Marcy’s Blog

A Crash Course in Science Fiction Sub-Genres

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

We’re into the third episode of my exploration of genres, and today we’re going to look at science fiction. (I’m currently planning to also cover suspense/thrillers, mystery, romance, and horror. If there are any other genres you’d like me to delve into or you have any other questions about genres, please let me know in the comments.) Keep in mind as we go through these posts together that the lines aren’t immovable, and they aren’t always perfectly clear. Some books cross genres. What I’m trying to do here is bring a little more clarity to a particularly murky area.

What is Science Fiction?

Science Fiction Genres

Image Credit: Fred Fokkelman

A week ago in our discussion of fantasy sub-genres, I touched just lightly on the difference between science fiction and fantasy. I suggested the difference was one of possibility. Fantasy is always set in the realm of the impossible. Science fiction, on the other hand, is based in what we either wish or fear the future might bring.

Science fiction looks toward the future and asks what might be possible–technological and cultural changes, space travel, alien races, and yes, sometimes even parallel universes and time travel.

Please notice that I said possible. Something can be possible while still being highly improbable. It’s highly improbable that we’ll ever be able to travel faster than light or that we’ll ever establish colonies on alien planets. But it’s not impossible because we don’t know everything there is to know about natural laws, future technological advances, and life outside our solar system.

Science fiction takes what we’re only just beginning to think of or wonder about and extrapolates from it. More than any other genre, science fiction asks you to suspend your disbelief and ask what if. Part of what makes science fiction great, and what many who’ve never read scifi fail to realize, is the way it often explores questions of morality and identity and forces us to really consider what the future might be like if we follow certain paths.

Star Trek fans will also be happy to tell you about the influence science fiction and science fiction writers have on the present. The man who invented the first cell phone got his inspiration from Star Trek tri-corders and comm badges. And automatic doors appeared in Star Trek before they ever made their way into stores all around the world.

Defining Science Fiction Sub-Genres

Cyberpunk – Cyberpunk plots (if you couldn’t guess from the name) revolve around computers, artificial intelligence, cyberspace, virtual reality, hackers, mega-corporations, or some combination of those elements. Rather than being set far in the future, they’re usually set in the near future. These books are often dark and focus on the dangers of technology.

Steampunk – Steampunk plots often take place in Victorian England or another real-world setting (though Lindsey Buroker has had success with her Emperor’s Edge series, which is steampunk set in a secondary universe). They combine the technology of the time with future technology as the people of that era imagined it would be (rather than how it really turned out). Not surprisingly H. G. Wells and Jules Verne are the grandfathers of this genre. Steampunk can be a lot of fun if you don’t take yourself too seriously. (There’s also some argument about whether steampunk should be classified as science fiction or fantasy. In the end, it comes down to the content of the individual book. For example, because Lindsey Buroker sets her steampunk in a secondary world, they’re technically fantasy, not science fiction.)

Dystopian/Utopian – These novels look at the extremes that our world might one day come to, either good or bad. The Road by Cormac McCarthy and I Am Legend by Richard Matheson typify the dystopian sub-genre. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a YA example. Dystopian also goes by the name Apocalyptic.

Time Travel – As the name implies, time travel novels take you either forward or backward in time. Before you object that this should be fantasy rather than science fiction because time travel isn’t possible, keep in mind what sets science fiction and fantasy apart. This is science fiction because the writers are working on the assumption that at some point in the future scientists might invent technology that would allow us to travel through time. If they can make the technology sound believable, then it falls firmly into the science fiction realm. (If you’re sent back in time because of magic, you’re back in the fantasy genre. Clear as cement, right?)

Military Science Fiction – Nations, planets, or races are at war in military SF, and the focus is often on the technology and military protocol and procedures of the combatants. Consequently, these stories end up being told through the POV of one (or more) of the soldiers involved. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein is one of the early landmark works of military SF. Shard of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold, Death Troopers by Joe Schreiber, and Old Man’s War by John Scalzi are other examples.

