Friday, January 09, 2009

Make a Point About POV

I knew as soon as I posted query guidelines that someone would hop up on his or her soap box and show how little they know about a subject. Happens every time.

In my last post, I stated that I wouldn’t accept novels written in first-person because I felt that an author should have moved on from this very limiting point of view. Of course, this particular person tried to make a case by giving me a list of classical authors from years past who wrote their novels in first person, which I took to be kind of funny. Of course there were authors who wrote in first person and there still are authors who write in this point of view. There were also authors who wrote in the omniscient—Dickens, in fact, was one of them. Authors, however, don’t write much in the omniscient anymore because readers don’t like authors being in their stories. Translation: Omniscient is not in vogue any more. Years ago most books opened with “Dear Reader.” How many of those do you see on the bookstore shelves today? Not many.

Chastising an agent because you object to his or her querying requirements because you know of a group of authors who used to write a certain way is like saying that all roads should be two-lane or planes shouldn’t have jet engines. Things change. Fiction is not static. Fiction writing methods grow and change as does everything else around us.

For instance, here’s what David Morrell, the author of First Blood, Testament, Last Reveille, The Totem, Blood Oath, The Brotherhood of the Rose and eleven other novels, has to say about first person narration. After being famous for awhile, he wrote Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing, which includes the following quote from page 102, Chapter Eight (entitled First Person):

"On the surface, the first person seems the simplest of all viewpoints. Write that way you talk, the siren song says. Just let the words come out as if the story were happening to you. Unfortunately, a transcription of even the best oral storytelling proves that what sounds effective in casual across-the-table setting is wordy and ill-focused on a page. Compounding that problem, authors who reflectively choose the first person often forget that they're trying to create fictional characters. These authors identify so closely with their first-person narrators that they take for granted the vividness of the language they are using. Neglecting to include the details of sound, touch, taste, and smell that make a story palpable, they rely almost exclusively on details of sight, with the result that their prose has a one-dimensional quality. The sentences become a litany of I did this and I did that and I did something else until the reader is overwhelmed with egotism and closes the pages.

But laziness of language isn't the only temptation the first person offers. It also encourages laziness of dramatic context. If the first person were as easy as it seems, all stories would be written in that viewpoint. The reason they're not has nothing to do with the need for variety. Rather it's that not many stories are suited to the first person. Form should follow function. Viewpoint should have something to do with the narrator's theme. The author shouldn't choose first person unless it will work, unless there is something unique to the first person that permits an author to create an effect that couldn’t be achieved any other way."

Dave Morrell goes on to give examples of fiction that works with the first-person narrator and examples of that which doesn't. However, what I get from new authors (those I'm trying hard to help on our agency blog) is the impression they choose first person because they have no other tools in their very limited tool chest. It's not that they chose the first person narrator from a vast variety of options, as Dr. Morrell suggests a professional might, but they chose first person because that's the only viewpoint they have ever written in. In other words, they write as they speak--in first person.

As another famous writer said at a writers’ conference a few years ago, everyone can write. We learn how to write at a very young age. But not everyone understands the craft of writing fiction.


Julia Weston said...

This post enlightened me. It also made me a little afraid of you.

(Seriously, thanks. One of my projects is in first person POV...I'm going to review and rethink).

Scott Jensen said...

It is definitely a learning curve. My first novel (a 100,000-word off-planet near-future science fiction) was in first person. Reading it now is painful. My next novel (a 53,000-word anti-hero mystery) was done in standard third person. However, my third novel (a 85,000-word anti-hero mystery but different everything) went one step further and eliminated narration. Just dialogue. No "God" voice. Readers make up their own minds. They see characters say one thing to one character and something different to another and hopefully wonder which is the truth ... if either is the truth ... or possibly both are the truth. And instead of quote marks with "he said" and "she said", I used different fonts. Fonts that reflected the character speaking. I had more than two talk at a time and my beta readers said they had no problem following who spoke what and they said it added greatly to the pace of dialogue and thus story.

While I like my third novel, I think I can do better. It was the first in dialogue-only so I was sort of working out how to do it as I went along. I'm now pondering my fourth novel. Fourth's the lucky one, right?

Reading "Mineral Spirits" right now. Finished first chapter. So far appears to be a rather depressing story but as you recommended it, I'll keep pushing through it.

Also reading the latest Sookie Stackhouse story ("From dead to worse" by Charlaine Harris) and realized that here's a mystery series that has its main character evolve from novel to novel. But I wonder if you, Robert, would say the Sookie Stackhouse series is character-driven or plot-driven. I'm trying to get my head around the difference and if you know of that series, I'd appreciate your review of it.

Jenn and Den said...

Hmmmm. This is interesting because my English professor this past semester said the very same thing. Only two writing assignments were allowed to be written in the first person, he said, because "at this point in your writing lives you should have evolved beyond this limited point of view."

Not coincidentally, Teacher made the exception for the first two assignments. After that, he was like, "Grow or fail."

