First Among Equals

CONGRATULATIONS to the NaNoWriMo’s in blog land! You are my heroes! How did it go? Please share your experiences. What was most helpful? Least helpful? What strategies did you develop? What discoveries did you make? How will you use the experience in the next eleven months? What did you learn that might help the rest of us? And please post any questions that cropped up along the way.

On October 4, 2017, Poppie wrote, I’m writing my fairy story in first person. I tried third person and it made my MC Lio feel “distant” from me, like I couldn’t feel for him as much. First person works better for me in this story. My problem is whether or not first person is overused these days. It seems to me that over half the recently published books I pick up are written in first person.

I’m also a little tentative when it comes to first person because some of the most annoying characters I’ve ever come across in books have told their stories in first person (although Mrs Levine’s characters are wonderful in both first and third person). 🙂 Any thoughts?

Thank you, Poppie!

Two responses came in.

Song4myKing: I know what you mean about annoying first person characters. Two causes I thought of (there probably are others):

1. Sometimes, it seems the author thinks the bigger the attitude of the first person narrator, the better. Basically, the annoying or arrogant character should NOT be the one telling the story.

2. Sometimes there’s too much “telling” – relying on witty commentary or unusual ways of saying things rather than backing off and letting the reader see it. Let the reader experience the story, not just hear it.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think I’d worry about first-person being over-used. It’s a form of storytelling. It doesn’t fall into the same category as cliches.

Christie V Powell: I found this one of Gail’s posts helpful: Personally, I prefer to stick to writing in third, but I agree with Song4MyKing not to worry about it being over-used. When you only have two choices like 1st and 3rd (unless you’re being really fancy with 2nd), both of them are going to get used a lot.

Thanks, Christie V Powell, for shouting out to a past post!

I agree that first-person over-use is one worry we can cross off our list. If only there were dozens of person choices!

On that score, I wonder if it would be possible to write an entire novel in first-person plural (we). Has anyone encountered such a book? One possibility might be a Greek-chorus sort of narrator. Or twins or triplets. I’ve always been intrigued by the myth about the Myrmidons, descendants of ants who were turned into human soldiers by Zeus for Achilles’ grandfather’s benefit. In the Iliad, Achilles’ soldiers are called Myrmidons. A Myrmidon, or a squadron of them, could narrate in first-person plural. Or, there could be a dystopia in which group-think has taken over, and the narrator is the group.

I agree with Song4myKing that a first-person narrator’s voice–in general–needs to be straightforward and to not call attention to itself. Whether our narration is in first-person or third, it should get out of the way of the unfolding story.

But I say in general because if a more idiosyncratic first-person voice works, then it’s fine. In writing, the rules can be broken. The only absolute law is: Thou Shalt Be Clear. We can deliberately confuse a reader along the way, which can be fun, but at the end, he should know what happened in the story–unless we’re writing experimental fiction. An unresolved ending is okay, as long as the reader understands it’s unresolved on purpose.

When I think of successful quirky voices I think of Mark Twain. I love his narrators! And I give Twain a pass, as I usually don’t, when the narrator runs on a tad too long. I tried, though not exhaustively, to find a contemporary quirky voice I like. Salinger’s narrator in Catcher in the Rye (high school–maybe middle school, I’m not sure–and up) is certainly quirky. Originally published in 1951, I doubt it can be called contemporary, and I can’t say I like it, because I read it many decades ago and, though it was an important book for many of my friends, it wasn’t for me. I didn’t dislike it.

The keys to a successful quirky voice, in my opinion, are likableness and interest. If the reader loves this MC, he’ll love the odd voice–especially if we don’t overdo it or make it hard to read. And if what this crazy narrator is telling our reader is fascinating and in synch with the voice, he’ll want the story served up exactly that way.

When we’re not going for quirky though, the voice can be similar to a third-person narrator’s, telling and showing what’s going on and reporting thoughts and feelings. Our character can be full of personality and still narrate simply. Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins is a marvelous example of this. The reader will experience the personality through dialogue, action, thoughts, and feelings. The last two can be told rather than enacted. For instance, let’s take fear. Our first-person MC can report symptoms like icy hands, rather than narrate Aaa! Eek! Yikes! Oh, no! which, piled up, is likely to become tiresome in a hurry. (One Yikes! is fine.)

