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.
In the novel I’m writing, my character lived in Missoula, Montana before and now she’s going back to take care of some things. I personally had never been to Missoula, hadn’t been to Montana at all since 1974. I did what I could on the Internet. I studied all the photos and information I could Google. I downloaded maps and picked out streets where she might live and work. I thought I had a pretty clear idea of what it was like, but I was wrong. When the Fishtrap writing workshop I attended in early July took me close to Oregon’s eastern border, just a jump over Idaho to Montana, I decided to go see Missoula for myself. I’m so glad I did.
Instead of getting a vague picture from what I could find on the Internet, I actually went to the place where she worked, saw the house where she lived, and knelt in the church where she worshipped. I stayed in a motel where she might have stayed, ate at a restaurant where she probably ate. I shopped at the Book Exchange, where she might have bought books. I took pictures and lots of notes, not only in Missoula but on the way there and back.
I could have gotten by with just my online research. I had the general idea. I had the names of things. But I didn’t have the feeling of being there first thing in the morning and the middle of the night or of walking downtown at lunchtime, and there were things I didn’t know. For example, as I entered Missoula, the road was lined with gambling casinos. I didn’t expect that. The hills surrounding Missoula looked huge in the pictures, but they are not the Rocky Mountains; they’re rolling hills like those in my hometown of San Jose. And the drive is so much different from what I thought it would be. In fact I took one way there and a different way back, realizing the first route would be impassible in winter–and she’s going there in December. It would have been more realistic if I went to Missoula in winter, but I had the opportunity now. Besides, my character might be used to driving in snow, but I’m not.
Sometimes I think you just have to go there. The Internet is good, imagination is great, but if you’re using a real place in your fiction, you need to walk the streets and feel what it’s like. I would not have realized Montanans have a little drawl, wear their hair differently, have no sales tax, really get into cowboy art, dress in bright colors instead of Oregon’s grays and blacks, and that the men get confused when a woman opens her own door. To see the cubicle my character might have worked in and the people she might have worked with will make my book so much more real.
My previously published novel, Azorean Dreams, took place mostly in San Jose, California, where I lived and worked for most of my life. I made up the place where my hero lived but planted it in a setting that was so real my readers often go looking for Simao’s house and office, and even I have a hard time believing they’re not really there. After all, you can visit the cemetery, the church, the bakery, the Portuguese community center, and the bridge where Chelsea met the homeless people. Our settings need to be that real and that detailed.
And here’s a 21st century bonus: When my new novel is published, I can post stories in my blog or on Facebook about my character’s journey, using the pictures and experiences I gathered during my research.
So go there. It’s fun! It’s deductible, too.