Are you in the planning stage for a new story? Maybe you’ve started a first draft, but you’re stymied by some aspect of plotting or writing. Wouldn’t it be great to have a sounding board to discuss your ideas, options for structure and plot, POV choice, narrative tense to use, and so on? It can’t hurt to get an educated opinion about your approach before you begin writing or during the writing process. That’s where story coaching comes in.
What is story coaching?
Story coaching is consultation that a seasoned editor provides. It’s a discussion with dark fiction writers about literary aspects of their work and choices they could make to develop a sound blueprint from which to construct an effective story.
Story coaching is for you if you’re noodling an incomplete idea or wrestling with an unfinished manuscript you’re unsure what to do with. Story coaching—which I provide through video consultation (link coming soon)—will help guide you toward completing a solid draft. I’m also available if you simply have burning questions about writing craft.
Story coaching is typically most helpful early in the story development process. Instead of spending days, weeks, or months writing a story that doesn’t work, story coaching prepares you to draft the most powerful story you can write—a story that will connect and satisfy readers, readers willing to shell out more of their book-buying dollars for your future work—along with positive reviews.
Story coaching can also take place well after the first draft to gain feedback and insight about challenging aspects of your dark fiction project.
What I provide with story coaching
As a certified editor, I can review early pages you send (a partial or complete manuscript). Or I can simply discuss your story with you through video consultation (link coming soon).
Here are a few story coaching services I offer:
Determining acceptable word count for your genre (dark fiction only)
If you’re considering booking a story coaching session with me, here are a few ways you can prepare:
Take a few days to jot down some issues with your story and how you might go about writing it. Include any questions about this and writing in general.
If you’ve written pages, review the topics in the first list under “What I provide with story coaching.” Then make notes or record more questions about these aspects of your story.
Complete the exercise of writing a 100-word blurb for your story, novella, or novel. It will help you discover what your story’s about. For instructions, go here.
When you’re ready for story coaching, contact me and let me know where you are in your writing process and what you’d like to discuss. I’m available to help you learn more about the craft of writing dark fiction and develop a better, more successful story.
You’ve made the wise decision to have your dark fiction manuscript line edited and copy edited. Is it ready for submission or self-publication? Not quite. If you want to polish your prose to perfection, you’ll hire a proofreader.
What is proofreading?
Editing involves major changes to your story, its structure, and language, but proofreading is the final stage of the editing process, when a skilled proofreader fixes minor misspellings, typos, punctuation mistakes, formatting issues, and other inconsistencies.
Editing stages leading up to proofreading
The number one mistake writers make when hiring a proofreader is that they believe they need only proofreading when, in most cases, their writing would also benefit from a previous level of editing. (For a pictorial representation of the entire editing spectrum, see What Do You Need on the Fiction Editing Spectrum.)
Manuscript evaluation offers an educated opinion, in writing, about how your draft stacks up to published fiction standards. The editor evaluates and reports on such elements as structure, plot, pacing, characterization, point of view, description, setting, and more. Most importantly, a professional critique includes what you could do to sharpen these elements and make your story better.
Developmental editing evaluates the building blocks of a story, checking that they’re present and working well together. It ensures that your structure and plot are solid, characters well-drawn and motivated, point of view correctly executed, setting and description vividly drawn, dialogue rings true, mood and tone support the overall story.
Line editing enhances your writing style so that your language is clear, flows effortlessly, and reads well. Refining paragraph and sentence construction ensures that all the right building blocks are in place and maximizes the effectiveness of your ideas. Misspellings, wrong words, awkward phrasing, and more are corrected. Line editing tightens your writing.
Copy editing hones your writing style by correcting spelling, grammar, syntax, and punctuation errors; ensuring that your writing adheres to editorial style standards; clarifying the text by eliminating ambiguous or factually incorrect information; flagging continuity inconsistencies; and producing a smooth reading experience.
While line editors and copy editors correct inaccuracies and hone your writing style, they won’t catch every mechanical error. The proofreader’s job is to scour your manuscript and find any mistakes that may have slipped through the editing cracks. This means proofreading falls at the very end of the editorial process, after your manuscript has undergone both line editing and copy editing.
Make sure you’ve thoroughly revised and edited your work before you pursue the final stage of proofreading. (There’s no point spending time and money fixing minor errors if you might later cut entire sections or restructure paragraphs and sentences.) Only have your manuscript proofread after you’ve completed a final edited draft that you’re pleased with.
In fact, if you send a proofreader a manuscript riddled with grammar mistakes, difficult sentences, and convoluted paragraphs—things you’re unable to see but stand out like flashing neon to an editor—they may decline the job and recommend a previous editorial service.
Why is proofreading important?
A manuscript sprinkled with typos, grammar errors, or textual inconsistencies will derail readers from the fictive dream you’ve worked hard to induce. Proofreading is crucial because it enables your narrative to mesmerize readers without disruption.
