Wednesday, January 6, 2010

I, Writer






I, the writer, a singular person, locked in my own head attempt to reach out to the reader and tell my tale in a way so convincing that he’ll feel he lived it.

That is the goal of writing, and the one thing that writing still has over movies, games, assorted other forms of entertainment becoming ever cheaper, more realistic and more portable. Reading can transport you into someone else’s head better than any of those. It can make you feel what he feels, live what she lives.

Which bring us to technique, point of view and various other things that writers talk about and which couldn’t interest the reader less unless they’re so badly done that they make you notice them. Which is, in fact, true of any other element of writing.

So, why is Sarah picking up her lance on this bright, sunny morning (this is put in purely for a cheery effect since I’m writing this at five am my time and it’s dark as a copy-editor’s heart out there) and tilting at this particular windmill?

Well, I’ll tell you why. (I know this shocks you, since I’m of such a shy, retiring and reticent disposition that it is an herculean task to draw a word or two from me.)

Lately it has come to my attention that there are readers who refuse to read writing done in the first, singular person and beginning writers who are terrified of using it. You see, they’ve heard it said, high and low, and, yay, verily, proclaimed with a megaphone from the four winds too, that writing in the first person is bad. Baaaaaaaad. Baaaaad, nasty, a disgusting habit that shouldn’t be practiced, even in private and even if you wash your hands afterwards. Possibly it makes you go blind or causes hair to grow on your palms – who knows? I know – because any number of writers, theorists and critics have informed me of this – that it is the mark of an amateur.

To which I say bullspit. (I say this, you understand, because I’m a lady – on odd days and Wednesdays, of which today is one – and wouldn’t stain my dainty fingertips by typing another ... product of the bull.) First person singular has not only been used extensively by most of the greats in the field: Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury but is still used for the currently-best-selling sub-genre of our field: Urban Fantasy. And it’s not JUST our field, either. Agatha Christie wrote in first person singular. Rex Stout wrote in first person. Any number of current bestsellers write in first person. Romance is a little different as it seems to prefer not just third person but shuttle-cocking between the heads of protagonists I guess so that you know the guy who seems cold and distant isn’t. It’s a specialized technique, which suits the narrative needs of a special form.

Which brings me to narratives and different needs. Those of you who have their hands up may put them down. I do remember that I’ve used third person singular (I’ve also used second person singular, occasionally third person plural and on one or two very rare occasions first person plural. Because that’s the kind of indiscriminate verb-orgy kind of writer I am!) Early in the morning though it is, and caffeine deprived though I am, I do indeed remember that the shifter series and the Magical British Empire series and even the Musketeer mysteries are third person, multiple POV. Can a bright boy or girl tell me why I used third person in those books?
Right, you, the young lady on the third row from the back, savoring a fresh dish of adverbs. (I hope you brought enough for everyone!)
I used third person singular in many – most – of my published novels (though not short stories) because it suited the story I wanted to tell which, for reasons of suspense, plot and pacing required that I follow multiple story threads, something that is difficult to do with just one person unless he has a slight teleporting problem, amnesia and multiple personality. And because first person, multiple pov’s is hard as heck to use. Even Heinlein didn’t do it better – or very well. (Even if, as a fundamentalist Heinleinian, unreformed, unrepentant and unashamed, I MUST inform you I’ll defend my right to enjoy The Number Of The Beast to the death, if need be.)

Other stories – Darkship Thieves comes to mind – are single-thread, single narrative and frankly dominated by such a larger than life personality that the only way to do them justice is first person. First person in effect locks the reader in a small room with this in-your-face character and lets her experience the character as a close and personal friend.
So, why do so many writers rail against first person? (Yes, I know. Editors, agents and critics do too, but those people have to have an opinion. It’s their reason for existing. Writers, in fact, do NOT have to have an opinion about any tool they choose not to use, so the fact that they do sticks out, rather.)
Well, my dears, I have two answers, the impolite and the polite. I’m going to give you the impolite first, because it’s early in the morning and I don’t have any caffeine in my veins. The impolite answer is that these writers, for whatever reason, don’t tell first person stories. Or perhaps were bitten by a first person story in their childhood and therefore hate them. Or even because someone told them first person is bad, they believed it and are therefore afraid of it.

