POV for Vendetta

“[F]airness, justice, and freedom are more than words, they are perspectives…[I]f you see what I see, if you feel as I feel, and if you would seek as I seek, then I ask you to stand beside me…”

V for Vendetta

In the time since my last post, my eyes healed (thank you for your well wishes on that!), and I’d come to trade my sunglasses for a different mask of sorts…one that had tried to preserve an eternal grin to bear the POV debacle that was crashing down on me just as I set off on holiday last week.

Don’t fear. Though I now live in London, it is not my intention to load a tube train up with explosives and send it on its merry way to Westminster. (I did infiltrate Parliament once, though, back in ’98 when my friend—an intern—snuck me in. I stood on the MPs’ terrace and drank a Carlsberg in the pub they have in there. Oh, and I bumped into a blind MP, which made me feel really bad. In all fairness, however, he should have been able to smell me from a mile off, as I’d just gotten in from a train from Spain via Paris and hadn’t showered in all that time. But I digress…)

Anyway, the real issue at hand concerned the manuscript I’m editing for my freelance work with an independent publisher. I will certainly assume the title of “Dufus” on this one, but the whole situation really has had me reevaluating my perspective on, well, perspective…a.k.a. point of view.

So here’s the deal. The author intended the novel to be 3rd person limited POV, which is precisely how I read it as well, correcting here and there for stray thoughts of other characters to which the POV was not limited. This is a romance, and the two lead characters that comprise the central romantic couple share the limelight 50/50, as do their thoughts. The writing was strong, so it honestly didn’t confuse or distract me through my many reads of this ms that the POV was head-hopping between the two, sometimes on a paragraph level. I made sure the POV didn’t shift within a paragraph, but I didn’t see anything wrong with it doing so between these two characters within a scene.

Okay, technically, that’s more omniscient than limited where 3rd person goes, and that’s what the managing editor at the stage beyond my developmental edit called us out on. For 3rd person multiple limited, shifts in POV between the multiple characters should be denoted by a section or chapter break. If this author is asked to revise for this (which she was last week and, thank goodness, spoke up about it, as I agree with her), it’ll be like rewriting half the novel, and the playful sexual tension that the omniscience delivers so well will be squashed. If she’s required to adhere to this technicality of 3rd person limited, that is…

As it stands at present, our appeals induced the managing editor to forward the ms to the other MEs for their opinion on whether it can work as-is or be revised as 3rd person omniscient instead. The author and I are strongly preffing this option, as it’ll not only be a significantly less extensive revision, but will preserve said back-and-forth tension. It’s not that this tension couldn’t be brought about otherwise, just that it hasn’t been written that way all along, so in the direction the story has since gone, it would be difficult to change and really sap it of its spirit, at this point and in this particular case (you’d have to read it to know what I mean).

So this is my question to you: Why can’t a 3rd person limited POV (limited to multiple characters) head-hop between the characters it’s limited to if it’s been done in a skillful manner that is not confusing and actually enhances the tone and conflict of the text? Now, if this author is given the go-ahead to switch to omniscient, she’ll be adding thoughts of secondary characters as well, which is only promoting further head-hopping and extremely unnecessarily, all in the name of convention. Why would it be okay to hop around several different heads instead of just two if it’s all about ensuring clarity for the reader? Why can’t an “omniscient” POV be limited to two characters? Am I making myself sound like even more of a dufus?

My fear stems from the true limited POV being that of these editors who shun 3rd person omniscient (along with 1st person multiple perspectives—in that case, um, hello? Time Traveler’s Wife? Poisonwood Bible?)  from the get-go because they so often see it mistreated by inexperienced writers. I understand that perspective, I do; green writers can easily make a mess of either one, and do. Yet I don’t think it’s quite fair to essentially adopt as a policy when there are more skillful writers (even first-time ones) who do pull it off. So it’s my latest bone of contention that is rendering Point-of-View my Pain-in-Ass.

