How to Get Out of Your Own Way When Writing

Elizabeth KnoxElizabeth Knox has written ten novels, three novellas, a book of essays, and won the prestigious Printz AwardHer new novel, Mortal Fire, follows 16-year-old Canny Mochrie, who has one magical summer vacation.

Elizabeth was nice enough to stop by Figment to chat with us about writing strategy, the advantages of writing in third-person, and how to let go and enjoy the writing experience! It’s thrilling to get advice from such an accomplished writer. Check it out!

I’m not going to give you a list of writing tips. There are plenty of good lists out there. What I’ll do is talk a little about three things.

The first is a strategy for beginning writers, and especially teen writers. Something to get you past the sense that writing a story – rather than just telling it – is a radically different activity, for which you need to find a special voice. Next I’ll say a bit about point of view. And lastly I’ll offer you the same advice I offer to writers of all ages, and at all stages.

Beginning writers tend to be people who read a great deal, and love books. (And occasionally those with the pressure of a particular story inside them, something very close to their hearts that needs to be told.) This advice is more for the first group, who are more likely to have trouble in setting out due to a feeling that their writing has to sound a certain way – like writing, and like the writing they like.

The books you love and admire can help you write your book. But it will be much easier to do if you’ve read a lot of different books. Then you’ll be better able to see that stories have many kinds of voices, and that each book has its own best way it wants to be told.  So – that’s why it is good for writers, and especially young writers, to read deeply and widely. (Or course I think it is good for everyone. I think reading fiction is the best empathy training there is. And that empathy makes us better people. And that we never stop needing to grow.)

As a young person I read widely. And, when it came to my own writing, I began by trying to imitate the style of writers I loved. Writers with highly distinctive styles, like Ray Bradbury or Ursula Le Guin. I had to get over that — the mimicking stage, and I did quite quickly because I wasn’t a very good mimic.

It’s very tricky to use someone else’s voice to tell your own story. And – besides – you already have your own voice. You can hear your voice every time you are describing something that happened to you, some encounter, and you say something like this:

He’s waiting for me at the corner and he’s like, what did you do to your hair? And I’m all, You hate it! And he’s like, I wouldn’t say “hate.”

Imagine removing all the everyday, shorthand storytelling and replacing that with what you find in books.

Jake was waiting for me at the corner. “What have you done to your hair?”

       “You hate it.”

       “I wouldn’t say, ‘hate’, Ellie.”

We all know how to tell stories, because we do it all the time. And to get them down in writing sometimes all you have to do to start is change the frame from casual and verbal to what you find in the prose of the books you read. It’s a trick, but it can work well.

I prefer reading, and writing, in the third person – “he walked along the shore,” rather than the first person, “I walked along the shore.” Many novice writers start writing in the first person. There are some very good reasons for that. For a start, we’re all used to telling stories with ourselves at their centers. Also, using a first-person voice can be a kind of playacting. They narrator is a “not-you” you’re pretending to be.

Why I like the third person is because it’s very flexible, particularly in the way it’s able to handle time in a story. But the handling of time in the third person is a subject for a longer blog post.

Something the third person does that you are going to want to do is to make it far easier to show your character from the outside. I get very impatient with first-person books that want to describe their characters by having them look at themselves in mirrors! Or, worse, there’s the description by humble-brag. For example:

I hate the way my hair never stays confined to its clips, but bursts out, a cloud of shameful, brilliant red, so unlike the hair of every other girl in my school.

Yuck.

Or:

I crossed the room to the window, my robe rippling against all the curves of my body.

Hmmmm. If she’s alone in the room then she’s being very lascivious about herself.

If you change the second example to the third person you’re still going to have to add someone else in the room for the passage to make any sense. And whoever that someone is, they become the story.

She slipped from between her warm sheets and went to the window. The cool breeze pushed her robe against her body, and the bedchamber guard, who had been at his post all night, moved his eyes to watch her, although for him to pay any attention to anything apart from black-clad assassins and choking fits was strictly disallowed, and punishable by death.

See – story.

The third person simply gives the story more places to go.

My final bit of advice is for all writers. It’s something I remind myself of all the time. The great joy of writing – and one that communicates itself to readers as enjoyment – is of letting go. Being someone else, somewhere else. If you sink yourself into your invention, and let go of your own life and judgment, then the other thing will kick in, the thing that is there for all would-be writers when they go off the grid of themselves, and onto a kind of emergency power supply – the judgment of the story, and the truth of the story, and the life of the story.

7 thoughts on “How to Get Out of Your Own Way When Writing

  1. I prefer first person because it can really help with character development. And showing, not telling — for example, Character A might forget to use commas when he’s excited or he speaks in very wordy terms when he’s nervous, so once my readers get used to that I can convey his moods completely through his narration. As he matures through the story I can change his ‘voice’ to show the person he’s changed into.

    To be honest, I’d probably write all in third person (my first preferred ground) if I’d never discovered the Internet. On Figment message boards I’ve noticed how little things about the way people type can convey bits about their personalities and alter our perceptions of them. Writing a first person story is like big-time trolling general/random. You might adapt your typing style to disguise yourself or make yourself into a character. (No, I haven’t trolled like this, but I’ve figured how it’s done.)

    The trick is to pick a character whose appearance your readers will care a little less about. Most of my protags are males significantly younger than the other characters with very strong personalities.

  2. I enjoy both third and first person. You’re right about how third person makes it easier to describe your main character, but first person seems a lot more personal to me, in that you really get inside their heads. For example, the Maximum Ride books could never be written in third person.

    • I think the Maximum Ride stories could have been written in the Third Person, but not by JP. It would probably have to have strayed too far from his style for him to write it correctly.

  3. It all falls for the character. Sometimes you need that first person in order to know the story and know the reasons why the characters do what they do. Most contemporary novels subside in this. It would be a completely and less entertaining experience if you read “The Perks of being a Wallflower” or “Okay for Now” in third person. The reason why I love those stories, especially Okay for Now because the character is able to come to life more so than a third person. I love third person narratives, but really it depends on your character and their personality.

  4. Thank you for some great advice.

    When writing my default is usually to write in first person. But I’m trying to get out of that because I’ve realised that I prefer to read stories written in third person.

    Your last bit of your advice is something I need to take on board. Sometimes I find myself changing characters because I don’t like them. But then I’ll look back and realise that I don’t like the story anymore.

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