They are, in fact, driven by the thing that drives most critics of other people’s choices: The terror that someone, somewhere is having fun. Mrs. Grundy, having been banished from the sexual arena by our modern, enlightened and permissive times, feels the need to hate something that others are doing and at which they have fun. First person it is.

The polite answer is that first person is both the narrative voice of choice of the raw beginner and the most difficult voice to write well. Most writers when they first start writing try first person and – frankly – suck at it. There is a tendency – though I never suffered from THAT because of my peculiar approach to storytelling – to make the character you call "I" exactly like yourself. Most of us JUST aren’t that interesting. It is also far more difficult to plot a first person story – and this I did suffer from – because you’re either stuck following a single line of plot (which means you might not know what the bad guys are up to, so that each attack comes without foreshadowing) or you have to give hints, foreshadowing and inference with a LIGHT brush, around the edges, through rumors, innuendo and the actions of other characters.

Particularly if you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator, which unfortunately most of my characters are. (The person who just made the wisecrack about creating them in my image can go and sit in the corner for half an hour.)

But because a technique is difficult, it shouldn’t be taboo. And there is absolutely no cause for the reader to feel he’s slumming if he’s reading first person. It can be a very powerful, vibrant way to tell a story. If you don’t believe me, go and read Friday (an unreliable narrator) or Puppet Masters or even Simak’s They Walked Like Men, or Barry Hughart’s Story Of The Stone. And there is absolutely no cause for the writer to shut this tool out of his toolbox.

Some writers might choose not to use it. Maybe they don’t think in first person but in collective unconscious. I wouldn’t know. It is their right, their prerogative, their way, and I’d no more tell them they must use first person than I would allow them to tell me I couldn’t. I’m just not my brother’s keeper.
Sure, you might fall on your face the first time you use first person. Or the second. Or the tenth. But that eleventh might be the best thing you ever wrote. Learn all the tools of the craft and use them. Invent new ones if need be. Treat each story as your best work and use the best tool for shaping it. Not the tool someone else told you to use.

And next time Mrs. Grundy sticks her big ol’ nose in your business, tell her to go meditate on the voices of humanity and their infinite variety and, yes, individuality. "I don’t like....." is a valid critique (at least as far de gustibus non est disputandum). "No one should do....." isn’t.

I notice I’ve had one of my customary attacks of word-incontinence and this is running rather long, so I can’t really take on the other "thou shall nots" of science fiction, fantasy or just writing. Excess adverbs? Too many adjectives? Aliens who act human? All of them have been used to great effect by a great writer. Since I presume this blog is read only by great writers – and readers – tell me what your least favorite prohibition is, and if you can of a masterpiece that broke it with elan and style.

32 comments:

Darwin said...

Valued lesson from Julie Czerneda learned long ago and worth repeating: There is no one "right" way to "write". First, second, or third person narrative is not something that is excluded from that observation.

There are "guidelines" that serve as mile-markers on the way to learning how to create good prose. Anyone who takes to hammering on one or another of those mile markers as some sort of major "go-no-go" logic gate of what is "acceptable" only gives evidence of their own stupidity.

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, great post and thanks for taking on the First Person taboo. Every time I see someone espousing that, I shudder. Then I have to wonder if, as a writer, they simply don't have the discipline and the craft to be able to do it so they think no one else should write that way simply because they can't. First Person POV is, in my opinion, the most difficult to do well because your reader is only in your POV character's head and yet you, as a writer, still have to get enough information to the reader that they don't feel cheated at the end when the solution to the plot conflict is finally revealed. Besides, it is FUN to write the kick-a**, take-no-names POV character, imo, and to do it well -- which I hope I do.

