02 February 2018

Career Suicide!!! and Rules Hawkers

Thomas Pluck

Hyperbole intended.

Recently a writer shared a link about How to Avoid Three Career-Killing Moves in Writing.
And being a writer who doesn't want to kill his career, I clicked. Now what were these moves? Going on vitriolic diatribes against reviewers who deign to give you any fewer than five stars? Buying a book by a writer who gave you a bad review, shooting it with a shotgun, and mailing it to her? Spitting on writers you don't like at cocktail parties?*

No! They were:

  • Writing in the present tense
  • Using the third person omniscient
  • Using multiple points of view
I'm not kidding. Now I can pick up successful books that use any of these without even trying. Of course, they need to be done well, but that goes with anything. I just had to laugh. Writers are still peddling The Rules, and using them to further their careers.

Writing workshops and books on writing can have real value, but be wary of anyone who says there are hard and fast rules for writing. Careers have been made on hawking "the rules", but if you read widely in the genre you want to write in, you'll learn what rules can be broken with skill. I recently read Laura Lippman's excellent Wilde Lake and she uses first person for the past scenes, with the narrator as a child, and third person when she's an adult. The point of view never wavers from the protagonist's, but it was an odd choice to use first person for the past and third for the present. But Lippman knows what she's doing, and it works wonderfully.

In my Denny the Dent stories, I have always used past tense for his childhood and present for "now," which annoyed one editor who demanded that I change it all to past tense. That has been corrected in my new story collection, Life During Wartime, which includes three Denny the Dent stories, and 21 stories total. I like to juxtapose childhood and adult scenes, and Lippman's method is very appealing, because children lend themselves to the first person, and adults are better at hiding things about themselves, so the third often works better. It wasn't third omniscient, it was limited to the protagonist, but we learned things about her that she was unlikely to share in first person.

Third omniscient has its place, but mystery often requires the limitations of perspective to "work." But not always. Two of my favorite Lawrence Block novels bounce between first person narratives of his sleuth Matt Scudder and the killer he is hunting, as he commits the crimes. This actually amps up the tension because we know how much danger Matt and Elaine and their friends are in, when from their perspectives, we would have no idea. This gives us the suspense of the bomb under the table rather than the short tension of the murderer appearing from nowhere and the victim dying in terror.

Eva Dolan breaks the rules in her thriller This is How it Ends, which I just started reading. It's gripping so far, and the POV changes are made clear in the chapter headings. That's not my favorite way to do it, but it works fine. But she needs it, because one character is in first and the others are in third. James Lee Burke does this as well in his Dave Robicheaux novels. He's a master, but sometimes this is confusing. Is the third person section what actually happened, or is it Dave telling us what he thinks happened? We can't be sure. In Swan Peak I am told he uses dueling first person perspectives and has them both on a phone call. I can't wait to see how he pulls it off. My buddy Josh Stallings--the author of the Mo McGuire hardboiled L.A. crime thrillers, and his wonderful disco-era heist novel Young Americans--raved about how well Burke handled it, so I have moved that book up my list.

For me, I prefer a loosely limited third and signify changes by beginning the sentence with the character we are following. Sometimes this is called "head jumping" when done too often, but Carl Hiaasen does it well enough, and it is entertaining as both a reader and a writer to get in the heads of bizarre characters. For me, it's fun to change voice and let the characters speak for themselves, rather than through the lens of one narrator, and you can get backgrounds and motives across much more easily than by playing games so the narrator learns it. But I enjoy singular narratives as well. In Bad Boy Boogie, the story revolves around the deceptions of Jay Desmarteaux's friends and family, so I limited the story to what Jay saw, except for one pivotal scene that drives the entire book. His greatest fear is becoming the monster that he killed, so I wrote from the perspective of that monster for one chapter, at the very end, to show the difference between them. Jay may not know the difference, but we do.

If that kills my career, put it on my tombstone.

I'm going to break my own rule and tell you my rules, which you don't have to buy on Kindle or subscribe to my Patreon to learn:

  • Write the best book or story you can in the time you have.
  • Treat people with professionalism and respect.
  • If an editor or agent has rules, follow them when submitting or querying.

