Pros And Cons Of Second Person Point Of View (Point Of View Post No. 2)

Second person point of view is often used in self-help books (and blog posts) but rarely used in fiction. Because it's so rarely used, though, it can have a striking effect.

But first, let's talk about what it is and it's not.

Quick Look At Second Person Point Of View

Second person uses “you” as the viewpoint character:

You rushed into the room, afraid you’d make a poor first impression by being late.

In contrast, first person uses “I” and third person uses pronouns such as “she” or “he” or character names.

The best example of second person I've found in a novel is Bright Lights Big City by Jay MacInerny.

The author uses not only second person but present tense, which creates a greater urgency. Here are the first few lines:

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the train is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.

When I went looking online for examples of novels in second person, I again found Bright Lights Big City in a string in Quora.

There were a few others, but two of them were what struck me as first person in disguise or at least hybrids. The “you” was not the narrator but the person to whom the narrator was writing:

Stolen: A Letter to My Captor by Lucy Christopher

You saw me before I saw you. In the airport, that day in August, you had that look in your eyes, as though you wanted something from me, as though you’d wanted it for a long time.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Come, tell me, what were you looking for? Surely, at this time of day, only one thing could have brought you….. Have I guessed correctly?

A third, interestingly, was a novel told as if it were a self-help book. From the samples pages I saw, it is told in second person:

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia: A Novel by Mohsin Hamid

Your mother has encountered this condition many times, or conditions like it anyway. So maybe she doesn’t think you’re going to die.

It is a little easier to find short stories told in second person. The Power of You: 5 Stories Written in Second Person on Bookish.com lists five that look good.

The Pros Of Second Person Point Of View

The pluses of writing in second person include all those I talked about last week for first person:

  • Closeness/intimacy between narrator and reader
  • Simpler mechanics because you as the writer know from whose point of view each scene will be told and know you can only share what the narrator knows
  • The need for creative solutions due to those limitations

So why not simply use first person?

Second person creates a greater intimacy and immediacy as the Bright Lights Big City example shows. The reader is plunged right into the scene.

The reader is not simply in the narrator's head, the reader is the narrator. 

Second person also tends to make a writer less inclined to ramble on about backstory or engage in unnecessary flashbacks. Something about writing as if you’re talking about the reader inhibits that, because if you were actually writing about the reader, the reader would already know the backstory.

The Cons Of Second Person Point Of View

As with the pros, the cons of second person include those of first person:

  • You can only share with the reader what the narrator knows, which means some ways of creating suspense are gone
  • It's harder to develop side characters and sub-plots about them
  • If the reader dislikes your narrator or the narrator's voice, the reader will likely dislike the book regardless of its story

(For more, see the Pros And Cons Of Writing In First Person.)

An added disadvantage of second person over first person is that it is uncommon enough that it may initially be distracting to the reader.

All the same, if it's a type of writing that seems compelling to you, give it a try. Most readers forget about the “you” after a few lines.

Until next Friday, when I'll talk about third person, both limited and shifting

L.M. Lilly

Pros And Cons Of Writing In First Person (Point Of View Post No. 1)

Writing in first person can be both fun and extremely challenging.

The reader sees directly through the eyes of a single character, usually the protagonist. But there are drawbacks too.

Point Of View Options

You probably remember the differences between third, second, and first person from your high school literature class. Third person POV uses the pronouns “she” or “he” rather than “you” or “I” when telling the story:

John rushed into the room, afraid he’d make a poor first impression by being late.

Second person POV, which is rarely used in fiction, uses the pronoun “you,” as if you were writing about the reader as a character in the novel:

You rushed into the room, afraid you’d make a poor first impression by being late.

First person POV uses the pronoun “I”:

I rushed into the room, afraid I’d make a poor first impression by being late.

Drawbacks Of First Person POV

  • The Bomb Under The Table

If you write your novel in first person, it can’t include anything that the narrator doesn’t know.

That means if your narrator doesn’t know there’s a bomb under the table, you can’t tell the reader the bomb is there.

This limitation robs the author of a means of suspense. The reader who knows about the bomb worries for the unsuspecting narrator sitting at the table. That reader will remain engaged even if the conversation is less exciting or positively mundane (not that you should aim for dull dialogue).

  • What Are They Thinking/Subplot Scarcity

You also can’t directly state what any character other than the narrator is thinking or feeling. Your narrator can guess, as can the reader, based on other characters’ actions, facial expressions, or body language, but that’s all.

