One of the first things you have to decide when you start your manuscript is whose story you're telling and how best to tell it.
Either in past or present tense (more on this later). And then first, second, or third person.
First Person: Your I/me pronouns. If you use this option, your main character is telling about events as they happen to them. "My hands shook as I opened the door."
Second Person: I call this the "Choose Your Own Adventure" POV. "The airplane flies over your campsite. Do you light your signal fire or run for the beach?" And really, a "Choose Your Own Adventure" is almost the only place you'd use this.
Third Person: By far the most common, these are your He/She, Him/Her pronouns. "He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, his thumb grazing her jaw."
Third Person Omniscient: This is when you have a narrator who is not one of your characters, but who knows the thoughts and experiences of all of your characters. Often times, this is what people think they've selected, when really what they're doing is head hopping. "Marissa brought Henry an ice cold soda and kissed his stubbly cheek. He relaxed in his recliner and took a big swallow, relieved that she had forgiven his little indiscretion. Now everything could go back to normal. He drifted off to sleep in front of the game, never knowing he'd just been poisoned."
Head Hopping: This commonly occurs when a writer tells you the thoughts of multiple characters in the same scene. The hero, the heroine, the villain, the grocery store check out girl, the stranger walking by. (**Note: This is not a valid option.) I'll use Marissa and Henry from above again:
Marissa handed Henry his soda and kissed him on the cheek, his stubble prickling against her lips. Henry swallowed, the carbonation burning its way down his throat. "Thanks, babe."
"My pleasure." She smiled to herself as she returned to the kitchen.
See how that last example jumped back and forth between their points of view? That's what you want to avoid. Once you've decided which one of the above options you're going with, you have to decide which of your characters' points of view you'll use in each scene. The best way to decide is to ask yourself (or your characters) who has the most to lose in this scene. Then you rest your figurative camera squarely on their shoulders. The reader should experience everything that happens in that scene through their senses. If your character didn't think, see, hear, feel, smell, or taste it, then the reader can't know it. Simple as that.
Breaking the head hopping rule is one of the most common rookie mistakes I see--one I made myself on my first two novels. Maybe because it was so popular years ago (and many established authors still do it), so you can still pick up lots of great novels and find them chock full of it. But if you're trying to be published today, it's strictly verboten. And I find it's one of those things that once you know it, there's no going back. Many an old classic has been ruined for me since learning this rule.
Have you had that experience? Any other writing pet peeves that ruin a novel for you? Let us know, and we'll be sure to cover them in an upcoming post.