Monday, June 4, 2012

My Perspective on Perspectives

So, lately I've been worrying more than usual about perspective. Well, and tense as well. I'm just going to put them both under one, broad category.

I, for one, love experimenting with both. Whenever I get an idea, it just comes to me in a specific tense and point-of-view that feel right for the story. It's kind of hard to explain, but I think tense/perspective play an important role in whether a book works or not; they have to be done correctly in order to fit the mood, the message, etc.

Whether I'm reading or writing, I personally don't really care if the story is in past or present tense, if it's in third person or first person or second person or thirty-fourth person ... Whatever. Like I said––as long as it fits the story, it doesn't make a difference to me.

But lately, I've been encountering more people who are much pickier about the subject. For example, somewhat recently I got into a debate about it in a Goodreads group, and I was surprised to see how many people absolutely loathe present tense. There was one girl who even said that, if she reads something in present tense, she automatically thinks it's horrible writing, and that she had never read anything well-written and in the present tense. Mind you, I'm not attacking her, and she's entitled to her opinion of course ... I was just a bit shocked that it made such a difference to her and other people. It hadn't really occurred to me before that it could mean the difference between good and bad writing to someone. Sometimes, a story just comes into my head in present tense, and that's the way I feel it should be written. And after that, I don't really think twice about it.

Then there comes the issue of choosing what person to write a story in. Most of the time, stories naturally come into my head in first person. Although sometimes––usually if there are a lot of important characters in a story I'm writing––I prefer third person.

Now, there's the problem of UNRAVELING––one of my books that uses a lot of second person. Before this story, I had never felt particularly compelled to use second person, but in this case I had a specific reason for doing so. It's kind of difficult to explain, but I felt that it was a very personal story between the main character and her friend (to whom the story is narrated)––the kind of story she wouldn't really be telling to anyone else. However, I received a lot of feedback saying the second person was confusing and that it "shut the reader out" in a way, which isn't something I wanted to do.

Currently, I'm doing another revision of the manuscript in which I try replacing the second person with third person, but I feel like it drastically changes the overall "feel" of the story. And I'm not sure if I like it. But on the other hand, I don't want to lose the interest of readers or literary agents just because I chose the "wrong" way to tell the story.

GAHHH you guys, I really hate being a writer sometimes. I hate when it comes down to deciding how much I want to change just for the sake of pleasing other people. Of course I want my writing to be enjoyable and understandable to my audience, and I'm willing to let go of a lot of things for that purpose. But when it comes to something this big and important, I'm more hesitant. I want to do what I feel is right for the story, but what I think is right might seem wrong to everyone else ... if that makes sense.

Anyway ... I don't want to turn this into a self-pitying rant. I guess my point is to ask you all what you think about tense and perspective. Which ones do you most often use? How much do you think they matter? Do you notice them a lot when you're reading something?

31 comments:

  1. I used to always use first person, but now I prefer third. I also used to use present tense fairly often, but now I almost never use it. As for second person, I've tried it once or twice but I never got much of anywhere with the story. As for reading, I don't really care, although present/first tends to throw me off in the beginning because I like to read books that were published in the 19th century.

    As for second person, if you want to keep it I suggest reading some books in second person and paying close attention to how it's treated. Just because it isn't usually done doesn't mean it can't be effective. The only book I can think of right now is You Don't Know Me by David Klass. I can't guarantee that it's a good book because I read it before I understood what makes a book good or bad, but it's obviously good enough to have caught somebody's attention and get published.

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    1. Thanks for the advice, Roni! The only problem is that it's kind of hard to find books written using second person (except "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, lol). I've actually read YOU DON'T KNOW ME and I didn't actually care much for it ... although I don't think it was because of the second person. I just didn't feel much of a connection with the main character, if I recall correctly ... it's been a few years since I read it.

      But, I'm sure a Google search might direct me toward more second-person books. ;)

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    2. If you want to Connect With Your Teen Daughter then I have no judgments because I have walked in the same shoes that you have walked in. My way of looking at the world and issues facing teenage girls helps parents develop the skills they need to have a more connected and fun relationship with their teenager.

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  2. Your blog post came at an appropriate time for me, as I've just started actually writing a new project. Just before I began, I found myself a bit unsure as to which perspective and tense to adopt. I'm not sure stories just come to me with a given POV and tense the way you describe. I ended up starting this new story in 3rd person past, which seems right for it, but part of me still wonders. I think it might be because I've spent all year revising a manuscript written in 1st person present (and that's really the only thing I've written in present tense, I think). Of the other big projects I've completed, one is in 3rd person past and the other in 1st person past.

