I Am What I Am

It was cartoon-character Popeye who uttered those words…more or less. Actually, what he said was slightly different:

Yam

Let’s not quibble about a word or two. In return, I promise not to go on at great lengths about spinach, about Alma, Arkansas — known as “The Spinach Capital of the World”– or about the body’s need for vegetables. All good topics, truly, but not what we’re here to talk about today.

Today, the topic is POV — or, for those who don’t care for acronyms, point of view. Specifically, first person point of view. You know, where you write from a personal perspective, where you talk about yourself, and share your thoughts and feelings.

Right now, I’m using first-person point of view as I write this. Notice that all-important letter?

Letter I

It might not look like much, but it’s a powerful word in the English language, a word that gives voice to our thoughts, a word that defines who we are, a word that captures our life experience so that we may share it with others.

Beginning writers are often encouraged to write stories from the first person point of view. There are advantages, indeed.

  • Writing in first person is a natural extension of our thought process. We’re always sharing thoughts with friends, talking about events in our lives. Quite simply, we spend a lot of time talking about ourselves.
  • Every writer possesses a unique voice. Writing first-person pieces may lead us toward a greater understanding of our own voice, allowing us to further refine it and develop it.
  • The first-person POV can be a powerful one because it creates such a strong bond between reader and narrator.  Everything — sights, sounds, emotions, thoughts — becomes real as the reader experiences the events “first-hand”.
  • It’s often easier to include backstory when using a first-person narrative. The information shared is seen as an integral part of the story, not as something “dumped-in” to benefit the reader.
  • Using the first-person point of view can help writers avoid “POV violations” or “head-hopping”. Obviously, the narrator can only report what he or she has witnessed or thought. If I’m writing about what’s going on at my dinner table, for instance, I can’t suddenly jump to a scene across town in your kitchen.  I can speculate about what you’re serving — spinach, maybe? — but I can do that only from my own first-person point of view.

There are disadvantages, too, in this point-of-view. Perhaps the most significant is the last point mentioned above. Yes, first-person helps avoid POV violations, but it does so because of the restrictions it places upon the author. Many stories require knowledge of different events occurring in different places. Multiple points of view — when correctly used — allow the author far greater freedom in storytelling, resulting in a richer and more complex story for the reader.

Another problem in using the first person point of view is that it’s often hard to truly break away from who we are. When we write a story, we’re not really writing about ourselves, even when we use first person. We’re telling the story from the character’s perspective. In other words, we must become the narrator, not the other way around.

There are many pitfalls involved here. When we’re writing in first person, it can be too easy to be “too nice”. We’re apt to emphasize all the good points of the narrator rather than highlight the faults and foibles — those things that contribute to character growth, dramatic conflict, and meaningful storytelling.  Carried to an extreme, the result can be a boastful, braggart of a character that no reader will like.  At best, a “nice” narrator can quickly get tiresome and boring.

If you’re going to write from a first-person point of view, be willing to dig deep emotionally. Express who you are — the character you’re portraying — in an honest fashion. That means showing the warts and all. 

All of which brings up another point to consider. Do you really want to get inside the mind of your character?  What if you’re writing the tale of a maniacal serial killer? Telling a tragic story of sexual abuse? Sharing a story about depression or mental illness? Do you really want to be that narrator? Can you do it convincingly? A lot of good writers can, but it’s not easy. Sometimes slipping into the mind and body of a character is painful, indeed.

One final consideration, of course, is the conventional standards of the genre in which you write. For me, as a romance writer, the question of POV has always been simple. The convention has been to use third-person points of view for both the hero and the heroine of the story. In the past, it was a rare romance novel that broke that rule and dared use first-person.

On the other hand, some storytelling formats demand first-person. The “true confession” market — a very lucrative market, by the way — requires that all stories be told by a first-person narrator. Makes sense, really. It’s not much of a “confession” if it comes second-hand.

Today, of course, the standards aren’t so strict. With more authors publishing their own work, rules are being cast aside in favor of creative design and author preference. Keep in mind, though, that many readers of genre fiction do still want the traditional styles. Romance readers might be willing to accept a first-person story, but given a choice, they might opt for the more familiar style of storytelling.

Whether or not you use first-person point of view in novel-writing or in creating short stories is your decision, of course. Even if you choose not to write from the first-person perspective, the ability to do so is a useful skill to have.

To help develop your first-person point of view, you might make regular entries in a journal, jotting down your thoughts, your impressions, your emotions.

Another good exercise is to sit quietly for a moment or two, and then write down your sensory experiences. What did you hear during that time? What did you see? What was the temperature? The lighting? Learning to capture details like this will improve your writing no matter what point of view you use, of course.

Play around with first-person word prompts. Even a simple sentence starter will get you going. Try these:

I am

I want

I hate

I used to be

I am going to

First person POV can be insightful, entertaining, and attention-getting. It can also be dull, disastrous, and disappointing. Give it a try, recognize it as a good tool to keep in your writer’s kit, and know when to pull it out and use it.

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Point A to Point B

My thoughts are jumping all over the place today. I’ve been thinking a bit about the Oscars, about film-making, about the NPR series on movie-set jobs, and about the recent death of Maria von Trapp, one of the daughters of the famous family of singers whose story was told in The Sound of Music.

These thoughts led me on to new places…like this admittedly bad joke — which happens to be one of my favorites:

AcornWhat did the little acorn say when it grew up?

“Geometry!”

Uh, yeah, for the humor-challenged, that’s “Gee, I’m a tree.”