When I write my post and you guys comment here, we’re all writing in first person, our own first person. We each come off a little different. We sound like ourselves, and we’re not annoying. We have something to say, so we say it. Same for our first-person narrator, who has a story to tell.

The delight of first-person narration is the opportunity to reveal character through storytelling. Our narrator reflects the world as she sees it. Her responses can be different from what ours would be in her place. Empathy is called for. How would someone like her react to this or that? We come as close as possible to another person–even though that person is invented.

And the sensory data we talked about in the last post can flow naturally. Our MC, on the spot, tells the reader: I felt the wind, shivered in the November chill, saw the ordinary backyard in flashlight glow, tasted the vinegar of my unease, heard the rustling fallen leaves as Reggie veered here and there–and then choked and snorted on the stink of skunk. (As you may guess, this has happened to Reggie and me more than once.)

One last thing: choice of narrator. Usually our MC is our first-person narrator. So far, all mine have been. I’ve tried and failed to narrate from the first-person POV of a secondary character. Someday I’d like to succeed. Two examples of secondary narrators are found in the Sherlock Holmes tales told by Dr. Watson and The Great Gatsby (high school and up) told by Nick Carraway, both of which I love. In each, the secondary character tells the story because, I think, the MC is by nature unable to. Imagine Sherlock Holmes as a narrator! The digressions! The technical language! The abandonment of the story for a new case.

There can be other reasons for a secondary narrator. This secondary narrator, unlike the MC, may be on the spot for all the story’s important moments, or may be a more reliable narrator, or may care about our MC in a way we want to convey. We can try more than one narrator before we settle.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your telepathic team is engaged in a difficult enterprise. They may be building a seawall against an expected tsunami and time is running out, or protecting their citadel from a much bigger force of non-telepaths, or mounting a political campaign to restore democracy in a dystopian future. You pick which and narrate the scene in first-person plural.

∙ Write the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” from the first-person POV of the fairy who prevents Beauty from dying.

∙ Pick a scene in one of your stories that’s written in third person and translate it into first. Do more than just change pronouns. Make the first-person version more internal.

∙ Your MC has trouble focusing on anything. He worries constantly and has synesthesia. Here’s a link to a description of this quality: He is assembling a seven-foot-tall model of a dinosaur for his cousin whose birthday is the next day, who has had a tough year, and who adores dinosaurs. The manufacturer’s directions are hard to follow. Write the process in the voice of this quirky narrator. Your goal is to make the reader like him and not be put off by the odd voice.

∙ Write a scene of a family dispute told from the first-person POV of the dining room table.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Showing Who’s On First

Sad to say, my comment moderating continues. The spammers may be bots, because they don’t seem to realize that their comments aren’t being published. As soon as the flow slows to a trickle, I’ll return the blog to normal. In the meanwhile, I’ll approve your posts as quickly as I can–and so sorry when there’s delay!

Way back in 2016, on August 7, Christie V Powell wrote, How do you show instead of tell in first person? I find it easy in third–in fact, sometimes I have to go back and add a telling sentence here or there. But whenever I try to write in first person and get into the character’s voice, they just seem to want to tell for pages and pages and never get into showing the story.

Emma replied, I agree that showing in first person is difficult. Here’s an example:

Telling: I took the sword in hand.
Showing: I slid my hand onto the grip of my blade, clenching my fist around it. I could feel my knuckles going white around the cold metal.

I, personally, don’t think telling in first person should be done all the time, because it makes a character sound a bit unrealistic or look like his thinking is very dramatic. The reason it may seem difficult to show in first person is because it sounds the most plausible and realistic for a character in first person to just tell what they’re doing. In third person, it sounds more plausible to show because it’s like the narrator is describing what’s going on. In first person, the narrator is the one doing the action, and therefore doesn’t have to describe what’s being done– he just does it. Does that make sense? So that’s my version of why it’s harder to show in first person. I’ve found that spending an hour of my afternoon describing to myself what I’m doing (i.e. I carefully selected the orange marker from the glass jar to my left. I combed the strand of hair out of my face, using the mirroring surface of the jar to see my reflection.) has been a good exercise to do to get both the showing and the first person juices flowing.

Great suggestion!

Before I start, if you don’t recognize the reference in this post’s title, it comes from an Abbot and Costello routine, which you can google with “Who’s on First skit.” It’s very funny.

