Below (labeled #1) is the original 13 lines of a potential novel I started writing. It was a discovery writing exercise with the prime intent being to explore writing from the first person present tense POV. After that (labeled #2) is a 13 line rewrite sparked by the excellent feedback I received the first time around. I'd been set on staying in 1st person present tense, but was swayed to see whether 3rd person past tense might work better. All thoughts are welcome, and thank you in advance.
---- #1: (original) I love the way the world looks when it's foggy. All the hard edges are softened, and things don't look quite so bleak. Plus, the moist air makes the few colors left in the world really pop. I especially love late autumn fogs because most of the leaves have fallen from the trees by then, so traveling by day is dangerous. A heavy fog will hide you.
Not from the Reclamancers, of course. Nothing hides you from them. They know where you are at all times. That's my theory, at least. I've got a lot of theories about the Reclamancers, and I'm pretty sure they're all right because it's been three years and I'm still alive.
Behind me, I hear boots scraping on rock and a little shower of stones, then the clatter of Moira's walking stick hitting the ground.
A pre-dawn fog swallowed the world, softened its edges, altered reality. Every scent—pine needles, rotting leaves, Ruby’s own unwashed reek—became magnified. What few colors remained appeared hyper saturated, but the rest of the landscape had a washed out quality, as if bleached clean and forgotten. Ruby wished that were true.
She'd been pushing the pace hard all morning, trying to make the most of the weather before the sun burned through and exposed her and Moira. The woods couldn’t hide them the way it did a month ago. Traveling by day became more and more dangerous as autumn settled in. Today’s weather was a gift. The fog would keep her and Moira concealed from any survivors who might still be in the area. It would do nothing to hide
An individual reflects on the weather and season, on an indistinct group of beings, and observes sounds made by a companion.
The delight about fog stands out most to me. Yet that is a weather report start. Dramatically empty weather reports are as much deprecated as wake-up openings, because weather reports often do little to move a narrative. Their strength is foreshadowing events to come; their shortfalls are dramatic emptiness: little to no antagonism, causation, and tension to aesthetically (emotively, evocatively, emotionally) propel movement forward. Foul weather in deft writer hands entails ominous foreshadowing, for instance, any weather report type.
Also, artful weather reports become motifs that represent and signal event, setting, and character circumstance changes throughout a narrative. Not just at a start; actually, if one is reported at a start, that most important occasion for emphasis and introduction, several more should timely and judiciously follow later, similar yet altered in terms of effect and symbolism and unified to an overall theme.
What does the fog really mean at the start and weather throughout the narrative? Vaguely in the fragment, fog means concealment. Yet the first-person narrator theorizes fog doesn't conceal people from Reclamancers. Confused, to me.
Weather report, first person, and present tense, three heady challenges to surpass for a start. The first person perpendicular pronoun first word is grounds for many publication editors to stop reading and pass, decline a submission. First word decline? Say it is otherwise! Nope, the result is most certain -- well, maybe a first sentence, ten or so words for acceptance eager editors, not the hundred thirty or so words of a Standard Manuscript Format first page, and Hatrack's first-thirteen lines principle intent.
Artful first person is a challenge of greater proportion than weather reports. A basic challenge thereof to be met is timely and judicious narrator characterization. How? By posing the narrator in at least immediate contention -- immediate to mean here and now in the now moment's time, place, setting, event, and other personas' causal antagonism. They act and react, they clash, they contest with something. By their actions and reactions they are characterized, fleshed out, so to speak.
Jerome Stern's "Bear at the door" shape suits the above criteria, especially ominous foreshadowing of whatever existent nature; event, setting, and character existents. The fragment depicts a routine event. The Bear at the door shape is routine about to be interrupted; the potential that a bear might, might not be at the door is the ominous nature of a routine. Whatever happened to Moira is a bear at the door shape, though late for a first-person narrative's start.
