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Paula Munier

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    I'm an agent, best selling author, and a former editor in the publishing business.

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  1. Point of view issues keep more otherwise sellable authors from selling their work than nearly any other problem. That’s why as an agent, author, and writing teacher, I always caution my clients, fellow writers, and students to play it safe when it comes to POV. And yet every once in a while I come across a story whose author threw caution to the wind so splendidly I am tempted to play around with point of view myself. If you find yourself so inclined, read on. FIRST, THE RULES As Picasso reminded us, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Here are the POV rules you need to observe long enough to master them before you break them: 1) No omniscient POV. (It’s considered old-fashioned these days, at least here in the U.S.) 2) When writing first-person, stick to one POV per book. 3) When writing third-person: a) Stick to third-person close; b) Use only one POV per scene; c) Use no more than five POVs per book; and d) The protagonist’s POV should predominate. A caveat: The following explores how a few bestselling authors far more skilled than I—and probably you, too—took POV risks that worked big-time. So if this your first rodeo, you’re better off writing by the aforementioned rules. But sooner or later, regardless of your skill level, you’re going to want to break the rules. When you do, remember these examples of stories where the novelists’ POV gambles paid off. FIRST-PERSON PLURAL POV In two of my favorite novels of all time, the authors use first-person plural POV (we/us). In The Jane Austen Book Club, Karen Joy Fowler writes the story from the book club’s point of view. The book club members meet every month to discuss a Jane Austen novel, with unpredictable consequences for them all. (This 2004 novel is a must for all Austen fans; the film adaptation’s is fun, too, if not particularly faithful.) Here’s the opening: Each of us has a private Austen. Jocelyn’s Austen wrote wonderful novels about love and courtship, but never married. The book club was Jocelyn’s idea, and she handpicked the members…. We suspected a hidden agenda, but who would put Jane Austen to an evil purpose? Irresistible, and we the readers fall in love with the literary, gossipy voice. The same is true for Unlikely Animals, Annie Hartnett’s second novel, published just last month. A sort of “Our Town meets Alice Hoffman with a touch of John Irving,” this wonderful novel is written from the point of view of the dead people in the cemetery of the small New Hampshire town where the story is set. Which may sound morbid, but is not, as you can see from the opening lines: Maple Street Cemetery Everton, NH 43.3623° N, 72.1662° W Years later, when people in Everton would tell this story, they would say it was Clive Starling who called the reporter, the way that man loved attention. But we remember the way it happened…. Again, irresistible. We want to hear the real story, as told by the dearly departed, who know this town—past and present—better than anyone. SECOND-PERSON POV This POV (you/you) is rare, at least from my point of view. Only one immediately came to mind—Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney. This 1984 novel grabs readers from the very beginning, promising a ride as wild as the Eighties: You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this hour of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. And we’re off on the journey with McInerney, because we’re not that kind of guy either….and yet. OMNISCIENT POV Omniscient point of view is “Author as God.” Think 19th century novels, and fairy tales: Once upon a time there was a girl…. “Author as God” has fallen out of fashion in the 21st century, most notably in the United States. You still see it sometimes, especially in science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, and literary fiction. No one does it better than Alice Hoffman, who writes modern-day fairy tales, a kind of “Yankee magic realism,” a literary legacy she has attributed to Nathaniel Hawthorne. You can see why in the opening to Practical Magic, the 1995 novel I reread whenever I’m feeling blue: For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town. If a damp spring arrived, if cows in the pasture gave milk that was runny with blood, if a colt died of colic or a baby was born with a red birthmark stamped onto his cheek, everyone believed that fate must have been twisted, at least a little, by those women over on Magnolia Street. Hoffman has us at “the Owens women.” The scope and timelessness of the novel are part of its attraction, and the omniscient POV helps her establish both. MULTIPLE FIRST-PERSON POV Conventional wisdom has it that if you’re writing