Saturday, September 6, 2008

Risking Life & Limb with Me, Myself & I

Many writers choose First Person, the glamorous realm of Me, Myself and I, thinking it’ll be easier than Third and also deeper and more intimate. That’s a huge misconception. For a mere handful of writers, me-me flair is an innate gift and greater intimacy and depth is achieved, but for most of us, First Person is tricky to get right and a poor use of it will condemn our work to the toilet, the fireplace or the rejection pile. I'm really, really starting to despise First because of the high flub rate. When I crack open a book and see "I grew up in Montana", I groan and put it down. I've been avoiding Twilight because I know it's in First, but I will get to it eventually, someday.

First Person can be subjective, where we learn all the main character’s thoughts, feelings, experiences and reactions. Or it can be objective, with the narrator standing at a distance, letting readers draw their own conclusions. There are different First Person Narrators you can use, such as:

The Partaker: experiencing and commenting on events as they unfold, can be in present or past tense

The Reliver: recounting experienced events and commenting with opinion

The Observer: recounting events as observed and being out of the main story

The Reporter: telling events, experienced and/or witnessed, in a detached, autobiographical style.

The Revolver: relaying events from multiple perspectives, often separated by chapter breaks or into mini books with each character’s name at the top to differentiate.

The Internalizer: recounting as an internal monologue, a memory drenched in opinion, often stream of consciousness.

The Orator: telling the story out loud without major interruption. This can be used in a frame, like if characters are sitting around a campfire, and one dishes on a spooky, personal experience.

The Writer: revealing the past through written form like letters or diary entries.

The biggest challenge when using a First Person Narrative, with the exception of the Partaker's journey and perhaps the Observer's outlook like in The Lovely Bones, is it looks back at the past, rather than taking place in real time, as unfolding drama and action. This dilemma can cause a lot of problems for writers. Here are some other perils I keep seeing in First Person Narrative:

A no-show voice. Voice is THE most vital thing when using First. This narrative choice is not just about relaying scene after scene through some zombie who's speaking as I. It's not. And I see this far too often. Voice is a combination of show, attitude, personality, belief, tone, vocabulary and feeling. It's all about revealing character without even having to say anything about the character. Readers should have a sense of who your character is in chapter one, paragraph one. If you're just giving point-by-point scenes, I'm sorry, but you don't have it yet. Keep working on it...or try Third.

A character getting up in the morning. Why is this a common intro in First? Really? Unless one is jarred awake by the sound of gunfire, a wake-up is dull. Yawning and stretching or staring at the ceiling is the kiss of death. A story needs to start close to action, conflict, conversation or the story question. Yeah, you say, but I’m showing normal routine, so the jarring moment will be, well, jarring. Trust me, no reader is going to get to that point if they can’t get beyond the bathroom run. Who likes mornings? Don’t do the wakeup call. Readers will hit not only hit snooze, they’ll smash the clock into pieces.

A dream. This is another nightmare akin to getting up in the morning. Dreams are a bad way to start any novel. Place readers in your story. If the dream is important, show it later, not at the onset. Or have it be a snippet, a teaser, and not a whole chapter long.

The long hello. Trust me, you will not have your readers at "hello", if it goes on for seven pages. I know it’s tempting to unleash a lengthy introduction and all sorts of background details in chapter 1, but don’t do this. It’s better if your character is engaged in activity, or put another character in the scene so you don’t even have to introduce in such a telly way. Exposition should trickle out not come down in a landslide.

A telly telethon. I often see too much telling and not enough showing. Just because you’re in First, don’t assume the show-don’t-tell concept doesn’t apply. You still want to engage readers and get them to identify with your characters and telling will have readers hanging up on you. Show.

A God complex. I've seen some narrators go all omniscient, breaking into other characters' heads. No. They can't be God. This is wrong. If your narrator is human and in the here and now, it should be, she later told me...not: Karen bit her lip, wondering if I was going to propose.

The dead-verb desert. Don’t be lazy. Just because you’re writing with a character’s voice, be-verbs seem the most authentic because that’s the way people talk, but too many will make your work drab and dry. Go for those juicier verbs sometimes so your prose has some sparkle and luster. You want the voice to be zingy and entertaining and alluring, and be-verbs just don’t own the power of seduction.

Tense tension. If your story is in the simple past, when your narrator talks about themselves or adds commentary, tense should switch to present very briefly. Because when you don’t shift, it puts the character in the grave. Just remember to switch back. [e.g. I couldn’t stand cake. VERSUS I can’t stand cake, so as they brought out that hellish thing with its mountain of frosting, a snarl contorted the left side of my face.] Everything needs to sound natural and conversational from the point in time in which you're telling it. Some writers bend over backwards to avoid a slip in verb tense, when really, it's the right thing to do. Sometimes the switch is needed.

Explosions of I. If too many of your sentences begin with I, that pronoun will shoot out like shrapnel and be just as jagged and deadly. Mix it up. Oh. And if you're writing about a sensory impression, just write the stimulus or reaction and omit: I saw, I heard, I thought, etc. You don't need those. Yanking them out will not only remove unnecessary I's, it will also help readers better identify with your characters.

Minimal hooks. Do not let foreshadowing be your sole hook. Have a good plot. I've read some published works that only hook with fortune cookie and crystal ball promises. Ever since childhood, I have despised blatant foreshadowing, when an author tells me what's going to happen before it does. This groaner kills tension. Subtlety is best. Foreshadowing should be a hint not a dead giveaway. Go for shifts in tone or atmosphere like music in a movie, instead of tacking on a little tag at the end of every chapter. Your "hook" will lose its barb and be totally ineffective at baiting anyone.

Abundance of detail. When showing your character engaged in an activity like peeling potatoes, you don’t need to note every slice-and-dice step. Eyes will gloss over. Sum up.

Forgotten senses. Sometimes noses and tongues and spirits are forgotten. There’s more in life to experience than seeing and hearing, so don’t forget to sprinkle your prose with various sensations. Blandness is distancing, so always think viscerally, always aim to bring your readers into the work and get them too identify with your characters.

Fluctuating voices. Narrators should not be schizophrenic, unless they literally are. When referring to a distant event like in childhood, the narrator should keep the same voice throughout and not slink back into a child's voice, except in dialogue.

Clock Malfunction. Some writers forget where they are in time. Know where your narrator is and where your story is and keep time warps from occurring.

When working with the perilous nymphs of Me, Myself and I, be deliberate, engaging, seamless and entertaining. Look out for potholes and keep your focus solid. Know where you are, where the narrator is, who your characters are and how to relay the story properly. If you can’t tell your story effectively, switch to Subjective Third. Subjective Third is as close to First as you can be, and it’s so much easier to keep your footing.

And on the flip side, if your Third Person scenes are feeling too distant to your critters or if an agent says something like, "you don't have a distinct enough voice yet", then rewrite scenes in First Person, and really think about the scene character's voice, tone and attitude when you do. Also add commentary on what's going on in the scene, express how the character truly feels in words. When you switch back, your Third Person will sound much closer and through the head of your character rather than via your fancy pen, and you will also have more content beyond the bits of action. Then rewrite all your scenes in that same style. Sometimes your work can have too much showing and not enough personality wrapping around it.

Rock on and keep writing.

~Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

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