First Person – Deconstructed

first personYes, we already talked about first person, but now let’s really deconstruct it and examine what it means to write in first person. Let’s see what it takes to do the work.

Writing in first person, as we discussed before, means that we’re inside a character’s head. This could be your main character. It usually is in the books I edit. It could also be their best friend, their mother, the antagonist, an observer, their dog… you name it. Sometimes it’s fun to play around with perspective by altering who’s seeing the story unfold.

But what is first person? When we sit down with our family or friends and tell stories of what happened in our lives, we obviously don’t tell any that are novel length. We don’t recount dialogue word for word, yet in a first person novel, we do. So right off the bat, writing in first person is artificial. The narrator in the story must, by definition, already know how the story ends, because we’re holding the book, right? But we play along like he doesn’t, and we discover what happens right along with him. First person is just a device we can use and readers accept it.

Of course, it has strict limitations, too. Let’s take description, for instance. How many of you take a paragraph to describe your characters like they’re on the police blotter? Aside from the fact that you shouldn’t do that unless they are, in fact, being hunted by the police, in first person, would you describe people like that?

“Oh, yes, I’m dating a new girl… she’s 5’2″, has blue eyes, red hair, and weighs 120 pounds. She perfectly complements my dashing 5’8″, 185 pound frame, and her hair goes well with my coal black tresses.”

Yeah, right! No one talks like that, even in books! You have to work it in when it naturally fits.

I stumbled across the room to the mirror, running my hand through the tangled mess on my head. I couldn’t believe I’d overslept. Staring back at me were two hungover brown eyes with deep circles beneath them. Shit. How was I going to get rid of them before I met Jennifer’s parents for lunch in half an hour? I wanted to make a good impression. I glanced down at the rest of me. I sucked in my belly… nah. Too much effort. Work on the face.

While I used the mirror trick above, watch out for that. It can come across natural or it can come across as a cheap device. Even book characters do use mirrors…just don’t let them dwell on every aspect of their appearance while they’re there. In the example above, I only mention the hungover brown eyes. There’s nothing about hair color, lips, complexion. A cursory glance by the character down his frame is enough to let us know he’s not perfect because instead of complaining about his belly, he tries to suck it in. Actions speak louder than words.

While it can be more work to do it right, first person gives us a wonderful opportunity to really get inside the character’s head so we can see the character as he sees himself.

Actions also appear different in first person. They can reveal how the character feels about himself, the situation, and anyone else involved. Instead of describing how a character got out of a car and tripped over the curb, you can include how that made them feel. Did they blame the curb? The city? Did they immediately think about how it ruined their nylons? Did they scrape their shin? Are they worried that they’ll disappoint the person they’re meeting by their appearance now?

Every story has some form of exposition. In first person, it usually is found in the character’s thoughts. There are several ways to handle it. First, you can ignore it and treat it like any other exposition you might write, regardless of whether someone would really think that way or not. This is fine if it’s more important to you to get the style and image across.

You could also limit the exposition to the style your character would use, thus exploiting the first person point of view.

You could also leave out almost all exposition altogether, confining your story to only what your narrating character thinks about in the story.

And the final option would be to have a dual first person point of view. This is where you also have an older version of your narrator who can recall the story that has already occurred. This person would have the advantage of time to think about the what if’s and the repercussions of what happened and bring them into the story.

No matter which you use, be sure to include your character’s attitude. Why use first person at all if you’re not going to include the character’s attitude and opinions? It’s the attitude that makes the character more real. It fleshes him out, helps us identify with him or want to dislike him.

We’ll continue this discussion on Friday.

Unusual Points of View

unusual points of viewSo is that all I have to say on point of view? No. Today I want to talk about unusual points of view. You don’t see these often.

Out of these rarities, probably the most common is the epistolary.  A dear friend of mine, Jodi Cleghorn, collaborated on one of these with Postmarked: Piper’s Reach, which you can read online if you’re quick… they’re taking it down at the end of July as they prepare it for traditional publication. The entire story is told through letters. These days, you can find the epistolary form to include diaries, memos, emails, interviews, and all sorts of written communications.

Second person puts the reader as the protagonist. It can be unsettling for the reader, and it’s hard to pull off because the reader’s first reaction is usually to resist.

You step up to the monument, scanning the list of names, looking for the one with meaning. That should have meaning. There it is. You run your fingers lightly over the embossed letters.

