#5 Self-Publishing – Welcome to the Dark Side. Bwah ha ha ha!

#16 skull and cross bones

It’s a great feeling to have that book in your hands, finally, after all the writing and re-writing, and all the inner wrangling over which image would make the best cover, and how much info on the back flap is too much. And whether the ISBN number will cross the various platforms you’re hoping to cross. And whether people would prefer a 5.25” x 8” book or a 6” x 9.” Glossy cover, or matte?

Yes, there’s a lot of work that goes on before that book is in your hot little hands. And once it gets there, why is it only now you notice that hiccup in Chapter 23 that’s so blindingly obvious, after you’ve procured the proof copy? There seems to be a shadow world in publishing, a dark side where the unexpected occurs with surprising regularity. Which is probably why traditional publishers keep such a large slice of the pie, should you be fortunate enough to have one interested in your work: they have a lot of bases to cover. Maybe that’s also why it takes them forever to get the thing out to the public. Unexpected snags, perhaps.

I wouldn’t know for sure, never having had anything published traditionally. It’s in my nature to find a way – any way, as long as the product is professional – to get things done in a timely fashion. Call me impatient if it helps, but don’t call me cheap. I want my work to look as good as anything else on the bookstore shelf you’d pay hard earned money for. Or these day, to look as good – and read as well – as anything else on Amazon. I want a professional cover, and I want an aesthetically pleasing interior.

Quality usually costs – you get what you pay for. But with self-publishing, you can get your book(s) out in a timely fashion for a surprisingly low price. If you have your completed manuscript ready today, you can have a copy of the Print on Demand paperback proof at your house within a few weeks. Amazing! But you will have had to work pretty hard to design the front and back covers as well as designing the interior.

Designing the interior may sound easy enough; after all, you just write “Chapter One” at the top of the first page and go for it, right? Actually, if you want your book to sit comfortably alongside other professional efforts on the bookshelf, a lot of thought goes into the interior layout. I design my interiors with MS Word. It’s not necessarily a user friendly software, especially when dealing with the intricacies of layout, but it’s pretty powerful once you get used to its opaque way of presenting things; i.e., if you make the same mistake enough times, you realize that you need to hold down the command key before pressing X while also scratching behind your left ear. If you scratch behind your right ear though, forget about it. So practice breeds familiarity.

I use Photoshop for my covers. I find I need to sit with a cover for a few days to decide if it works; it needs to signal to a buyer that genre and spice and all things nice are abundant on the inside, and it needs to do all that in a unified way, something that tells them that this thing is packaged professionally because it is worth it. Plus, the back cover has just enough info to entice the reader into the story, and it often also offers a brief bio on the author, just enough so you get an idea of what a swell guy or gal they are. In this case, you and me.

Once you have all your ducks in a row, you’re ready to submit to a self-publishing company who will carrying your Print on Demand book. They will also carry your eBook and maybe even your audio book, should you get that far, but those are tales for a different blog.

As far as self-publishing options go, there is apparently an ocean’s worth of marauding pirates posing as in-betweenies out there in internetland. You know, those companies that claim to offer the best of both worlds – traditional publishing and self-publishing! – and all you have to do is fork over a few thousand shekels. Plus maybe promise to sell a certain number of books or else you’re liable in some way and are then on the hook (I’ve seen sales figures imposed ranging from 700 books to 2,500).

I have a friend who sends me one link after another, asking me whether this organization or that one looks like the right one. Usually, he’s heard about them from various friends, none of whom have actually tried them themselves but thought they looked good. Finally, I’d had enough and told my pal point blank that I would never, in good conscience, recommend anything for him that I’d avoid myself.

Maybe there’s a decent one out there, but I prefer to be in control of my destiny, and self-publishing has made that a possibility for authors everywhere. That might make me seem short-sighted to some, but it is also a very American way of thinking: self-reliance and the self-made man or woman, and all that. Also, from a personal, creative perspective, it’s an incredibly fulfilling one.

Although they are finicky about the way in which material is presented to them, I like Ingramspark because the quality of the PoD proof is as good as anyone could hope for. Conversely, I like Amazon for the same reason everyone else does who is buying or selling: they are a monster, and not having your work on Amazon is tantamount to not caring how many books you sell.

So there you have it. Just enough info to be tempting, but not enough to get you into trouble. In fact, it might keep you out of trouble. But it also leaves a million unanswered questions, in which case you’re welcome to hit me up with an email and I’ll do my best to respond.

