Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Writing Wednesday: A Novel Idea

I thought I'd go back to basics and talk about how to start a novel. Remember I've never been anywhere near the top of any best sellers list so this is like taking dieting advice from the skinniest kid in fat camp.

On his Monday former super-agent Nathan Bransford talked about first person vs third person in novels. It is definitely worth a read.

Most people who start their first novel do it in first person (I'm not most people and haven't yet attempted a first person novel). Most first time novelists take this approach because first person seems easier, you've got more freedom in your expression, grammar rules are looser, and you don't have worry about losing the reader when shifting the POV.

Now I've read that agents shy away from first person POV in novels because it is so hard to do correctly.

So, what determines if you should start your novel in first or third person POV? It depends on how strong a voice your main character has.

I ran across this little piece I wrote for Ficly a few years ago in a contest to place one famous literary figure in a different story:


So there I was, your humble narrator, with his smashed up house lying on some old bag with some real nice ruby slippers. I figured I could cop them and have a nice evening at the milk bar.

But no, all these little people have to run over and ask me, “Am I a good witch or a bad witch?” Not that I wouldn’t mind giving a few of the midget madams some of the old in and out, but I was needing to get with me dreugs for some mad capers later.

I was just about to unleash some of the old Ultra-Violence when some floating femme told me to “follow the yellow brick road.”

That was all fine and well but then the little people start singing and all, it wasn’t bad but I really could have used some of the old Ludwig Van.

So now your humble narrator is off to see the Wizard so I’ll either be sent home or he’ll be in for a little of the old Ultra-Violence, that will give him a horse of a different color.

That was pretty easy as Alex, the humble narrator, from Anthony Burgess's CLOCKWORK ORANGE has a very strong distinct voice.

If the main character is paranoid of his “Dark Passenger” you would know immediately that it is either Jeff Linsey's DARKLY DREAMING DEXTER or someone ripping him off.

To really have an effective first person novel you need to have a voice that anyone who has read your book will immediately recognize if they see it in a different setting.

So, as you ponder if you should start your novel in the first person or the third, think about how the character's voice effects the novel. If the voice is strong enough and the character's view on life is different enough to change how reader sees the novel then first person is the way to go.

If your character's view is a “normal” reaction to the things that are happening around them third person is the way to go.

Naturally the first rule in writing is that there are exceptions to every rule (including this one?). If the entire world is hiding something from your main character then first person might be the way to go. If the world you've created is so out there that the reader needs a point of reference to hang on to, first person gives the reader that anchor.

That's the one of the first things to thing about before starting a novel.


  1. I don't care for first person. I can't think of any books, off-hand, written in first person I was fond of, certainly nothing I pick up and read for pleasure.

    So I don't write that way. Simplistic but that's how it is.

  2. Stupid blogger ate my comment.

    I thought of a couple by the great Heinlein (Friday, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress) that were first person that were still terrific.

    Still, for me at least, it's the exception and not the rule.

  3. With "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" I really don't think the 1st person POV added to the book much. Other than really focus the very large scale of the war between Earth and Moon to a single point. Limited 3rd person would have worked just as well.
    It's my view that unless you have a strong reason to use the 1st person you shouldn't (in a novel). Short Stories are different.