September 13, 2021

by Eldred “Bob” Bird

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my writing life, it’s that everything has a story. Every object within my sphere came from somewhere. It had a beginning and will eventually have an end. Along the way it may pass through many hands and touch countless lives before being swallowed up by the sands of time.

Part of being a writer is being able to extract that story. Proper research is one way to accomplish the task, but sometimes the object itself will speak to you if you’re willing to listen. I’d like to tell you how one of those objects spoke to me.

A Cycle of Life

Besides writing, one of my other passions is cycling. For the most part I keep the two separate, but sometimes my worlds collide. A few years back the writing and riding came together in an unexpected way.

I have a birthday tradition. On my special day I mount my bicycle and ride one mile for every year of my life. This was a nice challenge at first and served me well for many years. However, as my fitness level increased, the difficulty of the task diminished, making the annual outing feel like any other day in the saddle. One thing became evident—I needed to find a way to put the magic back into the ride.

I decided that magic should come in the form of a new bike . . . well, a new-to-me bike. I began looking for a bicycle made the same year I was born—a kindred spirit of sorts.

After months of searching, my quest ended with an online auction for a 1959 Schwinn Traveler three-speed in less-than-stellar condition.  The bike was scratched, rusty, and needed completely worked over. It was perfect for my purpose.

The next step involved the frame. My original goal was to make it shine like new, but while contemplating touching up the paint something stopped me.

I sat studying all the scratches and chips on its surface, inspecting each one carefully. For some reason I couldn’t bring myself to paint over the flaws. Then it dawned on me—they were telling me a story.

I ran my fingers over the cool steel tubes, feeling every imperfection like a blind person reading a page of Braille. The history of this bike was written in the scratches and wear marks peeking through the fading black paint. These were scars left by half a century of use, much like the scars adorning my own body.

I inspected the circular marks rubbed into the top tube. Is this where the cable and lock that protected it from thieves hung? And wear bands on the seat stays, likely from a book rack—perhaps this bike transported someone to a higher education, or maybe propelled a young entrepreneur along his paper route.

This two-wheeled treasure read like an old mystery novel. 

How many miles had it seen? What roads had it traveled? How many lives had it touched?  My imagination ran wild with the narrative spelled out by this road-weary traveler. I had to ask myself a question—how could I just erase that life with a little pigment and a brush?

I couldn’t do it.

After a great deal of contemplation, I opted to go for preservation, rather than restoration.  I carefully finished cleaning the frame without editing the story laid out before me and sealed it up with a coat of wax before reassembling the bike.

Me and My Birth Year Bike

Now, when I climb aboard this rolling piece of history every summer for my birthday trek, I do my best to respect its past and guarantee its future.  The bike gets cleaned, adjusted, and lubricated with great care, but I don’t panic when I put a scratch or two in the paint. I simply look at it as adding my own chapter to the book of this amazing machine’s life.

I plan on spinning a series of tales inspired by the scars on this incredible machine.

Beginning with the first owner, each section will tell the story of how this particular bike came into their possession and how it changed their life before moving on to the next person, finally ending up under my care.

Your Turn

Now that I’ve shared the story of my special object, here’s an exercise to help you do the same. Look around you and pick out an item. It can be something you just acquired, or a family heirloom passed down from generation to generation. The more unusual the object, the better.

Got your item? Good.

Now pick it up, feel the weight, run your fingers over the surface, and study every detail. Think about all the other hands that have touched it. Who made it? How did it come into your possession? What will happen to it when you’re gone? Could it be at the center of a mystery? Maybe it’s the “Maltese Falcon” in your next tale of intrigue and adventure.

Let your imagination run wild and jot down everything you can think of. Got it? Now write the story!

What object did you choose? What ideas did it inspire? Tell us about it in the comments!

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About Eldred

Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing KarmaCatching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking RoomTreble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.

When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.

All photos courtesy of Eldred Bird.

September 10, 2021

by Julie Glover

Social media can be a fantastic way for authors to connect with resources, share about their books, promote events, and more. But there's another aspect of social media for writers—the social part.

I've experienced many benefits of making friends online. And you can too.

Pearls of Writing Wisdom

If you want to find pearls, first find oysters. Fellow writers are like oysters—people who create and polish up their wisdom and then share it with you.