I think of my first-person narrator as the every-person of my tale. She’s the reader’s window into my story: the action, setting, other characters, dialogue. Yes, she has a personality and a perspective, which the reader learns through her thoughts and feelings, but she reveals what’s going forward fairly. She’s a lot like a third-person narrator.

So one strategy might be to write a scene in third person and then translate it into first, making as few changes as we can. Then we can ask ourselves if we’ve put in enough of the inner life of our MC, especially her thoughts, feelings, physical responses–like cold hands and a scratchy throat, which, by the way, are showing. We can add those in, and, voila!, we have a believable first-person narration.

Naturally, the two POVs will feel different as we write them, and we’ll inevitably (and correctly) make some different choices as we write.

After doing this for a few scenes, we’ll likely have the knack and can start writing directly in first-person. But if the technique comes slowly, making the change isn’t that time-consuming. More than once, I’ve had person problems and have had to make this switch for an entire manuscript–300-plus pages. Doesn’t take that long, and when the task is over, the pain fades.

Our first-person MC may trap us into over explaining. (Of course, we’ve let her.) She may push us to tell the reader the lead-up to everything. If, for example, her friend Sam behaves badly at a party, she may justify his actions with a digression of telling in which she goes into his past and her reasons for putting up with him. If we start in third person, we may not even be tempted. If we start in first, we can cut the digression when we revise. His bad behavior can just be what it is. If there’s a plot reason for going into its backstory, we can work that in at an appropriate story moment. By then, with luck, our showing has told part of the story, and the reader has already seen why his friendship is worth it.

Some writers take on an unreliable narrator. If we do this, at some point we have to clue the reader in that all isn’t as it seems. In this case, the telling and the showing are very controlled, and in a way the reader becomes part of the story, teasing out truth and falsehood. The only times I’ve done this were at a couple of points in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, when Addie herself is confused. She becomes unreliable because she doesn’t know exactly what’s going on.

If I have a reason to, I’d like to write an unreliable narrator someday, but I expect it will be tricky. In a way, with an unreliable narrator, it’s all telling, because she’s selective about her revelations.

I also haven’t written a first-person narrator with a quirky voice. In my two mysteries, my MC Elodie often says and thinks her favorite exclamation–lambs and calves!–but beyond that, her voice is neutral. I don’t mean that a quirky voice can’t be fabulous. I admire writers who can pull it off, I’m just saying that it can get in the way when we want our story to simply unfold, when we want, mostly, to show. So there’s another strategy: keep our first-person voice straightforward and unembellished.

Another first-person problem that can get in the way of showing is that our POV character may have an opinion about everything and want to share it. A royal wedding is announced, she starts opining about marriage, and the action grinds to nothing. We can let her rip and then trim when we revise.

As an aid to showing, we can remind ourselves that she’s in the scene that’s unfolding and doesn’t know what’s going to happen. We can simply record step-by-step what occurs as it happens, just as a third-person narrator does.

Finally, if third-person is more comfortable, it’s an honorable choice. We can use limited (as opposed to omniscient) third person interchangeably with first. We won’t have failed.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Take this from the beginning of Pride and Prejudice and rewrite it in first person:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

∙ Our MC is going nuts. Pick a setting for the descent into madness. Write it entirely in third person, without any of his thoughts and feelings, but show what’s happening anyway.

∙ Rewrite the insanity scene in first person.

Have fun, and save what you write!


In the Person Hood

Before the post: When I’m in New York City, I’m always aware of homeless people. I read their signs and often drop a quarter in their cups. Last week, I passed a young woman, sitting against a building on Fifth Avenue. Her placard described her sad circumstances, which I won’t burden you with. I had no change and walked on. A few blocks later, a man swayed in the middle of the sidewalk. He had no shoes; his socks were just holes at the heels; his shorts bagged; his tee shirt showed an inch of skin at the waist. His hand on his begging cup trembled. I couldn’t ignore him. I stuffed a bill in his cup. I meant it to be a single, but I may have given him a ten. I didn’t care.

As I rushed into Grand Central Station and tried to recover my composure, the realization hit. I had just seen a writing maxim brought to life: Show, don’t tell.

(Of course, as has been stated here many times, writers have to do both, but the contrast between those two homeless people revealed the raw power of showing.)

On April 23, 2016, the Florid Sword wrote, How does one know which view to use? Picking POV characters and MCs is never the problem for me, but sometimes I have trouble figuring out whether to use first person or third person. Second person really appeals to me, but I’m not brave enough to try it. How does one pick a person view?

