Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Do Writers Know Too Much To Enjoy Reading?

How many times do you stop and mentally edit another’s work while reading his or her books? I’ve concluded that knowing too much about the technical aspects of writing has diminished my enjoyment of the books I read. I’m not a grammar queen, but when I see a mistake or typo, I SEE IT, especially in someone else’s writing. I miss quite a few of my own.

One thing I’ve noticed lately is head-hopping. POV switches are making a comeback―or maybe they’ve never gone away―but it’s driving me crazy. (Do not confuse head-hopping with omniscient POV.) This is happening with writers I’ve read before, both well-known and lesser-known. The writers of two books I’ve been reading lately have been guilty of head-hopping.

Female comments, then she has an internal thought.
Male comments, then he has an internal thought.

There is no scene break to acknowledge the POV switch. It’s equivalent to watching (reading) a ping pong match.
Photo: Pixabay


When I first started writing, I knew nothing except the idea for my story. Everything else I had learned was from a bunch of books I bought on writing and whatever I could glean from online articles. I knew I needed help, found an editor online, and sent him my first finished book. At least I thought it was finished. The editor was great. He trimmed my sentences, cutting out extraneous verbiage, making my experience with him more like a college writing course. In all, I sent him three books, and each book received three edits for the same price. The one thing he didn’t know, and I didn’t know he didn’t know because I didn’t know it myself, was point of view. He wrote non fiction, so POV wasn’t on his radar.

When I joined the Upstate South Carolina Chapter of Sisters in Crime, two writers asked if I’d like to critique with them. I remember the lunch the two writers and I had when, over Mexican food, they explained POV to me. They used the analogy of a camera, and everything that character saw or thought was in his/her head, and to keep it all in one scene. Shifting POVs meant shifting scenes with ◊◊◊ or ### or *** to separate them. It was a lesson learned and I’ve kept to it, though my critique partner finds a subtle goof every now and then.

There is one very famous writer in particular who head hops, but she does it seamlessly, so readers don’t notice. Let me clarify. I notice, and that makes reading her less enjoyable for me.

There have been many rules over the years. Here are a few:
*Never start a sentence with And or But.
*No fragment sentences.
*Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.

But rules change over time (see what I did there?), and some no-nos become acceptable. Here’s an example from the book I’m writing: “She remembered Christmas night and the cold ground, remembered the life she ran from.” Word gymnastics: “She remembered Christmas night and the cold ground, remembered the life from which she ran.” Sure, there are other ways of constructing that sentence without the preposition at the end, but the way I wrote it seems more natural. Elmore Leonard: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Obviously, Leonard didn’t mind ending a sentence with a preposition either.

Enough books have been written about writing to know that grammar is fluid, rules are broken all the time. New words are added to the dictionary every year; others become anachronisms. Genres cross, Romance can have a Happy For Now ending without a wedding, and mysteries can have a romance. But please, no head-hopping without a scene break.

Polly Iyer is the author of nine novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

27 comments :

  1. Editing has definitely diminished my enjoyment of reading certain authors. On the other hand, it has given me the perspective to appreciate others I might have once dismissed as just "okay". POV, however, is a "biggie". Because my stories always contain multiple points of view, I try to be very careful to catch those places where I've missed showing the reader a scene/POV change. Great post, Polly. It's a keeper.

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    1. Mine contain multiple POVs also. The camera analogy worked for me. One scene, one head, and there should be no question of whose head we're in right from the first paragraph. I forget that one sometimes, but my CP says, "Talking heads," and "Where are they?" I fix it.

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  2. The more I've been editing the less I've been able to simply enjoy a book. Just this morning I tried three times to find a book I could read on my Kindle before stopping one to check another. While POV is not a huge issue for me, especially when a switch is seamless, like it is in Where the Crawdads Sing, I really dislike getting each characters' full bio when they're introduced. And lame dialogue will stop me every time.

    Perhaps these issues are more of a problem for we who write and edit because we're more aware that they are a problem. Other's don't read with the same kind of critical eye.

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    1. I think I enjoyed books more when I didn't know anything. I'm still learning. There's one author who describes every character and what they're wearing on first introduction. I skim to get a faint picture, then jump to the story. I, too, find it distracting.

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  3. I still go through phases, but I notice I'm willing to overlook the habits of authors I love and who tell a great story. Certain things can make me toss any author into the rubbish pile. Example: Don't. Use. This. Fad. Ever.

