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Monthly Archives: March 2015

14 Words to Watch Out for (in Writing and Life)

14 Words to Watch Out for (in Writing and Life)

You know what’s awkward? Having parent-teacher conferences when the student in question is in the room — like the kind I’ve been having lately in my job as a tutor/mentor. You don’t want to kill the kid’s self-esteem or make him feel like he’s being ambushed. On the other hand, you need to express to both the parent and student that his current performance ain’t cutting the mustard. So you end up making tentative statements like, “I’d like to see you putting in a little bit more effort,” or “You’re starting to manage your time a bit better, but you’re still kind of wasting time.”

I often find myself using these types of qualifiers both at home and at work. The other day, when a student came in to work on a paper but instead spent the entire afternoon texting, I said, “I hope when you come in tomorrow you’ll be a little bit more focused.” Then I shook my head. “No.  Correction. I hope you’ll be a lot more focused. I hope you’ll be focused on the paper and not on anything else.”

Stop being so tentative and say what you mean!

Stop being so tentative and say what you mean!

As it turns out, I use these tentative qualifiers in my writing as well. I’m doing yet another revision of my novel (but my agent says we’re getting close to being done!) and I have noticed sentences like:

She felt slightly dizzy.

She was almost frightened.  

She was starting to feel somewhat confused.

Gosh, I thought, why don’t I go ahead and make her dizzy instead of slightly dizzy? As for the second sentence, what does “almost frightened” mean anyway? Either you’re scared or you’re not. And “she was starting to feel somewhat confused” is so far removed from the actual feeling. Do I really need all those qualifiers chipping away at the significance of the sentence?

Because, see, the problem with those parent-teacher conferences, is that all the “little bits” and “kind ofs,” make the parent and student think what you’re saying is not such a big deal after all. And you’re in danger of the same thing happening if you use too many in your writing.

Sure, I know that “she felt dizzy” has a different meaning than “she felt slightly dizzy,” and maybe the latter is what you really mean. I’m not saying that you never need these qualifiers. What I am suggesting is that you use the “find” function on your manuscript and search for the following words and phrases. Then decide if you really need them.

Words to Watch Out For — Do you really need to use these, or does the sentence work better without them?

a bit
a little
almost
barely
beginning to
kind of
in a way
nearly
practically
rather
slightly
somewhat
sort of
starting to

Get out your ninja sword and start slashing unnecessary words! photo credit.

 

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun: My Bachelorette Party & How to Write a Great Story

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun:  My Bachelorette Party & How to Write a Great Story

This past Saturday my dear friend Melissa had her beautiful baby, and I had my crazy-fun bachelorette party in DC.

Unfortunately, this turn of events meant Melissa couldn’t be at my bachelorette party, although that would have been sort of awesome, and I think there should be a Hangover -style movie in which one of the girls at a bachelorette party is pregnant and starts giving birth at the male strip club… not that we went to a male strip club or anything like that.

Anyway, this post isn’t really about my bachelorette party (which was fun and included karaoke and margaritas and mani-pedis, and lots of laughter). This is (sort of) about Save the Cat by screenwriter Blake Snyder, which I read in its entirety on the plane to DC.

Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder

I’d been hearing about Save the Cat for years. It’s actually about how to write movies, but it applies to storytelling in general and can be helpful for novelists who are struggling with plot. It also contained some pieces of advice that were surprising/interesting, as they went against what I’m used to hearing.

For example, when I was getting my MFA, I was taught that fiction should be character-driven, not plot-driven. In fact, plot almost seems like a dirty word in some circles. Literary writing, many people assume, doesn’t pull cheap tricks like plot to keep their readers engaged. Come up with you characters first, MFA professors suggest, and let them decide what to do.  Which can work…  but it can also lead to stories without much page-turning power.

Snyder, on the other hand, says he rarely begins writing with the character in mind.  Come up with your idea and write your perfect logline, he says, then decide what type of person would fit that story best. Who needs this adventure or lesson the most? Who would have the biggest emotional journey in this situation? He’s not suggesting you slap some flat characters into a complex plot. He wants you to create complex characters who will best compliment the idea you have in mind.