Space Opera – Although this term can have a derogatory tone to it, this is another SF genre that’s a lot of fun if you let yourself just sit back and enjoy. These novels are set on distant planets and focus more on the adventure than on the science.

The fraternal twin sister of space opera is Space Westerns like the television series Firefly. They take the fist-fighting, gun-fighting, and themes of westerns and set them in outer space.

Hard Science Fiction – So named because it takes current knowledge of the “hard” sciences of mathematics, chemistry, physics, or biology and speculates on where they might lead in the future, this is the sub-genre of science fiction where accuracy and attention to detail make or break your story. Most of the successful hard SF writers work (or have worked) in one of the hard-science fields.

Soft Science Fiction – Soft SF takes its what if from the “soft” sciences like psychology, sociology, or anthropology. The lines between hard SF, soft SF, and dystopian SF can blur at times, but a good rule of thumb is that dystopian often deals with an end-of-the-world type scenario where a catastrophe has happened, while soft SF looks at what would happen if certain soft-science theories were taken to their extremes or logical conclusions.

People often have strong opinions either pro or con science fiction? Do you love it? Hate it? Which sub-genre best fits your book?

I hope you’ll check out the books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series, including How to Write Dialogue and Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction.

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Unbelievable Real Life: The Crystal Cave of Giants

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

My husband and I love caves. I’ve been to the Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, together we visited Luray Caverns in Virginia, and we’ve even been spelunking at Metcalfe Rock near Collingwood, Ontario. So we’ve seen a lot of crystal formations, stalactites, and stalagmites. We’ve never seen ones big enough to walk on like a bridge.

Image Credit: Alexander Van Driessche, used under Creative Commons license

Image Credit: Alexander Van Driessche, used under Creative Commons license

Welcome back to my Unbelievable Real Life feature, where I showcase weird creatures and offbeat places on our planet that seem like they should belong in a fantasy or science fiction story. Today we’re going to the Crystal Cave of Giants in the Naica Mine in Chihuahua, Mexico.

Take a look…

You’re close to 1,000 feet below the surface in this mine, and some of the gypsum crystals are four feet around (I’m only 5 foot 2 inches tall!) and 35 to 50 feet long (that’s the width of a high school basketball court). They can weigh up to 55 tons.

After their discovery in 2000, the question became how did they get so big?

One of the geologists who discovered them studied tiny pockets of fluid inside the crystals and concluded that the caves were once filled with water that stayed at a stable temperature and was rich in minerals. The water is long gone, but the crystals that formed over thousands of years remain.

Sadly these mines aren’t open to the public. Would you want to go if they were?

If you like suspense, I hope you’ll take a look at my ebook Frozen. Twisted sleepwalking. A frozen goldfish in a plastic bag. And a woman afraid she’s losing her grip on reality.

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A Crash Course in Fantasy Sub-Genres

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to my series on the different genres we can write in. As I go through this series, please keep in mind that I can’t cover absolutely every option. My goal is to give you the main categories, so you can better understand where your book might fit or what you might be interested in writing in the future.

Fantasy Genres

Image Credit: Michael & Christa Richert

What Is Fantasy? What’s the Difference Between Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror?

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are often lumped together under the category of speculative fiction, so before I dive in to looking at the different options you have when writing fantasy, I thought it was important we at least try to clarify where the fuzzy lines between the speculative fiction genres fall.

I’ll define science fiction in more detail next week, but fantasy is a work that, as a defining quality of its plot, has an element that is not real and can never be real–an alternate world, magic, creatures of myth or legend brought to life. The most important thing to remember when writing fantasy is that, no matter how far-fetched or exotic your story, you must keep your world internally consistent. In other words, you set rules for how your world works and you don’t break them. 

