A Brain Link and Blog Holiday

The holiday season is here, along with the sporadic internet access that it often entails. Therefore, the blog is also on holiday until after the New Year. I have grand plans of hunkering down with the work-in-progress during my downtime -- we'll see if that actually happens

I leave you with a link. Denver Bibliophile wrote an article about the same study that Narrative and the Brain was based on. He has some interesting things to say about using scripts in narrative.

See you in 2010!

Theory of Mind and Character Interaction (When You Reach Me)

Note: Thanks to Iapetus for inspiring this post with his comment on The Fundamental Attribution Error and Character Sympathy

The False Belief Task is often used by psychologists to test social cognition. One version goes something like this.

1. Sally has a favorite marble. She puts her marble in a basket, and then leaves the room.
2. Anne, being very mean, enters the room when Sally is not there and and moves the marble to the cupboard.
3. When Sally comes back into the room, where does she look for her marble?

If you answered, the basket, then congratulations, you have well developed theory of mind abilities. Of course, Sally doesn't find the marble there. She has a false belief about the location of the marble.

The tasks seems trivially easy for adults, but kids below the age of five consistently say that Sally will look for the marble in the cupboard, where Anne put it. It seems that the ability to represent someone else beliefs as something different from what you know about the world develops later on in childhood.

But even though adults can do the Sally-Anne task, we sometimes still fall prey to the mistaken notion that other people think the same way we do. Lets take an example from When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead.

Sixth grader Miranda doesn't like Julia because she's annoying. When making self portraits in art class, Julia asks for "cafe au lait" construction paper to match her skin. She also brags about the fancy vacations she takes with her parents and shows off all the souvenirs her parents buy her. Miranda can't understand why her friend Annemarie used to be best friends with Julia.

One day, Julia shows up at the restaurant where Miranda and Annemarie work. Miranda first worries that the restaurant owner will invite Julia to work with them. But to her surprise, Jimmy (the restaurant owner) immediately kicks Julia out of the restaurant and tells her never to come back. Miranda is delighted.

"Out," Jimmy said, practically growling. "Now."
After she left, I pretended along with Annemarie that Jimmy was a little bit crazy, but as we walked back to school with our cheese-and-lettuce sandwiches, I carried a new warm feeling inside. Jimmy could be a grouch, but he saw right through Julia, just like I did.

See how Miranda automatically assumed that Jimmy disliked Julia for the same reasons she did? It's only later that she realizes Jimmy had completely different reasons. Julia was black, and Jimmy didn't want her around because he believed black people were genetically wired to be dishonest. It was a nice twist and an important moment of growth for Miranda.

Have you ever read or written anything that used false belief to good dramatic effect?

What killed omniscient POV?

Today's post is inspired by a conversation I had with Simon Larter and Jordan McCollum in the comments of Subtle Narration in the Graveyard Book.

Omniscient viewpoint, where the narrator can access the thoughts in every character's head, was popular in older literature. Nowadays, however, most books are written in a limited viewpoint, confined to the thoughts of one or a few characters. (Just to complicate things, limited POV with multiple narrators is also called Limited Omniscient, but for the purposes of this article, I'm just referring to the godlike omniscient narrator).

So lets speculate. What do you think killed omniscient point of view?

A few possibilities from our discussion:

1. It's a natural progression. The visual arts progressed from 2D cartoonlike ancient and medieval drawings to realistic 3D images as artists learned from the ones who came before them. Perhaps similarly, the art of storytelling has progressed from omniscient viewpoint to a more realistic limited viewpoint. (Jason Black has an interesting post on a similar idea.)

2. Changing societal norms. In How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James Frey says that society was important in Victorian times. Therefore, it was important to know everybody's thoughts in order to get society's viewpoint. Is limited POV on the rise now because society's role is less important?

3.Individualism - This is related to point two. Perhaps a rise in individualistic culture makes modern readers want to identify with one person at a time.

4. Freud - Is it the rise of Freudian thought and the desire to know the various motivations, conscious and subconscious, within an individual?

5. Just random chance - Or maybe we're overthinking things, and limited POV is popular for the same reason bellbottoms were popular in the seventies and crocs were popular a few years ago.

What do you think? Are there any literature folks who know of research on this?

How to Pull Off an Amazing Plot Twist (When You Reach Me)

I wasn't quite sure what to do about this post. When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, has the best executed plot twist ending I've ever read. I want to pick it apart and blog about why it's amazing, but it's such a good ending that I don't want to ruin it for people, even if I put up a spoiler warning.

So I opted for a compromise -- I'm analyzing this plot twist in very abstract terms. If enough people tell me that this post makes no sense, I might post a version with concrete examples and the world's biggest spoiler warning in red flashing letters.

When You Reach Me had all the elements of a good twist ending. For me, this means three things.

1. The ending was hard to predict.
2. Even though the ending was hard to predict, it fit in with the rest of the story. My pet peeve with TV shows is when crazy things happen with no warning (*cough* 24 *cough*). Anybody can write in a completely unpredictable plot twist, but only with the good ones can you go back through the earlier portions and find elements that foreshadowed it.
3. The ending adds a new dimension to the story. A good twist ending will introduce new questions or themes. For example, the ending to the classic movie Planet of the Apes brought up questions about the nature of humanity. Ender's Game also does a good job with this, taking time at the end to explore the implications of its plot twist.

What really made When You Reach Me exceptional was the sheer number of clues Stead managed to cram in the the rest of the book without giving away what happens in the end. How did she manage to pull that off?

Well, here are some contributing factors.

1. Out of order narration -When You Reach Me is narrated in two interwoven threads. One is narrated in present tense. The other tells the backstory and is narrated in past tense. A while back, I blogged about A Northern Light, which also uses this strategy. I thought the approach was confusing in A Northern Light, and I also thought it confusing here. However, it did mix things up enough so that it was hard for a reader to piece the story together.

2. Clues that blend in with the rest of the narrative - Stead's narrator and the world she lives in (1970s Manhattan) are rather quirky. This makes it easier for Stead to work in bizarre clue elements without having them seem out of place.

3. Multiple storylines and red herrings - The main storyline revolves around some notes sent to the main character (Miranda) that seem to predict the future. In addition to this mystery, however, there are multiple subplots, as Miranda loses old friends, makes new friends, gets a job, and generally navigates 6th grade life. The subplots make it hard for the reader to guess which details pertain to the main question. Also, there is at least one red herring -- a seemingly important detail that turns out to be irrelevant.

4. Everything hinges on one thing, and that thing is really hard to guess -- Ultimately, what makes this plot twist so unexpected was just that it was really out there. The possibility just doesn't occur to people. Because the revelation was so unexpected, Stead was able to cram the beginning with all sorts of clues without having readers make that final leap.

What makes a good plot twist? How do you handle yours? (Please do your best not to give things away about this book or others in the comments!)

Conversation with Alan Rinzler About Reading and the Brain

I recently spoke with Alan Rinzler, an editor with John Wiley & Sons, about reading and the brain. You can check out the interview on his blog.