And I like this suggestion. Maybe it doesn’t work for every book. Maybe some books need to be character-driven. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with coming up with a great idea, a great scene, a great plot, and then deciding what sorts of people would make it work best.

Me at my bachelorette party.

Me at my bachelorette party.

Let’s take my bachelorette movie, for example, which I’m going to call Just Wanna Have Fun. My basic idea is that it’s a comedy of errors about a bachelorette party in which things go hilariously wrong. I have exactly one scene in my head: one of the girls, who is funny already because she’s enormously pregnant, goes into labor at the male strip club. (Maybe they’re snowed in there or something and can’t get to the hospital.) The bride has no choice but to help her friend give birth, assisted by some of the strippers. Hilarious.

That’s the basic idea. Now it’s time for the characters. Let’s think. The main character is obviously the bride. So who should she be? She could be timid or conservative or Type A, and this night is about getting her to let loose. But no. I don’t think there’s enough of a lesson to be learned there.

My friends created this bachelorette look for me.

My friends created this bachelorette look for me.

So maybe she’s a total party girl, or at least she was a party girl for a long time who always said the point of life was having fun, and even though she’s now in her thirties and about to settle down with a man she loves, she’s nervous about losing what she thinks is her identity. She’s not sure if she has what it takes for the whole marriage-and-kids thing.

And maybe this crazy night ends up revealing that there is more to her identity than partying, and that she is ready to let go of her party-persona and move on to the next phase of her life. Maybe, when she helps deliver her friend’s baby, she realizes that she’s more responsible and nurturing that she thought, and that she does (eventually) want to be a mom.

This situation is ripe with irony, which is one of Blake Snyder’s recommendations for a good story premise. The examples he gives: A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists. – Die Hard and A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend. — Pretty Woman.  Ain’t it ironic?

At my bachelorette party, my friend Leigha (pictured with me here at a club) was four and a half months pregnant.

At my bachelorette party, my friend Leigha (pictured with me here at a club) was four and a half months pregnant.

So let’s do this Save the Cat style and first write a logline or one-sentence pitch for Just Wanna Have Fun. (By the way, you have to do this for novels just as much as movies. You must be able to tell people — agents, editors, publicists — what your book is about in thirty seconds or less.)

A one-sentence summary for a novel usually contains a character or two, the conflict or goal, what’s at stake, and the action the characters will take (see Rachelle Gardener’s post on the subject). Nathan Bransford’s template for this: “When [opening conflict] happens to [character(s)], they must [overcome conflict] to [complete their quest].”

So my logline for Just Wanna Have Fun might be: When party girl Lacy gets cold feet about her upcoming wedding, she throws herself the wildest bachelorette party ever…even though her best friend is nearly nine months pregnant.

I came up with this logline in five minutes, so it’s not the best. I’d probably work on it for a while: brainstorm more about the specific conflict and goal, think about the best and most concise way to encapsulate the whole story. But for now I like it. It summarizes the basic problem (cold feet) and the action Lacy is going to take to solve it (go wild). And it contains irony for sure — a bachelorette party with a pregnant best friend in tow.

Here I am doing karaoke at my bachelorette party.

And now, with an idea of the journey Lacy is going to take in one night — from unsure to ready-to-commit — I can start to flesh her out with more detail and make her a complex character. I can also start to brainstorm about her best friend, as well as the other women at the bachelorette party — who will act as foils to our bride-to-be.

Of course, this is all just hypothetical. I’m not actually going to write a screenplay (or novel) for Just Wanna Have Fun … or will I???

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun!

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun!

Maple Sugaring, The Artist’s Way, & Breaking the Ice

Maple Sugaring, The Artist’s Way, & Breaking the Ice

Last weekend, Paul and I went maple sugaring here in Minnesota. Well, we went to an event sponsored by the Parks Department that promised we would learn how to identify sugar maples, tap them to collect sap, and turn the sap into delicious syrup. I imagined hiking through the woods and tapping trees like a hearty winter woman… maybe coming home with some fresh maple syrup.

