Writing

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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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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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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March to a Bestseller: A One-Day Sale on 16 Books for Authors

March to a Bestseller

For today only I’m dropping the price of How to Write Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide to 99 cents. And I’m not the only one. Fifteen other authors are also dropping the price of their books to 99 cents. This is a treasure chest full of writerly goodness, so make sure you buy your copies before the sale ends.

And make sure you join the Facebook group where the participating authors will be hanging out during the day to share snippets of their books and answer any writing questions you might have!

Here’s a quick look at the participating books.

From the Description of Writing Online:

“If you’re tired of chasing low paying writing gigs, want to take your writing to the next level, and finally make the great living you deserve, I’m here to share what I’ve learned along the way.”

The book has 29 five-star reviews (out of 29 reviews). Author Sean Platt is the co-author of more than 60 books and is well-known as one of the co-hosts of the Self Publishing Podcast.

From the description of How to Write for Kindle:

“(This) is a no-fluff guide for writers on-the-go who have something to say and not a lot of time to say it. (Get the book) if you’re ready to say ‘hello’ to increased income, pride of product, and the thrill of seeing your name on a great book.” 

The book has a 4.6 out of 5 average with 137 reviews. Author Nancy Hendrickson has written 7 books for authors, bloggers and freelance writers.

From the description of Fire Up Your Fiction (formerly Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power): 

“If you’re looking to hone your style, bring your scenes to life, tighten up your writing, add tension, pick up the pace, and develop a more authentic, appealing voice, this guide to the indispensable style elements of writing a popular novel is for you.” 

The book has a 4.8 out of 5 average with 64 reviews. Jodie Renner is an award-winning writer and a sought-after freelance fiction editor. 

From the description of Writing Habit Mastery:

“In Writing Habit Mastery you’ll learn how to incorporate writing into your daily routine. What you’ll get is a strategy and list of tools that will help you develop a sustainable writing habit and demolish writer’s block.” 

The book has a 4.5 out of 5 average with 54 reviews. S.J. Scott has written over 20 books on writing, productivity and blogging.

From the description of 77 Ways to Find New Readers for Your Self Published Book!:

“In this concise guide co-founder of the 30 Day Books studio Laura Pepper Wu shares actionable tips and secrets that you can use to skyrocket the sales of your book and find new readers in places far outside of your current network.”

This book has a 4.8 out of 5 average with 44 reviews. Laura Pepper Wu has written six books. 

From the description of Your First 1,000 Copies:

“In Your First 1000 Copies, seasoned book marketing expert Tim Grahl walks you through how successful authors are using the online marketing tools to build their platform, connect with readers and sell more books.”

The book has a 4.8 out of 5 average with 104 reviews. Tim has worked with over 100 different authors, including New York Times bestselling author Hugh Howey. 

From the description of Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View:

“This handbook shows you how to perform the transformation from ordinary narrative to deep narrative in clear, easy-to-master steps. I invite you to sweep your writing to the next level with a technique that creates immediacy and intimacy with your readers.” 

The book has a 4.5 out of 5 average with 158 reviews. Jill Elizabeth Nelson is the author of 13 books. 

From the description for 1,000 Creative Writing Prompts, Volume 2:

“Far beyond the typical, ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ story starters, this new collection of 1,000 prompts has been specifically formulated to dig deep into the creative process. The prompts employ thought-provoking questions, imaginative scenarios and humor to help writers of all ages defeat writer’s block.” 

The book has a 4.4 out of 5 average with 79 reviews. Bryan Cohen has written 33 books. 

From the description for Author Publicity Pack:

“(This book outlines) over 750 places that authors of all genres can get publicity for themselves and their books. Also includes 100+ additional resources specifically for Christian authors.”

The book has a 4.6 out of 5 average with 85 reviews. Shelley Hitz and Heather Hart have written more than 30 books between them and co-manage TrainingAuthors.com.  

From the description for The Writer’s Tune-up Manual:

The Manual gives you a real opportunity to flex your literary muscles by laying out detailed, often difficult assignments. Nobody said that becoming the best writer you can would be easy, so roll up your sleeves, flex your fingers, and get ready to take your writing to a whole new level!” 

