That Pesky Pronoun: A Pitfall of 1st Person Narrative

That Pesky Pronoun: A Pitfall of 1st Person Narrative
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All Stock images taken from Pixabay.

I’m taking the chance to work on Images of Truth since I’m waiting for the editor to get back to me with Sojourn and Bob. This project is so much bigger than either of those. How much bigger? Well, I’m at 107,000 words, and I’m not even halfway done (though I’m at 47 percent based on my math).  Using POV writing as opposed to first person narrative is much easier to do though now that I’ve written a complete story with both techniques.

That gave me an idea on what I could share with people in today’s blog. Last week, I talked to you about Adverbs. Today, I’d like to go over something I saw a lot of in my fourth set of revisions of Sojourn.

When I first wrote about first person narrative, I spoke about the pros and cons. What it let me do was limit the scope of the story and focus on the character I wanted everyone to connect with most (in this case, Elele). I stand behind the idea that it was the right call. Now, this may backfire on me for a few reasons I won’t get into in this blog, but I made a decision based on what I felt was best for the story, which is all any writer can do.  That said, one consequence I didn’t think about what how many times a writer would be tempted to write “I.”

The first was easy to fix because of my experience as a journalist. I teach my students that observation is the most powerful tool they have, but a lot of my students feel the need to tell me they saw something. “I watched,” “I heard,” and “I felt” are attributive clauses that aren’t necessary. Want to see what I mean?

Here’s a paragraph from the third draft of Sojourn:

I watch as they fuss over their pod mother. She touches them and embraces them. 

Dozens of Seferam each check on the oldest member of their family as I observe, breathing in moist air.

So here’s a question to ask yourself.  Isn’t this story in first person? So of course she’s watching and listening. I don’t need to tell the reader that because the narrator is the character doing the watching and listening. Now, I’ll be honest. Even though I looked out for it in my last draft, I still have those types of clauses in there. I’ll have to do a search and get rid of it. It’s wordy and unnecessary.

Here’s what that segment looks like in the fourth draft:

They fuss over their pod mother, and she touches and embraces them. 

Dozens of Seferam each check on the oldest member of their family as I observe, breathing in moist air.

alphabet-2082547__340Yeah, I still have her “observing,” but I felt I needed that to show her position in relation to the other group, not to prove she saw it. One could argue I don’t even need that bit in there, but it’s a step up from the last draft.

So when I sit down to do my final draft, you can bet I’m going to search for the clauses “I watch,” “I see,” “I hear,” and “I feel.” I’ll delete that, and watch my story’s word count shrink. This will make my prose cleaner, more readable, and more active.

But that’s not the only thing to watch out for with that pesky pronoun.  Naturally your character is going to do things, and, since you’re using first person, there will be the temptation to start pretty much every sentence with the pronoun in question. Quintessential Editor (who was so kind to Alpha Read) for me, pointed out how often I did that. What that actually does is dehumanize your character. It buts the character in the way of her own story. So let’s go all the way back to that first draft of Sojourn and see what Corey wanted me to see.

Here’s the Alpha Draft:

I close my eyes an instant before I approach the threshold. I feel something brush over the tip of my nose. The heel of my left leather shoe scrapes along something too. I open my wings, and use the force of the air to turn just before I glide into a red-painted wall. My wings strain at the effort, feeling as if they might yank off no matter that my mind knows that’s physically impossible on a mathematical level.

Notice that three out of four sentences begin with “I.” Notice the word “I” is in that sentence five times. We want to get rid of some of that redundancy and make this a bit more active? How do you do that though without a subject? Well, I choose a different subject.  Let’s look at this latest draft.

My eyes clench shut an instant before I approach the threshold. I feel something brush over the tip of my nose. The heel of my left leather shoe scrapes along something, too. I use my wings and the force of the air to turn just before I glide into a red-painted wall. My wings strain at the effort, feeling as if they might yank off no matter that my mind knows that’s physically impossible on a mathematical level.

Now, two out of five sentences begin with “I,” and I only see that pronoun four times. Just look at it though. See that “I feel” there? That’s right. This needs a nice, final once-over for just that problem.  Like I said, I know it’s there, but now that I edit for it, I’ll think about it more as I draft. So let’s look at how this paragraph should probably end up:

My eyes clench shut an instant before I approach the threshold. Something brushes the tip of my nose, and the heel of my left leather shoe scrapes along something else. My wings open, and the force of the air causes me to turn just before I glide into a red-painted wall. My wings strain at the effort, feeling as if they might yank off no matter that my mind knows that’s physically impossible on a mathematical level.

letters-2077234__340Now, I have four sentences, and not a one of them starts with the pronoun “I.” In fact, that pronoun only appears twice. The structure of the sentence is still active, I’ve only changed the subject and the predicate. I noticed it more on this draft, but in the final draft, I’ll look for things like this to tighten up that prose and make life easier on the reader.

