I took a writing class a few nights ago at Grub Street in Boston. My friend Jeff roped me into it, and I’m glad he did. The topic was Creating an Irresistible Narrator, and the instructor was Steve Almond, author of Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.
Steve teaches a few classes at Grub Street, but this was his first time for the Irresistible Narrator. I wouldn’t have guessed. He was so articulate and passionate about the subject that the three hours really moved along. It felt like barely enough time for him to cram in all of the great examples of compelling narrative that he had prepared, along with his own commentary about what it takes to craft a narrator who infuses the story with a promise of action, a clarity of context, and an insight into the characters that surpasses their own.
Steve is also a fun and funny guy to pass a few hours with.
Halfway through the class he assigned an exercise in shifting the narrative point of view for our current WIP. The idea was to see which tools become available by switching the perspective. For this, I rewrote from memory the first paragraph of my current book, changing it from a pretty intimate third-person POV to an even closer first-person. It was interesting because, while the change was subtle, it definitely made my opening more efficient. In first person I suddenly had license to insert a few intriguing bits of commentary on the scene very early.
It was also helpful to write my opening paragraph with the knowledge that I would soon be reading it to a roomful of other writers who would have nothing more than that paragraph with which to judge me, my work, my story. And really, that’s what a writer is often up against when submitting to agents and editors, or when trying to hook a reader in a bookstore who has flipped to the first page for a taste. The immediacy of the exercise put me on the spot and forced me to tell the damned story with as much hook and precision as I could muster in a twenty-minute draft.
Now, I’m not planning to rewrite three hundred pages to reframe the story in first-person (there are reasons why this book needs multiple-character POV) but I’m sure the next draft of Chapter 1 will be better for the exercise.
If you’re a writer working on an opening, its worth a try to see what you can learn from switching modes, regardless of what you know about your story’s needs. And if you live near Boston, I highly recommend the Grub Street writer’s workshop, and Steve Almond.