Are #1 New York Times Bestselling Authors Teaching New Writers Bad Habits? - LG O'Connor

Are #1 New York Times Bestselling Authors Teaching New Writers Bad Habits?

I ask the question with absolute sincerity. As a first time novelist and new writer, I have to imagine that we look to the authors we admire most with awe and assume that they can do no wrong. Am I right?

As an avid reader for most of my life, I’ve read almost every genre of fiction written and I definitely have a list of favorite authors. Granted, my tastes have changed over the years, but one thing has remained the same–I love a good story and great characters that leave me clamoring for more.

So, with that said, you can imagine my shock when the developmental editor I worked with on my first novel gave me her feedback. The developmental editor was not just any editor; she has two decades of experience at one of the big six publishers.

My preference is to write my point of view (POV) in third person since it allows me access into more than one character’s head. The primary feedback I received was regarded POV shifts and the number of characters in my novel.

What she told me about POV:

Rule #1: Absolutely, positively, no head hopping

Rule #2: You must start a new chapter when you shift POV from one character’s POV to another’s; scene breaks are not enough

Rule #3: You must limit your POV characters

The crème de la crème of the feedback: I had too many characters.

Huh? What?

The first thing I did was race to my bookshelf and pull out some of my favorite recently published books from my favorite authors, all of whom carried the distinction of being a ‘#1 NYT Bestselling Author’. Heavy hitters, big time authors, huge book sales. Get the picture?

I also mention recently published books, since these books should provide the best comparable examples of acceptable practices compared to earlier works.

Here’s what I found:

    1. Head hopping galore. Personally, I don’t do this, but that’s not the point.
    2. POV switches within the same chapters, especially romance novels. The record I found was eight POV switches within the same chapter and between six different characters.
    3. Easily 6 POV characters within a book, not the same book as example #2.
    4. The point of view shifts from 1st person to 3rd person from chapter to chapter, depending on which character’s point of view is being expressed during that chapter. There were at least five characters with POVs.

Yikes! Some of the names of these authors would shock you.

Okay, that was one editor’s opinion, right? Nope. I’ve since worked with two other respected editors who recited the same rules. After presenting my evidence to them, here is what they told me. Published authors have more flexibility and editorial control over their work.

Again: Huh? What?

Sorry, are you as dumbfounded by that answer as I am?

Because I have to ask, isn’t writing really about the reader? And I’m not talking about other writers or industry professionals that beta read your work, I’m talking about ‘Josephine Reader’ who buys your book because she wants a good story.

Here’s my conclusion, based on the evidence found in books from NYT Bestselling authors. Sometimes POV shifts are exactly what you need, and sometimes you do need ‘that many’ characters to tell the story.

My advice is to treat the rules as guidelines and follow them as much as possible. Take your agent and your publisher’s input but, when you absolutely have to, trust your gut and break the rules.

How did it turn out for me? In the final rewrite of my first book I did pare down the number of POVs and shift one major character to my second book. But there was one POV and one character on which I refused to budge; removing them would have damaged the integrity of my story.

On that note, one of my favorite #1 NYT Bestselling paranormal romance writers just released her next book, which I purchased in hardcover (yup, I just said hardcover!), and I’m savoring every last POV shift… all twelve of them.

As a reader I truly believe that if you produce a great, well-written book, people will buy it and they will love it. They won’t care or even notice the mechanics of your POV shifts, how complex your world is, or how many characters you have… I have bookshelves and an eReader full of books to prove it.

Write on!

What are your thoughts on POV shifts and the number of characters in a novel? I’d love to hear your perspective and if it’s from the POV of a reader, writer, agent, or editor. Have you ever received any editorial feedback that left you baffled?


Leave a Comment:

1 comment
Lisa Naeger Shea says April 4, 2013

“…treat the rules as guidelines and follow them as much as possible. Take your agent and your publisher’s input but, when you absolutely have to, trust your gut and break the rules.” As a writer, proofreader, and sometimes-editor, I agree!

Add Your Reply