The good news in all this is that the self-publishing industry seems to have settled into certain ways of working. The pioneers have laid the groundwork, and the most convenient platforms have found approval and acceptance. Much of the guesswork has been taken out of the equation, but there is still a lot to learn. And of course, the best way to learn is by doing. But also by asking the right people the right questions. Attend some workshops and join an indie writers’ group. I find other authors are almost unfailing happy to help their fellow-writers out.

Happy writing, and happy self-publishing.

Rayswift.com

Lifebookpress.com

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#9 Wakey Wakey.

#9 rocket ship   In an earlier incarnation, I was a musician, passionate about all the right things. You know – wealth, success, fame. Like many musicians influenced by the excesses of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, I figured that once I’d “made it,” life would be a dream. An American dream. I’ve since learned the truth in George Carlin’s claim that you’d have to be asleep to believe in the American Dream. Boy, was I ever asleep. Even today, it seems I spend much of my time pinching myself simply trying to stay awake, so soporific is the effect of the Dream Machine.

The Dream Machine is alive and well in Hollywood, of course. As regular as a heartbeat, I get spammed with offers to submit my work to this event, or that competition. The latest that keeps popping up on fb and elsewhere shouts $3000 for First Place! But read passed the exclamation points and the exhortations to Hurry! Deadline Ends Soon! and you’ll see there’s a fee to enter your work. Usually, it’s somewhere between $40 and $80, but I’ve seen higher.

I entered a bunch of these things when I first came across them. I “invested” a few hundred bucks before I discovered something weird. For one competition, I paid the extra charge to have feed-back, or “notes,” sent to me regarding my work. You know, this is as opposed to the other option, where you send your digital manuscript and your credit card number and never hear from them ever again, other than to be informed you didn’t win. The “notes” were an eye-opener because it became immediately apparent that the reviewer of my work was not a particularly good writer. I could read the inexperience in the tone and in the inarticulate way the reviewer attempted to minimize their own lack of knowledge on the process of writing; i.e., big words that might sound authoritative to an inexperienced writer, but not to me. The review held nothing constructive; it was cookie-cutter style.

I did some admittedly broad research, and it didn’t take long to learn that it’s often low-level interns or wanna-bes who get the first read of your work. If they like it, it gets passed up the ladder. But what do youthful interns like? BIG things, like vampires and tattoos, probably. My work has neither.

I don’t blame the intern, who is probably being paid in a meager fashion to do what seems like a fun sort of job that could ultimately lead to purgatory. I’d probably do it too, if I were twenty-something. The problem is that these details are neglected in the advertising campaigns that instead promise your work will be scrutinized by experienced panels of professionals. Which they’re usually not.

Not only is this type of “opportunity” a great divide-and-conquer ploy, as far as the writing community is concerned, but writers are actually paying to support it. Talk about asleep at the wheel.

Okay, so fair cop: I haven’t won any writing prizes. Lately. Yes, yes, jealousy has taken hold. My name did not appear in the list of Winners! that sometimes accompanied the rejection emails. And of course I wanna be a winner for chrissakes. It’s the American Dream.

I don’t usually rant about this sort of thing. Often. I was inspired to do so today by a recent post from Stephen Galloway on just how brazen things have become. I mean, I realized that some of the long-distance online competitions were likely to be a scam, but still, I have considered spending the big bucks to attend one of those extra-specially-special “pitch-fests” for people who are really truly deep down good writers, serious writers, who are promised that they will meet movers and shakers in the biz, and that those movers and shakers might select the attendee’s work during that personal one-on-one experience we all dream of.

But apparently, that dream is bullshit.

I know there will be those who scream: “Hey! I went and I won!” Well, good for you. But it seems the business to be in is one where you simply make out like you’re in the business. I mean, Hollywood is hard to fact-check for a busy writer working three jobs on the side to survive.

So my 2 cent’s worth on all this is to restrain yourself and save your cash. The fix is already in, and I’m still waking up.

If you don’t believe me, trying reading Galloway’s nightmare:

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/why-are-wannabe-screenwriters-getting-scammed-1130919

RaySwift.com
LifeBookPress.com

 

#8 Turning Your Novel into an Audiobook

#11 freaky chic

So, ya wanna make an audiobook, huh? Well think again, podna, cause it ain’t easy, see.

Just kidding. The process is actually surprisingly easy, as long as you avoid the obvious pitfalls. Of course, it’s not until you’ve recorded an audio book that the pitfalls become obvious, so let me run through the process from A to Z.

