Point of View Filters and Sensory Description

As a career journalist, I had point of view thrashed out of me by professors, editors, and colleagues. “Unless you’re a columnist,” they’d say, “keep your point of view to yourself. Just report who, what, where, when, why, and how. Stick to the facts. Quote notable people from various sides of the issue and let the reader decide.” Right. Be objective, be ethically impartial. I silenced my point of view.

As an aspiring author, I had to rediscover the power of point of view and how to wield it in a story. Great stories embed the reader into the skin of the characters, to feel their pain, their joy, their fears, so readers can vicariously experience the story. Journalists Laura Lippman, Joan Didion, Hank Phillipi Ryan, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens became successfully published authors, so it can be done.

To regain the ability to present a point of view, I started small—publishing essays. For a few years I wrote a column in my metropolitan Mensa group’s publication. Mostly humor, but a few touched on serious topics. Writing essays helped me find my voice and explore a point of view long suppressed.

Open book shooting out sparksDuring this training period, I read classics and best-selling modern fiction analytically. Oh, the power of point of view! Energized, inspired, and eager, I hammered out draft after draft of my Great American Novel, 96,000 words in later form. Next came the giant step of sharing this precious thing with outsiders, critique partners, my spouse, a few close reader pals.

They liked it, but…they couldn’t pinpoint what it lacked. They praised the dialogue, they loved the loveable characters and despised the antagonist, the setting was fine, and the pacing was fine. But. Shrugs.

Then Author John Foxjohn, a critique partner and former Army Ranger, said that I should show not tell. He said I needed to strip away the point of view filters. Wait. The what? Huh? He explained that I was telling things from the author’s viewpoint instead of showing them from the character’s view.

Point of view filters are signaled by sensory words, such as: thought, felt, saw, sensed, smelled, tasted, and heard.

For example, instead of writing from the author’s point of view: He thought Is that my little girl going on a date?

Write from the character’s point of view: Is that my little girl going on a date?

Strip away the point of view filter “thought” and simply write what the character is thinking. Instead of He wondered why she said that write Why did she say that?

Let’s do an example for the sense of touch. He felt tingling pain shoot up his arm. Tingling pain shot up his arm. See the difference? Which one seems natural and organic from deep inside the character? Which version seems to keep the reader at arm’s length from the experience?

And now an example from the sense of sight, the most overused sense in fiction. He could see three feral cats charging at him. Three feral cats charged at him. Think of this as the writer’s form of method acting. Get inside the character when writing. Write from the inside out. Stop labeling the sensations and describe them with such precise details that the reader understands without the label.

Use the details that evoke the sensation instead of naming the sensation. Instead of writing He sensed someone had been in his house while he was gone, show the reader the moved chair, the book opened on the table that was closed when he left. For example: He sensed he was not expected for dinner. That’s telling. How did he sense it? What specifically triggered that suspicion? Let the reader figure it out from a description of action or details. The hostess rushed to the table with a plate, glass, napkin, and silverware while other guests shifted their chairs.

Smell is the most powerful memory trigger and a sadly underused sense in fiction. Which is more evocative of memory? He smelled freshly baked brownies. Chocolate wafted from the kitchen beckoning him.

And lastly, the sensation of hearing. When tempted to write He heard the sound of gunfire and felt glass rain down, try Popopopop. Jake ducked under a table as glass shards rained inside the diner. Compare the following sentences. Phil heard church bells clang five times. The church bell clanged five times, reverberating off brick and pavement.

Developing the habit of showing instead of telling takes practice. Watch for the labels, those sensory point of view filter words: thought, felt, saw, sensed, smelled, tasted, and heard. Hunt them down and eliminate them. Your readers will thank you for it, because they will enjoy a closer you-are-there experience in your stories.

This single change to remove point of view filters raised my fiction writing to the next level. The last great change was narrowing the story from seven points of view to three. Thank you, dear blunt critique partners for insisting that more isn’t better. Better to dive deeper into a few points of view than dance on the surface with many.

The next level will be learning how to describe the sensations of an emotion instead of labeling the emotion—well, now that’s world-class writing. I’m off to study Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions and research how the masters do this. Yeah, okay. I’m also off to read marvelously written novels. Let’s call it research.

