Fiction writing: first or third person?

If you’re writing fiction, and have ever been tripped up by point of view, April Henry has some spot-on observations about the advantages of each.


When it comes to writing fiction, I’ve discovered that my weak point is point of view. Every novel-length project I’ve attempted (and one that I’ve completed) has at some point been rewritten to change the viewpoint from third person to first (or back the other way).

Much of the contemporary crime fiction I admire (by authors such as Michael Connelly, Reginald Hill, and Ian Rankin) is written in third person. Hill uses an omniscient narrator to shift back and forth between multiple characters — very tricky to pull off without leaving the reader feeling cheated. The best known of the female private eye stories (written by Sue Grafton and Janet Evanovich), use traditional private-eye first person. It’s colorful, immediate, and credible but runs the risk, particularly in Grafton’s alphabet series (B is for Burglar, etc.), of sounding whiney.

It was a relief to read this post from mystery writer April Henry in which she describes making the switch — one way for one of her books, and the other way for another. Both times she changed the point of view at the request of her editor, and both time she was glad she did.

If you’re writing fiction, and have ever been tripped up by point of view, April has some spot-on observations about the advantages of each.

If not now, when?

Creating Passionate Users is urging readers to “make something amazing, right now.” Ignore the constraints, lose the excuses and, as that old slogan goes, “just do it.”

There’s much to be said for this approach, particularly if you’re surrounded by ditherers in a hidebound traditional organization.

However, as someone who moves in entrepreneurial circles, I often find myself in exactly the opposite position. I see people leaping madly from project to project, enterprise to enterprise, today’s idea to tomorrow’s fancy. They don’t seem to produce much of anything, and often they acquire an alarmingly overdeveloped capability for…leaping.

Fortunately, there are some opportunities to do new things which are at once intoxicatingly challenging and realistically structured.

One of them is Seattle Mind Camp. Now in version 3.0, this is a 24-hour gathering of 250 self-selected technology types who take over a building full of meeting spaces in order pose and address questions all day and through the night. Inventions, friendships, and even companies, have emerged from previous Mind Camps. I expect I’ll have something more specific to say about Mind Camp after I’ve done it (Nov. 11-12); if you’re interested, sign up (50 spaces are available as of this writing) and I’ll see you there.

Another creative-but-structured challenge is the month-long NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. Thousands of aspiring novel writers participate, and fortunately they don’t have to spend all that time together in the same building. Instead, online and local support groups are formed in which writers cheer each other along. And each writer gets a page on the NaNoWriMo site to track word count and make exerpts available for others to read.

I’ll be “doing NaNoWriMo” for the first time this year. My plan is to overhaul and expand a New England crime fiction novel I’ve been working on sporadically for several years. This is the perfect opportunity to apply some of the novel-structuring techniques I learned in Matt Briggs‘ recent class offered through Media Bistro.

I expect that as I scribble my way through NaNoWriMo I’ll think back often on two old college friends, Ed and Michael. Ed, even at that age, identified himself as a writer. Michael was already a well-recognized folk and jazz musician. We frequently got together when Michael had a gig in town. As we walked along Chapel Street one night after one of Mike’s performances, Ed launched into an amusing comparison of the musician’s life with that of the writer. His bitter conclusion: “I can’t invite beautiful women to come over and watch me write all evening!”

Welcome to Writer Way

After three years of writing a personal rant-n-rave lifestyle blog and two years of “ghost blogging” for corporate clients, I decided it was time to create a blog for my professional life.

And just what is my professional life?

To paraphrase Mark Morris, “I’m a writer; I write!”

I sold my first article (to a New Haven alternative weekly) at 21, and have made my living as a writer since then. My BA is in psychology, but in my mid-20s I took the year-long Master’s program at the Columbia Journalism School. Since then I’ve worked as a newspaper reporter, freelance travel writer, communications director, desktop publisher, developmental editor, communications consultant, newsletter editor, magazine managing editor, book reviewer, web content writer, and website managing editor. I currently write for a search engine optimization marketing company and edit ebooks for an online publishing house.

So, this blog will be about writing and editing, right?

Not exactly. It’ll be about being a professional writer/editor. As Mark Lewis of Painter Creativity points out, being great at what you do is only 25 percent of the creative person’s equation. The other 75 percent is about honing and applying business skills such as self-discipline, financial management, marketing, organization, decision-making, client communication, ethics, and common sense.

It was Lewis’ post “Top 10 Lies Told to Naive Artists and Designers” and his advice on protecting yourself from the liars that inspired me to start blogging about the writing life. This blog is where I’ll write about what’s working for me, what I’m struggling with, and the tools I discover along the way. I’ll get to say some of the things I want to say (but don’t) when newbies in my business networking group start chanting their blue-sky mantras, like the one about how you must bend over backwards to please prospective clients, no matter how flaky and unreasonable those clients are.

I’m hoping that wisdom such as Lewis’ (no doubt hard won) can save us all some pain; I’ll be posting more such stories, tips, and reviews as Writer Way evolves.

(Thanks to excellent writing blog Finding the Right Words for pointing out Lewis’ site.)

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