Every writer knows the importance of reading and the impact it has on our own skills. Because I write literary fiction and poetry, I gravitate towards the same in my reading choices. However, I’ve discovered that it’s critical to pay attention to what is going on in life at the moment and plunge into different genres to achieve some sort of balance.
Here’s an example. A few years ago, I began to read the novel “Still Alice,” by Lisa Genova. Beautifully written and intense, it’s the fictional story of a brilliant woman’s descent into dementia. The reading group I attend here in the desert was to discuss it at its next meeting. However,I knew I didn’t have the psychic energy to continue. Although I had worked with dementia my entire nursing career and have,myself, written a flash fiction piece from the first person point of view of a woman with dementia, I was at the time immersed in dealing with a loved one with Alzheimer’s–my now 93-year-old mother. I simply couldn’t bear the sadness.
Since then, I have read the book two times; I took it to my Reno book club and led the discussion. I recommend it to many since it puts you in the mind of the person who has dementia as she progresses through the disease. (The author is a neuroscientist with keen insight into the subject.)
Now I enjoy reading the classics,trying to uncover what it is that makes them so timeless. In between, I’ll download something mindless–a good mystery or, rarely, a romance. It’s important to read great writing to enhance our own skills, but even when it’s less than stellar–isn’t it fun to critique?
One of the downsides of writing has, indeed, become the tendency to evaluate writing instead of simply enjoying the experience. But, read on, take note of style winners and losers and learn!
Writers’ Fourth Wednesday is hosted by Victoria from January through October. Tomorrow Victoria’s Fourth Wednesday writers’ prompt will post at 12:01 a.m. PST. Please join us. Mister Linky will remain open for seventy-two hours so that you can link your response to this blog. Victoria and Jamie will read and comment and we hope you will read one-anothers’ work as well, comment and encourage.
Those of us who write fiction or poetry often struggle in choosing the most appropriate person for our narrator. I chose the first person when I began the initial draft of my first novel. A few years later, when the first draft was all but completed, an agent at a writer’s conference told me that agents and publishers no longer wanted first person, that I would get nowhere with it. Being a naive newbie, I spent a year or more changing it to third person, and then began the arduous task of submission. The feedback I got with my many rejection slips was that the protagonist lacked feeling, was not sympathetic. One morning I woke up with the keen realization that I needed to change it back to first person in order to allow the reader a more intimate and emotional connection with my protagonist. So, one again, I revised. These shifts of person probably cost me three years…perhaps more, because in the meantime I put it aside and wrote another novel in first draft.
My story is to remind us all of the importance of making a careful choice when it comes to first, second or third person. As you know, second person point of view uses the pronoun “you” and its variants to address the protagonist, the reader or a specific person or object. First person point of view allows intimate insight into the mind and emotion of the protagonist but limits the same for secondary and minor characters. It also confines the writer to a specific time and place. Third person, on the other hand, presents the story from the writer’s point of view, allowing her or him to comment on the story and giving omniscience into all the players. A downside is that it restrains the reader from a deeper emotional connection with the protagonist whose reactions always seem just a bit beyond our reach
As for second person point of view in fiction, there are authors such as William Faulkner who may include short sections or chapters in the second person, but I can’t remember reading an entire novel in this voice, although I suspect it has been done. A few years back, an MFA student in my writing critique group wrote quite effective short stories in the second person. Her stories gave me the impression, as expected, that she was speaking directly to me and, at times, instructing me.
It is less rare to encounter poetry in the second person. As poets, we love to address our “audience,” celebrity figures, other poets or teachers who have an influence on us, people we love (or hate), God, mythological figures, people from our past. Consider this poem by the well-known 17th Century poet, Robert Herrick.
TO THE VIRGINS, TO MAKE MUCH OF TIME
GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying :
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer ;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may go marry :
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry.
– Robert Herrick
The poem is written in the imperative form, instructive to the reader or listener. I read it recently under the title “To Young Virgins,” which gives a sense of his intended audience, though his underlying message applies to everyone, reminding us that time passes quickly. Another example, this one by Walt Whitman, addresses a city.
