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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 02:44 pm:   

For some reason, about 85% of the submissions I'm getting for projects I'm on working on are first person. I have no innate problem with first person. In fact, I like first person stories. But there needs to be variety --not just in tone, content, theme, background, and character but in point of view. Arghhh.

Anyone have ideas about why this is happening? Not being a writer I have no idea if first person is easier to write than third...
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Sam S.
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 05:01 pm:   

Having worked in publishing, and being given the opportunities to be an editor for this long, you should know if writing in first person is easier or not. But since you seem so sincerely in the dark, I will tell you from this writer's viewpoint: Neither is easier or easy. Writing is extremely difficult no matter what point of view is taken. Whichever one best tells the story is, hopefully, the professional writer's first choice, however. I hope this answers your question, Ellen.
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MarcL
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 06:10 pm:   

Maybe you should create a first person theme anthology.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 07:01 pm:   

Sam, since, as previously mentioned I'm not a writer and never have been, I wouldn't and don't know. This was not a rhetorical question.

And that doesn't answer the question at all. As an editor for over 25 years, I think/hope I would have noticed if most of the stories I published over the decades were first person. I am noticing it now.

Suddenly it's the norm, not the exception.

Marc, unfortunately I'm afraid that's what the anthos I'm editing will become ;-)
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Nathan
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 07:09 pm:   

Uh-oh. I never write in first person, and yet the story I'm preparing to submit to you just happens to be written that way ....
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 07:28 pm:   

Nathan,
Did you write it that way consciously or did it just happen? You may not want to analyse it till your done--I don't want to block you :-)
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POV
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 07:54 pm:   

Personally, I write in first person less frequently than in 3rd -- it's not easier, but first is a good way of exposing the protag's inner thoughts and/or biases without getting a feeling that the author is standing there, pointing and laughing. If it can be painlessly converted into third and still work, I do it.
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barry
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 07:56 pm:   

Oh, Ellen, I'm pretty certain he didn't write it that way *unconsciously*. <g> Although I'll bet he wishes his writing would *just happen*. <g> Unfortunately, and this is for all non-writers, writing is a little more difficult than that. <g>
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 08:02 pm:   

As a reader I think first person brings me into a story quicker. I have nothing against writers using it.

Ok, let me ask this. If most of the stories in an anthology were in first person, do you (all of you out there)think you would notice and if so, would it bother you? Would there be too much of a sameness about the stories' tones even if every other element made the stories different from each other?
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Bradley
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 08:07 pm:   

Let us (all of us out there) ask you this, Ellen: Would it bother you if you saw a bunch of third person stories?
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 08:13 pm:   

No. (first quick reaction). I think it's because the "third person" is invisible, if you get what I mean.

Other points of view can be more intrusive of the reader's psyche: especially for example second person present tense. I've published at least one story like that (a Mike Bishop in OMNI)but it's very difficult to pull off without annoying the reader.
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Nathan
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 08:23 pm:   

Your second question first: I'd definitely notice if most of the stories in an anthology were first person. I kind of doubt that it would bother me; more likely, I'd look at it as a kind of curiosity.

It seems, at first blush, that there's more opportunity for varied tones with a lot of first person stories, although that's probably one of those notions that's true in theory but not in practice.

As for my own, writing it in first person was not a conscious choice. It did occur to me a few pages in that it was something I hadn't done before, which heightened its appeal for me. At one point I redrafted the first few paragraphs in third, just to see if it would feel more familiar, but the story seemed to become more distant, like it was something being examined through a pane of glass. I don't know why that is; I'm going on pure intuition at this point.
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Nathan
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 08:26 pm:   

Regarding second person: I agree entirely. It's far too gimmicky. Nothing puts me off faster than a writer resorting to circus tricks. I did like O'Nan's A PRAYER FOR THE DYING, however.
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MarcL
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 08:26 pm:   

This made me go back and count POV in my published stories (at least, the ones listed at the Internet SpecFic database...god knows where my own records are). I count only four or five first-person stories, most of which are from early in my career (such as "400 Boys"); and two of those are collaborations (with Greg Benford and Gary Myers).

I almost never think to write a story in that mode...personally, it seems too limiting unless there's a very very very good reason. It seems like a first resort for a lot of writers; maybe they know something I don't. I'd use it for a story composed of journal entries. If I had to speculate as to the reason why, I'd guess it's because I already spend virtually all my time in the first person (email, conversation, etc.); I want the act of writing to be a bit more removed from my ordinary way of thinking. Then again, my latest story, "Jane," was in first person...and I did a few deliberate things to make her voice more stilted, stylized, separate from my own. I never conceived that story happening in any particular POV or tense; it just happened that way.