Sure, you can find fantastic courses, conferences, and craft books, but there's an added layer when a friend says to you, "Here's what worked for me." Of course, you don't always agree, because what works for them doesn't necessarily work for you. But with so many pearls, you can sift through and find the best ones.

Plus, you can share what you've learned. It's always a good feeling to help others on their path.

Resource Information

We tend to trust recommendations and advice from people we know more than people we don't, so writers who are also friends can be a great boost to your knowledge of resources.

They can give great recommendations for a book cover designer, a copyeditor, a writing coach. Or they can assist directly by critiquing your manuscript, showing you how to set up a Facebook ad, etc.

More than once, I've answered a grammar question for a writer friend—because I'm here and they asked, plus I have subscription access to the Chicago Manual of Style. They bring other perks, but I'm their go-to grammar girl. It's a win-win.

People Who "Get It"

When a writer posts about what it's like to work on a book, their writer friends nod their heads, comment with understanding, and let them know "you're not weird, you're just a writer."

Honestly, I had no idea other people told themselves tales in their heads, imagined stories for people they saw in coffee shops or at the mall, and tucked away ideas and phrases they might use someday, somehow—until I was among others who had similar experiences. Turns out I was normal, for a writer.

When you're wanting someone who understands your excitement about a book deal or release, relates to your struggles and disappointment when the story isn't working, or appreciates how the characters you created seem so real—other writers on social media get it.

Shared Expenses

My roommate for two years at DFW Con was a woman I met through social media, or rather, through a mutual friend on social media who connected us. The woman and I conversed online, threw in together, and it went so well, we roomed together the next year as well. Two of my roomies at RWA National one year were also online friends.

Others have shared expenses with hotel rooms, taxi or Uber rides, book marketing, buy-one-get-one courses, and much more.

Connecting with another writer online can save you money...and create friendships.

Real-life Friends

By far, the biggest perk is real-life friendships. Yes, some people I will only ever know online, but others I met online, later met in person, and became good friends with. Among them are Laura Drake (a prior host here), Jenny Hansen (the heartbeat of WITS), and Catie Rhodes (an amazing writer).

Others I'd met in person but strengthened my relationship through social media, such as Elizabeth Essex, Melinda VanLone, and Christina Delay.

I'm not alone. Many of you have forged lasting friendships with other writers that began on social media.

How to Be Social Online

None of these perks come with interacting on social media solely as a marketing platform. Yes, plenty of authors have good results to show for engagement, ads, and promotions on social media. However, if you want social connections, here are a few suggestions for how to make genuine friends online.

Be authentic.

Real people are like your readers: they want three-dimensional characters. If you present yourself as a writing entity, you won't connect with others. You don't have to share about your whole life. In fact, don't. But be honest about who you are and how things are going.

Many people I met through social media later turned out to be the same in person. Because they'd been authentic online. (Although Jenny Hansen's voice was pitched way lower than I originally expected! She's like Lauren Bacall, y'all.)

Part of this, by the way, is to show your face. It's fine to have a different profile pic or use an avatar now and then, but people want to interact with a person. Authenticity involves showing your face. (And no, not the face you had 30 years ago when you took your last professional photo—the one you have now.)

Be more positive than negative.

Some great research by The Gottman Institute shows that a healthy relationship needs about five positive interactions to every one negative interaction. Think about that when you decide what to post.

That doesn't mean you can never share about some fecal festival you're dealing with, but if you've built up goodwill, such posts come across as authentic rather than "there he goes again."

Also, be sure to celebrate others' successes and giving encouragement when needed. That positivity is always appreciated.

Find your niche.

What aspects define you? Figure out what those are and let them guide what kinds of things you post.

Are you a crafter? Share what you're working on. Are you a traveler? Share pics of where you've been. Are you an animal lover? Share dog or cat memes. Are you a movie lover? Share what flicks you're watching. Are you a hard-livin' cynic with a past that would make the average person's eyes pop? Share a story or two with a splash of sarcastic humor.

People like having that window into who you are, and it helps you connect with others in authentic ways.

Be courteous.

Finally, just be nice online. Thank people when they share something you posted or about your book. Apologize if you spoke too soon or crossed a line. Share your own experiences or ideas, rather than telling people what to do. Admit when someone else has a point.

Say "please," "thank you," and "excuse me." And if it's your thing, say "Happy Birthday!" when someone's special day comes around.

Good manners aren't about rules, but about making others feel welcome and comfortable. Do your part to make social media a nicer place to be.