Proofreading polishes your work with a professional finish. This is vital if you want agents or publishers to consider your work or, if you’re pursuing self-publishing, you desire to build a loyal readership. When readers encounter an unedited or unproofed book, they’ll probably assume you couldn’t be bothered to invest in your own work. If you skipped these essential steps and your work shows it, why would they read any more of your dark fiction?
Proofreading is indispensable because, if you omit it and readers encounter more than a few typos or grammar errors in your novel, any remaining errors will negatively affect their reading experience. Many disgruntled readers are willing to go out of their way to complain about slipshod editing and proofing in reviews of your work. Falling stars = dwindling sales.
In today’s world of self-publishing, proofreading is a nonnegotiable step in the editorial process. As in indie author, you may be looking for ways to cut costs and thus be tempted to proofread on your own. But indie books have grown in quality in recent years, raising the bar and increasing competition. Getting your work professionally proofread is now not only common practice but a necessity for success.
What does a proofreader do?
Proofreaders won’t overhaul your story content or provide in-depth feedback on your work. This is the job of previous editors (see What Do You Need on the Fiction Editing Spectrum?). Proofreaders arrive like Mary Poppins at the tail end of the editorial process to fine-tune and polish your edited work.
This means proofreaders won’t copy-edit your manuscript, making changes they’re not being paid to make. But a reliable proofreader will ensure that your manuscript is free from spelling, grammar, and other errors that could ruin the reading experience and discredit your writing—and you.
Proofreading for print publishing
In print publishing, proofreading is done after the manuscript has been laid out and a “proof” copy printed. This version is what a proofreader works on.
The proofreader’s job for print layout is to conduct a thorough quality check before the book goes into print production. They may compare the original, edited manuscript to the proof, making sure there are no omissions or layout errors. The proofreader checks line spacing and page numbering, and fixes awkward word or page breaks. If the proofreader encounters too many errors, they may return the proof to the copy editor for further work.
Proofreaders consider the entire book, not just the chapter text. They’ll check your epigraphs, acknowledgments, and dedication pages, as well as your table of contents—everywhere text appears.
Tasks of a proofreader
Although professional proofreaders possess a keen eye for detail, that’s not enough. They must also employ a reliable and repeatable method to detect every minor error in your text, from misplaced commas to misused words. They’ll also correct typographical and layout issues in print proofs, such as inconsistencies in font use or incorrectly spaced lines in a paragraph.
The following list is by no means exhaustive, but here are some issues proofreaders check:
Words that sound alike—homophones (for example, they’re, there, their)
Definite and indefinite articles (a, an, the)
Prepositions and prepositional phrases
Hyphens (-), en dashes (–), and em dashes (—)
Capitalization of terms, titles, and proper names
Treatment of numbers
Formatting of dialogue
Paragraph indentation and spacing
Page numbers, headers, footers
Effective proofreading requires multiple passes, each round focusing on only one task.
Can you do your own proofreading?
The short answer is, “Yes, but.” The long answer explains why not.
Any kind of proofing you do yourself helps to produce a cleaner manuscript. Whatever gets your work closer to the finish line is a good thing.
But you, as author, being the only one to proofread your own work? I caution against it. No matter how sharp you are, you will skip over typos and issues you’ve seen dozens of times during revision because you’ve become used to seeing them.
So, relying on only your own proofreading isn’t recommended. You’re so accustomed to your text that you could miss mistakes. A professional examines your manuscript with fresh eyes and is less likely to skip over errors.
Bottom line: catch as many errors as you can, but don’t skip hiring a professional proofreader.
The cost of proofreading
How much does third-party proofreading cost nowadays?
Proofreading and editing businesses usually advertise set per-word rates, sometimes with different prices based on turnaround time. On average, expect to pay $0.01–$0.04 per word (around $2.00–$10.00 per page).
The editing and proofreading service, Scribendi, lets you calculate the cost of proofreading based on your word count. For example, an 80,000-word novel takes two weeks and costs $1602.86 (as of the date of this post). That comes out to $0.02 per word, or $5.01 per 250-word page. A 4000-word short story with one-week turnaround time costs $129.33 ($0.032 per word, $8.08 per page). With 24-hour turnaround, cost increases to $163.17 ($0.041 per word, $10.20 per page).
Reedsy proofreading costs about $0.015 per word, or $3.75 per page.
You’ve drafted a piece of dark fiction, but you’re not sure whether it’s ready for editing. Are the plot and structure as effective as they could be? Are your characters fully developed and believable, or do they come off as flat? Did you pick the best POV—and execute it correctly? What could you do to improve your story before you revise and polish? A skilled editor can answer these questions through manuscript evaluation.
What is manuscript evaluation?
Manuscript evaluation, or critique, is a high-level overview and comprehensive assessment of your work, whether it be a short story, novella, or novel.
After you’ve finished a draft, you naturally need to revise it but often don’t know how to approach such a formidable task. Manuscript evaluation by a qualified story editor provides a workable process toward “re-vision”—seeing with fresh eyes—what you’ve put on paper. It analyzes what is and isn’t working, and develops a plan to implement improvements.
