Step Away from the Thesaurus

 

This week we’re talking about writing in first person. So today, I’m going to do a quick post. A reminder or warning of sorts, I guess.

When writing in first person, for the most part, you need to step away from the thesaurus. 

There is a prevalent thought amongst non-writers, I think, that writer are constantly checking their thesaurus for different words, fancy words. I think most of us would say that’s not the case. 

Sure, I have a thesaurus on hand, ready to look up a synonym. But, I use it because I can’t think of a word I already know, that is in my vernacular and that I can’t recall. Not to look up some fancy-schmancy word I wouldn’t use in conversation in a bazillion years. 

So back to first person. Remember that a “real live” person is narrating this story. So, that needs to limit the number of four syllable words you use in the narrative, ok people? Sure, you might say that your narrator is super academic or what have you. Then, of course, there might be exceptions. However, even if you, as a person, are truly intellectual, when you are narrating things in your head for no one else to hear, the words probably come out a bit more raw and from a bit more within your comfort level, no? 

So, all I’m saying is that first person limits some of the flowery language you might be able to indulge in, if you chose to write in a different POV.

First Person Drawbacks

 

As cool as I think writing in first person is, there are, of course, some drawbacks. (Wow, a lot of commas there, huh?) So, before you get 30k into your brand spankin’ new WIP, let’s consider a few of our favorite POV’s shortcomings. 

 

1. Suspense killer. Usually, if the person is narrating the story, you know he or she is going to be alive on the other end. Now, there are creative ways to get around this. Carrie Ryan wrote Forest of Hands and Teeth in first person present. The narrative could have stopped any time, no problem with suspense there. Some writers might try alternating a POV if the MC died during the story. That is tricky, but can be done if handled with care. Jay Asher, in Thirteen Reasons Why, had alternating first person narrative. One of the narrators was Hannah Baker who the reader knew would be dead at the end of the story. [It's a story about her suicide. She's dead at the beginning of the book, too. Not a spoiler, people.] 

2. Claustrophobia. First person is the most restrictive point of view. It’s easy for a writer to feel boxed in. Especially when trying to lay clues and the groundwork for what is to come. How can you highlight clues that the narrator doesn’t catch? Again, this can be dealt with by having a very sleuthy MC who does pick up on the clues, but doesn’t piece them together. But the reader can’t know anything the narrator doesn’t. Very tricky…very tricky, indeed…

3. The almost-autobiography. There is a temptation, in writing first person, to inject yourself into the narrator and into the narrative. After all, you’re throwing around all these “I”s and “mine”s. It can be difficult to separate. But, as interesting as I’m sure you are, the story you’re trying to tell might be more so. Moreover, as I mentioned yesterday, the key to first person voice is consistency. If you’re randomly inserting your “in person” voice for the narrator’s you are going to be left with an inconsistent and artificial-sounding voice. 

4. Still have to show not tell. We know that the cardinal sin of writing is telling rather than showing. But, in writing first person it can be so easy to ignore because you think: how would my character describe how she is feeling right now? Oh, well she’d say she is tired. So you write on the page, “I felt exhausted.” Or some derivative thereof. But no! We still can’t do that. She has to feel like she has five-pound rocks dangling from her eyelashes, or blocks of dried cement around her feet. We need to feel the weight of her exhaustion even if the character really would just say in her own head “I’m exhausted.”

5. Varying sentence structure. In first person, it’s hard not to write “I [verb]. I [verb]. I [verb].” And so on. That is what is most natural for the writer. But, a book with that kind of repetitive sentence structure isn’t exactly going to be a feast for the discerning reader. So, while you might be used to different types of sentences flowing easily from your fingertips, expect to have to make the effort when writing from the perspective of your MC.

 

*If you’d like to check out yesterday’s post on building fenceposts for your first person narrative, click here.

Fenceposts for Your First Person Narrative

This week I’m going to be talking about writing in first person. I know that I struggled with the idea of writing in first person. I don’t find it the most natural mode of storytelling and always feel a bit of “Why is the character telling me this?” 