How has the social side of social media benefited you as a writer? What advice do you have for other writers to get the most out of social media?

Image credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Julie Glover is an award-winning author of mysteries and young adult fiction. She also writes supernatural suspense under the pen name Jules Lynn.

Her most recent release is My Stepmom's Ghosts, the third of five YA paranormal short stories coming out this year.

When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.

September 8, 2021

by Colleen M. Story

You know what it’s like to be a frustrated writer.

It goes something like this.

Jenna put out three different freebies on her website to attract new subscribers to her newsletters. None of them were as successful as she hoped. After months of work, she’s only increased her subscriber list by 10.

Scott spent a couple of years on his self-published novel. He had high hopes that it would sell well. Unfortunately, it didn’t. Scott doesn’t get it. It was his best work yet.

Amy has been blogging regularly but after six months, her readership has gone nowhere. She’s worked hard and it’s like she’s throwing her posts to the wind.

All three of these writers are frustrated for the same reason.

Can you guess what it is?

3 Reasons Why You May Think You’re a Frustrated Writer

If you could ask these writers to tell you why they feel frustrated, you’d likely hear one of these three answers: 

  1. I worked really hard on these projects. It doesn’t make sense that they wouldn’t do well.
  2. I did what “they say” to do and it still didn’t work.
  3. It’s just “not fair” out there—it’s too hard to succeed.

These statements are true. The writers did work hard and did what “they said” to do. And yes, the market is tough and it’s hard to succeed.

But if you dig a little deeper, you can see that these reasons don’t get at the true source of the frustration. Working hard, doing what other successful writers say to do, or dealing with a difficult industry isn’t the reason these writers are frustrated—because those aren’t the reasons the writers failed.

These writers are all frustrated because they did what they thought they needed to do to succeed, but instead, they failed.

They could simply say, “I failed, and I’m frustrated.”

Now we are getting closer to the truth—and better yet, closer to a place where the writers can begin to figure out why they failed.

A Frustrated Writer Needs to Start by Admitting Failure

As long as you remain caught up in frustration, your writing career will stagnate. To get back on track, start by putting everything aside—your hard work, your good intentions, your disappointment—and just say it out loud:

“I failed.”

It’s okay. It’s no big deal. Writers fail all the time. The more we can embrace it, the braver we'll become, and the better we'll be able to handle the ups and downs of the job.

You’re frustrated because you failed. Okay. Now what?

Why Frustrated Writers Feel Frustrated

The next question you need to ask yourself is: Why did I fail?

Because of one very common reason why all writers fail: they didn’t know what they didn’t know.

Confucius said: “True wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.”

But that’s not easy to do. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know. Know what I mean?

Let’s take Jenna. She doesn’t know why her freebies didn’t work to attract subscribers. There are many potential reasons:

  • The freebies were not well targeted to her audience.
  • The freebies didn’t solve a problem for her readers.
  • The freebies did not have attractive, attention-getting titles.
  • Her website design didn’t allow for an easy way to get the freebie.

How about Scott? His book didn’t sell well. Some potential reasons:

  • The title didn’t appeal to the market.
  • The book needed more editing.
  • The cover didn’t attract attention.
  • He didn’t do enough to advertise the book when he launched it.
  • He hadn’t built up his platform enough to get his book off the ground.

Amy, too, could be facing several roadblocks to her blog succeeding:

  • The blog headlines aren't "clickable."
  • The blogs don’t appeal to her target audience.
  • The blogs lack subheads and other elements that make them easy to read.
  • She’s not advertising or sharing the blogs enough.
  • She hasn’t found a “niche” that works for her.

For these three writers, any or all of these issues may apply. The one commonality is that the writers don’t know what the problem is.

And that is definitely frustrating!

How to Say Goodbye to Your Inner Frustrated Writer!

The first step is to realize that the problem is a lack of knowledge. It’s not that you’re not good enough to be a successful writer (as many writers feel when they’re frustrated). It’s not that there’s something else wrong with you. It’s just that you need to learn more.

In other words, it’s time to go back to educating yourself.

Anytime you feel frustrated—particularly if you start slipping into self-doubt—ask yourself, “How can I learn more about this?”

If you're not sure how here are a few suggestions:

1. Sign up for a workshop.

Today, there are online workshops available that address just about every facet of a writer’s life. You can find workshops on building your email list, self-publishing, launching your book, creating a successful blog, finding your niche, and more.