On a very basic level, the difference between science fiction and fantasy is one of possibility. Fantasy is always set in the realm of the impossible. Werewolves don’t and won’t exist in our world. No amount of scientific advancement will make it possible for us to travel to Narnia, Hogwarts, or Middle Earth. Science fiction, on the other hand, is based in what we either wish or fear the future might bring.

According to the Horror Writers Association, “horror can deal with the mundane or the supernatural, with the fantastic or the normal. It doesn’t have to be full of ghosts, ghouls, and things to go bump in the night. Its only true requirement is that it elicit an emotional reaction that includes some aspect of fear or dread.” To put it another way, horror will be much darker in tone and will make your heart race much more frequently than will either science fiction or fantasy. Horror means to scare the reader, whereas the most science fiction or fantasy mean to do is warn them. 

(I don’t plan to cover horror in this series, but let me know in the comments if you’d like me to.)

Two of the most well-known awards for science fiction and fantasy writers are the Hugo and the Nebula. Whether or not you’re writing fantasy, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America is a great resource.

Defining Fantasy Sub-Genres

So now that we have the big picture idea of fantasy down, it’s time to look at your options within the genre.

Historical Fantasy – Historical fantasy takes place in a recognizable historical time period and in a real world location. This sub-genre encompasses things like the King Arthur legends and Robin Hood. It’s more about how the author plays with history, myth, and legend than it is about magic.

Epic Fantasy – Epic fantasies are what most people think of when they hear “fantasy.” They’re defined by a large cast of characters, multiple POVs, and complex plots. They’re set in a fictional world, and the plot often revolves around the rise and fall of kingdoms. The ultimate epic fantasies are George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Urban Fantasy – First of all, urban fantasy is set in a primarily, well, urban/city setting. You can’t set your fantasy in a medieval-esque pastoral setting and call it “urban fantasy.” It’s darker, grittier than most other fantasy, and you’ll usually find it populated with demons, vampires, werewolves, witches (not the Harry Potter kind), or zombies. Kelly Gay’s The Better Part of Darkness is an urban fantasy example. Urban fantasy is often confused with paranormal romance. While they can and do often have blurry lines, the best way to tell them apart is to ask if the core conflict is about two people falling in love. If the main focus of the story is on the relationship, then it’s a paranormal romance. If the main focus of the story is somewhere else, on some other conflict, even if it has a romantic subplot, it’s still an urban fantasy.

Superhero Fantasy – Secret identities, superhuman powers, and villains who are more than a little unhinged are part of what make superhero fantasy so much fun. Superhero movies like X-Men, Spiderman, The Green Lantern, and Captain America are all great examples of this genre.

Traditional Fantasy – Traditional fantasy is basically a teeny, tiny epic fantasy. It’s set in a secondary world (i.e., not our world) like epic fantasy, but it has a smaller cast of characters, fewer POV characters, and a plot that focuses more on a single character (or small group) and their unique struggle than on the creation or destruction of worlds/kingdoms. Magic in some form is usually a key element of traditional fantasy. A classic traditional fantasy is The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle.

The fraternal twin sister of traditional fantasy is sword and sorcery, where the plot focuses more on the swashbuckling adventures and daring doos of the main character than on the magical elements. In other respects, they’re the same. Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora is an icon sword and sorcery fantasy.

Contemporary Fantasy – This sub-genre of fantasy sets the story in our modern-day world (as opposed to historical fantasy) and, although they can have dark elements to them, they also aim to give their reader a sense of joy and wonder. Contemporary fantasies often involve a “world within a world.” If you’ve read any of the Harry Potter books, you’ve read contemporary fantasy. (Urban fantasy is actually a sub-genre of this sub-genre, but it’s easier to consider it as its own sub-genre. Confused yet?)

Alternate History – Don’t let its name fool you. Alternate history plots actually usually fall into the fantasy genre rather than the historical fiction genre because at some point in time the history of the story world diverged from the history of our world. What if the Nazis won World War II? That became the inspiration for The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. Depending on the focus of alternate history plots, they can also be categorized as science fiction.