The first paragraph does resemble a curiosity preparation segment, though doesn't imply imminent danger. The second paragraph does resemble a curiosity suspension and anticipation segment, though doesn't suspensefully add imminent danger and further raise curiosity. The third paragraph does resemble a satisfaction segment and does satisfy curiosity somewhat, most from at last getting to the immediate action event of the now personas, moment, place, and situation. Overall movement begins then.
Soon enough or too late? Too late, to me, for a first person narrative. Some ominous danger promise sooner I feel is warranted, so that first person's challenges are surpassed.
Now present tense, likewise an artistic challenge on par with first person's. Both imply and demand an immediacy of drama's contentious action. First person, closest persona to a dramatic event's contest; present tense, closest in time to the immediate now time, place, and situation of a dramatic event contest.
First person is an involved witness experience; the practice of law labels such a witness a fact witness, an observer of an event who has the most immediate present sense fact impression of an event under scrutiny. Such witnesses are limited to fact testimony only, no subjective sense impressions of an event. "Just the facts, ma'am," Sergeant Joe Friday says to a crime witness, (Dragnet television police drama catch phrase). Prose, though, also asks for if not demands present sense subjective impressions emphases.
Present tense first person especially asks for present sense subjective impressions, timely and judicious subjective impressions. Like the fog, the narrator "loves" fog. I do too, out on the high seas socked in by a thick pea soup, only possible if no air moves and water and air temperature difference and dew point are ripe for fog. Autumn, sure.
The stillness feels unnatural and as though it will not hold still. Ominous, about to break loose any whichaway but what. Fear, too, that some other unseen object will collide, will collide, will collide, another ship, a rock undercrop or reef, a headland, a large piece of flotsam, a log debris raft. These fears are upon my foremind while I delight at the joys of a foggy stillness. This then is ominous foreshadowing: a received reflection weather report clash between competing emotions, an emotional cluster of delight and fear, a present tense, subjective present sense impression of a circumstance in its now personas, moment, place, and situation.
I did not at present read within the reader dream spell past the first word, "I." That word alone displaced my reading immersion before I had even transited into it. Note that the first sentence is a tell, tells readers the narrator loves fog. Showing the delight entails present sense subjective affection impressions of the fog. Illustrated somewhat clumsily above by my love for fog as a stillness unnatural and about to let loose all heck and calumny.
Pronoun subject antecedent glitch here: "the Reclamancers, and I'm pretty sure they're all right". "they're" intends to refer to the narrator's theories, though refers to Reclamancers as "all right."
Two causes for pauses of the speed bump type here: "I hear boots scraping". One, narrator sensory perception mediation "I hear". The first person narrator is already established as the viewpoint persona from which sensations are reflected. Two, unnecessary tense shift from simple present to present participle and -ing ring rhyme words. The sentence recast for illustration: //Boots scrape on rock and little stones tumble behind me. Moira's hike staff clatters . . .//
Under the Purple Sky to me feels short of a title's artistic functions. The word "Under" is a pivot point for consideration, where the word's several parts of speech are vague: adverb, preposition, or adjective. As is, the word is a preposition. Test by preposition substitution. //Of the Purple Sky//? Nope. Unequivocal adverb substitution: //Always the Purple Sky//? Huh? What else could strengthen the title? A person or place name, maybe an event or situation label. //Stint Under the Purple Sky//? //Jane Doe and Calumny Under the Purple Sky//? West Rock Under the Purple Dulse Sky//?
The narrator's delight for fog appeals to me, edges a mite into rapport territory, not so much into empathy or sympathy realms. I would consider that fog is symbolically posed as an exaltation of a virtue, what lyrical narratives intend, opposed to energeic narratives' moral truth discovery and philosophical narratives' assertion of a moral law. Young adult favors energeic, though, that youth initiation into adulthood responsibilities and attendant privileges is a core convention of the age-dependent genre.
I wouldn't read on due to unmet challenges of first person, present tense, and weather reports.