    I don't tend to remember long after the fact what tense and POV a book was written in. I do think J.K. Rowling did a great job with 3rd person past in Harry Potter, and I love the Pagan Quartet by Catherine Jinks, which I believe is 1st person present. Sometimes I like the immediacy of present tense, but I think there could be debate as to whether writing in the present tense means action is really happening in real time or whether it's more of a grammatical device. For example, it's odd to use a temporal expression like "the next day" in present tense, but I do it in my manuscript because it helps the reader know how much time has passed. A long time ago I read this post that made me think more about POV and tense issues: http://hollylisle.com/time-and-first-person/

    Lastly, I would keep your second person stuff if you really feel it's doing something special. It sounds like have good reasons for it. If an agent expressed interest but requested that you change the POV, then maybe you could consider changing it... But it's up to you, of course!

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    1. Haha, I know what you mean. A lot of the time, when I switch from one project to another, it feels strange if it's in a different tense. It could just be that you have to get used to it ...

      I'm the same way. Usually if you ask me what person/tense a book was written in, I couldn't tell you. That's also a good point––you have to think about from where/when your protagonist is telling the story, and therefore whether the tense is logical. (Interesting blog post––thanks for linking to it!)

      Well, it's complicated. I haven't really started submitting UNRAVELING to agents, but there was an agent who was giving out feedback on Figment and I submitted my query & first few pages to her just to get some advice. She was among the people who suggested getting rid of the second person; she said that there wasn't really a market for YA books written in second person, or something like that. So, that's part of why I'm trying it differently. But then again, she's just one agent ... so, I don't really know. I think I'll just have two different versions ... and maybe if I ever get an agent for this book I can ask him/her which works better? I don't really know. *Sighs*

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  3. I think if you asked most readers what they prefer this topic would seem alien to them. Any perspective, done well, will engage the reader into the story line so well that they won't notice the technical aspects. That isn't to say that some perspectives do more justice to a story but if your readers don't notice then I would take it as a positive cue.

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    1. Yes, I agree. I guess the thing is that, of all the aspects of a story, tense/person is something I tend to forget after I've read something––unless it was particularly effective or particularly strange. As you said, I don't think it really matters so long as it doesn't distract too much from the more important aspects of the story.

      But it also depends, since some people notice tense/perspective changes more than others. And because of that, I just have to trust myself to choose the right thing ... which is the most frustrating part. But, ah well. I guess there's not really anything I can do about that.

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  4. There are about three projects that I've gotten fairly far into- two of them are first person past, the other third person fast. Weirdly enough, the third person past one is the one that I could write the easiest- I think that it really depends on the story that you're writing. I find that I expression emotions with characters best through first person, but get less confused with voice and such when writing in third.

    So that leads me to the point is that the voice you use does often depend on what suits the project that you're writing. I believe (it was a while ago) I read a part of Unravelling, maybe back when inkpop was still around? So I'm not completely up to date, but I remember thinking that the tense that you wrote it in- like the narrator was addressing her best friend- really fit in with the story that was being told.

    In some ways, writing for market can be an important thing to consider. But if you feel that staying true to the story of Unravelling means writing it in second person, than I think that you should go ahead and query it that way. One strategy is to pick, let's say, twelve agents- four from your top picks, four from a B-list and four from a C-list, query them, and see what they say. If you get a lot of them saying that the second person just isn't a good idea, than you should apply that feedback. It's not like if you query in second person now that the story is done forever- you can always go back and edit it.

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    1. Yeah, maybe I'll try something along those lines. I'm not quite sure yet. I guess the only problem would be, agents often just reject you without saying why, so I don't know if it would help me or not. But, it still might be worth a shot. However, I'm not even really at the querying stage yet ... there are still other revisions I'm making. So, guess I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. ;)

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  5. In general, my position is that yes, you should choose what you feel is right for the story.

    Personally, however, I'm wary of novels in present tense. I'm not saying it can't be done. It's just like how some people don't like blue cheese, you know? Or how blue cheese, for a lot of people, is only good in the right context: lightly sprinkled over a very good salad. (Warning: extended food metaphor ahead.) So if present tense is blue cheese, past might be more like a good mozarella. Really yummy but also inoffensive. It's also downright boring on the same salad you'd put blue cheese on. AND you can find really good and really bad varieties of both cheeses. I think both present and past tense can be done either poorly or well, and can be used in either the perfect context or the wrong one.