Instead, we stood in a group of thirty other people, surrounding one single tree, while the naturalist demonstrated how to tap it. The sap oozed out at the rate of one drop every other second.  It turns out the process of making syrup is a slow one. You might collect sap for a week then spend another full day boiling it. It takes about 86 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

So it was not much of a hands-on experience, but it was a beautiful day to be outside. Bright sun, blue skies, and a cool breeze that carried the promise of spring. For the first time all winter, I was able to go coat-less, hat-less, and glove-less, and it was a glorious feeling. After the maple sugar demonstration, Paul and I took a walk around the nature preserve.

Cardinals and finches sang in the bare tree branches as we explored the paths. We stopped at a pond, still iced over, and Paul heaved several large rocks onto it, hoping to break the ice.  (This is something most males seem to enjoy.) The rocks plunked down on top of the pond and sat there, mocking him. Despite the sun and the warm temperatures, the water was still frozen solid.

The sap comes out verrry slowly. Photo credit.

 

Recently I started reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It’s a book about reclaiming your creativity or getting “unblocked,” which I don’t feel is my problem right now, but it does provide a lot of all-around interesting advice, exercises, and ideas to ponder.

One of Cameron’s suggestions is the “morning pages,” which are three longhand, stream-of-consciousness pages written every morning, no matter what. She says there is no wrong way to do them and they are not meant to be “art” or even “writing.” They are a way of getting all the junk out of your head. They are a way of exploring what’s in your head. They are a way of making writing a daily practice whether you feel like it or not. “It may be useful,” Cameron says, “to think of the morning pages as meditation.”

That appealed to me because I have trouble with “regular” meditation. Twice a week Paul and I sit quietly on the floor for sixteen minutes and try to focus on our breath, and I find it really difficult and boring. I’m always looking for other ways to meditate. And Cameron makes big, exciting claims about the morning pages. They will change your life, she says. They will give you insight about yourself and your place in the world: “It is impossible to write morning pages for any extended period of time without coming into contact with an unexpected inner power.”

Well, that all sounded awesome to me. So I started doing morning pages last week. I was ready to gain insight and dive deep into my inner power. Day 1, I started writing, and immediately wondered if I was doing it right. I had to remind myself that there’s no wrong way to do morning pages. But certainly, I thought, some ways are more efficient than others. I wanted to get to the sweet insight as quickly as possible. I was ready to break through the ice and explore my own depths. Instead, my hand hurt from writing and I ended up writing about that.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way and many other works of fiction and nonfiction.  Photo credit.

 

I suppose I can’t expect the morning pages to work miracles so fast. Just like I can’t expect to tap a tree and have a bottle of maple syrup thirty minutes later. It takes 86 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. Perhaps it will take 86 days of morning pages before I start to notice anything. Or 86 drafts of a novel before it reaches its full potential.  Sometimes a lot of effort boils down into one small, but sweet, final product.

We think when we start doing something good for ourselves — morning pages, exercise, eating better — we’ll feel or see the change right away.  But just because the sun is out doesn’t mean the ice is gone. You might write for years before you see results. Throwing rocks won’t help. It’s the warmth over time that melts the ice.

On our walk last weekend, Paul and I ended up at a lake where trumpeter swans are known to nest. But of course, the lake was still frozen over. No place for the swans to swim… not yet. But we’ll check back in a week or two. And I’ll keep doing my morning pages with the rising sun.  Perhaps, in time, the ice will melt and I’ll slip below the surface to my own inner depths.  I’ll boil down the sap and finally taste the sweet syrup of my insight.

Photo credit.

Photo credit.

The Boy Who Loved Rain by Gerard Kelly (Free Book Giveaway!)

The Boy Who Loved Rain by Gerard Kelly (Free Book Giveaway!)

In Gerard Kelly’s The Boy Who Loved Rain, Miriam’s husband is a pastor who routinely speaks on good parenting to packed auditoriums. That’s why he doesn’t want Miriam to tell anyone about the difficulties they’ve been having with their fourteen-year-old son: Colom is getting in fights at school, acting depressed and defiant, and waking up screaming most nights from reoccurring nightmares. When Miriam finds a suicide pact in Colom’s room, she knows she can’t keep quiet any longer. She takes him to the French village of Portivy, and there, on the rainy, windswept cliffs, secrets are revealed that shed light on Colom’s depression and the reason for his nightmares.