I do find first person to be more obtrusive, more show-offy in some ways. It's a larger initial hurdle for me to get over when getting into a story. Much easier for me to enter by way of some evocative descriptive passage, or a conversation overheard.

I'm sure the history of POV or auctorial stance in English literature is an interesting one. Anyone know a good survey of the subject?
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 08:28 pm:   

Nathan,
Thanks--keep the first person if that's what the story needs.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 08:31 pm:   

Nathan,
Yeah--another good example of second person that works.
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MarcL
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 08:36 pm:   

I wanted to add that I hadn't realized "Jane" was a first person story until I was putting in the comments above. I visualize it in a third person omniscient way; I see Jane, I don't see through her. Maybe it's because I spent a long time thinking about the basic idea for the story before I wrote it...and it was originally in concept more about the father than the daughter. And maybe it moved into her eyes as a way of observing him; and that left her the central character. I'm guessing, though; I just think it's odd that I can think I never write in first person, while Jane is staring me in the face and loudly clearing her throat.
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POV
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 08:40 pm:   

I think Marc hit the nail on the head: with some stories, I simply do not remember whether they were first or third person; especially with tight third, the distinction can blur, and the effect on the reader can be largely the same.

If an anthology contained nothing but first person stories, I would notice it, but it wouldn't bother me. If you had mostly first person with some third sprinkled in, it probably wouldn't even register.
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Nathan
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 08:41 pm:   

Marc, I agree that first person is very limiting. Ellen mentioned third person being invisible, and I think it's true. It's the default narrative mode. A deviation from that should have a reason -- or anyway, it should if I'm the one doing it.

I seem to remember reading somewhere that most first novels are written in first person, presumably because it's easier for a first time novelist to get into the protagonist's head. No idea whether or not that's true.
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jeff ford
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 08:50 pm:   

There's ways to disguise the first person in a story, depending on your opening.
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Nathan
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 08:52 pm:   

Jeff, what do you mean?
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jeff ford
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 08:57 pm:   

Well, you can effectively have a thrid person story until you introduce the 1st person (I) and that can go on for varying lengths -- a paragraph, 2, 3, 4? Then the reader is into the story and not so much noticing those kinds of things but caught up in the story. It's not something to do deliberately, but it happens.
Steven Millhauser uses "We" a lot. But occasionally
an I breaks off of that we and directs the remainder of the story. Stuff like that.
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MarcL
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 09:04 pm:   

"Jane" always refers to her father as "our father" instead of "my father." That was deliberate for a couple reasons. The concept of the first-person plural (or "We") narrative is pretty intriguing, and might have a folkloric feel--a tale told by a community. I love when writers do this in a clever way...doing flashy technical tricks that I don't notice until I'm way lost in the story. Millhauser's probably a good example of that. Anyway, as with magic and other forms of illusion, misdirection is a very important part of the repertoire. If you're fixed on "we," then you might not even notice what "I" am up to.
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Nathan
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 09:04 pm:   

I see. Jeffrey Eugenides's THE VIRGIN SUICIDES fits that bill, too.
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MarcL
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 09:06 pm:   

I have to think about the limitations and challenges of first person a lot. Half-Life is told entirely through First-Person Mute. Maybe that's another reason I avoid it when I am able to stretch out in prose.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 09:13 pm:   

Jeff,
I've read stories like that. I think they're third person and then a few pages in and there's this sudden shift to "I." --is that what you mean? A few times when I've read that kind of opening it throws me out of the story for a sec.
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Brendan
Posted on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - 10:47 pm:   

For me first person is easier to write---at least I can write about twice as quickly in first. It is easier for most people to write well in first also, I suspect.
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des
Posted on Thursday, March 23, 2006 - 12:43 am:   

I that stays I throughout.
Or I who withdraws and becomes as third person character later in the fiction who desperately yearns for the previous I-status.
Or I who becomes someone else who lacks definition and requires following throughout its various identities.
Or a third person who becomes someone else.
Someone else becomes I.
& various other permutations - where the plot itself is about the search for identity within the fiction and the fiction becmes a character.

I have played with these methods and many more - so the question to me is mysterious.
des
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Iron James
Posted on Thursday, March 23, 2006 - 05:36 am:   

The cenventional wisdom is that first person seems easier to write than third person, but is actually much more difficult to write well. From my experience, it's true. First person seems so natural, so easy, that new writers find it irresistible, but I think the "ease" or writing first person is highly deceptive.

Most agents and editors I know cringe at the thought of receiving first person from new writers because of this. There are guidelines all over the place warning new writers away from first person, but few listen.

Too many new writers make the mistake of navel gazing in first person, or of filtering everything in the story through the character. Every thing is "I" did this, "I" saw that, "I" felt, "I" thought, "I" knew, etc. It can get old really fast.

