Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Few Thoughts on First Person

Last week in the comments to my post about the slush pile, several of you questioned our policy about first person manuscripts. This has come up before, and I thought maybe it would be worth front-page attention for two reasons. First, it touches on the way publishing houses operate. And second, we can talk about some of the pitfalls of first person.

In-House Debates

Editors are not all-powerful goddesses, even though we look the part. ;) We have bosses, just like any other person working a job. I'm the managing editor, and my boss is the publisher, and part of my job is enforcing the publisher's rules across the entire acquisitions and editing process.

Sometimes I get to make some rules, and sometimes I get to influence some rules, and sometimes I do what I'm told without having any influence on that mandated rule. Part of being an effective employee is knowing when to hold and when to fold. The first time, the very first time, I asked my boss about her rule banning first person narratives, the tone in her voice made it clear that this was not a hand I wanted to play. She has strong feelings on the subject, and I trust her editorial sense. If she says these don't fit our house style and mission, then they don't, and that's that.

I might ante up on other topics, and at different times, I've played my cards on a wide variety of subjects. Don't ask for details, though, because another part of my job is to be a good public representative of the company. This means that, win or lose, I don't air our debates in public. We present a unified front because we are, in fact, unified in our mission of making this company strong and positive and supportive and successful.

Some battles have been hard fought and hard won, but never in the sense that my boss and I are adversaries. We play on the same team. She's my leader, and I am her enforcer. We might disagree in the course of making decisions, but in the end, once the decision is made, I implement it without further debate. And to the best of my ability. Because that's my role, and it's one I embrace willingly.

So. We don't publish first-person narratives because our publisher said not to, and she means it. I've never tried to change her mind on this topic because I know how to pick my battles, and because, even though I enjoy reading first person stories, the slush pile has convinced me that the publisher is probably right about this.

First Person Pitfalls

It surprises me to say that because I enjoy first person narratives. I read plenty of them -- in fact, right now, I'm working my way with great pleasure through the Tasha Alexander books, which are first-person historical mysteries. Before I came to work at Red Sage, I handled plenty of first-person narratives as a freelance editor, writing instructor, agent, and so on. I have no bias against this form of pov.

But our books are erotic romances, which means there's a higher than average (and more explicit than average) amount of sexual content in them. Human sexual behavior tends to be highly personal (with some commonalities, of course), and pov might influence the way we read a sex scene more so than it influences the way we read other kinds of scenes. That is, it's one thing to read about someone else doing something that we might not do. It's entirely another to read about "I" doing it. And all it takes is one little detail, one thing that the reader might not personally relate to, and the reader bond is weakened. Maybe even broken.


I kissed my way down his broad, strong back, admiring the planes of his muscles as I lingered here or there. When I reached his ass, I pulled apart the round globes of his cheeks and then I licked his asshole. (Reader: OMG, I would never do that.)

She kissed her way down his broad, strong back, admiring the planes of his muscles as she lingered here or there. When she reached his ass, she pulled apart the round globes of his cheeks and then she licked his asshole. (Reader: Euw, but okay, if you think it's fun, go for it and I'll watch and wait until you start doing things I like better.)

Yes, there is the third option, the one in which a reader thinks, Yay! Yummy! and eagerly reads for more asshole licking, regardless of the pov of the narrative. As a house, we can choose to cater to this reader, perhaps by including notes on the product page about particular fetishes. Or we can choose, as we have chosen, a more mainstream approach which focuses on character, premise, plot, conflict, etc., and references the sexual content as it relates to those elements. This better fits our house style and mission.

There are other common pitfalls to first person which are unrelated to sexual content. Just listing them off the top of my head --

  1. Uneven voice. It frequently happens that the author can sustain the first-person narrator's voice during exposition ("telling") or interior monologue, but completely loses it during action and dialogue.
  2. Too much exposition. An inexperienced author sometimes tries to compensate for this uneven voice by relying more on exposition than on scenes. This makes for a boring narrative, no matter how lively the character voice.
  3. Drowning in I. Too many I pronouns can make for a claustrophobic and repetitive narrative.
  4. Failure to leverage. This is one of my pet peeves. The main reason to choose first person pov is to provide a consistent filter through which the reader perceives the action. First person narrators are often unreliable because their perspectives color their interpretations of the narratives. It's that filter in action. Bridget Jones was wrong about Daniel Cleaver and wrong about Mark Darcy, but we initially saw these characters through her eyes, so we wandered down the wrong path with her. Would that story have been as entertaining if Bridget was always right?
In my early days with Red Sage, when I ran across a first person narrative I really liked (and that would work better in third person*), I would ask the author to revise it. I got some really great stories this way, but for every great story, I got ten or twenty authors who wanted to argue their way into getting the story published in first person. They can't win that argument with me any more than I can win it with my publisher. I don't mind that they tried, but I minded very much the few who continued to argue after I explained that their choice was to revise it or to pull it because of house style rules.

