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Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Bringing A Story Back From The Dead by Sarah J. McNeal

My first published story came out in 1996. I didn’t know as much about writing then as I do now, and I am still learning. I was a member of Romance Writers of America back then. A few years later, I joined my local chapter of Carolinas Romance Writers and took the job of Workshop Coordinator for all the different educational offerings RWA provided. I realized I had hit a gold mind of knowledge. Although the classes are open to all writers, I got to take all the classes for a discounted rate because I was an RWA member. Although I had taken 2 correspondence courses (they are called “on line” studies now) and I had taken several college courses in creative writing, I still had a lot to learn. The RWA classes are numerous and specific in their topic, so if a writer has difficulty in a certain area, they can sign up for a particular class to address their need.

Presently, I am deep in edits on a trilogy from my earliest published work. It’s slow going because the first book in the trilogy contains all the mistakes a new writer can make. I mentioned in a blog earlier how my big prologue was shocking and unnecessary to the core of this story. The huge chunks of passive voice are disturbing enough, but the lack of deep POV (point of view) is desperately lacking. The majority of you are well acquainted with deep POV, but for the purpose of this blog I will explain that deep point of view is when the writer gets into the character’s head and shows the reader what that character is thinking and feeling in such a way that the reader can relate to that character.

RWA had a class on writing deep POV. A writer must eliminate all the distractions that take a reader away from the story. The following are some tips I learned from this class. I regret that I do not remember the name of the instructor for this class, but I’m certain she must still be teaching classes through RWA.

Getting Into The Character's Mind (Deep POV)

1. Limit your character’s knowledge.
The character cannot know everything. They can’t hear conversations of other characters unless they are present in the scene. They can’t know about events or actions unless they learn it from another character or witnessed it for themselves.
2. Cut out all filter words.
Filter words are those descriptive words like thought, saw, wondered, and so on, and show the piece was authored. The character has to experience these things first hand.
Instead of writing, He saw the sun rise above the horizon, write the experience. The sun rose up from the hills and its brightness blinded John.
3. Limit your dialogue tags.
What really works here is to put the character’s actions with dialogue.
Instead of writing, “He is no longer any use to me,” she said, “if he amuses you I shall not end his worthless life…yet,” I changed it to “He is no longer any use to me.” She shrugged her shoulders. “If he amuses you I shall not end his worthless life…yet.”
4. The ultimate “show, don’t tell”
Boy oh boy, we’ve all heard this piece of advice a gazillion times. In deep POV it is imperative to stick to the “no show” advice. Deep POV is a very present, in the moment style. To keep in the character’s mindset, a writer must steer clear of lengthy expositions, info dumps, backstory, and descriptions. All these elements must be exposed in natural ways throughout the story using only the POV character’s thoughts, actions, senses, and conversations.
5. Do NOT use passive voice.
This is the difference between having the characters take some action instead of being acted upon. 

Some of you may have heard this passive voice message before, but here goes: If you can write “by zombies” after a sentence, it is written in passive voice.
Example: She was imprisoned…by zombies.  Change it to action: She became a prisoner despite her efforts to avoid those zombies.
There are a whole bunch of zombies going on in my present revision of The Dark Isle. I’m still hunting them down.

Introducing new characters

6. Be careful when identifying characters.
When a new character comes along, he still has to be introduced so the reader knows the relationship between him and the other character. In deep POV the character narrative cannot state, “There stood his brother.” See how tricky deep POV can get? Instead, the character in deep POV either has to state it in dialogue or through active thought.
Dialogue: “Look, Ralph, there’s my brother standing on the hill.”
Active thought (always in present tense and italicized): For Pete’s sake, there is my brother standing on the hill.
Or have the new character identify himself. “Finally, I found you, sister. I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

There are instances in which deep POV is not an advantage. The writer must determine when to use it and when to back away.

1. Relate backstory in memories
Because of the deep POV character mindset, all the important backstory can be relayed through flashes of memory. Just keep in mind not to do this too frequently since flashbacks do slow the pace of the story.
2. Relay mental distance.
If your character is going through a traumatic situation such as being stabbed or robbed and mentally freaking out, the character isn’t going to be able to process the situation clearly. This would be an instance in which the writer could tell the story more powerfully by backing out f deep POV. It’s not something that should happen very often—no more than two or three times is enough.

Painting by Claude Monet

3. Paint a hyper-vivid picture.
This is one of those glorious times when deep POV allows the writer to bring all the senses together the way an artist uses color to paint a scene. Get all the details in there from all five senses to emotions and memories. I love when I come across these passages of complete emersion into a writer’s story. I hope I can bring these deep POV scenes as well.

Do you find yourself looking at your older work and discovering the lack of deep POV? Is deep POV something you strive for in your writing? There are famous authors who did not write from deep POV like Jane Austin and many of us certainly loved her stories, so not all of us are trying to write from deep POV.
Well, I’m discovering a great deal about my writing style from my first work and where I want to go from here. Editing and revising are becoming an enlightening journey of discovery for me.

Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author who writes diverse stories filled with heart. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press and Sundown Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media:


  1. Sarah, if there is any joy in revisiting older work, it's finding out where we've been in our writing and where we can go. I really appreciate your sharing your knowledge from the class. Most enlightening.