Manuscript evaluation offers an educated opinion, in writing, about how your draft stacks up to published fiction standards. The editor evaluates and reports on such elements as structure, plot, pacing, characterization, point of view, description, setting, and more. Most importantly, a professional critique includes what you could do to sharpen these elements and make your story better.
Why and when should you request a manuscript evaluation?
The next step beyond story coaching (link coming soon), manuscript evaluation is an entry-level edit for when you’ve completed some actual writing.
You might seek critique and feedback when you’ve finished your first (or second or subsequent) draft. Or after you’ve submitted the work to beta readers and made your own preparatory revisions.
A note about beta reading: A seasoned story editor’s manuscript evaluation goes far beyond a beta read. Beta readers can give you feedback based on their personal experience as readers in your genre. But manuscript evaluation is a deepwater analysis from an editorial professional who can can envision how to develop your story’s full potential. Isn’t that what you’re looking for?
You could even opt for manuscript evaluation after you’ve self-published a book that’s received less than stellar reviews. Manuscript critique will assess what’s going on—or not going on that should be—with your manuscript. Editor feedback will suggest how to fix problems identified.
Although developmental editing is a story-level edit designed to reshape fiction early in the revision process, your manuscript may not be ready for it. Manuscript evaluation is an introductory step that identifies the structural strengths and weaknesses of your work. Based on the editor’s guidance, you get a second go at revising your dark fiction before submitting it for developmental editing.
Part of manuscript evaluation is determining whether further editing would benefit your work. As a developmental editor, I not only review and evaluate your manuscript but will let you know if I recommend further editing. (The next step in the process (X Spectrum) is most likely developmental editing.)
What an editor does during manuscript evaluation—and how long it takes
How much time a manuscript evaluation takes depends on the size of your manuscript. I can critique a short story in a week. Novellas in three to four weeks. Novels may take six to eight weeks.
Here are the fundamentals that I review and assess during manuscript evaluation:
Word count for your genre (dark fiction only)
Plot, story structure, and pacing
Conflict and tension
Characterization and character development
Point of view, narration, and narrative voice
Narrative consistency and continuity
Setting and description
I don’t do the following in manuscript evaluation:
Correct grammar, spelling, or word choice
Edit at the paragraph or sentence level
Fix dialogue problems
The result of manuscript evaluation: the editorial report
An editorial report (also called an editorial letter or memo) is what an editor returns after thoroughly reviewing a manuscript. The report provides the valuable feedback you’re looking for as a writer of dark fiction.
In my editorial reports, I begin with a general statement about your work, pointing out strengths and weaknesses. Then I delve into specific critiques of the core narrative elements listed in the previous section. These assessments include advice about how to improve your story with actionable steps for revision, such as:
Evaluation of your story’s premise
Information you could cut—or add, if it’s missing
Whether your word count is appropriate for your particular dark fiction market
Ways to solidify story structure, reconstruct your plot, and avoid clichés
Recommendations on how to heighten conflict and tension
How you might fix instances of inconsistent pacing
Suggestions to deepen character development and make your story people more authentic
How to strengthen your chosen point of view, narration, and narrative voice
Any narrative inconsistencies
Better ways to describe characters and action grounded in your story setting
Tips to underscore your theme
The editorial report contains information and instruction that could lead you to make substantial changes to your manuscript. Toward this end, my guidance will help you develop a revision strategy that, if implemented, will improve your story.
Finally, the editorial report concludes with any suggestions for further editing, such as developmental editing.
Your job after manuscript evaluation
You may have questions after you’ve had time to read and digest my editorial report. If so, you’re welcome to email me back for any necessary clarification about my comments and suggestions. If you’d like to conference with me to receive further advice, I offer 50% off a thirty-minute video consultation (link coming soon).
If you submit an early draft, my editorial direction may prompt a significant rewrite. If you send a polished draft after several rounds of your own revision, my comments might focus instead on deepening character development or nuancing your story’s themes.
In either case, when you receive the editorial report, you may spend a few weeks incorporating my feedback or otherwise rewriting portions of your manuscript. Rest assured, this work will strengthen your story structure and improve its content, moving you closer to the possibility of publication.
How manuscript evaluation leads to developmental editing
If you’re still in the drafting stage and aren’t sure what level of editing you need, it can’t hurt to start with manuscript evaluation. Critique identifies big-picture story issues and suggests how to fix them. You then can do your own revision (a great exercise for developing writers) and submit the revised manuscript afterward for developmental editing.
When you follow the staged editorial process in the Fiction Editing Spectrum and begin with manuscript evaluation, you’ll save money in the long run when you move on to developmental editing; I provide a discount for both services.
I typically recommend you submit your dark fiction for manuscript evaluation first. By making your own changes based on my feedback, you’ll learn how to revise your own work. And your story will be more cohesive moving forward.
With developmental editing, I also provide an editorial report. However, the information and suggestions will be more in-depth and include inline comments. Since you will have addressed structural and other overarching issues during your revision following manuscript evaluation, I’ll be able to focus on finessing your story into something even more powerful and compelling.
