Friday, January 13, 2017

I Can't Write in Third Person

Several years ago (or maybe several more than that), I saw a quote from a well-known novelist that belittled children's literature: "Anyone can write for children," this well-known novelist said, "because anyone can write in first person." (Full disclosure: the quote went something like that, and before you ask me who said it, I'll tell you that I can't remember.)

My knee-jerk reaction was one of righteous indignation: How dare said well-known novelist insult writing for kids! Kids are the only people worth writing for in the first place! But beneath the controversy, there was something sharp and true that this novelist was saying.

Writing in first person is easier than writing in third.

THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING and DON'T VOTE FOR ME are both written in first person. So is DON'T SOLVE THE PUZZLE and the next manuscript I wrote (which is on submission at the moment). So is Bonnie. So is this. So is almost everything I've written since I first signed with an agent.

I love writing in first person because it makes a novel so accessible. Readers can insert themselves into the story because the pronouns insert them into the story. But what I never considered until recently (read: what I never considered until I went back to writing in third person) is that writing in first person also makes the novel more accessible to the person writing it.

When you're writing in first person, your narrative voice and the main character's voice are, of course, one and the same. Even when you're writing in close third, there's some degree of separation between the main character and the narrator, and that separation has somehow changed the way I write, especially the connective tissue. Once I'm entrenched in a scene, I don't find it (as) difficult to write snappy dialogue, but it's in the connective tissue--the transitions between chapters, between sections, between scenes, and even between moments within the same scene--that your voice really shines through. I think that's the major difference between a good book and a great one. Good books have great scenes, but great books have great transitions that make you want to savor every word.

Because the narrative voice is the ONLY thing that makes connective tissue worth reading, the contrast between writing in first and third becomes sharper. In first person, you can borrow your MC's wit and personality to imbue transitions with more life, but you have more work to do when you're writing in third person. It's almost like you have to cultivate a whole other character, one who's never seen but whose voice is always heard.

I don't have it figured out. I'm working on two manuscripts right now, both of which are in third person, and the going has been slow, awkward, and more than slightly frustrating. But maybe I need to cut myself a little slack. Writing in third person is different than writing in first, and the sooner I figure that out, the sooner I might (finally!) make some progress.