If the success you were expecting doesn’t come your way, don’t assume that it was bad luck, the market, or your lack of abilities. Instead, educate yourself—the sooner, the better!

2. Read a book.

Just as you can find a workshop for just about everything you need to learn as a writer, so too can you find a book that will address it. There are books on marketing your work, building your online platform, increasing your email subscribers, and more. Buy a few and start reading!

3. Listen to podcasts.

Podcasts exploded over the past decade, and there are a lot of them out there now that cater to writers. You can start with those, then don't be afraid to branch out to other topic areas. Check out the straight marketing podcasts, the "grow your online business" podcasts and the entrepreneurial podcasts. You're likely to learn something from all of these too.

4. Get help from someone who succeeded.

Do you know someone who has succeeded at what you’re trying to do? See if they may be willing to help you. Maybe you can hire that person to be a mentor, or even just to spend an hour with you.

This can provide you with a huge step up. While you can read books, listen to podcasts, and take courses, there’s nothing like getting some personal attention from someone who knows the ropes.

Jenna, for instance, could have a mentor look over her freebies and her website and potentially give her some insights that would practically guarantee that her next freebie would be much more successful.

That’s money and time well spent.

5. Get your writing friends to help.

Your writing friends can be a great resource for helping you to overcome frustration.

Sometimes, all you have to do is reach out to 5-10 fellow writers with one request: Will you help me?

Most writers are more than happy to say “yes.”

Scott, for instance, could ask his friends to look over his book, his description, his cover, and his website, and offer their thoughts as to why his launch didn’t go as well as he hoped.

Amy could ask her writing friends to read 2-4 of her blogs and offer their input as to why they may not be attracting other readers.

This can be a scary thing to do. None of us want to admit that we failed—or that we need help, for that matter.

But if you can find the courage, you will probably be rewarded with some very helpful suggestions. And remember—there’s not a single writer out there who hasn’t failed at one time or another.

Not all of your friends’ ideas will be useful. But you may be surprised at what you discover. Particularly if you hear the same suggestion from two or more writers, take that suggestion seriously.

Then arm yourself with your new knowledge and go back and try again. Because once you have an idea of what you need to do, your frustration will fade—and you’ll be one more step closer to success.

How do you ditch your inner frustrated writer?

Note: To Unlock the Key to Your Writing Motivation, check out Colleen’s FREE quiz and report here. You’ll also get FREE chapters of her writing books!

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About Colleen

In her new release, Your Writing Matters, Colleen M. Story helps writers determine whether writing is part of their life’s purpose. Her book on author platforms, Writer Get Noticed!, was a gold-medal winner in the Reader’s Favorite Book Awards, and Overwhelmed Writer Rescue was named Book by Book Publicity’s Best Writing/Publishing Book. Her novel, Loreena’s Gift, was a Foreword Reviews' INDIES Book of the Year Awards winner, among others.

Find more at her author website and Writing and Wellness, and connect with her on Twitter and YouTube.

Top Image Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

September 6, 2021

by Penny C. Sansevieri

If you want to market a book, you really need to consider using every tool in your workshop and every trick in your magician’s hat to get your book into readers’ hands. So let’s put politics aside for the length of this post in order to discuss how to use an old chestnut book marketing strategy in our new normal life as Masked Book Marketers.

In-person book events are possible again!

They won’t look or maybe feel the way they did in the past, but I’m okay with that. I’m just happy that we can be in shared spaces and interact with one another again because adding author events to your book marketing arsenal is a great way to build your local fan base and plant seeds for future sales and long-term support.

Your first step is to check your state’s current protocols on in-person gatherings; then craft your pitch to event locations keeping those protocols in mind and including relevant information that addresses any key issues (for example, your own vaccination status).

Once you have an event (or several!) on the books, use the below checklist to ensure you’re covered and ready to entertain your fans!

Events Require (You Guessed It) Book Marketing

Don’t expect the store to promote you. Be proactive and the store will really appreciate it.

Send a confirmation email to the bookstore or event location a few weeks in advance. No doubt the location already has you on their calendar, but it makes you look professional and on top of your game.

Confirm how books will be handled. If you’re doing a non-bookstore event, check on the process of getting the books to them. Ask if they need ordering information. Be prepared if they ask you to bring books yourself. If you’re appearing at a bookstore, you won’t have to worry about this, but non-bookstore venues may need a bit more help.