But, I’d say the vast majority of YA novels are written in first person and I’ve come to love it. First person adds voice and sympathy for the protagonist. There is no closer narrative form than that of first person. So embrace. I did.

The first work I switched over to first person landed me an agent. Of course, that’s not to say that everyone should write in first person. I love Melissa Marr’s works, written in alternating 3rd limited POV. 

Rather this series of posts is meant to help those interested in a foray into first person. And please, feel free to leave your tips and comments below. Thanks!

 

So today I’m talking about fashioning fenceposts. *So much alliteration, I can hardly handle it!* Anyway, fenceposts are something I use before I start writing. If you want to outline before this point that is more than fine. But, fenceposts are there to help you find your voice. 

I think I can explain this best through illustration. 

From I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have To Kill You by Ally Carter, narrated by Cammie:

“We waited two weeks. TWO WEEKS! Do you know how long that is in fifteen-year-old-girl time? A lot. A LOT, a lot. I was really starting to empathize with all htose women who talk about biological clocks.”

“Okay, so I didn’t know the Jacksons, much less how Granny way feeling, but Gradma Morgan had taught me that Chinese Water Torture is nothing compared to a grandmother who really wants to know something.”

 

From The Forest of Hands and Teeth (because it’s fresh in my mind) by Carrie Ryan, narrated by Mary:

“But there are times when I stand at the edge of the Forest of Hands and Teeth and look out at the wilderness that stretches on forever and wonder what it would be like if it were all water.”

“Inside it feels as though the stone walls drain the heat of the day and the hairs on my arms stand on end.”

 

Or from Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling [Not in 1st person, but definitely a fencepost for Hermione's voice]:

“Just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have.”

 

Ok, so of course, I don’t know what these authors did or how they started or anything like that. But what I do, prior to beginning, is talk in my characters voice. I get out a notebook and just think of random things that my narrating character would say. These become my posts. 

Naturally, the focus is not so much on what the character says, but how the character says it. 

I started with an opening line: “If the gnashing teeth ten feet behind didn’t kill me, my dad would. But that was a problem for Future Scout.” 

That was fencepost #1. 

One of my other earlier fenceposts was: “The fact that my eyes hadn’t burned crop circles in place of his nostrils felt like a small miracle. Of course God would be on his side.”

We’ll call that fencepost #2. 

 

After the creation of several more fenceposts, I’m left with a bunch of supporting structures jutting out vertically. That’s good. I’ve got them written down in no particular order, but I’m going to work with them. Because to build the actual fence, I need to constantly link back to the posts. 

Voice is about consistency. The character has to own the voice you give him or her. So these fenceposts you create are there to refer and link back to. Each sentence you write in first person has to be close enough to attach to one of the vertical posts. 

That’s the real danger with first person, I think. You want to go into some beautiful description about what the passage of time feels like, but Cammie Morgan is just going to say that it is A LOT of time in fifteen-year-old-girl time. Yanno?

Or you might want to describe the setting really eloquently. If you are writing from Mary’s perspective, you can get away with the pensive, lovely description. If you are Cammie Morgan, you can’t. Not ever ever. Never. Seriously.

So, start out by writing your fenceposts and in every sentence ask, Is that too far away from one of my fenceposts to link back to?

2009 Debutante Author Interview Series: Carrie Ryan

 

In Mary’s world, there are simple truths.
The Sisterhood always knows best.
The Guardians will protect and serve.
The Unconsecrated will never relent.
And you must always mind the fence that surrounds the village….


forest_home

 

I have been oh-so-excited about this interview. Carrie Ryan is the author of The Forest of Hands and Teeth, which will be published by Delacorte and will hit shelves March 10th. Everyone is talking about this book. I know that I’ll be buying a copy the day it launches. For personal reasons, I’ve been dying to know how Carrie handled law school, working at a firm, and writing books. I’m so thankful Carrie put so much thought into these answers. Hope y’all enjoy.