The book has a 4.7 out of 5 average with 19 reviews. Craig has written 10 books. 

From the description of Practical Emotional Structure:

“Turbocharge your story with Practical Emotional Structure. A simple, plain-English craft of writing guide designed to connect you with your readers using emotional theory and the power of the transformational character arc.” 

The book has a 4.6 out of 5 average with 19 reviews. Jodi Henley has done more than 51 workshops and presentations.

**Update: Due to a snag with Amazon, Rob’s book unfortunately won’t be dropping in price today.**

From the description of How Do I Decide? Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing:

How Do I Decide? is a concise, definitive resource that will guide you through the decision, allowing you to ignore the noise and hype and focus on the right path for YOU.”

The book has a 4.7 out of 5 average with 38 reviews. Rachelle Gardner is a literary agent with Books & Such Literary.

From the description for How to Write Dialogue:

“In How to Write Dialogue you’ll learn how to format your dialogue, how to add variety to your dialogue, when you should use dialogue and when you shouldn’t, how to write dialogue unique to each of your characters, tricks for handling dialect, and much more!” 

The book has a 5.0 out of 5 average with six reviews. Marcy Kennedy is the author of the Busy Writer’s Guide series. 

From the description of Make Money Online, Volume 2:

“Working online for a company or creating your own home-based business can erase debt, allow you to travel and in some cases make you very rich. This book will help you.” 

The book has a 4.2 out of 5 average with 71 reviews. Connie Brentford is a bestselling author who has sold over 70,000 books. 

From the description of Writing Fight Scenes:

“Learn step-by-step how to create fictional fights which leave the reader breathless with excitement. There are sections on female fighters, male fighters, animals and weres, psychological obstacles, battles, duels, brawls, riots and final showdowns.”

The book has a 4.5 out of 5 average with 64 reviews. Rayne Hall is the author of forty books in different genres and under different pen names.

Make sure to grab your copies before the sale ends!

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Understanding Your Ebook Formatting Options

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I’m very excited to announce that I’m now a regular guest columnist over at Janice Hardy’s Other Side of the Story. My first post appears today, and I’m going over the options you have for formatting your ebook if you’re planning to self-publish.

When I first decided to self-publish, one of the decisions that tied my stomach into the most knots was how to format my ebook. I had a meager budget, and I’ll be honest—I’m not exactly a technological wiz kid. I still use an ancient cell phone with no internet capabilities, and I get heart palpitations every time my computer hiccups.

But what I realized was that ebook formatting isn’t nearly as scary as I thought. In fact, I actually fell a little in love with the process. We have a lot of options, which means we can all find the one that works best for us, for our book, and for our budget.

Join me to find out about your ebook formatting options!

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

I’d love to have you sign up to receive my posts by email. All you need to do is enter your email address below and hit the “Follow” botton.

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The 5 Keys to Writing Successfully in First Person Point of View

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Image by Sanja Gjenero

Image by Sanja GjeneroBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Last week we continued our series on point of view in fiction with an opening look at first person POV, including what it is, the different ways it’s being used in modern fiction, and some of the benefits and drawbacks that come with writing in first person POV.

Over the next two POV posts, I’m going to look at the five aspects you need to manage well if you want your first person POV book to work and the most common challenges you’ll run in to when writing in first person POV.

These five keys aren’t exclusive to writing in first person, but they are the core of writing successful first person POV and represent mistakes writers more often make when tackling this point of view for the first time compared to other POVs.

So here we go…

(1)   Create a unique character voice.

Many authors think they’re created a unique character voice if they give their character a catch phrase or a dialect quirk, but that’s not what unique character voice means.

When we talk about character voice, those things do come into play, but what we really mean is that character’s unique outlook and personality expressed in their thoughts and speech. Readers enjoy first person POV in part because of the intimate look at the way another person views the world. Fiction allows us to explore this new perspective in a way we never can in our daily lives.

