First Person and Sticky Points of View

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tiefast-767993In a seminar I had with Robert Flynn, a novelist teaching a Writer’s League of Texas course on fiction, he expressed a point of view. That’s as in Point Of View (POV) and how to decide which one to use. Whether it’s first person told with the “I,” or third person that unreels the story with “he” and “she,” all POVs have some downsides to observe.

I include second person in that list of POVs, you rascally innovators. But novels and stories written in second person—”you”—are rare, and for a reason: It’s difficult to get close to this kind of POV, in spite of the imperative tone. One of our workshop’s members recently wrote a full scene in the imperative without so much as a prompt. I applaud his tenacity. It’s not easy to stick with, according to Flynn.

Most debut novels come to the publisher in first person. Flynn believes a first person character needs to be someone you can confide in. Keep in mind that some other character will need to tell your first person narrator’s part of the story — unless they can reflect on themselves in an observer’s manner. The novel The Various Flavors of Coffee (superb book) does this reflection well. The device used is the narrator telling his story from well into the future, prior to the book’s main action. It’s deft and worth a read.

Without this, it’s difficult to get “objective reality” out of a first person POV. You are less likely to see revelations, genuine surprises, about the narrator in a first person story. As in  The Various Flavors of Coffee, your first-person character narrate the story from many years later. However, there’s a moment in the story where the character says the equivalent of “what I was about to do was a series of blunders.” Honesty comes by way of the long view. Other first person aspects:

  • Sometimes first person is too intimate to be comfortable
  • People will believe the central character is the author
  • If the narrator sees himself or herself as someone other than they really are, it can get complicated. (Without giving too much away, however, a certain Chuck Palahniuk novel about a club pulls this off very well.)
  • First person POV relies a lot on supposing, and “it seemed” narration
  • A narrator who’s not involved in the story can lend objectivity. But we’ll want to know as readers why this person is telling the story, if they’re not involved.
  • There’s a loss of suspense by using first person, at least for any story that wants to behave by the tradition of telling a tale from a living person’s POV. There’s some difficulty in reporting one’s own death.
  • First person narration relies on word choices that grow out of the character. While that’s a great way to get to know a character, it does have the potential for limiting the vocabulary in the story.

Trim out your filters to connect readers

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Some easy writing advice to follow, offered all the time, is show instead of tell. But it takes careful work to remove showing while you remove filter words from your writing. These are words that make a story less vivid and make the writer more obvious.

coffee-924948_1280You don’t want the latter to happen. We tell stories, but we don’t want our readers to focus on us as storytellers. Write memoirs or essays if you want to be seen while you tell the story. Fiction has several key elements, and none of them give writers a reason to show themselves telling. Not even first person.

Make a list of these filter words and post it next to your computer screen:

  • saw
  • looked
  • watched
  • noticed
  • smelled
  • heard
  • touched
  • felt
  • knew
  • realized
  • thought
  • remembered
  • reminded
  • decided
  • seemed

You rarely need these in fiction’s narrative writing. (In dialogue you can do almost anything—but the dialogue has to propel the plot, or reinforce character traits, or make extra conflict). At the hardest end of the filter cutting, thought and decided can be erased by first-person limited point of view.

He thought he could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

becomes

He could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

At the easiest,

Randolph saw the wagon sink in the mud

becomes

The wagon sank in the mud. We should know it’s Randolph doing the watching.

Let a reader observe the action itself in the writing. Visuals rarely need watched and saw. Sensations like smell (one of my favorites) should be unique or pungent enough to stand without the verb smelled. The fuzzy one is felt: it’s almost useful while you describe a texture. But the stubble on his chin felt rough can easily become The stubble on his chin was rough.

Go through and check your writing during revision. After awhile, you won’t even write first drafts using filters.

 

 

How to build metaphors in less than 5 minutes

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how-to-build-metaphorsSpeaking metaphorically. It’s a phrase we all understand. We use metaphor as a way of making something stand in for something else. A bad employee isn’t on the way to being fired. No, he’s a dead duck. We love metaphor in stories because it helps us in two ways. We understand better. We enjoy the images that metaphor brings us, too.

