Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Editing Demon #2: "Head Hopping"



This is the second of my series of three deep-dark-confessions about my editing weaknesses. These are the major issues that I am always working on throughout every story, and for which I have to make specific editing rounds. The theme this week is editing, because I just spent two weeks in editing/re-writing Hades with ye old NaNo manuscript, which is now off to the initial betareaders (see more about betareaders here next week).

The second is a tendency to "head hop."

Definition: "Head Hopping" is a term used by book folk, editors, writers and reviewers to refer to unexplained and confusing shifts in POV during a scene. I.e., chapter starts in the hero's POV and slips into heroine's POV without a section break, and back again. This also includes "vanity/expressions perspective" (where the character that is serving as our eyes inexplicably knows what s/he is looking like at that moment, or unrealistically thinks of their nose as "cute" or similar).

The Problem: If a scene is in one character's POV, the reader should see everything as that character sees it - what s/he knows, sees, feels, etc. If POV slips happen too erratically, it can make the writing seem disjointed and hard to follow. The events and timing seems jumbled. And, worse, it leads to authorial interference, and can take the reader out of the story and make them feel disconnected from the scene.

The Allure: Both characters have so many thoughts and feelings, and head hoping allows you to describe both characters from the outside and give internal dialogue for each, i.e. "what they really mean when they said such-n-such aloud." Besides, I'm the author - I know what they are all thinking!

The Fix: This was a problem that was really big in my first couple of manuscripts, because I didn't realize it was a problem. In old romances, they head hopped all the time, and those were the stories I cut my teeth on. Nowadays, though, it is passe, and my editors have been good at spotting it and teaching me not to do it. Now, I include the planned POV for each scene in the outline for each chapter, so I know which character will be my eyes. This has helped eliminate the good majority of my head hopping. Other than that, a very thorough read-through is the best way to clip out the bits that escape through the outline.

***

Need an illustrative example?

Head Hopping Passage (pre-editing):
Once, the pair even literally ran into each other at the mailboxes, when she came barging into the small space as he turned to stride out. Neither had noticed each other until their torsos had collided. Instinctively, he brought his glove-clad hands up to her fleece-covered arms to steady her, and she noticed again the attractive scent of sandalwood. He detected the slight tinge of cinnamon on her breath as she puffed in surprise, and for a moment all thought fled from his brain as he stared into wide, hazel eyes, fringed with impossibly dark lashes.

He couldn't remember the last time his mind was completely blank while working on a book, but at that moment, he would have been hard pressed to recall his own name.

"Steady on," he murmured, realizing he should say something.

"Hi," she breathed, simply, and, almost reluctantly, made to move past him.

Her flat mate Colby, in their infrequent discussions of the other inmates of the building, had dismissed Kale McKinnon as "weird and old," but right then Molly saw him as nothing like old or weird. True, he had some eccentric qualities, but at that moment, his oddities were more intriguing than anything else. And no one who felt so firm and vital could be considered old. Her heartbeat, at least, rapped out a tattoo that told her she was in the presence of vibrant maleness, a feeling to which she was not normally prone.

"Hi again," he said, softly, taking unfamiliar pleasure in her pretty blush.

Molly stood aside and let him pass, and watched as he exited the building. If she were more like Colby, she thought, she would say he had a "great butt," and smiled impishly at the thought. But, no - she was just Molly, and she didn't have those kinds of thoughts about men she barely knew.

Even though it was true.


Same Scene (post-editing):
Once, the pair even literally ran into each other at the mailboxes, when Molly came barging into the small space just as Kale turned to stride out. Neither had noticed each other until their torsos had collided. Instinctively, he brought his glove-clad hands up to her fleece-covered arms to support her. He detected a slight tinge of cinnamon on her breath as she puffed in surprise, and all thoughts fled from his brain as he stared into wide, hazel eyes, fringed with impossibly dark lashes.

He couldn't remember the last time his mind was completely blank while working on a book, but at that moment he would have been hard pressed to recall his own name.

“Steady on,” he murmured, when he realized he should say something.

“Hi,” she breathed, simply and shyly.

“Hi, again,” he said, softly, taking unfamiliar pleasure in her pretty blush, but finally forced himself past her her to the door.

*break*

She stood aside and watched as he exited the building. Her flatmate, Colby, in their infrequent discussions of the other inmates of the building, had dismissed Kale McKinnon as weird and old. However, right then, Molly saw him as nothing like that. True, he had some eccentric qualities, yet to her, his oddities were more intriguing than anything else. And no one who felt so firm and vital could be considered old. Around him, her heart rapped out a tattoo that told her she was in the presence of vibrant maleness—a feeling to which she was not normally prone.