Thanks for the great feedback, extrinsic. Useful, as always. Let me paraphrase back your feedback, to make sure I'm understanding your key points. First person POV is problematic for you. Present tense even more so. Sounds like that first sentence killed it for you right out of the gates. Despite the novel-length format, not enough dramatic tension in this opening. The introduction of the Reclamancers confused you rather than sparked curiosity.
The fog was not intended to be symbolic. The dramatic emptiness of the opening was, but it sounds like I missed the mark. I'm not ready to abandon 1st person present tense. It's incredibly difficult to do well. I figured that trying to rise to that challenge would only make me a better writer over all.
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First person itself is okay by me, its by default closest narrative distance most appeals to me as reader, analyst, and writer. However, its overly self-reflexive expression too much and often across composition culture mediates immediateness of events, settings, and other characters, and least lavishes attention on essential narrator characterization. The upright pronoun and its variants too easily and artlessly, for too many writers, is fraught with sticky personal in medias res character development and backstory that miss the page, because a writer is overly intimate with such characterization.
First person more than other prose grammatical persons asks for rich and round (multidimensional vice and virtue) characterization of narrator identity. The "I" narrator identity best practice is what a story is about, though broaches too much self-involved absorption, writer surrogates' overly self-idealized and self-efficated can do no wrong and utter heroic self-sacrifice virtues: Mary Sue and Marty Stew surrogates for a writer inserted into a narrative. Such self-promotion asks for self-effacement and self-deprecation vice balance, and self-error, folly, and temporary want-problem satisfaction failure.
Present tense likewise I'm okay with when its challenges are surpassed, one convention in particular, that of subjective present sense impressions. Like, say an event to which several individuals are witness, several at odds witness impressions give little accurate report overall, One says a culprit was tall, dark, and ugly; another says the culprit was middle height, middle complexion, middle attractiveness; another says the culprit was short, light, and attractive. No details overall match each's present sense impression. Same with all "telling" details. Like details that show a narrator is not entirely informed.
That inconsistent impression feature is what makes present tense artful, and subjective impression commentary. Doubt-able yet firm assertions, no detail too pat precise, only present sense detailed impressions of circumstances from a subjective viewpoint, like fog for many persons is hazardous and frightful obscurity, yet for others is a delight with ominous undertones.
Length of a work is irrelevant to start criteria, the first word, title too, onward ask for overall movement irrespective of length.
Introduction of the Reclamers didn't confuse me, that they can penetrate fog's concealment and the narrator likes fog for its concealment confuses the contest at hand. Why use the fog for concealment from Reclamers if fog doesn't conceal? If the concealment is purposeful, then from whom does the narrator hide?
Weather motifs, all motifs for that matter, symbolically represent another feature, for artistic expression anyway. Weather is tangible, concrete, material yet for prose entails an intangible, abstract, immaterial aspect. Fog's "dramatic emptiness," for example, fulfills that concrete motif symbolic representation criteria. The emptiness cannot be directly expressed, though, why symbolism works magics. Then there's emblemism. Symbol motifs transform. Emblems are fixed motifs that do not transform.
Experimentation and exploration of composition challenges are an inspirational way to build craft skills. Have at the three standout challenge variables here, with creative abandon: first person, present tense, and weather reports.
Weather reports can serve to imply characterization by how the observing character describes the weather (I think Tony Hillerman used this a lot, to good success - for me, at least, as a reader who does not enjoy a lot of description).
Most of the time, writers tend to use weather reports as a prose analog for the movie/tv "establishing shot" which is intended to signal the setting for the scene (or chapter or entire story). Doing that supposes that a 1000 words are worth one picture (establishing shot), and they very rarely are.
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This opening is very prettily written, but it didn't hook me at this point in time. If you cut everything from the first paragraph except 'A heavy fog will hide you', that might actually help a great deal. A single-sentence paragraph like that, followed by the paragraph after it, could create a great deal of tension. I know it would grab my attention. You could potentially include the observations on why the character likes fog later, if it fit the story. Just a thought, take it or leave it as you will.
quote:Originally posted by Kathy_K: I'm not ready to abandon 1st person present tense. It's incredibly difficult to do well. I figured that trying to rise to that challenge would only make me a better writer over all.