RETAIL PRICING
Before we get into the actual recording of the book, it’s good to know that ACX, who are responsible for the Audible arm of Amazon, have concrete rules about the pricing of your audiobook. Here’s the rule: they decide the price. Yep, you read that right. We’re allowed to price our PoD and eBooks, but they remove choice when it comes to pricing our audiobooks.

When I questioned their Customer Service rep about this, she was very sweet but gave me the only answer they offer: ACX sets the price based on length of the audio book. At eight hours (almost 80,000 words), my first book, Killing Floor, came in at $17.49 retail. Which is, of course, far too cheap for such an outstanding work of literature! I was also informed that the retailers they distribute audiobooks through, such as Amazon and iTunes, determine their own retail price.

This just seems odd. Why are we given a choice on other formats but not this one? Perhaps what I find the most odd is that they don’t seem to want to share their thinking on this subject. Conspiracy theories abound!

Actually, what I’ve since learned is that Amazon will offer your audiobook for free to anyone who signs up with Audible for the first time. Great. As long as you can swallow that tidbit without too much discomfort, let’s move on.

AUDIO QUALITY
My first mistake came in thinking that recording an audiobook would be just like recording music, which I’ve been doing for decades. Music has lots of instruments, so recording one voice should be a snap, right? Not! Because there is only one voice, every unwanted little noise sticks out in the proverbial doggy way. It is difficult to create an absolutely sound-proof room, so this means listening carefully for sirens, helicopters, and anything else that might bleed through your acousti-foam walls.

Still, that’s fairly manageable compared to the other issue, which happens to be your reader. Again, because the reader’s voice is the only thing on the recording, every breath, gasp, and lip-smack will be on that recording. This means that you have to monitor the audio closely through good quality headphones and be prepared to ask the reader to repeat phrases. You should also have a copy of an easy-to-read version of the manuscript in front of you, so you can follow along and check for verbal typos or other slip-ups on the part of the reader. In addition, if they are not reading from an eBook version, they will need to know when to turn pages so the noise can be edited out later.

RECORDING SOFTWARE
Which brings us to software. I used Protools for my first book, which sounds fine, but the software is perhaps too powerful in some ways for what we need when recording an audiobook. For my second book, I’m using Audacity, a free software you can download from Audible. If you know anything about audio recording, Audacity is a sort of easy-to-use Mastering program. You can load pre-recorded audio into it, or you can record straight into it. I prefer the second method because I can check input volume using the fairly accurate metering that comes with the program. Audacity also has some super cool features, such as being able to remove background noise at the push of a button; the software reads the gaps between speech and reduces the noise floor to zero. This is an enormous time-saver, especially if your reader is inexperienced in breathing etc.

READERS
Regarding the reader, you may want to do it yourself, and I say why not! Professional readers, I’m told, charge $100-$400 per hour. Just to read a book! $400!!

Of course, I’m faking my dismay here. A good reader is worth the money, and an excellent reader? Well, let’s just say you’ll weep quiet tears of gratitude that your book could be brought to life in such a wonderful way. A good reader will not only interpret the text in the way you’d hoped, their timing and breathing and sheer presence on the page – so to speak – will be a boon you’ll be happy to live with.

If you are thinking about doing the reading yourself, again I say, why not? But I suggest you practice reading out loud from your book for thirty minutes each day. It will help build stamina – yes, reading for several hours at a time takes quite a lot of stamina. Do some practice, and you’ll quickly become aware of your breathing and how it must be paced. Just like a singer, really, who cannot stop in mid-note to suck in a great lungful.

LOGISTICS
The length of recording sessions depends on your reader, and how long they can last before their voice loses its je ne seis quoi. Some pros can last six hours, while a regular guy or gal might be lucky to go two hours. Give it a try right now – go read out loud for thirty minutes to get the feel of it.

Generally speaking, you want to get the book down on tape (or whatever it is) as quickly as possible, so that the entire book has a similar tone to it. If you leave too long a gap between sessions, your reader could be in a different head-space, or other considerations may come in to play.

POLISHING
So, onto audio editing. It’s inevitable that the reader will make some boo-boos here and there. It’s easy to misread a line, and every text is different. Also, if you have an unusual writing style, cut the reader some slack. Editing mostly consists of cutting out unwanted phrases or flubbed sentences, as well as clipping the ends off tracks to create nice, concise audio. However, there have also been moments when I was able to splice a good take and a bad take together to get the exact result I was hoping for, when neither of the two on their own felt just right. It can get weird, and the mind can play tricks, so be prepared to take regular breaks and come back to the mix with a fresh perspective when necessary. After all, an audio book is very long and very linear compared to mixing down a song or album. Also, it is probably important to look at ACX’s list of requirements before you complete the editing of each track; for example, they want a second (at least) of run-time before each track starts, and up to five seconds at the end of each track. So don’t cut them too tight.