Does Your Voice Change?

Note: Remember the post a while back on Voice Finding Techniques, based on Will Write for Shoes: How to Write a Chick Lit Novel by Cathy Yardley? We have a special treat today -- a guest post on voice, from Cathy herself! Cathy writes women's fiction in several genres. You can find out more about her at her website.

Livia was nice enough to post about some “voice-finding” exercises I had written in my book Will Write for Shoes. Reading the comments, someone had written that her voice changes when she writes different things. I suggested that even authors who write for different genres have a recognizable voice, or voice element, that serves as a through-line for all their work.

I mentioned it on an author’s loop, and we got into a spirited discussion of whether or not you can have “character authors” the way you have character actors – people who are noted for brilliant work, but who are also able to defy pigeon-holing by working in vastly different areas. There are very few authors who work across different genres with any degree of success. We attributed that to the readerships: genre readers tend to like seeing one kind of book from authors, and are unhappy when they shell out eight to twenty-nine dollars for a book that then isn’t at all what they were expecting. It’s not a matter of whether the author has the talent to branch out – it’s whether readers will accept a voice change.

Of the authors who could straddle different genres, the one I focused on was Margaret Atwood. She can write touching, startling women’s fiction, then smack you with a dystopian sci-fi with equal skill. But I also think that she has a very strong “voice” through all her work. It’s a little removed, almost aloof, which only underlines the usually brutal things going on. She’s got great descriptions and a clinically lyrical voice, is the only way I can describe it. Sort of a cold poetry. I love her work, although I can only read it in measured doses.

I’ve written within the women’s fiction genre: romance, Chick Lit, erotica, some YA. I’ve always dealt with stories that showcase women’s journeys. My voice tends to be humorous; Will Write for Shoes is probably the closest to my speaking voice. I also know that the humorous aspect has influenced my writing choices. Chick Lit and humor? Big yes. Slapstick erotica? Not so much, at least not according to my editor.

After speaking with my editor, I wrote darker, more intense stories. I’d like to think I was successful, but I also know it wasn’t as comfortable a fit. That doesn’t mean I’m trapped writing light and fluffy stories. It does mean that I’ll stuff banter into any situation possible; that if I don’t lighten my stories with some kind of humor it winds up as angsty as a teenager’s diary; and that I need to take my writing (and my life) a lot less seriously as a general rule.

How about you? How would you describe your writing voice? What’s your through-line?

The Seduction of the Brain Picture

When I posted my article on Narrative and the Brain a few weeks ago, I had no idea it would be my most popular article by far, both in terms of article views and in terms of number of times it was shared on different social media.

It's nice to see people as excited about neuroscience as I am. I'll try to tie in more of the relevant brain stuff in future posts as it relates to writing and literature. However, I also feel some responsibility to make sure my readers are well equipped to interpret brain imaging results. Because brain data has a rather high "sexy" factor, it's easy for it to get overblown or misinterpreted in the popular press.

More Discussion on Writing Rules

There were a lot of interesting comments on the Neil Gaiman Breaks Writing Rules post. I thought I'd highlight some of them to continue the discussion.

Several commenters drew parallels between writing and other art forms.

Emily Bryan: When I studied music composition in college, one of the first rules we were taught was no parallel fourths. Then I went to my first Pucinni opera and how does the overture start? With parallel fourths.

Rules exist because only the masters of the craft know how to break them successfully.

Kat: I also studied music composition like EmilyBryan, and yeah, the rules are there to stop intermediate composers from shooting themselves in the foot. They're generally good guidelines that help make things sound better.

It's probably the same with the writing rules. For beginning or intermediate writers, the rules probably help them express their ideas better. For masters, perhaps they've gone beyond the need for rules, just like a good jazz player who can't remember the names of chords anymore.

HowDidUGetThere:I find that those who really know the rules are the best ones to break them. That breaking the rules is an art in and of itself.

Take Picasso for example. Never been a big fan of his-- too disjointed for my taste-- but I went to his museum in Paris and saw how wonderful his early works were.

He knew what he was doing, and I assume had the respect of his contemporaries on some level. So when he took art to a new level it was a break through, rather than a failure. I think this aspect is often forgotten.

I'm not an art historian, but that lesson wasn't lost on me. Art seems to be easier to put side by side, in chronological order, for anyone to see the progression. Books take a bit longer!

Amitha was the only commenter to say that she didn't like Neil Gaiman's approach. Is there anybody else out there who would have preferred it if he hadn't broken the "rules" discussed in the previous post?

(For those who didn't read the last post, the principles were 1)Don't break POV and 2)Build the plot and increase the tension with every scene, taking out any scenes that do not advance the plot.)

Amitha: I actually didn't like that it was an episodic kind of a book. No matter how well episodic books are written, I have trouble picking them back up after putting it down. For the Graveyard Book, I got stuck for a long time on one of the early chapters. I think he did this in part because he was trying to parallel the Jungle Book in some ways but for me it was like reading a book of short stories (which I generally don't read) :P Towards the end though, it became less episodic and I found it much more interesting.

That being said, I totally agree that you can break the rules and still have a great book. It's just really hard while you're writing to tell whether or not you're one of the people who can pull it off ;)

And finally, Graham had an interesting comment about how readership affects "the rules:

Graham: "The rules" exist for the reader's benefit. The more closely they are followed, the wider the audience your book will have. They ensure that your writing stays within the comfort zone of the largest number of readers. The more your writing moves outside this comfort zone, the smaller your audience will be. Each of us, as writers, picks the audience we want to appeal to. "Head hopping" is harder work for for the reader but we might still choose to write for those readers who find it easy, or who are prepared to put in the effort.

Further thoughts, anyone?

Neil Gaiman Breaks Writing Rules! (The Graveyard Book)

If you hang around writing blogs and craft books well enough, you'll start absorbing commonly held principles of good writing. Two common ones are:

1. Don't break point of view (POV). Headhopping is disorienting for the reader.
2. With each progressive scene, increase the stakes and the tension. If the novel still works without a particular scene, take it out.

Hmm, take a look at this scene from The Graveyard Book. There are four characters here -- the two children Scarlett and Bod, Jack who wants to kill them, and the mysterious Sleer monster.

[Scarlett] gulped. Her mouth was dry, but she took one shaky step forward. Her right arm, which had been twisted up to the small of her back, was now numb. . . .
IT HAS BEEN SO LONG, said the Sleer, but all Scarlett heard was a slithering noise, as if of enormous coils winding around the chamber.
But the man Jack heard. "You want to know your name, boy before I spill your blood on the stone?"
Bod felt the cold of the knife at his neck. And in that moment, Bod understood . . . .

Hmm. Sure looks like head hopping to me.

As you might guess, The Graveyard Book doesn't follow the second principle either. Rather than being a tightly knit plot with constantly increasing stakes and tension, the book is rather episodic in nature with each chapter narrating a different adventure. While the stories are loosely tied together at the end, you could almost certainly remove some of the chapters, and someone who hasn't read the book before wouldn't even notice.