As for what other "taboo" drives me crazy, I think it's the alien who is completely human even though it evolved on a planet many light years from here and there is no groundwork laid for a common ancestor, experiences, etc. I'm not talking so much emotions and attitudes, although attitudes should be different if the alien grew up in a society different from our own. It's the alien who steps off of his spaceship -- or greets the human astronaut on an alien world -- and looks completely human, speaks English and could have walked out of the pages of GQ. I guess what I want is good world building and a reason for the alien to be like us, one that goes beyond laziness on the writer's part.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Darwin,

that is correct.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

yes, Amanda, but the question is, can you see any sort of narrative reason for the alien to at least echo humans to some extent? No, I'm not saying be a human in a rubber suit. Worldbuilding is important. But for the alien not to be as utterly "other" as he'd probably be? (If you haven't read my older son's unicellular pirate, you might not understand the full need.)

C Kelsey said...

The main reason (that I can see)that aliens are routinely represented as near-humans seems to be that your average, every day reader will better relate to something familiar. And who knows how many of them are trying to copy star trek and consider Spock to be a perfectly reasonable alien (even though he's a classic Tolkien elf).

Even when you have an "alien" alien, that alien has to interact with your familiar characters. This can sometimes create a discordance in the book. For example, Tom Kratman described the Aldenata in "The Tuloriad" as something like an ambulatory turnip (awesome description IMO). Yet, whenever it appeared, I never could really picture it. The same happens to be true of the Posleen. Are they horse-like? Lizard-folk? Horse-like lizard folk?

And the whole "steps off ship and converses with people" thing... ugh. If an alien *is* alien, there should be some difficulty in communicating with it, at least at first. If it's strange, it should all be strange.

Now I think I'm rambling so I'll run along. :)

matapam said...

The only prohibition anyone's ever told me was to be more business like about my writing, and finish stories instead of constantly starting them. ::Sigh:: I hate admitting that they are right.

I like first person for some short work. I don't think I could sustain it for a whole novel. But some of my favorites do.

C Kelsey said...

I generally prefer to read first person when I want to just let the character do the thinking for me. It's simply easier and faster for me to read. I've yet to make a serious attempt to write in it. All those articles in JBU on "thou shalt not write in first person" are stuck in the back of my mind.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Like most crafts, writing is one where "the right tool for the right job" is sage advice. And like most craftsmen, writers tend to stock their "tool boxes" with those tools that work best for them. On the one hand, the craftsman becomes quite proficient with those particular tools.

On the other hand, the craftsman occasionally gets the idea in his head that just because a particular tool set works well for him, everybody else should use that set as well.

But on the gripping hand, before a craftsman disparages a particular tool or set of tools, he needs to take a moment to consider whether or not he's blaming the tool for the shortcomings of the user.

;-)

Now myself, while I'm not a big user of the First-Person tool, I have no problem with reading it (some of my favorite stories have been written in 1st Person), and I still keep it in my toolbox because I never know when I might need it.

Anonymous said...

Oh, oh, oh! Mr. Kotter!
::jumping in my seat with hand raised::

My absolute favorite book in the world is first person - To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I also particularly love coming of age novels.

I adore reading first person. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum and Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series are two others that come immediately to mind. They aren't sff, but still are successful series for their authors.

I've only written a couple of stories in first person, neither of which have sold, so I don't know if it's because I'm not effective in first person or if there was another editorial reason as to why they haven't sold.

I personally don't like reading second person. It grates against my ability somehow to get into the story.

Third person is, of course, the most common narrative voice. A good writer can make you feel as close to the characters as if they were first person with the added benefit of being able to give extra information.

I don't think I really "pick" a narrative voice for any of my stories. I just start it out with what feels right. Maybe one of my authorly excercises should be to go back to one of my successful stories (meaning sold) and rewrite it from a different narrative. Or I should do this with one of the unsold stories and then market whichever one is better.

Linda Davis

WangZheng259 said...

Alien has different meanings, and the original one is closer to foreigner. We Sci-Fi types have developed a slightly different usage, but not everyone who uses alien intends it to mean that.

Consider that if you have a Human from, say, Japan, Germany, Zimbabwe, Finland, Guyana, Suriname, Panama, or the United States, get off of a plane, they automatically come with a lot of baggage in terms of tech level, social background, and so forth. When I say 'A German boy parachutes into a field in front of a French girl' the modifiers bring a great deal of history with it. We know that it is during or after WWI, and all of the history between France and Germany informs our understanding of the situation. 'Space boy lands in Mexican field in front of girl' is broader in some ways, and leaves a different set of possibilities to work with. Space does not bring with it the history that American or Swiss would.