Further, the reader only knows what other characters do in the narrator's presence or as told to the narrator.

Because you can't get into the heads of other characters or see what they do outside the narrator's knowledge, it's more challenging to round out those characters and develop subplots about them.

I've been struggling with this after switching to first person in my new series after writing thrillers from multiple points of view. Nearly half of each of the second and fourth books in my Awakening series are devoted to subplots regarding other characters.

Book 2 deals in depth with protagonist Tara's dad's conflict between his deep religious faith and the challenge his non-believing daughter's virgin pregnancy presents to it. Book 4 includes the struggles of a key figure in The Brotherhood of Andrew–the religious order that believes Tara will trigger an Apocalypse–to resolve his loyalty to the order given what he's learned about Tara and his growing relationship with someone on her team.

Had either book been written in the first person I could have alluded to those conflicts only if Tara knew about them, and I couldn't have made them key parts of the books.

  • Narrator Love/Hate

If your narrator's way of speaking or personality rubs a reader the wrong way that reader will almost certainly dislike the book.

It's like sitting in a room with someone who really gets on your nerves. That person might have valuable things to tell you, but it'll take tremendous effort to get past the speaker's manner and listen.

I discovered this point firsthand with a multi-paragraph review of The Worried Man where the reader disliked my first-person narrator. Other reviewers loved Q.C., and I've already had readers email to ask when the next book about her will be out. But the reader who disliked her pretty much disliked everything about her, which undermined any appreciation of book as a whole.

So why use first person narration at all?

Reasons To Write In First Person

  • Hold Me Close

First person creates greater intimacy between the narrator and the reader and between you and your narrator.

To write in first person, you need to immerse yourself in your narrator's life, emotions, voice, and thoughts. You may come to know your narrator better than you know yourself.

The reader in turn hears firsthand the narrator’s thoughts and experiences. The narrator shares directly with the reader physical sensations, smells, sounds, tastes, and emotions.

If the reader enjoys the narrator's voice and perspective, it's like hanging out with a friend. Especially one who tells great stories.

Because of that, the reader also is likely to come back for book after book.

As I wrote about in Why I Love V.I. on my author blog, I read every one of Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski  private eye novels as soon as they come out because I want to hang out with V.I. again. The plot is secondary to me.

More recently, I read all six of Jana DeLeon's Shaye Archer series within two months for the same reason.

  • Mechanically Speaking

First person is the simplest point of view to write from a nuts and bolts perspective.

That's so because there are fewer decisions to make. You know from whose point of view each scene will be told from page one: your narrator's. You also know exactly what you can and can’t share with the reader: only what the narrator knows.

  • Creativity Abounds

The limits first-person narration presents can spark creativity and heighten your writing skills.

For example, because you can't have a supporting character share thoughts, feelings, and backstory directly with the reader you need to find other ways to do so.

Some options include:

  1. Conflict between the narrator and supporting character that reveals that character's emotions or personal story
  2. Letters, emails, social media posts, or other types of written communication from the supporting character that the narrator discovers or receives
  3. Gestures, facial expressions, and actions of the supporting character that show thoughts and feelings

You can and likely will use all these options and others to some extent no matter what point of view you use.

But first person requires you to try out those options rather than putting the reader in the supporting character's head. It pushes you to expand your toolbox.

That's all for this week.

Until next Friday, when I'll talk about the rarely-used-in-fiction second-person point of view

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more on which character's point of view to use for each scene, you may want to check out Learning About Point Of View From Donald Trump And James Comey.

Sitting, Not Pitching, And Relaxing: Lessons Learned At This Year’s Book Fair

This year I felt really nervous about the Printers Row Lit Fest (a/k/a the Printers Row Book Fair) because I broke my foot some time back.

That fact meant I didn't get as much publicity done for the fair as usual, I had to get there and back with all my books, a wheelchair, and crutches, and I'd need to sit rather than stand most of the time at my table.

To my surprise, this year was my best year of the 5 times I've rented a table there.

I talked with more new readers, had more people join my email list who seemed truly interested, and sold more books to strangers.

Last year in The Beauty of Book Fairs my thought was that it was hard to make a sale at a live event to someone who didn't already know your work.

So what changed?

Sitting Rather Than Standing

Most authors I talk to about or share tables with at book fairs favor standing behind the table or at least standing as soon as someone approaches.

The idea is that people are more likely to see you as they pass by. Also, as educators and speakers have found time and again, standing generally gives you authority and makes you the focus of a room.