By the way, this is really, really humbling for me to share as both a newbie editor and former English teacher, for cripes sakes! I guess the wonderful world of creative writing will always be full of surprises, just when we think we’ve dissected it down to a science. If there’s anything to be learned in this, it’s that I have a lot to learn…which makes it difficult to know when to fight for what I think is fair, just, and promotes creative freedom or to just grin and bear it.

Have you encountered this issue with POV in your writing? Can you think of examples of literary works that somehow defy narrative convention and pull it off?


About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

18 responses to “POV for Vendetta

  • Melissa

    At a conference I attended during the tail end of February, agents and editors reassured the masses rules CAN be broken, and some of the best works absolutely do. If it works, if it reads well, if the message is properly conveyed – what does it matter? As long as there is consistency, and it works, poo poo on the other editors.

    Writing is an art form. Yeesh.

  • Eva

    So good to see you back in the tree with shiny eyes …
    That is an interesting topic indeed. Haven’t read the manuscript so impossible to judge on that one.
    All I can say is that I myself rarely saw perspective switches between 3rd person limited so far, and I think I can remember they really irritated me (but no names, so sorry). Personally I don’t like them during a scene as they make me stumble, so prefer the clear cut.
    But as Melissa mentions – if it is well done, pretty much EVERY rule can be broken. So go where your heart tells you to. Am very curious to find out how this comes out.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Thanks, Eva! I suppose that’s why it’s good (and fair) that this editing process involves more than one person, as we can all bring our different perspectives to it. I’ll have to honor whatever the MEs come back with and trust in their professional judgment. Just can’t help but admit I’ll be positively gutted for this author if she has to revamp it to one POV per scene. Will keep you posted!

  • Milo James Fowler

    Welcome back to the land of the blogging, CK! =]

    Personally, I don’t have a problem with head-hopping during a scene — as in, I see nothing wrong with it. Two of the editors who’ve accepted my work, however, had me rewrite scenes to keep only one character’s POV dominant in each. I agreed at the time that it made the scenes clearer, but I have lingering doubts it was all that necessary.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Why, thank you, Milo! Glad to be back. 🙂 Okay, I feel better hearing you think that approach could be okay as well…I do strongly believe it depends on how well it’s done, and if a writer can pull it off, then so be it. The logic of “all or one” just doesn’t make sense to me…if omniscience allows for head-hopping, why not just between two characters? A hybrid omniscient/limited POV of sorts. Ah well. You can bet I’m never going to mess around with this in my own writing going forward—it’s not worth the grief!

  • tahliaN

    Ooooh this is a can of worms. I spent ages recently trying to work out if my switches in POV (3rd person) were ‘acceptable’ or not. Some people get very ‘thingy’ about it. My agent and I thought it read just fine with a paragraph here and there in a second POV and a third in chunks, separated by a blank space. To us it read smoothly and clearly, but when one of the publishers we sent the ms to made a comment on the quality of the writing, I thought I’d better not risk pissing off someone where POV changes were a pet hate.

    So I cut them down, put them into larger chunks, made a clear baton change and put a gap between them – even though I prefer not to have a gap. But that’s the prevailing attitude and as a new writer I figured it wouldn’t hurt to follow the preent protocol. It did take a bit of rewriting, but I don’t actually think I lost much in the process. The thoughts of the ‘other’ character I usually managed to hint at by their actions.

    I don’t know if it’s actually any better now in terms of the story, but I can be confident that I’m not going to get rejected just because some editor hates POV changes that don’t at least have that line gap.

    I think this whole issue has got way out of proportion, the main point is whether the chancges are smooth and whether or not it’s clear who’s POV it is. But for so long as people in power have issues with it, I figure it’s better for our career, at least in the early stages, if we follow their rules.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Yes, they do get quite “thingy” about it, don’t they! I know it’s definitely one of those things they know to look for and will be knee-jerk to correct it; a shame, though, if someone is actually handling it expertly enough to pull it off.