Before you set out to write a first person POV story (or when you’re trying to revise your first draft), ask yourself these questions:

  • How do they view the world around them? (E.g., mostly evil, mostly good, fair, unfair, random, ordered by a bigger plan…)
  • How do they view themselves?
  • How do they feel about the big ticket items like love and faith?
  • How do they feel about the people closest to them?
  • Are they cynical or optimistic?

More might come to you as you answer these. Once you’ve answered all the questions you can think of, consider how this will affect the tone of what your character says and thinks, the things she comments on, and the little asides he makes to himself. That’s where a unique character voice grows.

First person is all about interpretation by the narrator. Or, in some cases, misinterpretation.

How and what the narrator interprets are important elements of characterization. Showing change in how and what they interpret is an important element of their character arc and growth throughout the book.

(2)   Show us not only what they’re doing but also why they’re doing it and how they feel about it.

Motivations and reactions are what give first person POV the intimate feel that’s one of its strengths.

Have your first person narrator respond in their head to something said aloud or to jump ahead and make assumptions about what they think the other person will say next. Let us know why they’ve decided to respond in a certain way. Afterward, show us how what they did is affecting them emotionally and mentally.  These chains are more important in first person POV than in any other.

(3)   Remember that you still need to write in scenes.

The temptation when writing first person POV is for it to almost become stream of consciousness, but you still need to write in scenes. We don’t need to see every detail of the POV character’s life. We still only need to see the things important to the story. Each scene should have a goal, you should enter as late as possible, and you should leave as early as possible.

(4)   Alternate internal with external so the story doesn’t feel claustrophobic.

More than any other POV, first person POV can feel claustrophobic because you’re usually trapped in one character’s head the whole time. (This is the negative flip side of the intimacy it gives.) And because that character is telling the story directly—in other words, there’s no distance at all—it’s easy to fall prey to the talking head syndrome.

Talking head syndrome is where your character narrates for paragraphs (or even pages) without any external stimuli. The reader starts to feel like the character is just a disembodied head floating in empty space because they don’t see, hear, feel, smell, taste, or touch anything happening around them.

Don’t put your first person POV character in a bubble. It’s important that you regularly alternate between internal (your character thinking/narrating/feeling) and external (the five senses/action/setting/dialogue).

When you alternate every paragraph or every other paragraph between internal and external, you keep the reader grounded both in the world around them and in the emotions and thoughts of your character.

(5)   Make sure your first person narrator doesn’t come across as stupid.

Throughout your book, your first person POV character will likely miss something important, misinterpret information, or otherwise overlook a clue you’ve planted.

If you don’t want your first person narrator to come across as stupid when they miss something, make sure you create events that could easily have two possible interpretations or a situation where it would be believable for them to have missed that clue.

Having a character who’s too stupid to live in third person POV is annoying. In first person POV, it can kill the book.

If you regularly write in first person POV, what other tips would you give for someone who’s trying it out for the first time? Or what other questions do you have about writing in first person POV?

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

And remember, Frozen (my book of suspense short stories) is on sale for 99 cents only until tomorrow! Check it out here.

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How Is First Person POV Different?

First Person POV in Fiction

Image by Leszek Nowak

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

As we head into 2014, I’ll be continuing my series on point of view in fiction. If you missed the earlier parts in the series from 2013, you can find them here:

Are You Writing in the POV You Think You’re Writing In?

How to Successfully Write Omniscient POV

7 Ways to Develop Your Voice

What Is Head Hopping and How Can We Avoid It?

Today I’m launching into the first of three posts talking about first person POV. I want to talk about what exactly first person POV is and how it differs from the other points of view before we dive in to how to write successfully in first person POV and how to tackle some of the most common challenges that come along with writing in first person POV.

What Do We Mean by First Person POV?

Just like it sounds, in first person, the character is telling us the story directly.

I dug through my purse. No keys. They were here yesterday. I’d dropped them in when I came home from work, didn’t I? I tipped my purse’s contents out onto the table, and receipts, old gum wrappers, and pennies spilled everywhere.