A few of you offered ideas:

Christie V Powell: I think it might depend on you. I’ve tried first person, but it just wouldn’t click for me. In third I can be a little more descriptive and have more fun with imagery, which is a strength of mine. Here’s a line from my WIP:

The predawn gray was silent except for the river’s roar, and Keita was alone in an empty yard.

Maybe I could switch “Keita” to “I”, but I feel like if it were 100% in her voice she’d be more pragmatic. She notices things, and thinks about them that way, but if she were the one putting them into words instead of me she’d say it differently. Maybe: “This was the perfect time to practice walking again, when no one else was awake to watch me fall.

Melissa Mead: I find first person most helpful when the MC has a really distinct personality/voice, and that’s a big part of the story.

Bookworm: Just start writing. Don’t bother with POV yet, and that will come naturally.
For one of the novels that I abandoned, I’d been trying to write in 1st Person POV. It turned into 2nd person POV, so I kinda went with it. It was so much fun, and then I got stuck, so sadly, like I said, I did abandon it in the end. . .

I applaud Bookworm’s willingness to experiment. I haven’t written in second person, because I haven’t had a story that seemed to call for it, but I did read a YA novel in that POV, and it immediately set the story apart. The book was about the MC’s depression, which was embodied in the way she (or he–I don’t remember) couldn’t seem to own herself with an I.

What I suspect is hard about second person is the danger of confusion. We want to be sure that the reader always knows to whom the you refers, whether it’s to our narrator or to someone else. So if we decide to go that route, we need to examine every sentence until we’re certain that clarity prevails.

I’m dreaming up other reasons we might use second person:

∙ a group-think kind of culture in which people are discouraged from individualism.

∙ a traumatized MC who wants to distance himself from his pain.

∙ someone, say, whose parents always called her You rather than by name, and she’s come to think of herself that way.

∙ our MC is ambitious but reluctant to own her ambition. She finds it easier to work out her schemes (for good or ill) in second person, as in, You say this. He says that. You shake his hand. He believes he’s found an ally in you. She begins to think of herself this way even when she isn’t scheming.

I agree with Christie V Powell that some writers may instinctively prefer either first person or third, and we can make a good case for following our natural bent. Writing a story is hard enough without forcing ourselves in every possible way.

On the other hand, we may want to challenge ourselves sometimes and try an uncomfortable voice. As Christie V Powell demonstrates with her examples, the different voices can bring different character and story aspects to the fore.

If we’ve decided to write in third person, we need to keep in mind the difference between omniscient and limited third person. In omniscient third, the narrator can relate the thoughts and feelings of all the characters. In limited, unless our MC has ESP, the narrator can reveal only the inner life of the POV character. I sometimes read books in which the author occasionally forgets, and I get pulled right out of the story. The mistake can be subtle, and many readers won’t notice, but we should still get it right.

But if our story needs us to inhabit more than one character in a scene, then omniscient third may be the way to go. Let’s imagine, for example, a panel of judges who are deciding the fate of our MC, who has committed some crime according to this society. Even though she’s guilty, she’s an ethical person, and we want the judges to understand that and not give her a long prison sentence or–gasp!–death in the viper pit. We may want to use omniscient third in our story so that when we get to this scene, we can jump in and out of the judges’ perspectives to heighten the suspense.

Even in first person, we can make a POV-jumping error. Our MC Jackie can be with her best friend Carly; they’ve known each other for years. Something happens that gets the friend mad. Jackie knows she’ll have this reaction to this stimulus. In my opinion we still shouldn’t write, Carly saw red, because the reader may think, How does Jackie know that? Better is, Carly’s chin went up. I knew from experience what that meant. She was seeing scarlet. Now we haven’t switched POVs because Jackie has explained how she knows Carly is angry.

We can write a contemporary now-feeling story in either first person or third, but I think it’s harder to write a story with an old-fashioned tone in first. I may believe this because the classics of my long-ago childhood–Heidi, Bambi, Peter Pan, Anne of Green Gables, Black Beauty–are all in third, and I can’t think of a single example in first. So the tone we’re aiming for can guide our choice.

I don’t mean we can’t write in first person and set our story in the past or in a fairy tale world as I’ve done many times. I just mean that there will be a more modern mood. Ella, for example, may wear a bodice and live in a manor, but she still has the perspective of a late twentieth century girl. In my books for the Disney Fairy series, I was trying for that days-of-yore mood, so they’re all in third person.