first-person point of view, you should stay with that one POV for the entire novel, if only so readers know whose head they’re in the whole time. Mixing it with third-person is tricky enough, but using more than one first-person point of view can be very confusing for readers if it’s not done with finesse. But when Gillian Flynn used his-and-her first-person points of view in her blockbuster thriller Gone Girl, writers took note—and we’ve been flooded with multiple first-person novels ever since. As an agent, I see a lot of them, and mostly it doesn’t work. Gillian Flynn made it work, by making the voices of the husband and wife characters very different—and by first introducing the wife’s POV through diary entries. The diary entries not only help the reader remember who’s who, but in Flynn’s capable hands, they also serve as a clever plot device. Speaking of devices, Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a master class in these tools. This book club favorite, technically told from the first-person point of view of an eighth grader named Bee, opens with Bee’s report card, just one of the dozens of devices Semple uses over the course of the story that become, in effect, other POVs. (For more, see the full list in my book on story openings, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings. MULTIPLE THIRD-PERSON CLOSE POV Nobody breaks the rules as beautifully as George R. R. Martin. When to my chagrin one of my clients changed points of view half a dozen times in the opening of her novel and cited A Game of Thrones as her model, I went right to my copy of the epic fantasy. And yes, in the first fifty pages alone, Martin changes points of view at least five times (the conservative limit for an entire book). But it’s neither choppy nor confusing—it’s brilliant. Martin keeps the reader reading, through the skilled use of compelling action, likable POV characters, and clear links from one chapter to the next. I was so thrilled by his masterful handling of POV that I sat down and wrote a detailed analysis of his opening for my client (which you’ll also find in The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings). So it can be done, and done effectively, but most easily if you’re George R. R. Martin. I’m just saying. GO FOR IT For the record, I still say it’s risky to break the POV rules, especially if you’re writing your debut. But ultimately, all writing is risky. And the more we write, the more challenges we like to present ourselves. Point of view may be one of the challenges you take on in your next work. I have the terrible feeling it may be in mine. But as we’ve seen, other writers have met that challenge with grace and grit.
  2. Here’s what not to say. (And yes, these are real lines from real-life pitches.) #1 My villain is so bad he kills the dog. It’s almost impossible to sell a book in which a dog (cat, horse, etc.) is killed. I’m just saying. #2a My hero dies in the end. Readers want your hero to survive his trials and tribulations, overcome the obstacles you put in his way, and become a better version of himself. #2b My heroine dies in the end. It’s a series. No, someone else can’t take her place in Book 2. If you’ve done your job right, readers have fallen in love with your heroine. They want her back in Book 2. #3 I can’t find any comparable titles. You need comps to prove there’s an audience for your book. And these should be recent comps by up-and-coming writers—not blockbusters by bestselling authors. #4 I know you don’t represent picture books, but you’ll want to represent mine. No, I won’t. And you don’t want an agent who doesn’t know the category anyway. #5 There are no murders in my mystery. Murder mysteries need murder. The sooner you drop the first body, the better. #6 I’m saving that for the second book. If you don’t sell the first book, there is no second book. Go for broke in your first book. Don’t “save” anything for the next book. #7 I know you told me last year that I should rethink using a dozen points of view, but I still think it works. I won’t represent any debut novels with more than five POVs, and I’m not the only agent who feels this way. #8 The bad guy accidentally dies in the end. Accidentally? The antagonist must get his just desserts—and if he dies, it can’t be an accident. His death must come as a result of his own villainy, even better if it’s at the hands of your hero. #9a I don’t write in Microsoft Word. Microsoft Word is industry standard for submissions. No Scrivener, no Pages, no PDFs. #9b I could convert my document to Microsoft Word for you but the formatting will be off. It’s your job to submit your work in a professional manner. Anything less marks you as an amateur. #10 It’s 1000 pages. I don’t know the number of words. Word count is what matters. For most genres, aim for 90,000 words. Too short or too long and odds are you won’t sell it. If you don’t tell us the word count, we’ll ask.