Do you find that you read more in one of these sub-genres than the others? Where does your fantasy novel fall?

I hope you’ll check out the books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series, including How to Write Dialogue and Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction.

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Divergent: Do You Know Where You Belong?

Divergent by Veronica RothBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Did you know what you wanted to do with your entire life when you were only sixteen? What if you’d been forced to choose and could never change your decision?

That’s part of the dilemma faced by Beatrice (who later calls herself Tris) in Divergent.

The society in Divergent is divided into four factions—Abnagation (the selfless helpers), Amity (the peaceful, happy farmers), Candor (the honest, justice-seeking law-makers), Dauntless (the brave guardians), and Erudite (the intellectual researchers and scientists). In their sixteenth year, teens undergo testing to see where their aptitude lies, and then they must choose the faction that will become their new family. Faction over blood. And there’s no turning back unless you want to live factionless, a homeless, hungry outcast.

The leadership insists that factions maintain order and protect their society, and so they ruthlessly hunt down divergents—people who don’t fit into a single faction. Tris is a divergent. When it comes time to choose, she doesn’t have the guidance the aptitude test is supposed to provide.

Such a society sounds awful to our freedom-loving ears (though my husband and I did have some fun on the ride home from the movie trying to decide which faction we’d fit best in), but it’s not really so far off. How many of us were uncertain of what we wanted to do with our lives when we had to pick a major in university or a program of study in college? How many people end up in a different career from the one they went to school for? How many people stay trapped in a job they hate, that they selected when they were too young to know who they really were?

Last September, my husband went back to school. He’d already worked as a government contractor in the U.S. and an editor in Canada. Now he’s going through to be a paralegal.

When he originally went to university fresh out of high school, he thought he knew where his career path would lead. He’s had the freedom to change course, but not everyone does.

In fact, I think more people don’t have that freedom than do. Family commitments. Financial commitments. And when they reach a time in their life when they could change course, they feel like it’s too late to start over. (It never is, by the way. Just take a look at Debra Eve’s blog about late bloomers.)

But all this got me thinking—would we have fewer people changing course or feeling trapped if we didn’t ask young adults to choose their path so early in life? Are you someone who changed course? Was it difficult? I’d love to know what influenced your decision.

And for fun, what faction would you be in the Divergent world?

If you like suspense, I hope you’ll take a look at my ebook Frozen. Twisted sleepwalking. A frozen goldfish in a plastic bag. And a woman afraid she’s losing her grip on reality.

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Putting Your Inner Editor to Work – Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Self-Editing for Fiction WritersBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

My genre series will continue next week, but this week I wanted to quickly let you know about a webinar I’m running on Saturday, April 12th, called Putting Your Inner Editor to Work – Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

When we’re writing our first draft, we look for techniques to silence our inner editor so our creativity is free to play. Once that first draft is done, though, we need to turn our inner editor from our enemy into our ally so that we can decide if our story is worth saving and polish it into a ready-for-publication book.

During this live webinar, you’ll learn how to train your inner editor to decide if your big picture concept is strong enough, identify and fix weaknesses in the structure of your plot, and troubleshoot (or add!) your main character’s arc. We’ll also look at the single biggest secret to a captivating setting, and you’ll walk away with practical quick fixes and a checklist for each scene.

This WANA webinar takes place in an online “classroom” where you’ll be able to listen to the lecture live, watch a PowerPoint presentation, and ask me questions. In other words, it’s audio, visual, and interactive. This webinar will be recorded, and all registrants will receive a link to the recording in case they couldn’t attend live or want to listen again. You’ll also receive a PDF of the slides I used during the session.

If you’d like to attend, I’m offering a special discount code to my blog readers and newsletter subscribers. Enter the code Marcy20 when you register for 20% off.