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    1. We all have our breaking points. Fad is a good word for some irritants. I agree about a good story. The problem with that is some genres follow a formula. That's another blog post, or have I already written that one?

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  4. It hasn't lessened my enjoyment of books, but it makes it easier for me to quit bad ones. There are few seamless submersion books, but there are many that keep me reading past my bedtime. The difference between before and after studying writing is that I can now identify the things that make a story great and things that ruin it for me.

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    1. I can get past some things that catch my attention if it's a really good story. The kind that keep me reading. Many give me every reason to fall asleep, which is one reason I read at night. But I do love it when a good book keeps me up.

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  5. Amen! I'm like Diana, I still love to read and enjoy it for the most part, but sometimes I do have that mental red pencil working overtime. And that's when I would probably give up on a book.

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    1. I'm more apt to give up on a stupid story or one that defies credulity. Even head hopping will keep me reading if the story is a page turner. In fact, I might not notice it. So, good story first.

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  6. Grammar matters to me--misuse of lay and lie, pronouns that don't agree with the subject, dangling modifiers. And I see these errors in the work of seasoned professional authors. Drives me crazy.

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    1. Yes, Judy, more and more. Publishers' editors are a dying breed, unfortunately. For the self-published, it's up to the writer to hire a good editor.

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  7. Hi Polly, Yes it is hard for me to enjoy pleasure reading when my editing brain is engaged. However, a strong sense of story will take me out of editor mode and into reader mode. As a writer, I do find it annoying that rules change with regard to grammar, sentence structure, and punctuation. I'm not saying what I learned in the Dark Ages in school was perfect, but it's harder to learn new tricks now. Though I kinda dig sentence fragments and starting sentences with conjunctions. That's me in a nutshell, a Rebel Without a Clue.

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    1. I had a friend ask me about sentence fragments, and I told her times have changed. We take those rules we learned in school to heart and have to adjust and adapt. I like sentence fragments too but try to avoid started sentences with And or But unless I'm make a strong point. You're certainly not clueless, Maggie.

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  8. I love reading and had to come to an agreement with myself regarding editing errors so I could enjoy. I mark the page, tell myself I'll come back later and evaluate, then continue being enthralled by the author's tale.

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    1. That's one way to do it as long as you keep being enthralled by the story. A great story overcomes a typo.

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  9. Editing was a big part of one of my jobs. I confessed to my boss that it might be time for a break, as I found myself wanting to red-pencil the lunch menu at the local eatery.

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    1. That made me laugh, but yes, editing does permeate everything you read. Never thought of a lunch menu, however. I'll be more diligent from now on.

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    1. Let me try this again. My previous comment had a gross error. Sigh!

      Anyway, yes, I do see every typo, every alliteration, every POV switch, every wrong word choice...and those little things pull me right out of the story. I keep on reading if I love the characters or plot, but I toss a novel aside if there are too many distractions.

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    2. I live in fear that I'll make a mistake when I'm railing about mistakes. :-)

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    3. LOL -- I'm a perfect example of how that can happen!

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  11. Oh my, this post is timely. I've been anguishing over edits for my third romantic comedy mystery. To simplify, I'm not supposed to have fragments, use an occasional "there," not start a sentence with "he said." All of which was done in my first two books. I had to write a letter explaining how changing would affect voice and style. Frustrated. Oops, that's a fragment.

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    1. I feel for you. When friends mention the restrictions they have with their publishers, I'm kind of glad I don't have to deal with that. But (starting sentence with But) then there's the question of validation.

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  12. What a great column, Polly. While I am good about my POV (for the most part) I frequently and deliberately start sentences with "And" or "But" because it serves my purposes as a writer and helps me focus reader attention where I mean it to be. So I guess I am a bit of rule breaker at heart.

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    1. Pat, I do the same thing. It's one of the rules that has become acceptable to break. I'm sure there'll be more in years to come.

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  13. I find I'm 'editing' books I read. Sometimes I acutally highlight it on my Kindle app and write a note about it. Sad, isn't it?
    I hate to leave a book unfinished, though, so I usually plough through to the end. The book I am currently reading is confusing, not because of head-hopping, the author doesn't do that, but because of a multitude of characters that have separate chapters, but seem not to be linked. At least not at the moment, anyway. I'm just over 25% through it.
    He also does not understand that if there is a new speaker, in dialogue, their words go on a new line. Quite a lot of the time I found that I was confused because I thought the same person was speaking.
    Yes, in answer to your question, I do find knowing more about writing has spoiled my pleasure in reading somewhat.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.