Thursday, October 2, 2014

Another Post About How I Have No Idea What I'm Doing

by Giselle Renarde

I'm not a "trained" writer by any stretch of the imagination. I have a degree, but it's not in English or Literature, though I did take an English Literature course along the way. Been there, done that, got The Norton Anthology to prove it.

When I was in high school, there was a class called Writer's Craft. It was a creative writing course. Some of my friends took it. I didn't.

I wrote stories when I was a kid. I wrote a lot of stories, actually. My Grade Three teacher told my mom I would grow up to be a writer. I dismissed that idea. I wanted to be a number of things over the course of my young life, but a writer was never one of them.

And yet here I am, a professional writer. Funny how that happens, huh?

When I started writing, I knew NOTHING. Less than nothing, because I didn't know the market either. I've talked here before about my first round of edits on my first ebook (The Birthday Gift) with my first publisher (the now defunct Dark Eden Press). It made me want to quit writing forever. It was in that moment that I realized how little I knew.

I felt really stupid. And I was really stupid.

I had no idea what point of view was. Seriously. I didn't. I'd never thought about it. I started my career writing letter-style erotica for Hustler Fantasies and the like, so I guess I somehow knew enough to write a letter in the first person. Maybe I just lucked out. No, DEFINITELY I just lucked out.

So... The Birthday Gift was (and still is!) written in the third person and I'm pretty sure that was the first time I'd ever written a book wherein the "I" was "she." I was extremely not good at it. Wish I'd known that at the time, but my editor was quick to enlighten me.

I've never been the kind of author who confuses tenses or head-hops, thank goodness, but my very first editor had to teach me about "deep third." Did I have any idea what that was? Nope. But she helped me understand that in this genre you really need to get inside the character's head. It's a lot like writing in the first person.

Actually, I've spend the past three days revising a story that was originally published six years ago, which means I probably wrote it seven years ago. Yup, you read that right: THREE days revising a SHORT story. It was in rough shape, and I'll tell you why: I learned writing on the job. And when you're learning, you're not always producing glorious prose.

Early in my career, everything I wrote in the third person was awkward and clunky and just... really really not good. Not that I realized it at the time. If an editor told me I needed to shake up my sentence structure, I'd go overboard and create these sentences that were just incomprehensible. I was trying too hard. I needed time to relax into my writing.

I've always been more comfortable writing in the first person (past tense--present just keeps slipping into past which is why I've never written anything longer than about 2,000 words in first person present), and it's kind of my default. I especially like the unreliable narrator aspect of it. It's nice not to be the authority. The character can really take over and misspeak and be wrong about stuff and that's okay.

I also feel like when I'm writing in third I need to showcase MY voice, whereas writing in first person feels like slipping fully into the character's skin. It's a wonderful kind of escapism. This character steps into my life and I get to become her completely. Or him.

So it's pretty well established that I had no effing clue what I was doing when I started life as a writer. Do I know what I'm doing now, 8+ years in?

Good question. I know what point of view is...

I guess that's a start.


  1. Hi, Giselle,

    You might not have known what to call things, but as a native speaker of English, and especially one who has always played with words, I'm sure you have reliable instincts.

    It's funny. Despite my love affair with first person, my first two novels were written in third. I think that's because I thought of myself as outside the story looking in. This is true even though my first novel was a compendium of personal fantasies, sparked with real life experience (hopefully twisted enough to be unrecognizable).

    On the other hand, the first short story I ever published was first person. In fact, I think it was first person present. Hmm. And I didn't think about that, either.

  2. Hey Giselle:
    If you want to be a natural at something its best to start early as you did. No one would have ever mistaken me for a writer in my youth. You've got something going for you right there. You're a natural. Starting young fosters instinct, something that can't be taught. I think golf is such a good example. There are a hundred things that have to be perfectly coordinated in order to get the ball to fly straight. Kids who pick up a club early develop a natural rhythm. Learning the game as an adult is so difficult because you are hyperconscious of the many different components of the swing. Writing seems to be similar to golf in that there is no perfect shot, no perfect score, there's always something that needs revision. Even professional golfers have swing coaches. But every so often it all comes together and you catch one on the sweet spot and give it a ride. Best to stand back and admire it while the crowd in your head roars its approval.

  3. I never thought of writing until the early 90's, when somebody gave me a word processor. That didn't last long, but at 64 years old, I took up smut. I may have started in a deeper hole than you did, Giselle. Although Momma X *did* take that creative writing class in high school, it didn't even cross my mind (although I did respect and had aspirations to writing, and did some poetry back then). Nor did my month of higher education at a business school do anything for the creative side. I went there because I wanted to be a salesman. The horror realizing I had to study friggin' accounting. Ghaaaah! Ditched the place pretty quick. Got a job selling cars.

  4. I think that reading widely when you're young is the best teacher of how to write without even thinking too much about how it's done. Your mind may need to be genetically predisposed to picking up the "rules" automatically, but it's been theorized (maybe even proven by now) that learning to play music when very young actually changes patterns in the brain, so I wouldn't be surprised if reading does the same thing in terms of picking up the flow and patterns and conventions of writing. Creativity may be something else altogether, but maybe not.

    Maybe i should have said that I USED to think that reading widely had that effect. As an editor these days I get the impression that all too many would-be writers are doing plenty of reading, but what they're reading is instilling bad habits and ignorance of grammar. ::Thumps cane, makes the rocking chair creak, and yells at those kids to get out of my yard!::

    Still, there do seem to be more good writers around than ever, so what do I know?

    1. Sacchi, this made me grin. I'm thumping the cane right along with you. I do think there are alternate grammars coming up in some books—I've read plenty that are just wrong. That said, i still think there's value in reading widely for the reasons you gave.

  5. Hi Giselle!

    I think you mistake things. Maybe I'm wrong. But you look at things you wrote in the past and they don't sound right to you. You take three days to rewrite a short story and it makes you think you;re slow. Only three days? Hemingway rewrote his short stories in pencil up to forty times each. I'm rewriting at this moment a story I've been struggling with for three years.

    If you read something and it doesn't sound right, that is the surest sign of progress and growth there is. It soundsl ike you;ve learned the most important skill of all. That sounds wonderful to me.


  6. What everyone else said. :) Giselle, I'm sure you know more than you think you do.

  7. "I especially like the unreliable narrator aspect of it. It's nice not to be the authority. The character can really take over and misspeak and be wrong about stuff and that's okay."

    This is an absolutely awesome description of what's cool about first person. I love how sly it is. :)


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