Sharing: Third-Person to First

I’ve been reading Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, in which he suggests that writers and artists should share information about their creative process.

I’ve decided to do just that. At the end of every day, I intend to tweet about what writing I did. From time to time, I’ll also write blog posts. So consider this the first installment of an ongoing feature.

First, some background. On November 7, my next novel comes out: ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS WERE SOMEONE ELSE’S FAULT. In it, four students at the University of Waterloo gain superpowers. My plan has always been to make a four-book series, with each book centering on one of the students.

The first book is told by Kim Lam in first-person, past tense. The second book, THEY PROMISED THE GUN WASN’T LOADED, is told by Jools Walsh in first-person, present tense. I turned in that book to my editor in August. Afterward, I took some time to work on short stories and other projects, but I started Book 3 around the start of October.

My original plan was to write Book 3 in third-person past tense, and Book 4 in third-person present tense. That way, each of the four books would have a very different feel. So I started Book 3 and wrote about 2000 words. Then I started again with a different approach and wrote about 4000 words. Then I started again and got to 8000. Each version described the same events but with a different flavor and tone of voice.

This is standard procedure for me. I try different ways to get into a story, with different tones of voice and ways of opening up the action. Sooner or later, something clicks and I can proceed to get into the meat of the story.

But my attempts to use third-person, past tense just weren’t working. They were too distant. I originally thought this would be okay, because Book 3 centers on the character of Miranda, and she’s quite a private person. In fact, I could easily believe that if Miranda sat down to tell this story herself, she’d write it in the third-person to impose a sense of separation.

But I didn’t like the effect. For one thing, it wasn’t as funny as the first two books; third-person wasn’t personal enough to allow wry comments and turns of phrase. It also wasn’t as energetic as Miranda herself. She’s a strong quirky character. That wasn’t coming across.

So a few days ago, I decided to start again. A phrase popped into my head: Dear [Redacted]…. (I’ve omitted the name because I think there’s a good chance I’ll change my mind on who it is, and I don’t want to set up false expectations.) The idea is that Miranda is writing a letter to someone she met in the course of the adventure, and telling them how everything worked out.

I find this idea interesting; I think it will work. So I’ve started another iteration, this time writing in first-person past tense, the way you’d write a letter. I think this will make the voice sufficiently different from the first two books that Book 3 will sound like it comes from a brand new narrator. The epistolary format also justifies certain kinds of exposition: the personĀ Redacted isn’t familiar with a lot of the world’s background, so there’s an excuse for Miranda to fill in backstory while she’s telling the tale.

I have high hopes for this approach. So far I like the chemistry. I’ve got about 4000 words in the new tone of voice and another 4000 to go before I match what I’ve already got. After that, we’ll see what happens when I finish revising existing material and start something new. Wish me luck!

Writing References

On Friday, October 13, I led a writing workshop for Can-Con in Ottawa. To make life easier for me at the workshop, and also to share a useful list for any writers out there, here are some books that I’ve found useful as references.

(Since the workshop is in Ottawa, all book links are to Amazon Canada. This is simply for my own convenience; if you want to buy a copy of any of these, visit your favorite bookstore or web site.)

Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer
A quirky but useful general introduction to writing science fiction and/or fantasy
Into the Woods, by John Yorke
One of my favorite books on story structure and plot
Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. Le Guin
One of the few books that deals with the nitty-gritty of actually telling
stories, down to the word and sentence level. It’s not a beginner book, but it’s a book to read when you’re ready to get serious about prose.
A First Page Checklist by Ray Rhamey (PDF)
Since the workshop I’m doing is specifically on openings, this is a useful set of points to consider, even if you decide to let some slide

As time goes on, I may add more to this list. I’ve just begun working on the start of the third book in the “Dark vs. Spark” series, and as part of the process, I’ve picked up a number of other writing books that have been recommended to me. For the moment, however, the books above are a great place to start.

While I’m at it, let me add that all writers should carry something that they can immediately use to make notes. Your phone doesn’t count if you won’t actually use it, nor does it count if you don’t review those notes within a day of making them and then store them in a searchable format.

For years, I’ve been using normal 3×5 index cards; I put 3 or 4 in the back pocket of my pants where they lie nice and flat but are immediately available for writing. After writing on a card, I leave it by my computer so I can transcribe it ASAP, either into a text file, Evernote, or Scrivener. The nice thing about index cards is that they’re cheap, and if they get crushed, or wet with rain, or whatever, I can just throw them out and grab another handful. It’s like a notepad that never runs out of pages!