Keep Writing

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keep writing walt stone burner

 photo by Walt Stoneburner

It’s super easy to doubt your writing. Don’t.

If you have a love for writing and a desire to write, the type of desire that compels you to do it, the type that leaves you feeling off if you’re not writing, like you haven’t brushed your teeth yet, then you should write and trust it. Everyone starts somewhere, then they start again somewhere else, then they start again somewhere else. You write, you improve.

Remember this always: Nobody can write like you. Find your voice or your style. Find what you have to say and say it. If you like a particular word you read in someone else’s writing, but it doesn’t feel quite right in yours, drop it. Use your word. Trust it.

Just write and then hone your skills. And never think writing is easy. Even when it seems to come out of you magically, there’s always more work to do to shape it, to layer it, to pull out the weeds. Don’t tell yourself things like: What’s wrong with me? Writing used to be easy for me.

That’s not true. You were tricked into thinking it was easy because you didn’t know any better. Now that you know more about writing, you realize why it’s considered a gift, a talent, an art, and a craft. You realize why not everyone in the world does such a lovely thing. It takes work, it takes a lot of thought, it takes constant learning, and it takes practice.

Don’t stop challenging yourself. Exercise your writing muscles like you do your body. And remember this other thing: A compliment to someone else is not an insult to you.

Keep writing.

Put the perspectives into perspective: First, Second, Third

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The integral act of choosing which point of view to use for your story can be difficult, but it is an important decision to make early on. Knowing and understanding the point of view from which your story is being told will help you in the shaping of it. Will it be a close, character-driven story that leads to growth and discovery, or a layered plot full of characters and twists and turns? Do you need your reader to have information that the protagonist doesn’t have, or do you want your reader to discover things along with your protagonist? Depending on the narrator, the story could change entirely. Imagine Lord of the Rings limited to Frodo’s point of view, or The Catcher in the Rye told in the omniscient, all-knowing third person.    

First Person (I, me, mine)

Examples of first person narratives: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, To kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

In first person, the author is limited to the voice, knowledge, observations, language, and experiences of the narrator. Nothing can be revealed that the narrator wouldn’t know. For instance, the feelings of another person. The narrator can observe a person’s facial expression, body language, and/or tone of voice, and come to a conclusion of how that person might feel, but unless the person explains how he’s feeling, the narrator can’t be certain.

At the same time, if the story that’s being told happened years in the past, the narrator will have more overall knowledge of the events, some mature observations to add to the narrative, and more understanding of how another person was feeling in a particular moment.

Close attention should be paid to language use. As the author, you might naturally use certain words to describe an emotion such as “morose” or “grief-stricken,” but if your narrator is a seven year old, he most likely would not. He might not even describe his emotion so much as act it out.  

Through a first person narrative, the reader gets to know the character well,  share in experiences right along with the character, connect emotionally, and therefore may care about the character on a deeper level.  Because the narrator has his limitations, the reader also has to work a little harder at understanding the world and people he’s been invited to get to know. Someone the narrator hates may very well be a good person, and this might only be shown through the character’s actions and not explained by the narrator.

Here’s an example of a first person narrative from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

Next morning I awoke, looked out the window and nearly died of fright. My screams brought Atticus from his bathroom half-shaven.

“The world’s endin’, Atticus! Please do something–!” I dragged him to the window and pointed.

“No it’s not,” he said. “It’s snowing.”

Jem asked Atticus would it keep up. Jem had never seen snow either, but he knew what it was. Atticus said he didn’t know any more about snow than Jem did. “I think, though, if it’s watery like that, it’ll turn to rain.”

In this example, Scout is the narrator and she’s an adult telling a story from her childhood. The narrative voice is more mature than Scout’s direct thoughts and dialogue, and she is able to reveal information necessary to the narrative that she may not have known as a child.

Third person (he/she)

In third person, the narrator is not the author nor the protagonist. The narrator may or may not be a character. Most commonly the third person narrator is an invisible voice and takes no part in the action or direction of the story other than telling it. The author is not limited to a character’s knowledge or voice and can be freer with language choices. Complex plots with several characters are often better told in third person.