    Best on your work on those early stories. I'm looking forward to reading it. Doris

    1. Doris, there is another benefit for me on this first book; I have been wanting to make certain changes for a long time. I didn't know when I wrote it I would write a trilogy, so this gives me an opportunity to make some references in it for the next books. Plus, I can edit out all these errors I made and update the work.
      You're right about seeing the difference between then and now in my skills. It IS enlightening.
      Thank you so much for coming, Doris.

  2. Sarah, what a great post. I love the examples you gave and the points you made. A great reminder for everyone! I think deep pov is hard to explain, but you did a great job. I always struggled with that when I taught creative writing classes--and it was always great when "the light" came on for my students.

    I feel your pain. I'm reworking my first book I ever wrote, too. If I wasn't working on new stuff too, I would probably lose what mind I have left.

    1. I'm certain you gave your students a great explanation for deep POV in your classes, Cheryl. Actually, I've learned quite a bit from you when you edited my books, so in a way, you're still teaching.
      Reworking an old story is hard, isn't it? I'll be waiting to see what your efforts yield on your first work. What's the title?
      Thank you for all your support and help over the years, Cheryl, and for guiding me in the right direction. I owe you for that.

  3. Sarah,
    I love your examples. Deep POV and showing vs. telling have been the most difficult things to master for me. And I still mess it up in first drafts all the time. A great post!

  4. Thank goodness readers never see our first drafts, Kristy. I would be mortified if a reader ever got hold of one of my first drafts.
    Thank you for coming, Kristy. I really appreciate it.

  5. Thank you for putting this post together for us--and you phrased the information in ways my brain could understand! This is timely for me as I'm going back and forth between a new WIP and working on edits on a finished piece. I like to let things rest and then go back at it with a fresh eye, and now you've given me more to think about. I, too, have an earlier work I go back to periodically to try and fix it. I generally like editing but this one was written as a NaNoWriMo challenge, and although I learned a lot about myself as a writer, I think I need to go back to this MS with a chainsaw, it's so full of dead wood!But there are parts I like! So who knows. Sometimes it's hard to unwrite want you've written. Thanks for a great post, well presented!

    1. Patti, resuscitating an early work is harder than starting a whole new story. I know how it feels to go back into an early work and try to figure out where to even begin fixing it. I'm working on this old story one paragraph at a time. It's still a heap of work, but it's easier in those small increments. Tossing out that prologue really got me off to a good start. See? That chainsaw idea of yours is a good one. I have to write notes on my dictation pad about things I want to change further ahead just to stay organized without getting overwhelmed.
      Something else that intimidates me is the genre. My western series about the Wildings has been rather successful and now I'm getting into fantasy writing in this older work. I am concerned that my readers won't like the change.
      Thank you for sharing some of your dilemmas with me, Patti. I appreciate you coming over and talking about where you're at in the reconstruction of your work.

  6. Sarah, I'm so glad you shared your knowledge with us. I wish I'd known all this when I submitted my first book to a publisher years ago. I was so green. Also, back in the day, backstory was all-important and thus I made that mistake, too. Then one day about a dozen years ago, I had an epiphany. In a traumatic moment, I had the heroine thinking back seventeen years ago. That was the author not my heroine. I realized that in a moment of trauma, we're not going to reflect on the past, we're ready to fight or fly, heart racing, etc etc. I took out all that backstory and wow, what a difference that made. It's important to hook the reader with action....then when the reader needs a breather, then give her a bit of history, just a sentence or something. I love it when we get that aha! moment. Thanks for sharing. Yours is a valuable article for all of.

    1. Me too, Elizabeth. I don't really know any author who has started off with perfect pitch and tone. We've all struggled and found things out by trial and error. And we're still growing.

      You mentioned an important element in your comment--the market changes constantly. What was once so important gives way to something new. We have to keep our fingers on the pulse of the business and what publishers and readers want and expect. I think readers are more sophisticated and discerning now than they used to be. It gets tough, doesn't it?
      I remember when heroines were dainty little flowers that had to be rescued by their heroes. Well, that has certainly changed. Society is forever shifting in attitude and expectation. A wimpy heroine would kill a story today and a hero that doesn't appreciate a strong woman would be up for ridicule.

      You're right about going to a flashback in the middle of an action scene; it would kill the momentum. After the action scene when the hero or heroine has a moment to take a breath is a good time for a little reflection.

      I think it's so wonderful to talk with other authors about writing. When I start talking to my non-writer friends about the elements of writing and the publishing business their eyes glaze over and I realize I'm the only one excited about this stuff. It's been great talking to you and sharing our thoughts about our favorite subject. Thank you so much for coming.

  7. Sarah,

    I'm revisiting my first published novel (a rights reversion situation), and I'm so glad to have another chance at fixing some of the very issues you wrote of now that I have matured as a writer.

    As usual, your blog topics are timely, helpful, and interesting.

  8. Kaye, it's good to know I've got company on the slow and painful revision detail. Like you, I'm rather grateful to have the chance to fix these old issues that were bugging me for so long.

    Thank you for your kind words.

  9. I love this post, Sarah. It helps clear up a lot of things for new authors. I wish I'd known all these things when I first began to write. Not that I know it all now. Still learning.

    1. Laurean, I wish I had known it way back when, too. The writer who started off knowing everything must be a rarity because I have yet to meet them.
      Thank you so much for coming.