Tips & Pitfalls to Writing in First Person – First Page Critique: Organization K

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Today we have the first 400 words of a novel entitled ORGANIZATION K. With it written in first person, I wanted to talk about using first person – benefits and dangers – as well as give our brave author feedback. My comments will be on the flip side. Enjoy!

***

Insane or not, I refused to let Victor assassinate me without a fight.

Exaggerating my daze, I meandered toward the locked exit of Bienveillance Hospital’s Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy. If someone opened the door carelessly, I’d flee. My pale, youthful skin crawled, and I scratched my stubbly cheeks. I was nearsighted and had discarded my glasses, so my surroundings appeared blurry. As I passed a couple staff members in white uniforms and neared possible freedom, blood pounded behind my ears.

An olive-skinned female orderly intercepted me. “Breakfast time, Max,” she said in German with a Turkish accent. She pointed over my shoulder and tapped her foot.

I tugged on my bleached-blond hair’s jagged ends. “Oh joy.”

My former best friend, Victor, might reenter the recuperation prison to murder me. He’d once failed to kill me there. Given my lingering madness, the personnel would disbelieve my claim. Besides, in my disgrace, maybe I deserved to die.

Clenching my teeth, I plodded into a corner of the main common room. The space’s pastel green paint, which matched my ward outfit, reminded me of vomit. Outside the lofty windows, October 2001 fog obscured the Berlin Television Tower. On clearer days, the landmark from ex-East Berlin resembled a giant lance impaling a cratered moon. As an earlier East German, an Ossi, Germany’s tallest structure inspired me to surpass my rivals.

A boyish patient with a fair complexion draped a blanket over his shoulders. Wordlessly, he wandered around the roomy area in sandals and hugged people. He approached me.

My body stiffened, and I crossed my arms. “Go easy on me, man.”

The stranger embraced me. His obliviousness to his bleak position repulsed me. Like pins and needles accompanied a hand waking from sleep, regaining sanity hurt, but the pain came with healing. He released me and strolled away.

At long tables, many fellow sufferers clanked their tableware, grating my ears. The reek of greasy food and disinfectant seeped through the air. My stomach churned.

I rushed into my spartan room and sprawled on the bed or paced on the floor. Zoned out, I stood facing the murky outdoors. The door opened behind me. Someone thumped their boots toward me and stopped. As I turned around, my spine tingled.

Victor waved at me, grinning. “Hey, Mega Max, how the hell are you?” he shouted in German with a slight Californian accent.

I swallowed hard.

***

FEEDBACK & TIPS

This anonymous entry has an intriguing premise of a man confined in a mental hospital with an assassin out to get him, but the way it’s written, it made me wonder if I could suggest ways to make it more effective to draw the reader in. The author is counting on the reader to be curious, but are there other nuances the author could add that would intrigue the reader more?

Tips to Writing in First Person

1.) Start with action – Instead of being in the head of a character as they passively begin a story, have them DO SOMETHING. Is this character really in action? He’s stumbling through a ward and on alert, but it’s more like he’s taking inventory of the setting for the reader to “see it.” The action is TELLING. We’re being told about Victor wanting to kill him. If he’s purely delusional, the first line feels like a cheat to the reader. By the second line, any tension or intrigue the reader might’ve felt is gone when the action goes nowhere.

It might be more effective if Max is agitated and feeling the effects of an unexplained drug, attempting an actual escape from an unknown location. Leave the reader wondering – escape from where? The reader can wonder if he’s a captive, a good guy or bad. Give the reader something to care about with his situation.

2.) Make the reader care – Since this is the start of the story, I know nothing about Max. Yes, he is in a precarious position and vulnerable with an assassin after him, but why should a reader care about him at this early stage? Has the author given enough to get the reader engaged? Rather than focusing on describing the setting of the hospital through Max’s head, why not target his mental state and show the reader how he is vulnerable. Make the reader feel like THEY are held captive with him. I don’t know where this story is going, but I don’t feel enough empathy for Max because of the author’s choice to keep the story superficial.

3.) Show don’t tell – As I mentioned, Max is telling us what he fears. He’s not showing us enough of his emotional state or his vulnerability. He’s too in control and the threat doesn’t seem real – especially since he is locked up in a mental hospital. I’m not buying his fear. The author hasn’t done enough to make me feel it. Since I don’t know the rest of the story, it’s hard to suggest how to rewrite this intro, but the author should make the reader feel the threat and not just tell it.

There are many ways the author TELLS through Max, but below are specific examples:

  • Insane or not, I refused to let Victor assassinate me without a fight.
  • If someone opened the door carelessly, I’d flee.
  • My former best friend, Victor, might reenter the recuperation prison to murder me. He’d once failed to kill me there.
  • Given my lingering madness, the personnel would disbelieve my claim.