Click here to register or to find out more!

I hope you’ll check out the books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series, including How to Write Dialogue and my brand new Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction.

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The Ins and Outs of ISBNs

By Marcy Kennedy, @MarcyKennedy

One of the areas where there seems to be universal confusion among writers intending to self-publish is ISBNs. It’s a business detail that would have been taken care of by our publisher if we went the traditional route, but now, we’re the publisher. Like so many other business details, figuring out ISBNs falls into our realm of responsibility.

A lot of the information about ISBNs when it comes to self-publishing feels muddy, so today I’m over at Janice Hardy’s blog giving a quick tour of what you need to know about ISBNs by answering some of the most common questions. I hope you’ll join me.

Click here to read about the Ins and Outs of ISBNs!

Janice Hardy's Fiction University

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Does Genre Still Matter in 21st Century Fiction?

Death of GenreBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I taught at WANACon in February, and in my session, I asserted that genre does still matter—despite self-publishing, despite books that seem to cross genre lines, and despite superstar literary agent Donald Maass proclaiming that genre is dead (I’ll return to that in a minute).

I’m about to start a new series to walk you through some of the main genres and their sub-genres. I hope it’s a topic that will interest many of you. I know “what genre do you think my book is?” is a question I receive from at least half my editing clients.

But whenever we talk about genre, it seems like we first have to have the argument about whether you should be “forced” to pigeon-hole your book. No one is forcing you to artificially categorize your book, but here’s why you should try to figure out where your book fits.

Five Reasons Genre Still Matters

Genre still matters regardless of whether you plan to self-publish or traditionally publish.

#1 – If you pitch to an agent, they want to know genre because most of them only represent certain genres and most publishing houses only publish certain genres of books (or they have lines devoted to particular genres). If an agent only reps urban fantasy, for example, and you send them your epic fantasy, you’ve wasted their time and yours.

#2 – If you self-publish and upload your book to Amazon, what category are you going to put it in? If you manage to get into bookstores or libraries, what shelf will it belong on? It has to go somewhere.

#3 – Your chances of making a sale increase the more accurately you can identify your ideal audience. Genres and sub-genres help you do that by helping you find books similar to yours. People who read those books are likely to enjoy your books as well.

#4 – When the average person asks you what your book is about, they’re really asking first to know what genre it is. They want to know if it’s a mystery or a fantasy or a romance. Only after that do they want to know the plot. Because if you give them the plot before the genre, the first thing you’re going to hear is “so it’s a mystery?” or “so it’s a fantasy?” People need to categorize to make sense of the world around them.

#5 – If a reader comes to your story expecting one thing, and you don’t give it to them, they’ll be disappointed. If you’re craving chips and someone tricks you into eating a piece of cake instead, you’re probably not going to feel satisfied. You need to know what readers expect so you can either meet (and exceed) those expectations or so you can help them adjust their expectations.

Why do we fight so hard against genres and sub-genres?

I’m sure many of you will think I’m wrong, but here’s my theory. We don’t fight so hard against classifying our books into a genre or sub-genre because we truly believe it’s the one book ever written that defies genre classification. We do it because we’re confused by how many different options are out there and we’re either too lazy (sorry, I know it’s true because I’ve been there in my earlier days) or too overwhelmed to try to sort them out. Hopefully this series of posts will help erase both those excuses for you.

But…what about Donald Maass saying genres are dead? Surely he knows better than almost anyone else?

For the answer to that, I’m going to direct you to a post I wrote all about the “Death of Genre” chapter in Maass’ book Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling.

Basically, “the death of genre” is a misnomer. It’s not about the death of genre at all. It’s about the evolution of genre, the next leap forward the same way our world experienced a technology boom in the late 90s.

Maass isn’t so much saying that genre is dead as he is that genre writers need to push themselves to not be satisfied with the status quo for what’s “good enough” for genre fiction.