Well then, aren't you folks happy to have found my blog? If it weren't for me pointing these slips out to you, you would have all thought Gaiman a good writer. Well, now we know better. I take back all the good things I said about his subtle narration style and characterization. Too bad the Newbury and Hugo committees didn't talk to me before giving him all those awards.

Um... right.

So what lesson do I actually draw from this? Well, it's kind of ironic to say on this blog, but writing is an art, not a science. Sure, there are rules of thumb, and I'm not disparaging them or the people who give or use them. In fact, I follow rules 1 and 2 pretty closely in my own writing -- it's harder to make mistakes that way. But it's nice to have a reminder that these rules are not gospel, and that it's possible to break them and still win every book award in 2009.

What are your thoughts on rules? Do you follow them? Break them? Wish you could break them but don't think you could pull it off?

Two Tips for Finding a Nonfiction Voice

Note: This post originated from a comment Max Atkinson recently left on my blog about finding a voice in nonfiction. Although this blog is about fiction writing, the issues he raised (level of formality in prose) applies to both fiction and nonfiction, so I invited him to expand on his comment for this guest post.

The recent post on ‘Voice finding techniques from Cathy Yardley’s book prompted me to enter a comment about my experience trying to find a voice when writing non-fiction, and I’m grateful for Livia’s suggestion that I should expand on the points with some actual examples.

By way of introduction, here's a slightly abbreviated version of what I said in my original comment:

1. As a former academic used to writing for learned journals in the social sciences, I was given a great tip from my agent after he'd read the first draft of my self-help book on public speaking and presentation (Lend Me Your Ears). I was, he said, writing too much in the third person and it would read more easily if I addressed the reader directly in the second person. So I went through the whole thing again changing it as he suggested - and was amazed how much more accessible it became.

2. I also decided to use many more elided forms that are so common in spoken, but not written, English than I'd ever done before when writing books and articles - 'wouldn't' for 'would not', 'it's' for 'it is', etc. This again made it 'sound' much less formal and stilted to the reader than when I'd used the full forms.’

The following example comes from an early chapter in the book where I wanted to translate some fairly technical material on turn-taking in conversation (originally derived from a paper published by Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson in the journal Language in 1974) into prose that would be accessible to anyone. My aim was to explain why ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ are OK in conversation but awful in speeches, and why pauses cause trouble in conversation but are good practice in speeches and presentations.

Here’s what it would have read like if I'd continued writing in the third person and used full rather than elided forms of subjects and verbs:

One of the commonest places for ums and ers is right at the start of a new conversational turn. The previous speaker has just finished, and it is now time for someone to come up with an immediate response. But the next speaker is not always quite ready, and needs a moment or two to think what to say. If he or she delays, it might create an embarrassing silence and give the wrong impression. So the obvious solution is to start immediately, even if it is only to say ‘er’ or ‘um’. The noise kills off the silence at a stroke, shows that the next speaker has started to reply and reassures others that he or she is not being difficult or impolite.’

And here’s how it was actually published in Lend Me Your Ears (pp. 48-49):

One of the commonest places for ums and ers is right at the start of a new conversational turn. The previous speaker has just finished, and it’s now time for someone to come up with an immediate response. But you’re not always quite ready, and need a moment or two to think what to say. If you delay, you might create an embarrassing silence and give the wrong impression. So the obvious solution is to start immediately, even if it’s only to say ‘er’ or ‘um’. The noise kills off the silence at a stroke, shows that you’ve started to reply and reassures others that you’re not being difficult or impolite.

I don’t claim to have completely cracked the problem of writing readable non-fiction, but I do think the changes made it more accessible than it would have been had I stayed with the first version. And that's why the emails, reviews and comments I've had from people saying that they found the book very readable has been more rewarding than they realise.

Max Atkinson is a communications researcher and consultant specializing in presentation and public speaking. You can see more excerpts from and purchase Max’s book Lend Me Your Ears here.

Seven Reasons Agents Stop Reading

I recently attended an event where agents talked about what makes them stop reading a manuscript. To find out the 7 tips I gleaned from that session, see my guest post on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog.

Also, my manuscript was critiqued at that same session. I wrote about agent feedback on my particular excerpt here.

Strong and Memorable Characterization in The Graveyard Book

I've officially developed a writer crush on Neil Gaiman. There's just so much good stuff in The Graveyard Book.

Last time, we talked about subtlety in narration. In this post, I'd like to focus on characterization. While Gaiman doesn't do anything incredibly new or unheard of in The Graveyard Book, I found his character descriptions to be effective for three reasons.

1. The descriptions are strong, either in emotion or word choice.
2. The descriptions are specific. This works two ways. First, he uses words with focused definitions. Also, the descriptions are specific in the sense that that they apply only to that character -- you can't easily transplant them to describe a similar character in a different book.
3. The descriptions are memorable and quotable.

Lets jump into examples. I'll focus on Silas, one of the main characters. We first encounter him shortly before the excerpt discussed in the post on narration. This is our first impression of him.

The man Jack was tall. This man [Silas] was taller. The man Jack wore dark clothes. This man's clothes were darker. People who noticed the man Jack when he was about his business -- and he did not like to be noticed -- were troubled, or made uncomfortable, or found themselves unaccountably scared. The man Jack looked up at the stranger, and it was the man Jack who was troubled.

Great use of comparison here to give us a strong impression of Silas's unsettling presence. Those who read the last post will remember that the man Jack just murdered a family in cold blood. If we now read that Silas is even darker and more disturbing than Jack, we pay attention.

Silas eventually becomes caretaker to Bod, the toddler whose family Jack killed. In this next example, Bod reflects on what Silas means to him.

Silas had brought Bod food, true, and left it in the crypt each night for him to eat, but this was, as far as Bod was concerned, the least of the things that Silas did for him. He gave advice, cool, sensible, and unfailingly correct; he knew more than the graveyard folk did, for his nightly excursions into the world outside meant that he was able to describe a world that was current, not hundreds of years out of date; he was unflappable and dependable, had been there every night of Bod's life . . . .. most of all, he made Bod feel safe.

This passage has more telling than showing, but again, look at the strength and specificity of the words. He doesn't just give good advice, he's "cool, sensible, and unfailingly correct." How dependable is he? He's been there "every night of Bod's life."

I especially like the last sentence of this next excerpt.

Bod shivered. He wanted to embrace his guardian, to hold him and tell him that he would never desert him, but the action was unthinkable. He could no more hug Silas than he could hold a moonbeam, not because his guardian was insubstantial, but because it would be wrong. There were people you could hug, and then there was Silas.

You could almost get the same meaning by saying that Silas is aloof and not physically affectionate, but it wouldn't quite have the same flavor and certainly would not be as memorable. It also wouldn't be as specific to Silas as a character. There are many people in the world who are unhuggable for various reasons. However, it is much harder to find people who you don't hug because it "would be wrong."