Initially I tried standing on the crutches.

But it was awkward and uncomfortable, so most of the time I sat in the wheelchair. And what happened? Way more people came to my table to browse, and more talked with me as they passed by, then looked at the books.

My guess is that more people stopped to talk because I wasn't looming over the table like an overanxious salesperson.

(They couldn't see the wheelchair from the aisle, so it wasn't sympathy or curiosity.)

They didn't feel pressure to buy, so they felt free to chat or browse.

Also, I was more relaxed. I felt happy to have gotten safely behind the table (for more on my harrowing wheelchair ride there see my author blog) and to be outside among people.

I hoped to sell some books, but mostly I wanted to enjoy the day.

In short, I was more interested in having conversations than selling. I think that made it easier to chat with me.

More Books To Share

People also seemed to feel more comfortable looking over the table because I had more different books to sell. In previous years I'd published fewer titles (only Book 1 and 2 in my first series the first year). People assumed I was the author standing behind the table. This year, though, they asked if I was and were excited when I said yes.

When you only have one novel or two to sell, readers feel bad if they pick one up, look at the back, and walk away. At least, I always feel that way at a book fair. So I'm more comfortable looking if there are lots of choices. It doesn't feel so personal if I choose not to buy.

The larger number and type of books also allowed me to group them on the table by genre.

I put my supernatural thriller series at one end, then my short horror story collection and standalone gothic horror novel, then my new mystery/suspense novel, then my non-fiction books.

That way, if people didn't like one genre or weren't interested in the covers, they naturally gravitated to the next set of books.

This progression seemed to make readers more comfortable browsing.

Having many books also allowed me to have multiple price points.

The novels were $10 (or two for $18), the non-fiction $5, and the short story collection–which is very short–$3. One person bought the short story collection, which was set in Chicago, as soon as he heard it was $3.

On Not Pitching Your Books

In previous years, I asked people who neared the table or browsed, “What do you like to read?” or started telling them about the books.

This year I said hello, said how nice it was it had stopped raining (it was nice!), or asked if they'd found anything interesting this year at the fair. If they didn't start looking at my books, I didn't say anything about them.

As a result, some people who started out by saying they'd already bought too many books ended by buying after chatting with me, and/or signed up to my email list.

If people looked at a book or two, I explained how the books were grouped. If someone seemed interested in that, I volunteered which ones were set in the neighborhood of the book fair, which I've always found to be a good sales point. If they looked at the writing books, I asked if they were interested in writing.

But I only explained the premise of a book if the person asked about it. In previous years, I started with that–my pitch–as soon as the person picked up the book.

After this year's experience, next year I plan to sit behind the table, enjoy talking with people, and not worry so much about sales.

Who knew breaking my foot could be such a good thing?

Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly

 

Answering The Snarky Things People Say About Your Writing

Many of us have heard the Eleanor Roosevelt quote “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

When it comes to something as personal as our writing, though, sometimes it's hard to put that advice into practice.

While most people you talk to about your books will be supportive or at least polite, odds are you will run into someone (or more than one someones) who says something that leaves you feeling bad about yourself or your writing.

The comment may be made unintentionally or it might be designed to belittle you.

As  I mentioned last week in Mastering Talking About Your Books, fear of these types of comments can keep us from telling people about our writing despite that it helps our careers to do so. I think this can be especially so for self-published writers because we don't have the outside validation that trad-published writers get when a traditional publisher backs their work.

Below are a few thoughts on how to handle unkind, thoughtless, or snarky comments, followed by a some responses I've used.

Taking Comments In The Best Light

I find it helpful to answer each comment or question as if it had been meant in the most positive way possible.

For one thing, that might be true.

Sometimes the person is genuinely asking for information or expressing interest or support, but doesn't know a question might be intrusive or upsetting.

When I was submitting a manuscript to publishers and agents and getting rounds of rejections, a business colleague of mine would always say, “Hey, keep trying, you’ll be just like that Harry Potter lady. Pretty soon you’ll be a millionaire.”

He was trying to be supportive, but every time I’d plummet into depression because I couldn’t possibly have felt farther from J.K. Rowling. My colleague didn’t know that I’d already been trying, and trying, and trying for years. I’d written several novels, yet I’d never made a single dollar on a piece of fiction. (I sold one short story for $15 and the check bounced.)

As another example, most people don’t realize asking how many books you’ve sold is a bit like asking your salary.

