Advanced Fiction Writing Blog

The Official Rules on Head-Hopping

So you’re writing a novel and it’s a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but somebody told you head-hopping is a no-no, and now you’re worried because you like head-hopping. What’s the deal?

Agata posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy,

I’ve been reading your blog and it’s amazing. I’m planning/writing a novel and your posts are incredibly helpful in organizing everything. I’m writing here because I have a dilemma about the POV characters.

I have two POV characters, sometimes they have their own scenes and sometimes they are together. In that case, I don’t always know which one should be the POV. Is it acceptable to go from one character’s head to another? Like here (I’m just making it up, but it shows the structure of my scenes):

Emily looked up when the door opened.

“you’re late” she hissed. God, he was so irritating.

“what do you want from me?” he snorted.

“to act like an adult” she left the room, slamming the door behind her.

Josh stood there, wondering how to apologize to her this time.

 

So Emily is the POV when she’s alone and when Josh comes in, but then she leaves so he has to be the POV. Is that ok? If so, can I swith POV when they’re both in the room as well, or should I adapt the “God’s eye” approach throughout the story and not show anyone’s thoughts?

Hopefully my question makes sense, I’m just not sure what I should stick to.

Thanks a lot

Agata

Randy sez:  Let’s define terms. “Head-hopping” is the practice of switching point-of-view characters within a single scene. This is not the same as the omniscient point-of-view, which would allow your narrator to know things that none of the characters know.

If you want to start a war among fiction writers, a golden way to do it is to tell everyone that they can’t hop heads. Or tell them that they can.

Why Head-Hopping Is Said To Be Wrong

Those who oppose head-hopping make their case this way.

The purpose of writing fiction is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. You do that by putting your reader inside the skin of one character in each scene. The reader sees only what that character sees. Hears what she hears. Smells what she smells. Feels what she feels. Your reader becomes that character for the scene.

Then in the next scene, your reader may become some other character. The reader is never confused. The reader is always having a Powerful Emotional Experience.

This is the one and only way to write fiction.

Why Head-Hopping Is Said To Be Right

Those who believe in head-hopping make their case this way.

The purpose of writing fiction is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. You do that by putting your reader inside the skin of one character at a time. The reader sees only what that character sees. Hears what she hears. Smells what she smells. Feels what she feels. Your reader becomes that character for a part of a scene.

If you need to transition to another character in the same scene, you do that in a way that cues the reader that you’re about to hop heads. And just like that, the reader becomes that other character. The reader is never confused. The reader is always having a Powerful Emotional Experience.

This is the one and only way to write fiction.

Randy Settles The Argument Once And For All

So who’s right? The hoppers or the non-hoppers?

Randy sez: Personally, I’ve never hopped heads. That has worked for me, and I’ll bet that 99% of my readers don’t know or care that I’m a non-hopper. Readers just care about whether the story is working for them.

But I have plenty of friends who hop heads all the time. So far as I know, they all write romance, and in the romance category, head-hopping is accepted. Why? Because in a romance novel, the relationship is the most important character in the story. Not the hero. Not the heroine. The relationship. So the reader likes to know what both the hero and heroine are thinking in each scene.

As far as I can tell, this works for my head-hopping friends. I’ll bet that 99% of their readers don’t know or care that they’re head-hopping. Readers just care whether the story is working for them.

Po-tay-to. Po-tah-to. What really matters is how it tastes in the soup.

What do you think? Leave a comment and tell me your opinion.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

Agents in the Indie Age

So you’re an indie author writing fiction and you’ve been thinking of writing a novel for a traditional publisher and you need an agent. How do you make that work? What are the rules for working with an agent in the Indie Age?

“Jane” (not her real name) posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy,

I recently made a connection with a literary agent who is willing to represent me. I wasn’t seeking an agent; this happened through recommendations from a small press who is publishing my next series. I did all my due diligence and this agency totally checks out positive, but I need some advice from you.

A little about me: I have two ebooks indie published (one available in print), a contract with a small press for a digital serial style series with the option of print on demand copies later, and more ideas and drafts then I know what to do with other then publish them one at a time myself.

I looked over the contract and the exclusive clause gave me pause. They did say they could include an addendum that would allow me to continue indie publishing if I wanted, but made it clear they want access to all my writing since they will be putting work into my success as well now.

I’d love to have an agent, to be a “hybrid” author, but I’m not sure how realistic that is. The publishing industry has changed dramatically, yet lots of people are still in the same routines as before. Would signing with an agent be detrimental to me at this point?

I highly value your advice. Thanks for any input you can offer.

Randy sez: Well, I’m hesitant to give advice when I don’t know you and your work well. And I’d be hesitant to give advice even then. So consider this blog post to be “Randy’s thoughts” rather than “Randy’s advice.” I’ll tell you how I run my own life. That may or may not apply to how you should run yours.

You only need an agent if you’re working with a traditional publisher. That is, if you’re completely indie, then you don’t need an agent.