And finally, this is my favorite passage. In this scene, the living and the dead gather for a lively dance to celebrate a snowfall. Bod is caught up in the celebration and excitement.

Everyone, thought Bod, everyone is dancing! He thought it, and as soon as he thought it he realized that he was mistaken. In the shadows by the Old Town Hall, a man was standing, dressed all in black. He was not dancing. He was watching them. Bod wondered if it was longing that he saw on Silas's face, or sorrow, or something else, but his guardian's face was unreadable. He called out, "Silas!" hoping to make his guardian come to them, to join the dance, to have the fun they were having, but when he heard his name, Silas stepped back into the shadows and was lost to sight.

The emotion here is really powerful. For me, this was the moment that really connected me to Silas and made me respect and care about him.

Here's a writing exercise inspired by all this talk about characterization. Pick one of the characters in a work in progress, and write some sentences describing the characters, trying to strive for strong, specific, and memorable language. Feel free to share them in the comments. Or, if you can think of any memorable character descriptions from books you've read, please share them too!

Agent Feedback On My First Page -- More On Internal Observation and Point of View

Note:  Hello First Page Blogfest folks.  This link is out of date.  The newest version of my first page is here.

This is a teaser for my upcoming guest post on Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents blog. I recently attended the Writer Idol event at Boston Bookfest. In my guest post, I will summarize general tips that I learned from the event. In the meantime, since my manuscript was among those randomly chosen for critique, I thought I'd share the excerpt and the feedback I received.

This is how the event worked. An actress picked manuscripts at random and read the first 250 words out loud for the panel and the audience. If at any point a panelist felt he would stop reading, he raised his hand. The actress read until two or more panelists raised their hands, at which point the panel discussed the reasons they stopped, or in cases where the actress read to the end, they discussed what worked. Helene Atwan (Director of Beacon Press) and agents Esmond Harmsworth, Eve Bridburg, and Janet Silver (all from Zachary Shuster Harmsworth) served on the panel.

Lets jump straight to my excerpt. Savvy readers will notice that it's actually 253 words (I'm sneaky like that).

Maybe James wanted her dead. The thought didn't occur to Kyra until she was already coiled into a crouch, ready to spring off the narrow sixth floor ledge. She supposed it was a distant possibility, but she did not let the thought interrupt her jump. She was in no danger here.

Silently, the thief launched herself off the ledge, clearing a gap of three strides before softening her body for the landing. She alighted on the ledge of the next building and placed a hand on the wall to steady herself. For a second, she froze, her senses alert, looking to see if her movement had caused any disturbance. Her amber eyes scanned the buildings, but the night was as silent as it had been a moment ago. Six stories below her, the pathways were empty. Kyra relaxed. Tucking away a stray brown hair that had escaped its ponytail, she allowed herself the luxury of stopping to ponder her new theory.

She had already spent the last two days trying to figure out the aloof stranger's motives. It was not surprising that James had come to the Drunken Dog. Many did the same when looking for something the authorities would not approve of. It was his request that made him unusual. He wanted to hire a thief and was willing to pay. The amount he offered was carefully chosen – high enough to be tempting, but low enough that only someone confident in his ability to complete the task would attempt the job.

Well, first of all, none of the panelists raised their hands. That was a big relief because the vast majority of the excerpts had didn't make it to the end before two hands went up.

Now on to the feedback, which I'll do my best to reproduce here.

Eve Bridburg: Eve said she would keep reading.
Esmond Harmsworth: He would keep reading, but was wary of the "Allowed herself the luxury of pondering..." portion. Many of the excerpts they saw today were trapped in a character's head, which can be claustrophobic and distancing to the reader.
Helen Atwan: The jump was the most interesting part of the excerpt, although she agreed with Esmond on the "trapped in a character's head" point.
Janet Silver: Thought the excerpt was very cinematic, and had already cast Angelina Jolie as the main character. [I beg to differ on this one. Angelina Jolie is too buxom and flashy. I'd go with Natalie Portman.]
Eve Bridburg: She spoke again to play devil's advocate, saying she didn't mind the portion with the character's thoughts because it sets up the mystery for the reader. While she agreed with Esmond's general principle, she thought it was okay in this excerpt.

I later emailed Esmond to make sure I understood what he meant. He was kind enough to clarify that he has nothing against deep POV (where the reader sees everything from one character's point of view), but rather was warning against overly lengthy or obvious rumination inside a character's head, which can distance the reader rather than draw him closer.

Incidentally, Kim Davis of Kim's Craft Blog recently wrote about this in an excellent post on first person vs. third person.

Well, for one thing, the first person tends to solve a big problem that newer writers often have writing in the third person--namely, distance. Newer writers frequently have trouble backing off from their characters and seeing them from the outside, and so they tend to write exclusively "inside the head" of their main character. This is especially a problem, as I have noted, with autobiographical fiction where the writer identifies strongly with the main character. The effect, in third person, is that of looking from the outside, but looking only with laser-like focus at the inside of a single character. This creates a very claustrophobic feeling for the reader in the third person. If the writer switches to the first person, we are still inside the main character's head, but at least we are looking outward, at the fictional world, and the distance/claustrophobia problem is solved. This, by the way, is why you will note that many debut novels are written in the first person.

The entire post is quite good. I highly recommend reading the rest of it.

It's a delicate balance -- staying in a character's head but not getting trapped in there. How do you maintain that balance in your writing?

P.S. For the curious -- I decided to keep the passage as is for now, mainly because the camera zooms back out in the next paragraph. Actually, because I tend to write from movielike scenes in my head, my problem is more often that I forget to say what the character is thinking at all. But the suggestion is well taken, and I'll definitely be aware of that risk as I revise further.

Subtle Narration in the Graveyard Book

Note: It looks like the transition to http://blog.liviablackburne.com was successful. If you go to liviablackburne.blogspot.com, you'll still be redirected to this site, but you may want to update your bookmarks to reflect the new address.

There are several ways to present your story's universe to the reader. One way is to have an omniscient narrator tell the reader the details they need to know. This happens in the opening pages of The Hobbit, in which the narrator tells us everything about hobbits -- where they live, what they look like, what they eat, etc. (Although it's been a long time since I read The Hobbit. Correct me if I'm mistaken.)

Another approach is to reveal things in a less direct way. Neil Gaiman is a master of this technique.

Take the opening scene of The Graveyard Book. It begins at night with the man Jack, who has stabbed to death all the inhabitants of a house except one. The family toddler has managed to escape his crib and wander out of the house into a nearby graveyard, where some friendly ghosts hide him. The man Jack realizes the toddler has escaped and pursues him to the graveyard. He climbs the fence to look for the child, but he runs into a stranger who tells him he has to leave the graveyard. They have the following conversation.