It is not enough to simply decide to write in third person. You must then decide on the type of narrative to use.

Third person limited (sometimes this is referred to as third person subjective):

Examples of third person limited: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin

In third person limited, the author is limited to the single viewpoint of one character per scene, per chapter, or throughout the story. If the author focuses consistently on one character’s perspective throughout the story, as with first person,  an intimate relationship develops between the character and the reader. 

As noted above, in third person limited, you may decide to employ more than one character’s perspective. You would remain in one character’s head throughout a scene or chapter and then switch to another character’s perspective in the next scene or chapter. It is important that the author create distinct voices for these characters so that the narrative does not get confusing for the reader. The reader should be able to flow easily from one mind to the next without having to stop and think about whose perspective they’re in.

Here I’ve used the same passage from To Kill a Mockingbird, but switched from first person to third person limited. I’ve adjusted a few word choices because while we’re still in Scout’s head, the narrative voice may change when written in third.

In the morning Scout turned over in her bed, looked out the window and nearly died of fright.

“The world’s endin’, Atticus! Please do something–!”

Atticus appeared in her doorway half-shaven. She dragged him to the window and pointed.

“No it’s not,” he said. “It’s snowing.”

Jem asked Atticus if it would keep up. Jem had never seen snow either, but he knew what it was. Atticus said he didn’t know any more about snow than Jem did. “I think, though, if it’s watery like that, it’ll turn to rain.”

You may have noticed that while the pronoun “I” changed to “she,” the feelings this passage evoked as you read really didn’t change, nor did the images. First and third limited are closely related.

Third person omniscient

Examples of third person omniscient: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

This perspective is all-knowing. Think of a God-like narrator. He may reveal what is in any character’s mind as well as what’s going on outside the characters’ lives or behind their backs. Observations can be made that none of the characters would know or have witnessed. Most third person omniscient stories employ limitations for the sake of mystery or suspense in the narrative. The narrator holds all the information, but will only reveal what is necessary for the reader to know in a particular scene.  

Switching the same passage to third person omniscient:

Overnight the air grew cold enough to snow. Much of it melted upon landing, turning the ground to slush, but by morning the Finch’s yard was layered in white.

Everyone in Maycomb county would wake surprised, but no one more than Scout.

She looked out the window and her heart nearly stopped. Could a person die of fright?

Atticus was mid-shave when he heard her screams from the bathroom. He dropped his razor in the sink and rushed to find Scout.

Water, still pouring from the faucet, rinsed the razor clean and dribbled down the drain with a gurgle.

“The world’s endin’, Atticus! Please do something–!’ She dragged him to the window and pointed.

“No it’s not,” he said. “It’s snowing.”

Jem hoped it would keep up and asked Atticus if it would. Like Scout, Jem had never seen snow, but he’d heard enough about it to know what it was. Atticus told him he didn’t know any more about snow than Jem did. “I think, though, if it’s watery like that, it’ll turn to rain.”

Here, because the narrator is omniscient, we’re able to see and experience the snow falling even though the characters are sleeping. We’re also able to join Atticus as he drops his razor when he hears Scout’s screams, and we see what happens to the razor after Atticus leaves the room. These images would not be possible in first or third limited because Scout did not witness these occurrences. You may have noted a change in feeling, as well. Because we knew in the beginning of the passage that snow was falling and that Scout would be shocked, when Scout screamed we weren’t worried about what made her scream. We weren’t able to experience that initial fear with her. We simply watched it take  place.

Head-hopping

This is when the narrative jumps from head to head within the same scene. Each jump has to be made carefully to keep the narrative from becoming confusing. Head-hopping can be done in the omniscient perspective, but not all head-hopping narrators are necessarily omniscient; the narrative might be limited to the viewpoint of each mind hopped into.