Reedsy averages the cost of an editorial assessment at $0.0197 cents per word ($0.02). This means that, for an 80,000-word book, the average quote would be $1520.
My rate for manuscript evaluation is $2.95 per 250-word page, which comes out to $0.0118 per word. For more information about my editing rates, see Dark Fiction Editing Rates.
How you can start the process of manuscript evaluation
If you’re thinking about submitting your latest work (or a previously shelved manuscript) for evaluation, I’ll need you to do something important for me. (And, by the way, I’m not the only editor who may request what I’m about to ask you.)
Write me the back cover description for your book. This text of around 100 words lets me know what your story is about and what you intended to accomplish in writing it. I’ll use this summary as a basis to evaluate the whole manuscript.
Book descriptions communicate what your story’s about through three simple elements:
Who your main character is
Your character’s story problem and goal
The conflict arrayed against them (what’s at stake)
In describing what your story’s about, provide the premise without giving away any twists or the ending. These few sentences are what you’re promising to those who risk buying your work. I need this information so that I can evaluate whether your manuscript delivers on what you’ve promised.
How to write your book description
The protagonist is a character whose life is upended by a problem and who therefore pursues a goal to resolve that problem. During this process, they encounter conflict that threatens what’s most important to them—the stakes of the story.
Here’s my 94-word book description for Death Perception, a supernatural thriller:
Nineteen-year-old Kennet Singleton lives with his invalid mother in a personal care facility, but he wants out. He operates the crematory at the local funeral home, where he discovers he can discern the cause of death of those he cremates—by toasting marshmallows over their ashes.
He thinks his ability is no big deal since his customers are already dead. But when his perception differs from what’s on the death certificate, he finds himself in the midst of murderers. To save the residents and avenge the dead, Kennet must bring the killers to justice.
Let’s analyze this:
Who’s the protagonist?
Young Kennet Singleton is a crematory operator with a mediumistic ability.
What’s his problem and story goal?
He wants to escape the personal care home where he lives with his mother and get a place of his own. But his ability to discern the cause of death of those he cremates entangles him with murderers.
What’s at stake in the conflict?
In his desire to save the care home residents and avenge the murdered dead, Kennet must stay alive to expose the killers and bring them to justice.
It takes a little doing, but see if you can write a 100-word book description for your story, novella, or novel. Then you’ll be ready to contact me about manuscript evaluation.
If you’re looking for a high-level assessment of the narrative elements in a work of dark fiction, an analysis that will guide you into a more effective revision process, consider manuscript evaluation. Drop me a line about your project soon, and let’s explore how to make your work more publishable.
Chapter 2 of the Prologue (3ff) presents in an opening frame a man who has abducted a young girl. Straub’s use of third person subjective (from the unnamed man’s point of view) quickly becomes apparent, but it’s not clear for some time whether the narrator is external or internal to the story. (Which is to say, we can’t tell whether the narrator is omniscient or close third.)
The narrator uses omniscient technique of filtering right off (“he thought” ). In the second scene he identifies himself as the nephew of Edward Wanderley (7). The filtering continues in chapter 3: he “wished,” “saw” (9). Straub provides a hint of external narration with “She leaned back into the seat, waiting for him to do whatever he wanted” (9)—a reason the man could not know. Straub finally names him “Don Wanderly,” an author, on pages 11–12.
Through chapter 6, Wanderley’s thoughts and actions are still being described externally: “He supposed that David…,” “The girl probably knew he was holding the knife…” (24); these surmisings stick to a limited, subjective POV, but we still don’t know whether it’s omniscient.
Part One, section I, “Milburn Observed Through Nostalgia”—a sort of prologue—introduces Ricky Hawthorne with more external description: “What he chiefly liked to observe was Milburn itself…” (28).
With the next subheading, “Frederick Hawthorne,” chapter 1, you would think the limited subjectivity would continue. But it doesn’t.
The first paragraph, after telling of Ricky’s appreciation of Sears James’ home and library, states: “But they [the Chowder Society members] felt it: each of them, Ricky Hawthorne perhaps more so than the others, had wished to possess such a place for himself” (31, emphasis mine). This first instance of head-hopping establishes the third person Straub is using as external omniscience. Yet he still pulls in close with phrases such as, “My God, thought Ricky: he can do whatever he wants…” (34).
First-person story embedded in omniscient third
Sears James is introduced in his own subheaded chapter (43ff) in this way: “…Ricky honored tradition by waiting… to ask Sears the question that had been on his mind for two weeks” (43), showing that we’re starting out in Ricky’s head and then moving to Sears’: “She irritated Sears…,” “Sears approved…” (44).
In chapter 2 under Sears’ named subheading, Straub fascinates me with his narratorial dexterity. Sears begins with a paragraph of dialogue, which, naturally is in first person. But then the author dispenses with the quotation marks and continues the first-person narration in the very next paragraph (47). Milly Sheehan interrupts the story by the end of 2; the omniscient interlude continues through chapter 3 (52–56) and contains this clearly omniscient statement: “Sears… was unaware of an event that had occurred that afternoon in town and would affect all of their lives” (52). Sears resumes his first-person story about Fenny Bate in chapter 4, returning to quoted dialogue on page 72 to end the scene.