[The stranger] selected one large key from the keyring, said "Follow me."
The man Jack walked behind the stranger. He took his knife from his pocket. "Are you the caretaker then?
"Am I? Certainly in a manner of speaking," said the stranger. They were walking towards the gates and, the man Jack was certain, away from the baby. But the caretaker had the keys. A knife in the dark, that was all it would take, and then he could search for the child all through the night, if he needed to.
He raised the knife.
"If there was a baby," said the stranger, without looking back, "it wouldn't have been here in the graveyard. Perhaps you were mistaken. It's unlikely that a child would have come in here after all. Much more likely that you heard a nightbird, and saw a cat. They declared this place an official nature reserve, you know, around the time of the last funeral. Now think carefully, and tell me you are certain that it was a child that you saw."
The man Jack thought.
The stranger unlocked the side gate. "A fox," he said. " They make the most uncommon noises. Not unlike a person crying. No, your visit to this graveyard was a mis-step, sir. Somewhere the child you seek awaits you, but he is not here." And he let the thought sit there, in the man Jack's head for a moment, before he opened the gate with a flourish. "Delighted to have made your acquaintance" . . . .
"Where are you going?" asked the man Jack.
"There are other gates than this," said the stranger. "My car is on the other side of the hill. Don't mind me. You don't even have to remember this conversation."
"No," said the man Jack, agreeably." "I don't." He remembered wandering up the hill, that what he had thought to be a child had turned out to be a fox, that a helpful caretaker had escorted him back out to the street. He slipped his knife into its inner sheath. "Well," he said. "Good night."

I'm more impressed here by what Gaimen didn't write than by what he did. If I were writing a scene like this, I would have been tempted to write a few lines like the following.

The man Jack hesitated, confused. What was he going to do with the knife again? He put it down and shook his head. He supposed it was a rather silly idea after all that the child would be in the graveyard...


Well, thankfully, Neil Gaiman is not me, and we instead get this deliciously subtle passage -- the type of passage that makes the reader go, "Wait, did he just do what I think he did?" A few pages later, he finally slips in a confirmation, almost as an afterthought. The following passage is from a conversation between Siilas (the stranger) and a ghost.

"You are a wise woman," said Silas. "I see why they speak so highly of you." He couldn't push the minds of the dead as he could the living, but he could use all the tools of flattery and persuasion he possessed, for the dead are not immune to either.

In other parts of the book, Gaiman is even less direct. For example, he drops many hints about the true nature of Silas's character, but he never really comes out and says it. For me, this was really fun as reader because it allowed me to be an active participant in exploring the world Gaiman created. It wasn't just handed to me on a plate -- I actually had to pay attention.

So what are you thoughts? Is your writing style subtle or straightforward? What style do you prefer to read?

First Person Present Tense With Multiple Narrators?

Anonymous 11/10/09 asked the following question in response to Blue: First Person Present Tense at its Best:

Hopefully this is not a ridiculous question: is it acceptable to write in FPP [first person, present tense narration] through multiple characters? To rotate the narration through the experiences of different characters throughout the story?

Yes, that's certainly acceptable, although there would be challenges. You'd probably want to write the voices with different styles to differentiate them. But this seems like a good question for my readers. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of multiple first person, present tense narrators? Can you suggest any books that do this?

Voice Finding Techniques from Cathy Yardley

It was great to hear everybody's opinions on genre and cliche. As promised, this next post is less philosophical and more practical. My favorite chapter from Cathy Yardley's Will Write for Shoes: How to Write a Chick Lit Novel concerned voice -- that unique aspect of your writing style that differentiates your writing from others. It's sometimes hard to figure out what your voice is, and I liked Yardley's ideas for identifying it.

1. Analyze Your Writing Yourself Yardley suggests going through your writing and highlighting anything that grabs your attention. Do your characters have witty and quotable conversations? Does your narration use colorful or realistic descriptions? Do you tend to write in formal or colloquial language? Once you have things highlighted, you can look for trends. "That's going to be your voice,your best selling point.", says Yardly. "That's what you should be emphsaizing in query letters, synopses, and in your novels themselves."

2. Get Volunteers to Analyze Your Writing For You If you have trouble with part 1, try getting a group of people who enjoy your genre and have them do the same thing. You can get a group of writers and have a voice finding party! Interestingly, Yardley emphasizes that this is not a critique session. All feedback should be positive and encouraging.

3. Tape Yourself Talking Make use of modern technology and record yourself telling a story. Then go back and analyze what you hear. What kind of words do you use? How much exaggeration vs. straight out description? Do you make the listener feel peaceful and comfortable, or do you get her all riled up?

4. Priming Your Voice If you want a particular flavor in your writing, Yardley also recommends priming your voice by reading something that will influence your writing style. Recent guest blogger Peta Anderson once told me that she uses this technique. Before she works on her current work-in-progress, which has a teenage boy narrator, she reads other fiction with teenage male protagonists. Actually, Peta has a great series on her own blog on finding your voice. Go check it out!

Have you identified your voice? What makes your writing uniquely yours?

Writing Lessons from Gossip Girl

Note: Those who hang around my blog know that I like to take examples from published stories and extract writing tips. My critique buddy Amitha Knight does the same, but with TV shows. She is the author of today's guest post. Check out Amitha's blog Monkey Poop for more TV related writing tips and publishing news.

It's no secret that I love Gossip Girl. Even if you don't, you have to concede that it is a very successful show.

Here are some tips on crafting characters I've come up with from Gossip Girl:

#1 No one is perfect

Don't be afraid to have your main character make mistakes. The bigger the mistake the better. On Gossip Girl, everyone's favorite Love-to-Hate character Blair isn't the only one who messes things up for everyone else. Remember Dan's affair with a teacher? Yikes. And what about when Vanessa lied to her friends so she could be the head speaker at an important event?

#2 Bad things happen to good characters without fail

As a writer, I am often afraid to let bad things happen to my characters, but isn't that how we capture an audience? If nothing scary ever happened, how could we ever relate?

Ex: Jenny quits school to pursue her dream of being a fashion designer, but things do not work out, and she ends up practically homeless. Another example: Serena is pretty and popular, but her fame often gets in the way of her friendships and relationships and often leads her down the wrong path (drinking too much, meeting people who want to take advantage of her, etc.).

#3 Likable main characters don't have to like each other

Chuck and Dan don't have to get along for us to like them. In fact, it's fun watching them argue with each other and realizing that they can both be right and both be wrong at the same time. This happens in real life all the time. Personality conflicts can make enemies of good people. Likewise, people who start off as best friends don't have to stay that way...

#4 People change, but not completely

Blair has grown from the first season--she is more trusting of others and has more self-confidence--yet she is still as conniving and manipulative as ever. She just feels bad about it more now than she did before. If Blair ever stops doing despicable things, I'm pretty sure I'll stop watching the show.

#5 They look great and (more importantly) even the "poor" characters wear great clothes you could never afford

Okay, not so sure how to turn this into a writing tip. Anyone?

But not every episode of Gossip Girl is perfect. Episodes that fail for me often contain one of two things (and hopefully not both):

#1 Plotlines designed to shock and as a result feel forced (kind of like this poster)

Ex: Big news! Serena killed someone and is keeping it a secret from everyone. And when the whole secret comes out we learn…oh wait. it was on accident and not really her fault. Lame.