This book review is brought to you by TLC Book Tours!

This book review is brought to you by TLC Book Tours!

When I first opened The Boy Who Loved Rain, I was unsure if I would like it because I thought the prologue was confusing and the quote from Wikipedia at the beginning of Chapter 1 was silly. I also knew it was written by a pastor, and I wondered if it would be a “Christian” book.

But I’m glad I kept reading because I found much to admire in the novel, and although many of the characters were Christian, I wouldn’t characterize it as “Christian” literature.  By the time I got to the end of the book, I felt as if I’d been on a journey with an interesting set of characters, and suddenly the prologue (and the italicized passages interspersed throughout the novel) made sense.  In fact, I went back and reread those passages along with the prologue, delighted with my new-found understanding.

What intrigued me the most about The Boy Who Loved Rain was the heartbreaking situation — parents with a troubled child, and secrets of their own. I was immediately invested and wanted to know what would happen to Colom and his parents.

The novel is beautifully written (Gerard Kelly is also a poet), yet with enough twists and turns in the plot to keep me turning pages. If I had been Kelly’s editor, I might have trimmed some of the descriptive passages and deleted the quotes at the beginning of each chapter (in my opinion they detract from the elegance of the novel). Overall, however, The Boy Who Loved Rain is an absorbing family drama written with skill and grace, and because it touches on so many emotional topics (marital problems, child abuse, adoption, suicide, drugs), I think it would make an excellent book club selection.

The Boy Who Loved Rain

 

To see for yourself, order The Boy Who Loved Rain, or fill out the form below for a chance to win your very own free copy! Then scroll down to read a Q&A with the author, Gerard Kelly.

Q & A with Author Gerard Kelly:  

A large portion of the novel takes place in a French seaside village called Portivy. Your descriptions of Portivy are so detailed and loving, I feel like you must have spent a lot of time there.

Yes.  We first discovered Quiberon and Portivy almost 30 years ago, and have been there on average once a year ever since. Portivy is a very spiritual place for me — I often pray there and have used it more than once as a writing space.

 

Most of the story is told through the eyes of Miriam, Colom’s mother, and Fiona, Miriam’s friend. What made you decide to write from the perspective of two women, and was that at all a challenge for you?

I’m not actually sure — it just turned out that way. I was raised by women — my father left home when I was 10, my elder brother not long after, so I spent my teenage years hanging out with my mother, two sisters and a couple of favourite aunts. I think I learned without even realising it to appreciate their view on the world. I didn’t intend to write from that perspective, but as the novel unfolded, I found myself more drawn to Fiona and Miriam than to anyone else.

Yes it is a challenge, in the sense that I am scared that women readers will say ’that’s just not how it is!’. So far very few have, which is encouraging.

Gerard Kelly is British.  I've left his British spelling  in the Q&A.

Gerard Kelly is British. I’ve left his charming British spelling in the Q&A.

 

Your book touches on so many family issues: adoption, marital problems, child abuse, suicide, drug use. As a pastor, are these issues you have come into contact with while serving your congregation?

We have worked with a lot of young adults over the years, as well as leading church, so yes, we have seen and heard a lot. The novel is definitely fiction, but most of the issues touched on in it come either from my own experience or from events others have shared with me.

 

To me, The Boy Who Loved Rain would make a great book club selection. If you were to add book club discussion questions to the end of the book, what might one of them be?

I think I would ask, who is the character that most resonates with you and why? Want is it about their journey/development that rings true?

 

You have written fourteen books… Wow! Tell us about some of them. How does The Boy Who Loved Rain compare to your other books?

Many are in theology/missiology or biblical studies. ‘Rain’ is my first novel. It’s a totally different approach to writing and has been a) frightening and b) pretty much the most satisfying experience of my writing career. I’ve also published three volumes of poetry, one of them in Twitter format — prayers and poems in 140 characters or less.

