A few years ago right after graduate school, I was accepted into the Summer Publishing Institute at New York University. With big dreams of working as a book editor, I packed my bag and headed off to NYC. I learned a lot in the program and highly recommend it. But one of the things I learned from some big book honcho was that a writer should never write in first person because it screams “novice.” Because I have a great desire to one day be published, I have since shied away from utilizing the first-person perspective.
I consider myself to be an avid reader and in the years since attending the SPI program, I have read numerous books that are both professionally published and written in the first person. And yet, I still took the book expert’s words to heart and avidly avoided writing in first person at all costs. That is, until my most recent project. I am working on a technically complex short story that will most likely be expanded into a serial or set of several short stories. I started off writing the first two drafts in third person. But halfway through the story, I would lose the tone that I had worked so hard to develop at the beginning. Needless to say, I was frustrated and unhappy with the completed draft. But this is a project about which I am passionate and not yet ready to give up.
I sat down with a writer friend of mine this week and we proceeded to discuss the dilemma. Basically, he told me that it wouldn’t work because I have two narrative voices competing with one another. The first, my slow, drawn out third-person narrator who writes long, wordy sentences. The second, my drunk detective whose staccato semi- “stream of consciousness” is inspired by the staccato language utilized by Poe in stories like “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”. He suggested I try writing in first person instead.
This friend of mine has published a number of novels in his writing career and typically, I trust his judgment. But when he suggested writing in first person, I was kind of surprised because of what I had been told at the Summer Publishing Institute. When I mentioned what I had been told, he said, “That sounds like something someone from New York would say.” He also chose the following statements and source to nullify the statements made by the publishing honcho: “The tension in first person is between a character’s unique perspective and what is actually happening in the outside world.” and “The tension in third person is between what the reader sees in the outside world and what is actually happening from the characters’ perspectives.” (http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2011/06/first-person-vs-third-person.html)
I was skeptical, but at his urging, I decided to take a paragraph and try it out. Here is what I came up with:
Third Person (Original – It’s almost like a short prologue)
Cold ground. Biting wind. It made his eyes stream. He paused in the street. Perhaps the liquor on the shelf…No.He was no novice to the Green Fairy. She had coaxed him from his sluggish slumber and no ordinary liquor would do. She led him to the club with the promise of cool clarity and a fresh eye. Rampant dreams and sweat-dampened sheets were left to the mists of raging repose as he rose to answer the luscious lady’s call from the Harbor Club.
Cold ground. Biting wind. It made my eyes stream. I paused in the street. Perhaps the liquor on the shelf…No. I was no novice to the Green Fairy. She had coaxed me from a sluggish slumber and no ordinary liquor would do. She led me to the club with the promise of cool clarity and a fresh eye. Rampant dreams and sweat-dampened sheets were left to the mists of raging repose as I rose to answer the luscious lady’s call from the Harbor Club.
The tension of the first person perspective as it is portrayed in the above definition is perfectly in sync with what I was trying to accomplish with my story. I just didn’t know it. My main character is drunk through much of the story and he has to make sense of what is actually going on in the world around him if he is going to come out on top in the end.
I still don’t understand why the person from New York said that writing in first person is a bad thing. I have always found writing in first person to be challenging. You have to keep in mind who your narrator is and whether or not he would say or observe what is being expressed in the narration. It also limits your perspective. You can’t express the thoughts of any of your other characters. Well…unless your narrator is a mind reader.
Which passage works the best in your opinion?
What do you think about writing in first and third person?
You can also read about my real-life experience about writing in first person about someone else in this blog post about narration.