I find it easier to get inside my MC’s mind and heart when I write in first person. In third, I have to keep reminding myself that she has thoughts and feelings about whatever action is going forward. It can be done, and I’ve done it, but it’s more effortful. More effortful for me, maybe not for other writers. I’m more inside her when I’m using I, and that’s a factor in my choice of first person or third.

Here are four prompts:

∙ You think of another reason to choose second person. Write a scene in the story. If you like, keep going.

∙ Use one of my reasons for second person. Write a scene. If you like, keep going.

∙ Write the scene in omniscient third person with the panel of judges.

∙ Write the fairy’s dining scene in “Sleeping Beauty” from the first person point of view of one of the fairies, who can read minds.

Have fun, and save what you write!


Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all!

Lately a lot of questions have come in about person. This one came into the website in October from Anna Baber: I’ve been working on a book and even though I usually use first person, I decided to try third person/second person. However, my characters seem so dead. So dead even I didn’t care about them. Do you know how I should fix this???

An exchange followed with carpelibris, who wrote, A few offhand thoughts:

Do they face challenges?
Do they do things, as opposed to having things happen to them?

Something I read once, although I can’t remember where or who wrote it: “Think of what 9 or 10 people would do in a given situation. Have your character be #10, who does something different.”

Random thought: Why do you usually write in 1st person, and what about this story made you choose to write it in 3rd?

Anna Baber responded, I love reading first person and it’s easy for character development. Aside from that, I’ve been writing for about four years and I’ve written around twenty “novels”–almost all in first person! So I’m much more comfortable in first person. What about you?

From carpelibris: I’ve tried both (even a short story in second once, but that felt weird.) I mostly default to third for novels For short stories (Runs off to do a quick check). Ok, I just did a rough, arbitrary count of my submissions in the last 6 months that weren’t Drabbles. (100-word stories.) 3 were in 1st person and 6 were in 3rd. When I do 1st it’s usually because the character comes into my head that way and their voice is a big part of the appeal, or the story’s mostly about what the POV character’s thinking and feeling.

First off, kudos to carpelibris for putting your work out in the world. And thanks for sharing your success on the blog. I’ve enjoyed reading your stories. The last one made me cry!

And congratulations to Anna for your productivity!

Next a definition: in second person, the main character, instead of being I, is you, as in, You look up from your meal. You swallow, although the gooey mass sticks in your throat and the ton of hot sauce makes tears well up. “Tastes great, Dad,” you say and put your hand in your lap to cross your fingers.

I’ve never written more than this little sample in second person. Seems hard to pull off in a longer form. The only book I’ve read in second person is a young-adult novel by A. M. Jenkins called Damage (high school and up). We need a reason to choose second person. In this case MC Austin Reid is depressed, and second person is a great way to put across his isolation, even from himself.

I love the distinction carpelibris makes between characters doing “things, as opposed to having things happen to them.” When characters are active in the face of the crises in their lives, rather than the passive recipients of events, they come to life. If our MC is hit over the head by a two-by-four, she has no choice but to go down, no matter who she is–-unless she’s a mutant with an extraordinarily thick skull. But in most disasters, our characters face choices. Suppose a tornado rips through town, cutting a narrow swath of destruction. Our MC Jacqui was visiting a friend whose house was untouched. As soon as the twister passes, she races for home. It’s a weekend, and both her parents were there, along with her older brother and the family dachshund. When she gets to her street, she hears sirens, and the house is flattened.

This is where carpelibris’s suggestion comes in, to have our character act surprisingly. What does Jacqui do?

Here’s a prompt: Write nine likely responses from Jacqui at the scene. Write one unlikely response. Write five more unlikely ones.

If Jacqui picks one of the unexpected ones, she will stop seeming dead. The reader will get interested and wonder about her character, feelings, thoughts, motives. We can then selectively reveal her inner life.

And that inner life can be as surprising as her actions. Her feelings may be something other than distress. Her thoughts may be about the neighbor’s house rather than her own. Physically, her heart may not speed up at all; tears may not well up. In third person, we can go into this with our POV character. If Jacqui is a secondary character, we can see that her eyes remain dry, but we won’t have the direct experience of her inner life. She can let us in on some of it through dialogue and whatever she may write, plus other exterior physical clues and further actions.

