Vacation time warp: Reading like it’s 1993?

By on Sep 11, 2014

more-vacation-reading4In the last days of our vacation we had burned through most of the books we had brought and were casting around the cottage (Canadian for lake house) for something else to read. We stumbled across a book called LOON by one A.W. Plumstead. LOON is the story of a young ivy league graduate, who migrated to the northland to study Indian culture and met a bush pilot. But what fascinated us was the book’s provenance. It had been published in gorgeous hardback in 1992 by the Highway Bookshop in Cobalt, Ontario. The price on the jacket cover read $24.95 but whoever had sold it had put on his/her own price tag, boosting the price to $26.70.

This was back when Canadian dollars were worth less than US ones but still by today’s standards that is a lot to pay for a book. And the publishing of LOON was an act of hopefulness in the face of a changing market. In the early nineties, the big publishers were beginning to bet the farm on fewer and fewer titles, hoping for bestsellers. They were letting the smaller sellers go. And this was well before e books.

Today, the Highway Bookshop is out of business. The building is a shuttered reminder beside Route 11.

Instead of LOON, we chose to read a Sue Grafton mystery, “J” IS FOR JUDGEMENT. This too was a throwback, published in 1993. (Apparently, people stopped leaving books at the cottage in the nineties.)

“J” was published by Henry Holt which had been acquired by the German Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing in 1985. In 1995, Holtzbrinck also gained Macmillan Publishing and folded Holt into Macmillan.

“J” is one of the Kinsey Millhone mysteries of which there are now 24. Grafton is up to “W.” In this one, it was notable, that there were no cell phones. Kinsey kept searching out land lines. Her files were all hard copy. And this was only 20 years ago.

The book did not entirely hold our interest so we did what we do: we began to edit it. (Something else that began to slide in the nineties was editing standards.) One thing that Grafton does (and many of our clients as well) is misuse the word “countless.” Countless means that something cannot be counted because there are too many of them.

It should not be applied to things that can be counted as Grafton does three times:

…all of them married with countless children of their own

countless shelves lined with ceramic bowls that had been fired but not glazed

There were countless people milling along the sidewalks, all in shorts and tank tops…

It is time to go back to work.

Posted in: Blog

Going on a Writing Vacation

By on Aug 3, 2014

vacationA writing vacation can mean a lot of things. It can mean taking a vacation from your writing. Or it can mean taking a vacation to write. We have vacation on our minds because ours is coming up – and we are wondering, as always, whether or not to take a little work with us. On the one hand, it is good to get away from everything for a couple of weeks. On the other, it is nice to have a little something to work on, to give us a break from the actual vacation itself: a mental timeout from vacation.

This has got us thinking about writing and vacations. The business of writing vacations is BOOMING. Writing workshops, writing retreats, and writing travel are all over the internet.

This on writing vacations:

We are a group of like-minded individuals who like to write and share our love of writing with others in a quiet, safe, beautiful place. Our programs offer a beautiful place to be, think, write, reflect, and be cared for. Luxuriate in time alone and take time to invest in your writing. Our writing programs provide this place.

Here, traveling to write in Bali:

Study the craft of travel writing while touring an extraordinary destination. Taught by seasoned travel journalists, our writing workshops provide instruction on writing technique, online publishing, social media, travel photography and more…

Writing Retreat:

Celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Dylan Thomas’ birth by immersing yourself in the literary landscape immortalized in his poetry and prose. This writing retreat will feature supportive workshops, socializing with local writers and excursions along the beautifully rugged coastline.

We get a kick out of these. Wasn’t writing supposed to an inexpensive hobby? Just a pen and paper and a quiet place? Or maybe, a word processor and some time out? Also, if the writer-vacationer is touring and attending workshops, how much writing is being done? Talking about writing is not the same thing as actual writing.

So please do not be fooled into thinking you need to take an expensive trip in order to be a writer. A writing vacation can be a lot of things that don’t require money. For one thing, writing is a vacation. When you put pen to paper or start clicking on those computer keys, you can go anywhere you want. You can have imaginative adventures in exotic places. You can meet all kinds of people. You can feel the wind on your face and the sun in your hair. Writing is powerful travel magic, better in some ways than actual vacations because you don’t ever have to bump up against limitations like bad weather and missed flights.

