounding a topic. So today I want to talk about what deep point of view isn’t.

Misconception #1 – You need to write in first person to write deep POV.

Deep POV isn’t about pronouns. We can write deep POV from a third-person point of view. And we haven’t necessarily created a more intimate story by writing in first person rather than third person. First-person point of view can feel cold and distant too.

Misconception #2 – You create deep POV by spending a lot of time on internal dialogue.

This is possibly one of the most dangerous misconceptions about writing in deep POV because it can lead us to include too much internal dialogue (character thoughts) within our stories. Books written in deep POV usually will include more internal dialogue than a book written in a more distant POV, but that internal dialogue still needs to be seamlessly woven in with action, description, and dialogue. We shouldn’t allow our stories to stall out by dropping in giant chunks of internal dialogue.

This isn’t the only issue with this misconception, though. Deep POV is about more than simply internal dialogue. It’s also about internal, visceral reactions to what our viewpoint character experiences. It’s about creating a feeling of immediacy, as if we’re watching the story play out in front of us as it happens (regardless of the tense used). It’s about allowing the viewpoint character’s judgments and opinions and biases to color everything on the page.

Misconception #3 – Deep POV requires us to put our internal dialogue in italics.

Point of view can be a confusing topic for writers because of how closely it ties to showing vs. telling and internal dialogue. Whether or not to italicize internal dialogue is a question of formatting and not one of whether you’re writing in a deep or shallow point of view.

The guidelines for italicizing our internal dialogue are outside the scope of this book, but generally speaking, we’ll have less italicized internal dialogue in a book written in deep POV than we will in a book written in a shallower POV.

This is because we only italicize internal dialogue when it’s what’s called direct internal dialogue. Direct internal dialogue is written in first-person present tense regardless of the tense and person of the rest of the story. Because it’s italicized, it draws attention to itself.

In deep POV, we’re so close inside the character that the character’s thoughts tend to flow and interweave with the rest of the writing and are best written in the same person and tense as the story itself. To explain this another way, the less the internal dialogue draws attention to itself, the more immersed the reader feels in the character. The less attention the internal dialogue draws to itself, the closer the reader feels.

Misconception #4 – Deep POV means we have to show everything that happens.

One argument I’ve heard against deep POV is that it will make your story too long and feel too slow because you need to show everything that happens and you can’t summarize.

Let me give you an example. You might write something like this…

They gathered up their belongings.

Or something like…

They ran two red lights on the drive to Brenda’s house.

According to this misconception of deep POV, you wouldn’t be able to write either of those sentences in a deep POV book. You’d need to show them collecting every single item or you’d have to show the entire drive.

Deep POV doesn’t mean you show everything that happens in a stream of consciousness-style narrative. Deep POV is an overarching technique we can use in our writing, but we can still pull back and use moments of narrative summary to skim unimportant information when necessary. We can also cut any internal dialogue that would bore the reader. Deep POV is a tool, not a straightjacket.

Deep Point of View: A Busy Writer’s Guide is now available!

Do you want readers to be so caught up in your book that they forget they’re reading?

Then you need deep POV.

Deep POV takes the reader and places them inside of our characters—hearing their thoughts, feeling their emotions, and living the story through them. Compared to other writing styles, it builds a stronger emotional connection between the reader and our characters, creates the feeling of a faster pace, and helps avoid point-of-view errors and telling rather than showing.

In Deep Point of View, you’ll learn specific, practical things you can do immediately to take your fiction to the next level.

Each book in the Busy Writer’s Guide series is intended to give you enough theory so that you can understand why things work and why they don’t, but also enough examples to see how that theory looks in practice. In addition, they provide tips and exercises to help you take it to the pages of your own story, with an editor’s-eye view. Most importantly, they cut the fluff so that you have more time to write and to live your life.

Grab a copy from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, or Smashwords.

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Using a Montage to Handle Time in Fiction

Image Credit: Zoli Plosz/freeimages.com

Image Credit: Zoli Plosz/freeimages.com

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to my mini-series on handling time in our fiction. Today I want to talk about what I call the montage.

If you watch movies, you’ve likely seen a montage. It’s a quick collection of images used to compress time or information. In other words, it’s a pacing tool.

And a montage can help us handle the passage of time in our fiction. What I mean by that will make more sense when I show you how they’re used, so let’s dive in.

Montages for Compression of Time

As an editor, I often have a discussion with writers over “empty” scenes—scenes without enough happening in them to justify their existence or where the character’s goal isn’t exciting in and of itself. They make the story feel slow, but the writer will argue that the scenes are important because they need to show time passing. What they often need instead of all those extraneous scenes is a time-compression montage.