      This whole dilemma has me so relieved that my own first manuscript is 3rd person limited to ONE character, so I haven’t had this issue personally where that POV is concerned (although I shouldn’t talk…my uphill battle is going to be justifying another POV shift…perhaps I’ll save that issue for another blog post 🙂 ). And as I plot out my 2nd ms, I am going to go 3rd person limited multiple, but you can bet I’ll be slapping those section/chapter breaks in between any POV shifts! As you say, I don’t dare open that can of worms myself just starting out…

      My heart is just going out to this other author who is being asked revamp so substantially at this stage. It’s something that, if they’d found it to be such a major issue in the first place, the publisher honestly should have either rejected it or sent it back for those revisions from the get-go; but as it is, acquisitions passed it through without thinking anything of it, I passed it through the developmental edit without thinking anything of it, so it seems unfair for it to get stuck like this in the upper editing tiers just a couple months from its publication date. We’ll see.

      Thank you SO much for relating your experience with it—you’ve gone through such an involved process with your work that I was itching to hear your thoughts on this.

  • Glen

    Rules should only ever be guides

    • thefallenmonkey

      Well said, my friend. I know we newer writers can’t run around and turn all convention upside down, but we shouldn’t be painted with a brush that we don’t know what we’re doing if we do try to bend them here and there.

  • Nicki Elson

    The #1 priority ought to be what’s appropriate to the story. Skill of the writer plays into that, and my guess is that if your trained mind didn’t pick up on it as an issue while digging in, and if the acquisitions editor didn’t note it as an issue, then it’s not an issue.

    I completely agree with you that it seems silly to add in MORE POVs. It seems to prove that reader confusion isn’t the issue as much as being afraid to not fit into a neatly defined box. I’m on the edge of my seat to see where this one comes out.

    • thefallenmonkey

      You and me both, Nicki! Thank you for your perspective, as it gives me tremendous relief that, even if this doesn’t turn out the way I want it to, I’m not a complete moron on the matter. 🙂 These things can really make one second-guess one’s ability to read and write with a discerning eye, so you can bet I’ll be keeping that eye wide open in anticipation of stuff like this going forward…

  • The Second Coming: If at First You Don’t Succeed, Write and Write Again « The Fallen Monkey

    […] start, while the jury is still out on the POV issue plaguing my first editing project (see “POV for Vendetta“), I’ve been assigned my SECOND PROJECT, which is already presenting issues of its own. […]

  • Alannah Murphy

    I wanted the POV to be 3rd person limited but I too ended up with this 2 POV changes, and it is between a couple as well. I tried fixing it but it killed some of the spark, and now, I am kind of re-writing in a more 3rd POV Omniscient though not quite as I don’t want head hopping into everyone’s head either.

    It’s a matter of skill, isn’t it. If something’s well written, we the readers, won’t notice changes, but if it’s poorly written, all those changes are clunky…

    • thefallenmonkey

      I know exactly what you mean. I think if a story is first approached with 2 POVs separated by sections/chapters, the “spark” could still be developed somehow, but I think it’s really, really tough to preserve it when trying to revise something that originally head-hops. The back-and-forth that can be achieved that way is difficult to capture otherwise without a tremendous amount of rewriting. And I’m all for putting the work in to rewrite as much as is necessary, but not when it’s just, well, not necessary…as in the case when it’s done well. Oi. Glad you empathize, though. I will certainly be avoiding this issue in my own writing and just hope the author I’m representing gets a fair deal.

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    […] actual purpose underlying the choices we make, that’s gotta be worth something (see “POV for Vendetta” for an instance of this). We’ll […]

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    […] plagued me a lot as of late: POV. I ranted on this topic a while back in my post “POV for Vendetta,” when I feared a colleague and I were nearing impasse, ironically because we shared […]

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