Third person objective:

In third person objective, everything is written through observation alone. No character’s thoughts, emotions, or viewpoints are explored. This perspective reads as if seen through the lens of a camera.  

In the morning Scout awoke, looked out the window, clapped a hand to her chest and screamed. Atticus entered her room half-shaven.  

“The world’s endin’, Atticus! Please do something–!” She dragged him to the window and pointed.

“No it’s not,” he said. “It’s snowing.”

Jem peered out the window with wide eyes and asked Atticus if the snow would keep up. 

“I don’t know any more about snow than you, Jem,” Atticus said. “I think, though, if it’s watery like that, it’ll turn to rain.”

In this perspective we can’t get inside Scout’s mind to know that she’s afraid of what she sees so we have to be shown through an action such as the clapping of her hand to her chest. We also don’t know Jem’s take on snow. The author can’t tell us that Jem hasn’t seen snow before, so we have to make this assumption by observing the way his eyes widen when he peers out the window. We still don’t know that he isn’t scared. If the author wanted to make sure the reader understands that Jem isn’t scared she can have Scout ask Jem if he’s scared, to which Jem can answer that he isn’t; he knows what snow is even if he’s never seen it.

Second person (you):

Examples of books written in second person: The Fall by Albert Camus, Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins

In second person, the reader becomes the protagonist or main character. The use of this perspective is most common in poetry, songs, or self-help books. Because it is not as commonly used in long fiction, reading this form of narrative takes some getting used to for most readers. As the author, you may face more complications in keeping the reader engaged. You run a higher risk of losing the reader in a critical moment. As in the following passage, when the protagonist nearly “dies of fright,” your readers may stop in disbelief thinking they would never be that frightened of snow.

Next morning you awoke, looked out the window and nearly died of fright. Your screams brought Atticus from his bathroom half-shaven.

“The world’s endin’, Atticus! Please do something–!” You dragged him to the window and pointed.

“No it’s not,” he said. “It’s snowing.”

Jem asked Atticus would it keep up. Jem had never seen snow either, but he knew what it was. Atticus said he didn’t know any more about snow than Jem did. “I think, though, if it’s watery like that, it’ll turn to rain.”

First person narrative addressing a secondary character as “you”:

Next morning I awoke, looked out the window and nearly died of fright. My screams brought you from your bathroom half-shaven.

“The world’s endin’, Atticus! Please do something–!” I dragged you to the window and pointed.

“No it’s not,” you said. “It’s snowing.”

Jem asked you would it keep up. Jem had never seen snow either, but he knew what it was. You said he didn’t know any more about snow than Jem did. “I think, though, if it’s watery like that, it’ll turn to rain.”

A few other less common forms of narration: First person plural (The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides), first person omniscient (The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak)

As I wrote this post, I realized what a huge subject perspective is. I could have easily dedicated one post to each perspective detailed here. So if you’re left confused, overwhelmed, or with questions, feel free to ask/comment below.

What can a few words do?

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Just a few words can tell a story and make you feel.

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” — A story in six words, attributed to Ernest Hemingway, although there is no evidence proving he wrote it.

“Longed for him. Got him. Shit.” –Margaret Atwood

“Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die. But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.” –Chuck Palahniuk, Choke

“You know that place between sleep and awake, the place where you can still remember dreaming? That’s where I’ll always love you. That’s where I’ll be waiting.” –J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

“…the only people that interest me are the mad ones – the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like Roman candles across the night.” –Jack Kerouac, On the Road

“When I read obituaries I always note the age of the deceased. Automatically I relate this figure to my own age. Four years to go, I think. Nine more years. Two years and I’m dead. The power of numbers is never more evident than when we use them to speculate on the time of our dying.”  –Don DeLillo, White Noise

“She made herself stronger by fighting with the wind.” ―Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

“People have forgotten this truth,” the fox said. “But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

“I believed that I wanted to be a poet, but deep down I just wanted to be a poem.” ―Jaime Gil de Biedma

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–J.D Salinger, Franny and Zooey

How much can you do with a few words?