Of course, if our narrator is omniscient (all-knowing), we can dip in and out of everyone’s mind and heart.

To continue the prompt, write nine likely thoughts and six unlikely ones. Write five common emotional reactions and three incongruous ones.

Trying different POVs is great practice. I’ve suggested before that if a scene isn’t working in third person, rewrite it in first and then translate it back into third, including the material that made it come to life. This translation will probably lead you to see how to use the new POV effectively. You can keep doing this as you go along until third person becomes as easy as first.

More prompts:

• Translate a scene from a story you’ve been happy with in first person into third-person omniscient, bringing in the thoughts and feelings of your secondary characters. If your story takes off in a new direction, go with it.

• Translate the beginning of one of your first-person stories into second person. See if you can go all the way to the end that way.

• Maisy looks out her bedroom window. On the street below, a motorcycle strikes what seems to be one of Santa’s elves, who falls and hits his head on a fire hydrant. The street is empty. Maisy runs downstairs and does something surprising, thinks something unusual, and feels something downright strange. Write the scene in third person. If you like, write the story. You can begin with the accident or you can go back to an earlier moment. Switch back and forth from third person to first if you need to.

• Write Jacqui’s story in third person, but, again, if you need to put parts of it into first, do that, and then change back.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Thinking in Person

Oh, my! Many, many thanks to everyone who sent in subtitle suggestions! I can’t say enough how helpful they’ve been. I’d been stuck in a rut of subtitles that varied by only a word or two and weren’t very interesting. You blew the rut away by going in directions I hadn’t dreamed of. My editor likes several ideas, and she’s taking them to the all-important sales team for their judgment. I’ll let you know when there’s a decision. Alas, I don’t know how long that will take.

This came into the website from Sophie in October: My problem is that when I write in third person, I don’t think I get into my characters’ heads enough. I talk about their actions, their conversation, and their instincts, but not their thoughts. Or if I do get into their heads, I often jumble up their thoughts, confusing both myself and them.

On the other hand, when I write in first person I’m afraid I’m showing their thoughts far too much, giving too much sarcastic commentary and showing too many of their likes and dislikes.

Early in my writing days I took a wonderful workshop class and took it again and again for several years. Every week our teacher, Bunny, would read student work without identifying the authors and we would discuss and praise and critique. Often, when a chapter of mine was read, people said I had neglected to show what my MC was feeling. After a while, I’d hear the voices of my classmates in my mind while I was writing, telling me to include emotion. Then, when I worked with an editor for the first time, after nine years of trying, the criticisms I heard most often from her worked their way into my brain, too, and joined the helpful refrain.

We can install our own helpful voices even without a workshop or an editor. The most important word in the last sentence is helpful. We don’t want the drumbeat to go, What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I remember to show feelings? It should be more like, Let there be feelings! Feelings will bring out the terrific stuff I’ve got going.

If we already know we’re not putting in thoughts enough when we’re writing in third person, we can set up ways to remind ourselves and to get in the habit of remembering. Some writers edit the work from their last session before writing anything new. If this is what you do, you can start by looking for places to add thinking. Or, as you write, you can remind yourself every half hour to think about thinking. You can make a poster for yourself that says, Think about thinking, and pin it up in your workspace. You can put reminders on your phone or set an alarm to go off. When it rings you have to edit for thoughts. As you drift off to sleep, you can chant, Into their heads! These techniques will help you create a routine, and eventually you won’t need them.

You can use the same approaches when you’re writing in first person, reminding yourself to limit the thoughts when you’re writing a first draft and also to trim them in revision.

Here’s another technique to try: When you have a third-person scene that lacks thoughts, rewrite it in first person. And vice versa. Yes, this is time-consuming and word-consuming, but who’s counting? I toss out tons of pages on every book. I learn by trying. Writing isn’t efficient.

To recognize what warrants thoughts and what doesn’t, we keep an eye on our story elements. For example, say our MC Sharyn falls off her bike and a new character, Willard, stands over her and says, “Some hedgehogs run away instead of using their needles. I mean, spines. They’re really called spines.” Third person or first, Sharyn has got to think something. For example, she may think first about her bike and whether it’s been damaged. She may notice what this stranger is wearing. She may remember how bad her whole day has been. Or dozens of other possibilities. After the thought, but only after the thought, we can have her say something. Her thoughts contribute to the reader’s understanding of her character. If she notices what Willard is wearing, we also get more development of his character. If the bicycle or her bad day or this new character has anything to do with our story’s trajectory, we advance the plot.

