C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

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Writing in the Second Person, Present Tense (Like a Boss!)

A defiant update: I am 7,650 words into writing the second book in my crime series as I await fresh edits on the first book. It’s going well after a little convo with one of my weapons experts. It’s a love story, a suspense story, a funny story and a tragic story that’s all told in the second-person, present tense. Yes, yes, I know. That’s usually only reserved for experimental fiction.

Tonight as I went for my story-thinking walk and listened to my Kindle babble at me in that text-to-speech voice best used for listening to A Brief History of Time (geek joke), I just heard advice that, again, said, “DON’T DO THAT!” And so, of course I am compelled to do it. I do not wear a collar and I am on no one’s leash. What’s the point of freedom if you don’t air it out and let it run?

The one piece of writing advice that trumps all others is, Image“If it works, it works.” This works.

Filed under: publishing, , , , , ,

Wussies! Creativity and the boneheads in the way of artful risks

Jay McInerney at Tribeca Film Festival 2010

Jay McInerney at Tribeca Film Festival 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just read something from a writing advice book that annoyed me and I have to pull this sharp and spiny burr out of my nethers. It’s about what I’m going to do with point of view in the crime novel I’m writing. I’m taking a risk with this book and I know it. It’s written in second-person, present tense. That’s right! Now you’re wondering if I’ve lost my mind or if I’m just into quirky gimmicks. You’ll soon find out, but let’s talk about why I’m annoyed and you might get that way, too.

I ran across a chapter on point of view. The upshot on using second-person was that it’s best for short books (good, mine is) and is tricky to pull off. I agree with that. It is tricky. However, I have had good experience using it and several stories in Self-help for Stoners have more punch in part because of that unorthodox choice.

Then I got really annoyed because the author warned that editors and agents would be quick to reject any such manuscript because the attempt screams: I’m a Jay McInerney knock-off! You’re trying to do Bright Lights, Big City! I’m paraphrasing rather than quoting because I didn’t buy the book. I will buy the digital edition to delve further, by the way. I don’t write off a book or conclude the author is wrong just because I disagree with one paragraph. I’m annoyed not because the author is necessarily wrong, but because he may very well be right that traditional publishing is that quick to pull the trigger on any book that challenges the status quo (as if the status quo is all that hot.)

Bright Lights, Big City is a novel I admire. I found it quite engaging and funny. I wasn’t put off by all the “You, you, you,” that got so much press and critical attention but misses the point of the novel entirely. It was considered somewhat experimental at the time (and I guess it still is if the author of the advice book is correct.) Bright Lights was different, but it didn’t really deserve the “experimental” label. Aside from the use of the second-person point of view, it’s really quite a conventional novel that reminds some of Catcher in the Rye. (Try Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk if you want experimental fiction. That’s far more daring and demanding of readers.)

The use of the word “you” — some would say overuse — doesn’t get in the way of my enjoyment of Bright Lights because it’s the jokes, the hipster context of New York ’80s nightlife and a stab or two at the literary establishment that appealed to me. I was working in the Toronto literary establishment at the time I first read it, so it spoke to me even though I didn’t have the cash or inclination to indulge in Bolivian marching powder.

We used the word experimental because there weren’t many well-known antecedents that employed second-person point of view. Now Bright Lights, Big City is the well-known antecedent and apparently some publishing professionals have long memories but very narrow minds. Bright Lights, Big City came out in 1984! So…Jay McInerney did it once and now the use of second-person is a reason for quick  rejection? He slipped under the gate but it must never allowed again! Really? They haven’t got over the shock after 28 years?


When my novel comes out this June, readers will agree it’s awesome like chocolate croissants, merely palatable or they’ll decide it sucks like a Dyson vacuum cleaner powered by the fearsome gravity well of a black hole. I’m betting it works and fortunately, my imprint, Ex Parte Press, will publish it. The boss can be kind of a dick, but I’m tight with him. The only gatekeepers I have to worry about are the readers traipsing the digital forests of the Amazon. I know it’s a gamble, but I don’t write so I can sound like everyone else. As much as I respect Jay McInerney*, I’m not trying to emulate him. We write to express ourselves. This is me being me. I hope you’re being you and taking some artful and calculated risks, too.

*If you’re a martial artist, please try Jay McInerney’s Ransom. If you want a distinctive voice by a confident author, read McInerney’s Story of My Life. These, along with Bright Lights, Big City, were Mr. McInerney’s first three books. They were his least conventional and I believe they were his most successful. They were the ones that were most successful with me, anyway.

Filed under: publishing, , , , , , , , , ,

First and Third Person Viewpoint Problems

first-person-point-of-viewSometimes writers  can’t decide from which viewpoint to tell their story. Here’s why your agent or editor rejected your work when, assuming everything else rocked the Casbah, the problem was that the narrative‘s viewpoint failed to engage them.

1. They wished you had gone with the viewpoint you didn’t choose. (They didn’t tell you because that’s not their job unless they’re already working with you.)

2. Your viewpoint choice works, but it’s simply not their cup of pee. It’s subjective. It’s not to their taste. You can’t blame someone for not liking something viscerally (any more than you would blame someone for preferring vanilla to chocolate (even though that choice is inexplicably insane.)

3. Third person is limited omniscience. (No, no one does pure third person omniscient anymore.) First person viewpoint is much more limited in scope. In third person, the author may slide into keeping the reader in the dark. The reader may resent you for it if the execution is flawed.

4. Your first person reads like third person. In other words, third person lends itself to a more dispassionate telling of events. First person viewpoints are parades for character. If the character doesn’t have much character (i.e. unique voice, perspective, expression and sounds like all the other characters) the road to publication ends in a dead-end ditch. If I’m going to be seeing through this person’s eyes for several hundred pages, I want to enjoy the company.

5. The first person’s point of view can be unreliable (not necessarily a con, often a pro) but your protagonist is a static wimp. This is similar to #4, except here I’m talking about action. In first person, it’s easy to fall into the mistake of making your hero (or anti-hero) watch the action. I once critiqued a script that had a lot of action, but the protagonist wasn’t doing any of it. He was always around the action, following it instead of initiating. That won’t fly in the long run. 


Do what works for you. Tell the story your way and, keeping these points in mind, you’ll figure out how to proceed. (If you can’t…) An author critiquing at a writers conference once dismissed a manuscript out of hand. His reason? It was written in first person and he didn’t think there was enough of a market for that. There was a guy who had a very limited first person point of view.

Filed under: manuscript evaluation, writing tips, , , , ,

Winner of Writer's Digest's 2014 Honorable Mention in Self-published Ebook Awards in Genre

The first 81 lessons to get your Buffy on

More lessons to help you survive Armageddon

"You will laugh your ass off!" ~ Maxwell Cynn, author of Cybergrrl

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An autistic boy versus our world in free fall

Suspense to melt your face and play with your brain.

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Jesus: Sexier and even more addicted to love.

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