Metaphor is a device in writing and storytelling. But most of us think of something easier when we play with metaphors. We employ simile, the phrases that use “is like” or “as.” She was sweating like a harlot in Easter Sunday church,” me might say. Or “That show was flat as day-old pancakes.” Great fun, similes. You know, using them leads up to an easy road to making metaphors. Here’s a fun exercise you can use to make metaphors.

Write a list of 7 nouns down one side of your page. Specific nouns are better. Not “tree” but “live oak.” Not “car” but “minivan.” You wanna see these things better. You want to know what makes them unique.

Now “is like” next to each noun. Or “are like” if you’ve written something “dalmations” for a noun. Remember? Specifics. There we go. Now for the first round of fun. Finish each sentence. Don’t sweat this. You have seven of these, after all.

There we go. Seven similies. Now for the magic. Strike out the words “is like” and just use “is” or “are.” Instead of dalmations are like checkerboards, it’s dalmations are checkerboards. Or, those checkerboards of dalmations. Voila, metaphor.

You can play with this when you want to call attention to the details of something in a story. They can be events: a Second Wedding. Or places: A Greyhound bus station. Or objects, like plastic wheelbarrows. You’re making poetry, in a way. This is lyrical writing, the kind you hear in songs.

Remember that metaphors are quite a way up on the pyramid of writing skills. The legendary director at Iowa’s Writing Workshop Frank Conroy shows us a pyramid of writing skills. At the bottom are the foundation of meaning, of sense, or clarity. But a couple of levels up is building block of metaphor.

Try making some today, and have fun. You can go too far, of course, and have crazy combinations. That’s what rewriting is for. And as a lot of us writers say, writing is rewriting. Nobody gets it as perfect as a Marine’s haircut on the first draft. (See what I did there? Didja see?)

How to Hear Your Voice in Your Writing

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VoicesVoice is harder to teach than it seems. It’s about hearing yourself. That’s why the Amherst Writers methods I use in my workshops are so good for discovering your authentic voice. When you read your fresh writing out loud as we do, in a safe and supportive space, you can hear what rings true. You’ll hear the clear, un-compromised notes from deep in your heart.

Hearing your voice can give you confidence to create something like bathos: that juicy anticlimax when you go from the deep sentiment of your heartstrings to something plain, like the taste of sliced cheese. First the heart, then a simple sentence.

We work toward hearing the styles of our voices. There’s authentic Original Voice, the one we’re raised with and hear as it tells our childhood’s stories. Then there’s Natural Voice, used for our reports on our own life and the facts of our world. Finally there’s Costumed Voices, the ones we prepare for showing off the characters in our stories. Everybody speaks a little differently. Making these voices distinct is a skill worth polishing.

Why is that Original Voice so important? Once you can feel how much comfort your voice gives you, it becomes less painful to write out all of that suppressed trauma. Trust the words you remember from your childhood, Pat Schneider says in Writing Alone and With Others. Her Amherst method textbook has a chapter all its own devoted to voice. There’s a good book by Ben Yagoda, the Sound on the Page, that teaches about voice, too.

When you write about something you care about deeply, you are likely to choose your Original Voice. Use simple language, most of us will. The Original Voice transports us to a place where we can forget to be afraid. Abraham Verghese broke into the world of letters in 1994 with his memoir My Own Country, but he’s come to better known for Cutting for Stone, a novel starring a character with many qualities in common with the author.

In The Sound on the Page, Verghese was interviewed about voice and style and said this about writing nonfiction and memoir.

To me, finding voice is about confidence. I struggled when I first started writing nonfiction. I had to speak as myself. There had to be a sameness and a tameness to my voice. And I had to learn that this ione of the great advantages of nonficton: when something is true, you automatically have the reader’s interest, because we’re all inherently curious about things that really happened.

Taking the Fight to the So-What Moment

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Few of us are famous. By definition, the word fame labels such people and things as well-known, and there are real limits on how much the world can know about somebody. If you’re like me and not famous, you can still have a memoir inside you, on your laptop, or in the pages of a favorite notebook, one that’s worthy of publication. You don’t even need to have experienced something as unique as cutting off your own arm to escape the wilderness. The key to getting your story into the world and creating a book is to do battle with the so-what moment. You do that battle with the fundamental tools of storytelling.