My opinion is that if you’re working with a traditional publisher, even a small one, you need an agent. Publishing contracts these days are complex, and you need somebody to explain the nuances of each contract and fight for you on the clauses that are important. The word I’m hearing is that contracts are getting less author-friendly, so you need all the help you can get.

In my experience, virtually all agents want to work with you exclusively–meaning they don’t want you to have two agents. If you happened to be working in two wildly different categories, it might make sense to have two agents, but that’s rare.

In my opinion, it’s reasonable for you to give an agent exclusivity on your traditionally-published work. An agent puts a lot of work into each client, and that effort needs to be rewarded.

Some agents are a lot more indie-friendly than others. The important thing is that you have an agreement with your agent on what your indie activities are going to be. Your agent is your business partner. You must keep them informed on what you’re doing, if you’re doing any indie work at all.

If you and your agent don’t agree on your indie publishing, then that’s a serious problem. It sounds like this agent is happy, in principle, with your indie publishing. The addendum to the contract sounds like a good idea to me, but you should also discuss it  verbally to make sure that you both agree on the meaning of the addendum.

Some agents, in my experience, are just not a good fit for indie authors. Indie authors typically believe that the more books they produce, the better, because each book promotes the others. Some agents just plain don’t buy that reasoning. (And it looks to me like most publishers don’t buy it either.)

If you believe that your indie titles help promote your traditional books, and if your publisher insists on a strict non-compete clause that keeps you from producing indie books during some long window of time, then you have a serious conflict. You need to have an agent who agrees with you on the issue. And not all agents do.

If you’re going to work with an agent, you need to have roughly the same set of assumptions. Some of the points where indie authors disagree most with traditional publishers are the following:

  1. Life of the contract. Should it be limited to a set number of years? Should it terminate when sales volume gets “too low?” What does “too low” mean? Or should the contract go for the life of the copyright?
  2. Option clause. Should the publisher get an option on your next book? Or your next TWO books? If so, can you live with the terms of that option?
  3. Non-compete clause. What is the length of time that you’re willing to NOT publish any indie material that might compete with the traditionally-published book? How broad is the clause? Who decides what “compete” means?

You need to be on the same page as your agent on all the important questions. Any decent agent will of course be working in what he believes to be your best interests. But if the two of you can’t agree on what your best interests are, then you’re working with the wrong agent. And it’s best to figure that out before you start working together, rather than after.

Publishing is more complicated than it used to be. The trend is for more and more traditionally-published authors to do a bit of indie-publishing on the side. The trend is for more and more agents to help them with this. The trend is for more and more traditional publishers to pursue contracts with successful indie authors.

Because of these trends, I’m guessing that ten years from now, all authors will be hybrids or indies, and there won’t be ANY authors who are solely traditional. I can’t prove this. It’s just a guess based on what I see, and so it could be wildly wrong. But ten years from now, if I’m right, then I’ll say I told you so.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Smashing The Fiction Writing Bottleneck

So you’re writing about six different novels all at the same time and none of them are getting done and you just can’t decide which to work on next. What do you do?

Katya posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I am 22 year old college student. I am immensely in love with creating my own characters and worlds. Currently I have six projects, most of them more than one novel. The trouble I am having is picking the right one to work on. Sometimes I work a bit on this one, a bit on that one, but that does not help me finish any of my projects. I want to sit down and just finish one crappy first draft so I can polish it and be proud of finally finishing my first novel.

Do you have any tips when you are stuck with several projects and do not know which one to go with?

Thank you for your time,

Katya

Randy sez:  Katya, the good news is that a lot of writers would pay to have your problem, which is that you have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to ideas.

The bad news is that you have a bottleneck in your writing process. That bottleneck is strangling your production. You are spinning your wheels and getting nowhere.

The good news is that you can break that bottleneck right now.

But first you have to identify it. 

Let’s start by identifying what you’re doing well. You’re generating ideas. Lots of ideas. So many that they’re competing for your attention, and you’re afraid that if you don’t work on them all right now, you’ll never work on them.

That’s an illusion. The reality is that by paying attention to all of them all at once, you are preventing ANY of them from ever getting published.

The Fiction Writing Bottleneck

That creates the biggest problem most novelists have: the fiction writing bottleneck.

What’s the solution?

Let me tell you a little story. About 15 years ago, my buddy John Olson had that same problem. I asked him what he was working on and he gave me a list of 10 different books he was working on. All at the same time.

I pointed out that he was working a full-time job and writing in his spare time. Even if he had 40 hours per week to write, he’d only be able to spend 4 hours per week on each book, and he was competing with professional writers who had 40 hours per week to commit to a single book. So John didn’t have a chance.

So I told John he had to pick one, any one of the ten, and commit to it. He picked one and agreed to make a firm commitment to write it, but only if I’d coauthor it with him. As it turned out, I really liked that idea, so I agreed to work on it. The result was our award-winning novel Oxygen.