Genre writers need to learn beautiful writing from literary writers, and literary writers need to learn captivating storylines from genre writers. Story and art become equals rather than adversaries.

Maass writes, “A curious phenomenon has arisen in recent years. It’s the appearance of genre fiction so well written that it attains a status and recognition usually reserved for literary works” (13).

When the two come together, whether you call the book genre fiction or mainstream/literary fiction, it doesn’t matter because you’ve laid the foundation for what Maass calls high impact fiction. The kind that stays on the bestseller lists for months rather than weeks at a time.

You can read the rest of the post here.

What genre are you writing in right now? Do you hate the idea of needing to classify your book?

I hope you’ll check out the books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series, including How to Write Dialogue and my brand new Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction.

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Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction: A Busy Writer’s Guide

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I’m excited to announce the release of the next full-length book in my Busy Writer’s Guides series.

Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction by Marcy Kennedy

You’ve heard the advice “show, don’t tell” until you can’t stand to hear it anymore. Yet fiction writers of all levels still seem to struggle with it.

There are three reasons for this. The first is that this isn’t an absolute rule. Telling isn’t always wrong. The second is that we lack a clear way of understanding the difference between showing and telling. The third is that we’re told “show, don’t tell,” but we’re often left without practical ways to know how and when to do that, and how and when not to. So that’s what this book is about.

Chapter One defines showing and telling and explains why showing is normally better.
Chapter Two gives you eight practical ways to find telling that needs to be changed to showing and guides you in understanding how to make those changes.
Chapter Three explains how telling can function as a useful first draft tool.
Chapter Four goes in-depth on the seven situations when telling might be the better choice than showing.
Chapter Five provides you with practical editing tips to help you take what you’ve learned to the pages of your current novel or short story.

Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction also includes three appendices covering how to use The Emotion Thesaurus, dissecting an example so you can see the concepts of showing vs. telling in action, and explaining the closely related topic of As-You-Know-Bob Syndrome.

Each book in the Busy Writer’s Guides series is intended to give you enough theory so that you can understand why things work and why they don’t, but also enough examples to see how that theory looks in practice. In addition, they provide tips and exercises to help you take it to the pages of your own story with an editor’s-eye view. Most importantly, they cut the fluff so you have more time to write and to live your life.

You can buy a copy of Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction at Amazon.com, at the Amazon site for your own country, or at Smashwords. More sites will be coming soon! Like all the full-length books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series, it’s priced at $2.99 at Amazon.com. If you’d like to buy it at Smashwords for $2.99, use the coupon code MA65T.

If you’d like to help me spread the word, I’d appreciate it if you’d share this post on Facebook, Google+, or wherever you hang out. And remember to add your favorite writing hashtag when you tweet! (Suggestions: #amwriting #amediting #writetip #MyWANA)

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A Real Island in the Clouds

Image Credit: Martin Gysler, CC license

Image Credit: Martin Gysler, CC license

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

When the movie was in theaters, my husband and I watched Jack the Giant Slayer. While the movie was mediocre, I loved the floating island in the clouds where the giants lived. Imagine my delight when I found out there was a real floating island—or at least as close as we’re going to get—in Mt. Roraima, Venezuela.

Welcome back to my Unbelievable Real Life feature, where I showcase weird creatures and offbeat places on our planet that seem like they should belong in a fantasy or science fiction story. Today we’re going to Mt. Roraima, Venezuela.

This mountain was the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Its plateau sits 1,200 feet above the ground. Along with the fact that it often appears to float in the sky, it’s also home to a unique ecosystem, including nearly daily rains, some of the world’s highest waterfalls, and a carnivorous pitcher plant. (I had to look it up. The plant is the Heliamphora nutans, and it eats insects.)

Image Credit: Dryas, CC license

Image Credit: Dryas, CC license

Take a look at the mountain…

Mt. Roraima is surrounded at its base by tropical rainforests. The moist air rising off of the rain forest is what creates the thick clouds that make the mountain look like it’s a floating island.