More omniscient tactics
In a few Ricky Hawthorne chapters, the narrator describes him externally while he’s sleeping. Then, on page 82, the narrator head-hops to Stella’s POV: “When she returned nearly thirty minutes later, he was sitting up in bed looking confused. The pouches beneath his eyes were larger than usual.”
A few pages later, “While Ricky hurried into a scalding shower, Lewis Benedikt was jogging a regular two miles before making breakfast for himself…” (84).
Head-hopping continues throughout the book. Here’s a favorite passage from section II, chapter 1, that demonstrates the power of an omniscient narrator to make comments and jump in time:
The following events occurred a year and a day earlier, in the evening of the last day of their golden age. None of them knew it was their golden age, nor that it was coming to an end….
In Part Two, section III, “The Town,” chapter 1, the first long paragraph does not reveal a narrator. This is omniscient, as well as these:
We dip into Elmer Scales’s thoughts: “…come from Mary boy maybe you do…” and “He could not possibly have foreseen and understood what he would be doing with that shotgun in two months’ time” (233).
Then into Walt Hardesty’s sour attitude: “Dr. Dope Fiend Jaffrey… Mr. Ricky-Snob-Hawthorne-With-Horns and Mr. Sears and Roebuck Snob James…” (233).
Expositional summary: “But Don does not know, so he cannot put in his journal…” (233).
We hop into Milly Sheehan’s head and then Don Wanderly’s on 234.
This scene is wholly of the external narrator, which Straub executes expertly.
Finally, in the climax scene, Ricky, Don, and Peter are in a tenement bedroom where Anna Mostyn disintegrates. Then, in the next paragraph, the narrator whisks us “Thirteen blocks away…” (494).
I’ve rarely experienced such narratorial complexity in any other novel. But that’s part of what makes Ghost Story great—as well as a bestseller. I hope to do as well someday.
Since reading Jordan Rosenfeld’s Writing the Intimate Character(Writer’s Digest Books, 2016), my eyes have been opened to recognize omniscient POV and its techniques. We’re seven for eight with omniscient novels for my MFA Readings in the Genre: The Haunted class. Of all the books I’ve read, Stephen King’s The Shining is my favorite execution of the external narrator. King manages to employ the best techniques of greater omniscience as well as close third, executing both perfectly.
With his first line, King establishes third-person POV with the filtered yet italicized thought of the protagonist/antagonist: “Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick” (3). More narrated interior monologue appears on page 6. The final paragraph of chapter one ends with summary and comment: “…he was glad Ullman didn’t offer to shake hands. There were hard feelings. All kinds of them” (14).
In chapter two, King brings Wendy’s POV on stage. Chapter three moves back to Jack’s. And four introduces five-year-old Danny. King represents a young but bright boy adequately without being literarily strangled by the constraints of internal close third.
Chapter five starts in Jack’s POV, then offers a paragraph of Danny’s on page 51, and reverts to Jack inside the Rexall drugstore. Here’s something that a writer can do in omniscient third but not in internal third: “Jack felt a wave of nearly desperate love for the boy. The emotion showed on his face as a stony grimness” (52, emphasis mine). King weaves inner monologue and flashback, follows with a paragraph of Danny’s POV on 64, then closes with Jack.
POV hops from Danny to Wendy and back in chapter eleven (114). Dick Hallorann shares a private moment with Danny, who pitches his powerful psychic fastball at Dick. The chapter closes in Dick’s POV (127).
Another touch unique to omniscient is: “Jack and Wendy… didn’t look down at Danny, who was staring” (133). If they weren’t looking, who noticed the boy staring? The omniscient external narrator. He/she sees what even the characters don’t or can’t.
The first paragraph of chapter thirteen presents the Torrance family portrait before things get rough:
The Torrance family stood together on the long front porch of the Overlook Hotel as if posing for a family portrait, Danny in the middle, zippered into last year’s fall jacket…, Wendy behind him with one hand on his shoulder, and Jack to his left, his own hand resting lightly on his son’s head. (143)
Can you picture this from the narrating global consciousness hovering before the front steps? I can. The writing is so simple, yet King is masterful at painting pictures and making characters come alive in readers’ minds.
On page 193 there’s a time jump to the future and back when Danny is stung by wasps: “Oh Danny… oh, your poor hand.!” / “Later, the doctor would count eleven separate stings. Now all they saw…” (emphasis mine).
Part 4 is introduced omnisciently with “Her hands grew slower and slower, and at the time her son was making the acquaintance of Room 217’s long-term resident, Wendy was asleep with her knitting on her lap” (325). An internal narrator cannot see another character on a different floor nor report any actions or perceptions while asleep. But it works with omniscient.
At the beginning of chapter twenty-seven King performs more sleight of hand: “She didn’t look up…, but if she had, she would have seen Danny…” (336).
