Explorations in the First Person Voice

Drafting The Curse Merchant is proving to be quite an education!

Beyond a renewed and redefined outlining scheme, I am playing with the first person voice for the first time since some of my very early short story writings. I’m finding that all of the courses, books and solid advice from industry professionals is being wrapped up neatly, bundled tightly, and summarily tossed directly out the window!

The relentless search-and-destroy sorties for filler words? Suspended.

The dogged refusal of exposition in favor of dialogue? Commuted.

Straightforward narrative without ornaments and artifacts of idiom and parlance? Pre-empted.

This isn’t to say that I’m allowing for sloppy writing, leaden exposition, or purple prose. I still favor snappy dialogue to long paragraphs of internal monologue. But the monologue must happen, if the reader is ever going to identify (and hopefully cheer on) the protagonist/narrator.

Which makes the craft yet more difficult.

In the past, I have learned to keep the narrative lean and mean, forwarding the plot like a race car engine without inserting itself into the reader’s consciousness. Rather, I allow dialogue to pop into the ears of the reader, thereby keeping their eyes moving, and the plot humming.

The “lean and mean” narrative, however, must drop a gear or two when it adopts the first person voice. The narrative is now precisely that… narration from an individual. The character’s words are a kind a dialogue between the narrator and the reader (one in which the reader seldom gets a word in edgewise). Fostering this personal sense of connection with the protagonist requires deliberate suspension of the “rules of writing” from time to time. If I pruned every extraneous adverb or cliche from the prose, the result would be an antiseptic, robotic narrator with exactly zero enticement for the reader to continue.

The tricks are knowing when to “purple up” the narrative, and when to keep it lean. When to allow the monologue to sidetrack into the narrator’s mind, and when to keep him interacting with other characters. When to broaden the reader’s understanding of the supersetting, and when to remain loyal to the limited scope and assumption sets inherent in a first person voice.

The key is fully fleshing out the narrator in the mind, knowing his thought processes, his biases, his speech patterns, his history, and the precise shade of rose-colored glasses through which he views the world. The price I pay is in the pacing of the novel. The benefit, however, has been an intense investment in the emotional and relational complex of the central character. I chose the first person narrative specifically because I wanted The Curse Merchant to be character-driven, not plot driven. And I felt this character was sufficiently distinct and engaging for the reader… a character the reader would like to know.

This education is priceless! It’s slow-going, to be sure. But with any luck at all, it will render my most compelling narrative yet.

Music as Inspiration

It’s no earth-shattering revelation that writers glean inspiration from music. Either from setting the right mood to stimulating the flow of words by reducing distraction, music can be a tremendous lubricant for the creative process. While I have previously mentioned that early in my drafting process I require very little sensory input to function at maximum output, I do yet find a place for music as my muse.

My weapons of choice are movie scores… that being the orchestral score, rather than the “soundtrack” as a list of songs appearing in the movie. Ever since I first began writing as a freshman in high school (how can it be that long ago?), I have spent hours listening to orchestral scores, re-creating scenes in my head to match the musical dynamics. Scores paint vivid musical pictures, and I find it difficult NOT to pre-write as I hear them.

The score that really blew my top off creatively was James Horner’s score to the movie Glory. I wore out that cassette creating a novel in my head all about a Russian youth leaving home to help fight the Golden Horde. It took me several years to actually watch the film, and to be honest, it couldn’t live up to the emotional investment I had in the storyline I had tailored to the music.

I would repeat this with Michael Kamen’s score for The Last of the Mohicans, the Vangelis score for 1492: Conquest of Paradise, and many others… none of which actually made it to paper. The most recent muse for my writing has been Daft Punk’s score for Tron: Legacy, orchestrated by Joseph Trapanese, which guided my brain through several action scenes for Omnipotence.

That being said, my current project, The Curse Merchant, has no such orchestral endowment. For the first time, one of my long-format projects has an honest to God soundtrack. The music that stirs my mind for Dorian Lake is mostly darkly reflective with blue notes and lyrical content that hints at doom and unrest. I will often cue up the songs for my daily commute, and will literally rehearse scenes out loud.

Thank God I drive alone!

The Writing Environment

Lately, I have been putting thought into my surroundings as I sit down to write. I often wonder what other writers choose as their creative environment. I feel the choices hinge largely on the writer’s personality and the requirements placed upon them due to their life situations.

When it comes to personality, I find I have a single purpose mind. Multi-tasking is not one of my talents. Early in the drafting process, I need to block out as many outside disturbances as possible, unless I find myself easily distracted and prone to staring at anything but my screen. Thus, I tend to thrive best in my finished basement. No windows, no music, no toddler… just my computer and a glass of inspiration.

However, there is a point during the drafting phase of writing at which the momentum has gathered enough strength to carry itself into Act Two and beyond. I become more comfortable with my characters’ voices, the words begin to flow, and I have navigated through the necessary exposition (hopefully with enough delicacy to keep it from sounding expository). When I reach this point of flow, I tend to emerge from my cave and bring myself into bright, often public, environments. When I reached the middle of my last project, Omnipotence, I was most often found at Starbucks typing furiously and sipping coffee. For its benefits of low distraction, the basement gets fairly depressing.

