First Person Time

I finished the first draft of Progeny a few months back. It’s been out there with my reader friends. Several have gotten back to me with¬†encouragement¬†and constructive feedback. A nice combination of “I liked it!” and “what the hell were you thinking here?” My old friend Tom pointed out some great stuff and once I make those fixes, I’ll post the book for the Kindle, Nook, Smashwords and right here.

On Progeny, I used the third person because… I don’t remember why, actually. I never broke from the main character’s story. Maybe I thought I would splinter off the plot lines as the story went on, but then I didn’t. Truth is, I prefer the first person. So when I started this next project, it’s a little crazy that I didn’t think of going first person right of the bat. Why? Not sure.

I was thinking of ways to open the next project and I turned to some of my favorite books for inspiration (aka theft). Count Zero is third person, but has multiple threads. Altered Carbon is first person. Lee Childs’ first Reacher novel, Killing Floor, is in the first person, but the rest of the Reacher books I’ve read (up through book 4, I think) are all third person. Weird to switch it up, but I guess he decided he wanted the reader to know what was happening to people in the story besides Reacher. Mankell’s Faceless Killers is third person, but feels like a first person narrative. You get the sense you’re feeling what Wallender feels even if you never hear his inner thoughts. It’s great writing, and way out of my league.

One of my problems with Progeny is how much it felt like a screenplay (as I’ve said many times here). Third person description and action. How many times can you write, “Jim thought” after every time the guy has a thought? Gets old. For the new project (untitled as of right now), I wrote the first chapter in the third person and I struggled with the same problem. Pretty bland storytelling. Dry description and chains of dialog. Just for kicks, I rewrote the chapter again in the first person. It was like a light went on. Actually, it was more like a floodgate opened. The words came easy and the story unfolded more naturally. The story is about a guy who acquires rare objects for the ultra rich. It’s a future where cities have no vehicle traffic and areas are either overcrowded or abandoned. He has just lost his partner and mentor and is making a go of it on his own. He owes money, his friends don’t trust him, and his confidence is shot. He poaches a job from another collector and is soon in over his head. That’s the setup. Seems obvious now, but it took me a while to figure out that it’s a personal story. It centers around this character and not really the events themselves. The story is Creighton’s story, not a sweeping account of the great battles of the Nextor System. I made that up just now. Gold, right? Gold.

There are enough writing advice blogs and twitters out there and I never intended this blog to be anything more than an account of my progress and decisions. But if you’re banging your head against your idea and the word counter is laughing in your face, try a change of narrative voice. Worked for me.

The Next Project

I have put Progeny aside and let it stew. Some folks are checking it out for me and while I’m waiting for some feedback, I’m starting the next book. It’s based on a screenplay that I wrote 15 years ago. I’ve always thought it would be a better book or comic book series than a movie, but I found screenwriting a more comfortable format. I think the bare structure of a screenplay is just how I’ve trained myself to think all these years. Part of that is because I’ve come at writing as a filmmaker, but also because I get impatient when writing. I want to say the guy is in the room and here’s what he said so I can get on to the next plot point instead of providing heavy description of the guy and the room. But that’s movies. A picture is worth a thousand words and I’m leaving out 990 of them. So with this next project, I’m going to relax and write as much as possible to reset the habit in my brain.

Here’s something I realized as I’ve been reading: when I read a book I like, I read slowly and when I read something I don’t like, I skim. I read Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and loved it. It has a few mini tells in the middle that give away the ending (granted, I’m cursed with figuring out the endings of jokes, stories, and movies before most), but it was really well put together and fun to read even when I knew how it was going to end. I read it in two days, but that was because I couldn’t put it down. I caught every word and read my favorite parts twice. Before and since, I read some self-published sci fi that wasn’t strong. The pieces were highly reviewed on Amazon and I thought even if the writing isn’t great, the storytelling or ideas might be interesting. I got impatient with them almost immediately. The description was either pointless, predictable, or both. The stories had unnecessary characters or the main character knew too much without being privy to the information. Worst of all, the ideas were gimmicky and everything hinged on a wafer thin concept.

When I first saw The Matrix, I was floored by how many great ideas were packed into the story. I thought even one small element – like deja vu indicates lag in the matrix – could be its own story. You could harvest dozens of movies, books, comics, or games using that one movie as a source. These three or four self-pubbed ebooks I read prove that you couldn’t and shouldn’t. A small idea with no depth isn’t enough to sustain a novel. As a result, I flew through the pages hoping to find some kernel of awesome to make reading these books worth the effort. And didn’t find any.

So herein lies the rub. I believe Progeny reads the way it does because I was impatient with it. The story didn’t have the substance and depth I wanted as a reader. Since I was reading as I was writing, I literally skimmed the writing. I knew the idea was thin and the best part would be the ending so I cranked past all the development and skipped the meat that can make a simple story great. In other posts, I blamed it on my experience as a screenwriter, but now I realize it’s because the quality of writing and the strength of the idea didn’t satisfy my experience as a reader.

This next project will take much longer. I’m determined to write and enjoy the process of reading as I’m putting the words down. I know you’re supposed to always work to get to the end of the story, but I’ll take the slow road this time.