I’ve heard everything from, “First person doesn’t sell,” to, “More than two POVs, and you’re looking at the kiss of death from editors.” Oh, and there’s the dreaded present tense that is too immediate and intimate, and no one will ever read it because it’s too uncomfortable.
Well, guess what! All three books in my Class Reunion series with Abingdon Press – Pretty Is as Pretty Does (June 2013), Bless Her Heart (August 2013), and Tickled Pink (September 2013)- are written in multiple first person present tense. What was I thinking?
Do I want people to read these books? You bet I do.
Then why did I write this series using devices that so many people dislike so intensely? Because they work for these stories.
I was originally going to write this series in the traditional third person past tense, but it felt too distant for the characters in these books. They needed to be more up-close and personal, and they practically demanded to have readers right there in the scenes with them.
Most of my writing life I’ve gone by the rules. I would go to writing workshops and take judicious notes, and then I’d go back home and write my stories using all the things I’d learned from editors and more advanced writers. It obviously worked for me because I’ve sold more than 30 books while following conventional rules.
And then Priscilla, Laura, Tim, Trudy, and Celeste came along and showed me how these rules don’t work for them. In fact, most rules don’t work for any of these characters, so it seemed fitting to do things in an unorthodox manner.
Priscilla’s valedictorian and “Most Likely to Succeed” titles in high school seem to conflict with her desire to drop out of college to become a hairdresser. Laura’s teetotaler lifestyle makes her an odd match for her lush of a husband who always has a beer in his hand. Beauty supply salesman Tim discovers that an extensive vocabulary doesn’t necessarily show a person’s IQ. Former beauty queen Trudy has to learn to value herself beneath her creamy complexion and once-perfect figure. Celeste’s bony elbows, bushy eyebrows, and stringy hair aren’t quite so bad after she gets a decent haircut, stands up straight, and learns to pluck and groom.
The weight of all the changes in these stories would have snapped the rules right in half. By doing things a bit differently, I was able to maneuver the framework to fit the stories and people in them.
That said, I still think think rules are good because they give us a structure for most of our stories. Without guidelines, we’d wind up with messy works that go nowhere and a bunch of frustrated editors who would have to make sense of our confusing submissions. New writers, in particular, need to learn what works for most readers so they have an advantage out of the starting gate. Even if they choose not to follow these rules, even in the beginning, knowing them makes breaking them more intentional. The rules should only be broken when that’s the only way to tell the story in the most believable way.
That’s the key to what I’ve done. I wrote Pretty Is as Pretty Does, Bless Her Heart, and Tickled Pink with intentional devices designed to provide immediacy and pull the reader uncomfortably close to the characters’ lives. I wanted readers to feel every little pain, including Laura’s annoyance when she caught her son trying to scoop his sister’s goldfish out of the toilet and later having to deal with her husband’s drinking. Knowing what Trudy goes through in spite of her beauty lets readers in on the secret of what really motivates her. And readers need to have that closeness to understand the relationship between Priscilla and her mom…and Priscilla and Tim…and Priscilla and her business.
We writers have created quite a few rules that editors may or may not agree with. In addition to the POV and past vs. present tense issue, we talk about floating or flying body parts, overuse of dialogue tags, never turning off a light at the end of a chapter, etc. In most cases, these rules provide a better read and give the writer the tools to keep readers turning pages and buying future books.
In my Class Reunion series, you’ll see all of the above. However, I do think that when I mention someone rolling her eyes, you’ll know that they’re not literally rolling across the floor based on the context of the phrase. And when I have someone throwing up her hands in frustration, you’ll assume that these hands are still attached to her arms. I think most readers are intelligent people who understand that the act of eyes popping out of a character’s head indicates surprise rather than a medical condition.
Even though I broke a few of the conventional rules for the commercial fiction market, I still recommend knowing them and following as many as possible when starting out to prevent an editor from tossing your submission into the “reject” pile. Go to workshops, take notes, and follow the advice from editors and skilled authors who have proven themselves in the industry. Once you establish yourself, gain a few readers, show editors you know the difference between first and third person, and find creative ways to show scenes and emotions through a single POV, you can stretch and try new things. Intentionally.
Oh, another thing you’ll want is the blessing of your editor who needs to be on board with your lack of convention. Fortunately, I was blessed with an editor who not only accepted it she encouraged it. Thanks, Ramona Richards!
Bio: Debby Mayne has published more than 30 books and novellas, 400 print short stories and articles, 1,000 web articles, and dozens of devotions for women. She has worked as managing editor of a national health magazine, product information writer for HSN, and creative writing instructor for Long Ridge Writers Group. She also judges the Writers Digest Annual Competition, Short-Short Contest, and Self-Published Book Competition. Three of Debby’s books have been top ten favorites by the Heartsong Presents book club. Love Finds You in Treasure Island, Florida received 4-1/2 stars and a Top Pick from Romantic Times Magazine in July 2009.
Pretty is as Pretty Does
Class Reunion Series Book 1
Priscilla Slater goes to her ten-year high school reunion with equal parts dread and eager anticipation. Even though she's a successful owner of a chain of hair salons and no longer has the mousy brown hair, crooked teeth, and discount-store wardrobe, she still feels like the ugly duckling. But when she arrives at the reunion, Priscilla soon realizes that her old classmates aren't exactly as she remembers them. With humor and a just a touch of sassiness, Priscilla finds herself facing her own truth-and she may be surprised at what she discovers.
If you had a reunion coming up next month, what would you do to get ready for it?
Debby has generously offered to giveaway a copy of her latest release. If you would like to be entered in a drawing for Pretty Is as Pretty Does, please mention it in the comments. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition. And be sure to check out the book trailer here.