Writing&SellingYourMemoirSome of those tools help craft sentences and sections, and others serve to steer your story and reel in readers. Paula Balzer examines this in her book Writing and Selling Your Memoir. Some of the weapons to battle that moment — when a reader first sees yours is another story about a broken home, addiction, abuse, financial ruin, or infidelity — rely on the bedrock of voice and style. Your writing must emerge over so many words and drafts that you’re fluid in your voice: the writing that sounds like you and you alone. Everybody has memoir stories to tell, yes. But only you can tell the story in your voice.

Style is comprised of rules and choices, but staying consistent with your voice is a great start to honing in on style. A hair stylist makes a statement for you when you emerge from their salon. Your hair becomes an expressive, emotional element when it’s styled. Your writing makes the same leap when you write towards exuding style. Style has elements, in the classic Strunk & White textbook The Elements of Style. Like the individual cuts, curls, and colors of the salon, the grammar, punctuation, and choices of those elements make up writing style. Like the hairdo that makes us look, good style compels reading.

Reaching for style involves rewriting, the practice that gives you a go-to repertoire. No gerunds, for example. Short sentences, several of them, followed by one long one. The exquisite use of just the right word, although it’s one that’s rare as a just-minted coin in the reader’s hand. It’s the fadeaway jumper from Michael Jordan, says Ben Yagoda in The Sound on the Page, or John Coltrane’s use of the modal scale in jazz. Or leaving out the obvious, like Hemingway did, “and agressively omitting adjectives, metaphors, commas, and connecting words and phrases.”

Although a memoir’s experiences may not be unique, even that can work in your favor. If a story has a high relatability factor — many of us have grieved for someone we’ve have lost — it’s easier for our readers to connect with us. At their essence, stories of marital infidelity are really about betrayal. If you’ve never married, you can still relate to betrayal. And betrayal, and its aftermath, contributes to a universal theme. The little guy who fights the big Goliath of a company can bring down an unfair competitor. But how? Showing us exactly which moments contribute to a universal theme propels a story about a hike through the Appalachians to overcome doubt about abilities  (A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson) beyond that story’s so-what moment. It was just a hike, so what? It was also a discovery about how a hiker is made, or born. And we connected with the main characters early enough in the story to stay on the scene and watch whatever happened next.

In the big picture, the battle against the so-what moment is won or lost with effective writing. The elements are the same as for any kind of story, nonfiction or fiction. You need a good hook. Your story must rush to an engaging moment before the reader has a chance to ask that so-what question. That moment probably lives inside a scene I get to see as the reader. Many people have taken their kids on a two-week vacation in a car. The hook can be the quest for more than just pictures, souvenirs, and dog-eared programs. Those two weeks might be a way to find a proof of love, like a detective story. But only if that proof is elusive. I took a two-week road trip one summer across Midwest ballparks. But the perfect game was not the one I planned. Life is like that, if you’re lucky, and can stay out of your own way on the road.

“We just don’t automatically have the kind of mind-blowing material that results in the “tell me more” situation right off the bat,” Balzer says in her book. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have the material to write a fascinating memoir— it just means we have to battle the so-what moment using some of the other tools in our toolbox.”

The sharpest tool in that box is theme, but it’s also the most elusive. You can work a great deal of the way into a memoir, or any book, before you discover the story’s theme. This is the spine that Sydney Pollack described when he was telling the story of how he directed Out of Africa. “We spent about two years trying to find what I always call a spine or an armature of this piece. Sort of trying to distill the idea  down to one or two clear sentences that could be a guidepost,” he said. “What is it really about? We finally settled on possession. Freedom versus obligation. If I say I love you, what price am I expected to pay?” Out of Africa is based on Karen Blixen’s memoirs, by the way.

“Most best-selling memoirs, if you were to boil the story down to their core, probably have the same story as someone who lives down the street from you, or as someone who works in your office,” Balzer writes. The memoir writer has to mix many additional elements into their book to compel a reader to click the buy button for $12, or carry that paperback to the register. The elements must come from the craft of writing, especially style and voice.