POV switches from Jack to Wendy on 358–359 and back over the next few pages, then to Danny on 366. King references Shirley Jackson’s Hill House on page 414. And summarizes that autumn at the Overlook starting on 417.
Danny’s face is described externally at the bottom of 423, and Jack’s POV mentions his “sore-looking lips” (431)—both no-no’s in internal third.
I think I found a mistake (subject/verb agreement) on page 442: “There was three splotches of blood….”
The narrator takes a high-level view of the Overlook, telling its history over time, 447–448.
Dick Hallorann is introduced omnisciently in chapter forty-seven (457). When Dick is reeling from Danny’s psychic cry for help and swerving all over a Florida highway, the POV impressively head-hops in a lane-switch from Hallorann to the Pinto driver, 461–462.
The narrator forecasts the future here: “There would be little sleep for them that night…” Then shares Danny’s and Wendy’s thoughts from bed, finally moving outside: “The hotel creaked around them. Outside the snow had begun to spit down from a sky like lead” (482–483).
Omniscient can get away with filtering the perceptions of two (or more) characters at a time: “And they both heard the vicious, descending swing of the invisible club…” (496, emphasis mine). There’s a jump from Hallorann outside the hotel to Jack inside on 613.
The omniscience overhead camera swoops all over the place with the explosion of the hotel, 640–641.
If I’ve learned anything from this course, it’s that omniscient is a good choice for tales of hauntings, the spirit realm, psychic gifts, and tragic protagonists who perish before the book ends. The Shining was a good novel, one of King’s best, and I recommend it even if you don’t give a fig about external omniscient POV.
I was excited to see a Douglas Clegg title included in our class reading. Years ago, I’d read Goat Dance, The Halloween Man, and Isis, a creepy novelette I especially love. When I saw that Isis was a prequel to the Harrow series, I was intrigued to dig into Nightmare House (1999, 2017), the first installment.
I admire Clegg as a gay writer (I considered him an early role model) and appreciate his accomplishments. He won the 1999 Bram Stoker Award and International Horror Guild Award for his collection The Nightmare Chronicles. More at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_Clegg#Writing_career. Clegg is great at characterization, dialogue, and action. And in Nightmare House, his gothic/romantic voice fits the book. But for someone so skilled at developing and sustaining mood and atmosphere, Nightmare House proved to be a disappointment for me.
In the first scene of the prologue, Esteban (yet unnamed) shares in first person a memory of his loving grandfather, who built Harrow house. The remembrance is so warm, I was puzzled by the penultimate paragraph, which came out of the blue and fell flat:
Some believed that a great treasure was buried within its walls; that screams came from Harrow more than once; that a madman built it for his own tomb; that no one willingly remained overnight in the house; that a child could still be heard keening from within on damp October nights.
Likewise for the second scene, about his naming. And the third, of his coming of age and being disowned. The paragraph at the bottom of page 9—“I felt I should be pursuing my dreams and ambitions. I went to live in New York, and my life as an adult began.”—provides no examples, like many other passages. If the opening pages should set the tone off the book, the prologue failed.
Chapter 1, section 1 failed to draw me in. Section 2 provided such a brief history of Ethan’s early life that I didn’t connect or care. In section 3, the writing is understandable enough but comes off as under-seasoned summary that barely scratches the surface of the statements it makes: “…my grandfather… collected ancient things and did not much of anything for the rest of his entire life” (15). This says so little to characterize the man.
In section 6, Clegg takes almost no opportunity to show or describe such a magnificent old house, for example: “…in the grand kitchen that seemed made to serve banquets” (21). That’s it. No more. The same for Wentworth: “Wentworth was a round woman whose eyes never seemed to close as she spoke of missing the old man and of the days when he was his usual self” (21).
Chapter 2, section 1: “I… am writing this as a warning to you…” (39). But I felt no sense of foreboding before or after this. Nothing had happened so far to instill a drop of dread. “And then, something happened, and the land where the house would be built acquired a sense of being unclean” (42). Something happened. Such vagueness neither inspires nor moves me. “Harrow… taught him much. Harrow changed him” (44). What? How? This is more bland, indefinite summary unsupported by examples.
In section 2 the POV changes to third, narrated by Ethan, with much filtering (felt, seemed, knew, imagined, heard) (45). But it never comes off as omniscient. It’s close, limited third with filtering.
Section 10 (62–64), Ethan encounters the apparition of a girl on the stairs and whiteness. While odd, it wasn’t frightening to me. In chapter 3, section 2, the strange phenomena continue, but Ethan has little emotional response except the urge to scream at the end. Maggie admits in section 7 that Harrow is haunted: “‘Everyone in the village knows it’” (74). Yet the statement tastes flat as week-old soda pop.
Chapter 4, section 2 – “Pocket Tells a Story Between Puffs of a Cigar.” Here, Clegg switches gears and has Officer Pocket tell a story in first person, revealing his philosophy and sagacity through comment. Pocket’s character (narrator) voice is individualized but becomes tedious despite the third-person/Ethan interludes in sections 3, 5, and 7. In chapter 7, Ethan reverts to first person “to tell you more about myself” (159). We’re back to third person in chapter 8. The change in POV lends variety, but I was never sure why Clegg was doing so.