Naturally, this would not apply to every author. My wife, for example, requires several sensory inputs when she writes or revises. One can find her on the couch with the TV or a Pandora station going, the child on the floor creating (or destroying) worlds with his blocks, and her email continually demanding her attention. Somehow, she thrives amidst distraction.

I can guarantee I would get nothing done if I began the manuscript at Starbucks. I suppose one could compare my drafting process to a germinating seed. At those precious early moments, the manuscript begins underground in darkness. But once it breaks the surface, I tend to feed it light and fresh air.

Having just completed the second chapter of The Curse Merchant, I am still solidly in the topsoil, but I am looking forward to the sunlight!

The Distraction of the Opening Line

The perfect opening line… so often we lionize masterfully crafted opening sentences, subscribing classic examples to memory, often to the point of diluting their immediacy. However, as one commits to beginning the first draft, to what lengths does one feel tempted to dwell on that opening salvo? To what degree will the first sentence predestine the remainder of the work towards greatness or mediocrity?

I find this is simply one example of the many tiny distractions upon which we choose to obsess, in lieu of getting down to the business of writing. So very often do we dwell on decisions and considerations well in advance of our position in the Process. Not to say that a strong opening isn’t of vital importance, but the focus at this stage of the project should be in generating sentences, not in perfecting and polishing them.

Lingering on the perfect opening provides the writer with the opportunity to stall, to daydream towards a time beyond finishing the first draft, to forward the scope of the moment. Keeping an eye on the objective helps to motivate us and keep our morale and drive hot and lubricated. The very moment this serves to hold us back, however, we must immerse our heads into a bucket of figurative ice water, and shake it off.

Rather than focusing on the opening sentence, we should consider the opening paragraph, the opening page, the opening chapter. In my practice I outline my plot structure to prepare for a strong opening during pre-writing. The first entry in my outline is always called “Boom!” This is the moment within the Status Quo at which an immediate crisis shows how the protagonist acts and reacts under pressure, often in a flawed manner. But my focus is on the scene, not the lead-in.

There is plenty of time during revision to boil down all the superfluity of the first draft and thereby distill out a tight, engaging opening sentence, one that sets the tone and timbre for the entire work. And that day shall come.

But right now, at this point in the Process… it is time to write.

On Pre-writing

I view the act of crafting a novel as progressing through four major phases prior to publication: pre-writing, writing, revising, and submitting. Each phase is its own peculiar journey, filled with joy, frustration, and not a small amount of head-to-desk percussion.

My latest project has just transitioned from pre-writing to writing. That is to say, the amount of planning, charting and development has concluded (for the largest part), and I have begun to put words down to screen. I feel that the moment of typing the first sentence can feel as momentous as typing the last; the threshold from pre-writing is no less exhilarating than finishing a first draft.

My pre-writing method is in continual evolution, as I learn more tricks and tips from professionals and fellow writers. However, I would like to share the steps I went through to prepare for my latest project, the working title of which is The Curse Merchant.

1. I began by creating a simple sentence, “This story is about…”  It’s just a single sentence that sums up the goal, the motivation, and the conflict. That sentence usually follows the following scheme:

Hero wants to (goal) because (motivation), however (obstacle).

Without the goal, motivation, and conflict/obstacle, there is no story. This is true for both short stories and long format fiction.

2. I have a plot outline worksheet that walks me through your basic 3-Act plot structure, from establishing the Status Quo in Act 1 leading into the inciting event, to the Trials of Act 2 and the complications that arise leading to the Dark Moment, and ultimately the Climax and Resolution of Act 3. I just fill in the blanks, and once that is done I know exactly what will happen in the story, and most importantly, how it ends.

3. I then make a list of individual scenes (which typically become individual chapters) according to this outline, wherein I fill in slightly more detail, add in character names, and become more specific with subplots, etc. This step doubles the information in my outline, gives me a skeleton for my story, and allows me to gauge whether my Acts 1, 2, & 3 are spacing out appropriately.

4. From the scene descriptions, I begin the nuts-and-bolts work of filling in my scene worksheets, spreadsheets in Excel which outline the concrete details of each scene. They include the time and weather, the miniature conflict within each scene (every scene should have its own mini-plot arc), and how the scene serves the character and the story as a whole. This is a particularly grueling process!

5. Once I have all of my scenes dissected and arrayed, I work on characters. I have another Excel spreadsheet that I use for a character template, allowing me to detail the particulars of voicing, personal history, wardrobe, appearance, and most importantly the psychology and journey of the character. I create a worksheet for every major character. I might include minor characters if I feel it’s important, or if that character may become important in a later book.

6. An additional step which I may add in the future is to create setting worksheets, including photographs of real-world inspirations for actual scene locations. I benefit from this, as I have set The Curse Merchant in Baltimore, where I work. I intend to make a field trip day to site-locate various settings within the actual story, towards providing realistic and concrete details for my chapters.

And that’s basically it. From this point, I have to cram this information into my noggin, and allow it to reduce to a thick sauce before I begin to spoon it over the page.

Not every writer goes through such an analytical planning process; many writers prefer a more organic approach wherein they begin to type and see where the words lead them. I have no problem with that, as long as it produces results. Not every writer is wired the same, and thus their pre-writing process (or lack thereof) must be equally organic.