UPLOADING
Audible prefers mono files for their audio books, so record in mono (smaller file sizes to manage, so this is a good thing). And of course, all this assumes you’ve done some research and have used a good mic and preamp, as well as a pop-filter.

Once you have your tracks completed, consult the ACX website to check their requirements for upload. They are quite stringent and probably have to be for everything to work well. In simple terms, they want mp3 files without audio spikes or other data problems, they want appropriate chapter headings and titles, and they need a brief intro track and a brief ending announcement. Obvious stuff. Oh, and they also want an excerpt under five minutes to use as a teaser for prospective audiobook customers.

Here’s a link to their technical page. It seems daunting at first look, but the requirements are standard for any decent audio production and should be fairly easy to follow:

https://www.acx.com/help/acx-audio-submission-requirements/201456300

To convert wav or other files to mp3, I highly recommend the fre:ac mp3 converter. It’s free (available online) and very easy to use. Here is a link on the conversion process:

http://g-ec2.images-amazon.com/images/G/01/Audible/en_US/acx/pdf/ACX_MP3_Encoding_Tutorial_04242014._V338366800_.pdf

Once your formatting is ship-shape, it’s very easy to upload it all into ACX’s website. Like all websites, they first want to know your name, rank, and serial number – otherwise known as creating an account. I’ve done this so many times over the last ten years that they’re sure to catch me one day soon. Whoever “they” are.

COVER
The book cover for an Audible audiobook is square: 2300p x 2300p. So you’ll need to reconfigure your paperback cover to fit.

And that about covers it. There is a lot to consider, but by taking things a step at a time, you soon find that, look! There it is, my audiobook on Amazon!

Keep writing.

Shaun@rayswift.com
RaySwift.com
LifeBookPress.com

 

 

#4 Thoughts on Writing Fiction

#21 sharp as an axe

Thoughts on Writing Fiction

En media res: “In the midst of things.”
When we start in the middle of some sort of action, the situation is likely to hook the reader in immediately and immerse them in the world of the protagonist. This forces the reader to ask questions about the protagonist; i.e., “what is going on?” “How did she/he get in this situation? Who is responsible?” If the questions are compelling enough, the reader will have to keep turning the page to find answers. This is how you hook a reader.  It is also why readers love a “page-turner,” otherwise known as a story you simply can’t put down.

The Big Question
For any good story, create a question in the reader’s mind, then hold off on answering it until the story’s end. The big question is usually, “how will things turn out?” This is why mysteries are so popular; we want to know what happened. We want the central question answered: whodunnit?

Why are we so interested in outcomes? Probably because we learn from reading. An outcome, in any story, will often reflect experiences we ourselves have had, and so we can compare our world to the world of the protagonist to see if there is anything we, or the protagonist, could have done better. While a story will probably not offer exact solutions to our own problems, they frequently suggest ways in which we could conduct ourselves and our lives.

Two Ways to Write Fiction: Plot vs. Situational
When we start out to write a piece of fiction, it is easy to think that we must start with some sort of big idea, so we can make an outline, and then simply fill in the blanks. This would be called Plotting, or creating a Plot. However, regarding the plotting of a story, in his book, “On Writing,” Stephen King says:

“I distrust plot for two reasons; first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all your reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”

He also says: “The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—come next.”

What he says is this: think up a situation, any situation, and have your character(s) work their way out of it. Don’t limit yourself in choosing the situation—after all, this is fiction. Make stuff up! Consider a bizarre news story you’ve heard recently, or some weird event that once happened to a friend or relative or neighbor, or even yourself, then build on that. In fact, take any ordinary real life event, then imagine ways in which you can exaggerate and tweak it until you have a situation that is unique. Ask this: What if?

Then, put your character(s) into that situation and let them lead themselves out of it, if they can. Listen to what they’re thinking and record it. Don’t consider what you would do in this situation, consider only what your characters would do. Because, remember, our characters are free to be all the things you and I might never be; they will solve problems in ways we know we could never do simply because we are constrained by real life, while they are constrained only by a simulacrum of real life. You do not have to tell “the truth” according to the laws of reality, the story need only be a close approximation. That is to say, it only needs to be just believable enough that your reader will continue reading.