If your need is to take a vacation from your writing, try beach writing, which is to say, put aside whatever you are currently working on and try something different. This is from a 2013 article in Ploughshares by Rebecca Meacham:

A creative vacation doesn’t require that you change your actual location, or that you stop producing. A basic departure might include these essentials: Anywhere but here. Take your writing somewhere utterly different than your current creative project, in terms of setting, vantage point, genre, style, voice, form, or all of the above.

  1. Anywhere but here. Take your writing somewhere utterly different than your current creative project, in terms of setting, vantage point, genre, style, voice, form, or all of the above.
  2. Seek pleasure. Write something new that incorporates one or more of these: music, colors, spies, submarines, spaceships, monsters, conspiracies, betrayals, bikinis, Speedos, toenail polish, flora, fauna, water, sand, boats, surf boards, exhibits, rides, neon, sunsets, happy people, sweat, deep-fried food, gourmet dishes, corny jokes, coolers, convertibles, and/or fizzy lifting drinks.
  3. Stay for at least a week. This is arbitrary, but for me, the temptation is to take a daytrip, then return at night to my obsession. A week allows utter departure from the daily grind. 


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Want to Portray Evil? Keep Your Distance.

By on Jul 1, 2014

lecterWriting about bad guys can be tough because most of us are not bad guys and we don’t think like that. We have a hard time even imagining how a villain thinks. Yet, in many genres bad guys are necessary to the plot. So, how to portray them successfully.

What we have noticed about some of the bad guys that cross our desks is that they become unthreatening if the author tries to share their thought processes. It is really hard to be chilling and think about your mother, for instance. Yet probably, bad guys do think about their mothers. They likely have all sorts of mundane thoughts. That doesn’t work for the purposes of good fiction.

This may not be a universal truth but some of the really great bad guys of our times are observed entirely from outside. When FBI agent Clarice Starling first meets Hannibal Lecter in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, he has been given a big build up. His security is extra tight; he looks at people like a “bird at a worm,” etc. Then all author Thomas Harris has to do is show him to chilling effect:

“Dr. Hannibal Lecter himself reclined on his bunk perusing the Italian edition of Vogue. He held the loose pages in his right hand and put them beside him one by one with his left. Dr. Lecter has six fingers on his left hand…

“Dr. Lecter’s eyes are maroon and they reflect the light in pinpoints of red. Sometimes the points of light seem to fly like sparks to his center. His eyes held Starling whole.

“She came measured distance closer to the bars. The hair on her forearms rose and pressed against her sleeves.”

In the last chapter of the book when Lecter escapes and is alone, Harris again resists the temptation to get very deeply into his head. Lecter refuses to taste the wine brought to him by room service because he finds the smell of the waiter’s watchband distasteful. He reflects on his appearance and the silicone injections he is giving himself to alter it. He thinks about how he will pay his hotel bill. And then he sits down to write some letters.

What he isn’t is self-reflective. He doesn’t think about his motivation or his goals or his intent. Of course, Harris is setting him up for sequels but even so, what makes a villain of this magnitude is that he is as bad as the reader’s imagination and not a personality imposed by the writer.

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It Takes More Than a Cold Shower to Build Character

By on Jun 1, 2014

12375609892066796283kattekrab_Stick_Figures.svg.hiImagine a world of books – fiction and nonfiction – peopled by stick figures, very thin because they are not filled out with any of the attributes that make a character a character or a person a person. They have no looks, no likes, no emotions, no history. Reading books with characters like this would be very dull indeed because ultimately what makes us care about the books we read is their humanity.  Even books we read mostly for plot or information go down more memorably if they have appealing characters in them or are written by someone whose personality comes through.

