Friday, August 2, 2013

In Defense of First Person

(The hosting service for my website is having a bad day, so I'm cross-posting this here for now.)

Recently I heard a well-known author state that (paraphrasing) writing a story in first person is a terrible idea, shouldn’t be done, and that writing it in present tense is even worse. Respectfully, I disagree. I’m addressing the “present tense” part over on From the Write Angle, so here I’ll focus on first person.

One criticism of first-person narrative was that it’s what newbie, amateur writers default to, and they don’t have the skills to do it well.

On the first count, well, that’s kind of a big generalization. I started my very first manuscript in third person, got 5-10 pages in, and knew something wasn’t working. I went back, changed it to first person, and it flowed from there. My friend Charlee Vale tells me her first two manuscripts were entirely in third person.

But maybe the majority of new writers automatically go with first person? Sure, I can buy that.

On the second count, let’s face it. Our very first attempts with any writing technique or tool usually suck. This author posited that everyone should master third-person limited before even considering first person. You know, that’s probably not a bad idea in general. At the least, we should learn the strengths and limitations of all our options and practice to maximize their potential.

Another criticism was that there’s a “falseness” to first person. Your main character has to narrate things they would never say about themselves, engage in an unrealistic level of self-consciousness, etc. Plus in first person past tense, supposedly any suspense the character experiences is false, because they’ve already survived the tale in order to “tell” it to us. They know exactly what happens.

Here’s where people divide into two camps according to how they experience reading. Some people read a first-person narrative and process it as an artifact, a memoir written by the main character, or a record of that character verbally telling the story.

I’m not in that camp. I don’t view stories in that kind of framework unless they’re explicitly placed in it—”Now, let me tell you about the time my grandpa gave me a birthday present that changed the world.” I view the story as simply happening. I don’t think about someone telling it or writing it—it just unfolds before me, and the book with written words is just the delivery vehicle.

Just like when I watch a movie, I don’t think about “Who’s following these people around with a camera everywhere?”

I don’t know if that puts me in the majority or minority, but there it is.

At any rate, why should we or shouldn’t we use first person? Some people find the constant “I, I, I, me, me, me” obnoxious. Fair enough. Third-person limited lets us get into our protagonist’s head just as much as first person, so why don’t we stick to that?

To me, there’s still just a little more separation between reader and protagonist in third person. A character in third can get away with withholding a little information from the reader that would feel forced and fake in first person. First person, on the other hand, delivers the protagonist’s experience a little more exactly. In that case, it’s easier to withhold information from the character.

First person is notably more prevalent in some types of fiction than others, particularly young adult (YA). Some have said this is because teenagers are so self-centered, so they gravitate toward that focus on the “me.”

That may have some merit, but it doesn’t feel quite right. I know a lot of selfless, generous, thoughtful teens. Rather than self-centered, I think of them as “self-centric.” (That may be a distinction with no difference, but it makes sense to me.) The world doesn’t revolve around them—they are simply their own anchor point in a world that’s expanded tremendously since their pre-teen years.

It still sounds like I’m saying the same thing two ways, I guess. If it makes sense to any of you, and you can explain it better, please let me know.

I think for me, when choosing between first and third person, part of the decision is based on the answer to a question. Is this a story in World X focusing on Character Y? Or is it Character X’s story, occurring in World Y? Essentially, it’s a matter of story ownership, and how tightly that ownership is tied to that specific character.

First person can be very limited and restrictive, it’s true. But sometimes that’s exactly what a story needs, and I refuse to believe it’s a bad thing in and of itself. Like all tools and techniques, it has its place, its function, its value.

What do you think about first-person narratives? Love ‘em? Hate ‘em? Share your opinions and experiences (respectfully, please) in the comments.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

I'm Moving! (Virtually)

It's official. I have a brand-spanking-new website. It's going to be my main online hub, so I'll be transitioning my blogging activities over there.

For now, I'll hang onto this place, too. I might repurpose it in some way in the future.

If you have a minute, pop on over to the new digs:

You might find something nice over there.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

In Support of Birthdays

Yes, you read that right.

Despite the associated anxiety that "Ugh! I'm getting old!" I've decided I'm in favor of birthdays. Not only am I in favor of them, I think we should give them more weight ... particularly over other certain holidays.

This post lining up with Mother's Day is no coincidence.

Don't get me wrong. I love my mom. She beats herself up over perceived shortcomings (gee, wonder where I got that from), when in reality she's done a great job raising the three of us.

I likewise respect mothers everywhere. It's hard work. Infinitely rewarding, yet often thankless. My metaphorical hat is off to you all.

And yet, I have a problem with Mother's Day.