    I'm less picky about person. Though it's interesting--first person is SOOOO much easier for me to write in. It feels very natural to me. But for my current project, I force myself to write in 3rd because it just IS a 3rd person story... Sometimes I wonder about my justification for that, but I think a strong gut feeling is good enough...right?

    Oh, and I dare you to write a story in thirty-fourth person. PLEASE haha.

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    1. I ... think I understand the cheese metaphor? lol. :) Yes, I suppose it's a matter of personal taste. Personally I just find it hard to see what's so off-putting about present tense since I feel like it's not much of a difference. And I can't recall ever reading a book and thinking "Hmm this tense is really weird." But, maybe it's just me...

      I also generally find first person easier to write in, but actually I'm in the same situation where I made an exception for my current WIP. Since there are four main characters I decided to go with third person––since four first-person perspectives would have gotten way too confusing.

      lol! Well I would accept that challenge, except I don't even know what thirty-fourth person would look like. XD

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  6. I kind of share similar sentiments about present-tense -- I can't stand it. No way, no how. It completely distracts me from what probably is an otherwise fantastic story.

    I've neither read nor written a lot of second-person, so I have yet to form a real opinion on that (though the concept is intriguing...). I tend to write first and third person as it feels right for the project, and I don't mind reading either one (as long as the author of the first-person novel notifies readers very clearly if he switches characters. It's a huge turn-off if the character changes without warning).

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    1. Can I ask why? Not trying to be confrontational or anything, I'm just genuinely curious––as someone who doesn't really notice tense at all. (And as someone who often writes in present tense, lol.)

      Yeah, second person is pretty uncommon, which is why a lot of readers find it strange I guess. I normally stay away from it, but I thought it made sense in the context of the story I was writing.

      I agree about changing perspectives. Although I'm kind of a hypocrite since I've done that a lot of times (although as I think I said in one of my other comments, I try not to go over two or so first-person POVs). But, it also really bothers me if an author has multiple POVs and they all sound the same and I can't tell them apart...

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    2. It's kind of hard to explain, but I think it just feels too much like the author is trying to force me into the story; trying too hard to make it immediate, 'like you're really there.' I tend get the sense that the story's being shoved down my throat.
      Part of it might also be believability... seriously, who narrates stuff like, say, a police chase scene that ends in a massive car wreck, in their head as it's happening? I find it far more believable that it happened sometime in the past and the narrator is recounting the incident in slightly calmer times.

      I've never written anything with a changing first-person narrator precisely because it annoys me so much when others do it.
      However, I tend to switch my third-person 'narrators' with reckless abandon, though I usually pare it down to two or three main ones in rewriting.

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    3. Well, I think in some cases that's kind of the point. Like the sense of "here and now" just seems more appropriate in some cases. I suppose I know what you mean ... I guess it just doesn't bother me.

      As for believability ... I personally don't really see why it's less believable than past tense. I mean with past tens it's like, who actually remembers every detail, and every word that everyone said? It goes both ways, in my opinion.

      Yeah, that tends to be the problem I have when writing in third person ... it often makes me too tempted to "head hop." ;)

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  7. Um...my last two WIP's have been in present tense, first person. *is now having a melt down*

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    1. I feel your pain ... *pat pat* If I recall correctly, I think three of my novels are written in 1st person/present tense. I never knew people were so picky about it. XD

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  8. I find the fuss over tense a little annoying actually. What is the difference between "do" and "did"? The same events are happening. I really don't see how a simply change in tense could change the writing, yet I feel that some people could read a present-tense version of a classic novel and suddenly hate it. As I said, I don't understand how it makes much of a difference.

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    1. Well, I guess writing in a different tense might cause you to make different grammatical choices that might not sound as good. For example, I see a lot of people, when writing in present tense, choose to write something like, "I am doing this" rather than "I do this." Whereas, in the past tense people just tend to write, "I did this" rather than "I was doing this," if that makes sense. Usually the goal is to take out as may gerunds as possible (that is, verbs ending in "-ing") and I think the present tense makes them more tempting.

      But I think tense also effects the mood of a story somewhat. Like, present tense might give a story more of a sense of immediacy or being "in the moment." However, I've seen arguments against present tense that it doesn't make sense for someone to be so observational "in the moment"––rather than reflecting on the past. I kind of disagree with that argument, but I see the point. I guess it's a matter of whether you want the story to feel more like it's happening "right now" or if it's better told as a reflective kind of story––that is, the narrator has had time to reflect on the events of the story.

