I have to admit to cringing a little (lot) when I re-read my first (and never to be published) manuscript.
What I dislike most about it is that it’s written in the first-person, present tense. Here’s the first paragraph:
I watch the stream of water snaking its way down my body. It used to take a more direct route downwards, over my flattish chest and even flatter stomach. Now there are curves to negotiate. Breasts inflated by milk and a shrivelled-balloon stomach.
Ugh! So whiny. So sad. Perhaps not surprising when you consider the story is about a depressed new mother whose husband is cheating on her. (Disclosure: it’s not a rom-com).
Sadly, my own poor experience has led me to develop a slight prejudice against first-person, present. Why sad? Because, as with most prejudices, it’s based on an unfounded bias.
I know it can work. And I know it because every so often, books like Katie Rowney’s Front Page News come along that make me re-think my position.
Until the first dead body turns up.
While the local police fumble the investigation, ambitious Stacey is just pleased to have something other than cattle sales to write about. Plus, she now has an excuse to spend more time with the arrogantly attractive Detective Scott Fitzgerald. But when Stacey shows up at one crime scene too many, she moves to the top of the most wanted list. Stacey must uncover the truth before anyone else gets hurt – or the police put her behind bars.
What the blurb doesn’t tell you is that the story is written in first-person present. And it also doesn’t tell you that it works really, really well.
The story begins with dialogue, meaning the POV isn’t immediately obvious.
‘Ten bucks says there’s a body in the trunk.’
‘Woah, McCallaghan, you’ve been here for, what, two months and you’re already making bets when we drag cars out of ponds?’
‘We’ve been here for two hours while they figure out how to tow that Corolla out,’ I say, shielding my eyes against the bright morning sun.
Interesting, isn’t it, to compare Katie’s opening lines with the ones from my MS. What stands out to me is that Front Page News begins with events that are external to the character’s thoughts.
Of course, as the book goes on we do access McCallaghan’s thoughts quite extensively but her thinking doesn’t revolve entirely around herself, and her own state of being, it centres around events external to herself which, I think, helps to avoid the ‘whiny’ factor.
What’s even more interesting about this book is that it was plucked off the slush-pile at Penguin, which makes it the unicorn of manuscripts.
But I can see what Penguin saw.
The voice is really strong. As a character, Stacey McCallaghan is a wise-cracking, typically-over-confident-but-still-quite-vulnerable, 22 year old. She’s very likeable. And again, that’s important for this POV. If the main character is a whiny depressive, then spending 300 pages in their head can be a very uncomfortable place to be. Conversely, the mind of a funny, smart and attractive 22 year old makes for enjoyable reading.
In a way, this book is a bit of a genre-bender. It’s crime, but with a light touch, and I think it’s pitched at the emerging audience described as ‘new adult’. Coincidentally, first-person, present is also the POV du jour for the Young Adult market. Apparently, it’s something to do with the riotous success of The Hunger Games (a series I have not read but is apparently written in 1st person present). So, perhaps there’s an element of ‘trendiness’ around this perspective. But that’s not a criticism. Perhaps it has simply taken this long for writers to understand that younger readers (an audience not renowned for its patience) appreciate the immediacy of first person. You get inside a character’s head and you’re held there. The world revolves around that character. It’s not necessarily a highly empathetic perspective, but it certainly mimics the way young people experience the world.
What’s also interesting about Front Page News is how well the first person works for a crime novel where information must be withheld, sometimes artificially so, in order to build suspense. When the novel is written from one perspective, this kind of witholding makes utter, logical sense (we learn as the character learns) as compared to, say, an omniscient perspective where the narrator knows all and therefore should be able to reveal all, but chooses not to for no good plot reason other than to keep the reader guessing.
After my first MS, I decided never to write in the first-person, present perspective ever again. I think that was a rash decision for, as books like Front Page News demonstrate, the problem is usually not with the perspective itself, it’s with how it’s written.
For more information on Front Page News, visit Penguin.
* My e-book copy of Front Page News was courtesy of Net Galley