 

The Forest of Hands and Teeth is your debut novel, so a big congrats on that. But can you give us a little statistical rundown on how long it took you to get to this point? How many books? How many rejections? How many days, months, or years?

 

The short answer: Three completed novels (The Forest of Hands and Teeth was the third); seven years (only three years of actually writing); 19 rejections.

 

Longer answer:  I started writing my first novel just before graduating from college and I finished it that next year.  It was a western historical romance (long story behind that choice) and I queried about six agents — a few requests but all ended up as rejections.  And I realized I was okay with the rejections because I never wanted to write another western historical romance again!  After that I wrote a romantic comedy that I never polished or queried.

 

Then I had this grand long term plan that I’d write chick lit and I somehow convinced myself that the best way to do that was to go to law school (another long story behind that choice!).  So basically I stopped writing for four years while I applied and attended law school. 

 

After starting work as a lawyer for a few months I decided I needed an exit strategy and I started writing seriously again.  I had many false starts (I wrote about 172k words that year but finished nothing).  I started writing The Forest of Hands and Teeth on November 2, 2006 (I still have the email where I sent myself the first line).  I finished the rough draft in April 2007, revised it until the end of August when I started querying agents and sold in October!

 

Oh boy. An exit strategy from practicing law? I need to cover my ears!

 

Which “Call” thrilled you more? The call in which you landed an agent or the call in which you landed your book deal? Can you describe to us what it felt like?

 

Wow, I don’t think I can compare the two!  My agent, Jim McCarthy, called me on a Monday and it was totally out of the blue.  I was standing in the kitchen when I heard his voice on the answering machine asking me to call him back.  I just stared at my fiancé, JP, and he stared at me and he started jumping and dancing but I just kept saying “it could just be that he wants to talk.  It might not be an offer.”  It was well after business hours and for about twenty minutes I walked around the house in a daze unable to really utter anything coherent.  Then I checked my email and Jim had sent an email letting me know that he wanted to offer representation.  That’s when I started dancing too and we went out to celebrate!

 

The call for the book deal was also way unexpected!  We were going to send FHT out on submission on a Monday but Jim called Friday afternoon and asked what I thought about sending out a sneak peek to a few editors who’d showed early interest.  I was all for it!  So when he called on Monday morning I figured it was just to check in and talk about sending out the rest of the submissions.  But he was calling to tell me there was a pre-empt!  When he gave me the details I just remember staring out the window completely floored. 

 

Actually, now that I think about it, I think the call for the book deal thrilled me more.  Getting that offer of representation was an amazing feeling but knowing the book had sold – wow.  I floated all day (I’m still floating!)

 

Now THAT is a fast sale.

 

You’re lucky enough to have quit the day job now, but how did you balance the demanding task of being a lawyer as well as being a writer?

 

I had no life – haha!  Seriously, I decided that if I was really going to do this — write and try to sell a book — that I had to figure out how to make it work.  I didn’t want five years to pass and look back and lament not really striving for my goals.  I cut out most TV (and honestly, that’s how I found a lot of time), I ate frozen dinners, the house teeters on being a wreck (our Christmas tree was almost always up through my birthday in mid-January).  I’d wake up, go to work, come home and write.  On the weekends, I’d write.  Some months (when I was working on a big trial) the only time I had to write was the 8 minutes while the pasta was boiling for mac ‘n’ cheese!  I’m not really sure I would call that balance – haha!

 

That’s a really honest answer. Thanks for sharing.

 

I believe when I talked to you last you were rushing to meet a deadline. Are you working on the sequel to Forest? What fresh challenges are there in writing a sequel and in trying to avoid the infamous sophomore slump?

 

I made that deadline – yay!  I’m working on a sequel to The Forest of Hands and Teeth that will come out in Spring 2010.  It’s kind of a loose sequel, though, set quite a while after the end of the first book and with a different POV character.

 

Fresh challenges — there were plenty (and old challenges too!).  One challenge for me was that I’d never planned to write a sequel so I hadn’t created a character arc and plot arc that I felt like could span another book.  I had a few other issues but can’t get into them without spoilers But I think that’s one reason I ultimately decided to use a different POV character for the second book and set it later.  So I’m using the same world, but it’s not really a direct sequel.