As the reader, it’s a bit strange at first, especially when the character does something you personally wouldn’t do. Your natural inclinations want to resist, which pulls you out of the story.

First person plural uses “we” as the viewpoint, while third person plural uses “they.” These points of view are usually limited to works of experimental science fiction because they are most suitable for hive mindsets, like the Borg from Star Trek.

For fans of children’s books and fantasy/science fiction, you may run across nonhuman POV. Usually, we find they talk, think, and act just like we do. Not only does that help us relate to them, it helps us understand them. If they didn’t, we might have a difficult time understanding what they were doing and why. One of my favorites that deals with nonhuman characters is Watership Down by Richard Adams. The complex lives of the rabbits in the warren hooked me completely.


Off to the Fair

editingToday my dear hubby and I will be at the Lane County Fair from 11 to 5 PST with a bunch of other authors signing books (if you’re in the neighborhood, drop by and get a copy of Titanic Deception), and you can bet they all know the worth of a good edit!

While I’ll miss being away from my desk today, I know it will be here when I get back. And yes, I’m taking some hard copy to edit during the slow times to keep me busy. What?

Getting to the Point: Editing

Anyway, my point is that editing is important to every book. Whether you’re promoting it at the fair, on Amazon, or in your local bookstore, your readers expect it to be the best it can be in every way. They’re the ones plunking down their hard-earned  cash for it. How do you feel when you buy a book and it’s full of misspelled words, incorrectly used words, or the story falls flat because there’s a big fat plot hole you could drive a truck through? Exactly. So don’t give that to your readers! You know it drives you nuts. And even if it doesn’t… even if you’re one of those rare, mythical readers we all fantasize about that loves everything they read, there’s a lot of readers who don’t have any qualms about ripping an author to shreds over every editorial mistake. Don’t believe me? I randomly picked books on Amazon by searching genres and looked at one star reviews. Check out these quotes:

This book was awful. First there was the multitude of grammatical errors and misspelled words which makes me wonder if there was even an editing process at all for the book.

Unbelievable: illiterate, gruesomely unrealistic, with inconsistencies on every page – how could this piece of work ever have been published? Was it even read by an editor?

Interesting enough story but the typographical and grammar mistakes were too numerous to enjoy the story.

As you can see, readers aren’t shy about expressing their feelings. Don’t let this be said of your story.

(We’ll also be at the fair on Friday, July 26 from 3-9 and on Saturday, July 27 from 5-9. If you need to get in touch with me, please use the contact form here on the site and I’ll be checking emails again as soon as I get home.)

Omniscient Point of View

omniscient POVOmniscient POV gives the power to see and know all. It was used much more frequently in the 18th century than it is now, though many beginning writers use it without realizing it.

Writing in omniscient point of view allows you to pop into the mind of any character you choose when you choose… once, or repeatedly. As the author, you may also include your own observations or opinions on the action, even to the point of addressing the reader directly.

Some books written in omniscient POV include The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles and Howards End by E. M. Forster.

Cynthia scowled. “You don’t know anything about it,” she said, trying to hide her true feelings on the subject.

“Says you,” her cousin retorted hotly, hoping to read between the lines. He scanned her face for clues, then plopped on the grass next to her in defeat. “Tell me, then.”

In the example, we’re sent to both Cynthia’s mind, who’s trying to control her true feelings, and her cousin’s, who is hoping to read between the lines, then plops next to her in defeat.

Some readers don’t like omniscient and will accuse the reader of head hopping. Others say it creates distance. Beginning writers may write like this unintentionally because they want to include descriptions of how everyone is feeling in a scene, not realizing they’re actually popping into everyone’s heads to do that. So it must be easy, right? Nope. Writing omniscient well is far from easy. While it’s true that one of the strengths of this POV is that it allows these things to be revealed, there are some problems with this POV as well, such as:

  • Omniscient POV loses the willing suspension of disbelief that we cultivate in a work of fiction.
  • It destroys the sense of reality we try to create in our new world because the author can insert their own opinions.
  • It creates more distance between the reader and the characters.

So, if the drawbacks are so bad, what are the strengths of omniscient POV?

  • Reminding the reader that this is a work of fiction can be a terrific device by highlighting the artificial nature of the story.
  • By increasing the distance between reader and character, the reader gets an entire panorama of reality itself.
  • The author has more control in steering the story and its meaning where s/he wants it to go.