#2 Poorly disguised rehashing of plots

Ex: In previous seasons, Dan realizes over and over again that he has changed as a result of knowing rich people (yawn). This season, Vanessa realizes she has changed as a result of going to a private college with rich people (oh please!).

This second sounds like obvious advice but, take a look at your work and you'll be surprised. I've had to delete several chapters once I've realized how similar the plotlines were to another story I had written (sometimes even within the same book). Those of you working on series have to worry more about this than other since you have to be really careful that the cool thing you pulled on your character in book 1 doesn't get pulled again in book 3 (or 5 or 7).

Any Gossip Girl fans out there? Have you learned any valuable writing tips from watching this show?

Images from CW and anatomyofamuse

Blog Carnival Coverage
Just Write

Genre, writing, and cliche, oh my!

At one point, I considered writing a Chick Lit novel about an plucky MIT neuroscience grad student looking for love in all the wrong places. That idea died pretty quickly, but not before I read Cathy Yardley's Will Write for Shoes: How to Write a Chick Lit Novel.

In my next post, I'll share some tips from the book that I found helpful. For this post, however, I have a question which requires some background.

Chicklit observation #1: All aspects of writing are important to Chick Lit, but Yardley emphasizes two in particular: voice, and characters. Strong chick lit novels are almost always character driven and have a distinctive writing style.

Chicklit observation #2: Yardley also provides an amusing list of cliches to avoid, including: urban location, glam industries, the simply marvelous gay friend, the evil boss, the cheating lover, dates with Mr. Wrong, simultaneous confidence-stripping life disasters, name brand fashion, witty banter (often in a coffee shop), and pop culture.

Random observation #1: A large proportion of the cliches in observation #2 (oh look, they're bolded!) relate to the aspects of writing from observation #1 --- quirky characters, situations to prime a character for development, or a chance to show off a distinctive and witty voice.

So here's my question: Coincidence ... or not?

Let me explain. All genres emphasize their own sets of writing technique. Fantasy and Sci Fi can't exist without world building and strangeness. A successful thriller needs its tight plotting.

At the same time, all genres have their cliches, as illustrated quite beautifully by the winner of the fantasy portion of Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest.

A quest is not to be undertaken lightly--or at all!--pondered Hlothgar of the Western Boglands, son of Glothar, nephew of Garthol, known far and wide as Skull Dunker, as he wielded his chesty stallion through the ever-darkening Thlargwood, beyond which, if he survived its horrors and if the royal spittle reader spoke true, his destiny awaited--all this though his years numbered but fourteen.

-Stuart Greenman

So do is it the case that the aspects of writing that define a genre also give rise to the majority of its cliches? Is fantasy predominantly plagued by "been there, done that" worlds? Are second rate thrillers certain to make use of cheesy cliffhanger devices?

One could even make up a story about how it happens. As a genre develops, writers and readers absorb the characteristics that define a genre and emphasize it. But for that very reason, these defining characteristics get worked and reworked until they turn into cliches. If that's true, then it would get progressively harder and harder to write fresh fiction as a genre becomes established.

I keep going back and forth between "Duh, that's true by definition" and "Nah, fantasy books have character and voice cliches just as often as worldbuilding cliches." What do you think, dear readers? And perhaps more importantly, how does a genre writer maintain freshness and creativity in their fiction?

More On Interior Monologue

Thanks, Peta, for the insightful article on internal observation. To continue along that theme, here's an entry on edittorrent with some really nice discussion on transitioning in and out of interior monologues. Go take a look!

The Art of Internal Observation

Note: Last week, I posted an excerpt from the short story "The Slave Hold" as an illustration of slowing down the action during intense moments. My critique buddy Peta left a comment saying, "The thing that really stands out for me, [about the passage] is the way the writer transitions to internal observations then back again without missing a beat." I asked her to expand on that thought, and she is the author of today's guest post on the same excerpt. It's always fun when two people look at a passage and see different things. If you find this post interesting, check out Peta's own blog Insert literary blog name here.

The Art of Internal Observation

Everyday life is full of internal observation--observation we don’t even notice.

Let’s say I have lunch with my fictional bestie, Kate. We eat, we chat, and we drink coffee. While we’re eating, I’m making mental notes about Kate’s mood--she’s yawning a lot. Is she tired today? Am I boring her? Meanwhile, Kate might be wondering if I really do like her shoes or if I’m just being polite, while I take care not to mention that I absolutely hate the faux leopard print muumuu she’s wearing.

Internal observation can be a very powerful way to make your writing stronger. Consider my lunch with Kate.

None of our thoughts are very deep, but they are quite telling. My worrying that I’m boring Kate might play into an insecurity I have--maybe Kate doesn’t like me. Maybe Kate’s taking pity on me. After all, she’s a successful CEO and women’s rights activist with half a dozen letters after her name while I’m a struggling writer trying to balance book, work, and Baby.

Like most everything else writing-related, internal observation is a bit of a double-edged sword. Writing the observations is the easy part. Fitting them into the text without interrupting the flow of the story, however--that requires real skill.

Let’s take a look at this passage from the The Slave Hold:

"If that drunken son of a Telik witch lays his hands on her ..." Kven began. He stopped, and I saw the realization in his eyes. He could do nothing. He was powerless here against these people. He could hate as much as he wished, but he could do nothing. "If he hurts her, I wish him dead," he said fiercely, his voice low. "I would give much for his death." I heard the scrape of the metal door on stone as the man opened it into the cell beyond. Neither Kven nor I could see past the darkness that lay over the air, something for which I was profoundly grateful.

It starts with dialogue, then transitions to internal observation and back again without missing a beat. Nothing in the passage is forced; at no point do I feel like the author is beating me over the head with facts about Kven’s character. The power of the observation is two-fold: learning about Kven draws me deeper into the story while also giving me some insight into the narrator. How does it do the latter? The things we notice are almost as telling as the things we do.

To give a simplistic example: walking in the park, I might notice the tulip-filled flower beds first, while you might remark upon the abundance of people playing frisbee. i.e. I’m a bit of a nature-loving introvert while you’re outgoing and sociable.

Learning to use internal observation successfully takes time. The best way to get a feel for it is to read a lot. Pick books that are character-driven, and make notes on the parts you like and why. In your own work, highlight passages that rely on internal monologue and observations to see if your over-doing it. Read your work aloud, and listen for jarring transitions, or things that don’t quite make sense. If you can, get someone else to read to you--hearing another voice, another cadence, helps us catch things we might usually skim over because we know what happens next.

Most importantly, though, write. Lots. Write from prompts. Free write. Scribble sketches based on a conversation you heard at your local Starbucks. It doesn’t matter what you write, or how, or where--the point is to get practice. And when you think you’ve got it? Practice some more. There’s nowhere to go but up!

Narrative and the brain

My friend Beata recently pointed me to this article on reading and the brain. Since this is the kind of research I do (fMRI research on cognition), I'm going to talk about it :-)

In this study, scientists from Washington University in St. Louis scanned people while they read short passages. They found that different brain regions activated depending on what was in the narrative.

