Friday, July 27, 2018

The Process: Turning the Idea Into A Bestseller (part 3)


In continuing our process in writing the hypothetical best-selling novel, The Higher Education of James Pressler, we have our story arc, our twists and turns, the mood and the genre we will be using, and a good idea of the message. But as promised, there is one last thing that can make or break this. Actually – two things: Point of view and perspective (tense). And you can bet your manuscript that these need to work perfectly if you want to be published.

First, I recommend reading or re-reading an earlier post, “And So Begins the Process.” Looking at this again should serve as a checklist to make sure you have everything in order. And in that piece, you will notice the briefest of mentions about voice and tense. These are difficult to apply before a writer understands everything else about their story, but critical once the pieces all come together.

In an autobiographical story, it seems obvious to write the story in the first person, and in the past tense – that is how people sound when they narrate their life story. However, it is not the only option, and if you are feeling creative, the alternatives can offer a new look at the narrative.

Third-person autobiographies are written from the point of view of a narrator – possibly a supporting character or just an omnipresent entity – explaining the author’s story. This may seem like an odd approach, but it has advantages. Let’s say this story is still about my life, but told by the narrator. The narrator can discuss events that I never knew about at the time that would later influence my life – the reader can see the danger barreling toward me, and the suspense builds. In our hypothetical novel, the narrator could show me tucking away every nickel and dime to save for college, then break to a scene I never knew about  my father signing with a realtor to sell the house, knowing he could not afford to have me live with him once he relocated. The reader now sees two plot lines ready to collide, but I do not know what’s about to hit, just the reader. Try and turn away from that story.

However, choosing to remain in the first person can be an adventure as well. In explaining my adventure of trying to get to college, I could write it in the form of fifty-year-old me telling the story. Like our last example, this also has the advantage of offering information only discovered after-the-fact. The storytelling becomes more informed, though this narration can reduce the element of surprise. Tension can still be created, particularly if the novel starts with a story when I am at the lowest part of the adventure, then rewinds to the beginning so the decline can be experienced while the reader wonders how I can recover.

Conversely, the self-narrating style can be tweaked to go between present-day me setting the stage for the narrative, then switching to sections of my past, which would be written in the first-person present tense. This creates a change of voice that immediately tells the reader when the story is in the past or in the present, and the reader moves along with the narrative. This is particularly effective if present-day me has some big reveal at the end, because the reader will be thinking the real drama was in the sections covering the past, and hopefully be surprised by the new information.

(Editor’s note: If you write different sections in different tenses, make absolutely, positively, one-hundred-percent sure that you are consistent in your usage. It is very easy to confuse our tenses when writing our own stories, and it’s even easier for a publishing agent to see those mix-ups and throw away your manuscript.)

But all of this advice dwells in the autobiographic realm, and to be honest, there’s more to write about than ourselves. And if we ever do want to write a novel about a particular part of our lives, we might want to think about whether we want it to be autobiographic, or we want to really take the story to the next level – facts be damned. Turning a true-life story into fiction loosely based on true stories really opens up the playbook, but more rules come with it. The Higher Education of James Pressler could be an okay novel by sticking to the facts, but in the next post I will gladly show you what fiction can do to it.



2 comments:

  1. It would be interesting to read some actual sample text as examples of the different approaches you shared.

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    1. That's a good idea -- thank you. If you want to read an autobiographical work that really explores perspective, I recommend, "The Things They Carried," by Tim O'Brien. While he narrates many stories, they are in many ways the stories of the people he knew, making it in many ways their story rather than his. (It takes place in Viet Nam, so if that's not your thing, be careful)

      I will try and incorporate more examples. Thanks

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