In addition, do some research to find out their policies – masks, vaccinations, distancing – so that you can ask any questions you might have. The prepared you are, the better your event will be!

Share with EVERYONE!

Ask for the store’s media contacts list. Most venues automatically notify local newspapers, but let the store/location know that you want to help out.

Begin contacting local media. Some require you submit information for their online events calendar a few weeks out – sometimes longer.

Post your event on Facebook, invite your network, and be sure to tag the venue if they have a social media presence. You should know how to do this from your other book marketing strategies, like promoting a new release!

Post an event on Goodreads and invite your network. Sure, many aren’t local, but you never know how these things can grow.

Send an email to all your personal and professional contacts and encourage them to forward and share event information. This is another book marketing basic that you should be very comfortable with.

Before the Event

Get bookmarks and/or postcards printed. Be sure to have the location, date, and time on these if making them specifically for the event.

You might also consider designing or ordering masks that coordinate with your book cover. We have a few authors who have done amazing things with this. Even if your book doesn’t lend itself to mask haberdashery, you can still choose one in a color or a theme that compliments your book.

If the bookstore or venue has agreed to let you put up signage or even banner stands, get that printed. Will you be doing multiple events? Get a few printed but ask the printing company to leave a blank space at the bottom so you can fill in the location, date and time.

You’ll want to get custom-order items in right away so you don’t have to pay for expedited shipping.

Remember, a busy table with lots of “stuff” on it is enticing: people get curious, so give them another reason to come over.

What to Bring to Your Event

As event day approaches, you may also want to consider what to bring the day of!

Hand out bookmarks. I’ve even autographed one or two when people hesitate to buy a book. More often than not, they return later to buy a copy just because I gave them a bookmark. Personal connections are powerful.

Postcard-sized handouts can also be fun, but you don’t really need postcards AND bookmarks. Consider which is more appropriate for your event and, potentially, for your book. Generally, if you have a non-fiction book and a business or consulting practice tied to it, a postcard will give you more space to promote your business.

Whether it’s chocolate or some other food that specifically ties into your book, snacks tend to keep people lingering at your table. This is particularly good if you aren’t doing a Q&A or a presentation of some sort.

If you’re in a giving mood or if you have a book that might tie well to small bottles of hand sanitizer, these can be an excellent freebie for non-grazing table-shoppers.

Always have a reason for them to leave their email. If you don’t have a strong newsletter (generally this works better for non-fiction), consider doing a drawing for a gift card to the store.

During Your Signing

Don’t sit down unless you have to. If you’re delivering a talk, be sure to greet folks as they come in and sit down. Even if you’re not formally speaking, move around your table and spark up conversations; invite people over for a piece of chocolate.

Smile, talk, and most of all, have fun! This is no time to be shy.

If no one shows up, remember, that’s okay. It has happened to all of us at one time or another. Really!

If there are books left over, let the bookstore manager know you’d like to sign them. This way, people who missed the event can still a copy of your signed book. This is an excellent book marketing strategy that you can expand on: leave a signed book or two at different places in town, like your salon or barber, your favorite coffee shop, etc.

Don’t feel confined to the signing time; feel free to stay longer if people are still showing up. I can assure you the venue won’t care unless they’re trying to close for the evening.

After Your Signing

Send a thank you note to the person in charge of coordinating your event. Don’t send an e-mail. Send a handwritten note. It will go a lot further!

Write anyone who signed up for your newsletter or entered your contest, thank them for stopping by and encourage them to find you on social media as well.

Book marketing isn’t just about slapping people in the face with your brand and product, it’s about personal connections; take pride and joy in making those whenever you can. Readers who feel connected to you are more apt to buy.

The Takeaway

Events are fantastic ways to spread the message about your book, build a loyal fan base, and get in the habit of speaking in front of crowds.

They’re also a really dynamic piece of your book marketing plan. Think about it, you probably do a lot of online book marketing, but how much do you really do in person, with real people?

Regardless of whether your first event is amazing or just so-so, keep on planning more. Get creative and brainstorm a list of unique venues. Now that we can be more safely social with strangers (who may become fans!), you owe it to yourself and your book to put literally put both of you out there and trust that if you build it, future fans will come.

Good luck!

