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The importance of humility

I keep back all of my old manuscripts. From time to time, I take one out and read the wretched prose I put down while struggling to learn the craft. That deflates my head every time so it fits through a doorway.

There is a particularly odious passage in a very early version of one of my fantasy novels where a dignitary visits a palace and pike men stand in a line as an an honor guard. I thought the piece was Pulitzer Prize winning material and would elevate the fantasy genre. I would be hailed a brilliant young talent and the book would go on to be a best seller. For reasons known to no force in the universe, I had a fly land in the cheek of one of the soldiers, This was a minor character who would never appear again. As the fly crawled around, the soldier fought to remain at attention. At this point, I actually wrote the words, "To flinch would be a fate worse than death." As we all know, you should avoid cliches like the plague.

I was taking a course in novel writing at the time. The instructor would read two manuscript sections each session and everyone would critique them as a learning exercise. As my piece was read, I slunk lower and lower into my chair. What had seemed so great crumbled into a pile of amateurish mediocrity.

I left the classroom and stood despondent on a street corner next to a trash can. I looked at the manuscript and said out loud to myself, “This is it. Either you accept you don’t know how to write yet, the words are not my blood on the page, comments are not murdering my child and I need to consider each critique to discover how to improve. Otherwise, I have to throw the manuscript in the trash can and never write again.

I chose not to throw the manuscript into the trash. At that instant, I stepped above my ego and became a writer. I didn’t have a published book and hadn’t even finished one, yet I was a writer because I began to work at a professional level.

Years later, after much work, an improved version of that book was a semifinalist in Publisher Weekly’s Booklife Prize with a score of 9.5 our of 10. It also won a silver medal for Literary Sci-fi & Fantasy and bronze medals for Fantasy Action & Adventure and Dragons & Mythical Beasts. None of that would have happened if I hadn't overcome my ego.

Narrator and Point-of-View and Details

Who is telling the story? This is the narrator Whose eyes do we see the action through? This is the point-of-view. These work together to present a window onto the story.

There are four types of narrators: first person, second person, third person and the omniscient narrator.

In first person narration, the main character relays the story as seen by that character. For example, I listened at the keyhole in anticipation as Lord Frazzlefoo said, “Where are my suspenders?” Even though Lord Frazzlefoo has dialogue, it is the first person narrator who hears it and relays the conversation to the reader.

If Lady Poobob was in the garden painting Lord Frazzlefoo’s suspenders green at the same time, the reader won’t learn this unless the first-person narrator observes it or discovers this fact later. First person narration puts everything in the narrator’s point-of-view. This can be limiting. There is no overall grand sense to the story. However, it gives the story a sense of immediacy, as if the main character grabs the reader by the shoulders and shouts, “This is my story. You have to hear it.”

Second person narration is rarely used in novels. It addresses readers as if they are the main character in the story. It can be seen in role playing games or build-your-own-adventure books. It’s always told in present tense, as if the action is happening at the moment the book is read. You listen at the keyhole as Lord Frazzlefoo says, “Where are my suspenders?

Third person narration presents the characters as separate from the action. It can be told from the point-of-view of a single character or through the eyes of many characters. This is often seen in large, epic stories.

Detective Samuels peered through the keyhole as his heart pumped in anticipation. I’ve got you this time, he thought.

Inside the room, Lord Frazzlefoo rummaged through his closet. He was certain he put the suspenders away. “Where are they.” He wondered if Lady Poobob took them.

In the garden, Lady Poobob sat on a bench with Lord Frazzlefoo’s suspenders in her hands. She smiled as she dipped a brush into green paint and slathered it on the braces.

Here we see and hear the story and inner thoughts through the eyes and ears of the detective, Lord Frazzlefoo and the omniscient narrator who describes Lady Poobob’s actions. This is an example of multiple viewpoints.

In third person narration, we can add even more information known to none of the characters through the omniscient narrator who sees, hears and understands everything.

Lady Poobob was certain they’d fetch a hefty price in London. With the telephone out of service, everyone was unaware the market for green suspenders collapsed that morning.

Details are best remembered when given through the eyes of the characters.

Tom felt the cold steel of the railing as he descended the staircase will be remembered better than The steel railing was cold.

Descriptions give the impression of a place or objects. They shouldn’t be travelogues, as in:

Bright sunshine sparkled on the placid waters of the lake surrounded by tall trees whose green leaves were in dark contrast to the blue sky filled with fluffy clouds.

Unless these details are important to the story or character development, they should be condensed.

Sun sparked off the forest lake.

This may be all you need. It gives a feeling for the place. Readers will fill in their own secondary details.

Even in historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy, worlds that are in the past, have yet to occur or never existed, details should be carefully selected to enhance the story and character development. Let the details of a Victorian carriage signal the mood of a character or a social condition. Inform readers the threat an energy field protects a space ship from. Let an epic poem told by a bad in a fantasy story foreshadow events to come. Always put your details to work.