If you know me, you probably know I'm not a fan of Valentine's Day, either. Could this simply be bitterness at work? Perhaps. (Okay, somewhat likely, in part.) But I do have more behind it than that. It could be a matter of over-thinking, but when has that ever stopped me?

You see, Mother's Day and Valentine's Day and Father's Day—among others—have something in common. They ask us to celebrate a singular aspect of you-ness as though it can be separated from all the rest of the you-ness.

My mother is a mother, yes. She's also a singer, a gardener, a pianist, a teacher, a genealogist, and a reader. She enjoys movies and games and puzzles. She loves animals. She hates balloons because she hates them popping.

Why single out one label over the others? Same goes for celebrating the fact that two people are each other's romantic partner. Aren't they more than that?

I like the idea of celebrating the whole person, for everything they are.

Thus, birthdays.

A day not for celebrating labels, but to celebrate a person's very existence. Where it doesn't matter what you aren't, because the day is about what you are. Everyone has a birthday. No one has to be left out. Even if odd circumstances mean we don't know the exact date, one can be declared and accepted. The specific day doesn't matter, because it's the symbol that's important.

It's your day to be appreciated for all you are.

No guilt trips or feelings of inadequacy necessary.

Just a thought.

Monday, April 15, 2013

When Words Are Worse Than Sticks & Stones

Words will never hurt me, huh?

Sometimes that can be true. If someone calls me a geek, I'll just agree with them. If someone tells me something I know is untrue, big deal. It's all well and good to say we should know who we are and be confident enough that name-calling doesn't hurt us. But words hold a particular danger. They have a tendency to become more than just words.

I've talked about it before, how words have power and saying you're teasing doesn't make it okay. It's continued to be an issue in varying ways in my classroom.

On a regular basis, a student will tell me something like, "Guess what—Girl X (sitting right there) made out with Boy Y last weekend." First, I don't care. Second, I'm pretty sure it isn't true. And what does the girl do? Smack his arm playfully, act shocked, and say, "I did not! Stop it!" ... with a smile.

In other words, encourage him to keep saying such things.

After years of getting the attention he wants from "joking" about girls being "easy," what else is he going to think he can get away with?

I say when a guy (or anyone) is a jerk, call him out on it. Shut him down. Don't give him what he wants.

On a related note, a student has spent most of this year calling himself and his friends a particular made-up word. "Miss Lewis, I can't do this—I'm a _____. _____'s don't do math."

(Mostly this has had "Stop trying to make 'fetch' happen" running in my head all year.)

But then some of the friends let it slip that this name for themselves was a portmanteau of two words, one of which is 'pimp.'

I am not okay with this. I know the word has come to have certain pop-culture meanings (i.e., pimp my ride), but as a noun, in the context of a group of boys calling themselves this, I'm not okay with it.

So I'm calling them out on it. I'm asking them if they know what a pimp actually is. (We're in a sheltered enough community that some kids actually don't know.) Then I'm asking if they know how a real pimp views women. Once that's clear, I ask if they understand now why I don't want to hear anything more about that made-up word in my classroom.

So far, they've understood, but I haven't really seen the main instigators yet. (Just started having these little talks on Friday.) We'll see if I actually have any success keeping the word out of my classroom. And better yet, convincing these kids that it's not such a great thing, whether in my classroom or not.

I suspect the originator will argue with me and say my least favorite sentence: "It's okay, Miss Lewis."

I truly worry about someone who so constantly tries to insist something's okay when I tell him to his face that it's not.

I'll keep trying.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Less than the Best Can Be AMAZING

The third quarter of the school year just ended for me. Predictably, I spent much of last week staying very late after school with kids desperate to get their grade up at the last minute. If they're willing to do the work, I'm willing to put in the extra time.

A few different groups of kids come in. There are the kids who've been failing since the beginning of the YEAR, and when they find out they've just gotten it up to a D, they break out in the Hallelujah Chorus. There's a similar group who get it up to a B from a C, say, "That's awesome!" and carry on with their lives. Both groups could've been a whole grade higher if they'd just applied themselves more earlier.

There are also kids I've been working with a little longer than the past week. They get it from a D up to a B, and want to know if they can get it any higher at the last minute. In those cases, I have to try to convince them that their B is awesome, because I've already bent as much as I could to help them.

Then ... there are the A-minuses.

Some A-minuses are easy to deal with. They're one percent from an A, and one of my usual culprits (i.e., retake a quiz) is easily enough to bump them over.

But others are tougher. These are students who may not get math easily, so they work their tails off to get that A-minus. They should be SO PROUD of that A-minus. A line I heard more than once last week:

"It's not good enough for my dad/mom/both parents. I'll be in so much trouble."