I completely understand where you're coming from. I've been there, myself. I do, however, have some observations from my own personal experience to share in this regard.
The first short story that I wrote after an extended hiatus away from the craft was in first person present tense. I thought it was the only way to bring the level of tension I wanted to the story. I was warned over and over that it was a bad idea, but I stuck with my guns and started sending it out.
Everyone I sent it to rejected it immediately. I got no personals, and used up several of my best submission options in the process. I knew the story was good, so the fact that it kept getting rejected so quickly concerned me.
Eventually, I decided to try switching the whole thing to third person past tense, just to see how the story would read. It honestly didn't change the story much at all. The pacing and tension were still there. I let it sit for several months, then made a fresh round of edits. (It turned out there was a lot of extraneous prose I could cut.)
I started sending my story out again in September. It hasn't sold yet, but it's been far better received this time around. It got a Silver Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest, and has been waiting at Podcastle for over a month now.
I still enjoy reading stories told in the first person. I've begun to feel like that's something that established authors have an easier time selling, though. It's important to earn an editor or agent's interest (and potentially trust, once they start to recognize your name). Agents and editors probably get enough poorly written first person present tense stories that they're likely to skip out on any story written in that format, regardless of whether or not the story has merit.
There are some authors who have been published with stories in the first person. Chuck Palahniuk and Stephanie Meyer come to mind. The thing is, they're exceptions to the rule, not the norm.
If you want to write this story in first person present tense, that’s your prerogative. I'm not going to tell you no. I do, however, want you to be aware that it's an incredibly difficult sell, and that converting an entire story from one viewpoint and tense to another after the fact is far more frustrating than simply using the more common one in the first place. (It was for me, anyway. I was almost reasy to toss my whole story out after the conversion. In the end, though, I think it was worth doing.)
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I loved Stephenie Meyer's TWILIGHT books, but I strongly recommend that she not be cited as an example of an author who used first person well. In fact, I submit that her use of first person for those books contributed greatly to the reader perception that her point-of-view character was weak, wishy-washy, whiny, and so on. And I think this is because she perceived this character as self-sacrificing, but was not able to convey that in first person. (A truly self-sacrificing character does not go around talking about how self-sacrificing she is.)
One of the great problems with first person is that you can't tell the reader positive things about a character whom you want the reader to view positively - at best, it comes across as bragging. It's extremely hard to convey a character's positive traits from the character's own point of view. The best you can do is show what the character does and how the character feels, and hope the readers "get" it. In the case of Stephenie Meyer's point-of-view character, I didn't even "get" it (though I still liked the character) until a different book (THE HOST) came out with a similarly self-sacrificing character, and I realized that her TWILIGHT character was also self-sacrificing (in time for the last book in the series).
In Stephenie Meyer's newest book, THE CHEMIST, she uses third person, and it works so very well that I had to stop every so often and check to see that she was actually using third person. I was totally in the point-of-view character's head, and it really felt like you would think first person would be.
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I've redrafted the opening, and I moved the story into 3rd person past tense. I suppose altering multiple variables simultaneously isn't a fair test of things, but what the hell, right? Should I post the update to this thread or start a new one?
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I read creative nonfiction to the degree I do fiction. I read a lot. Nonfiction is by and large first person, often memoir, or the personal essay in general, many exceptions notwithstood. Ms. Dalton Woodbury is on the bull's-eye mark, a first person narrator comes across too often in lights different from intention and a challenge to show in a positive light and a challenge to show the essential reality imitation negatives.
My greater issue with Meyer's Twilight cycle, for example, is Swan's resort to self-deprecation boasting. Swan boasts of her moral weaknesses like a town cryer toots his own horn, rings his own bell, shouts his own praises from rooftops, then forgives herself as being normal. Meyer did not understand writer surrogacy at the time, though learned about it in time. Yet the situational irony of the observable self-promotion subtext is a large part of the Twilight cycle's appeals to its target audience, oriented around the mixed messages the cycle expresses about socially elite popularity.
