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?

4+

First Page Critique: The List

 

Image from GoDaddy

 

Hop in, fellow travelers. Today we’re off on a short, shocking car ride with the protagonist of The List. I hope you’ll take a few moments to read my critique, then add your own comments.

The List

Everyone has lists. I might have too many. I could probably be accused of living my life according to lists. There are the usual: a shopping list, a bucket list, ToDo lists, vacation packing list, followup email list, books to read list, etc. I even have a list of lists, so I don’t forget I have a particular list. But the list I’m thinking about right now is my I-More-Than-Hate-You list. This is the list of people that I plan to take with me if I ever cross thatline. You know the one. The line where you no longer give a flying fuck about the consequences, because someone’s gonna die. That list. And today I’m thinking about that list a lot.

For many years there was one name at the top of my list; one piece of shit that would have to go first. But over time he was replaced by other bastards that needed to die and finally fell off the list completely because I didn’t think I would ever see him again; didn’t think anyone would. But there he was. I almost rear-ended the car in front of me doing a double take.

“No fucking way!!” I said out loud and circled the block to get another look.

Junior Moore was standing on the corner opposite the bus station looking like a gawping tourist. The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look; never more than a fuzz on his scalp and wrinkles like scars all over it. His head looked as if the skin were too big for the skull inside; like badly fitted upholstery. He also looked to have only a single eye and I could see that one ear was mostly gone. His alley-cat glare followed me around the corner. He looked right at me. There’s no way he could have recognized me after all these years, but I’m sure the astonished gasp on my face made him wonder.

“Shit!…shit…shit…” I muttered as I sped toward the Duck. Thirsty Thursday with the girls was going to be interesting.

_______________________________________________________

 

Our protagonist’s strong voice gives The List a promising start. It takes a considerable amount of practice to make every word sound like it’s coming from a fully conceived character. This character strides onto the page and–to borrow a title from Joan Rivers–enters talking. Good job, brave author.

Let’s talk a moment about the opening paragraphs. I’ve written similar paragraphs many times, and I imagine other TKZers have as well. It’s a Big Intro With a Side of Throat Clearing. Here, you’ve already got the title explained, so that’s out of the way. And you’ve told us a lot about the character. This is an obsessive person. A disturbed person. A Person Not to be Messed With. (I get a strong, post-1978 Shirley MacLaine vibe.) Plus, we have the added bonus of it setting up what’s ahead. But if we look closely, it’s not really a bonus. It’s an impediment to the action of the story.

The reader doesn’t need to be wrapped in a bubble and delivered to the action. Hook us with the action first, and offer explanations and descriptions at a later time, if at all.

Without the throat-clearing, there’s no need for a transition INTO the action. Such a transition is nearly always awkward. When we finally get to the double take/near-accident, we are yanked out of the protagonist’s spotlight monologue intro and plunged into the action. The storytelling changes completely.

Homework for all of the above: Check out James Scott Bell’s latest blog, and all will be revealed.

One of the written and unwritten rules about settings is that you should never set a scene in an automobile. Usually we see two characters talking to one another, either fighting or giving us exposition. (Ah. The stress is off. We’re in the car, gov. Let’s bring each other up to speed on the investigation.) White space would suffice. Here, you have a mix of exposition and action. Because our protagonist is driving when she sees dreaded Junior, the car is perfectly appropriate for the action. Bravo! Now just eliminate the exposition. (Caveat: If you’re reading this and have been thinking about setting a scene in a car, proceed with caution.)

I like the promise of this page. I’m interested in the character, and want to know exactly what Junior Moore did, when he did it, and how/if he’s going to pay. I would definitely read on!

A few words about word choice, punctuation, and description. (I’m not sure of the sex of this character, though from the last line I’ll guess female. Her age is also unclear. She doesn’t sound like a Millennial or younger. And the fact that she’s got a long list of people on her um, shitlist (couldn’t resist), suggests to me that she’s at least in her forties.

First paragraph: I am seeing the word “list” way too many times, and I want it to go away with the paragraph. Have one of the protagonist’s friends make fun of her lists.

There are four semicolons in the piece. I will mourn with you over the loss, but they have to go. Replace them with periods or commas, as you see fit. Oddly enough, sentence fragments are now considered more acceptable than semicolons in fiction. Crazy, right? So feel free to type: But over time he was replaced by other bastards that needed to die and finally fell off the list completely because I didn’t think I would ever see him again. Didn’t think anyone would. But there he was.

Exclamation points and speaking out loud:

“No fucking way!!” I said out loud and circled the block to get another look.”

While this quote is, indeed, an exclamation, we’re only allowed one exclamation point at the end of a sentence. Exceptions are emails and notes to friends and family, birthday cakes, texts, and anything written in sidewalk chalk.

If we are speaking, it’s redundant to say that we’re doing it out loud. (It’s only in the last couple years that I’ve dropped out loud from my own prose.)

No fucking way!” I shouted, slamming one palm against the steering wheel. I circled the block to get another look.

Junior Moore:

Oh, there’s so much to love about this description of Junior Moore. It’s full of spite and anger and fierce observation. It reminds me again of why I’d like to read more. There are a few tweaks that could tighten it up.

“Junior Moore was standing on the corner opposite the bus station looking like a gawping tourist. The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look; never more than a fuzz on his scalp and wrinkles like scars all over it. His head looked as if the skin were too big for the skull inside; like badly fitted upholstery. He also looked to have only a single eye and I could see that one ear was mostly gone. His alley-cat glare followed me around the corner. He looked right at me. There’s no way he could have recognized me after all these years, but I’m sure the astonished gasp on my face made him wonder.”

I won’t totally rewrite the paragraph, but here are some suggestions.

“The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look…”

From here it’s not clear which characteristics Junior had “always had” and which were new. This can be fixed easily with something like:

…The years hadn’t been good to him. While he’d always resembled a grizzled alley cat, now he was downright monstrous (terrifying, hideous, etc). I was stunned to see that he’d lost an eye, and that part of one ear had been torn away. Wrinkles like puckered scars swam between the islands of sparse fuzz on his scalp. One thing that hadn’t changed was the way his skin hung like badly fitted upholstery on his too-small skull. I shuddered. His catlike glare followed me as I turned the corner…

I changed “alley-cat glare” to catlike glare to get rid of the repetition. Taking out “He looked right at me.” makes the image stronger. As a gasp is a sound, you might change “astonished gasp” to astonishment.

That the protagonist is headed to Thirsty Thursday to hang out at the Duck with her girl gang made me smile. Good lead-in to the next scene/chapter.

Language:

Some readers may object to the F-word, etc. I don’t have any concerns myself. In fact, “No fucking way!” is a statement I make way too often. But do check out TKZ takes on profanity. There’s plenty here. Be sure to read comments. Our own Kris Montee/P.J.Parrish takes on profanity in crime stories in a 2016 post. Jordan Dane has a First Page Critique that addresses it as well.

Okay, fellow travelers. You’ve read what I have to say (and thank you for reading!). What comments and advice do you have for our Brave Author?

6+