.... the scientists used a brain scanner to see what regions lit up during the reading of a story. They watched the brains of volunteers as they read four short narrative passages. Each clause in each story was coded for the script it should theoretically trigger: movement in space, sense of time passing, characters’ goals, interaction with physical objects, and so forth. The idea was to see if different parts of the brain lit up as the reader’s imagined situation unfolded.

Slow Motion Descriptions For Important Moments

I was going through my old high school course materials a while back and I ran across "The Slave Hold" from Merlyn's Pen, a magazine that prints stories written by middle and high school students.

There is one particular passage from the story that caught my attention. It takes place in the slave hold. Kven has just been captured, and his friend Cassim was put in a nearby cell. The narrator watches Kven's reaction as a strange man enters Cassim's cell.

"If that drunken son of a Telik witch lays his hands on her ..." Kven began. He stopped, and I saw the realization in his eyes. He could do nothing. He was powerless here against these people. He could hate as much as he wished, but he could do nothing. "If he hurts her, I wish him dead," he said fiercely, his voice low. "I would give much for his death." I heard the scrape of the metal door on stone as the man opened it into the cell beyond. Neither Kven nor I could see past the darkness that lay over the air, something for which I was profoundly grateful. There were a few eternal seconds of silence, broken only by the man's whispered curses, before the girl began to scream. At the first cry, Kven lunged against the bars that served as doors, swearing violently in a stream of curses that seemed to flow endlessly from his lips. He stopped straining against the iron a second later and slumped back down to the floor, tears coursing down his cheeks. He did not sob, or cry out, or swear vengeance; he just let the grief and anger overtake him and flow out from his eyes.

I like how the action slows down in this scene. It's an intense moment -- the point at which Kven realizes his new helpless state. The author, Adriane Russo (who wrote it in 10th grade!) takes us through second by second. Not only do we hear everything Kven says, but we see every action and every expression that crosses his face to get the full emotional impact of the scene.

Nicely done.

It's official! My husband makes me write bad storylines.

A couple weeks ago, Writer's Digest editor Chuck Sambuchino had a "Worst Storyline Ever" contest on his blog. The idea was to come up with one sentence that would describe the worst movie storyline ever. It was a hilarious contest and a great fun, with many people submitting some absolutely atrocious movie plots. Earlier this week, Chuck contacted me to tell me that my submission won! This was my entry:

"After an unidentified cow swallows an armed nuclear device in a botched Homeland Security raid, Agent Tom Anderson is thrust into an unlikely partnership with buxom organic farmer Daisy Jones to sift through three hundred cows and 10 barns full of manure as the clock runs down in a desperate quest to save Kansas City from a moo-clear disaster."

Thanks Chuck!

As much as I would like to run off to write for Hollywood now, the majority of the credit for this entry actually belongs to my husband Jeff, who is by all accounts a pretty funny guy (Or was it funny looking?). The "moo-clear" pun that everyone fell in love with? That was his invention. Perhaps there is a future in screenwriting for him, if the whole astrophysics thing doesn't work out (Yes, he's an astronomer. How cool is that?).

So lets raise a toast to those around us who give us the ideas and inspiration to write at our best (or our worst). Who are your muses, and in what ways do they help you?

P.S. Speaking of contests, the finalists for Nathan Bransford's first paragraph contest were just announced, and their paragraphs are absolutely wonderful. Go check them out, and vote for your favorite before Sunday.

Using the Fundamental Attribution Error to Control Character Sympathy

Note: This entry reveals some background about a supporting character in Princess Academy. This information comes out about halfway through the book. I don't think it ruins the book for people who haven't read it, but if you're someone who doesn't want to know anything, then you should skip this post.

The fundamental attribution error is a classic psychological principle. This basic idea is this: people tend to attribute the missteps of other people to character flaws while attributing their own mistakes to circumstances. For example, if you're late to our lunch date, then I'm likely to assume it's because you're inconsiderate. However, if I'm late to our lunch date, it's obviously because things were crazy at work and the bus was late.

There are several reasons we do this. One is pretty simple: We know much more about our own circumstances than we do about others'. I know about all things that made me late (that stupid bus!!). However, if you show up late, I have no information about why. Therefore, I attribute your actions to your personality.

Writers should be aware of how this basic human tendency affects how readers feel about their characters. If a character does something bad and we don't know why, we'll definitely dislike them. However, if we know the reason, we're more likely to feel sympathy. Here's an example from Princess Academy.

In the story, priests have foretold that the next princess will come from Mount Eskel. Therefore, Miri and all the other marriageable girls are sent to a school to learn the ways of the court. At the end of the year, the prince will meet the candidates at a ball and select his bride. While all the girls have a chance to be chosen, the best student at the Princess Academy wins the title of Academy Princess along the right to wear a special dress and dance the first dance with the prince.

One girl, Katar, is Miri's main competition for the title of Academy princess. Katar is petty and mean and does her best to turn the other girls against Miri. For the first part of the book, Katar seems like the stereotypical girl-nemesis, and as a reader, I don't like her.

But then, we get to another scene. Miri comes upon Katar crying. She approaches, and Katar reveals she doesn't actually care about marrying the prince but wants to be chosen because she hates Mount Eskel. She has no friends on the mountain, and even her father ignores her because he blames her for her mother's death. Katar was vicious in her quest to be Academy princess because it was her best chance of getting out.

I was surprised at how quickly my sympathies shifted for Katar. After this revelation, Katar still had the same unlikable characteristics she did beforehand (there's a reason why she has no friends on the mountain). However, I still empathized with her and wanted her happiness.

This example isn't a perfect one because there are other factors here that also make Katar more sympathetic -- for example, the vulnerability she shows. But I think it's still true that simply knowing the reason behind an undesirable action will sway the reader toward a better opinion of the actor. Have you had an experience where your feelings about a character or person changed drastically? What caused that change?

Excuse Our Mess!

Hi all, I've been redoing the blog's layout and design, so if you came here yesterday and found everything to be bright pink and windings, it's probably because I made a typo and hadn't fixed it yet. :-P

RSS and email subscribers might have gotten a few background pages delivered to them that weren't really blog entries. I apologize for that. It's a side effect of Blogger's lack of static pages.

But hopefully, after the dust settles (soon!), we'll have a shiny new blog! BTW, if you're curious, many of the changes I've made to the design stem from the feedback I received when Jordan McCollum featured my blog in her website review series.

Princess Academy: World building around a central setting

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale offers a good example of how a writer can build up a fictional society around a central setting. The book takes place in the mountain village of Mount Eskel. They refer to themselves as highlanders and remain distant from the rest of the country, who they call lowlanders. The village economy revolves around the quarrying of a precious rock called linder.