Some people might be comfortable answering that, but others won’t be. If you’re not, you can come up with some responses you do feel okay with.

Recognize It’s Not About You

Sometimes a person’s comments about you or your work are really about themselves and where they are or want to be.

For example, someone who says “I wish I had time to do nothing like you do” (I've had people say this) on hearing that you write fiction may be feeling overwhelmed at work and desperately wants to be doing something else.

This also is true for someone who makes comments that undermine you.

For instance, a relative once called to ask me about self-publishing paperbacks. She knew I’d published a series, and she was giving a workshop for people in a retirement home who had written memoirs or family histories and might want to publish them.

After I’d given her information on tips, costs, and publishing platforms, she said, “Thanks. I figure most people will self-publish because their writing is pretty bad. The ones who wrote anything good will get real publishing deals.”

I was so surprised by her implying that my writing must not be any good, especially after I’d spent an hour of my time helping her, that I didn’t respond.

Later, I thought about it and realized that she often threw digs about my writing and publishing into conversations as asides or “jokes.”

None of it had anything to do with my writing. She'd never read my books.

Instead, her snarky comments reflected something inside her. What exactly I don't know, but it doesn't matter. There are no good reasons for trying to tear someone else down, and someone who does that isn't a friend.

Ways To Respond

Over the years I’ve developed some answers that work for me to difficult comments.

Most are based on the idea that the person is genuinely seeking or offering helpful information, even if they’re not, and others are meant to shift the conversation, point out that the questions might be a bit tactless, or elicit information that might actually be helpful.

My friend sold 100,000 copies of her book the first week. How many have you sold?

  • Answers (assuming you haven’t sold 100,000):

That’s fantastic. Do you think she would meet me and give me some advice?

I’d love to sell 100,000 in one week. Do you have any suggestions on doing that?

I haven’t sold 100,000 this week. Maybe next week!

Oh, you wrote a book. Did you self-publish it? (said with raised eyebrows or while looking down the nose)

  • Answers:

Yes, I did. Are you thinking about it? I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned.

Yes, I did. I love having control and keeping all the profits.

Did you try getting a real publisher?

I thought about a traditional publisher, but I’d rather work to make money for myself than a big company.

No, I like having control over my creative work.

Why? Do you know a good one?

Your book sounds dull. Why don’t you write about something interesting/ important, like General Custer/animal rights/wizards?

  • Answers:

Oh, are you interested in General Custer/animal rights/wizards? Tell me more about that.

Is there anything I could change in how I described the book(s) that might make it sound more interesting to you?

How much do you make writing  books?

  • Answers:

It varies. Some authors earn six or seven figures, others earn enough to cover their Starbucks habit.

Oh, I’m sure you make more. What’s your yearly salary?

I wish I had time to sit around and do nothing but write.

  • Answers:

What would you write about?

Sounds like you have a busy schedule. What have you been working on lately?

If you like, I could share some tips/recommend a good book on how to fit writing into a busy schedule.

Obviously, these aren’t the only ways to respond. I offer them in case they might be helpful to you, or to spark your own ideas for what to say.

However you choose to answer, having responses ready can help you shift away from a comment or question that might undermine your confidence. And it might help you learn something new or get to know the other person better.

Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly

Mastering Talking About Your Books

These days most marketing takes place online, so if you're uncomfortable talking about yourself or your books it's easy to avoid it entirely. But potential readers you meet in person can become some of your biggest fans.

Also, not everyone spends time on social media. Some of your acquaintances may never come across your work if you don't tell them.

In person. Using your voice.

So how can you get comfortable talking about your books? And do it in a way that engages people?

Why Some Of Us Hesitate To Share

The idea of telling someone you just met—or even someone you’ve known a long time—about your novel or other writing can be intimidating.

You might be hesitant to “brag” about yourself. You might fear other people will say unkind things, that you’re boring your listener, or that you don’t deserve the attention.

Maybe you just don't like the spotlight or aren't sure what to say.

The best way to deal with these concerns is to prepare ahead of time.

On Not Being A Bore

We’ve all met that person at a party who corners us for what feels like forever to tell us everything we never wanted to know about fruit flies or the dangers of red dye or some other topic in which we have limited (or no) interest. 

Worse, that person never seems to pick up on cues such as attempts to change the conversation, repeated monosyllabic responses, or glazed eyes.

If you’re like me, your concern about not wanting to be that person can make you hesitate to say  anything about a book or books you’ve written. 