  3. Ruminations provoked by the NY Write to Pitch 2022. I recently led a workshop at the New York Write to Pitch Conference, an event dedicated to helping writers perfect their pitches as well as discover what factors in their novels might prevent their work from becoming published in an increasingly unforgiving marketplace. Often it’s the fact that there’s nothing unique enough about the novel itself to persuade agents and editors and ultimately publishers to take a chance and champion the work. In a publishing landscape that’s more difficult than ever, thanks to the pandemic and other factors affecting retail businesses right now, it’s more important than ever that you are able to differentiate your story, positioning it against all of the bestselling titles by brand-name writers. While it’s true that book sales are up, they are up for backlist, that is, books that have already been published, mostly by authors who have already found an audience. For new titles, especially those being published by debut authors and midlist authors trying to build a readership, breaking out is tougher than ever. That’s why it’s imperative that you be able to differentiate yours from all those other bestselling books out there. We talked a lot about this at the conference and we’ve talked a lot here at Career Authors but the confusion about how to differentiate your work remains. Are you being told that your story is “too quiet“ or “not compelling enough” to compete successfully in your category? Or that the editor or agent didn’t “fall in love with your protagonist” or “feel strongly enough” about your project to take it on? Or that they’re looking for more “high-concept” stories—and yours doesn’t hit that bar? Here are six ways to make sure your story stands out—in a good way. Ways that can help get you past the gatekeepers and into the bookstores. 1) Get Crazy With Your Story Idea The idea of the story/series itself needs to be different from the competition. And you need to be able to articulate that difference. As in Jaws, Jurassic Park, Wicked, Moneyball, The Martian, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, even Snakes on a Plane. Or these two recent New York Times bestsellers: The Maid, by Nita Prose A maid with autism and a love of Columbo finds herself involved in a murder at the luxury London hotel where she works. Razorblade Tears, by S. A. Cosby A Black father and a white father team up to avenge the murder of their gay married sons—sons neither fully accepted while they were alive. Just from these short elevator pitches, you can see why these stories are finding an audience. 2) Get Crazy With Plot Points It’s not enough that the story idea is big. Your plot points have to be big, too. Make sure that each of your plot points—the big scenes of your novel, from inciting incident to climax—are worthy of the name. Milk the drama, the conflict, the setting at every significant step on your protagonist’s journey. 3) Beef Up the Sex Appeal. And I’m not talking sex scenes here. I’m talking the sexy, publicity-worthy stuff of your story. Can you weave in: Dramatic settings—ask yourself if a location scout would get paid to find the locales where your scenes are set Real-life people—as Jess Walter did with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Beautiful Ruins Over-the-top plot elements ripped from the headlines—think Jodi Picoult 4) Name Your Protagonist’s Superpower. The best protagonists have superpowers, that is, something that sets them apart from your run-of-the-mill characters. They don’t have to fly faster than a speeding bullet, but they should have some quality, ability, or talent that makes them smarter, braver, wiser, something more than the rest of us. In my Mercy Carr series, Mercy has the ability to see what others miss. But she’s not alone; even the dogs have superpowers in my books. Bomb-sniffing Malinois Elvis has a great nose but it’s his fierceness that sets him apart, while Newfoundland/retriever mix Susie Bear pairs her superior scent work with a congeniality that helps her draw out the lost and frightened children and elderly folks she finds hiding in the woods. 5) Emote! Emote! Emote! Readers read to feel something. So start evoking emotion right there on the first page, and keep the drama going. I got the best reviews of my career in The Hiding Place, thanks to the fact that it was my most emotional story so far in the series. Think of the last story that made you laugh out loud, cry ugly tears, sleep with the lights on. Do that. 6) Go for Broke. As an agent, I find the hardest thing to sell is a story that’s a little of this and a little of that. If you’re writing a thriller, make it the mother of all thrillers. If you’re writing fantasy, give us a world we’ve never seen before and a hero who must find his way through that world with his heart, mind, body, and soul somehow intact. If you’re writing romance, make us fall in love right along your heroine, break our hearts and piece them back together and break them all over again before that happy ending. If you’re writing literary fiction, make your prose sing and your characters suffer and your plot soar. Whatever your genre, embrace it entirely—and get crazy!
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