Third Person

third person point of viewThird person point of view. In this point of view, you’re telling the story from a distance, as if you’re watching the people in it.

Katie faced the black wall with determination, scanning the endless rows of names. There it was. Dennis McDermott. Her fingers traced the letters. She hadn’t been sure how she’d feel, seeing his name there. The father she’d never known. The father who’d never known her. Her heart swelled against an ever-tightening band. It was just a name, after all. It wasn’t him. It wasn’t a real person who could wrap his arms around her. Tears welled in her eyes as she realized maybe that tight band around her heart was him. Holding her close in the only way he could. 

Third person allows us to go into the head of the the third person point of view character, but we also get to see what’s going on outside of this character. If we only see inside one character’s head, that’s called limited third person viewpoint. If we get to see inside more than one character’s head, it’s called multiple third person viewpoint.

Like first person, third person point of view has strengths and weaknesses. Some of its strengths include:

  • POV characters can be described from the outside (what they look like, what they’re doing).
  • You’re not limited to your character’s world view. In third person, you can present objective facts without coloring them with a character’s opinion. Third person opens up the story, so it feels less claustrophobic.
  • It’s easy to include more than one point of view in third person. As the author, you can move through the plot as needed to expose the information necessary through all the major characters instead of just one or two.
  • In third person, you can withhold information until you need to reveal it by having it known only to characters who are not point of view characters.
  • It’s easier to remain objective with your characters when you aren’t writing “I,” so you can easier evaluate and imagine them.

With all these strengths, it’s not hard to imagine why third person point of view is such a popular choice among authors. However, for every positive, there is a negative. Third person also has its drawbacks.

  • Third person creates more distance between the character and the reader. This can be controlled, but this takes practice and is a topic for another post.
  • You lose the effect of language patterns that you can get with first person.
  • Flashbacks, memories, opinions, and other devices are more awkward to put in. They can be done, but it takes greater skill to manage them smoothly.

So, how do you choose between first and third person? No one can answer that for you. If your story is epic and has a multitude of characters, perhaps multiple third person may be right for you. Likewise, if you want to be able to pull back and provide objective facts or descriptions, third person may be what you’re looking for. Third person may also be your cup of tea if you want rich descriptions of your characters from the outside. This is used a lot in romance novels so the reader can enjoy those silky curls or that buff, muscular chest.

However, if you want your reader to strongly identify with your POV character, to see the world with their eyes, you may want to choose limited third person or first person. Try a chapter or two in each and see what works best for you.

Investing in Your Book

invest in your bookI urge you to invest in your book.

What does that mean? It means a lot of things.

First, you need to invest the time to do it right. Take your time writing and researching your book. Revise it. Get feedback. Are there holes in your plotline? If so, fix them! Are your characters flat? Fill them out! A rough draft isn’t enough.

Get it edited. Allow enough time for a good edit, don’t expect 150,000 words to be done overnight. Give your editor the time to go through it carefully. Rush jobs usually result in something being missed because they were rushed. Can you do your best work when you’re in a rush? Schedule enough time in your production timetable to allow for a proper edit. Then add a little bit more for bumps in the road, like an unplanned for revision, or a family emergency. It’s better to be ready ahead of time than to be squeezed for time at the end.

Proofread it. After you, your editor, and your trusted beta readers have all read it, get someone else to go over it for errors. If you can afford it, pay a professional. Trust me, even after all those others have gone over it, there will still be some errors. No one is perfect enough to catch everything. Could you? If you were given a 50,000 word manuscript, could you catch every single error? Especially if the author wanted it in a week or two? That’s why the more sets of eyes you have go over your book, the better. And spell check doesn’t catch everything, either. It doesn’t know the difference between there, their and they’re. Or to and too. Or rein and reign. Or wait and weight. Or right and write. All it knows is if they’re spelled correctly.

Get a good cover design. If you don’t know the first thing about designing a cover that looks good, find someone who does. It’s worth the money to have one that catches the eye. People do judge a book by its cover, whatever they may say.

Your book represents you. This is your product that you want people to buy. Putting a substandard book out there can create a reputation that will follow you no matter how much work you put into later publications. Today’s readers aren’t shy about complaining in a review about shoddy writing or editing (or lack thereof). If you fix your book later, those reviews are still there. Those readers have already told their friends and the damage has been done.