Human space aliens are a way to have political, social, cultural or technological aliens without the overhead of extrahuman aliens, or any of the constraints of existing nations. If you want to tell a story about humans, and want to include both earth normal settings or background, with background you have created whole cloth, this might be your solution. Related things can include secret fairy worlds, jumping to a parallel world, or or a certain type of alternate history universes. These alternate earths would be the ones that say, oh, Americans are all Slashers, or Germans born in Germany, and only those born in Germany, have Cat ears and tails for some reason, but everything else is exactly the same. It is a way of having additional catagories as significant or insignificant as the author desires while being able to make use of existing catagories like Zulu, redneck, or communist without alteration.

I think 'space foreigners and earthlings' is entirely legitimate when done well. I think it amusing when you mix it with extrahuman entities which have culturally become part of one of the Earth polities.

I only really learned the difference between the persons, along with much of the rest of my formal understanding of grammar, in college Latin. I figure that if I'm a good enough, and work hard enough, I can twist the writing into any particular shape I want to, but I do not know what shapes come easiest to hand, so to speak.

Probably my least favorite prohibition is whichever one I am enjoying figuring out a way to twist my writing, or writing in general, to avoid or to succeed in breaking it. Since I've just spent some time trying to say something about space foreigners, the example that comes to mind is Nanoha. By the third series, we have maybe two major characters which we might not be able to describe as space aliens, a bunch of people who might be called physiologically inhuman, and no explanation that I can find as to the origin of all the different human populations. It is a series of stories about humans and human relationships.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

Give yourself a gold star!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

matapam,

It depends on the story and how hard it comes on. I tried to make DST third because it would work so much better plot wise. Okay, easier for me. Less work. But it wouldn't do it, and I think at least ninety percent of its charm is Athena's very unique voice.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

That's a bad thing. Don't bind yourself. Read a few old Heinlein short stories, then give it a whirl. For an hyper-competent character (which is why Heinlein preferred it) first person is better. For a nut apparently too -- Sarah glares at Thena.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Robert,

Exactly. Third person IS easier, but it doesn't mean it's right. Think of DST without Thena's snide little remarks...

At the same time I couldn't REALLY do Shifters first person. Kyrie would make the narrative too slow, because she's cautious. And Tom... well, the mind that thinks donuts shaped like body parts and called by people's names would bring clients into the diner is... uh... interesting. Let's just say that.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Linda,

the only second person I pulled off, I used a framing device where the "suspect" was talking to the investigating detective. It's called Stock Management, and I don't remember WHERE it was published (it's on my web site, I'm sure) it works, but it was h*ll's own pain to write.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

WZ,
we are all aware that the original "aliens" were foreigners -- the term means stranger, so it applies to foreigners as well as space breeds. And being foreign born and raised, TRUST ME I'm aware of the problems in contact, including communication.
The point of sf/f aliens is to be familiar enough that we can interpret them.
My older son who is a gifted writer and a teen -- terrible combination! -- wrote a perfectly thought out story about a unicellular intelligent being. Senses were all different. Reality was perceived weirdly. So... of course... The story was hard. Really hard. You had to work at reading it. Which defeated the first reason to write: to amuse the reader.
So aliens need to be somewhat human so the story can be enjoyable.
That's all.

C Kelsey said...

WZ,

Sarah pretty says it RE the alien thing. The trick that tends to trap writers and readers alike is the need to relate to the "alien" whilst making it strange at the same time. The easy way to accomplish this is to make the alien simply be a human from a different culture. But, for scifi purposes, that's not acceptable alien anymore. It's a tough nut...

C Kelsey said...

Hmm... I think my ability to write sentences failed in that last post. I shall try again tomorrow when I'm coherent. :)

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, I can absolutely see narrative reasons for the alien to at least echo humans to an extent. For one, if they are tooalien, the reader won't be able to identify with them. For another, imo, that Stranger in a Strange Land scenario is fascinating. But, for it to work, there has to be some sense of commonality. As you said in another comment, it is our job as writers to entertain our reading public...if they have to work too hard at it, they won't read it, much less buy it.

matapam said...