*I don't ask for changes that would weaken the story. Duh, right? There have been extremely rare instances (Alicia will remember one) when we've had first person narratives that were exactly right as first person narratives. The action was vivid and strong, the voice was consistent and interesting, the amount of exposition was appropriate, the narrative frame was relevant to the story, and the sexual content was both hot enough and mainstream enough to work within the context of erotic romance as we publish them. But these are extremely rare manuscripts, and we handle them with caution. More likely, as we ask for revisions to a first-person narrative, we're also discussing other changes we want to make, like a shift in narrative focus away from telling and into actual scenes.

This is in danger of turning into a ramble now. Instead of continuing to get deeper into detail, I'll turn it back over to the commenters who prompted this post. Does this answer your questions? Does it raise more questions?



Julie Harrington said...

Thanks for this article, Theresa. I have to admit that I'm not fond of 1st Person POV. I have a few books that I adore that use it, but for the most part, I find them boring and repetitive, so when you said:

Drowning in I. Too many I pronouns can make for a claustrophobic and repetitive narrative.

Whenever I talk about 1st Person with other writers, they always say the same thing about *why* they chose the I Voice... "First Person POV is just easier than Third" and that seems to be their whole reasoning for choosing it -- because we speak as "I did this. I did that" so therefore they seem to just find it more natural. Of course the other argument is that it gives the reader an instant sense of character and an instant connection to them and to me, unless that character is uber fascinating or uber smart, wickedly entertaining and has a superb narrative, I get bored. Plus I like getting the other impressions from the other characters in the story to round things out and get other input on events.

This was a great read. Thank you.


Anonymous said...

This may just be me, but I don't read first person like it's me in the story. I read it like the protag is talking to me, as opposed to some third party telling me the protag's story. So if I'm disgusted, I'm disgusted either way but I don't necessarily "relate" to it or think it has something to do with me more if it's first person.

Unknown said...

I don't think the pitfalls in 1st are hugely different than those in 3rd. A 1st person account can still be all telling, and far removed from the character. I think it really comes down to voice. I have a project where the story takes place in two different time periods, and most of the "flashback" pieces are in first person accounts by specific characters, but the current-time pieces are in third. But I do see the point of avoiding it in your genre. Sometimes close is too close. In my cases the flashback pieces are horribly graphic and are intend to be "too close." :)

Unknown said...

I have started to develop a new policy for my own writing that goes like this:

1st person (if I must use it) is for short stories/novellas

3rd person for novels

No one else may subscribe to this, but it works for me. One of the first novels I tried to write was a first person science fiction/fantasy epic. I realized around halfway through that I had reached the limit of the POV and I was tired of being stuck in just this one character's head. There was so much of the world I saw in my mind but couldn't describe because it wouldn't make logical sense for the narrator to see it the way I did. Fantasy/SF is a lot about world building, and it is hard to do that effectively in the first person. Yes, it's been done to success. Heinlein was a master of first-person, and he's one of my favorite authors. But not everyone can write like Heinlein (and not everyone liked him for that matter, either). And most of his stories were about people or ideas. The world was secondary.

In a short story, for the most part, first person can read like a brief journal entry and be very effective that way. If it had to go on further, I would want to "zoom out" the camera in the reader's mind and allow them to take in more, and first person just doesn't allow that.

In the end, I think first person is great in short bursts. I prefer the wider-angle lens that third person offers in a novel. That, and I've read far too many claims like these from publishers who dismiss first-person stories almost by rote. If I can increase my chances of even getting my manuscript read by having it in third person, I'm willing to make that concession.

Edittorrent said...

Anon, I hear you, and I think lots of people might agree with you. But it does raise a question. If one of the advantages of 1st is scrubbing away another layer of psychic distance between reader and character, and if in fact readers experience 1st more or less as they experience deep 3rd, then why use 1st? This cycles us back to the unreliable narrator, I think.