One of the major strengths of first person POV is its intimacy. We’re being brought into the confidence of a character.

Most of the time, when you use first person POV, you’ll only use that single POV throughout the book (like in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins or The Shifter by Janice Hardy). However, that’s not a rule. Authors have successfully used more than one first person POV in the same book or a combination of first and third.

You can use multiple first person points of view like in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. I wouldn’t recommend using multiple first person points of view for new writers because it’s difficult to do well.

You can use a single first person point of view for most of the story and then switch to third person for scenes where the first person narrator isn’t present. The theory behind this is that the first person narrator is telling us the story, and the parts in third person are pieces he was told about later. A good example of this is Dragon Bones by Patricia Briggs.

You can use first person for the villain’s scenes in an otherwise third person POV book. This is a way you can hide the identity of the villain. (After all, how many of us think of our names on a regular basis. I don’t.) Julie Garwood did this in her romance novel The Bride.

Or, if you just want to dip your toes into first person, you can use it as a bookend prologue and epilogue to an otherwise third person POV story like in Beverly Lewis’ The Shunning.

How Is First Person Fundamentally Different From the Other POVs?

Other than the obvious use of I rather than he/she, writing in first person comes with a big opportunity—and a big challenge—that isn’t involved when you’re writing in third person or omniscient POV.

By its very nature, first person point of view is more self-conscious than any of the other POVs. The POV character is telling their story to someone. You can see hints of this in the way many first person stories include a paragraph where the narrator introduces himself. Take a look at how Harry Dresden introduces himself in Jim Butcher’s Storm Front and how Abileen does it in The Help.

You, as the writer, need to know why your first person narrator is telling the story and who their intended audience is.

Why does this matter?

The purpose, intention, or goal of the first person POV character in telling the story is what should be driving your narrative. Everything you write should forward the goal the first person narrator has in telling their story. By knowing this, you give your story focus it won’t otherwise have.

You don’t have to directly reveal your first person narrator’s goal or their intended audience to the reader. In most cases, you shouldn’t directly reveal them. But they need to be clear in your head.

The self-conscious nature of the first person POV story means the reader can’t always be certain if the narrator is reliable or unreliable. Beyond this, the narrator can be either intentionally or unintentionally unreliable.

In third person POV, the point of view character can lie to themselves, lie to other characters, or have a false impression of reality, but they can’t lie to the reader because they’re not aware the reader exists. Large parts of the story will be “objective” because they’re “outside” the POV character.* This is the biggest difference between first and third. In first person POV, the character is talking to us in some sense. Because they’re speaking to us, they can also lie to us.

Which means we have to ask, “Are they lying to us?” Presenting themselves in a certain way even if it’s not entirely accurate because they want to be perceived in a particular way (e.g., they want the reader’s sympathy or respect)? Because they want to convince us of something? Are they unable to see reality, and so they’re giving us their perception but not the truth, making them unintentionally unreliable? Playing with these aspects is part of the fun of using a first person narrator and also part of the challenge.

If you’re writing an unreliable narrator, you’ll need to drop subtle hints for the reader. The reader wants to be able to figure out what’s really happening, and to do that, they need hints about whether they can trust the narrator or whether they might need to doubt their story as it’s being told.

Have you tried writing in first person POV? What did you like about it? What did you dislike about it?

* I placed “objective” and “outside” in quotation marks because if we’re writing third person POV properly everything is still filtered through the eyes of the character. However, it’s still filtering. We still see what happens in an objective sense. The driver in front of our POV character slams on their breaks and our POV character hits them because she was tailgating. That’s what objectively happened. How it’s described and what details we receive depend on the POV character. It’s like a coloring book where the POV character fills in the colors but the lines are already there. In first person, however, it’s not just filtered. It’s created. They might tell us that they accidentally slammed into the car in front of them, but it might not have been an accident at all. They might be interpreting events for us in such a way as to make us believe that they weren’t out to get their ex-husband’s new wife. It’s like having a blank page where the POV character first draws the picture and then colors it in.

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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