But if Sharyn is merely biking along and not falling, we may want to keep her thoughts to a minimum and just get her there. Not always, though. The ride may give her a chance to mull something over and come to a decision that will move the plot along.

In my opinion, usually reactions belong with events. Suppose we delay Sharyn’s thoughts after she falls. Willard appears, says what he says. She replies. He says some other disconnected thing and wanders away. She brushes herself off and rides on and starts thinking about the experience. As a reader, while events unfold, I’m thinking, What does Sharyn make of this? What’s going on with her? Is she in shock? When she finally does start thinking, I may be satisfied. No. I won’t be. By then it’s too late for me.

On the other hand, we don’t want to interrupt an exciting moment like the fall and the introduction of Willard with a paragraph of thinking. We can drop in just a quick thought here, another there, as the dialogue develops. Then, when Willard leaves, we can have Sharyn think more expansively.

A note about sarcasm: In my opinion, a little goes a long way. If a character is sarcastic by nature, a few salvos in dialogue or thought when we first meet her will establish that characteristic. In future scenes, just one will be enough to remind the reader.

If our MC is a sarcastic-by-nature person, we’ll have to work harder to make her likable, if we want her to be likable. It certainly can be done, but we’ve added a hurdle.

Sarcasm is easy to write. For example, the first thing that may jump to mind for Sharyn to think after Willard speaks could be something like, Thanks for helping me up. In the circumstances, the thought is justified, but it isn’t the most interesting way to go. Instead, she might wonder where he lives or if he owns a hedgehog or if he knows how strange he seems. In dialogue we can resist a sarcastic comeback and consider other possibilities. Sharyn may say, “Yes, and foxes are really easy to domesticate.” If she’s kind she might say, “I didn’t know that.” If she’s mean, she could say, “Well, you’re a freak.”

Going back to the problem of including the right amount of thinking, the solutions I’ve proposed are mechanical, which I see nothing wrong with. We’re learning a skill, writing, and we need protocols to help us. When we train ourselves to play an instrument, we play scales. When we train in a sport, we practice. Same with fiction writing. And if we’ve identified the difficulty, we’re way ahead.

Here are three prompts:

• Continue the scene with Sharyn and Willard. If you like you can introduce additional tension in the reason Sharyn fell off her bike. After you’ve written the scene in first or third person, look it over and decide if you’ve included the right number of thoughts. If not, revise. If you like, keep going with the story.

• Your MC Paulette has to decide between two kingdoms. Both want her for the magic sword that she alone can wield. She’s meeting with both rulers in a neutral place, and each is trying to win her allegiance. Write the scene in first person, including her thoughts. Make her suspicious and angry. Rewrite, making her feel honored and loved, with thoughts to go along with those emotions. Rewrite again, and this time give her a secret desire.

• Try the scene with Paulette again but this time in omniscient third person. Include the thoughts of each ruler.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Mind Reading

To all you laboring on your NaNoWriMo novel: Happy writing! May words pour out of you like water over Niagara Falls! May ideas crop up like dandelions in July! And if you have questions, think of this blog.

This question came into the website in September from Rebekah: I recently reread Writing Magic and the section on POV to see how I could make it work with my own story, but I didn’t find anything. 
My story is in 3rd person, but I wanted to try it in 1st person. I really love being in my MC’s head, but it’s also hard because then I can’t let the reader know what some of the other characters are thinking as well, and that makes it really hard on me. Do you have any suggestions for me on a way to compromise?

Athira Abraham responded with this: If your story is fantasy, maybe she has magical powers of reading people’s mind. Or she might have an object that helps her, like Gail’s magic book or spyglass.

And Eliza added:
1. Have more than one protagonist.
2. Don’t let the other characters take over as protagonists, but let them speak for little snippets. I’ve read some books that switch over to other characters at the beginning of chapters, usually in italics.

These are great ideas. I invented the magic book in Ella Enchanted so that Ella, who’s the first-person POV MC, can have an idea of what’s going on with other characters when she isn’t present. She can’t hear thoughts, but she gets a hint of the action. But you could invent a device that can receive thoughts, or you can make your MC telepathic, as Athira Abraham suggests. Or you can alternate among a few first person POV characters, changing perspective from chapter to chapter or between  sections within chapters, which should be clearly marked because we want the reader to always know whose head he’s in.