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About Penny

Penny C. Sansevieri, Founder and CEO of Author Marketing Experts, Inc., is a bestselling author and internationally recognized book marketing and media relations expert. She is an Adjunct Professor teaching Self-Publishing for NYU. She was named one of the top influencers of 2019 by New York Metropolitan Magazine. 

Her company is one of the leaders in the publishing industry and has developed some of the most innovative Amazon Optimization programs as well as Social Media/Internet book marketing campaigns. She is the author of 18 books, including How to Sell Books by the Truckload on Amazon: 2021 Amazon Ads Powerhouse Edition, Revise and Re-Release Your Book, 5-Minute Book Marketing, and Red Hot Internet Publicity, which has been called the "leading guide to everything Internet." Her next book From Book to Bestseller is due out this fall.

AME has had dozens of books on top bestseller lists, including those of The New York Times, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal. 

To learn more about Penny’s books or her promotional services, visit www.amarketingexpert.com.

Top Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

September 3, 2021

by James R. Preston

First person is alive and well in the twenty-first century.

For those of you who are newer writers, I'll start off with a brief review of the four types of Point of View with some examples of first person POV, historical and modern, as well as the limitations (myths) — perceived and real — of first person. And finally, a trip into uncharted territory where we look at the most modern iteration of first person. 

Defining Point of View 

Image by Leon_Ting from Pixabay

“You talkin’ to me?” Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver fame stood in front of the mirror and asked that over and over, and it’s a question you’ll have to consider for your story: Who does the talking?

Who tells your story? Well, you do, of course but there are at least four major ways of speaking to your readers. They’re easy to tell apart because of the pronouns.

  • First Person — usually, but not always, your protagonist tells the story. “I suspected she was trouble the minute she walked into my seedy office, reached into her purse and pulled out a large, rusty machete.”
  • Second person — The pronoun is “you.” Second person is rarely used for fiction, but fairly common in nonfiction, particularly self-help books. “You must always watch out for hostile women with large handbags.”
  • Third person — the pronouns are “he,” “she,” “it,” and “they.” “She looked at the woman with the rusty knife and said, ‘Put the knife down before I have to hurt you.’”

There are two flavors of third person — limited and omniscient.

In the first case you follow only one character around, describing what they see and what they think about it. “She looked at the other woman and said, ‘Put the knife down before I have to hurt you.’ She knew she could get to the loaded Glock 14 in its holster hidden under her desk, but she wondered — was she prepared to shoot?”

Using third person omniscient we also look inside the head of the blonde with the machete.

“The only thing she could think of was that she had a chipped nail. Oh, well. The machete would distract the other woman from the bad manicure.”

This example illustrates not only third person omniscient but also a trap you want to avoid: getting inside too many characters’ heads in the same scene. For more on what is called “head-hopping” use the Search box. Several Writers in the Storm contributors have posted excellent essays on the topic. 

I’ve read that editors don’t like first person. Maybe that's true, but they sure buy a lot of it. This POV goes back a long way — all the way to Moby Dick — and continues to draw in readers. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, author of The Martian, is one of the best (IMHO), This recent best-selling novel is in first person. 

Does the narrator have to be the protagonist for first person?  No. Usually they are, but remember Dr. Watson, and the narrator of Stephen King’s brilliant Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption are not the main characters.

Myths About First Person

Myth #1:

Once you’ve picked first person you must stick to it all the way through.

Nope. It is true that most first-person stories stay that way from beginning to end, but that’s not a rule. Faulkner uses multiple narrators in The Sound and the Fury. Think of Stephen King’s Christine, where the first third of the book is the protagonist talking, then the middle veers off and follows several characters, and the last part is first person again. So, it can be done, but as I type those words, I think it’s one of those “Don’t try this at home,” things.  King is unquestionably some kind of mutant genius; he made it work, but I don’t think I could. 

Myth #2:  

First person is so confining. I’d like to use it but I feel like it’s a straightjacket.

Well, yes. Following one person around for 100,000 words can be a bit claustrophobic, but there are alternatives. Slipping in a journal entry or an email that your hero finds, allows another voice. And of course, dialog unstraps that straightjacket.

Myth #3:

Serious literary books are never first person.

I am a confirmed genre writer, about as far from literary as possible, but I would suggest The Henna Artist by Alia Joshi, as thoughtful and well-written a first person story as any I’ve read in years. (Full disclosure: I haven’t finished it, but, wow, this woman can write!)