4.) Make your character’s voice stand out – It’s a challenge to cram a great deal into 400 words, but why squander the opportunity with generic? I’m assuming Max is the main character. When he enters the scene, make him show why he has earned the storytelling role. Give him an attitude about what he sees and let the reader in on it. Give him color and make him memorable. Think about how movies portray main characters when they first walk into the scene. In the first minutes of Pirates of the Caribbean, Captain Sparrow makes a splash for moviegoers. That intro defines him for the rest of the film. Shouldn’t that be how books are written? It takes thought and planning on how to do this effectively.

Make each word count on what he says? Does he have an accent or a unique way of speaking? How does he express himself? The author controls ALL of this. Is Max a chameleon in appearance? Does he have skills that would make it hard to confine him in a hospital or anywhere? Is he charming or funny and can he talk himself out of any situation? If he’s a cynic, why not infuse his surly, sarcastic nature into his dialogue? Less internal thoughts, more dialogue with another character to set up a mystery?

5.) Use your character’s self-deception as an unreliable narrator to manipulate the reader into your mystery. How much are they delusional or unreliable? Is their self-deception in small ways or is the character completely unaware of the situation. With first person, the author has a unique perspective for plot twists and misdirection. Be patient and savor the moment to add mystery and intrigue.

DANGERS OF USING FIRST PERSON

First person is fun to write. It is very intimate if the author stays in the head of the character. The insights into the nature of the protagonist are alluring for an author. Even if you use third person for your book, it can be a great exercise in getting to know your character by writing a scene in first person to get a feel for their personality. But first person also has dangers. Here are a few:

1.) The reader is trapped inside the head of one character. Even if you mix the POV between first and third in your book, the first person character generally dominates the story. It could be a major turnoff for the reader if the character weren’t sympathetic or compelling.

2.) Don’t make the first person voice about YOU. Some authors have trouble distinguishing between their character and themselves. It can be limiting. It’s much more interesting if you don’t limit your imagination.

3.) Overuse of “I” & filtered words – In first person, it is important not to overuse the tedious sentence beginning with “I.” This leads to filtered words and sentences that diffuse the action through the character. It distances the reader from the action. For example:

Don’t:

I watched an angry crowd of protesters marching down the street.

Do:

The angry crowd of protesters marched down the street.

4.) Too much introspection can lead to telling and backstory dumps. Rambling internal thoughts can be boring, page after page. Give glimpses inside your character for insight or plot twists but get your character into the action with their attitude and color.

5.) First Person can be limiting plot-wise, especially if you only use first POV for the whole book. The plot is only seen through one set of eyes. It takes planning to make a plot work.

SPECIFIC FEEDBACK ON SUBMISSION

1.) In general, I found the action uneven and a bit jumbled. Max goes quickly from wandering the ward, into a large day room until we make a leap to a dining room situation until there’s another quick shift into his room. It’s as if the author wrote a quick draft and forgot to fill in details. The author is more interested in describing the hospital than in setting up Max’s story. There’s no real action. The story is taking place in Max’s head by telling.

Here are some sentences where the scene transition was most confusing and had me re-reading. There’s no transition between spaces and the leap from dining hall to private room is too noticeable.

At long tables, many fellow sufferers clanked their tableware, grating my ears. The reek of greasy food and disinfectant seeped through the air. My stomach churned.

I rushed into my spartan room and sprawled on the bed or paced on the floor. Zoned out, I stood facing the murky outdoors.

2.) The author chose first person POV but certain passages & word choices didn’t feel like an internal thought. In an internal thought, Max would feel his skin crawl. He wouldn’t picture his skin as pale and youthful. He might tug at his hair, but not describe the bleached color and jagged ends, as if he were seeing from outside his body.

I’ve highlighted these examples below:

  • My pale, youthful skin crawled, and I scratched my stubbly cheeks.
  • I tugged on my bleached-blond hair’s jagged ends. “Oh joy.”

3.) In the sixth paragraph, the author diffuses the action with a diversion from Max as he looks out a window and sees a historical site. It’s brief, but coupled with all the other distractions, this is a passage that could’ve waited for later in the story.

On clearer days, the landmark from ex-East Berlin resembled a giant lance impaling a cratered moon. As an earlier East German, an Ossi, Germany’s tallest structure inspired me to surpass my rivals.

4.) Californian Accent? At the end, Victor comes into Max’s room and speaks in German with an accent. I may have to defer to others on what a California accent is. I come from Texas and know about a distinctive accent, but I wasn’t aware that California had a unique one. Are we talking surfer dude lingo? This reads as more author intrusion. The author is cutting corners to introduce Victor and let readers know he’s not a local.

SUMMARY

I didn’t make line by line corrections. I wanted the author to reevaluate their introduction by considering my questions for Max and rethinking how this story begins. Give Max more action and give him a distinctive attitude for his voice. Eliminate the TELLING and add depth to this introduction with elements of mystery. I’m pretty sure the author has something more in mind for a plot to fill a book, but this excerpt doesn’t leave me wanting more. Reading into the piece, I would imagine Victor is someone Max knows well. Hence, the nickname Mega Max. That would completely deflate any intended tension written into this intro. I would rather the author give us something real to wonder about. Thoughts?

