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Look Who’s Talking
I’m often asked which is better when writing a novel, first person or third? There’s no one size fits all answer for that. It’s one of those cases where you really have to first give some serious thought to your main character. Is he or she the type of character who would be capable of making a really solid connection with readers, speaking directly to them in a style that keeps them interested and even intrigued from page one all the way to the end? I love those kinds of characters, and I find them to be the most entertaining folks inhabiting the pages of fiction. Yet the challenges of first person should make authors, especially first-time novelists, more than a little cautious about taking this approach.
To a large extent third person narration has become the default position for the majority of novels today, probably because of the many advantages an omniscient narrator offers. Think about it. When you utilize third person you can write whole scenes and chapters from other people’s (other than the hero’s) point of view (POV). The good part about this is oftentimes in a novel the reader begins to weary of the hero’s problems and point of view. It doesn’t mean that you have a boring story, it’s just that people like a change of pace. With third person, you can reinvigorate your narrative at the beginning of a new chapter by switching to another character’s POV and depicting what he or she is doing, or describe what is happening elsewhere.
First person narration, on the other hand, does not enjoy this flexibility. You need to stick with the main character’s POV throughout the entire novel, as this character also serves as narrator. On the plus side, though, as mentioned earlier, if you are writing in the first person you can establish a real bond with your readers because you are telling them first hand what you (i.e., your main character, “I”) is doing and saying and experiencing. This makes the reader empathetic to the hero almost from the very beginning, as the reader is right there inside that character’s mind. You just have to keep the aforementioned limitations in mind. He can’t go off in the next chapter and talk about what the villain is doing at his hideout because he (the hero) is not in the scene and consequently doesn’t know what the villain is doing. So there is undoubtedly a bit of a trade-off.
The final decision, of course, depends on both the kind of main character you have created and your style as an author. If you like to paint with a broad brush and describe everything that’s going on in the “big picture” sense of the novel, stick with third person. But if you have a unique hero with an inimitable voice, by all means let him or her speak up and tell their own story in their own way.
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Novels, especially these days, tend to be written primarily for entertainment. However, a truly worthwhile novel should do several other things as well. One of them is to teach. Not like a text book, but novels can be an excellent vehicle for conveying many of life’s lessons and philosophies with subtle and sometimes profound events. They teach primarily through example, and the best authors, like the best teachers have you learning things when you think you’re doing something else.
An adventure shouldn’t be just a collection of exciting events that allow our hero to shine. An adventure or an experience or the solving of a problem should happen for a purpose. The hero should emerge from the adventure, experience or situation different than the way he went into it. A metamorphosis should take place.
Consider a military novel. An executive officer on a wartime submarine thinks that his captain is a coward because of something he did that seemed cowardly and ruthless at the time. During the next cruise the captain is killed and the exec takes over and then he, the exec has to something pretty much like the captain did. Something that seemed cowardly and ruthless. The proverbial light goes off in the exec’s mind; he now “gets” it. He has grown as a person and has come to realize that the captain was in fact right. By the end of the mission the exec has learned a lesson, some valuable insight about himself or about life. He now realizes the responsibility of command and that responsibility might not always make you popular. But it is the right thing to do.
Such metamorphosis can be played out in all novels, regardless of genre. The hero emerges differently than how he went into the situation. The change in him is usually for the better, and when done right it will always leave a lasting impression on the reader.
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Let’s Hear Your Story
Everyone seems to have a story to tell, and more often than not, it is the story of one’s own life. As a ghostwriter, people approach me all the time for assistance with their memoirs. Here’s some advice to consider before you even begin the process. First, ask yourself, why I am writing this book, and what is the legacy that I hope it leaves for posterity?
The answers may be surprising. A lot of aspiring writers don’t even realize it, but their chief aim in telling their story is to right perceived “wrongs” of the past. They concentrate a great deal of time and energy in their memoir trying to “set the record straight.” They go into painstaking detail of bitter feuds and rivalries of years gone by…not surprisingly with themselves cast as the victim.
Any author who sets out down this path should seriously consider the wisdom of it. To begin with, most readers won’t know enough about the situation to truly care about it. The author is looking for sympathy, but is just as likely to come across as vindictive and petty. It’s a risk not worth taking, in my opinion, not to mention that such books tend to be really boring.
I’m not saying that memoirs should avoid unpleasant topics and the more bitter aspects of life. To the contrary, these are necessary to paint a realistic view of the ups and downs that characterize just about all of our lives. However, the overall tone of a good memoir relates harsh incidents not to somehow “get even” or “prove” the author’s case to the world, but rather to teach a valuable lesson of how he or she handled life’s adversity and kept on moving forward despite of it. The strongest memoirs, those which leave a lasting impression upon their readers, know how to deliver an uplifting, perhaps even inspiring message without ever becoming overly preachy or pedantic.
This goal for writing your own story may sound simple, but in practice it’s much more difficult than it initially appears. A memoir is not just a journal, or a bland recitation of life’s events. It’s an invitation to share a lifetime of dreams and achievements, of failures and heartbreak, as well as the many lessons that life itself teaches. The best memoirs take the high road, and bring the reader right along with them.
Make a commitment to writing. Write down a schedule and stick to it. Back-up all of your work.
Use the tools and techniques of fiction writing
Write it as if it is a biography, except you are the main character.
What to include. What to leave out. Be considerate of others’ feelings. What is the message or lesson you want to convey?
Use whatever resources you have. Dig for more resources. Rely on other people.
Be prepared to travel, use photography.
Read up on biographies and autobiographies and learn from them.
Tips for self-editing. Getting the opinions of others. Self-help.
Be careful of legal issues
How to sell and promote.
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He said, She said
The word “said” is one of the most innocuous little words in the English language. It ranks right up there with “a” and “the”. That’s why when you read them you don’t even recall doing so. Reading these words is almost like a reflex, a natural automatic reaction. So why do new authors waste so much mental energy on trying to avoid “said”? They awkwardly substitute words like replied, retorted, interjected, responded and a laundry list of others because they fear that readers will find it repetitive if they keep using said.
These fears, however, are unfounded. The eye rushes right past “said” just the way you would all but ignore a speck of dust when viewing a beautiful statue. Yes, there will be occasions when you want to modify the speaker’s dialogue by using more descriptive terms such as he muttered, he mumbled, he blubbered, etc. Or perhaps he bellowed or he ranted if the character is agitated or angry. Yet these exceptions only prove the overall rule and should be used with moderation. Trust me, nobody will be bothered by too much “said” if you’re writing engaging dialogue.
On a related note, writers should be concerned about the overuse of character names within fictional dialogue. Let’s say there are only two people in a conversation. Their names are Bob and Alice. Whatever else you do, please don’t ever write something that sounds like this:
“Good morning, Bob. Getting ready for work?”
“I think I’m staying home today, Alice.”
“What’s the matter, Bob?”
“I think I’m coming down with the flu, Alice.”
This is a real turn-off for readers and completely unnecessary. We know there is only Bob and Alice talking so there’s no need to keep identifying. Do so sparingly, just enough so that the reader is never confused about who is speaking. Otherwise, keep repeating this mistake throughout your novel and readers will start to get annoyed. Master the techniques of crisp dialogue before you publish that novel. Your readers will thank you and you will sure as heck want to thank yourself too.