Picking a Point of View

And now for the most important question:

How do you choose the POV for your story?

I could offer a bunch of questions to ask yourself like:

  • How long the story will be?
  • How many important characters are there who want to talk? And so on.

I’ve got a simpler way to at least get an idea — just look at your bookshelves.

Do you like huge novels with a hundred major and minor characters? If James Clavell’s Noble House is one of your favorite books, you probably lean toward third person. 

Or do you love fast-paced thrillers like James Lee Burke’s Another Kind of Eden, where the hero tells you what happened? Then first person may well be for you.

Kids Today

I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while, and it jumped out at me watching the Olympics, where the announcer said that 3x3 basketball had been invented for young people with short attention spans.

Give me a break. Old people have been complaining about kids since Plato. The generation gap is the theme of “A Hard Day’s Night.”

Modern kids’ attention spans are the same as yours and mine. I know because they love first person stories. Long, complex, first person stories.

I give you the uncharted territory of computer games. There are a lot of them, but Halo is the example I’ll use because I’ve played it (with a lot of help from a twenty-something gamer friend). It’s called a First Person Shooter (FPS) and if you think all computer games are simply running and shooting monsters, think again.

In a FPS you actually look out through the eyes of your character. It’s as if you were inside Sam Spade’s head — literally — watching as the events of The Maltese Falcon unfold. And if you talk to gamers like I do, you will hear over and over what makes a good game.

Not graphics.

Not weapons.

Not slimy aliens.

Its story. One common denominator between almost every award-winning, best-selling computer game is the tale it tells. You’ve got to have a good, complex, story with complex characters (the artificial intelligence named “Cortana” in Halo comes to mind) if you want to find an audience.

Halo is set in the far future, where a super soldier called the Master Chief is created — think Steve Rogers being rebuilt into Captain America — and then later put into cryogenic storage.

Hundreds of years after that he’s thawed out because humanity is fighting some nasty aliens called the Covenant. Then a really nasty alien parasite called the Flood attacks both Covenant and humanity, which results in an uneasy truce because the Flood eats anything — human, alien, pets, you name it. Master Chief makes friends with a Covenant alien, all the while knowing that someday he might have to kill him. It’s way, way more than running and shooting despite the FPS categorization.

It’s a story, one that you see literally through the eyes of the Master Chief.

Story is what has made this game and its sequels bestsellers. It doesn’t look like a novel, but it has chapters, dialog, characters you root for, and ethical decisions that have consequences.

Attention span? I’ll give you attention span.

Another twenty-something gamer friend got a new game — the story is too complicated to go into here, but it’s post-apocalypse, set in the subways under Moscow — and got to the end after seventeen hours straight. That’s right. You start at 6:00 pm and at 6:00 am you’re going strong.

I’ll close by adding a word to your vocabulary. When my friend was guiding me through Halo, much of our dialogue was,

“James, look behind you!”

“What?”

“Too late!”

In gamer talk, he was my Sherpa, like Tenzing and Sir Edmund Hillary. It’s called Sherpa-ing.

Side note on Sherpa-ing... That’s what Writers in the Storm does. We Sherpa new writers and each other as we navigate the landscape of the writing world.

Fun suggestion: Find a gamer and ask them if they’ve Sherpa’d anybody lately. They’ll be impressed.

Do some research. Look into games like Dead Space, or my personal favorite, Half Life. Arma III is excellent, but I advise against playing this one if it’s your first game — it’s hard! All these games have great stories. I’m not listing some others that my friends don’t play because “the stories suck.” Those developers needed better writers. Hint, hint.

Experiencing first person in this new world might inform your own writing, or at least you’ll have something to talk to twenty-somethings about. (If you are a twenty-something, you probably already know all this.)

Homework

Search Writers in the Storm for Point of View. There’s a wealth of information.

For games, check out www.steam.com.

Ok, it’s your turn. Tell us what point of view you used in your current manuscript and why you chose it. Have you ever had to change your POV part way through the book?

* * * * * *

About James

James R. Preston is the author of the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. He is currently at work on the sixth, called Remains To Be Seen. His most recent works are Crashpad and Buzzkill, two historical novellas set in the 1960’s at Cal State Long Beach. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill “A historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.”

His webpage is www.jamesrpreston.com. He can be reached at james@jamesrpreston.com.

Top image is a Semmick photo via Shutterstock.


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