Toward the end of chapter 8, random oddities happen in the house, but so what? Chapter 9, section 1, Pocket and Ethan shout at each other. This behavior is unmotivated and nonsensical. Maggie calls on the phone for help in section 3, where Ethan says, “The Devil is in this house.” Again, so what? Lake of detail, lack of example, lack of characterization make such statements ineffective. The characters have become puppets enacting a crude script.
By chapter 10, the book disintegrates into a quagmire of more nonsense—Isis Claviger and relics and a séance and Mathilde, who killed people. The brief investment in the story and characters I had gained by the middle I now lost altogether. Ethan says of the basement: “‘It’s a complete world beneath the house’” (198). But since so little of it is shown, it’s not believable or interesting. Pocket and Ethan find the symbol of the “Chymera Magick” (200), the mark of the spiritualists. I laughed. If you’re going to toss tropes in willy nilly, they should make some sense.
Ethan reverts to first-person narration in chapter 11, where he passes through an Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb. Then he forgets Maggie due to a drug mist in the air. Huh? Finally, Ethan encounters Mathilde, who is—gasp!—his mother (210). Mother possesses him, and he kills Pocket.
Epilogue: “…the house itself… has a will, endowed by the magic my grandfather practiced…” (234). Justin Gravesend wasn’t well-characterized as either a wicked or occult man. The mentioned visits from Crowley and Borden? (235) Unconvincing, which is one word that describes the whole book.
Although I’m disappointed in this one, Clegg has other terrific books. Bad Karma (originally published under the pen name Andrew Harper) is a favorite thriller I heartily recommend.
This post is part of class requirements for a “Readings in the Genre” (RIG) course I’m taking toward my MFA from Seton Hill University. This RIG is subtitled “The Haunted,” taught by Scott A. Johnson, MFA. This term, I’m expanding my knowledge and practice of POV, especially omniscient. So, as long as my assignments include books written in omniscient, I’ll blog about it here.
Richard Matheson’s 1971 novel, Hell House, is a nasty little haunted house story. It’s a harrowing, action-filled tale stuffed with debauchery and sex about “the Mt. Everest of haunted houses” (Matheson Hell House 17).
Like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Hell House is written in third person omniscient. Unlike Jackson’s book, which is limited third omniscient, focusing on protagonist Eleanor Vance, Matheson encompasses all the characters with third person omniscient.
The subjective omniscient narrator
The primary difference between omniscient and other POVs (first or close/intimate third) has to do with the narrator.
Every story has a narrator, but with first and close third, the narrator is one of the characters in the story. With omniscient, the “narrator is not a character within the story but is positioned as an all-knowing… external narrative voice that provides a ‘god-like’ or ‘birds eye view’ perspective of the events within the story” (Cabal How to Write in Third Person Omniscient PoV, emphasis mine).
An objective omniscient narrator reports only what characters do but never what they think or feel. A subjective omniscient narrator can report both what characters think and feel, as well as what they do. Matheson’s omniscient narrator is subjective; we get the thoughts and feelings of all the characters.
Reading to discover POV
How an author handles POV isn’t always readily apparent. Sometimes, you must read a few chapters to fully discover the approach and techniques the author is using.
In the opening scene of Hell House, Matheson’s first line could belong to several POVs: “It had been raining hard since five o’clock that morning” (9). The second sentence provides the first real POV clue: “Brontean weather, Dr. Barrett thought” (9). In omniscient, character thoughts are usually presented indirectly, with a tag. (“Filtering” is acceptable in omniscient and actually necessary from an external viewpoint.) But we can’t be certain of the POV until we read further.
By the end of the first page, Matheson reveals another hint: “[Barrett] was a tall, slightly overweight man in his middle fifties, his thinning blond hair unchanged in color…” (9). We know the author is writing in third person. However, this outsider’s description of the doctor indicates that the narrator is telling the story from an external perspective.
Another clue on page 12 tells us, “Barrett looked appalled.” A close-third character/internal narrator would not describe himself in these ways. After a few scenes, the writing confirms that Barrett’s actions, thoughts, and feelings are reported externally.
As we read through the chapter dated December 20, 1970, we find Florence Tanner introduced in third person (20). Edith Barrett is introduced next with third person that seems closer than the previous two characters’ POVs. Fischer follows with another third person POV (23). By now, we’re able to determine that Matheson’s use of POV is subjective third person omniscient, which he applies to multiple characters.
Techniques belonging to omniscient POV
Omniscient is confirmed on page 27 with a description of multiple character action: “All of them gazed at the hill-ringed valley lying ahead…” (emphasis mine). This is direct reporting from an external narrator. On 29: “The cold was numbing, a clammy chill that seemed to dew itself around their bones (emphasis mine).”