Jennifer, my wife, who was in a less advanced class, was encouraged by HER professor to write mostly in first person because it "reflects the way the author truly speaks...lending the writing authenticity."

Jenn and my book about adult students returning to college (obviously nonfiction) only seems to work in the collective first person, though writing that can be tricky. Fortunately, we can experiment on our blog, and so far using "we" when referring to both of us and "Dennis" and "Jennifer" when individualizing seems to work best.

Now that I think about it, is that really first person? Any thoughts?


BTW...great to see you active again on Twitter, Robert.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Sorry Scott, I've not read any Skookie Stackhouse books. I would venture, however, that they are plot driven. Since you are reading Mineral Spirits, a character driven, literary mystery, make your comparison between the two books and ask yourself if plot (story) is the main focus or is it character?

As you can see in Mineral, Heather builds these unbelievably. multi-dimensional, faulted characters and THEY, rather than plot, drive the story forward. There's a definite story in her books, but character is center stage. By the way, Kip Edelson her sheriff, came from her first novel, Black Belly where he played a minor role.

Anonymous said...

The author of this blog has made a false analogy. No one is writing that the first person view is the only viable option to effectively convey a story. The point is that in the right hands and with the right mindset, first person can be effective. Your analogy of two lane roads and planes without jet engines is rather silly (and a bit of a straw man) as no one wrote that first person was always the only way to go. In fact, it makes less sense as two lane roads are still very much in use and are just as effective in getting a person from A to B in less populated areas and are not outdated in the least. Do I need to go over your other analogy as well? Look, first person can be a mess if improperly used but please, please don't needlessly insult people by implying its modern use is within the realm of amateurs.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Dear Anonymous,

So what you’re saying is that I don’t have the right to post on our agency blog that I won’t accept queries from authors who write in first person and that because I referred to that change using an analogy of not allowing two-lane roads or planes with jet engines, you believe it was false and that I’m rather silly and a bit of a straw man? Am I right so far? As far as “… in the right hands and with the right mindset, first person can be effective,” I believe if you reread this blog post and the one that follows it, you’ll not see anything that is written to the contrary.

As far as making an analogy that two lane roads were obsolete, this statement was not made in any post written by this author. The main point of the paragraph you refer to, as stated above, is that I have the right to change my submissions policies according to changes in the craft of fiction and shouldn’t be chastised for doing so. It may have not been the greatest analogy, but it’s not false. Regardless, my opinion is that there are very few writers—and yes, even published ones—who can effectively write in this narrative voice. It is probably the most abused, mishandled POV of them all, and I do believe that about 95% of those people using it fall into these categories:

1. Didn’t even think about POV and just started writing to tell a story as it plays through their heads (90%?)
2. Know what POV is, but still don’t know that the author needs to stay out of the story and so can’t implement first person effectively
3. Know or don’t know what POV is, but don’t care because they want to live vicariously through their characters
4. Know what POV is, but can’t effectively use it yet
5. Know what POV is and think their main character is strong enough and that they have skill enough to pull it off when they don’t

The other 5% are authors who purposely chose 1st person POV because they decided it was the perfect choice for the story they were writing after they contemplated the alternatives, taking into consideration which POV would be the best to ultimately provide the reader with the most satisfying reading experience possible.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the measured response, however, it wasn't my intention to throw stones at you. I never wrote that you had no right to post whatever you want on your blog. I don’t see how passing through the night criticism amounts to advocating censorship. I merely disagreed with your wording. In fact, I agree with you in principle that first person can be easily muddled. As an agent you are entitled to streamline your choices however you see fit and I just happened to wonder if such a strong proclamation was really necessary and fruitful for those prospective writers who may not query you.

Amy said...

Sorry, but this is personal preference dressed up in rather unconvincing terms in an attempt to make it look "objective." There are very good books written in first person, as in here, now, today. THE LOVELY BONES, for instance. Or THE SECRET HISTORY. Or LIVING DEAD GIRL. I personally prefer to work in third person, but claiming that first-person is absolutely a mark of self-projection -- well, somebody looks like an amateur, but it isn't the writer. It's the "expert."

By the way, where's the list of books W-M has sold? It's odd that the website doesn't link to them.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Amy, Let me say this ONE--MORE--TIME!! If you write in first person BECAUSE that's the only point of view of which you are aware, then you probably shouldn't be writing in this POV. The fact does remain that too many writers default to this because they know too little about the craft. It's like a doctor only being able to prescribe one medicine for every ailment (terrible analogy, but I'm writing fast here).

Also, if you'll go to you will see book covers there at the top. These represent some of types of books we represent. It would be impossible to link to every book and give each its due attention and update it in a timely manner. We prefer to give a general, graphic overview, like many agents do. Much simpler and just as informative.

Anonymous said...

First person is easy and dull. Just my opinion. But what do I know? One completed novel under my black leather belt and I'm still without an agent!