If you had a chance to visit a floating island, would you do it? Or would you be afraid of finding something more dangerous than a carnivorous plant hiding there?

I hope you’ll check out my book of suspense short stories–Frozen!

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The 3 Most Common Problems with First Person POV and How to Fix Them

Image by Alfonso Romero

Image by Alfonso Romero

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to my ongoing series on point of view in fiction writing. Today is the final installment for first person point of view.

So far we’ve talked about the nature of first person POV and how to write a successful first person POV story. Now it’s time to look at the three most common challenges in first person POV and potential ways of handling them.

Solving these problems is more about deciding on the best path for your story than it is about a right vs. wrong rule.

(1)   The Time Problem

If you’re writing in first person past tense, you always have a time issue. The POV character is telling the story from a distance position. It’s already happened. Some of the tension is removed because we know the first person narrator survives the story being told.

There are ways around this. You could write in first person present tense (which many readers still find jarring even after the success of books like The Hunger Games). You could have someone else read the account left by the first person narrator, so until we reach the end of the story, we don’t know how long they survive the tale they’re telling.

Another way to handle this is to put your character in non-death jeopardy or in jeopardy where death is only one of the possible outcomes. A character can survive while still emerging horribly scarred either mentally, emotionally, or physically (e.g., in Stephen King’s Misery). A character can survive while still risking the possibility of losing someone they love and would have gladly given their life to save.

(2)   The Withholding Information Problem

Because the first person POV narrator already knows what happens, we face the problem of why they don’t just tell us the ending right away. In most cases, as writers, we know that would kill our story by removing the tension.

You can withhold the ending as long as you play fair. In other words, you must have the first person narrator tell the reader everything they knew at that point in time where we are within the story. If you withhold it, you’re cheating the reader, and instead of feeling like we’re part of the story, we end up feeling the artificial constructs surrounding it.

In some genres, like cozy mysteries, you get one free pass. When the sleuth discovers the true identity of the murderer, you can (note I’m saying can, not should) withhold the identity of the murderer just long enough for the sleuth to set a trap for them (or bring them to justice in some way). There shouldn’t be a large gap between the sleuth discovering the identity of the killer and revealing it, though, or again, you risk the reader feeling like they’re being played with.

(3)   The Melodrama vs. Cold Fish Problem

At some point in most books, your POV character is going to experience a particularly emotional event. How are you going to handle narrating that event?

If you haven’t asked yourself that question and you want to write in first person, you need to think about it. Think back to the last traumatic experience in your life. How clear are your memories of it? How clearly were you thinking at the time it happened?

Now how do you translate that to the page in a way that it doesn’t either come across as confusing for the reader, melodramatic, or cold and clinical?

Because if you allow your character to present it in all its chaotic, messy, heart-rendingly emotional glory, you risk confusion or melodrama. If you have your character present it factually and clearly, you risk them coming across as cold or unrealistic.

Experience is the only real teacher for finding the balance to these scenes. You’ll want to specifically ask your critique group, beta reader, or editor about these scenes and how they come across. Then tweak, seek advice, and repeat. It’s a lot like learning to balance on a bike or on ice skates. Once you have the feel for it, you’ll be able to stay upright.

What’s your biggest pet peeve about first person POV books?

If you’ve enjoyed this series of posts on POV, I hope you’ll consider signing up for my How to Master Point of View webinar running this Saturday. (If you can’t make it, sign up anyway. All registrants will receive a recording of the session.) Cost is $45! Sign up here. Or you can sign up for the WANA2Fer where you can get my POV webinar and Lisa Hall-Wilson’s webinar on How to Write Effective Inner Dialogue for only $70. That’s a $20 savings. Sign up for the 2Fer here.

I hope you’ll check out the books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series, including Strong Female Characters and How to Write Dialogue.

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