This is why fiction is called “the lie that tells the truth.” We are not telling absolute truth as we are taught it by religion or our parents, we are trying to do something a little more difficult; we are trying to suspend disbelief in the reader. Therefore, our story only needs to be just realistic enough that our reader will consider the possibility that it actually could happen if the conditions were right. That is fiction. The good part in all this is that your characters will often want to do exactly what you’ve always wished you could do if you ever had the chance. Fun!

Plot and its Advantages
There is one advantage to plot, and it is this: you know where you’re going. Steven King’s method produces surprising results, especially when characters are allowed to come alive and direct the story down unusually paths. However, every story must have an ending, even if it is only one that leaves us guessing as to what happened. For me, this means that once I have an idea of setting, characters, and dynamics between characters, I allow myself to consider ways in which my story might end. I don’t need to settle on any one idea immediately, but I can consider, as I’m writing, which one I like best, then start working toward that ending. Once, I wrote toward that ending and then arrived there. At which point, I decided I wanted the book to end differently, so I kept that ending and then wrote beyond it to create another three additional chapters.

Trust
The big trick with all of this is trust: trust in yourself, that you will get it done; trust in your characters, especially when they ask you to take risks on their behalf; and trust in the process. Trust might just be the most difficult element in writing fiction, but if you can trust yourself enough to let go—and by that I mean let go of doubt, let go of self-judgment, let go of the voice in your head that questions every decision you make—then you will realize that you are having a really great time writing.

So, practice trust. After all, it’s only a story.

Archetypes
Some scholars believe that there are a limited number of stories in the world, and that we are simply re-telling those same old stories in different ways. This seems especially true when we consider such familiar stories as The Hero’s Journey, which is any journey in which a man or woman has to overcome great difficulties in order to learn about themselves and the world they live in. One such hero’s journey is that of Odysseus who undergoes many bizarre experiences before he is able to return home to his loved ones. Think of any of the movies you have watched in the last few months – it’s a fairly sure bet the protagonist was some sort of hero or heroine.

Another archetype is that of the villain, the bad guy or gal who seemingly does evil simply for the pleasure it brings them. This is our antagonist, our anti-agent who stands against everything the hero hopes to achieve. For every James Bond there is a Dr. No, or for Austen Powers there is Dr. Evil. Our mythologies are full of such tales; just as Batman must overcome the Joker, Jesus has Satan as his arch enemy. In fact, the journey often doesn’t begin until the antagonist initiates it through some sort of action.

However, while we might be tempted to think of the antagonist as evil and nothing else, it is often essential that they have some sort of backstory to make them compelling to our reader. The Joker in Batman was actually a good guy until his life-changing accident, at which time he decided that because life had dealt him such a wicked blow, he would take revenge and turn the world to his own purposes by wielding absolute power. And of course, Satan was good until he fell from grace.

The Nemesis
The Joker and Satan might seem like big players on the story-telling stage, but when we look closely at our own lives, we might recognize those who we consider to be our personal nemeses. In fact, it is most likely that we are the heroes and heroines of our own stories. Sometimes a nemesis is not a person but a “thing” such as death, defeat of some sort, or simply bad luck. This, then, is life, and is probably why story telling has been such an enormous part of the human experience since time began. We cherish stories of good versus evil, life versus death, and the realization of dreams against odds. Tell those stories, and you will always find an audience.

Shaun@rayswift.com
RaySwift.com
LifeBookPress.com

#3 To Ghostwrite, or not to Ghostwrite – Is That a Question?

#3 Priest

I’m currently writing a memoir with a semi-retired priest, but the doodle art at the top of the post is coincidental; I did it years ago during an extremely tedious staff meeting. I have no idea how the doodle of a priest appeared on the page underneath my pen. Suddenly, it just was. He seems to be dreaming of Hawaii.

I am fortunate in that I don’t seem to mind too much what it is I’m writing: I just love to write. Writing a new novel is like setting off on your own personal adventure with a seemingly unlimited number of options and the opportunity to find freedom through personal expression. But I’m happy to report that so, too, is writing someone else’s story. I love writing fiction, but I’ve always believed that truth is stranger than fiction, so when someone asks me to put their deepest truth down in words, I know it will be an interesting and rewarding experience. And the writer in me loves the challenge as much as if I’d decided to create a fiction. In addition, there are truths that are universal, which is, of course, why humans have been story-tellers from time immemorial. We seem to value story almost as much as we do food and love.

I was very happy to have those realizations as we wrote this most recent memoir. I was also somewhat awed as I entered into the author’s priestly world and sought ways to express his struggle with the uniqueness it deserved. If the end result of any memoir is to share a life experience with readers, imagine the level of intimacy and trust required between author and writer. It’s an exceptional process for both: the author must relive their greatest joys and set-backs, and the writer, if he wants to do good work, must honor and re-create those powerful moments in an appropriate style and tone upon the page.