How to create a compelling character? There are a lot of ten-step lists about this on the Internet and we don’t think most of them are very good. Hence, here are our own three tips for creating characters:

1)   First, establish some facts about your character. Decide on or learn his or her circumstances in life. Where does this person live and in what sort of place? Know his/her likes and dislikes, background, and history. Be aware of what he or she looks like. Give him/her a name from the phone book or wherever you go to get names.

Sometimes the way a character talks will lead you to the other pieces of her/his personality. Sometimes you may find the key buried in the character’s psyche or in a piece of clothing she/he wears.  You can model your character, if fictional, on a real person; you can literally give him or her movie star looks by using a real star as a template. Stay with it until the image you have in your mind is as real as a book character can be.

Make this character walk and talk in your mind, do things. How does he or she move? How sound? What is distinctive about the way he/she does these things?

Then imagine how this person might act in different situations.

2)   When you first introduce your character in the book, give the reader a quick snapshot. A snapshot is not a full out description with eye-color, height and weight. It is a soupcon, a taste, that defines the character: powder-blue eyes that did not seem to focus on anything or wearing a bowler hat with an iridescent peacock feather waving from its band or a way of speaking like a continual sigh. This snapshot will give the reader an instant impression of who this person and an image to carry forward as the reader continues to read the book. It will also help the reader remember this person and make the reader curious to know more about the character.

3)   Main characters certainly and even some minor ones should have a story arc within the book. Something should happen to each that changes that person so that they are in a different place at the end of the book. This arc can be your main plot if you have a character driven book. If not, it is just a thread that weaves through in conjunction with the main plot or information. For example, fictional characters could experience a romance, learn a lesson or come to some kind of acceptance. Non-fictional characters might have similar arcs as might the subjects of memoirs. A memoir would be poor reading if it was just page after page of life facts. If you are writing your story, think about your arc.

A character arc requires you to take the time to figure out what your characters are experiencing and feeling and doing at each stage of the plot. It can mean writing a story within a story. But it will give readers another reason to like and care about your book.

Finally, now that you have brought them to life, listen to your characters. You will be surprised what they might tell you and how they may affect the outcome of your story, if you are writing fiction. If your book is non-fiction, the people in it can add to the depth of your story, coloring it in ways you don’t expect.

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The Me in Memoir Does not Mean the Book is Only about You

By on Apr 29, 2014

All-About-Me-Logo-web1It must be hard to remember when you are telling your life story that you do not live alone in a bubble, that there are other people in your life. We say this because we edit memoirs – life stories – that really seem to have only one person in them and that is the person whose name comes after by on the title page.

Anyone else who appears is a shadowy figure, not described and often, not named. These books are full of characters like my mother, my father, my sister, my friend, my boss, my son, my therapist, my parole officer, my cleaning lady, my colleague, my grandmother and so on. In one book we edited, there was a whole group of characters referred to as my aunts. Thereafter, John/Jane Memoirist wrote blithely about going to visit my aunt or my aunt sending me a letter as if these individual aunts were only a single cow in a herd.

This practice can come across as egocentric, although we don’t think our memoirists are really that stuck on themselves.  They are simply writing about their lives.  Logically, there should be a lot of my fill-in-the-blanks in a memoir because the characters in your life story are there because of their relationship to the you. But that doesn’t mean they should be passed over without names or descriptions.

This practice makes for incredibly boring reading. Names help to define people. Referring to my friend is completely different from referring to Charles Wentworth or Abdullah Ibrahim or Jimmy Bob Jenkins. See how the names change your perception of the anonymous “my friend”?  Adding names alone will make your memoir richer. (If you want to protect someone’s identity, assign them a fake name.) Your book will be even more enjoyably readable if you also include physical descriptions of my mother, my boss etc. and tell some stories about them. Details matter.

Here is a passage from the memoir THE COLOR OF WATER by James McBride

“At some point in my consciousness, it occurred to me that I had a father. It happened around the time my younger brother Hunter was born. I was five years ahead of Hunter, and while the arrival of a new baby in the house didn’t seem to shake anyone – Hunter was the eleventh child – it was the first time that an elderly, slow-moving man in a brown hat, vest sweater, suspenders, and wool pants seemed to float into my consciousness. He picked up Hunter and held him in the air with such delight it made me happy to watch him. His name was Hunter Jordan, Sr., and he raised me as his own son.”