      I guess my point is, I understand it makes a difference, although it's a rather small difference. And I think different tenses are appropriate for different stories. What I have trouble understanding is the sentiment that ALL stories in a certain tense would be bad ... I mean, certainly present tense feels wrong for some stories, but I don't really understand entirely discriminating against the present tense.

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    2. I see. Well, I think present tense can be helpful. I just read a book about a girl with no long-term memory, as in her memory reset at a certain time of day. That was in present tense for obvious reasons. The present was all she had. It wasn't a mind-blowing book or anything, but I am prepared to use it as a defense. I also think Q&A (the novel version of the movie Slumdog Millionaire) worked really well with present tense. It gives the narrator and almost childish, innocent feel when it comes to certain characters.

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    3. Hmm, what book is that? (About the girl with no long-term memory, I mean.) Sounds interesting. Anyway, yes ... I agree that present tense just works best in some cases. Which is why I don't really understand why some people hate it all the time, but ... oh well.

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  9. Have you ever read Evil Editor? http://www.evileditor.blogspot.com/
    Anyway, you should go look at Evil Editor Comic Strip #41; it's funny and rather relevant.

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    1. No, I haven't heard of Evil Editor, but it looks helpful ... kind of like Query Shark but with some different aspects. :) Haha yes, and that is funny/relevant!

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  10. It got a little too girly for my tastes but it was interesting. Forgotten by Cat Patrik. On another note, I'm in the process of getting back into blogging again. Want to help me rename it?

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    1. Oh, I think I've seen that book around. Hmmmm.

      Ooh, cool! Ah sure, do you have any names in mind?

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    2. I have no idea! lol! I'm slowly trying to get back into the blogging world, but no one reads my stuff. lol! Hmm. I'm also not sure how I should go about my writing posts when I don't want to give information on my novels just yet. But it's hard considering most of the things I want to talk about, well, revolve around my work.

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    3. Hrrrm well, I'm kind of terrible with naming things, so I don't know ... Something more writing-related maybe? XD

      Well, you don't necessarily have to give out that much information about your novels. I don't think I talk that much about my work in my posts, except to sometimes use it as an example. But you can still discuss your writing problems without necessarily saying what you're writing about.

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  11. Much like you I never really notice tense and such unless it's a distraction. And that girls comment is shocking to me as well.

    Personally, I love present tense. I love the immediacy off it. It's like the story is happening NOW. RIGHT NOW. And I love that.

    I also almost always choose first person to tell stories in. I like the intimacy of the first person narrative with the MC. Even if the stories don't end up in first person present tense, I nearly always write my first draft that way because It helps me to get close to my MC and understand them better, and also throws me into the writing as it feels, like I said, like it's happening now.

    But, tense is certainly something to think about as it relates to the reader. I don't even touch the idea until at least the third draft.

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    1. Yes, I like present tense for the same reason. I mean, it's not the best tone for every story, but for some stories it really works. Plus there are other good reasons to use present tense ... for example, in UNRAVELING there are two story lines (one in the present and one in the past)––so if they were told in the same tense, that would make things a lot more confusing.

      I almost always go with first person as well. Stories just tend to pop into my head that way––I think because, in a way, it feels like the character is telling me a story and I'm the one transcribing it or something like that. ;) But also what you said––it just makes me feel closer to the protagonist and able to understand him/her better.

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  12. Brigid, just write. To me, a book is about the writer as an individual, and readers are those who get imspired by him/her. Whenever i read a book, I almost never read it as a writer, but as a reader, waiting to be inspired and touched, and I felt that as a writer, you can't do that if you're just thinking about conveying the story in the best way and neglect the fact of just telling the story through your views. True, readers are very important, but they will only relate not truly believe, coz it's not something that they themselves experienced.
    Hence, i don't read to criticise, but to be inspired. Sometimes, conveying your story in a different perspective or viewpoint doesn't mean it would be bad, in fact I felt that the feel comes to be more important.
    Just write the way you can believe it, and i think that's enough.

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    1. Thanks RaeAnn! Yeah, I try not to get too caught up in what readers will think. Like you said, they are important but their opinion shouldn't stop the writer from doing what he/she thinks is right for the story. Haha, I'm kind of the opposite because a lot of the time I do read things to criticize them ... It's kind of a balance of being inspired but also critical. Like, I notice both things I want to do and things I don't want to do in books I read––if that makes sense.

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