I’ve been actively writing since elementary school and telling stories long before that. I engage in many forms of storytelling using many different mediums. I’ve written lots of short stories, some published, some not. I study social sciences, humanities, critical reading and writing, and literature – by all means I should know how to create and weave a sound story.
In my mid-teens I wrote two high fantasy novels with an average of 50,000 words each. Several years later it may not seem like much, but it was a big accomplishment for me at the time and gave me a taste of what was to come if I continued writing.
Prior to serving a two year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I had started writing a science fiction story. At the time it wasn’t meant to be anything other than a standalone story, not meant to be very long, and I certainly didn’t intend to try and publish it.
The whole thing started as a Real Writing Prompt. I usually wrote in third person and had written enough stories in first person that I was experienced with it, but I wanted to do a story that the reader experienced as it happened.
There are a lot of first person present tense stories out there and my issue with them is how often they slip into past tense. Once I see past tense I don’t care about the protagonist at all, or at least them being in danger of dying. It’s past tense. The story has happened. I immediately become more concerned with which secondary characters will die.
Supposing the writer doesn’t slip into past tense and maintains present tense consistently – action and other events sometimes take too long and don’t make logical sense.
In third person you can “pause” the story to provide extensive description and more set up. Perhaps if you’re writing a Victorian novel you’ll pause and interject your own thoughts on the story thus far.
You can take as long as you want to describe something in third person.
In first person you don’t have that luxury. You can’t “pause” first person just as you can’t “pause” your life.
If I were to be in a fight and take the time to describe everything that’s going on, like you see in lots of first person novels, I’d lose the fight. If you were taken by surprise from an attack would you react first or describe first?
This was something I spent hours and hours working on for my science fiction story. I only used past tense when the protagonist was relating a past event to another character. (Even then the pauses and actions between dialogues were in present tense.) In fight scenes the character would react first (if an attack was sudden or unexpected) and then briefly relate what happened afterward. The protagonist would describe just enough of the environment without effectively “pausing” the world around her. (Imagine walking into a room, standing still, and describing everything while other people walk around you and try to interact with you.)
The protagonist of this story shared her mind with an artificial intelligence that possessed the ability to read her “active thoughts”. Now I had another issue – recognizing an “active thought” and having the A.I. comment, to the protagonist, about it. An example would be the protagonist thinking through an issue (active thinking) and the A.I. immediately jumping in.
The next part of my prompt was to make the main character blind.
I had now made the writing process even more difficult than I could have imagined.
A story about a blind girl with an A.I. capable of reading her active thoughts told in first person present tense as it happens? This was the first person story I always wanted – where I actually was concerned for the welfare of the protagonist because I experienced everything in the moment she did.
A challenging Real Writing Prompt that would become one of my favorite writing projects.
I was able to produce a few very rough and short chapters to my writing group who received it well and were very encouraging about this seemingly foolish task.
Soon after however I left on my mission and put aside all writing for two years. The experiences I had with hundreds of wonderful people affected every aspect of my life positively, including my writing.
Upon returning home I immediately went back to work on my writing. I decided that this book would be the one I wanted to publish. I began working with a blind friend of mine to try and understand more of what his life is like and how he copes.
A year later I finished my first draft.
A few months later my second and third drafts were complete and I started working on a sequel. The individual who was to edit and provide feedback wouldn’t be able to work on the book for a few months and so I decided to keep writing versus waiting around.
Soon the editor reviewed and offered feedback. She was caring, but brutal in tactics. I made extensive revisions according to her insights and went back to her. Again she asked for revisions and provided more feedback, but not nearly as much as the first time around. I got her approval and started letting some individuals read my manuscript. Some offered suggestions and some of those were implemented after talking them over with my writer friends.
In December 2013 I began querying agents.
I had spent days researching how to write query letters, looking at successful letters, searching out agents I felt I connected to best, and reading everything I could think of in regards to publishing and literary representation. I wrote a query letter, revised it several times, sought help from different sources on writing it, and then personalized it for the agent I wanted to submit to.
About a week later I was rejected.
I started over and found another agent. Rejected.
College began to demand more of me and so my writing slipped to the backburner for a bit. A few months passed and I submitted to multiple agents. A few weeks later I received rejections from all of them.
I am aware that everyone is rejected. I have dealt with rejection all my life and especially on my mission. But, I knew the work I had put into my story, I knew the countless hours spent researching, tweaking, and making everything have significance. I broke away from my usual writing style and tried something completely new to me that challenged me to my fullest. I wanted to become a better writer and worked hard for it.
Surely, someone might care. There had to be someone who liked the style and wanted to help me move forward with my story.
So I kept trying to find agents. I participated in events designed to help put writers together with agents and publishers.
I continued playing the waiting game.
In all the books and stories I’ve read, in all the things I’ve studied in school and in my free time, I hadn’t found anything written quite the way my book was. Even those in my writing group thought the style of writing and the way the story was told was different. I thought this set me apart as unique in a good way.
I had only barely considered it to be the other way.
This project, this science fiction story, like I’ve said was completely different from anything I had done before. The limitations imposed by the writing style, “as it happens”, caused me to worry it wouldn’t be the quality I was used to producing. Was there enough description? Could I set up the environment without being that person standing still at a party while others moved around me? How do I write only in present tense without making it seem such a drastic and out of place technique? Combine that with a protagonist who is blind and an A.I. that reads her active thoughts – I was very worried through a good portion of the writing process even into the final draft if this would work.
But those in my writing circle enjoyed it and were encouraging.
Even some of the rejection letters I received encouraged me and expressed enjoying it. Well, they’d all say that, wouldn’t they? I decided to research the kinds of rejection letters sent out and what they mean. Of course some of the letters were very generic and shared all the common elements, “I’m just one opinion”, “this business is very subjective”, or “it’s not something I’m interested in representing at this time”.
However, there was a few that were personalized and expressed genuine encouragement. That gave me hope.
Then I received a rejection that was very personalized and told me what was wrong with my story.
A worry that had been in my mind ever since the inception of this project several years ago: the writing style.
When I start a project the writing style is determined primarily by the kind of story I want to tell. I think for some time about what would best tell what I want and how I want, and then I work out detailed outlines and plot points catered to that style so everything fits snuggly. I probably spend equal time devoted to the preliminary work as I do for the actual writing.
I realize this letter is just one opinion and I’m very grateful for them in sharing their thoughts specifically on the matter, but it makes me wonder even more as to what the motivation was for my past rejections. Was it the writing style and someone just finally decided to be upfront? Perhaps this project just isn’t meant to be?
I love the story, I love the characters, I love the issues, and I’m excited to continue to work on the project. It’s not something I can just let go. The story will remain, but maybe I should change how it’s told.
I can’t express in words how that makes me feel.
I could rework the style and consequently rework the rhetoric in an attempt to salvage some of my original project. The first person tense will be scrapped entirely – the reason being explained above: no concern for the lasting welfare of the protagonist. With third person I’d be able to maintain the concern the reader may have for my character.
I’m not sure what I’ll do just yet. I still have partials of my current manuscript out among agents so I don’t think I’ll start rewriting in case one of them is interested in how the book is now. But I’m also unsure if I’ll continue to submit to others after I hear back from these agents.
The decision ahead is difficult: keep what I have right now and press on and hope for representation and publication or rework everything and rewrite the story in a different, more traditional way.
I’m almost at a loss at what to do and I would greatly appreciate thoughts and input.