CITY OF ORGIES
CITY of my walks and joys!
City whom that I have lived and sung there will one day make you illustrious,
Not the pageants of you–not your shifting tableaux, your spectacles, repay me,
Not the interminable rows of your houses, nor the ships at the wharves,
Nor the processions in the streets, nor the bright windows with goods in them,
Nor to converse with learn’d persons, or bear my share in the soiree or feast;
Not those, but as I pass O Manhattan, your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love,
Offering response to my own–these repay me,
Lovers, continual lovers, only repay me.
– Walt Whitman (from the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, it became City of Orgies in the 1867 edition)
And so, for March’s prompt, I invite you to write a poem, flash fiction or even a paragraph in the second person. Many of you do this routinely, so I challenge (not confine) you to a more specific prompt. Consider addressing: • Your favorite poet, one who has influenced your own writing; • A celebrity you would invite to dinner if you had a choice; • An inanimate object; • An entity such as time, a holiday, an event from history; • Rewriting one of your own poems from 1st or 3rd person into second. If you would like to participate in the community opportunity: • Write your poem or prose and post it on your blog or website; • Access Mr. Linky at the bottom of this post and add your name and the direct URL to your submission; • Enjoy your time writing and reading poetry. I will look forward to reading those who drop by. And if you would rather not be a part of the public forum, I hope you’ll try anyway. This is not a contest; it’s only to tickle your muse!
Please share YOUR work in response to the prompt by clicking on the Mister Linky sign (below in green) and then enter your name and paste in the URL to your post. Victoria will visit and comment and so will Jamie Dedes. We hope you’ll also visit one another to read, comment and encourage. Thank you!
Since the first writing conference I attended (2004, I believe) I have been involved in writing critique groups. It was for that conference that my work was first accepted for work-shopping and I was sure that I had arrived. A published author led the two-day process and there were about nine of us who submitted work to the other members of the group for critique. It became a turning point for me as a writer. I came to accept the fact that my novel was not quite as brilliant as I perceived it to be.
A few of us from that group went on to meet on a regular basis. Since then I’ve participated in several other critique groups. Here are a few things I’ve learned that have been helpful (in my opinion and from my hands-on experience).
Don’t submit your work before you’ve finished the first draft. It is important for you to have a clear idea of your story line before opening it to critique.
As a group, decide on guidelines at your first meeting. How many members will you have? Will you submit your writing before the meeting? Will you read work aloud at the meeting? How many manuscripts/how many pages will you discuss?
Be sure to balance your positive and negative feedback. Your goal is to build up one another, not destroy. One time a fellow-writer told me, “I would never read this novel.” That discouraged me to the point that I gave up working on it for a few months until I figured out that she was trying to tell me that the prologue was a turn-off.
Give specific advice. For example, instead of saying “This moves too slowly,” try something like “Consider using active verbs instead of passive voice,” or “That long sentence drags down the narrative–maybe if you wrote that paragraph in a few clipped phrases it would be more suspenseful.” Avoid general statements such as, “That just doesn’t work.”
Learn to listen to suggestions without trying to defend yourself. One group that I have been a part of had set the rule of “silence” until all critiques had been given. But take good notes while you listen. I bring a copy of my manuscript and jot down helpful advice in the columns.
Understand the differences between genres. If you write literary fiction, for example, don’t expect the same complexity of characters from your friend who writes sci-fi. And visa versa.
Don’t revise immediately after your meeting, except for grammatical and spelling errors. Definitely do not make significant plot changes. Remember, your story is YOUR story.
At the same time, be open to suggestion. My writing has been much enriched by plot twists or questions posed by members of my critique groups. Ask clarifying questions if needed.
There is a time for critique and a time to write. Understand what works best for you and realize that your needs change at different points in the writing process.
And finally, be grateful to your fellow writers. It was through this process that I have met some of my dearest friends. Don’t forget to celebrate one another’s successes!
Victoria hosts Writers’ Fourth Wednesday – a challenge to writers and poets – from January through October each year. The event always posts at 7 p.m. PST. The next Writers’ Fourth Wednesday is scheduled for February 26. Please join us.