|Today, I need strong Turkish coffee and 4 more boxes of tissue—could you hand me |
another blanket too? Thanks!
We've committed more disastrous mistakes in early manuscripts than we care to admit—we’re talking about manuscripts pushed under the bed never to see the light of day. For we literary mortals, skillful writing takes more than innate talent; the learning process can only be perfected by constant practice and brutal self-examination. By constant, we mean every day; working endless hours on unworthy prose—learning what is bad and learning what resonates with an audience and becomes readable. One lesson: beware of being your own critic. Writing in an unexamined, non-evolutionary manner won’t lead to a sale. We need fresh, honest eyes from the outside...experienced, talented writers, teachers or a reading/critique group to point out mistakes we've made and to teach a new, fresh approach to our language.
We’re told to write what we know, but this can be spectacularly bad advice when it leads the novice to attempting a first-person novel. We assure you, once you've looked at the first hundred submissions in the legendary slush pile, you’ll join us: the idea of reading another will make you want to poke out your no-longer-virginal eyes with a pencil. If you are a rookie writer submitting a first-person manuscript, here’s the sequence of events you can expect from the submission screener:
- Rookie writer?
- First person perspective?
- Quick response to the author: unfortunately, your submission does not meet our needs at this time.
Even for a fledgling company like Stairway Press, we see far more manuscripts than we could ever dream of publishing. With severely limited decision-making time, we are forced to be quick. This sad reality of the publishing business leads to a conundrum because we have many beloved first-person novels resting comfortably on our bookshelves. It can be done and the result can be remarkable and memorable, but the unskilled writer must overcome many hazards.
One hazard: the tendency for the unskilled writer to slip out of the first-person point of view. The writer has to stay in the narrator’s head—the reader will only know what the narrator knows. All information must come from the observations and the experiences of the narrator. By slipping up and presenting things others see…this is called head-hopping and is a lapse of necessary writing discipline.
However, that’s not the biggest hazard. If the story is a thinly disguised autobiography, the tendency is to only include events as experienced by the author. Frankly, as fascinating as your life is to you, the recounting will seem random and mundane to the outside reader. Be honest—has your life been amazing and filled with ample pithy lessons to support a satisfying fictional story arc? There is a natural tendency to honestly report the facts as experienced; otherwise, you’d be a liar, right? But, a satisfying story can’t just be about you. We’re sorry, but unless you’re Brad Pitt or Hilary Clinton, your life simply is not that interesting. To create a vivid tale, you need to stretch and make things up. The story needs focus and plot and clean movement from point A to point B. Does that describe anyone’s real life? Probably not. Beyond that, most of us need to build a career with more than one book, so why not dive in now to create that detailed imaginary place where the good stories come from?
In fiction, the reader must connect with interesting characters and follow them along a colorful path to a rewarding conclusion. The story has to be believable and the characters must ring true. This is a contradiction, but to make the typical story real it must be invented.
We have read many excellent books written in first-person perspective. In the hands of a skilled writer, it doesn't matter which POV is used. If the plot is compelling, the characters are relatable and the writing is fresh and original. That book will be a success.
Here’s a test. If your story is strong, it will work in the more common third-person perspective. If it will work, then why not take that approach? It could be the direct, visceral flow from the first-person perspective is a benefit to your story, but, if you’re inexperienced and your book will only work in first-person perspective?
- Agree? Disagree?
Let’s hear your thoughts.
Laura Elvebak is the author of the
Niki Alexander mystery series.
Ken Coffman is a writer and
Stairway Press publisher.
Fairhaven is his latest novel.