The priest I’m writing the memoir with is an interesting fellow, and I am grateful for the opportunity to work with him. He has a compelling story to tell, and he’s a very good story-teller. Lucky me. I’ll post more about it when it’s completed – probably sometime later this year.

 

 

 

#2 Doodle Art

#2 crab shapes

I didn’t make it to college until I was a fully fledged adult. And by that I mean I’d had enough of doing menial work for low pay. There had to be something else. I thought maybe college was it, so I enrolled in classes and the rest is history: here I am with two graduate degrees, smart as can be.

Upon my re-entry into orbit, as I sat in classrooms listening to lectures, I often found myself doodling, just as I had many years before in high school. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in the lessons. Actually, it was quite the opposite. Doodling occupied some part of my brain that would otherwise have been bored, so by letting that part of my brain amuse itself, the school part of my brain remained unencumbered enough to go about the business of taking notes and not falling asleep. This might be what they talk about when they discuss left and right brain hemispheres.

I grew to love doodling and was sometimes very pleased with the results. I fantasized about having a doodle-art show in a cafe, where people would have to lean in really close and squint to make out the images. “Oh, my,” they would say, stepping back to take a breath, “that’s simply grand!”

As that day has not yet arrived, I thought a good way to share them would be to use them as illustrations on blog posts. So that’s what I’ve done, a new one each time. I post them in honor of all doodle-bugs out there who find that doodling helps them think straight.

 

#1 Narrative: Intro to Voice and Tense

#1 eyesEveryone has stuff that floats around in their head all day, and if you’re a writer, sooner or later it wants out. It wants to be free and run wild with the chickens. Welcome to my chicken coop. Some posts will probably be of the “big idea” variety – it’s hard to keep that stuff down – but there will probably also be insights on life and writing. Because I teach writing, I’ll be posting some of that stuff, too.

For today’s offering, I’m posting an intro to Narrative that covers some of the basics regarding Voice and Tense in storytelling. I give this to Eng 101 students.

Narration is one of the four rhetorical modes of discourse, the other three being exposition, argument, and description. However, narrative might seem broader, in that it can encompass the other three when done well. At its most basic, narration occurs whenever we get the sense that someone is telling us something of value. This might be in the form of a documentary or technical manual, but it might just as well be an action movie or a good book we can’t put down. Narrative, at its core, is storytelling, and storytelling is as old as humanity. It goes all the way back to cavemen and beyond. Although it’s difficult to know when we first started telling stories, we know there have been cave drawings and music for millennia, and these, too, are a type of storytelling. However, written storytelling only goes back a few thousand years, perhaps to the Epic of Gilgamesh or the era of King Hammurabi, approximately 4000 years ago. Probably, those other early examples, biblical stories, have been impactful to a large extent because they used a relatively new technology: written storytelling for the masses. Of course, before we had written stories, we had oral storytellers sharing ghost stories around the campfire, or expounding on their fearless encounter with a saber-toothed tiger.

Voice in Narrative

Whenever we read any sort of narrative, it quickly becomes apparent which “voice” the author is using: 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person. When the writing is good, the reader will usually also get a feel for the tone the author is trying to set up: is this a dark tale of betrayal and deceit? Or is it a comedy/romance? Shakespeare was very good at setting tone within the first few lines of a play, and then sticking with it throughout the work. Get this, from Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent/ made glorious summer by this sun of York.” Here, the misshapen and disliked Richard is announcing to the world that, although things are looking grim generally, he is there to put order into things. But it will be his order. Thus, the tone is set for sinister unfoldings.

But this is a play, where most actors speak from 1st person voice. Let’s consider the standard novel form to understand voice more closely. It is estimated that at approximately 65,000 words in length, the writer can claim to have written a novel. Beyond that, there are few similarities between writing styles. Certainly, many authors might chose to write detective fiction or murder mysteries, but they will each have a unique way of telling their story. Some prefer the 1st person “voice-over style,” a la Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon,” where he might tell us what he’s thinking about the mobster, the murder victim, and the dame over in the corner of the bar who looks down on her luck. Others, however, chose to create distance from the reader by using 3rd person; we have to rely on what happens to discover what the protagonist is thinking or feeling, a la Miss Marple, who has everything figured out, but she doesn’t share everything with us, and we don’t find out whodunnit until the very end of the story.