In movies, time compression montages are used when it’s important to know that something is happening—for example, a character is learning a new skill—but it’s not important enough or interesting enough to spend a long time showing it happening.

In other words, the fact that this time passed or that this skill was gained is more important than the details of what happened during that passed time or skill acquisition.

I’ll give you a quick example of how a time-compression montage might look on the page.

Let’s say we have a woman in the 1800s awaiting a letter from her husband, who has gone ahead of her across the continent to set up a home for them and was supposed to send for her once he arrived.

Each day I walked to the post office to check our box. Each day the clerk came back empty-handed. At first it was, “Is there something special coming, dear?” and then “Are you sure he has the right address?” and finally “Letters get lost all the time. I wouldn’t worry.” By the time winter set in, she didn’t say anything at all. When I asked if I had any mail, she simply shook her head. She wouldn’t look me in the eyes.

In the movie Notting Hill, when Hugh Grant’s character is walking through the market and the seasons change around him, that’s a time-compression montage. A Knight’s Tale (starring Heath Ledger) used multiple montages in this way. The novel version of Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding uses at least one montage. If you watch for them from now on, you’ll see how frequently time-compression montages show up in fiction, on both screen and page, across all genres.

Montages for Backstory

I could write a whole series about backstory (and I might eventually). The biggest danger of backstory is that we insert it in such a way that it stops the present-day action dead. (A close second is adding unnecessary backstory, even in small bites.)

I could name on one hand the number of times I’ve come across a flashback (a piece of backstory turned into its own scene) that was essential enough to justify its existence and worked well. Very rarely is a scene-length flashback the best way to handle backstory. That’s not to say that the backstory itself isn’t essential—sometimes it can be—but we need to handle it properly.

There are many ways to do that. One particularly effective method for emotionally charged bits of backstory is to use a backstory montage.

The best way I can explain how this works is to point you to the movie K-Pax. Near the end, the psychiatrist, Mark Powell, has gone back to the home of Robert Porter, the man he believes is Prot (a patient who claims he’s an alien). As the sheriff tells the story of the rape and murder of Porter’s wife and daughter by an ex-con, we see these flashes of images of what happened.

We can use the same method in our stories when we want to share backstory or have our character relive a particularly traumatic event in the past, but we also want to keep the present day story moving.

Share a present day event, then a flash of images or sounds or smells. A present day event, and then a flash of the memories it triggers. It works like a chain of links as the character struggles to face the past without losing touch on what’s happening in the present. The montage flashes should work in sequential order to tell their own mini-story alternating with the present-day story of the character.

Montages for Altered States of Mind

Sometimes we run into a spot where our character is very sick, drugged, having a mental break, or is in an otherwise altered state of mind. For example, when Katniss has been stung by the tracker jackets in The Hunger Games and she’s hallucinating, stumbling through the forest.

These are moments when we need to cover what could be a large area of time in a fast, interesting way. We also need to be able to do it in an authentic way that feels like we’re still inside the viewpoint character.

Let me show you how this might look.

Angie struggled to stay awake—some part of her brain screamed at her that she should after a head injury—but her whole body felt strange. Achy and heavy and hot. Black dots swam in her vision and the world was upside down. No, the world was right side up. The car was upside down. Windshield smashed and glass all over the floor-ceiling.

Her eyes slid shut. Flew open.

Sirens. Red and blue and white flashes of light. A voice saying “on three.”

Daggers of pain plunged into her whole body and blackness swallowed her again.

White walls in a moving room. Someone taking her pulse. An IV line dangling from her arm.

Beeping machines. A mask over her face. The stench of skunk.

She fought her way back to consciousness. The room smelled of antiseptic and sweat, and she brushed her fingers over a thin, rough blanket. This wasn’t her house and it wasn’t her bed. The crash. Someone had t-boned her on the way home from work, right? She couldn’t quite pull all the pieces from her memory, but how else would she have gotten here.

The curtain around her bed pulled back, and a woman in smiley face scrubs leaned over her. “Nice to see you awake again. On a scale of 1-10, how would you say the pain is today?”

Angie has been drifting in and out of awareness for nearly a week by the time she finally comes fully awake.

While we have the option of skipping over times like this, a montage can show the passage of time in a natural and interesting way.

Have you ever tried to write a montage? Or would you like to share an example of a montage from a book or movie that you felt worked particularly well?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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