Advancing From Third to First

You’d be forgiven if, upon seeing the title of this post and recalling the time of year and location in which I write, you felt it was going to be baseball related. It’s not. No, the ineptitude of which I write about today does not concern the Seattle Mariners, but rather my challenges with point of view. The season is plenty young; there’s time enough to discuss the former at a later date.

I have one hundred ten pages of manuscript saved on two separate computers, backed-up to Dropbox, and printed and stored in a three-ring binder in case the Y2K bug proves exceptionally tardy or ransomware goes slumming. The page count should be much higher.

Third-Person Challenges

Every day that I sit down to write I do so in a manner completely foreign to me: I write in the third person. Some days it goes well and I’ll write a scene slightly less clumsy and awkward than the others. These scenes are still raw and unpolished and not fit to be shared or critiqued. They haven’t been given a second look — full speed ahead, editing can wait! — but they’re not completely embarrassing either.

Here’s an example of one such unedited passage from my work in progress, currently titled Tailwinds Past Florence.

Edward tugged the fleece headband down further over his eyebrows, brushed aside the snow piling up on the map case, and carefully dealt with the rime encasing the mirror on his helmet, lest it fall off again. “So this is why everyone keeps telling us we’re two months early.” His voice was no match for the sound of the snow crunching beneath the tires. And judging by the glimmer of orange reflecting in the droplets on the mirror, she wasn’t close enough to hear him anyway.

The chain skipped along the cogs as Edward relaxed his cadence and shifted into a lower gear. He tried the next one down with similar results and quickly twisted the shifter back two clicks to where it was. Hearing no cars approaching, he looked down over his right hip and tentatively tried a higher gear. The derailleur pushed the chain through a small ridge of snow, but found no purchase. The sprockets were barely visible amidst the snow, their teeth no more useful than that of a six-month old infant. Not about to chance having to make any roadside repairs in a snowstorm, he shifted back to the lone clean gear, the one he’d been using since the snow had begun falling. “At least the road is flat.”

“What’d you say?” It was Kara’s naturally loud voice. “Did you say something?”

That just happened. I just shared both the working title and the first draft of two paragraphs of a scene I hadn’t looked at since writing it back in January. That was not part of the plan when I sat down to write this post. But that’s how things go when I’m writing in the first person. I’m more confident, I feel freer to shift directions, adjust to new ideas and difficulties, and write my way out of trouble. With honesty.

When I first began outlining this story last year, I hadn’t given much thought to point of view other than whether I wanted the entire story from the protagonist’s viewpoint or if I also wanted scenes written from the love interest’s and/or the antagonist’s point of view as well. Yes. And yes. But it never occurred to me to challenge my preconceived idea that the book had to be written in the third person.

That is what I am doing now. For every scene — paragraph really — that I write and feel comfortable doing so, I spend hours toiling away on others that read more like the minutes to a board meeting. I (and others, I’ve recently learned) have described the first draft as a skeleton. It’s the bones and joints of the story and I’m writing it to make sure that it can animate; that the story can stand and walk on its own. The details — the flesh and blood and hair and eye color — will come later. And while I know nothing we consume as readers ever resembles a first draft, I still want it to be less than the awkward, stiff storytelling that it currently is.

Caught in a Rundown

I couldn’t figure out why working on this book had become so difficult for me. “I’ve been writing professionally since 2000,” I thought to myself. “Why is it so hard now?” I finally realized it was because I had never written in the third person before. Not once.

I began blogging and authoring strategy guides in 2000. Blogging, except for the spectacularly ridiculous, is an exercise performed in the first person. It’s all about me. Well, I, technically. This I knew. But what I apparently never accounted for was the effect spending thirteen years writing strategy guides in the second person had on me. I never really thought about the technical aspects of doing it. I just wrote. Fast.

Anybody who has ever read anything about writing or had taken any creative writing classes will no doubt be familiar with the refrain that second-person point of view — where instead of I (first-person) and he/she (third-person), writers use you — is very rare and should be avoided in most situations. I cannot think of a single novel that was written in the second person. And for one very good reason: the reader is not the protagonist. But when it comes to video game strategy guides, the reader is the player who is the protagonist. While I tried to avoid using the word you whenever possible, these books (and I suspect most instructional guides) are in fact written in the second person.

Is it any wonder why I’m struggling with third-person point of view? Not to me, there’s not. It’s as if I’ve spent sixteen years developing a muscle that I’m now refusing to use. I can either begin to stretch it and build strength and muscle memory (which I may have to), or I can switch back to the muscles I’ve already developed.

First Person Experiment

When I look through the excerpts and highlights I’ve collected over the past few years from my reading, I see a number of excellent examples of first-person writing. I would have thought the split would have been more in favor of third-person, but in looking at my notes it seems that roughly half of the books I’ve read in the past few years were written in the first person. Some of the best-selling books of recent memory were not only first-person, but multiple first-person POV. Like Gone Girl, for example.

No doubt some of the books whose characters I felt closest to were written in this first person viewpoint. From Sherlock Holmes (Watson is the narrator) to many of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut novels to The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger which I recently read and highly recommend (and is also another multiple first-person POV book).

I thought about continuing to write my manuscript in the third person, but realize there’s no reason to do that, especially if it feels unnatural for me to do so. This isn’t to say that first-person is definitely the way forward for my story, but I’m going to write the next dozen chapters or so in first-person and see how it goes. I’m still going to do multiple POV and am still leaving the option open to switch to third-person intra-cranial for my antagonist’s POV chapters.

This is the time for experimentation and that’s what I’m going to do. Nothing is final. Not the character names, not the story, not the point-of-view, and not the title.

Who knows, the Mariners might even make the playoffs. Anything can happen when the season is young.

Post Image by Eric Kilby, used under Creative Commons.

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