Now look what happens to this passage when you take out all the names and the descriptions of other characters:

At some point in my consciousness, it occurred to me that I had a father. It happened around the time my younger brother was born. I was five years ahead of him, and while the arrival of a new baby in the house didn’t seem to shake anyone – he was the eleventh child – it was the first time that I noticed my stepfather. He raised me as his own son.

Without the naming and description of Hunter, Sr., the passage looses all its punch and meaning.

Ultimately, your memoir, your story, isn’t just about you; it is also about the people in your life and the more interesting they are as characters, the more interesting you will be too.






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“Drowning” in Quotes; Please “Save” Us

By on Mar 31, 2014

 Quotation-MarksWe are currently rereading Louis Erdrich’s THE ROUND HOUSE for the book club. Among the many joys of this wonderful book is that there does not seem to be a single set of quotation marks in the whole book. Erdrich does not choose to set off dialogue with quotes, which can be confusing at times. But we are happy to put up with a little uncertainty in exchange for a vacation from quotation marks.

Practically every client we get sprinkles quotation marks throughout his or her manuscript like rain. This raises interesting questions about why it is that we as a writing society have this need to encase words in quotes and set them apart. Are we particularly ironic? Do we think we are so smart that we are constantly inventing new usages for words? Are we particularly heavy footed when it comes to emphasis? Rather than speculate, let’s look at the appropriate and not appropriate uses of quotation marks:

To Set off Direct Speech: When a character says something in a book, it should be set aside by quotes:

Mabel said, “It is raining outside so I will stay home. I was supposed to go the community center. But they can get along without me.”

“Good plan,” responded Jim.

What is not correct is to put quotes around every individual sentence a character utters, like this:

Mabel said, “It is raining outside so I will stay home.” “I was supposed to go the community center.” “But they can get along without me.”

No, no, no, don’t do this. It means your poor editor has to take all those quotes out.

To Show That You Are Referring to the Word Itself and Not its Meaning:

The word “quote” refers to those sets of double quotation marks.

To Set Aside Titles of Artistic Works: These days quotation marks are only used for pieces of larger works like short stories, poetry, book chapters, magazine articles, and album tracks or singles.

Book titles should be italicized.

 If you confine yourself to the three uses of quotation marks above, you can’t go wrong. Here is where you can get into trouble with quotes:

To Show Sarcasm or Irony or to Show Unusual Usage: These are sometimes called scare quotes and we would like to scare you away from them.

They should be used sparingly, if at all, and definitely not every other paragraph. Scare quotes are like putting up a big stop sign in the narrative. They ask the reader to step out of what she or he is reading and consider this word in some fashion outside of what is going on in the book.

The CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE, our editing Bible, cautions against both of these uses in section 7.58, “Quotation marks are often used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard, ironic, or other special sense […] They imply ‘This is not my term,’ or ‘This is not how the term is usually applied.’ Like any such device, scare quotes lose their force and irritate readers if overused.”

Did you read that? They irritate readers. What they do to editors is unprintable.

Quotes are NEVER used for Emphasis:

The sound of the crash was “loud.”

Her dress “clung,” if you know what I mean.

Yes, the reader does know what clung means. And the word “loud” means loud all by itself without quotes. Please don’t use quotes just to point to something so the reader will see it. The reader will get it anyway – and without being irritated.



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Prologues: When What Comes Before Really Belongs Inside

By on Mar 3, 2014

Elmore Leonard did not like prologues. Here is what he wrote in his rules on writing:

·  Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

We tend to agree with Leonard. As readers, we almost never read prologues and usually blow right by them to get to the story. We really aren’t interested in why the author wrote the story or why he/she is qualified to write the story. We just want to get to it. Yet, we get a lot of books from clients  that start with a preface. They often use the preface to set the stage for the story.