Sure, some of these kids might just be using the "blame the parents" line to get me to feel bad for them and help them nudge it up to an A. But I've met some of the parents at Parent Teacher Conferences, and I suspect those kids are telling the truth.

I get that parents want their kids to reach their utmost potential. I get that some kids slack off (those Bs that could've easily been As) and need motivation/pressure from home to get it in gear. I get that there's pressure for getting into a good college.

I also get that if a kid works really hard, and the result of that hard work is an A-minus, that A-minus should be celebrated. It's not "less than perfect." It's an amazing accomplishment.

The whole idea of grading has issues. I try to be as fair as possible, but there's still an almost arbitrary nature about it. Should grades reflect effort, actual mathematical understanding, or a combination of both? If a combination, in what proportion? What earns an A in one class may only be enough for a B in another.

It sucks.

I hope some parents will help it suck a little less by acknowledging when less than the "best" is more than good enough.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Edit Letters and Ending Terms and What's Up With Referrals?

As usual, when it rains, it pours.

I have arrived at the next stage of The Book Deal. First came the offer. Then waiting. Next came the contract. Then more waiting. Now the edit letter has arrived.

No waiting. Just working.

Between all the revising I need to do and the term ending this week at school, I'm a bit busy. So it might be quiet here at the blog for a while. I'll try to pipe up now and then.

One word of advice for the savvy aspiring writer. Remember that a referral to someone's agent is not typically something you ask for. It's something that's offered. And you definitely don't ask an author who doesn't know you from the crossing guard down the street.

I had a referral once from a writer who knows me (and more importantly, my work!) very well. It went as far as an R&R (revise-and-resubmit) but didn't pan out. The referral was a gift—something I didn't ask for, but was very grateful to be offered.

Be professional. It always looks good.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

My Fellow Perfectionists, Let Us Embrace the Suckitude

I admit it. I've been struggling with perfectionism pretty much my whole life. (You'll have to ask my mom how much of it manifested when I was a two-year-old, I guess.) There's a particular aspect of it that sticks with me. If I couldn't do something perfectly, I'd rather not do it at all.

No settling for "okay." No such thing as "good enough." All or nothing, a hundred percent or zero.

If I were still full-throttle in that zone and trying to write novels, I think I'd be dead already.

Don't get me wrong. Striving for excellence is great. It's something we should do, and something I still do. But writing is never going to be perfect, and it's going to be very unperfect for a long time before we get it as close to perfect as we can. If we lock onto the flaws during the process, we're never going to move forward. So here's what we can do:

We can let our first draft suck.

It's okay. We have permission. It's allowed.

If we're coming up on a fight scene, and we know we have a hard time with action descriptions? That's okay. Write it badly. Let the words come, because then we have something to work with.

I'm not saying editing/revising as you go isn't allowed. Personally, I tend to do that as I draft. Others, like Mindy McGinnis, prefer the first draft to be "word vomit"—just get it all out there and tidy it up on the first revision pass. When I feel my perfectionism creeping up, though ... when I get those doubts saying I can't write what I need to well enough, so I may as well not bother at all ... that's when I know I need to just let it spill.

Once it's out there, I can see how bad it really is. Maybe it's worse than I thought, and I need to educate myself on how to fix it. More often than not, though, it's not nearly as bad as I expect.

For me, the fear of sucking is much worse than actually giving something a shot. So I'm trying not to fear it. I'm trying to embrace that suckiness, knowing at worst, it'll only be temporary.

A crappy scene can be revised and fixed. A blank page is just a blank page. Great for origami. Not so great for telling a story.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Why Do We Do "Pointless" Things? (Hint: They're Not)

The other day, an English teacher at my school emailed the faculty with the link to this piece in the New York Times about literacy (or lack thereof) in Mexico. It makes me want to yell at someone, hit someone, and just scream and cry at the same time.

Here's part of what set me to tearing my hair out:

A few years back, I spoke with the education secretary of my home state, Nuevo León, about reading in schools. He looked at me, not understanding what I wanted. “In school, children are taught to read,” he said. “Yes,” I replied, “but they don’t read.” I explained the difference between knowing how to read and actually reading, between deciphering street signs and accessing the literary canon. He wondered what the point of the students’ reading “Don Quixote” was. He said we needed to teach them to read the newspaper.

Because if they read thought-provoking novels, they won't be able to read the newspaper? We should limit them to only achieving the baseline?


And then this:

When my daughter was 15, her literature teacher banished all fiction from her classroom. “We’re going to read history and biology textbooks,” she said, “because that way you’ll read and learn at the same time.”