I thought you’d all like a glimpse into the editing process and note things to look out for. I’ll be better at it the next time I write in first person, but, at the very least, I know to look out for that before I through one word at a reader a hyperbolic number of times.  If you’re writing in first person, try this out. Do a search for the word “I.” If your program is like mine, (I use Pages, but that’s more because it came with my Mac than an endorsement.) the program will highlight all the instances. I did it with my first draft, and suddenly it looked like someone overlaid my document with sheet music.  I mean yellow highlights everywhere!

Like adverbs, you can’t eliminate a part of speech entirely, nor can you simply never use that pronoun. The trick is to use it when you need it, and not to let it get out of control. Trust me, I’ve read each of these four drafts about seven times each, and I still see instances where I can revise and tighten the structure of my sentences (sorry Sara!).  Like any tool or trick, you want to do everything you do with intent and awareness.  I hope this gives you something to work with in your drafts.

Thanks for reading,

Matt

 

Caught Update

Caught Update

For those following my Twitter feed, you may have noticed that my updates on where I was at with various chapters had stopped.  The reason is I’d reached an important benchmark.

sign-697219_960_720A note on editing:  Part of the revision process involves beta readers and editors.  The editor suggested something that scared me if I’m being honest.  We discussed changing the main character’s arc.  This required some extensive rewrites and several polishing drafts.  This is where I’m extremely weak.  I’m the most impatient person I, or anyone who knows me, know.  I hate editing.  I write a book so that I can write another book, and then another.  So any time anyone so much as recommends a tweak, I’m already grumpy.  This time around, I’ve done a much better job of being patient.  Rushing a low-quality book to you all is just going to disappoint you, so I made the commitment to make those revisions and a few others.

Once I reached the half-way point and got the main character to where he needs to be, I wanted to get a few opinions on it.  Quintessential Editor was more than happy to take a look and provide feedback.  So what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks is going over the first half of the book and addressing whatever notes my betas brought up.  I’ve just finished those tweaks, and now I can move on to the second half of the book knowing I’ve made these corrections, and these corrections have made the book more compelling and more satisfying.

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Example of a character arc.

Now that I’ve finished with the adjustment of the main character, I think edits will go by more quickly.  There’s still a bit more I have to address which will slow me down at times. I may also have to add a chapter or two, but I think I can realistically expect to release Caught this fall as promised.  I’m still aiming for September, but I won’t rush.

I thought this gave an opportunity for me to talk about revisions and keep you all in the loop because this process has always been fascinating to me.  Our work is an extension of ourselves.  Pouring our heart and soul into what we’re doing makes us very sensitive to anyone saying something wasn’t quite right or satisfying.  What matters is the story though.  It’s up to me as an artist to tell the story accurately in the best way possible.  By accurate, I mean true to the character.

That’s what made these revisions so challenging because I was concerned that the character would be forced to go in a direction he wouldn’t go.  I’ve very careful about not making  a change just because someone says it would make the book more successful.  If the character wouldn’t do something, I wouldn’t have him do something just because someone said it would help the book sell.

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We don’t see strength through victory; we see it through overcoming adversity.

For this main character, it wasn’t so much about making him do something he wouldn’t, it was allowing him to feel and react to what he’d been going through.  Adversity shapes us, and it shapes our characters, so when Sal was put in this awful position, I needed to give him the chance to react and grow.  Ultimately I feel you all will be pleased with the final product.

I’m still impatient.  I hate the idea of delays.  I’m not done with Caught, I haven’t started Sojourn in Despair, and I’m stuck half-way through the discovery draft of Images of Truth.  When you’re an accomplishment driven individual, a bunch of half-finished projects is pretty much hell.  The way I get through this is to remember how much I hate poorly done projects.  I’m crafting the best book I can, and I’ll release it as soon as possible.  You deserve that much.

So I’ll keep you in the loop as I finish revisions.  I have a bit more to do with artwork before I can begin the publishing process.   Until then, as always…

Thanks for reading

Matt