Write This Down by Claudia Mills
Write This Down will appeal to students that love to write. I know as a kid I loved to write stories and often dreamed of being a published writer just like Autumn. Claudia Mills does a wonderful job showing Autumn’s growth as a writer while she struggles with a change in family dynamics. Will Autumn become a published writer? And will her relationship with her brother and family strengthen or unravel in the process? Read Write This Down to find out!
Claudia Mills agreed to share some thoughts about writing craft from her new book Write This Down. Thank you Claudia for sharing your process!
First Person versus Third Person: Which Is Better for This Story?
by Claudia Mills
One of the most crucial decisions an author has to make in crafting a story is the choice of point of view. Should the story be told by an omniscient narrator who has a godlike ability to enter into any character’s head at will? Or by the main character, speaking directly to the reader in his or her own voice? Or in a third-person narrative that nonetheless stays throughout in the head of the protagonist, tracking his or her perceptions and emotions? Or even from multiple perspectives, switching back and forth from chapter to chapter?
I prefer to write in what writers call “third-person limited point of view”: a third-person narration that sticks closely inside the main character’s head. Of my 57 published books, 53 have been third-person books. I love third-person limited point of view because it has much of the directness and intimacy of first person, but allows for more sophisticated language than a child might be capable of. First-person narration can sometimes feel too generic: a bland, flat “every kid” way of speaking, or too much like an adult’s cutsey attempt to sound kidlike.
For Write This Down, however, I felt that I had to tell Autumn’s story in first person. After all, Autumn is a writer. I’ve written books about other girls who like to write, but Autumn is my most writerly writer: she defines herself as a writer, and the conflicts she faces as a writer seeking publication are what drive the story. So I felt that, as a writer, Autumn should get to narrate her own story, in her own way.
As I wrote, though, I discovered a danger I hadn’t realized about first-person writing. I started to fall in love with the sound of Autumn’s voice, adoring the access I suddenly had to every single one of her thoughts and feelings. I was on a first-person roll, luxuriating in being so fully and thoroughly inside my main character’s head. But the reader didn’t need to know every single one of Autumn’s thoughts and feelings. Who really wants to take up residence that claustrophobically inside someone else’s consciousness? When someone tells you every single thing she thinks and feels, she starts to sound pretty darned self-centered. Readers may react with the sentiment I saw once expressed on a T-shirt: “You must be mistaking me for someone who cares.”
The only solution: cut, cut, cut. Make sure that all thoughts and feelings expressed are directly relevant to the story, not mere witty, pleasant asides. Keep returning to what gives a story its needed momentum, not interior monologue, but action. Ruthlessly, I hacked a full ten pages out of the final draft just from cutting commentary of Autumn’s that went on too long.
I still love some of the bits that had to go, so I’ll share one of them here. Autumn, who has decided to win her brother’s respect and her crush’s love through her writing, ruminates on the famous saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” You can be the only people in the world who have a chance to read it!
When I get home that afternoon, after Monday ballet with Kylee, I decide to look up the person who said the pen is mightier than the sword. I want to find out if he had ever done anything especially mighty with his pen, given how much he’s inspired me to do something extra-mighty with mine.
“The pen is mightier than the sword” was first said by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839. A lot of other people had already said sort of the same thing, in different words. Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Thomas Paine saying, “Go on doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword.” Both of those Thomases had uber-mighty pens. Jefferson used his pen to write the Declaration of Independence – it’s hard to find anything mightier than that. And Thomas Paine wrote this pamphlet called Common Sense that talked a lot of undecided people into siding against the British in the American Revolution. Still, Jefferson didn’t really say to Paine that the pen is mightier than the sword, more that the pen is the new sword. Bulwer-Lytton’s line is more quotable.
Here’s the really ironic and pitiful thing. Bulwer-Lytton is also the person who started one of his novels with the line “It was a dark and stormy night.” This is apparently a terrible first line, though to be honest, I don’t see what is so terrible about it. It gets copied a lot, but that doesn’t make it terrible. Anyway, some people think this line is so terrible that there is a whole contest – I’m not making this up – called the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, where people write terrible first lines on purpose to get prizes.
So the person who wrote that the pen is mightier than the sword is now mocked on an annual basis for how un-mighty his own pen was.
I love ironic things like that when they happen in the world.
I hate when they happen to me in my own life.
Thanks again Claudia for your insightful thoughts on writing craft. It was great to learn more about Autumn and this well known saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
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