 

Is this your first time being a part of a book tour? What other kinds of marketing do you use to spread the word about your books?

Yes it is — it’s been a blast! I try to spend time on Goodreads every now and then just to keep an eye on things, and I love to read and review other people’s books — but that’s about it at the moment.

 

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Fight for the right to write. If you want to write – or as Dorethea Brande says ‘to become a writer’ – you HAVE to fight against distractions, lethargy, discouragement etc to carve out time to write. You can’t be a writer if you don’t write, and simple as it sounds, that’s the toughest part of the deal.

TLC Blog Tours sent me this book and I reviewed it.  Yay!  Free books!  The opinions are all my own.

TLC Blog Tours sent me this book and I reviewed it. Yay! Free books! The opinions are all my own.

What to Do After Completing a Novel or Short Story (Learn from My Mistakes!)

What to Do After Completing a Novel or Short Story (Learn from My Mistakes!)

So I made it to Round 2 of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge.   I got my assignment this past Friday and submitted a 2,000 word story on Sunday — less than three-day turnaround.  If I make it to Round 3, it means I’ll be writing a short story in 24 hours on the day of my wedding.  So… fingers crossed?

Anyway, when you only have three days to write and submit a story, you don’t have much time to revise or get feedback. That’s part of the challenge, I suppose. But normally, when you’re not participating in a speed-writing competition, you want to wait a good long while after completing the first draft before you send your story anywhere.

One of the biggest mistakes I made when I was starting out as a writer was to submit my work too soon. I’d finish a story and be so excited about it I just couldn’t wait to share it with the world. I got a lot of rejections on stories that had potential they just hadn’t reached yet.

The same thing happened with my first novels. I contacted agents way too soon. My work at that point wasn’t ready to be seen by industry professionals. I still had a lot to learn about how to write and rewrite a novel. I’m embarrassed now to think of some of the queries and manuscripts I sent and how agents (or more likely their assistants) must have rolled their eyes.  By the time my work was actually ready to be seen by agents, I’d burned a lot of bridges by sending my top choices less-than-great stuff.

I made some silly mistakes.  But you don't have to!

I made some silly mistakes. But you don’t have to!

 

Learn from my mistakes. Here are my recommendations — what I wish I had done….

WHAT TO DO AFTER COMPLETING THE 1st DRAFT OF A SHORT STORY… 

Step 1:  Do NOT immediately submit it to every literary magazine you can think of. If you must share it with people right away, email it to some trusted friends for feedback.

Step 2:  Leave it alone for anywhere from a week to a couple of months. Come back to it and do a revision. Incorporate any feedback you got from trusted writer friends. STILL do not submit it. If you haven’t gotten feedback yet, perhaps elicit some now.

Step 3:  Wait anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. Spend this time researching literary journals that might be interested in your story. When you can’t bear to wait any longer, reread the story. See if you’re happy with it. If not, do another revision.

Step 4:  When you are happy with the story and think it can’t possibly get any better, print it out and/or read it out loud. Look for spelling errors, out-of-place commas, sentences without periods, etc. Or, get someone else to copyedit for you.

Step 5: And NOW you’re ready to submit!  Submit it to your top 5 to 10 mags (as long as they allow simultaneous submissions).  Then forget about the story completely and work on something else.  Because it’s likely going to be months before you hear from anyone.

TOTAL WAIT TIME FROM 1ST DRAFT TO SUBMISSION: At least: 4 months.

The waiting is the hardest part… photo credit.

 

WHAT TO DO AFTER COMPLETING THE 1ST DRAFT OF A NOVEL…

Step 1: Pat yourself on the back. Relax. Do NOT start querying agents. Instead, put the novel away and don’t look at it for a few months.

Step 2: In this waiting period, you can start on a new writing project and/or research agents who might be interested in your work. Read novels that are similar to yours to get an idea of what’s already out there. Stop thinking that you have to get your novel out there right now before someone else writes the same book. No one else is going to write your book, and it’s better to query an agent with a polished novel than the first draft of a supposedly great idea.