To Molly, he was sexy, if in an unconventional way. If she were more like Colby, she would say he had a great butt. She smiled impishly at the observation. But, no, she was just herself, and she didn't notice those kinds of things about men she barely knew.

Even though it was true.
(Scenes are both from my Christmas romance novella Unwrapping Scrooge, with thanks to my wonderful editors at Decadent.)

When I first made these changes, it seemed clunky to me to separate the two perspectives. But, I was thinking like the author and not considering the reader. Luckily, I trusted my editors!

***

There are always exceptions!

I try to employ my right to artistic licence very sparingly. I like to trust my editors, as they are less attached to the draft than I am. However, one of the little "quirks" I enjoy in my works is a montage scene that is used to build chemistry and intimacy, as if the melding perspectives mirror the growing couplehood. In this brief scene, the passage of time is denoted by overlapping POV, as well.

Example (also from Unwrapping Scrooge):
As the weeks passed, they talked of many things. They chatted about writing and how his work was going, and about her thesis, and about England and Canada. She told him about her mother's breast cancer, and their constant fear of its return until the five-year remission mark passed this winter. He was silent on the subject of family, which spoke volumes to her. And both felt quiet sympathy for the other. They found themselves developing a friendship neither had expected to find. He found her incredibly intelligent, and she discovered his rudeness was not his normal state, but that he was actually quite amusing when he allowed himself to be. And both also found themselves more and more attracted to the other as the days progressed.

Kale was surprised he had ever thought her plain now, and she wondered why Colby wasn’t able to see how fascinating his mouth was. One morning, she found his dressing gown hung on the inside of the bathroom door and had stroked its plush softness, allowing the scent of him to invade her. She enjoyed the tingling restlessness that pooled deep in her belly until she reminded herself that she was acting like a stalker again and hurriedly left the room. He often found his disobedient eyes travelling the length of her, basking in the sight of her lush curves, only to gather up the last ragged remains of his self-control and return to whatever menial task she had set for him.

And in this way they continued, trying to convince themselves there was no harm in a platonic friendship that was destined to go nowhere and be no more consequential than a few weeks of breakfasts. Soon after the New Year, Mrs. McCardle would return, and there would be no pretense left for them to meet, and then, a few months after that, Molly would return across the ocean, and their brief flirtation would be a warm memory, if that.

But for now, both walked around in a fog fueled by fantasy that neither was really willing or able to acknowledge, but which amused Colby and Byron enormously.
This passage is the only intentional violation of the anti-head-hopping convention in the book. It occurs at an "act break" just as their relationship changes direction, and sums up about a month of interaction in a few brief paragraphs. The characters are such opposites, I felt this was a risky move that could pay off by fostering a more realistic sense of growing together.

It is aggressively authorial, and likely isn't to everyone's tastes. For me, however, I like the cozy feeling of montage passages so much that it is worth taking the hit from the editors. That's my treat as a reader of my own work, in a way.

Luckily, this book has still done fairly well with reviewers and readers, despite this indulgence!

***

So, through editing and working on my craft under the watchful eyes of experienced readers/editors, and by paying attention to reviewer reactions, I am in recovery for my head hopping addiction, and have a greater control over my perspective - but it is still something I have to be conscious of.

The point of writing (at least in genre fiction) is to make the book a pleasant experience for the fans of that genre, and to communicate clearly. Being mindful of writing habits that make reading more difficult is an important step towards publishing.

Naturally, different writers and different forms of writing will have different needs and conventions, so YMMV!

***

So, the quick fix list:
  1. Recognize the problem and why it is a problem.
  2. Outline/plan/consider which character POV will be the eyes for the scene before hand and stick to it as much as possible.
  3. Re-read in the draft stage for head hops or vanity adjectives, and clip the slips out.
  4. If a passage cannot be merely clipped, move it to a new section (to the correct POV) or make it out right dialogue.
  5. If need be, cut the scene into sections with a section break, and tell the same scene from the two different POVs - but this should be used sparingly.
  6. Only head hop when you are consciously using your artistic license. Accidental head hopping should be scoured out by a qualified editor and good readers.
***

"So, good luck," he said, thinking she was nuts for all this.
"Thanks," she muttered, knowing he thought she was nuts.

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