Along the lines of Eliza’s second suggestion, I’ve seen bits (clearly marked) of diabolical narration from the POV of the villain in a Terry Pratchett novel or two, and, in my opinion, whatever Pratchett does is worth imitating.

When we write in first person, we lose direct access to the feelings of other characters, in addition to their thoughts, so whatever we come up with to bridge the gap can include feelings (the racing heart, the churning stomach, the tension headache).

Telepathy, magic spyglasses, and magic books are possibilities. What else is there?

Let’s imagine that Julie, the best friend of our MC Marcy, has been unusually quiet lately, hasn’t wanted to hang out. She’s dropped out of the chorus at school. A planned sleepover happens, but Julie is too uncommunicative for it to be fun. Marcy is worried about her friend and also about their friendship. What can she do?

Of course what she does depends on her personality, but let’s think about what she might do:

• She can ask Julie and may find out what her friend is thinking and feeling through dialogue.

• She can get angry and possibly learn the information through an argument, again dialogue. Or she may not succeed, but she’ll know her friend is mad at her, at least for that moment.

• She can ask other people what’s going on and possibly find out that way.

• She can think about Julie, remember when the strange behavior started, consider everything she knows about her friend, and maybe arrive at the answer.

• She can snoop,  read Julie’s journal. If she has real snooping skills, she can bug Julie’s phone and conceal a camera in Julie’s room. Or, if she’s wealthy, she can hire a detective.

• With our authorial power, we can show the reader Julie’s journal so that he knows but Marcy doesn’t.

You may think of other ways. You’ll find a masterful example of one character discovering what’s going on with another in the young adult novel The View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg.

We’re all the first-person MC of the story of our lives, and we’re probably not mind-readers, but in order to get along with other people, to have friends, to be decent students and family members – to do many things – we have to make assumptions, and sometimes we know with a high degree of certainty what other people are thinking and feeling. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to make others feel good or to push their buttons not in a good way. We do it by some of the methods I suggested above, by knowing our friends and family over time, by understanding ourselves and figuring that others are at least somewhat like us.

When I wrote the beginning of this post I was on the train on my way to New York City. A man across the aisle behind me talked loudly on his cell phone in a thick voice. I looked back, nosy writer that I am, to get a fix on him, and, instantly, he snapped, “Mind your own business.”

It didn’t take mind reading to know he felt angry. My guess is that this guy is always on the edge of anger and almost anything can push him over. It’s also possible that he felt guilty for being so loud – although that didn’t stop him from taking three more calls and it didn’t make him lower his voice. Guilt can make people angry; you may have noticed this.

As for me, I was a little scared, which he probably knew, because I’d imagine he wanted to intimidate me. Total strangers and we knew each other’s feelings! And only one sentence passed between us. Fortunately, he got off the train soon – which I knew he would, because he announced his stop on the phone.

In the example above, Marcy knows Julie isn’t happy, because people signal their feelings, smile, frown, stamp, cross their arms. The clues are legion. What we lose by writing in first person is the texture of others’ thoughts and feelings, the insider perspective, and I sympathize, because I love that, too. If a first person single POV best suits our story, that’s what we should use, but there’s nothing to stop us from writing a scene in third person in our notes, or from a different first-person POV, also in notes. We’ll have the pleasure of doing it, and we may learn something that we can work into our first-person narrative. Nobody ever called writing efficient!

Here are three prompts:

• From Marcy’s first-person POV, write the story of Marcy and Julie, and have Marcy try a bunch of methods to find out what’s going on with her friend. Surprise the reader with the answer.

• Marcy is the friend everyone goes to when they’re unhappy. She’s keeping more secrets than she has fingers and toes combined. But two secrets don’t add up. Someone is lying. Have Marcy delve into the thought and feeling life of her friends to find out what’s really going on.

• In the myth, “Pygmalion and Galatea,” Pygmalion is a sculptor who falls in love with a statue he creates. The goddess Venus takes pity on him and brings her to life. Write from Galatea’s POV the scene when she wakes up . She used to be marble; she has no past. What does she think and feel? What does she make of Pygmalion? How does she figure out what he’s thinking and feeling when she has no experience to guide her?

Have fun, and save what you write!