FOR DISCUSSION

I would appreciate your feedback. I’m sure the author would love more voices weighing in, but besides line edits, let’s try something a little different. Let’s keep the basic premise the same, that Max is in a mental hospital and he fears Victor will kill him.

1.) How would you rewrite Max’s actions? What would you have him do? Think out of the box. Let’s brainstorm as a writing exercise.

2.) How would you make Max unique and give him more character and a more memorable voice?

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

16 thoughts on “Tips & Pitfalls to Writing in First Person – First Page Critique: Organization K

  1. I like a good First Person POV. As Jordan suggests, attitude (voice) is the key. Unique, compelling. Really go for it in the first draft. You can always scale things down a bit if you need to.

  2. I took that first line to be Max suggesting that even if he was considered sane or not, he wouldn’t let Victor kill him, as you suggested. It’s not only telling but it deflates any mystery on whether Max is in a mental hospital without cause. Thanks for your comments, Jim.

        • I was tripped up by “Californian accent” also. I lived in LA for about eight years back in the seventies. From what I remember, there isn’t a distinctive accent, but I do remember a certain lingo. Like your comment “surfer dude”. Most regions have their own lingo, I suspect. For example, this one from the PNW: “the mountain’s out today.” Where else do you hear that? 🙂

            • There is a slight California accent (“the California vowel shift”), but as someone who speaks German and who lived in California for 20 years, I’m having a hard time seeing/imagining it in the author’s text above. I stumble on that line, trying to analyze it, which slows me down. Making it “American” would be easier although I don’t know what the author has in mind down the road.

              • “American” would work well enough for an intro. Not everything needs to be answered on the first page or so. Thanks, Harald.

  3. Brave author, the situation and setting are intriguing with lots of potential. I agree with most of Jordan’s comments but have a little different take on the description of the TV tower.

    To me, the best line was “a giant lance impaling a cratered moon” and Max’s observation that, as a former east Berliner, the landmark had inspired him to surpass his rivals.

    Could that be the reason for his current incarceration in a psych hospital and why Victor wants to kill him? If so, I suggest you play up those elements. Something like:

    The windows of the recuperation prison looked out on the Berlin Television Tower, a giant lance impaling a cratered moon. The tallest structure in Germany had once inspired me, as a former East Berliner, an Ossi, to surpass my rivals. Instead, those ambitions led to my incarceration here in the Bienveillance Hospital’s Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy.

    I waited for someone–anyone–to open a locked door so I could flee. Victor was coming. He used to be my best friend. Now he intended to assassinate me.

  4. Thank you, Brave Author, for sharing your first page.

    Jordan posed some good questions. Let’s see . . .

    1. I would rewrite Max’s actions to include taking steps to escape. (Or whatever Max’s goal is because I’m not sure Max’s goal for this scene is clear.) Max could swipe a key, sharpen a spoon handle to use as a weapon, stuff like that. I’d also take out that he “deserved to die” if his goal is to survive, rebuild his life, make amends, take revenge, or something along those lines.

    2. I’d pepper Max’s internal and regular dialogue with vocabulary from his background. If Max is also from California, maybe he thinks a lot about the “gnarly dude” in the security uniform or how the elderly nurse is slower than “an LA freeway during rush hour.” If Max was a chemist before he had a breakdown, maybe he speaks some science lingo when talking about mental disease.

    Good luck, Brave Author, on your continued writing journey.

    • Thanks for playing along, Priscilla. Like you, I wanted Max to actually show his intention to escape. He could sweet talk a nurse in order to swipe her keys, giving Max more dialogue.

      If Max is drugged, I’m not sure how witty he could be under the influence in my scenario, but something more needs to happen. Thanks, Priscilla.

  5. The first line to this entry is great: Insane or not, I refused to let Victor assassinate me without a fight.
    I wish the author had stuck to that subject. The author could have developed and contrasted the two characters. It would be wonderful to follow the tension build between the two. Is it real or imaged?
    I’m currently reading Jennifer Hillier’s new novel “Jar of Hearts”. It’s a good example of how to start a horror or weird novel. Actually, it knocked my socks off.
    Author, keep writing, keep reading, this writer business ain’t easy.

  6. Sorry to be responding so late in the day.

    I like your advice to start with action. Whether it’s running pell-mell (rhymes with hell) to the barrage shelter on a FOB in Afghanistan, or dabbing the baby’s nose with tissue just as she sneezes, action is so much better than philosophizing or psychologizing.

    (I was a psychology major until I discovered that psychology is a lot like philosophy–you can make it mean anything you want and no one can prove you wrong. I had two junior years because I changed majors.)

    • Ha! Two junior years. Thanks for your memorable comment, Jim. I like your diverse thoughts on what action can mean. Consistent action, sustained, with purpose.

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