 

Roots of emulation essential to grow a story

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green tomatoesThe tomatoes in my back yard didn’t need to see other tomatoes to grow. They started from seed, after all. What good does it do to find something to emulate, while growing? The tomatoes are now small and ripening. Success is at hand. But just like a book, they arrived because of something that came before them. In the case of the tomatoes, it’s the tomatoes before them. For book writers, you arrive because of the writers who came before you.

It might seem obvious, but no writer of fiction can produce good fruit, even as small as a cherry tomato, without reading fiction. Or a memoirist succeed at telling their own story in creative nonfiction without reading memoirs. For the writer who doesn’t have learning-work of making stories, reading is the only apprenticeship they have.

You’re going to want to find some fiction to read. It’s essential to writing effective stories.

Novelists have to read novels. Emulating somebody is a good thing. You then have a model to study for voice, for structure, for characterization. New writers so often want to leap to the business of the writing, which we like to call publishing. You can follow this simplistic trail in your life as a writer — show me the money — and still see it lead to reading. What am I telling, a writer must ask, that people have connected with before? I tell writing clients who I coach to find a published book that feels like their own. At the back, read the acknowledgements, and query the agent who’s mentioned.

It’s a trick, really. To find that book just like theirs, they read work in their own field. Like a painter emulates other, more famous artists, trying to master techniques of creating dazzling visuals.

Many of us dream of writing a bestseller, lauded on the New York Times list. But here’s my truth about that list. Books rise up there which the Times doesn’t think much of. Its literary reviews were not good for some of those books. Some were not even Notable Books. Bestseller lists are about business, and some of that business grew up from the roots of good craft. The craft is the success that’s sure to be within our grasp. An apprentice learns craft. Bestsellers mean almost nothing during the pursuit of writing a good book. Wonderful, long-lasting novels never see the light of that list.

This is what we care about: writing the best book we can, and growing our craft while we do. We need to read whatever is out there as if it were seeds, the seeds of what we want to write.

5 Practices for Living a Writer’s Life

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You can find a lot of advice on how to live a life as a writer by using your notebook, laptop, or keyboard. But how about away from the writing itself? What do practiced writers do when they’re away from the work? They keep it in their minds and their hearts. They use five practices.

Magic Paintbrush1. They read. Everything you read, as a story or a book, helps your writing. Once you start to write, you look at every story differently. While you do that, you’re looking for parts of stories that are just like yours. The premise, like a priest falling in love or a reporter fighting a pandemic. Or a character with a trait like yours. Or just writing: good that you want to emulate, not-so-good you want to avoid.

2. They study the craft with guide books. There is so much to learn about the craft of making stories. You will be reading as long as you love to learn how to be more skilled in your writing. Find books on making scenes. Find books on point of view. Find books on creating beautiful settings, or vivid places where evil lives. Fellow novelist Margo Raab told a story about writers working on craft. Her friend went to a food-writing course, and who should sit down next to her but Julia Child. “What are you doing here?” she asked. Julia replied, “Well, when you love doing something, how can you ever learn too much about it?”

3. They make Artist’s Dates. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron includes one fun practice. Reward yourself with an Artist’s Date. Go someplace and make a date with your muse. A park you don’t usually visit. A museum. A concert or a library. Even a coffeehouse. Drink in the setting, the colors, the new sounds. Feed your artist with new experiences, once a week.

4. They look for characters in life. Every time you’re in line, in a crowd, attending an event or even a party, look around. People who could live in your stories are all around you. The looks on their faces, the clothes they wear, the gestures they use. Someone could look just like you’ve imagined your heroine to be. People you see in person are the most vivid.

5. They listen for stories — everybody has one. While you talk to people, encourage their stories. Learn and listen to their lives. Even at a coffeehouse (see above) stories are right at your elbow. Practice gentle eavesdropping, listening. Every story has a way of working into your own storytelling.

If you practice your writing regularly, much of what you see and live will have a chance to pop up in your storytelling. Live to be a writer by letting your non-writing time enrich your story.

What have you done, away from the page, that’s helped your storytelling?

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