At the MMRWA's June meeting the discussion of omnipotence came up, and I have been thinking about that ever since because it’s a problem I had earlier in my writing years. Being the dense person I can be sometimes – as well as writing back when there was no help of any kind in this business and no opportunity to learn through others, I thought I’d share an article about this problem many writers have had, or still do have. I know it took me a while to catch on to what all this meant and if there is anyone out there who isn’t sure what omnipotence is all about, I thought I’d offer some help.
Back in my “old days” of writing, when I had no clue what I was doing, I made a lot of mistakes for which today’s publishers would probably have scolded me. However, I trudged through them and my books were published and … well … after 60 books and over 30 years of writing I truly have not had one reader complaint that involved even one thing an editor or my agent would have complained about. That proves my point that writing a damn good story trumps making “new writer” mistakes.
HOWEVER, this is not to say that you shouldn’t worry about what you are doing wrong, and I have learned about my biggest flaws the hard way. Readers are far more forgiving of our mistakes than editors and agents, and in order to get your book out there to the public, someone has to buy it and publish it first, which means you still have to deal with your flaws and work on them. If you seem to never learn with each new book, an agent or editor will eventually give up and take no more books, so … as much as we sometimes think it doesn’t matter, we have to listen to the experts on where we can improve our writing, and we have to work on making those improvements. Don’t let your feelings get hurt. It’s much better to be criticized BEFORE your book gets published than by readers and critics AFTER it’s been published! That kind of criticism can affect sales, and break your heart.
The main flaw I continue to struggle with (but I have improved tremendously) is redundancy – repeating things I already said, especially in describing someone’s feelings or perhaps their past. I used to try way too hard to make SURE the readers understood a character’s thoughts/feelings/past/reasons for what they do and say. I’m sure there were times when a reader thought, “OK, I get it. Enough already!” - but apparently they liked the stories so much that they shrugged off that concern because I never heard one complaint. The only ones who brought it to my attention were my agent and editors. I have worked very hard on that and am much better today at keeping track of how often I refer to a particular thought or feeling.
The other flaw I have fought to improve on is passive voice. I was really bad at that in my early years, and I probably didn’t try hard to change that because readers seemed to love my books just the way they were. But eventually a good scolding from my agent woke me up, and since then I have realized that there is a strong connection between PASSIVE VOICE and OMNIPOTENCE.
Passive voice is when we use too much “has” – “have” – “had been” – “has been” – “was” – “were” etc. - and we tend to do that when we try to explain to the reader what has already happened to lead up to where we are in the story – or try to explain what has happened to the character up to this point because of things that took place in a previous book (if what you are writing is a sequel or another book to a series). By passively explaining previous events, we are being omnipotent, which can make a story boring. Being omnipotent is also akin to just plain being lazy – ie. – rather than find an active way to get my point across, I’ll just “tell” the readers what’s going on.
Omnipotence is being “god-like.” You are the God of your book and you will decide what happens, and as “God” – looking down on your characters and their story – you will tell the readers what is happening because you think you need to explain it to them. But this type of writing can make for boring reading, and it can take the life out of a story. Passive and omnipotent can go hand-in-hand. Following are some examples, which are from my up-coming book DO NOT FORSAKE ME. These are NOT from the final finished book (don’t want to give anything away!) – and this is NOT how I wrote it. I am just changing things to show you the difference between passive/omnipotent and active voice.
I could have said … (ho-hum) - Jake wasn’t as bad as people thought. Once he rescued his wife, before they were married, from a place where the wagon train had left her dying from a snake bite. Jake found her there and risked his life to take her out of there. Then he nursed her back to health. (Yawn)
Instead, Jake and Miranda have just made love (yummy, active love scene!) and they are talking about their newly-married son Lloyd and are joking about how he and his new wife probably made love six times that night to their one time. Jake says “Remember those days?” Miranda answers – “I remember something better. I remember you rescuing me from that filthy trading post where I was dying from snake bite. I remember hearing your voice and feeling you lift me into your arms and promising me you’d never let me out of your sight again. I remember how gentle you were …” and so on.
Now this memory has become something active as well as romantic – part of a conversation that informs the readers what happened without me, the author, taking an omnipotent as well as passive attempt at explaining something that happened in the past – something that helps the reader understand the kind of man Jake really is, but doing it in an active way that doesn’t seem repetitive and boring.
There are many, many areas in this book wherein I could have just tried to explain things that happened in the past or tried to tell readers Jake’s inner struggles in a boring, omnipotent and passive way. However, I used conversations with others to bring this out. In my book, a young reporter from Chicago is in town trying to convince Jake to let him write a book about him, something Jake is determined not to allow because he wants no “dime novels” full of lies written about him. But this reporter proves his worth and things happen that cause Jake to begin to trust and befriend this reporter.