1st Person in Narrative, or Breaking the Fourth Wall: “I”

In theater there is a phrase: breaking the fourth wall. Actors assume the stage is surrounded by four walls and pretend that the audience is not really there, that there is a wall between the actors and the audience. However, occasionally, an actor will make an “aside” to the audience and speak directly to them. This is common in pantomime theater, which encourages audience participation. A more modern context is offered by television; in the series, “House of Cards,” Kevin Spacey acts the part of a Machiavellian politician who addresses the camera directly. In this way, he speaks directly to us, the audience. By breaking the imaginary fourth wall, the protagonist is able to communicate their inner-most thoughts and feelings directly to the audience.

The equivalence of this, when writing narrative, is to use 1st person for our protagonist or hero: the big “I.” The writer can speak to the reader directly and tell them what “I” am thinking or planning. This creates internal intimacy with the reader and gives the writer a platform for the character/protagonist to reveal themselves to the reader. However, the first person narrator is not always reliable. That is to say, just because the “I” character feels an emotion, it doesn’t mean it is appropriate. For example, the protagonist might feel offended that a friend ditched them at a party, believing that the friend should have stuck around. But what if the friend had simply had enough of the protagonist’s drunken ravings? Perhaps he was right to skedaddle. The reader will know that the protagonist was raving like a madman by what she/he has said; meanwhile, the protagonist may think they were being perfectly lucid. Just because we have intimacy doesn’t mean we’ve created some perfect reality where everyone understands each other. Internal processes are often messier than external interactions, and in order to simplify such processes for the reader, also consider the option of writing in 3rd Person.

3rd Person: “He, She”

Joe Malone strolled casually over to the counter and slid onto the red vinyl stool. He said, “Coffee,” at the oversized man behind the counter in the spotted apron, who nodded and turned for the glass coffee pot which sat cooking on a glowing element behind him. Joe could smell the coffee burning even from where he sat, but with enough sugar in it, it might still help shake the greasy ache in his belly from a night of drinking to forget.

Here we have an example of 3rd person. Joe is not talking directly to us. He doesn’t even know we exist. He’s too busy trying to get over his hangover. We are merely a “fly on the wall” watching Joe, maybe following him around to see what he does in the next few hours. Even better yet, when Joe leaves, we might decide to stick around in the diner, in which case we’ll see the big guy behind the counter pick up his phone, tap in a number, and say:

“Yeah, this is Smokey. Malone was just in here. Looked pretty sick. Guess he drank too much again, so he should be easy to pick up. Just don’t rough him up so much this time.”

What’s going on? We don’t know yet, so we’ve got to keep reading, and this is the strength of using 3rd person. Its limitations give the story momentum.

Now, it’s true that 1st person also has limitations; after all, we’re stuck inside the protagonist, and we only get to see what he or she sees. For example, here’s Joe again:

I was feeling like hell as I pushed my way into Smokey’s Diner on Fifth Street. It was mostly empty, and I took a seat at the counter. There was a big guy behind it wearing an apron Picasso must’ve used for a few years before donating to Goodwill. He glared at me, so I said, “Coffee,” even though I could smell it was burned. It’d have to do, at least til I got back to Rose’s place. I grabbed for the sugar.

Who’s Rose? We don’t know. We’ll have to stick with Joe’s internal narrative to find out – he’s speaking to us from inside himself, so there are limitations here, too. However, 3rd person probably offers more freedom to chose who we follow and which scenes we witness. For example, with 3rd person, we can have an omnipresent narrative. That is, we can be everywhere and know much more than the protagonist. We might even know before he does that he’s walking into a trap. Or that Freddie Kruger is hiding behind the door with an axe. This is how suspense is built.

3rd person omniscient is the more common choice in narrative, especially as it allows the author to tell great, sweeping sagas that might cover generations and include the lives of many people. Because the writer chooses omniscience, they can be anywhere at any given time to inform the reader of pretty much anything they like. In this voice, the two most important things the writer must keep in mind are the chronology of events and spatial connections, as in: when did it happen, and where did it happen. (This might seem obvious, but when piecing together a long, detailed story, some details can easily be forgotten). Another advantage of 3rd person omniscient is that the reader gets the sense that the narrator is at their most reliable, perhaps because they do not seem subject to the emotional upheavals of the 1st person narrator, who is so close to the events that they must experience them in real time. The 3rd person narrator gets to stand well back and tell the story as it happens to others, not to themselves.

