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.

Writing Prompts…and Why I Love Them

I love, love, love writing prompts. Any size, any shape, any source. To me, anything that sparks creativity is something to be cherished — even if it comes about in an accidental sort of way.

That was what happened to me as a child one day when I took part in a “Nosebag Dramatics” game. If you’re not familiar with “Nosebag Dramatics”, this is how it works. Someone gathers an assortment of items from around the house, throws them all into a bag, then passes the bag to the performer. In this case, it was “performers” (plural) and the skits were part of our Girl Scouts “Dramatics” badge.

Our group eagerly rummaged through the bag we’d been given. I don’t recall every item, but overall, the contents had to do with personal appearance. We had a hairbrush, lipstick, a mirror, mascara. Lots of little things. We also had a store receipt at the bottom of the paper bag we’d been given. That single item — when viewed in conjunction with the others — set my imagination spinning.

“Suppose we used all of these items for a make-over,” I suggested. “And then at the end, when our customer gets the bill, she decides being beautiful isn’t worth the cost.” My troopmates loved it. With little need to practice, we performed a truly memorable skit. At the end, the bill was presented, the customer threw a fit and did an Oscar-worthy performance of messing up her hair and scrubbing the make-up from her face. We were all in stitches.

Well, all except the troop leader. “That receipt,” she informed us, “wasn’t part of the items. It was just left-over.” So? We weren’t supposed to use it, we were told — in no uncertain terms.  We were only supposed to use what we’d been given. We had somehow broken some rule we hadn’t even known existed!

But, we’d come up with a mighty fine show, the one voted as “Best Skit” of the day.

Creativity is like that. It often means breaking — or at least bending — rules and expectations. It means staying open, being willing to make last-minute changes, and above all, leaving room for lots of fun surprises.  People who insist on rigid rules and structures can easily destroy the creative spirit.

Many of my novels have had “receipts” thrown in — in other words, something that maybe wasn’t supposed to be there, but which sparked my imagination and became an integral part of the story.

When I first began making notes for Summertimethe story of a young woman coming home to the small town where she’d been born and raised, I visited one of my favorite “prompt” sites and grabbed the first random idea that appeared.

Write about an opera singer.

I changed it a bit. Instead of grand opera, Linn Sparks became a celebrity singer and star of the stage at the fictitious “Crown Theater” in San Francisco.

CatskillsWhen I began putting ideas together for Irresistible, the story of a young woman with a gloomy outlook on life, my attention was caught by a beautiful picture as I browsed “Webshots” looking for inspiration and ideas. At once the story took on a new dimension. The central character would be an aspiring artist, a woman who had lost the ability to see beauty in the world. Her dreams had been taken from her. Could the beauty of the Hudson River Valley inspire her to paint again?

I especially love “people” prompts.

Write about a Native American healer, said one prompt. That came on a day when I was a little stuck for ideas on my own. The result: Eagle Feather, who appears as a minor character in The Wrong Woman. 

I love “first sentence” prompts.

She stood behind the counter giving him this root-beer float kind of smile. That was the prompt I drew one day from “The Writer’s Toolbox“. Just playing around. Just having fun. The result? Toots, a fun little story you’ll find at “Postcard Shorts”.

I love brainstorming prompts.

“Think of a character who would be the last person you’d expect to find in your story.” That was a suggestion from one brainstorming program I found. At the time, I was writing a children’s story called Herbert and the Bully. Who suddenly popped into my head? An adorable little ballerina in a pink tutu. Gracie added many new insights to the story. Without her, it wouldn’t have been the same.

And dialogue prompts? I adore them.

“I’m not a quitter.” That was a line of dialogue that inspired Love in Any LanguageI didn’t use it as the opening line of the story. There are no rules, remember, for when, where or how we use a prompt.

I could go on and on. Breaking Up is Hard to Do, another short story, was inspired by a prompt suggesting “write about the role of technology in our lives today”. Granny’s Promise came from another dialogue prompt: “You’re next.”  I have an entire collection of short stories that were inspired by single-word prompts. 

That’s all it takes, really. A single word. A picture. A simple sentence. All can spark the imagination.

Any time I begin to feel too sure of where I’m going in my writing, I run the risk of predictability. A quick writing prompt can turn a story in an unexpected direction, open my eyes to possibilities I’d never considered before, and give a scene a fresh, new quality.

You can find writing prompts everywhere.  You can get “story-starters”, character prompts, plot generators, and other assorted goodies with only a quick search online.  A Google search for “writing prompts” produced over 17 million results — in less than one second.  You can buy prompts, you can find them for free, or you can make your own.