I know I harp about this repeatedly here, but I can’t emphasize this enough. As an author, your book is you. Do you want to go out in public with a big smudge on your face? Of course not! So why let your book do the same? Yes, editing and a good cover can cost a lot of money, depending on who you hire and the length of your book. But isn’t your book worth some scrimping? Isn’t your reputation as an author worth it? Many editors, like me, offer payment plans. Payment plans, however, don’t work well if you’re on a quick deadline (just another reason to plan well for your production time). We also offer a discount for payment in full, so there are multiple ways to save some money on editing services. So invest in your book, both with time and money if possible.

You want to put your best book forward.

First Person Point of View

first person point of view

Ah, first person point of view. Many of the books that cross my desk are written in first person. The reader gets to experience the story inside a character’s head. I find that many first-time authors choose first person as their chosen point of view, at least in the books I edit.

I peered into the bassinet. There was a tiny person, wrapped in a fluffy pink blanket. She squirmed, threatening to wake. I squirmed. What would I do if she cried? I was afraid to touch her. I heaved a sigh of relief when she seemed to settle. How could they send her home with me? I had no clue what to do with her. How could I take care of her? What if I dropped her? What if I failed? It wasn’t like I could just find another home for her, like a puppy. She was supposed to be mine. I swallowed hard. My daughter. It didn’t seem real. It couldn’t be real. 

One of the great things about first person point of view  is you really get into that person’s character. The narration is in that character’s speech pattern, we get the immediacy of their experience, and the reader feels as if they are feeling what the character feels. First person offers range that can be awkward in third person. You can wander through impressions, feelings, memory, opinion as they pass through the character’s head. This is one of the great strengths of this point of view. There are, however, equally strong weaknesses that you need to keep in mind if you choose to write in first person.

  • You can’t include a scene in which your character is not present. Likewise, you can’t include any information your character wouldn’t have access to. If you must include crucial information your character doesn’t have direct access to, you must be creative in finding ways to make it accessible, like letters, overheard conversations, and so on.
  • You must include any information you character does have. This is especially important if you’re writing a mystery. Suddenly springing a clue upon your readers that your character already knew about is bad form.
  • As the author, you’re limited to your character’s view of the world. If your character is a Pollyanna, then s/he must see the good in everyone, no matter how evil they are. Their evilness must be shown in other ways.
  • Don’t confuse yourself with your character. It is so easy to do. If you feel a certain way about something, make sure your character doesn’t feel that way just because you do. You need to remain objective. If your character has a strong political pull to the right or left, for example, and you’re the opposite, you can’t let your own leanings color your character in any way. You need to be able to become the reader enough to judge what you put on the page. This is why many authors consider first person to be extremely difficult. It is the also what many beginning authors forget when they choose to write in first person.

Point of View

point of view
Handcuffs and Key

When you write a story, you need to choose a point of view. Who will be telling the story? Will it be one of your characters? Will it be you, the author?

Who you choose can change the story. Let’s say you want to tell a story about a bank robbery. Major characters may include the robbers, the hostages inside the bank, and the police officers on the scene. If you choose one of the robbers, the story may consist of adventure, planning the heist, danger, a falling out between partners, and lack of trust.

If the story is told through the eyes of one of the hostages, it becomes one of bewilderment and fear. Do they hope to escape? Maybe several band together to stand up to the robbers or maybe they learn their lesson when one gets injured for doing something foolish and they await rescue.

If a detective on the case is the one who relates the story, it becomes a procedural… we get treated to the protocols of the case, talking down the robbers, negotiating for the release of the hostages, the stress when one is shot.

As you can see, each angle tells a different tale, although the main story remains the same. If you have a large cast of characters in your book, use as few points of view as possible to tell the story. Figure out the least amount you need to adequately cover the story and any internal dialogues you need in your story. Having too many can get confusing, not only for the reader, but for you. Now you must decide between first person, third person, omniscient, or those rarely used second person, plural first, plural third, and epistolary forms.

Over the next several posts, I’ll be covering some of these various forms of point of view, including the pros and cons of choosing them, as well as what pitfalls to watch out for when you use them.

Get Thee to an Editor

get thee to an editorPesky errors got you down? Tired of hearing you’re using ‘reign’ instead of ‘rein’? Does trying to figure out the difference between the two leave your head in a tizzy? Get thee to an editor.

Do you love the word ‘that’? Do you capitalize your dialogue tags and don’t know why? Get thee to an editor.