Edittorrent said...

Iapetus, yes, this. It's just that we tend to encounter the telling/uneven voice problem more frequently in 1st person submissions. Like, way, way more frequently.


Edittorrent said...

JT, your comment ties into the complex dynamic of authorial voice versus character voice, which is a whole 'nother thing. The "natural" aspect of this kind of storytelling is that it blurs the lines a bit and lets the author explore voice and character aspects a bit more fluidly.

A lot of people do their first drafts in this kind of intuitive 1st person, but then change them to third in revisions. It's not a bad method.


Edittorrent said...

Allison, the main thing is that you've found a method that works with your writing style. That's a good thing. And you've recognized that different forms can require different approaches from the same author, also a good thing. Experience is a great teacher. :)

I'm trying to remember some other 1st person SF novels. I know I've read some, but my brain can't latch onto any titles right offhand. Wasn't the Illuminatus trilogy in 1st?


Anonymous said...

I've used both first and third, depending on the story. But for me, third person is sort of the 'default' and there has to be a real reason to tell the story in first person.

That being said, if I'm working on something in third and get stuck or it feels flat, it really does help me to try it in first then switch it back to third later. It's easier for me to 'be' the character and record what's happening around me in the scene, how 'I' feel about it and what sensory details 'I'm' experiencing.

I've been reading the Dexter books (on which the tv show is based) and those are in first person--I think it works there, because being inside the mind of a serial killer is not something most of experience very often...hopefully :) It provides a closeness to the narrator I don't think we'd get with third and makes Dexter more likeable, even though he does horrible things.

Unknown said...

One method to evade the 1st-person POV restrictions is to write memoir-style. That lets the narrator get away with stuff like
"I didn't know it at the time, but she had starting seeing someone else."
Not saying I like the method but I see it.

NEB said...

I'm with Anon in that I don't read first-person narrators as being 'me'. I read these stories as if the narrator were telling me about themselves, as if I were reading their journal or diary or somesuch. I do think though that I relate more closely to a first-person narrator than a third-person protagonist, but I've never been squicked because of that. I couldn't say for sure whether I prefer third (in all its forms) or first - I think it depends on the story - but what I definitely love about the first-person is that element of unreliability, the possibility that I'm either being manipulated by the narrator or that the narrator doesn't know it all and could possibly be being manipulated themselves.

Eva Gale said...

Megan Hart does erotic first person with brilliance. BUT it's not erotic ROMANCE. With ER, I want both POVs. I feel cheated if I don't. It's all the story.

I think new writers thing 1st is easy. And, it's hellishly not. It's also my favorite to read. Kushiel's Dart series, so many others just shine in first. Alice Hoffman is another favorite for first and Sarah Addison Allen, too. (Both are magic realisim, though which is a totally different story than romance)

Jami Gold said...

The Sookie Stackhouse novels (the True Blood HBO TV show) by Charlainne Harris are 1st-person. In some ways, I like the approach she takes, but in other ways (especially during action scenes), it can be awkward.

I'm usually not a fan of 1st-person for many of the reasons T listed here. Or as Allison said, maybe it's okay in limited doses. :)

Jami G.

Lisa_Gibson said...

I read a huge amount of YA fiction and the vast majority of it is written in 1st person pov.
I read one recently written in 3rd omniscient that head-hopped a great deal (another danger to avoid).
I can see with your genre it can be too personal. I think in other genres it has it's advantages. Each story can lend itself to whichever pov best suits it, imo.

nerinedorman said...

My first novel explores a setting through a (very) unreliable first person narrator, but that was half the fun.

I try not to tie myself down to either first or third-person, but before I start writing I decide what the "feel" of the story requires.

Oddly enough, all my works that have sold have been first person narratives, although I have a YA urban fantasy on sub at the moment written from a third-person POV, which is quite a departure.

I guess what I'm saying is as an author, one should never limit oneself.

Sylvia said...

I've wondered about this in the past - I can't remember if I've ever actually asked. I tend towards third person but recently worked on a novella in the first person. I actually used Alicia's book to help me think about how to present the story and came to the conclusion that first person was right for the story as I was telling it. Although it's not erotica, I did wonder about the Red Sage rule again at that point.

I loved the example, I thought it made a lot of sense. It's hard to see why first person would be more likely to have generic issues than third (although the comment above about first person being regarded as easier probably has something to do with it) but I can totally see the problems ending up highlighted dramatically in erotica.