A preface, by the way, is defined as a piece written by the author to explain what he/she feels needs to be explained about the writing of the book so that it can be read properly and understood. A foreward is usually written by somebody else to give gravitas to the endeavor. And an introduction introduces what is covered in the book, the subject matter.

imagesA lot of our writers, whether they are writing fiction or nonfiction, start with one of these prologues, usually an introduction or preface, as if that is the beginning or, as we said, is setting the stage for the beginning. This is not an appropriate use of a preface. The beginning of the book is usually characterized as chapter one. The prologue is additional material or explanatory material. It exists independently of the meat of the book. If it doesn’t, then you, the author, are in trouble from readers like us who routinely skip prologues. And why go there it it can be avoided?

While we admit that prologues are sometimes an important component of a book, most prologues we encounter can be eliminated and the material folded into the bulk of the book where it belongs. Here are some thoughts on writing prologues:

1)      Wait and write the prologue after you  have written the rest of the book. Don’t start there and resist the temptation to begin explaining before you even begin your book.

2)      Once you have written your prologue, review it carefully to see if the material in it couldn’t go and doesn’t belong inside the book.

3)      Verbalize your reason for having a prologue. Why do you need it? Why is it necessary to the reading of the book? Be very clear why your book needs one.

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Omniscient Point of View: Being God-like is a Tough Choice for Modern Writers

By on Feb 9, 2014

Christianity  tourism destinationsMany classic novels were written from the omniscient third person point of view, an all-seeing God-like viewpoint. Jane Austin, Joseph Conrad and Leo Tolstoy all wrote this way. While it was commonly used historically, it is a less comfortable form for today’s writers. Here is an excerpt from PRIDE AND PREJUDICES that illustrates this:

“Mr. Bennett was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humor, reserve, and caprice that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.”

It is Jane Austen and we love her. If anyone is entitled to a God-like point of view, it is she, but really whose opinions are these? They are not universally held as we find out later in the book, but they are the truth. We know this because the narrator tells us. Would we buy this from a modern novelist? Under what circumstances?

The omniscient narrator knows the past and the future and can dip into the head of any character in the story. From The Writers Craft Website ( comes the following description of the omniscient POV:

“Think about true omniscient POV as having a camera panning throughout the room at a party scene, dipping into anyone’s head and perhaps more than one person at a time, by taking on the collective group perspective.”

Think about writing like that and how hard it would be to choose which of all the details known to your God-like self to reveal and to do so without indulging in dreaded head-hopping (see previous blog).  Limitations have their uses in writing and each writer has to set her/his own before embarking on a book.

Third person omniscient is often used now to tell epic stories with large casts or multiple subplots. A modern example is BEL CANTO by Ann Patchett.




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Writing in the Second and Third Persons

By on Jan 27, 2014

person1Here is more in our series about point of view, second person which is the least used voice and third person which is the most used:

In the second person, the narrator tells the story to another character using you and the action is experienced through the you’s point of view. Few books and stories are written in the second person. But you may know songs that are sung from the you viewpoint.

An often cited example of a book written from the you is Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. Notice how the use of you makes you, the reader, feel like part of the story:

“You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might become clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already.”

What the second person does is place the reader (you) in that nightclub, chatting with the hairless girl. You is also the narrator, the one slipping into the bathroom for a little Bolivian Marching Powder. The you-voice is both an I-voice in disguise and a way of roping the reader into the action.

Obviously, the second person point of view is a complex one. And for beginning writers, it is more of a pitfall. We find that clients writing along in the first or third person, sometimes out of nowhere start using the you, as in:

Stefen put down the gun he had been pointing at me. Relief washed over me and I looked up at the blue sky. It was the kind of sky that would reassure you, the kind that you look up and see on normal Tuesdays when you are going to the grocery store or hurrying home from work. Stefen started to sob.

In the above example, the you, generic and undefined, just takes the reader out of the action of the story and drags things down.  So, beware of yous.


He, she, it and they: third persons

The third person point of view is the most commonly used in literature. It gives the author the most flexibility. It uses the pronouns, he, she, it and they. If you are writing along in third person and find yourself breaking into an I, me or you, you have broken the third wall of literature as it were and need to back track or rethink your POV.