The Long Way to Publication

Whenever someone tells me they want to write a book, I cringe for them. Sure, writing can be satisfying in itself because it is a form of expression, an art form. I cringe because the unspoken assumption is that completing a book means it is ready for publication and that chasm between writing and publishing can be like traversing the Grand Canyon on crutches. This is the story behind the story of South of Justice which comes out May 15th.

How many writers have held up their first draft like Mufasa in the The Lion King held up his son Simba for all the world to admire? Remember that Simba was not ready to face the world alone or assume his true place in the world until YEARS later. It is like that with first draft manuscript. Oh, if I knew then what I know now….

In my eagerness and pride, I gave my manuscript a single edit and pushed it out into the world prematurely. This is the story of that painful hike and the justified rejections it received on the path to publication.

As a journalist, I thought I had developed a thick hide for criticism. In journalism school my editor was Tom French, who later earned a Pulitzer Prize for his writing in St. Petersburg, Florida. He was tough and fair and taught me to separate criticism of my writing from criticism of my soul. I later worked at a Fortune-500 company where a manager would toss things at people when he was upset. I dodged a chair once. So I thought I was prepared to handle rejection and criticism.

The critique group Kiss of Death toughened me up with oh-so-insightful, honest suggestions and corrections for my manuscript one chapter at a time. Like dental work, it was grinding, but vastly improved the story.

Then with hubris only first-time authors understand, I shot the once-edited manuscript out to contests. Lotsa contests, gaining accurate and occasionally cruel critiques from judges. Encouraged as the story finaled in national contests under the titled Unredeemed, I sent queries to agents. And yes, pride goes before a fall…here is the painful history of rejections from the query letters sent:

condolence letter about suicideFebruary 2013, had a double header of rejections. Ms. Bradford of the Bradford Agency rejected it with good wishes. Then Janet Reid wrote that it wasn’t a good fit for her.

March 2013, Lauren E. Abramo of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management rejected it with a note, “We have to really fall in love with a book before we will think about representing it and, although you are a fine storyteller with an appealing voice, that just didn’t happen with this one.” Harvey Klinger read the first three chapters and replied by email, “It’s a pass.”

April 2013, Simon Lipkar rejected it as “not quite the right fit” for him.

July 2013, Paige Wheeler wrote: “Thanks so much for sending your chapters and for offering me the chance to consider your material. There’s a lot to like here, but ultimately your project doesn’t seem right for me. Since it’s crucial that you find an agent who will represent you to the best of his or her ability, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to step aside rather than ask to represent your manuscript. You have a great imagination – I love the premise – and you’re a good writer, but I’m sad to say that I just wasn’t passionate enough about this to ask to see more. I wish I could offer constructive suggestions, but I thought the dialogue was fine, the characters well-crafted, and the plot well-conceived. I think it’s the kind of thing that really is subjective – why some people adore the book on the top of the NYTimes bestseller list, and others don’t. Just to reiterate, another agent and publisher will probably feel differently. I certainly encourage you to continue to see representation elsewhere (I’m afraid, though, that I cannot recommend someone), and thank you again for the opportunity to take this on.”

September 2013, Danielle Egan-Miller’s response was, “Thanks again for submitting your manuscript to Browne & Miller for review. We read South of Justice and while we love the suspenseful premise of your story, unfortunately it’s just not the right fit for us. We struggled a little with the multiple viewpoints and couldn’t connect with the characters like we hoped we would. Thank you again for thinking of us, Joni. We wish you the best of luck with South of Justice, as well as in all your publishing endeavors.”

October 2013, Pam Ahearn emailed, ” isn’t right for me.”

A query to Martin Biro was apparently sucked into a black hole.

The painful truth is that they were right to reject the story. In its 2013 version it had seven, yes, seven viewpoints which confused readers because it wasn’t clear whose story it was. It had no focus.

So swallowing pride, I assumed I knew nothing about storytelling. I participated in workshops by Donald Maass, James Scott Bell, Christopher Vogler, and Larry Brooks to learn. Then through fresh knowledge, I found and refined the story. It took three more complete revisions to refine South of Justice into ready-for-publication form.

graphic art of a faceMy apologies to all the agents who took time to review that immature manuscript. I thought it was ready. I didn’t know then what I know now. It no longer has seven viewpoints. It is a cross-genre story involving a crime, a strong female protagonist, and a romantic subplot. It is a stronger story for the journey. Thank you, critique partners, beta readers, agents, and contest judges, for your help.