Step 3: After a nice long while, come back to your novel and read it through. Take notes on what works and what doesn’t. If you’ve waited long enough, you will see it with fresh eyes, and you will see that the novel needs a lot of work. Maybe the plot needs restructuring.  Maybe you need to rewrite it from a different character’s perspective.  Maybe the story actually starts on page 100 you and you need to delete the first five chapters.  So, get to work.  Write an outline.  Grind your teeth. Spend a few days taking walks and just thinking.  Cry a little. Write new scenes you may never use.  These are all acceptable components of doing a major novel revision.

No!  Don't query agents yet!

No! Don’t query agents yet!

Step 4: At some point in your revision process, get feedback from trusted writer friends. Take a workshop class or join a writing group. When you’ve completed one or two major revisions (and this may take a long time), put the novel away for another couple of months. If you’re excited about it and you want to share it with the world, resist the urge to query agents. I repeat, DO NOT query agents if your novel is less than 8 months old or if you’ve just finished a major revision. Sometimes making big changes can cause more problems that are difficult to see right away. If you have to share the novel with someone, read it out loud to your roommate or your husband or your cat.

Step 5: During this waiting period, work on something else. Continue researching agents. Write a novel synopsis. Write practice query letters — study query shark like it’s your job. Maybe go on vacation. Resist the urge to query. An agent may respond right away and request your manuscript, and your manuscript is not ready yet.  Believe me.  You may think it’s ready, but it’s not. If you have to do something with your novel, do this: using the find function, search for throw-away words like “just,” “really,” “that” and “suddenly.” Delete most of them.

Step 6: When you’ve waited a good, long while, print out the manuscript. Go through it with a fine tooth comb, looking for errors. You may also want to read it on your Kindle or ipad to see if it reads like a real book.

Step 7:  When you’re pleased and think your novel is ready, query a few of the agents you’ve been researching. And be prepared that if you get an agent, you may be in for many more rounds of revisions and edits. It takes a long time to get a manuscript ready for the real world.

TOTAL WAIT TIME FROM 1ST DRAFT TO SUBMISSION: At the very, very least: 9 months.  But, more likely, a year or two.

Hooray!  You finally did it!

Hooray! You finally did it!

Translating Dreams: The Difficult Job of the Writer

Translating Dreams:  The Difficult Job of the Writer

The other night, I was already asleep when my fiancé got into bed. “I have two important things to tell you,” I murmured, my eyes still closed.

“OK,” he said. (In the morning he recounted this conversation to me… I do not remember what comes next.)

I took a deep breath, as if gathering up my energy. “Cory and… um… Cory and Melissa,” I managed to say. (Cory and Melissa are two of my best friends who are about to have a baby.)

“What about them?” At this point he still thought I might be lucid.

“The seeds,” I whispered.

“What seeds?”

“The seeds are…” I drifted off.

“Did you send them some seeds?”

“No!” I was growing frustrated with my inability to communicate what was obviously very important. “Cory and Melissa are sad.”

“Why are they sad?”

I sighed and rolled over in the bed. He wasn’t getting it, and I wasn’t saying it right. How to make him understand? I tried again. “Cory and Melissa are sad. Because they can’t come with me on the Skyway.” Then I fell back into a deep sleep.

Cory & Melissa and Eva.  (In real life.)

Cory & Melissa and Eva. (In real life.)

In the morning, I vaguely remembered having this conversation, although I did not remember the specifics of what I had said. I remembered that I was struggling to tell Paul something I felt very strongly about, but I couldn’t make the words come out right. It made sense in my head, but when I tried to say it out loud I lost my train of thought. Each time I tried to explain, I got further and further away from the point, and I just couldn’t seem to make him understand. I remembered being frustrated and exhausted. I don’t remember what the “two important things” were.

This is the way writing can feel sometimes. In your dreamlike, creative state, you find a story, but getting it from the depths of your mind and into the real world can be a struggle. It makes sense in your head, but once you start to explain it out loud, or write it in words, or, god forbid, create an outline for it, the confusion sets in. You lose the thread of the story, it doesn’t seem to come out right. What seemed like such a great and important idea starts to crumble.

