My first instinct is to tell them ask someone successful. For serious, it seems odd to ask for tips from Goofus when there are so many Gallants out there. But they write anyway, because they liked my books and they think I might have something useful to say. It’s extraordinarily flattering and I owe those people the respect of my best answer, whatever it’s worth.
So, with the permission of the person who emailed the questions below, I’m going to post the questions and do my best to answer them. Hopefully it’ll be informative to some of the ones of visitors my blog gets every day.
I have many ideas and have filled many notebooks about what I want to write. I am having difficulty, however, with the start up. How did you decide to do a first person versus a third person perspective? I know where I want my story to start, end, and what goes on in the middle, but still have problems constructing a full sequence. Did you create that first, or was it a flow of writing? If you created it, how did you go about that? I am also struggling with the time issue. As the father of 2 toddlers, my time gets drained fast. Do you have any tips for a writer that can only get 1-2 hours (usually 1) of dedicated writing time in a given day? If you have any advice to give to someone starting out, I would greatly appreciate it.
There’s a lot there so I’m going to break it up to address the questions with a little depth.
I have many ideas and have filled many notebooks about what I want to write. I am having difficulty, however, with the start up. How did you decide to do a first person versus a third person perspective?
Choosing between first and third (or second, or omni, or…) is a pretty big topic. The best way to address it quickly would be to cover a few basic points:
What’s traditional for the genre? (Embedded in this question: What do readers expect?)
What differing tools do each POV provide you?
How close do you want the readers to get to the characters?
The first question is pretty straightforward: grab a bunch of books from your shelf like the ones you’re writing, and see how it’s done. Boom.
The second question is more complicated, but the simplest summation I could give is this: Third person lends itself to multiple viewpoints in a way that first doesn’t. Multiple first novels never seem to work all that well for me. First person lends itself to POV character as expert stories: the detective who knows his way around the local criminal element is the classic example. First lets you skip the audience stand-in character who has everything explained to them (for the audience’s benefit) because that POV lets the character talk directly to the reader.
That’s not an exhaustive list of the differences between them by any means, but it’s a start.
The last question is where my advice seems to contradict what others think: IMO, first person POV is not as “close” as third (limited), because the POV character is describing things in their own words. In third, you’re like one of the angels in WINGS OF DESIRE, the character’s invisible buddy. In first, you’re only getting what the character wants to share.
I know where I want my story to start, end, and what goes on in the middle, but still have problems constructing a full sequence. Did you create that first, or was it a flow of writing? If you created it, how did you go about that?
This isn’t something I can address specifically because it’s so general and I haven’t read any the specific work, however I would suggest that, if you have the beginning, middle, and end but can’t connect them, you don’t really have a middle and an end yet.
A lot of people think beginnings are the easiest part. Some people hate endings. Most of the world hates doing the middle (except me–middles are cool by me). However if they don’t work together there’s only one thing you can do: throw something out.
Sometimes you’ll have a story idea for a specific character and the plot events will be based on that character. Sometimes you have a specific plot and create a character to serve it. Sometimes the plot and character create each other in a way that feels (to me) like leapfrogging.
So if the parts of a story don’t fit each other, you either need to toss the character and introduce a new one or you need a new middle and end. As far as I’m concerned, neither choice is necessarily better than the other; it’s your art and it should serve your sensibilities. All that matters is the final result.
Personally, I tend to outline the beginning and middle of the book, then start writing. It’s an act of trust for me to believe that the story elements that emerge from the creation of the book will provide an ending. So, I’m both an outliner and a non-outliner.
That won’t work for everyone, obviously, and the only way to find your best method is to try different things. Just remember that, when you outline, you’re creating a first draft. It’s a very abbreviated first draft, but it follows the same logic as any other story: don’t put in what you want it to do, but what makes sense for the characters. It’s about what they want, what resources they can bring to bear on their problems, their moral/physical/emotional limitations, and who they interact with. That’s what directs the story.
One last consideration is that many readers buy the book for the characters’ emotional journeys. They want to see them change, and to see their screwed-up relationships change, too. When you’re putting together the sequence, as you call it, pay attention to that at least as much as you pay attention to the plot logic.
I am also struggling with the time issue. As the father of 2 toddlers, my time gets drained fast. Do you have any tips for a writer that can only get 1-2 hours (usually 1) of dedicated writing time in a given day? If you have any advice to give to someone starting out, I would greatly appreciate it.
I wrote CHILD OF FIRE an hour or two every day. It’s doable. In my post called Ten Things Writers Shouldn’t Do, I talked about coming to the page cold. Try not to. You’ll make the best use of your limited writing time if you already know what you’re supposed to be writing that day when you sit down to do it.
So, one to two hours a day isn’t bad, especially if you’re the sort of person who can really buckle down for that limited amount of time because it’s so limited, if you know what I mean.
However, I have to add this: toddlers steal your time. That’s their job. They are tiny unformed people who rely on their parents and other loving adults to form them, and these early years are incredibly important. If there’s any reason at all that could justify skipping a writing day, tiny kids are it. So, be flexible about your time, at least for the toddler years. Later it will be important for kids to see their parents take time for themselves, but right now sacrifices are the order of the day. If it gets too hard, tell yourself that it gets easier as the kids get older (which is true).
Remember also the advantage that men have over women in these situations. When a father takes time away from his kids to work, he’s making a regrettable sacrifice for his career. When a mother does it, she’s a bad person. The double-standard around being a writing parent is an ugly thing, and I’ve known a lot of people who went through a divorce (or came scarily close to one) during the toddler years. The main reason: Dads leaned too hard on moms to do all the parenting while they took care of everything else (including themselves and their own ambitions) and the moms go nuts because they spent all their time with tiny dumb irrational people.
So, while it’s important to protect your writing time from outsiders who want you to spend it on them, be sure to protect your family time from your writing ambitions, and make things as easy on your kids’ mom as you can.
One thing I’ll add that wasn’t addressed in a question: It’s important to develop a feel for narrative. Call it skill, call it taste, call it talent, but the most important ability you can develop is the trick to understanding the effect your written words will have.
That comes from developing a feel for things, and that comes from studying other people’s work, retyping it, and revising your own stuff with a fresh eye. Writers need to be able to feel (accurately) the effect their words will have, and that means honing those senses and paying close attention to them.
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