Using the reporter in his attempts to learn more about the “real” Jake really helped me keep stories about Jake’s past very active and exciting reading! We learn a lot about Jake from Book #1 through conversations the reporter has with Jake’s family members, mainly his son Lloyd and also with Jake’s wife – and by doing so, I can bring in much more emotion.
i.e. – Rather than me “telling” the readers that Jake killed his own father and has always suffered emotionally over it, I bring this out in conversations between the reporter and Lloyd, and not only do these conversations show the kind of man Jake is deep inside, it also brings out the very, very close relationship and love shared between Jake and his son. One comment Lloyd makes to the reporter … [“There is a war going on inside Jake Harkner, Jeff, between his father’s rotten, cussed mean blood – and his mother’s goodness. Pa says she was beautiful, and he still wears a Crucifix that was hers.”] We see by this that Jake’s son understands his father well and knows what makes him tick. By the time the conversation is finished, the readers feel plenty of empathy for both Jake and his son, whose eyes show tears before this conversation is over. Jake has been injured and Lloyd thought he would die, so he’s feeling very emotional at this time anyway.
Another example: I could have just passively told the readers that … [Lloyd stayed right at the house for hours after the doctor finished with Jake. He never even went home to clean up and change.] That would be me, the omnipotent author, telling the readers what Lloyd did, and by doing so I’ve created a passive explanation with no action – taking the lazy way out. Instead, Jeff (the reporter) visits later to see how Jake is doing and Lloyd is the one who opens the door. Jeff thinks to himself how worn out and upset Lloyd looks. And through Jeff, we learn what happened, plus we get a description of Lloyd through Jeff rather than me passively describing him … i.e.
[Jeff felt as nervous around Lloyd as he did around Jake. He was as tall and dark, and when in fighting mode, just as dangerous looking. He noticed Lloyd’s shirt and pants were covered with dried blood. Apparently he’d never gone home to clean up and change after Jake was hurt. He’d stayed right with his father this whole time.]
Later after Lloyd haltingly describes how badly his father was wounded, Jeff detects tears in his eyes. Some very touching and emotional words and actions take place here as Lloyd unloads his father’s guns. In another quiet conversation Lloyd tells Jeff, [“I’m not ready to lose my father, Jeff. I just got him back only a year and a half ago. I still have a lot to make up for.”]
There is another part of the story where Jake learns his wife could have cancer. He has already described her to Jeff as “the center of my universe” and “the only thing that keeps me sane.” When he finds out she could be dying, it would have been easier (and lazy of me) to try to just describe Jake’s devastation i.e. [Jake felt his whole world crumbling and felt like crying.] Instead, I end this chapter with …
[He walked into the bedroom and watched her for a moment, thinking how beautiful she looked with her honey-blond hair spread out on the pillow. He removed his shirt and pants and wiped his dusty feet on a braided rug before easing into bed beside her. He moved an arm around her and in her sleepy state she curled against him. He quietly wept.]
Simple … touching … and in three words we know how Jake feels.
Another example of how to reveal past events from a previous book is, again, through conversation involving another person. Rather than me telling, or Jake “thinking” certain important facts, I brought them out through others. i.e. – Jake and the reporter are talking and the reporter (Jeff) asks – “Tell me what keeps you and your wife together. Twenty years or more, I’m told.”
“Twenty-six.” (Jake answers)
“From what I’ve observed, the two of you couldn’t be more … well … different.”
Jake finally grinned. “Different is an understatement.” Later Jake says … “I actually tried once or twice to get rid of her … for her own good, not because I didn’t love her.” By using this statement, readers realize how much Jake loves this woman. Jeff knows how much Jake loves his wife, yet he’d suffer living without her if he thought she’d be happier without him. (Jake has a real problem with feeling worthy of Miranda’s love and with having such a beautiful family who loves him. He’s never felt he deserved these things.)
There are so many places in this story where family closeness is evident, and it’s all done through action and dialogue. And when it comes to describing characters, remember to always let the description come from someone else’s observation or spoken words. You should never passively “describe” a person or a room or anything else. In this book Jeff, the reporter, observes what Jake’s home is like inside. Through his thoughts and notes he writes down, we learn all kinds of things in an active way.
It took me a long time to understand what my agent meant about being omnipotent. It was when she was helping me edit SONG OF THE WOLF that I finally “got it.” In one scene I have the heroine looking at her lovely hands, their smooth dark skin (something like that) – and my agent finally got through to me that I, the omnipotent author, was describing this woman’s hands for the readers – and in a dumb way – i.e. the character was describing her own hands. After editing and finding ways to improve the story, SONG OF THE WOLF ended up being a RITA nominated book.
I hope I’ve helped newer writers understand passive vs. active and how it all relates to omnipotent writing. I have always preached writing a book from the inside-out – through the eyes and hearts of the characters themselves and not from the outside looking in – i.e. the omnipotent author just telling a story and “seeing” the characters and “telling” the story rather than just letting it tell itself through your characters and their actions and words.
Enjoy your writing! Be confident and enthusiastic. Most of all remember – active, active, active. Keep the story moving and use action and dialogue to keep your readers awake and involved. Don’t be the God of your story. Stay OUT of the story. Let the characters and their actions and dialogue with others keep the story flowing, and use those things to keep the readers alert and excited and keep the pages turning!
Now let's see what everyone else is talking about: