A Book Coach's Perspective
I recently had a 1-hour Zoom session with a client who’d emailed me saying, ‘My name is Chad (pseudonym) and I'm becoming a writer. With one project, I'm having an awful time trying to switch between narrative voices and in understanding which voice ought to convey what content.’ He didn’t actually say Help me overcome my lost confidence, he thought that he was doing something wrong: ‘My skills are currently out-matched by my vision.’
It Wasn't a Lack of Ability
After listening to Chad and then asking him some questions for around 10 minutes, I got to the crux: Chad was a competent writer – he was so much more than just ‘becoming a writer’! Yet he had zero confidence – his words. He had been taking a writing degree, and the advice he’d received from that quarter along with various other people was highly prescriptive: ‘All thoughts have to be italicised!’ ‘You have to indent all paragraphs!’ ‘Are you using em-dash or en-dash or hyphen!’ Yes, all these things have their place (trust me, I know, I’m an editor!). However, for Chad, all this conflicting information had completely derailed him and most significantly, taken him away from a creative endeavour where he’d become obsessed by technical issues.
Focus on the Story
Chad needed to focus on the story and the creativity, and make sure that his story ‘worked’.
He said the worst part of it was the beginning, which he’d rewritten around 20 times. He wanted to present his narrative mainly via inner monologue and in first person.
Because of his confusion, the result was a very messy looking first few pages, with indents, italics, differing points of view, and verb tenses all thrown into the mix.
He copied an extract into the chat, and I could see he was highly stressed as he waited for me to give him some feedback. He was breathing shallowly, frowning, and fidgety. I’m a person who likes to read and consider before giving an opinion, however we just had this hour together and I really wanted to help bring the poor guy back from the brink!
Mixing of Tenses and Narrative Points of View
The first thing I noted was that there was a mix of present and simple past tense in the very first paragraph of Chad’s story.
Part of that section was written in italics as the thoughts of the main character.
First of all, Chad needed to make a decision about the narrative tense for his book. As an example, I showed him that in my historical novel, the narration was in third person omniscient, simple past, but to capture George Sand’s thoughts, I used the device of journal entries, in first person present tense, and italicised these to set them off from the main story. Sand still forms part of the narrative, of course, to handle the narration of external events – things that she couldn’t possibly perceive or know.
Chad wanted to know if he could write the whole book in present tense and first-person narrative. We discussed that as an option. It is a difficult tense to sustain throughout a book, but he wanted to give it a go.
Stuck for Three Years!
Chad had been stuck on the first 30,000 words of his novel for three years, getting more and more disheartened and discouraged.
When we finished, he said, ‘I just want to tell you I feel so excited right now! I really appreciate your giving me my confidence back!’
He was giving me more credit than was due. Writers like Chad just need a little nudge to set them back on the path to doing what they love.
The Way Forward
Here's the summary of what Chad and I discussed to get him out of the writing doldrums and back to the excitement of the creative journey.
- For the protagonist’s thoughts, keep to present tense throughout. Don’t switch between tenses, as it’s very jarring to the read.
- When you switch narrative point of view, indicate this by creating a new paragraph (in the case of his story, this happened frequently, so these parts were too short to break into scenes or chapters). This equates to having different characters’ dialogue in separate paragraphs, so readers immediately understand there’s a new speaker.
- As a creative person, don’t let yourself get bogged down by ‘rules’ and formatting. Stick to a simple, clean, basic format (free resource) and leave the rest to your editor!
- Avoid conflicting points of view, especially from people who aren’t experts. And with experts, take on board what you know works for you and for your story. Trust your gut instinct as a writer.
- Creativity comes from within. Rules don’t make a story good. Get your story down first. You can sort out the glitches after the first few drafts.
Would You Like Writing Help?
Chad had very specific challenges and was seeking explicit guidance, so a one-off coaching session was perfect for him. If you too have specific concerns or questions and would like one-off coaching to address them, book a session here
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