Lest 3rd person omniscient seems too distant for the tone you’re trying to achieve, consider 3rd person subjective, sometimes called 3rd person close. The “closeness” comes from the nearness the reader feels when we learn how the protagonist is dealing with events on a personal level. The empathetic fly on the wall comes down near Joe and looks over his shoulder to see how he’s doing.

This, from the fly:

Joe slurped his coffee, letting the sweet caramel flavor burn his tongue. But the sugar couldn’t mask the bitterness he felt inside. He wanted the coffee to burn. Burn away his thoughts. Burn away the hate and pain that had dug their way into his heart after Myra left. He held out his coffee mug and, in a too-loud voice, said, “More!”

So, even though we’re not in 1st person, it doesn’t mean we need to avoid intimacy. We see right inside poor old Joe; however, in 3rd person, we don’t have to follow his sorry butt around all day if we don’t want to, and it seems unlikely he’ll cheer up any time soon.

Some writers will mix and match 3rd person omniscient with 3rd person close within a narrative, depending on the scene and how they create dynamics in their storytelling (dynamics being the rise and fall of the action or events that occur). Sometimes, this mixing and matching will be driven simply by instincts that the writer relies on to feel their way through the story. Instincts sometimes have to be relied upon because there are a million decisions to be made when telling a story. Not all at once, thankfully, but they pop up again and again as the writer navigates their way from the unknown to the known. (After all, even the writer doesn’t always know how things will turn out. That’s what keeps us writing!)

2nd Person: “You”

2nd person voice is a rarity in narrative. This is probably because it includes the reader in every action, and the “you” can become overbearing. Here’s our old friend Joe again:

You were hung over, so you went into Smokey’s Diner on Fifth to slurp down some of that rotgut coffee which he always keeps too hot. But you like it that way. You like the way it burns its way into your thoughts, the way it scalds your tongue so you forget about her, the way she always yelled at you when you walked in the door. The way she could make it up to you when she wanted something. You add too much sugar. It’s the only way you’ll keep it down.

Get the picture? You’ve become Joe. Being told what “you” are doing and feeling might get a little too personal for the reader after a while. Somehow, it becomes intrusive, especially if the reader just wants to pick up a good book as a way to escape their own life for a while; we don’t always want to be reminded of our connection to ourselves when we read. In fact, sometimes a book is judged purely for the extent to which it can make us forget our troubles for a while.

Tense in Narrative

Cultures around the world vary in the tense they use as the default when storytelling. For example, some Asian language storytellers start out in past tense but quickly switch to present tense for the bulk of the story. Western writers, conversely, start out in past tense as our default and often only use present tense in dialogue. It’s not that there is any rule against writing an entire novel in present tense, but I’ll let Joe explain:

Joe Malone strolls casually over to the counter and slides onto the red vinyl stool. He says, “Coffee,” at the oversized man behind the counter, who nods and turns for the glass coffee pot which sits cooking on a glowing element behind him. Joe smells the coffee burning even from where he sits, but with enough sugar in it, it might help shake the greasy ache in his belly from a night of drinking to forget.

Now, I’m not sure this tense works at all with this genre, hardboiled as it is, so the comparison seems unfair. For a better example of present tense usage, here’s a short excerpt from Anton Chekhov’s, “A Day in the Country:”

Terenty comes out of the kitchen-garden and, lifting high his long legs, begins striding down the village street. He walks quickly without stopping or looking from side to side, as though he were shoved from behind or afraid of pursuit. Fyokla can hardly keep up with him. They come out of the village and turn along the dusty road towards the count’s copse that lies dark blue in the distance. It is about a mile and a half away. The clouds have by now covered the sun, and soon afterwards there is not a speck of blue left in the sky. It grows dark.

This example seems quite successful in its use of present tense because the rapid tone of the language and the rapid pace of the action seem tailored to the immediacy of present tense. Perhaps when the author planned to use present tense, he knew it would set a particular tone and that the tone would match the genre, or at least the mood, of the story he’s telling. Chekhov’s short story of a day in the country may also work precisely because it is a short story and not an elongated tale, where present tense may become tiring after an extended period of reading.

To recap, Western writers seem most often to use 3rd person and past tense as their default settings. Sometimes 1st person is preferred, especially in certain genres like detective fiction and stylized noir. Present tense and the use of 2nd person are rare. Try writing a short story in these rare styles and check the results against a typical default style; you’ll quickly get that rare feeling. It may be that we have become so used to our Western default that it has created powerful expectations every time we examine literature, and we dare not buck those expectations. Or it may be that the logistics of story telling become very tricky in these unusual styles. Either way, chose voice and tense carefully because they will shape everything that’s to come.