In the December 21 chapter, the scene headed “2:21 p.m.,” the internal thoughts of Fischer (43) and Barrett show up in the same scene (44). At this scene’s end, Edith reads a list of psychic phenomena observed in the house, and the narrator expresses her thoughts (46). Here, we have the POVs of three characters shared in the same scene. This can only be done with subjective omniscient.
“Head-hopping,” as it’s called in literary circles, continues in many scenes (81). (And, contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing wrong with head-hopping—if it’s done right.) Matheson pulls it off skillfully. He even enters three heads in the same short paragraph: “Barrett… had not been aware… Florence sat stricken… Edith felt a rush of pity for her” (228).
Florence tells Fischer “the secret of Hell House”: “Controlled, multiple haunting” (174). Perhaps this is why Matheson used controlled third person omniscient POV to tell this ghostly tale…
I’ll be looking for more contemporary novels to study omniscient POV. I’ve included a short list at the end of this post.
As I read Hell House, I was impressed with Matheson’s knowledge of parapsychology and Spiritualism. His mention and portrayal of mental and physical mediumship; the use of a cabinet (an enclosed space to keep light out and energy in); Florence’s devotion, beliefs, and practices; and Fischer’s description of his boyhood abilities all rang true to my studies.
Other practices Matheson accurately mentioned include: psychometry with Daniel Belasco’s ring (130), Florence’s funeral prayer (129), her mention of guides and spirit doctors (131–132), the renowned physical mediums Daniel Dunglas Home and Eusapia Palladino (136), physical phenomena such as ectoplasmic masking (162ff), the difference between mental and physical mediums, and, sadly, Florence’s channeling of Red Cloud (64ff).
Matheson’s research on Spiritualism and the afterlife in Hell House was probably a carryover from his 1978 novel, What Dreams May Come, which I recommend for a Spiritualist portrayal of “life on the other side.”
I just spent the past five days at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, to get “F”ed. Or to start getting “F”ed. Let me explain…
Back in 2006, I completed SHU’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate program to earn a Master of Arts in genre fiction writing. Death Perception (my fourth novel) was my thesis. SHU since upgraded the program to an Master of Fine Arts (a terminal degree), so I applied again last fall and was accepted. So I’m going back for the F.
The extra 27 credits will center on the teaching of creative writing and writing about popular fiction—something I want to do more of in the coming years. I’d also like to teach at the university level when I retire from technical writing.
The program consists of three week-long residencies, one in January and the other in June, graduating the following January. I’ll be working on another novel, tentatively titled Elder-Feral. My faculty mentor is Scott A. Johnson, author of Shy Grove: A Ghost Story and Cane River: A Ghost Story.
If you subscribe to my private email newsletter, I’ve kept you posted on my novel-writing progress. (If you’re not subscribed, you can subscribe here.) But here’s the past, present, and future of my writing projects. I’ve also got some short stories in the works not listed here.
Can you teach yourself to write a novel through a reading program? I did. Here’s how.
Back in 2006, I earned a master’s in Writing Popular Fiction, producing Death Perception as my thesis novel. But the greater part of my literary training came from self-education, through which I learned many things I didn’t in school.
For over thirty years, I’ve read and studied hundreds of writing craft books, many pertaining to aspects of novel-writing. Some books were better than others, but most offered something to improve my writing. (I maintain a growing list of what I consider the best books at Lee’s Favorite Writing Texts.)
The self-education process
If you’ve never written a novel before or want to improve your current process, here’s a self-education plan to get you started:
Understanding the hero’s journey as a prerequisite for further study
Developing an idea
Structuring the external plot
Mapping the protagonist’s inner story of change (character arc)
Weaving plot and character arc into a properly structured narrative
Writing effective scenes
Incorporating theme to enrich your narrative
Revising your work
Editing to polish your prose
1. Understanding the hero’s journey
Many fiction craft books refer to the “hero’s journey,” popularized by mythologist Joseph Campbell. As a prerequisite to your journey of self-education, I recommend boning up on mythic story structure.
I’ll admit I’ve never read Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Instead, I heartily recommend the latest edition of Christopher Vogler’s 🌟 The Writer’s Journey – 25th Anniversary Edition: Mythic Structure for Writers. Highly accessible, it will teach you what you need to know about the hero’s journey—and provide a basis for understanding the next books included in this self-education program.
(By the way, I followed Vogler’s blueprint for Death Perception, which was well received.)
2. Developing a novel idea
Fashioning an idea into a full-blown plot has been one of my biggest challenges the past three decades. There are precious few books out there that lead you through the process of getting, brainstorming, and developing an initial idea into the basics of a workable plot.
Along with external plot events, great novels include the main character’s inner story of change, or character arc. Character arc maps the lead’s development from a person with an inner need who, through challenges and conflict, learns to become a stronger, better person (or fails to).
Now that you’ve arrived at this point, a book that weaves the hero’s journey, plot structure, and character arc into one how-to is Susan May Warren’s The Story Equation: How to Plot and Write a Brilliant Story from One Powerful Question. It’s a bit convoluted in its presentation and won’t make sense if you read it earlier in this process, but it nicely wraps everything together and will help cement the previous concepts into a workable story.