A member of my critique group has been struggling with his novel for months. Every two weeks, he’d bring us his pages, excited about the story he was telling, and we’d say, no, this doesn’t work. We couldn’t identify with the characters or put ourselves into the scenes. It read like a textbook, boring. Brave soul that he is, he never got angry or gave up but went home to try again.
At our last meeting, I suggested he open a new file and try something radical: Write a few pages in first person and present tense, as in “Suddenly I realize the gun is pointing straight at me” instead of “He realized the gun was pointing at him.” Oh my gosh, what a difference. Today’s pages are wonderful. I feel it, I see it, I am in the mind of his hero.
I like first-person writing. I think it makes it easier to slip into a character’s voice. But writing in first person doesn’t work for every situation. Often in fiction, you need the distance of writing as an observer. In first person, the narrator can only know what the character knows while the third-person narrator can know everything. In other kinds of writing, such as poetry, writing in first person can allow you to take on someone else’s voice, or it may lead you into verse that is too self-involved.
Nonfiction is a whole other thing when it comes to point of view. If you’re writing articles for a magazine, newspaper or website, you have to go with the publication’s style. If most of the articles are in first-person, yours should be, too. If not, the word “I” should not appear anywhere in your story.
Point of view is a huge subject I’m not going to cover in depth today. You can link on some of the sites listed below for details about POV. I’m just saying if your manuscript isn’t working, try changing point of view. It can make a huge difference.
As for present tense vs. past, it’s up to you. Past tense is the traditional way to go with fiction, but writing in present tense has become quite popular. It definitely helps the reader get into the scene and feel as if it’s happening right now. But it’s tricky to keep all your verb tenses in line. My nearly finished novel is in present tense, and I keep promising myself that I’ll go back to past tense with the next one. With poetry and creative nonfiction, you can go either way. If you’re writing articles, check what the publication does and do likewise.
Sometimes when we’re working on a writing project, we get locked into however we started it, feeling as if we’ve gone too far to change. But it’s never too late. Whichever way you’re doing it now, try a few pages the other way. It might make a huge difference.
Visit these sites to read more about Point of View:
Now (second person, present tense), go write.
Once a week I offer three quick tips that you can take and use right away. For those of us who would rather be writing than reading blogs, this is a place you can grab something useful and get back to work. If you have suggestions, please share them in the comments section.
Alison Baverstock’s “Ten Ways Self-Publishing has changed the Books World,” published in the UK’s Guardian online last week, offers a great overview of the changes wrought in publishing by the emergence of self-publishers. As an author who has some books that are self-published as well as others published traditionally, I find it both fascinating and comforting.
The Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, edited by Dinty W. Moore, The Rose Metal Press, 2012. “Flash” writing is hot these days. If you can writing something powerful in under a thousand words, you’ll find a lot more markets than you will for longer works. Dinty W. Moore, editor of the long-respected webzine Brevity, has put together essays from some of the best writers of short creative nonfiction. Each author talks about the craft, offers examples, and gives a writing exercise that will get your pen moving or your fingers dancing on the keyboard.
“I had a blood test this morning.” “You had a blood test this morning.” “She had a blood test this morning.” It’s surprising what changing one pronoun can do. Shifting the point of view from its original first, second or third person can bring new life to any kind of writing. Take a poem or bit of prose that you have written and rewrite it in a different point of view and see if that doesn’t give you a whole new perspective.