I think for first person to work in a book, it has to be very fast paced. Lots of action. Athena, who seems to be trying to kill a different person every other page, and generally with her bare hands, works well first person. I think third person would reduce the impact by insulating the reader from the raw Athena.

I get exhausted just thinking about keeping up the pace through a whole novel.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Sarah. You have give me a fresh burst of confidence on first person now.

Not that I ever set out to use it, but sometimes it just works out that way.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Matapam,

I MUST send you a copy of Dipped, Stripped, Dead. That's the other thing first person works for -- a completely upside down and backwards view of the world that is... shall we say... VERY personal. :-P And yet works, in a weird, backward genius sort of way.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

That's exactly what I've found. Sometimes it just works that way, and you can't make it go any other.

WangZheng259 said...

Sarah,

Stupid question: If I have two omniscient narrators, one of whom tells the story to the other, the person I have is a terrible muddle, and I should probably avoid it if I can, right?

I wasn't talking about contact, and communication so much as something else. One of the examples I gave fairly screamed 'Nazi Paratrooper' to me, and I think I relied on that to make my point rather than doing a better job. (As in Nazi Paratrooper was my first thought, even if I don't know if the Germans used them in France, and most of my other ideas involved WWII baggage.)

I think idea of space travel ia common enough that I am not restricted to using it in the SciFi genre. This is like revolvers and horses not automatically making things a western. I am not adverse to making up a country, or mutilating a real one to fit the story, but there are times when I would feel a bit too silly explaining that, yes, Portugual is a real country, but I don't know anything about it, so the dreaded secret police, 'No Habla Espanol', is a complete fabrication.

I know enough and am obsessive enough about world geography and history that adding in other planets seems like it could be a reasonable option for getting a clean canvas and also being able to use the one that is already painted without having to scrape things off or paint over.

Nanoha does this by starting off on a reasonably normal* earth, bringing in secret/covert interactions with a polity called the Time Space Administration Bureau, before moving the cast to the planet Midchildia, all without really studying the interactions between the polities. While there is something that is either magic or technology, or both, that underlies the TSAB, I am not really sure it counts as Science Fiction or Fantasy. It certainly isn't hard science, and the plot is action/thriller combined with some human relationship stuff for the people that can follow that sort of thing. 'Befriending' is a fairly common joke among fans, as most of the unrelated people the main character is close to got that way by violence.

*This may or may not include as canon vampires, androids, ghosts and ninja.

Michael A. Ventrella said...

Excellent post.

One of the most frustrating reviews I received for my first novel came from someone who liked the book but said I had "broken the first rule of fantasy novels" because I had written it in first person. Hrmph.

I have added your blog as a link to mine; hope you don't mind!: http://michaelaventrella.wordpress.com/

Walter said...

Julie Czerneda is exactly right, Darwin, as usual.

I just finished a novel in the first person, and my most recent one was in the first person. It teaches a certain amount of discipline, but it's perfectly valid, and can be very compelling.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Michael,

Not at all. On the contrary. And yeah this was prompted by readers telling me they wouldn't read my latest SF because it was first person.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Sarah, I'll have you know I'm suffering a mild concussion from the massive ::facepalm:: I just gave myself after reading that post.

As long as they do it well, I could care less what PoVs my favorite authors write in. It's a non-factor for me.

Basically, it's a matter of trust: I trust the author to do her level best to tell me a thumping-good story, and if she settled on a particular point-of-view because she thought it was the best possible way to tell me that story, I'm damn well going to trust her judgment on that!

So sayeth Bob ;-)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Aye Bob. That's how I feel about it, either. In fact, until I had to defend my choice, I hadn't noticed most of Heinlein was first person...

matapam said...

Sarah,

I had totally not noticed that DS&D was first person. Thinking about it, some Character's motivations can only been shown from inside their heads. From the outside, it doesn't work.

This is especially important with, the highly eccentric. The "Reacts just like me" assumptions has to get dumped early on.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Exactly. And for some, very weird, reason, eccentric characters are easiest for me to write.

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