I believe Meyer's subconscious, Freudian slip-like, reinvented the vampire topos to represent those social phenomena. Not so much by design, by happenstance. Twilight gives vicarious permission for popularity-challenged and societally disapproved popularity individuals to seek popularity. To me, those were not intended features, though are accessible and artful ironic features of the cycle. They do, for me, defuse the overt writer surrogacy of the cycle. And I am amused by the ironies.
Susan Collins' Hunger Games cycle manages first person's mischiefs differently. Everdeen is subjected to victimism's forces and responds boldly, proactively. The cycle contains as many shortfalls, though, as the Twilight cycle, artless cliffhangers, for one, and less than artful writer surrogacy overall. However, writer surrogacy suits the target audience's sensibilities, as it does Twilight's audience.
The trick for first person, and it's no trick, it is a matter of artful methods, is to mitigate first person's surrogacy alienation for gatekeepers who stand in the way of a narrative's target audience. One method is close personal report though with the perpendicular pronoun held in abeyance as long as possible.
Here, grammar is a potent ally. Place first person pronouns in sentence object position, mindful of passive voice. In other words, demote the I to me (accusative case), or my's objective case (dative case). Sarah gave me prophal balloons. Jake and his posse broke my leg. The formal grammar principle about serial personal subjects is on point here: refer to self last in serial lists. Acka set Mallet, Brows, and me a wild chase. "Get it out of here," Babe said to Elleric and me. Of course, artful self-promotion sequences notwithstood. Zeek Hammat got me and them a new fusion stove. Placing the "me" before "them" signals the stove might be selfishly hogged and "them" not let use it!? That's subtle characterization that can be built upon and affirmed soon thereafter. More about that method anon.
Another method for defusing first person's surrogacy alienations, mindful a target audience might care little, is Jerome Stern's Specimen shape criteria: a first-person narrator observes and reports another persona -- the specimen. Meantime, the narrator's subjective present sense impressions of the specimen reveal as much, if not more, about the narrator' true nature, personality, and natural behavior. Ms. Dalton Woodbury notes this method above in how Under the Purple Sky's narrator might subjectively observe and report the fog. The fog is a specimen type per Stern, a dramatis personae agent that influences the action and meantime affords the opportunity to characterize the narrator by how differently subjective from readers the narrator senses and responds to the fog. Mindful of demoting first person pronouns.
The novel's title, too, could name the narrator, rather than a first person pronoun. That alone could be a strong first step to distance reader association of the writer's id and ego with the narrator's. Plus, benefit from the dramatic irony potential of having a possible name for the narrator at the start and prepared awaiting's suspense and anticipation engine satisfaction that the name is the narrator's some many sentences or paragraphs hence. And a name for readers to have in mind from the start is no small matter, and a challenge to timely introduce in first person when a narrator has no foil persona companion to state the name in dialogue conversation.
Now anon. Another method, edges scratched above, entails showing by thought, speech, and deed characterization aspects contradictory to a first person's self-perceptions though that do not too much alienate reader rapport. This includes event and setting as well as character personae. Present tense's challenge and strength is subjective present sense impressions of external and internal influences, likewise, first person's challenge and strength. Emotionally charged present sense impressions, contradictory to expectations, about events, settings, and characters characterizes a first person narrator through irony. In particular Connop Thirlwall's situational irony: Surface intent is observed to be contrary to the real circumstances' subtext. Meyer intended Swan to be other than self-deluded about elite popularity and is self-deluded -- her self-error that sets the whole in motion.
Much farce potential accompanies situational irony; many situation comedies' dramatic complications entail situational irony. Many of the comedic skits on late show revues are situational irony, and many of the character comedies from film, too: Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, I Love Lucy, The Seinfeld Show, ad nauseam.