 

I also think it’s often nice that the lead times with YA are so long that you have plenty of time to write the next book in a vacuum without hearing public feedback about the first book.  I think sometimes hearing the responses to the first book can really influence the way you think about the second!

 

Interesting. I had no idea different genres/categories of books had different lead times.

 

This is Fumbling with Fiction, so I have to ask, in your writing career have you ever had a big “Oops!” moment?

 

Oh yes!  The first one that comes to mind is when I ended up querying an agent before the project was remotely ready.  In my defense, it was a pitch workshop with an agent and I didn’t expect her to actually be requesting material, but I didn’t even have the partial ready!!  I scrambled to edit that and sent it before the book was finished (never did finish the book) and got a rejection (rightfully so!).

 

However, I’m also a big fan of believing that things tend to work out and happen for a reason.  I definitely learned not to query until the manuscript is as polished as possible and I also met my critique partner, Diana Peterfreund, without whose support I’m not sure I’d have sold FHT.

 

I think your fiancé is also a writer and an attorney. That’s two writers/lawyers under one roof! Good, bad, or ugly?

 

Lol, I asked him this question and he was like “all three.”  For me it’s wonderful.  He understands that writing can be hard, he supports me unequivocally, and he’s an amazing editor.  He’s not afraid to tell me when something’s not as good as it can be nor is he afraid to heap on the praise   The hardest part for me is that he is truly an amazing writer and I strive to write as well as he does!

 

You’re now at the beginning of your writing career. Can you believe it? Where would you like that sure-to-be illustrious career to take you?

 

No, I still can’t believe it!  Honestly, there are days when I just clap my hands and dance around with glee!  For me and career goals… I’d just love to be able to keep writing (and to keep writing full time).

 

Tell us a little about receiving your first editorial letter. What was yours like? How did you feel when you received it?

 

My first editorial letter came on the Wednesday after I sold that Monday!  So I was utterly surprised because I thought I’d be waiting weeks or months!  The first letter focused on broader issues and then we worked on smaller and smaller issues with subsequent letters.  I was really energized when I first got it because it made everything feel so real!  I think for me the key with revisions has been understanding the “why” of it — if I know WHY my editor wants a certain change it’s easier for me to figure out how to make that change.

 

Your editor must have been really psyched to start your book. That’s great!  Finally, if you could have written one book previously published by another author, which book would it be?

 

I’m sure it will seem quite strange to most people, but I wish I’d written Lolita by Nabokov.  I remember when I first opened that book, standing in the college bookstore loading up for my semester classes, and I had to sit down on the floor because the beginning is so stunningly written.  I love the wordplay, the fun with language and I learned a lot from that book about how to write descriptions and choose words. 

 

 

           (Be sure to check out the coolest book trailer ever!)

 

                 

 

 

 

Point of View’s a Point of Contention

When writing a novel–or anything for that matter–one of the most pivotal decisions an author makes is choosing the point of view from which the story will be told.

I write Young Adult fiction, but the same holds true for other genres as well. Right now, first person point of view is “hot.” It seems that industry professionals have decided that writing in first person adds voice and spark and a closeness to character unachievable through third person.

I’ll agree that it is easier to find a voice while writing in first person. After all, you’re using your main character’s pattern of speech. This works especially well in YA because the narrator is usually the age of the reader and clear “teenspeak” can add both biting wit and humorous perspective.

But, is it the most natural?

I have long been an advocate of third person (preferably limited) even as it has become increasingly passe. Third person written in the past tense is the natural way to tell a story.

Even when first person is correctly “framed” (I’ll explain that later), the description given by the narrator is still often unrealistic. How someone’s elbow is bent, the narrator’s body position. These are all odd things for a person to tell regarding their own story.