Got a hole in your plot big enough for a Mac truck? Are your scenes lacking panache? Are your descriptions falling flat? Get thee to an editor.

When you’ve done all you can on your own, it’s time to get some help. Go ahead and send your baby out to your beta readers… they can give you some good advice. They may not all agree, however, and you’ll need to pick and choose what will work and what won’t. Still, when you’re done reworking the story for the tenth or hundredth time… it’s good to have eyes on it that know what to look for.

What can a professional editor do?

  • Help you find the glaring issues in your story
  • Fix timeline problems others may have missed
  • Get rid of the annoying errors readers will be sure to mention in their reviews
  • Tighten your writing
  • Polish that manuscript and make it shine
  • Make you look good

Doesn’t that sound worth it? Especially that last one. Your book is your baby. You’re putting it out there for the world to see. You want it looking all pretty and clean, not all messy, right?

And what does the editor get out of it? The satisfaction of helping an author and some money to pay the bills. Do we like it when we’re mentioned in the acknowledgements? Sure. We appreciate your thanks. Do we demand it? No. We’re happy even if you don’t mention us in public. We’re happy because we were able to help you get your book ready for the public. That’s what makes us tick. What makes us get up in the morning. We don’t necessarily need the accolades. We just like what we do.

So if we like it so much, why don’t we do it for free?

Well, sometimes we do. Most of the time, however, we need to pay bills. We need to feed the kids, just like you. Editors understand that it’s hard to spread the money around sometimes. We have the same problems. It comes down to what’s important. If someone wants to go on a vacation, they’ll save up for it. If they want Prada shoes, they’ll save up for them. If they want a 125 gallon fish tank, they’ll save up for it. If they want editing, they’ll save up for it (or take advantage of a payment plan). Whatever becomes important, we find the means to do. Is your book important? Then you should do what you can to present it in the best way possible. This includes good editing and a good cover.  Can just anyone edit or do a cover? No. Some do not possess the skills to do these things. Some are not the right fit for each author. But when you find that fit, it’s worth the price.

Calling the Muse

scattered museHow many times have you started a story and gotten stuck partway through? You hit that wall and just don’t know where to go from there? Or maybe you write your way into a corner and don’t know how to get yourself out. Or you get all the way through to the revision process and find you have plot holes you don’t know how to fix?

You’re not alone.

I’m always exploring new ways to improve my own writing skills. Lately, I’ve been going through some courses created by author Patti Larsen on writing and outlining. (Yes, I just mentioned the dreaded outlining… which I happen to enjoy, thank you very much.) Patti is a prolific author and she’s come up with some pretty handy tips to avoid these pitfalls. Check out her site if you want and see for yourself.

But back to my topic. There are ways to court your muse. Being organized, as Patti suggests, is one of them. I find that is often one of my own problems when I write. I spend all day editing for clients (for whom I’m very grateful!), and by the time I get to work on my own writing, my brain feels rather scattered. I re-read what I’ve got so far, go over my notes, and basically have to start from scratch every time. By the time I do all the catch up, I’m tired and it’s time for bed, so I don’t get much writing done. That’s why I picked up her courses. I wanted to enhance my own organization skills so I could skip all the catch up and just get to writing. I figured there must be methods to keep my muse engaged to fit my limited writing time.

If you’re not into outlining, maybe you’re an imagery person. If images speak to you, perhaps keeping images handy (Scrivener lets you keep a file of images or other references in the same file you’re writing in) will help. When I was writing Titanic Deception with my husband John, I found it helpful to look up reference images. I had blueprints of the Titanic, photos of several of the state rooms, the dining rooms, the decks… photos of some of the key players who were on the ship, that sort of thing. I looked up information on clothing of the era, I looked up menus for the modern part of the story, chatspeak translation, bomb defusing, and all sorts of things. I could keep all this information handy for when I needed inspiration. That helped keep my muse at my side.

It helped me to have a sounding board. John provided that. Since he was the main idea guy on our team, we spent countless hours going over plot lines, ironing out wrinkles that caused me writing angst, and working out physical actions so I could describe them with words.

So, what do you do to keep your muse at hand? Please share your tips in the comments!

Apologies for being missing in action last week. A pesky spider bit me on a crucial finger and it got infected, greatly affecting my typing abilities due to pain and swelling. Went to the doctor and have been on antibiotics since. It’s finally beginning to look like it’s responding and I’m almost back to normal. Thank you for your kind patience! :)