So start out by resolving to pay attention to your listener.

If after you've described your book briefly (see below) and perhaps said a few words in follow up, your conversation partner is saying little more than “Uh-huh” or non-committal things like “Oh, how nice,” let the topic drop.

It may help you to get started to realize that….

Most People Will Be Excited To Hear You Wrote A Book

When I was about to publish The Awakening a colleague who is great at connecting people invited me to a networking event with other lawyers and businesspeople. She surprised me by always adding when she introduced me that I'd written a thriller.

Why?

Because half the people in the room were lawyers, and the other half were people the lawyers wanted to get business from. So every other person there started with something like, “My law practice focuses on small businesses…”

People were excited to hear I'd written a thriller because it was something different to talk about.

As a side benefit, I discovered they were more likely to remember me as a lawyer because I was the one who had written the book.

Unless you’re at a writers conference, odds are you'll be the only person in the room who's written or published a novel. And if you happen to run into someone else who has, that’s great. You'll have a ton to talk about.

As to friends and acquaintances, if they like to read they'll want to know you've written a book (or books). As long as you remember to ask about what they're doing as well and don't monopolize the conversation, they'll be happy to hear about your writing.

But if you don't have a colleague to introduce you, how do you mention your writing without it feeling forced?

Starting The Conversation

When I started publishing my books, I didn't feel comfortable introducing myself as a writer or novelist.

In my mind, I wasn’t a “real” writer because I didn’t make my living at it. Also, when I started out self-publishing was much less accepted than it is now. I felt like if I said I published my own work, they'd assume it must not be very good.

Eventually I figured out that I felt more comfortable stating facts or my feelings, and it was natural to do it in answer to most basic conversation starters.

For example, often people ask “what do you do?” Though I wasn’t comfortable calling myself a writer yet, I was okay saying I was a lawyer and also wrote supernatural thrillers. 

If someone I hadn't seen in a while asked how I was, I said something like, “I’m doing great. I’m so excited because I just published a new novel/got a good review/got a new cover design.” Or I might say, “I'm nervous because I'm launching a new book tomorrow.”

Though I didn't like calling my writing a hobby because I was pursuing it in the hope of making it my career, if asked about hobbies, I'd say that I wrote novels as a second job. 

Once you've told people you wrote a novel, the typical question is what it's about.

To get your best chance at intriguing a possible new reader, and to avoid rambling until the person's eyes glaze over, try preparing a one-sentence summary in advance.

The One-Sentence Summary

To create this sentence, answer these three questions:

(1) Who is your protagonist?

Not your character's name, which won't mean anything to your listener, but a brief description. For example, a young woman, a brand new attorney, a retired police detective, a frightened child.

(2) What does your protagonist want or what problem does your protagonist face?

In The Awakening, the young woman protagonist's problem is that she discovers she's pregnant despite that she has never had sex. In my latest release, a suspense/mystery novel, just as she's about to move in with him, the protagonist discovers her boyfriend's dead body. 

(3) What stands in your character's way?

You answer can identify the antagonist or focus on other barriers to what your protagonist wants or needs to do. 

Now combine these three elements into sentence.

For instance, in Fifty Shades of Grey, a young woman wants a relationship with the man she loves but his controlling nature and his specific sexual needs conflict with her own.

For The Awakening, my sentence is: a young woman with a mysterious pregnancy faces a cult convinced she'll trigger Armageddon.

You can also create variations of your one sentence if you know someone likes a particular type of book.

If I'm talking to someone I know enjoys horror or occult books, I might start by saying “The Awakening is a supernatural thriller about…”

If it's someone old enough to remember the popularity of Rosemary's Baby or who's interested in themes about divine femininity or religion, I'll say, “It's a cross between Rosemary's Baby and The Da Vinci Code.”

What Next?

Once you give your one-sentence description, watch and listen to the response. If the person's eyes light up or they lean forward or smile or say they love that type of book, feel free to tell them a little more about it.

Again, a sentence or two will do. (See On Not Being A Bore above.)

You might share how you got the idea for the book or how long it took you to write it. If the person still seems interested, that’s the time to say that the book is available on your website or on Amazon or wherever it's is easiest to find.

If you have a card or a bookmark or other paper with information, feel free to hand it to that person.

Now stop, as it's time to apply the rule of leaving your listener (and potential reader) wanting more.

Until next Friday, when I'll talk about what you can do if you take the risk of talking about your book and get a negative response

L.M. Lilly