Are you seeing any patterns here? No? Good. You’re not supposed to see any patterns. There are none.

From geometry, my mind skipped ahead to Arthur Zulu, an ambitious fellow from Nigeria whose creative mind allowed him to bypass the usual letter-scam routine and promise millions to be made from writing best-sellers. He’ll tell you precisely how to do it in an amusing little book, How to Write a Bestseller.

Yes, I read it. Hey, it was free! And I do enjoy a good laugh, otherwise why would I appreciate silly riddles about acorns?

What? You’ve never heard of best-selling author, Arthur Zulu? Don’t feel bad. Nobody else has either, so apparently he’s failed to follow his own advice.

qm

Question: Is it wrong for me to poke a bit of fun at this enterprising fellow? Probably so. But, he’s the one who stuck his neck out and claimed to have the answers. 

The process, Zulu tells us, is simple, indeed. A best-seller needs a good title, so choose one wisely. Next, consider the beginning of the story. Something to “hook” the reader would be good. Write that down. Now, think of the ending. Great! You’re making excellent progress. All you must do now is fill in the rest of the story. It’s that easy.

In fairness to Arthur Zulu, he does include some information about the publishing industry, biographies of many best-selling authors, and a staggering array of facts and figures that made my eyes glaze over. He’s thrown in some motivational words, as well. You can do it, he says, if you really believe in yourself.

By now, you can probably see how my mind tends to skip around, bouncing from one thought to another, ping-ponging between seemingly unrelated ideas, and wandering far off-course at any point from A to B.

That’s what this is really all about, you see. Point A. Point B. The distance between them, and most of all, how to get from one to the other.

Back to, yes, geometry.

Geometry

Oh, by the way, I just read a fascinating article in Discover magazine about art and mathematics, and maybe you’d like to check it out.

Mathematical Masterpieces

All right. Back to writing. Point A. Point B.

Storytelling truly is a simple process of getting from one point to another. Most writers, I think, believe the best way to get from beginning to end is a straight-forward, linear course with each scene written in a logical sequence according to its chronology within the story.

In other words, you can’t write a love scene between Bob and Mary until they’ve met. You can’t write about the hero locating the hidden treasure before he’s given the map. You most assuredly can’t write that fateful scene where your heroine renounces love and swears to run away to the convent before you’ve done that crucial scene where she sees the man she loves in the arms of that awful other woman…can you?

Sure, you can. I do it all the time.  Especially at the start of a new project, when I have thousands of uncharted words to explore. All possibilities are open, and my imagination is free to wander.

Much like a film director who shoots scenes at one location — regardless of where they fit in the story — then moves to another, I jump around in my scene-writing.

Of course, I have a general outline to guide me. I know who my characters are and the problems they’ll face. I have an understanding of how they will grow and change at each stage of the story.

Armed with a list of potential scenes, I’ll sit down and start writing — in no particular order. I’ll grab a scene from the middle of the story, take a deep breath, and plunge in. No, I don’t know exactly what’s gone before. I have no idea what will go into the scene directly before it, but at the first-draft stage, I don’t need to know.

Or, more to the point, I don’t want to know. I don’t want to place any restrictions upon my thoughts. I don’t want my imagination to be confined to what seems logical. Instead, I want freedom. I want to throw in whatever ideas come into my head. I want to pull out all the stops and wring out every last drop of drama without some nagging voice inside my head saying, “Wait, that’s not going to work. That doesn’t fit. That doesn’t make sense.”

When I’m free to write as I please, my characters are free, as well. They can unleash whatever emotions are churning inside of them. They can speak their minds. They can do whatever they must.

Later, of course, comes the task of assembling it all, putting it into order, and making sense of the jumbled mess.  As crazy as it all sounds, it’s really not so difficult. The huge, dramatic points I’ve created serve as guideposts, showing me the proper direction the story should take. I arrange and re-arrange, I shuffle, I tweak. It comes together with a depth of emotion that I don’t believe would have ever been possible had I simply written the story is a logical, one-scene-after-another method.

In truth, yes, I sometimes find myself with great scenes that don’t fit anywhere in the story. When writing Summertime, set during the early days of World War I, I had a heart-wrenching scene where the hero, Ed Ferguson, learns of his brother’s death. Good scene. But it didn’t work on a number of levels. I threw it out. It happens.

The emotions, however, remained with me as I wrote these lines in the “final draft” process:

He kept staring after Johnny, kept waiting for him to stop, but his brother walked on, splashing through the rainy morning, his bulky figure getting smaller as each step put more distance between him and Ed. Finally, he stepped beyond the horizon into the clouded gray day.

Ed swallowed, hard. No man could ever know the future with any certainty, but something in his gut told him he’d never see his brother again.

People are often aghast when I describe my “hit and miss, here and there” writing style.  I’ll admit, I once thought all stories had to be written one scene after another in logical, linear fashion. How could it be otherwise?

But, thank goodness I trusted the workings of my muse and allowed my imagination to wander. Getting from Point A to Point B isn’t always about following a single, straight line. Sometimes the creative power we seek lies in the little detours along the way.

Get off the well-walked road from time to time. Shake up your writing routines. Give yourself the freedom to write your story in any order you want. After all, maybe that logical, straight-forward story you’re trying to tell isn’t meant to be quite so logical and straight-forward. Maybe when you shuffle it all around inside your head, you’ll see new ideas emerging that will make your story fresh and new.

Have fun…and happy writing!