Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Writing Tips Wednesday

Public Service Announcement: I blow at moderating comments. I should set it so that I don't have to, but I abhor spam.

I'm about to start a new project. I'm not a hundred percent sure which one yet, but I know that within a couple of weeks I'll be descending into the dark pit in my basement and I won't eat or shower or change my clothes until I have a book. The first thing I have to discover, before I can begin writing in earnest, is the voice.

The voice, to me, dictates the P.O.V. I know a lot of people might disagree with me, but if the voice in my head is sweeping and epic and has a broad worldview, then my POV is third person. If it's more intimate, more detailed, more insular, then I know it's first person.

Since I dedicated myself to YA I've come to use a lot more first person than I ever did in the past, and there are good and bad aspects to it.

When you choose to use the first person, you have to develop the voice of the narrator. His voice will define how your book goes. My narrator in The Deathday Letter, Oliver, has such a unique voice that it shaped how the book moved. It shaped the descriptions, it shaped the way things were viewed. Your first person narrator is the filter through which the story is told.

That's an important concept to grasp because too often I read books with boy narrators who describe minutiae that most boys wouldn't recognize. If your narrator is a typical teenage boy and he runs into the girl of his dreams, he's not going to be describing the glint of her eyes or the curl of her hair or the sassy boots she's wearing. The chance that he'll even know what color her eyes are after the encounter is slim to none.

Not to say that those details aren't important, just that you have to get to them in different ways. If the color of her eyes is important to the story then during their encounter you can have your girl hold up an outfit and ask your narrator if he thinks it matches her eyes. She could even throw in a little snark by saying something like, "Those things about 8 inches above my breasts."

You get the point. Using the first person can seem like a much freer way or narrating because you can run a little wild and throw in come crazy stuff, but just remember that everything your narrator sees and does and says has to be in character. If it's not, it'll come off as false and your reader will know it.

That's why I need to know the voice before I can begin. I need to know if he's a jock, because then he might have a tendency to describe things in terms of sports. Of if he's a bookish sort, he might have a favorite book he quotes a lot. Or he might just be kind of oafish and have an eighth grade sense of humor and turn everything into a penis joke.

So that's something to consider when determining whether to use the first person or not. Do you have a narrator with a strong voice and a strong point of view. If you don't, you might either want to rethink your narrator or rethink your point of view.


  1. That's a good point about finding voice before POV. How about finding voice before finding format? One of my YA novels I wrote first as a play, then as a novel in verse, then as a novel with verse in it as appropriate. I have four MC's and I shift POV per chapter. I take my hat off to Julia Alvarez, because my result was NOTHING like her masterpiece with Yo. But I did experiment with 1st person and finally chose 3rd person limited, which worked. The verse supplements the voice for each character. Without it, maybe 1st POV would have worked. But the point is it took me 15 rewrites and three different formats before I finished. This time I will get to know my characters better first.

  2. That's a really interesting question. I guess that's what first drafts are for. It wasn't until The Deathday Letter was sold and went into revisions that the decision was made to change it from past tense to present.

    Also, I wrote a novel that, after finishing the first draft, I realized would make a far superior graphic novel.

    Still, for me anyway, getting to know my characters is the best way to figure out the POV. Actually, figuring out my characters is sort of the most important thing I do. I can work without an outline, but I need to know what kind of music my characters listen to, whether they like broccoli, and how they'd react in a crisis. It's not uncommon on drives or during work when I'm bored to imagine situations that my characters are in and to play out those situations.

    But I talk to myself too, so my advice may border on crazy-talk.


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