I’m currently writing in first person and I am enjoying it–a lot. It’s fun to write from your character’s perspective. But, I’m constantly plagued by the question of why my character is telling the story. That’s what framing is. I’ll give you two examples. In The Confessions of Nat Turner the story is told by Nat who is in the process of confessing his crimes along with his motives to an attorney prior to his execution. Framing.

In The Immoralist, the main character is telling about how he has changed to his three friends who are, in turn, judging him.

Another common device is using a main character who is a writer and therefore it is natural that he or she would be describing in flowery detail the events that have passed.

However, even in something as fabulous as Nat’s tale, I’m thinking, Why would he relate every snippet of dialogue ever? Really. Why?

I don’t have anything against first person. I promise, I don’t. I’m only pointing out that it is a less natural way of storytelling and conversely, that third person is the most comfortable way to be told a story. Therefore, it’s the most comfortable for the reader.

And there is no reason that third person cannot remain extremely close to the characters. Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr provides an excellent example. Wicked Lovely is written in third person limited with alternating perspectives. Melissa does a fabulous job and at many points, the reader forgets that the author has written the book in third person. That’s how close the narrative is. With third person, we can still be tied to the character’s thoughts.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is another example of a recent YA novel written in third.

While I may not always follow this myself, my opinion is that unless there is a compelling reason to write in first, stick to third. 

 

What do y’all think? Feel free to disagree.

 

For other posts on the process of writing read: The Squee and 7 Ways to Beat the Block

 

Status: I just finished Betrayed by P.C. and Kristin Cast. This is my second novel this week. Two books! And it’s Wednesday!! I think something must be wrong with me. No wonder, I’m having trouble getting things done. I’m going to try to snag the next House of Night book, Chosen, asap. But, in the meantime, I plan to read Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr and then Eclipse once Nate is done.

My SCOUT query is 2 for 2! I am incredibly excited about the latest request and the agent seems enthusiastic, too. Keep your fingers crossed, guys!

Closing the Door

I think one of the hardest parts about starting a new project is closing the door on the possibilities. That’s what I’ve been struggling with over the last few days.

I love my new project. I really, really love it. But, it’s a huge leap of faith to commit yourself to a whole novel. I read somewhere that you should make yourself finish every, single project whether or not you think it is going anywhere. Once you start, you much complete it because otherwise you will never have anything to publish at all.

This is something I try to live by. The process of wrapping up a novel, or short story is a huge challenge and something everyone needs to learn in order to be a writer. Moreover, I’m sure that with each project every writer reaches a point when they burn out on their work or lose faith in what they are doing.

From what I can see, successful writers push through this no matter what.

Therefore, by beginning a full novel I commit to months of work, countless hours writing, followed by countless more hours revising. Don’t get me wrong, beginning any piece is thrilling and one of my favorite things in the world. I love the entire process. But, when it is stretched out in front of you like that, it can be a bit daunting.

 

 

Status: I decided on first person! I started writing the first scene it it. It’s snappy fun and has a bit of dead pan humor, which I’m excited about. I’ll continue to outline and come up with scenes. I’ve probably got  the first two and a half chapters worth of scenes loosely outlined. For me, that’s a victory!

Who is your leading man?

I got to thinking about this question after I read an announcement that Jimmy Fallon will be replacing Conan O’Brien who will take over for Jay Leno on the Tonight Show at NBC.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that the #1 spot for my personal Sexiest Men in Hollywood List would go to Jay Leno hands down.

Jay Leno? Jay Leno. Not a typo.

Why? I don’t know. Something about his charisma or his salt-and-pepper hair. Plus, he’s funny.

So, as I’m developing the love interest for my next project, I got to wondering: who should a good leading man be?

 

Status: Multi-tasking. On hold with Lenovo because I stepped on my computer screen. Sad. I just got it a couple weeks ago! I did not get to writing the first scene yesterday.  I sat with my notebook in my lap and came up with nothing. The reason? I couldn’t figure out for the life of me how to write from first person POV. I’ve read plenty. But, having spent countless hours in third, I just couldn’t get it. So, today is for reading some books I like in first, then sitting down and getting to work.

Keep crossing your fingers for me so I can snag an agent.