Nor is situational irony limited to comedy; tragedy and bildungsroman are amenable to it, though of a non-humorous mien; and it is perhaps the most artful method for true event, setting, and persona characterization in the face of overly idealized and overly efficacious surrogacy depictions. Into each circumstance some dark must shine upon light's shadows. Situational irony affords such opportunities. Besides, hey, you know, situational irony passes cultured readers' musters yet might be invisibly inaccessible to less cultured readers and not affect their reading experiences an iota. Yet within situational irony, narratives shine bright contradiction to a surface drama. Though Meyer likely intended otherwise, Twilight satirizes elitist popularity. And the cycle's literal and figurative synthesis is observable as social commentary of a cautionary social mien, net: superior social privilege comes with attendant social responsibility. Proverb-like.
quote:Originally posted by Kathy_K: I've redrafted the opening, and I moved the story into 3rd person past tense. I suppose altering multiple variables simultaneously isn't a fair test of things, but what the hell, right? Should I post the update to this thread or start a new one?
Conventional Hatrack fragment revision practice is to revise a thread's first post, add the revision, label first version and second version, etc., as such. Use the UBB edit function to revise the post. The page-pencil button at the top of a post accesses the edit function. Add a new post to notify that a revised version is posted.
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Wow, day and night different. Much more artful and dramatic, and ample congruent event, setting, and character development.
A few considerations -- grammar.
"pre-dawn" //predawn// requires no hyphen, actually, descriptively goes without it altogether.
"Fog" is a collective noun, requires no article adjectives, per se.
"What few colors remained appeared hyper saturated, but the rest of the landscape had a washed out quality, as if bleached clean and forgotten." any hyper- prefix requires no hyphen or word separation. //hypersaturated//
Comma and conjunction splice "saturated, but". A period is indicated for the comma instead and then the "but" is unnecessary.
"washed[-]out quality, as if bleached clean and forgotten." "washed-out" takes a hyphen join. The "as" use is exactly the conjunction word's correlative-descriptive function, and artful use therein [and the sublime subjunctive case "as if"].
"She'd been pushing the pace hard all morning, trying to make the most of the weather[,] before the sun burned through and exposed her and Moira." Missed comma of the third clause; it's dependent and nonrestrictive. Tense parallelism and sequence issue, too, consider? //She pushed the pace hard all morning, tried to make the most of the weather, before the sun burned through and exposed Moira and her.// That further intensifies the last clause, plus, eliminates, what, two unnecessary -ing ring rhyme words' potential nuisance accumulation?
Far more artful of a start fragment and, more so, for me, entails a clear and strong personal complication for the narrator, that of concealment from human predators, as a life and death conflict, too, and also introduces Reclamancers as a near future complication and conflict, if not sooner. Artful and well under overall movement way.
This second version grabs my attention thoroughly. The hook comes through strong and clear, this time around--the tension is much more immediately evident. I would read on.
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The second version of your submission fragment eloquently heads off my initial critique which explored some of the major shortcomings of a first person narrative. This submission is a much improved departure to third person.
The first paragraph of the submission articulately sets the scene of a fog covered landscape with a hint of regret within the heart of the viewpoint character for an, as yet, unknown reason.
The second paragraph immediately increases the pace of the narrative and artfully raises the tension; Ruby and Moira have been attempting to evade detection from 'survivors' they deem a threat to their own well-being for over a month. Again, for reasons unknown.
My main aesthetic issue with the fragment is this: The abrupt shift in pace and rise in tension from the first paragraph to the second. In my mind the solution is simple, combine the elements of both paragraphs into a single, seamless narrative event.
On a structural level however, I am disappointed at the unrealised opportunity for character development inherent in the fragment. This opportunity is encapsulated within this single sentence: “She'd been pushing the pace hard all morning, trying to make the most of the weather before the sun burned through and exposed her and Moira.”
Every scene in a story must have a purpose and, in the case of the opening scene, this is is usually Introductions: character, setting, or dramatic complication. Simply by moving the highlighted sentence to the opening and altering its emphasis I see many opportunities to quickly develop the characters of Ruby and Moira, and of their current dramatic dilemma. I hope you find this useful.