That’s why the job of the writer can be so difficult. We try to find ways to translate our dreams into stories that make sense to others. We struggle to speak the truths of the unconscious mind and to write words that just might awaken the sleeping soul.

This is what I look like when I'm asleep.  Charming, huh?

This is what I look like when I’m asleep. Charming, huh?

Thinking & Writing in Third Person

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Thinking & Writing in Third Person

Recently my fiancé and I reread a passage in Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions that we both really like. It’s from the chapter on Hinduism, in the section on “The Way to God through Knowledge.” (I have actually written about this passage before.)

Hindus believe that a person is more than his or her body and more than his or her “surface” personality; on a deeper level everyone posses an “infinite Self that underlies one’s transient, finite self” (31). The task in life, they say, is to distinguish between the two: “[The yogi] needs to drive a wedge between her skin-encapsulated ego and her [infinite center].”

One way to do this is to practice thinking of oneself in the third person, for example:

Instead of “I am walking down the street,” she thinks, “There goes Sybil walking down Fifth Avenue,” and tries to reinforce the assertion by visualizing herself from a distance…  Thinking of oneself in the third person does two things simultaneously. It drives a wedge between one’s self-identification and one’s surface self, and at the same time forces this self-identification to deeper level until, at last, through a knowledge identical with being, one becomes in full what one always was at heart (Smith 31-32).

Eva at Yogaville.

Eva at Yogaville in Virginia with the LOTUS shrine in the background.

 

Most of us, however, think in first person. And writing in first person is the natural point of view for many writers. First person is intimate and confessional — it’s the way we tell stories in real life. But its ease is deceptive. When writing in first person, you run the risk of “telling” too much, of spending too much time inside the narrator’s head. Besides, your story may not call for an intimate and confessional tone. Or you may need the reader to know information your first person narrator wouldn’t know or understand.

A few years ago, I wrote a middle-grade fantasy novel, and this past summer I obtained an agent for it. Initially I wrote the novel in first person, present tense. After a while, I realized the present tense wasn’t working with its fable-like tone, so I rewrote it in past tense. But I kept getting comments from my agent and editor about the narrator. That she seemed distant. That her personality wasn’t coming through on the page. Finally I realized it was because this fable-like adventure story didn’t need a first person narrator. I rewrote it in third person, and now I think it works much better.

You know what else forces you to think about yourself objectively -- self portrai

You know what else forces you to think about yourself objectively — self portraits.

 

Back in the summer, my agent asked if I had any other middle-grade fantasy novels, and I told him no.

“Hmm, it sure would be great if you could start working on another one,” he said.  Not a sequel, necessarily, but something similar to the book he was going to shop around. It would be easier to sell my novel if there was the promise of another one coming down the pipeline.

I’ve always been very good at taking direction, so I got to work and wrote another fable-like middle-grade novel. And guess what I wrote it in… first person. And guess what the women in my writing group said? That despite the first person POV, they didn’t feel close enough to the narrator — that there was something not-quite-right about her voice.

Duh. It’s because this book belongs in third person, too. I just finished making the switcheroo, and already I think it works a hundred times better.

I wonder if this is going to continue to be my process: write a book in my go-to first person voice and then (probably) change it to third person.  Hey, whatever works, right?

Oops, I did it again!

Oops, I did it again!

 

I always thought that writing in first person was the best way to get to know a character, but now, after switching two books from first to third, I think I might be wrong. Third person gives you a chance to see your characters from a distance that can be enlightening. With third person, you can really watch your characters, notice their actions and behaviors, begin to understand them…perhaps better than they understand themselves.

When I tell people about having to rewrite two novels they groan and say “that sucks.” But it didn’t suck at all. It let me see the stories in a different light. Ironically, the distance helped me delve deeper into the main characters’ psyches, so that they could become what they always were at heart.

 

Further Reading:  

7 Dangers of First Person Narrators

Six Limitations of the First Person Narrator

Five Advantages of Third Person Omniscient POV

Is Your First-Person Narrator Overpowering Your Story?