Guest Blog Post by Peter Darley
Literary Agent Blog Guest Post
When submitting a novel to publishers and agents, it is a virtual certainty that writers will experience rejections. Submission and rejection go together like death and taxes. I certainly had my fair share of rejections before I was finally signed.
However, publishers and agents will almost never give you a specific reason for the rejection. “It’s not a good fit for us” is the favored, catch-all, politically-correct way of saying “thanks, but no thanks” – but it tells you nothing.
Toward the end of my quest for a publisher, and also during the coveted editing process, my hidden nemesis was finally identified. My rejections were largely down to multiple points of view within scenes, popularly known as ‘head hopping.’
But how was I supposed to have known this? I was privy to a classical education. My introduction to literature was Dickens, Bronte, Dumas, Faulkner and Hemingway. In my spare time, during the 1980s, I would buy paperback adaptations of my favourite movies and TV shows. (I think I still have the novelization of the Knight Rider pilot somewhere.☺) Back in the day, multiple POV scenes didn’t appear to be an issue.
But what, specifically, is ‘head hopping’, I hear you asking?
Basically, it’s when you write a scene, and you illustrate the thoughts, feelings and actions of all characters present. Single POV scenes are what are required today. This means that the entire scene must be entirely from one person’s point of view. Anything that the primary POV character can see, hear, or feel can be described, but the emotions of any other character within the scene cannot. This includes any description of actions performed by another character, of which the primary POV character would not be aware. You are required to write scenes involving one three-dimensional character literally surrounded by cardboard cut-outs. The POVs of the other characters must be reserved for subsequent scenes or chapters, where it becomes their turn to dominate the scene.
But even this creates disagreements between publishers and agents. Some will accept a page break within a scene to denote a leap to another character’s POV. Some will only accept manuscripts where entire scenes are written from one character’s POV. Others will only accept entire CHAPTERS that are written from one character’s perspective. It’s impossible to guess who wants what.
Opinions on this issue also vary dramatically among internet writing gurus. But they can’t ALL be right. They can, however, ALL be wrong! I have seen them slip up countless times, especially when they are faced with references to the works of classic authors. After all, criticizing literary heroes such as Hemingway and Faulkner would place them on extremely thin ice. As a way around this, they defer to the excuse that these classic writers were not head-hopping, but rather, they were writing in the ‘omniscient voice’.
Let’s be honest – they were head hopping.
One of the articles I read, by a passionate single-POV advocate, made probably the most absurd statement in defence of his position that I had ever encountered. (The link has since eluded me.) On the comments forum, one writer asked him how Nora Roberts could get away with multiple POV scenes in her novels. His response (as I recall) went something like this:
When you have achieved the success of Nora Roberts, you can head hop as much as you like. But when you are a beginner, you stick to the rules.
Firstly, Nora Roberts’ writing style has clearly not impaired her journey toward literary stardom, and neither has it diluted her readers’ enjoyment of her works. This, in itself, places an enormous question mark over the validity of the single POV rule.
Secondly, who better to follow than someone who has achieved astronomical success in one’s chosen field?
It is my erudite view that the single POV rule has no actual, discernible merit. It is, primarily, a recent phenomenon.
So how did it come about?
From the outset, I will admit that I am speculating here. What follows should be interpreted as a hypothesis.
Consider the identified drop in educational standards over the last fifty years, and the growing epidemic of illiteracy in Western culture. One visit to a Youtube video forum will reveal the social decline in spelling, punctuation, and the fact that a sentence begins with an upper-case (or ‘capital’) letter.
Picking up the phone and talking to someone, or dropping round for a coffee have taken a back seat to texting, emailing, and Facebook. Human physical interaction is on the decline, in deference to the soulless vacuum of typing across cyber-space. The experience of seeing a reaction in someone’s eyes, or feeling their emotional response is vanishing from the human experience. We will send someone an email (from our POV) and then we will wait for a response (page break). Then the other person’s response will come through (from their POV) and then they will have to wait for our response (another page break). The same applies to text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, and every other form of social media.
Nothing is ‘in the moment’ with the way we communicate anymore – and I believe that this has affected the way in which people read. It isn’t just a case of them not wanting to read multiple POV texts. It’s a case of many of them now being unable to read them. I feel that this is evidenced by the fact that the single POV style has only become virtually mandatory in recent times. After my book had already been signed, I had a response from a publisher whom I had submitted it to many months previously. She told me that she couldn’t follow the story because of the POV switches.
Aside from this, when my novel was going through my publisher’s editing process, every single word that a sentence could survive without had to be removed. The book began to take on an-almost ‘shorthand’ appearance. This simplistic writing style will become immediately apparent when a modern paperback is compared to any one of the classics.
Do I agree with single POV scenes being mandatory? Absolutely not! Do I believe that they are a symptom of society’s failing communication skills? Absolutely!
But I can’t stress enough the importance of going along with it if you wish to be signed to an agent or publisher. It may require that you spend months re-editing your novel, and literally restructuring your vision. It’s heartbreaking, it’s laborious, and you may well be feeding into the social collapse of literary standards.
But this is the world in which we now live.
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PETER DARLEY is a British novelist whose professional history is in show-business. He’s a graduate of the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama, and studied television drama at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. His television credits include guest-starring roles in UK productions such as BBC’s Crime Ltd, Stanley’s Dragon for ITV, The Bill, Sky One’s Dream Team, and numerous TV commercials. Peter has also worked as a model, presenter, and voice-over artist for ten years, and served as an agent for several variety acts. Peter is an athlete and body builder as well, and he lives with his wife in rural England. The first installment of Peter’s romantic thriller novel series, Hold On! is going to be released by Soul Mate Publishing in New York next week. Learn more about Peter and buy a copy of his book at www.PeterDarley.com.
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