In the third person, the narrator is NOT a character in the story, but is uninvolved, an unidentified speaker. (This, by the way, does not mean that as a writer you can afford to neglect this voice. You have to have some understanding of it, some feeling about where it is coming from and how it speaks.)

Third person POV is often divided into two categories, objective and subjective. The objective is the fly-on-the-wall voice. Sheer observation, it does not include thoughts or feelings of any characters. We can’t think of a novel written from this point-of-view. If we could, we probably would not want to read it. Newspaper articles are largely written from an objective POV.

The subjective third person conveys the thoughts and feelings of one or more characters using the he, she, it and they words. If you are going to do this, you need to make decisions before you start about which characters’ thoughts you are going to reveal and when. You can’t simply hop into any old character’s head when you need to convey a thought. (This results in something called head hopping that is universally deplored by agents and editors – and gives readers the impression that the writer has multiple personalities. As people, we operate only out of our own heads so hopping about has an unnatural feel even if readers can’t identify the source of their discomfort.)

You have to limit yourself to one or more characters’ thoughts and feelings. In The Old Man and Sea, Ernest Hemingway tells the entire story from the perspective of the old man:

“The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.”

If you choose to write from more than one viewpoint, you have to be very clear about which one you are writing from at any given time and why. This means that you can only be in one character’s head in any one scene. Steig Larsson switches from Mikael Blomkvist’s POV to that of Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Note, they each have their own chapters.

Next, the omniscient point of view, do you want to play God?








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Hearing Voices: Which One Will You Choose for your Novel?

By on Jan 14, 2014

So you are going to write a novel. Will it be from the narrative point of view? Epistolary?  First person, third person or the seldom-used second person? Alternating viewpoints? Subjective or omniscient?

Whichever point of view you choose will make a big difference in the book you end up with. Different points of view allow for different things to happen and come attached with different sets of rules. In the next four blogs, we are going to look at various points of view and discuss their advantages and limitations.  Today, the first person.

the-first-person-point-of-viewFirst person is the I-voice. It is limited to what the narrator, the I, knows, experiences and feels: I put on my red pea coat and walk outside. It is dark and cold. I am feeling tired, but if I get to the office early, I can leave early to go to the dentist…

The narrator has to be a character in the story or an observer of the story. This narrator can be trustworthy or not. But he/she cannot see into other characters’ heads. Their thoughts are walled off except when they revealed by facial expression or gestures.  Plots of first person books can only unfold to the extent that the narrator is aware of them.

So when might you consider writing in the first person? Since everything has to be filtered through the eyes of the narrator in the first person voice, the narrator has to be in a position to know the action of the book first hand, or to learn it from another character. Since the narrator will be taking up a lot of space, it helps if she/he has a distinctive voice like Holden Caulfield in CATCHER IN THE RYE.

First-person narrators can also be relatively minor characters who observe and report on primary characters as in Emily Bronte’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS in which Lockwood pretty much records in his diary what Nelly Dean, a servant, about the goings-on at Wuthering Heights.

Once you have opted for a first person voice, then you have to decide:

1)   How the person is telling the story. Is it an interior monologue? A tale the narrator is telling to someone else? A letter or series of e mail messages? A dramatic monologue? Something the narrator is sitting down to write?

2)   Past or present tense. Is the story ongoing? Did it already happen?

3)   Is your narrator reliable? Beginning writers should probably always use a first person narrator who is telling the truth. To adopt a narrator who isn’t factual is to add a whole level of complexity to the writing of the story.

4)   Voice. How does your narrator talk or write? This is the hardest part of writing in the first person. It can be very difficult to separate your voice as the writer from the voice of your character. Yet, book narrators speak in very different ways from our own narrative voices. Writers of successful first person narration do not just pour out what’s in their heads. Try it some time, and see if you produce great prose or if it is just annoying. The truth is that characters in books do not write or speak the way people do in life. You will find that developing a first person voice takes considerable working and reworking. You will want to consider your character’s regional and social background. You will want to choose your first person narrators words carefully.


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