Grab a dictionary. Open it at random. Or grab any book. Open it and let the first three words you see spark your imagination.

Want a prompt of your own to play with? I have my “Writer’s Toolkit” close at hand.

“My brother did this weird thing with turtles.”

Turtle

OK, that’s your starting point. 

Where will you go? Who knows? But have fun getting there. That’s what writing prompts are really all about, I think. It’s about letting go of rules, forgetting logic for the moment, and heading off to a place we’ve never been before.

I’ve love to read any stories you come up with from the prompt!

Taking Notes

Yesterday morning I ordered a new notebook for myself. I’ve always liked notebooks with their neatly-lined pages, their clever spiral bindings and solid backs. I’m going to be especially fond of the one I bought today.

NotebookIt’s designed with the cover art from my latest historical romance novel, Not the Marrying Kind.  The cover was designed by Dawne Dominique, and as always, she did an awesome job of translating my garbled “author cover notes” and the pictures locked away inside my brain to the actual book cover. For those who might be interested in a steamy historical romance, Not the Marrying Kind, Book 1 of “The Sunset Series” is now available as an ebook, and will be released later this year in paperback from Secret Cravings Publishing. 

Now that I’ve put in a shameless plug for my latest book, let’s move on and get back to today’s topic.

Notebooks

Specifically, writer’s notebooks. Not necessarily ones with your cover art, but ones you use as a writer. You do use a notebook, don’t you?

Writers tend to come up with odd thoughts at inconvenient times. Some authors keep notepads at their bedside in order to scribble down those random ideas — or dreams — that pop into their heads as they drift off to sleep. Other authors I’ve known have given up on the old-fashioned pen and paper methods and now record thoughts and impressions — as well as images — with cell phones.

Technology definitely offers us new possibilities as writers! At least, as long as we can figure out how to use it.

I remember how excited I was when I first got Microsoft Word 2010 and discovered the “Notes” feature. What an idea!  I loved the ability to quickly and easily makes notes while I was working on-line…or, that is, I probably would have loved it if I’d ever truly understood how to utilize the feature. I tried. It was confusing, complicated, and for me, far more trouble than it was worth. I made notes but could never find them again. I’ll go back to the old-fashioned, tried-and-true method of putting pen or pencil to paper in my old-fashioned spiral-bound notebook.

What about YOU?

This post — despite my brazen attempt to show off my new story — isn’t about me and my writing notebooks. I know what I keep in mine, and before you ask, yes, I know what a confused, disorganized mess my writing notebooks usually become. I’m not sure there’s an easy, orderly way of compiling random bursts of inspiration or the sudden shoutings of the voices in my head. Might be nice, but it hasn’t happened in all the years I’ve been writing. I don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.

I scribble down lots of sentences. Random thoughts that slip into my head.  Things my characters might think or say.

I put down descriptions now and then, thoughts and impressions about places I go, such as that delightful candle shop with all its fragrant, waxy scents rushing at me when I open the door and step inside. Sometimes I paint “word pictures” of the morning skies in hopes of remembering the streaks of gold that herald the arrival of the new day.

What about YOU? What do you capture in your writing notebooks? Do you keep separate tabs? Have you found a way to organize it all?

  • Dialogue
  • Character profiles
  • Names
  • Descriptions
  • Scene sketches
  • Ideas
  • Titles
  • Themes

What’s in your notebook? What methods do you use to record your ideas? Do you include photos? Drawings? Doodles?

An Experiment

I recently read a writer’s challenge: Capture an entire day in a notebook.

What? Are you out of your mind? A whole day? From waking to sleeping? I suppose it would be a good experience, and it would surely result in much fodder for fiction. Still, it seems a bit daunting to think of recording an entire day of personal experiences — every conversation, every activity, every morsel of food eaten, every place visited. Nice idea, but I think I’ll pass, thank you.

Of course, much of that information could be included in a personal journal. Maybe not every moment of every day, but the highlights. Those unforgettable moments, those well-spoken words, those special people who’ve touched our lives on that particular day.

So, I’m asking you again. What’s in your writing notebook? Is it “fiction only”? Or do you use it as a personal journal? Do you save  your journals? Forever? What stories or poems have you created from the ideas in your journal?

I hope you’ll leave a comment on this post and share a few thoughts about your writing notebooks or your journals.  I intend to make good use of my new notebook, not just as an advertising tool, but as a reminder of my own creative dreams. Yes, those wild and crazy ideas that come into our heads can turn into stories that can become books for others to read and enjoy.

Writing always begins with a thought…so capturing our thoughts and saving them might just be a good thing to do.

Now…your thoughts, please?

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