Breaking the Bottleneck

Now how do you commit, Katya? There are two things you need to do, and these have to be firm decisions that you won’t back down from under any conditions:

  1. Pick one novel–any one of them. If you can’t decide, then flip a coin. Seriously. It truly doesn’t matter which you choose now, because ultimately you will choose all of them.
  2. Join the 500 Club. That means you commit to writing at least 500 words on that novel EVERY DAY until it’s done. No excuses. No rollover words from yesterday. Every day you have to put down 500 new words on that novel. You can write more words, but under no circumstances are you allowed to write fewer. You can edit some words from previous days, but that editing time doesn’t count. The only thing that counts is new words.

How does this solve your problem?

The answer is simple. At 500 words per day, minimum, you will finish that novel in just a few months. You can afford to set aside everything else temporarily because you are guaranteed to be done in a few months and then you can pick up the next project. And the next, and the next.

The fact is that just about every commercially successful novelist on the planet has a word count quota. Some of them have a time quota, but word count seems to me to be better, because you can waste 30 minutes staring at the screen, but you can’t write 500 words staring at the screen.

The Magic of the 500 Club

There is nothing magic about 500 words, by the way. Maybe you want to join the 250 Club instead. Maybe you can join the 1000 Club. Or even the 2000 Club. But whatever club you decide to join, make it a hard commitment. Absolutely no excuses unless you’re unconscious or giving birth or at the top of Mount Everest. And even in those cases, some writers would drill out their 500 words.

The magic comes from being totally committed. The bottleneck for most writers is the actual production of first draft copy. They don’t spend enough time on that. Which means they don’t have enough to edit or sell or promote.

Stephen King used to tell interviewers that he writes every day except Christmas, the Fourth of July, and his birthday. But he notes in his book On Writing that this was a lie. Because he writes every day including Christmas, the Fourth of July, and his birthday. And he’s in the 2000 Club. That is part of the reason he’s successful.

First draft copy is your number one priority as a writer. If you get that habit right, everything else will tend to fall into place.

The Fiction Writing Challenge For You

Katya, I challenge you to join the 500 Club for one month and then report back to me. Leave a comment here on this blog.

And the rest of my Loyal Blog Readers, I’ll give you the same challenge. Try the 500 Club for 30 days and report back to me in a comment here.

If you do that, one month from now you’ll have AT LEAST 15,000 words, and possibly much more. And 15,000 words per month, every month, is two full-length standard-size novels per year. Every year, for the rest of your life.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

 

Are Flashbacks Allowed in Your Novel?

So you’re writing a novel and you really, desperately need to put some flashbacks in. But all the experts tell you that writing a flashback is a greater crime than torturing puppies. So what do you do?

Paul posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I am attempting to write an historical novel in which half of it is flashback – I know, that is just not done. It is a true bit of history; 2 set of fascinating characters interact for the current time with plenty of drama; One of the characters is trying to impress the others (and has their interest) with the story of his adventurous past (flashback) – both the current and the flashback scenes are equal in length and importance in the story I want to tell. Any thoughts?

Randy sez: Let’s be clear on why the experts create “rules” for writing fiction. It’s because the rules generally work. Not always, but generally. Those pesky “rules” have an element of truth in them. They guide us in our main goal, which is to give our reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. (If you need convincing that this is the main purpose of fiction, then please read my book Writing Fiction For Dummies.)

But let’s also be clear that the “rules” of fiction writing are much like the Pirate’s Code (in the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean.) They’re not rules, they’re guidelines.

The fact is that if the story works better by breaking a rule than by following a rule, then you must break the rule. (This is Randy’s Rule For Resisting Rules. And technically, it’s a meta-rule.)

Now the reason all the experts caution you about flashbacks is because it stops the main story cold in order to tell some backstory.

But if the backstory is just as important as the front story, then this rule just doesn’t make sense.

I can think of plenty of stories that skip all around in time.

One of my favorites is The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. This is a brilliant novel, and it’s hard to know where the backstory ends and the front story begins.

Another example is Neal Stephenson’s ubergeeky novel Cryptonomicon, which takes place partly during World War II, and partly in the late 1990s. The story skips between the two time periods and the reader is never confused. The reader wonders what the devil is the point of all the skipping until quite late in the story, but the payoff at the end is huge, and the story works. Technically, Stephenson isn’t using flashbacks here, but he’s most definitely mixing backstory and front story in a wild and happy mix.

If you must tell backstory, I would argue that flashbacks are the best way to do it, because flashbacks are shown, rather than told. They just interrupt the normal time sequence to do that. But nonlinear time sequences are fine. Readers are smart. They can handle it.

So Paul, the bottom line is this. If it works to have your story skip around wildly in time, then do it. If it doesn’t work, then don’t do it.

If somebody tells you that you aren’t allowed to do that, ask them why. And if their reason doesn’t ultimately come down to giving the reader a Powerful Emotional Experience, then my opinion is that they’re wrong.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.