This mountain setting and related quarry economy then spills over into the rest of the culture. A few examples:
1. Physical appearance - Because the people work in the quarry, most villagers are fit and well muscled from carrying heavy rock.
2. Values - The inherent difficulty and danger of quarrying rocks by hand creates a society where hard work is valued and uselessness is highly disparaged.
3. Language - The emphasis on strength and hard work gives rise to sayings such as "skinnier than a lowlander's arm," used to describe something thought to be useless. When the girls are sent off to school, a parent urges them to study hard and learn quickly, telling them to "show those lowlanders the strength of Mount Eskel."
4. Recreation - In festivals, both men and women participate in contests of lifting, running, and throwing stones for distance.
5. Customs - Mountain girls always hold hands when they walk together. The custom originated as a safety measure to prevent them from slipping on the rocks.

Lets have a brainstorming session. What are other examples of how a setting can affect a society? Feel free to use examples from books you've read or your own writing, or just make something up.

Blue: First Person Present Tense at Its Best

First, a quick note. My "Writing Career Advice from a Neuroscientist" series was featured on Science Magazine's career blog! :-) Thanks for the kind words, James, and I hope the scientists who came here via that link found the advice helpful. (Given this development, I guess the series should be called "Writing career advice from a neuroscientist, but still applicable to scientists," ...hrrmm... )

We had such great discussion about tense and point of view two weeks ago that I wanted to continue the conversation. Many comments centered around first person present tense, which I'd like to explore more today.

Take a look at this following example, a passage that I think showcases first person present tense (from here on abbreviated as FPP) at its best. A bit of background information: the narrator is a young woman who lives with her parents. Her nieces Izzy and Lawrie are visiting them.

everyone's wearing blue today, accidentally: izzy, lawrie, mom, and me matching like a benetton ad. so dad runs off and puts on a blue polo of my mom's, and emerges looking very uncomfortable, as only a 59-year-old minister can look in a woman's sky-blue shirt that is a little too small.

this kind of thing strikes my mom as very funny, so she shrieks like a good witch, which of course gets the girls all riled up and pretty soon lawrie is grabbing my hands and dancing me in a circle in the living room, and we are shouting "blue! blue! blue!" with each bounce. "blue! blue! blue!" we shout, dancing clockwise, then, "eulb! eulb! eulb!", counter-clockwise, and dad searching for the camera while mom yells after him, "take a picture! we need to take a picture!"

we pour out the back door onto the sunny porch, still shrieking like the bunch of girls + one crossdressing boy that we are, still yelling "blue! blue! blue!" as mom is crying, "we are blue like the sky! the sky of heaven! we are heavenly blue!" and izzy declares joyfully, "we are the blue team!"

dad sets the saran wrap box on the picnic table and i put the camera on top and everybody arranges themselves for the picture, except for dad, who is still screaming, "blue! blue! blue!" and trying to sneak various blue objects into the picture with us: an old plastic jug with the top cut off, the recycling bin.

our next-door neighbor is standing in her backyard and staring at us. i wave and yell, "we're all wearing blue!" as if she can't tell.

This example is actually an entry from my cousin Caren's blog. To see the photograph they took, hop over to the original entry. While you're there, try to convince her to do more writing. She's wonderfully talented.

I love this passage because it uses first person present to the author's advantage, creating a vivid and realistic experience for the reader.
So when does first person present work, and when is it simply a distraction? After some reflection and a lot of help from commenters on the last post, I've compiled a list of advantages and disadvantages of FPP.

Possible Advantages of First Person Present Tense:
1. Immediacy and vividness - As commenter Judy mentioned, 1st person present tense feels more immediate and urgent. If done well, FPP can have a "virtual reality" type feel where there is absolutely no distance between reader and protagonist. It's great for making sensory imagery come alive and also works well in passages where action take place in "real time."
2. Freedom with voice - Judy and Caren (yes, the same Caren) mentioned that FPP is more chatty and casual, which makes it more tolerant toward ungrammatical sentences and colloquial constructs. The advantage to this is that it gives the writer more freedom to develop a unique voice for the narrating character.
3. Contemporary feel - Because stories are traditionally told in past tense, telling the story in present tense gives it a modern feel.(Thanks,Surya) If contemporary is what you're going for, then that's good news.

Possible challenges of first person present
1. Unusual -- As flaxeloquent and Beth mentioned, FPP is relatively rare. Because of that, readers will notice your choice and may find it distracting.
2. Lapses in voice are more noticable - Again, because this is such an intimate POV, it's easier to notice the narrator breaking character. You have to be extra careful that the voice stays intact.
3. Harder to write about past or provide background information- FPP often feels like a "what is he thinking here and now" narration mode. If you want to provide background information about a character or setting, you may find it harder to accomplish this without artificially pushing your character's thoughts on tangents. (If anyone knows of an example where this is done well, do let me know!)

Whew, halfway through writing this list, I realized what a crazy undertaking it was to summarize the advantages and disadvantages of an entire mode of narration in a single blog post. Please help me out in the comments!

Blog Carnivals:
The Mad Editor's Roundup

Writing Career Advice From a Neuroscientist Part 4: Don't Take Criticism Personally

This is part 4 of a 4 part series about career advice my graduate adviser gave to his graduate students and postdocs. His advice is for people pursuing an academic science career, but I'm sharing the ones that also apply to writers.

Part 1: Choose your projects carefully
Part 2: Know the literature
Part 3: Don't spread yourself too thin

Part 4: Don't take criticism personally, and respond professionally

Few things are as hard on a scientist's self esteem as the peer review process. Whether for grants or for papers, you can expect to get emails from anonymous reviewers whose job is to scrutinize your baby and dig out all its flaws. While it's tempting to shoot back a response insulting your reviewer's intellect and mentioning how you'd like to see THEM come up with a better experiment, that is very unlikely to help you in the long term – especially since these people
have the power to accept or reject your grant or paper. It's better to walk away for an hour or two, recollect, and then respond professionally and appropriately.

I think writers have it easier in this sphere. Yes, there are snarky and hurtful reviews, but often, critiques are well intentioned and are actually trying to help improve the piece. So when you get some suggestions that batter your ego, don't take it personally. Step back, take a deep breath, evaluate, and then decide on the appropriate response.

For something from the agent's perspective, here are some funny rejection stories from agent Jessica Faust, as well as a more serious post about burning bridges.

That's the end of the neuroscience/writing career advice series. Thoughts? Are the two career paths similar, or are these analogies a stretch?

Switching up tense in the narration

Last week in Twitter's kidlitchat, the subject of narration tense came up. In addition to the traditional 3rd person past tense and 1st person past tense, some authors also use 1st and 3rd person present tense.

This discussion reminded me of A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly, which incorporates a clever use of tense switching. The novel weaves together two narratives: a flashback and a more current narrative about the main character. Each chapter is written in 1st person past tense or present tense depending on which narrative it belongs to.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about that strategy. It's a nice subtle way to signal context to the reader, but it might have been a bit too subtle. I was a few chapters in before I realized what was happening. Nevertheless, it's a nice technique to be aware of.

What tense do you prefer in your reading or writing? Have you read any books that employed tense to its advantage?