Not following these won't kill your career, but they may hinder you getting a career started. I'm not sure what can kill a writer's career if they keep selling books. Killing pets, beloved characters, bouncing away from beloved series to write standalones they love... these have hurt careers, but not always killed them. They return to favorite series characters, revive them like Misery Chastain, and they are back in the saddle... maybe short one foot, like Paul Sheldon in Misery.

* Just kidding, Richard Ford did the latter two of these and still has a career


  1. Interesting article. I write in 1st person and 3rd person, sometimes in present tense, sometimes in past tense, sometimes using all in one book. Whatever - to get the story the way I want to put it.

  2. I've always thought that writers should get away with as much as they possibly can.
    A good post!

  3. Good post, Tom.

    I often write in present tense, and 12 of my 13 novels use multiple point of view.
    Somerset Maugham may have been the most honest of all writers when he said, "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are."

    O'Neil has it right. It's all about getting the story right.

  4. Great post! But of course I'd feel that way: I totally agree with you. Obviously, not everyone does -- and I'm not just referring to that editor who made you change the tense for the Denny the Dent flashback scenes. I wrote a similar-ish blog post about point of view a few years ago and was taken aback by the vitriolic response I got from one writer/editor:


    It was interesting to read about the POV changes in Wilde Lake, as I did the opposite in one of my series: the books are mostly in first person but switch to third person for the occasional flashback chapter. No one's complained yet!

    When it comes to writing rules, I'm with you: Have your grains of salt ready, folks. It's about what works for you (and your readers). I will wholeheartedly endorse your three rules at the end, though. I guess it boils down to "Tell the story you want to tell the way you want to tell it...but don't be a prima donna about it!"

  5. Good thoughts here, Thomas. I agree that one should know the rules, but should then feel free to break them anytime it helps the story. As for POV, I've written in first-person, third-limited, third-multiple, omniscient, detached, etc., etc.--it depends on the story that's being told. One of the strangest I've seen was "A Rose for Emily," which if I remember right, was written in first-person plural, of all things.

    Great post!

  6. The key is when ‘rules’ are broken ‘masterfully’.

    Before I started writing, I recall reading a thriller set in the nation’s capital. I believe the author and his wife were Washington lawyers, which presumably lent insider knowledge. I’ve forgotten the name of the novel and I’ve forgotten the title, but I’ll never forget that most of the book was written in 3rd-person omniscient– which wasn’t so bad– except for two chapters written in two different 1st-person PoV… and one reported his own death near a dumpster. Awkward. And I wasn’t even a writer yet.

    I like first person; I like third person. I admired second person in the hands of Will Ludwigsen in his AHMM story, ‘In Search Of’. Usually I find entire books in present tense jarring; it typically takes me a few chapters to adjust and I’m not certain I’m ever comfortable. Here Patricia Cornwell comes to mind. My brain makes mental adjustments vis-à-vis tense, which is probably not a good thing.

    Gillian Flynn clearly demarcates PoV in her chapters, which work well. It’s done, well, masterfully. I received a manuscript for editing that interposed 1st, 3rd, present and past willy-nilly. The writer explained she was a professional self-pubber not bound by the ‘rules’. She saw grand eloquence; I saw a mess. She’d reluctantly submitted it for editing because friends urged her to, but she didn’t want an editor to change anything.

    When it came to flashbacks, I recall taking the opposite approach, Thomas. I wrote the up-to-date body in past tense and past action in present tense. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it worked well. I think it was the immediacy of the past, so to speak, like daydreaming.

  7. I just submitted a story the day before yesterday that did not break the first rule you mentioned, about writing in the present tense, but most definitely broke the other two. I needed to include a scene that took place just after the main character died & there was no way to do this except by multiple POV. I try to use 3rd omni sparingly because it can take all the suspense out of a story if used too often.

  8. Tom, I like your 3 rules the best.

  9. Liz, depending on the situation, I think 3rd omni or 3rd multiple can sometimes ADD to the suspense. It can reveal things to the reader before they're revealed to the hero/heroine--and I think that can be handy, at times. (BTW, good luck with the story!!)

  10. Thank you, John! I appreciate your help so much. This particular story is kind of a weird one. I like it, but I don't know if the editor in question will!

  11. Thanks all for indulging this peeve of mine.


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