Friday, February 1, 2013

The Hazards of the Unskilled Writer Attempting a First-Person Rookie Novel

Today, I need strong Turkish coffee and 4 more boxes of tissuecould 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.

Next manuscript.

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?

We’ll be blunt: dancing on the freeway would be safer.

  • 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.


~Sia McKye~ said...

Thank you Ken and Eva for your thoughts on this.

I think there are a lot of writing hazards out there. As with any trade we learn by practice. I, for one, have several manuscripts that will never see the light of day.

Personally, I'm not fond of stories told in first person. I've read/critiqued several and slipping out of first person to third is a common mistake I've seen. However, having said that, I have read some very good ones. You're correct, a compelling story will make me forget which POV the story is in.

Kat Sheridan said...

I've read some exceedingly good stories told in first person--anything from Lisa Brackmann or Hank Phillipi Ryan come to mind. These are fast paced thrillers with lots of action and the protagonist in danger, so they work well in first person. But I've read way too many that are thinly disguised "wish fulfillment" things, known as "Mary Sues" and "Gary Stus"--the author as star of their own fantasy. But done well, 1st person can be spectacular, allowing you to go on the adventure "inside the skin" of a character.

L.G. Smith said...

I do hear people say often that they have a problem reading first person. I've never really understood it, unless they've experienced some of this horrendous first person writing. I generally have no POV preference when it comes to reading. As stated, if it's good it's good, whether told in first or third. I do see how first person is the first choice of a lot of novice writers, though. It would appear to be the easier choice, though I've found it's quite difficult to write (my current WIP is in first), for some of the reasons already mentioned.

Anne Gallagher said...

I can read it, and have read some very stunning books, but I can't write first person worth a fig. I tend to keep to 3rd where I'm safe and comfortable.

Anonymous said...

First person is tough to do. There are writers who make it look effortless and they are the masters. Me? First person is a push. I rather strangle it, so I stick to 3rd person.

Writing what you know still includes piles of research. Doesn't matter the POV if the research isn't solid. Nothing will pull me out of a story faster than a silly mistake in facts.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I can't write in first person (I don't want to be in my main character's head THAT much) and I don't often read books told in first person.

Lisa Lane said...

Although I think you make some excellent points here, I can name one instance in which 3rd person prose will not work: when one uses Poe's tricky tool, the "unreliable narrator." With the unreliable narrator, what the protagonist doesn't say is just as important as what he or she does say--and the truth to the story often lies somewhere in between the two.

Jo said...

Feel better soon Sia.

So what happens to those MSs which get shoved under the bed?


Cheryl Carvajal said...

Honestly, I don't think even Brad Pitt's life is that interesting.

I think the advice should read START with what you know... and then fictionalize. It's when people feel compelled to stick ONLY to what they know happened, or plots they've read that seemed marketable.

Make your story TRUE--fashion it into a whole new TRUTH--and tell it the way it needs to be told, whatever POV that happens to be. I've re-written entire novels to change POV, just to find the authentic voice for that novel. I'm learning as I read more and more that the NARRATOR matters more than the plot for me. A good plot can leave me cold if the narrator is bland. A not so exciting plot can thrill me if the narration is entertaining along the way.

Of course, the BEST thing is a great plot, solid characters, AND a fantastic narrative voice.

Ciara said...

I can so relate to this with my first work. It was basically my experiences back packing through Europe plus a love story. The first critique said that the setting was a character of its own. :)