A lesson in compassion

After the manuscript assessment, I cut my 60,000 word draft to 25,000, and have since built it back up to 40,000, with a pretty good idea where the rest is going to come in. Before I go any further though, I have made a drastic decision:

I’m going to change it from first person to third person.

This is a painful exercise and one I have been avoiding for a long time. I did the same with A Perilous Margin but at a much earlier stage. First person is a great way to get a feel for a character at the beginning when you’re unsure who they really are, but after a while it can feel like it is holding the book back. There are fewer angles, and, honestly, the main character can start to seem really annoying because they are always there.

After switching the first chapter, I have come to a new realisation.. When writing in first person, the character is judging themselves, and those judgments can be harsh. I’m not sure how many people in the world really like themselves, but writing in first person makes all those little personal criticisms tangible, like they are facts rather than opinions. Switching to third person, all of a sudden the narrator sounds mean for judging the main character like that, even though when the character was judging herself it seemed perfectly normal. All of a sudden I need to add compassion and understanding to what is happening.

I wanted to give this woman a hug because her harsh inner monologue seemed perfectly normal, yet when it was no longer inner it was unimaginably cruel.

Why are we so much less forgiving of ourselves than we are of others?

A test then, next time you think you have acted badly, or are generally unhappy with who you are. Write down something you did, including how you felt about it, and then switch it to third person. It is truly astounding.

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Verdict

I know everyone has been eagerly wondering what the result of the manuscript assessment was. As I mentioned last time, I had a long wait. When the wait was over, my overwhelming thought was: oh yes, I thought so.

She liked my writing style. She thought it was accessible. She thought the characters were multi-dimensional and their relationships believable. All this is good.

She also thought at least a third of the plot was unnecessary, and that huge areas were missing. She said it was great that she cared about the characters and what was happening to them. But she sounded frustrated that she didn’t know more about why it was happening to them.

It is very similar to the feedback I first got on A Perilous MarginPlot, I have come to accept, is my Achilles heel.

Which sounds ridiculous, as it is a pretty fundamental thing for writing novels. That, I think, is the problem. For years I have thought of myself practising writing, not writing novels. But writing 13,000 well well-crafted sentences does not make a novel. It makes a whole bunch of pleasant sentences and a very frustrated reader.

It is easy for people who don’t read genre fiction to scoff about plot. If it’s not a thriller or a romance, does it even have a plot? Many books feel like simple, realistic stories about simple, realistic people. No serial killers, no longing gazes over candlelight. When a novel feels real it often feels plotless because it is so like our lives, and our lives certainly don’t have a plot. That is what the best writers do. It may be disguised among ordinary actions but if it’s not there at all then you really do just have a bunch of people who kind of like each other sitting around. It is painfully obvious, and it doesn’t get published.

So I am embarking on a new learning chapter. Since I can afford neither a degree in creative writing, nor a proper online writing course, I am doing the next best thing. Reading books about plot. I will teach myself, because whatever instinct or natural talent I may have clearly does not extend to understanding things like tension, or pacing, or narrative arcs. And if I’m going to write about a bunch of people sitting around, I’d like to at least know why they are sitting around in that particular spot on that particular day.

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Words to live by