I'm all for using literacy in the content areas, but throwing out fiction in literature class in favor of textbooks?

There's learning to read, which is generally what happens in elementary school. Then kids transition to reading to learn, which is what we're doing when we read textbooks or essays. We take the knowledge someone else has and absorb it by reading.

Then there's what I'd call reading to create knowledge. I'd say that's what happens when we read fiction. We can make our own discoveries about human nature, about ourselves, our own understandings about the world. The job of a novelist—as I see it—is not to teach but to explore. The reader explores with us, yet may not discover the same things or arrive at the same destination. That's why it's amazing.

This idea that we should only learn things that we'll definitely, absolutely use in a concrete, practical way mystifies me. As I mentioned a month ago, it's certainly turned up in my classroom. While I don't hear students ask what the point of reading novels is (maybe the English teachers get that from the kids who don't like reading—I have to threaten to take books away from kids who'd rather read than do math), I get it about almost everything else we want them to learn.

My school just sent out a survey last week, and one of the items was to vote on whether we want to institute a mandatory free-reading time next year. Twenty minutes a day, three days a week. No matter the class, everyone will spend those twenty minutes reading, including the teachers, administrators, everyone.

I haven't had a chance to ask the other math teachers what they think of it. Or the science, art, PE, music, history, and tech teachers.

My vote: Absolutely, yes, without question.

Because the only pointless thing is limiting ourselves to the concrete little nothings. What kind of life is that?

Friday, March 8, 2013

When It's NOT "Just Jealousy"

News Flash: Not all teenagers love and adore each other. (They're just like younger kids and adults that way.) When one teen hates another, there seem to be two routes. The hater makes no secret of their hate, broadcasting it to the world, or they act extra-super-sweet-and-nicey-nice around their hate-ee.

The second is just about as obvious as the first.

Then there's the response from the hate-ee's friends once the hater moves on, particularly when we're talking about girls:

"Forget it, she's just jealous."

It's true at least some of the time, I'm sure. Envy gets ugly easily enough. But it's become a sort of default response to being hated, or even just disliked. "It's not my problem—they're just jealous."

What if they're not? What if someone's beef with me has nothing to do with my possessions, my status, my accomplishments? What if it has everything to do with how I'm conducting myself? I see kids who really don't like other kids, and have really good reasons for it. Boys who disrespect girls, students who disrespect teachers, kids who try to cheat or cause trouble. And I've seen those kids brush it off with the "jealousy" excuse. Pointing fingers at the hater distracts me from what I need to see—my own face in the mirror, my own actions and character.

That doesn't mean we need to beat ourselves up every time someone has a problem with us. But taking it as a prompt for some quick self-reflection couldn't hurt.

This is part of why I don't feel inclined to celebrate my successes in a sense of "Ha! Take that, haters!" If there are haters out there, I'm not always sure of the reason behind their hate. My success stands on its own. Separately, I'll celebrate when I manage to knock down any of my own tendencies toward bad conduct ...

... leaving the haters to worry about their own selves.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Going Off-Topic Can Be On-Topic

When I was in junior high, there was this one English teacher. I never had him, but I heard stories. Stories about the stories. My classmates talked about how all they had to do was make one comment or ask one random question to get him going, and they could keep him talking through all of class. As in, never getting to the lesson. As in, no homework.

Not something I aspire to as a teacher.

At the same time, I find I can't be totally rigid about sticking to the agenda and only the agenda. That likely comes from my years in deaf-ed, where kids often have gaps in their world knowledge, and if I don't allow a tangent to fill them, who will? I have a curriculum to stick to, but that doesn't mean there isn't time for other conversations.

Here's what I've learned: Kids want to know things. Since my students have heard about my publishing deal, they want to know a lot of things.

How long did it take to write the book?

Why is it going to be so long before it's published?

How did you get the book deal?

What's an agent?

Will it be in bookstores or will we have to buy it from you?

Will there be a movie?

I get particularly in-depth questions from students who want to write and publish novels themselves, but some of the most intense curiosity comes from students who aren't into writing at all. Often who aren't even into reading all that much.

Indulging those questions gives them insight into something that certainly isn't on the curriculum in any of their classes. It also reinforces one of my favorite points—don't pigeonhole people. Yeah, I'm a math teacher. Yeah, I'm a novelist. Yeah, I know ASL.

Hopefully it gets through to them that they can be as multi-faceted as they want, too. Especially in the adolescent world of "What's your label?"

And you know what? Sometimes tangents like that work in writing, too. It might seem like wandering off aimlessly, but if we do it right, it can actually play right into our point.

Of course, the trick is the "doing it right" part. But isn't it always?