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.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


We're having the damnest weather! 

Due to some horrendous storms (temps in the 70's and severe thunderstorms and flooding in January?), we've lost internet three times. I'm beating a judicious retreat rather than fight to get up the planned blog for tomorrow.

We've got rivers instead of roads and lakes instead of hay fields and an icy cold front moving in behind it all this. Temps were 72 at 2:00 this afternoon but it's 55 degrees right now(8:30 pm) and supposed to drop to 38 degrees before morning. More rain turning to sleet and snow to follow, or so they say. Aren't we so special? Can you imagine what the roads will be like when they freeze? Ugh.

Although I got all the animals fed and winterized I wasn't expect quite so much rain, strong winds, lightning and thunder. I have a dog who likes to dig to China on a regular basis because he likes to sleep in holes--I kid you not. With more rain and standing water than we expected, Hubs and I were out in the downpour trenching his dog pen so the dog house wouldn't flood. Silly dog. He's a chow/retriever mix.  

I'll have a new blog post for Friday. 

Have a great Wednesday!

Monday, January 28, 2013


We’re writers. Storytelling for us is like breathing. Storytelling is as old as time. Oral storytelling is a long-standing art of most cultures. Much of it set to some form of music or through use of rhythms in word formation or a drum to remember the stories. I’m sure some of the stories were a way of sharing lessons learned, but I’m equally sure, making up stories were also a form of entertainment told around the cook fire. A way to also share the activities of the day and connect.

Storytelling hasn't changed all that much. We observe something in life that catches our interest. Maybe it’s something we've discovered through research, or something we've lived, or people watching, a snatch of a song, or a movie or show. As storytellers we take those observations, experiences, or snippets of life and give them emotions, setting, and an ending—sometimes happy sometimes not. It’s a way to take our experiences and knowledge and connect emotionally with our audience, the reader and ourselves. Our own campfire tales.

I read an interesting article not long ago, in The Scientist, about the Science Of Storytelling. The title caught my eye. I wasn't sure what to expect when I started reading it and it wasn't what I thought it would be but it was interesting.

The gist of it was science is a story about ideas and lessons learned. Not all that different from the stories around the cook fire or in a shaman’s circle. Scientists tell their stories via published papers and books, which has little or no narrative or personal thoughts.

A non-profit organization, 
The Moth, sponsored an event at the World Science Festival, called Matter: Stories of Atoms and Eves, and the point of this storytelling session is each story of the event had to be true, short, and told without notes. Not easy for a scientist trained to tell the facts and nothing but the facts and removing any personal feelings from the information. Each of the participants shared their knowledge but from a personal standpoint designed to connect with the audience and perhaps show the passion they felt towards their area of study.

As writers and storytellers we know how to craft and tell a story, not so easy for the uninitiated as one participant, 
Irene Pepperberg, noted. “It was quite the effort trying to get a 40 minute presentation into 10 minutes.” She gamely shared the unique difficulties and excitement of working with her research subject and “colleague,” Alex the African Grey parrot. In 2007 Alex died and she said, “I realized I'd lost the most important being in my life for the last thirty years.”
Each of the highly regarded participants told their stories. It was actually very fascinating to read the stories and then look at the body of research behind them. For that night, they were storytellers and connected with a rapt audience of over 250 people. Well-respected “elders” sharing their experiences around the cook fire, so to speak.

The thought of “elders” isn't that far removed in light of what The Moth’s executive and creative director, 
Lea Thau, said of the evening. “I was extremely moved by the evening. When you have someone who's contributed as much to the world as these people have, it adds a bit of gravitas, and we're all in awe. But the thing I love about storytelling is that it levels the playing field.”

Really, the art of storytelling, on one level or another, is merely tales around the cook fire or the dinner table. A way of connecting, sharing, and entertaining.

Do you think the art of storytelling has changed? Any thoughts?