First person seems so easy to write, such a natural way to tell a story, and it can be in competent hands, but most new writers really should stick to third person limited until they gain a bit of experience.
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rwexler
Posted on Thursday, March 23, 2006 - 11:42 am:   

I'm uncomfortable with first person. I've been working on two stories, one in first person, one an individual speaking to a group (more like a monologue, which I suppose is a form of first person.) But I'm having a lot of trouble with both and gave up for now.

Robert
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Matt Hughes
Posted on Thursday, March 23, 2006 - 12:34 pm:   

I've written both, short stories and novels. The only difference I find is that in first-person you sometimes have to perform plotting arabesques in order to bring information to the pov character's attention.

I'm just finishing a novel for Night Shade about Henghis Hapthorn, my Sherlock Holmesian "discriminator." It's in the first person because the six stories that ran in F&SF were; and they were first-person because when I wrote the initial story, I switched after a couple of pages to first from third -- because it just came out funnier that way.

As a general rule, if I'm going for humor, I find first works better than third; though that may be just the way it works for me.

Matt Hughes
www.archonate.com
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Tom Barlow
Posted on Thursday, March 23, 2006 - 01:12 pm:   

Tom wonders if there are a few currently-popular works in the field that writers have latched onto as models for their writing? Hence the 1st person onslaught?
He is very much aware the effect Heinlein's 1st person stories, such as Farnham's Freehold, have had had on his initial efforts.
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MarcL
Posted on Thursday, March 23, 2006 - 01:40 pm:   

It sees what he just did there.
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nobody
Posted on Thursday, March 23, 2006 - 04:40 pm:   

First person is all about character. If the character who is telling the story is strong he'll tell the story even if the author is writing it. If the same story is converted to third person then either the author won't be able to use his voice or the writing will have to change and first person passages that "worked like heaven" will work no more and will have to be deleted.

An anthology with all first person stories would risk a "twisted" sort of comparison with the other stories. If it is all about character, then the stronger ones will outstand and the others will be inevitably seen under a much more shaded light, thus give the impression of a "weak" anthology. You can argue that the same happens with all stories regardless of the person they are written in, however in that case you judge characters, storytelling and writing, not just the main character and his voice (mostly anyway).
If every character is great then you end up with a great anthology that's somewhat different than the others. Difficult to be accomplished.

Of course all this is just a nobody's opinion.
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Gordon Van Gelder
Posted on Thursday, March 23, 2006 - 04:43 pm:   

Ellen, there was actually an anthology of first-person stories. I'm blanking on the title of it now, but it was a paperback (paperback original, I think) from the early 1980s. I'm blanking on who edited it---Isaac Asimov, maybe?---but I think it opened with a Keith Laumer story.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Thursday, March 23, 2006 - 05:13 pm:   

Gordon,
Wow. Did you read it? Of course, pointing out the fact that everything in an anthology is first person makes it impossible to NOT be aware of the fact. I wonder if the gimmick worked as a totality.
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Tribeless
Posted on Thursday, March 23, 2006 - 05:34 pm:   

Just finished reading the thread, and the only thing I have to say, albeit, off topic, and written in first person, is that in relation to the second post, I'm just glad I'm not married to Sam S. Bet you he's a joy to live with.
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Vylar Kaftan
Posted on Thursday, March 23, 2006 - 05:49 pm:   

Sometimes first-person is the right choice for a story, and exactly what it needs. But other times...

I think sometimes writers choose first-person (and/or present tense) when they subconsciously doubt their ability to draw the reader into the story in any other way. First-person narrative (and present tense) both create immediacy. They also create the illusion of voice, because they aren't invisible like third-person past tense. So these techniques are very tempting, especially for beginning writers. I don't know if this applies to seasoned pros too.

Just my two cents.
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Gordon Van Gelder
Posted on Thursday, March 23, 2006 - 07:34 pm:   

Ellen---

I found it:

The Future I edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander (Fawcett, 1981).

Contents here: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?THFTR161981

How well does the book work? I have no recollection. I was probably fifteen when I read it.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Thursday, March 23, 2006 - 10:02 pm:   

Gordon,thanks. Interesting--from the TOC it looks like the stories are pretty varied--a very good thing.

So have you noticed more first person stories than ever before or am I just getting a bunch for some reason?

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des
Posted on Friday, March 24, 2006 - 12:50 am:   

I don't think there can be a formula (including voice or pov) to fiction writing - and fiction works instinctively in separate as well as overlapping categories:

(a) The writer who moulds the clay of his fiction which presmably works at least for the writer when he lands in it in the audience arena.

(b) The first audience that is usually an agential/ editorial portal, that then goes on to determine the target audience.

(c) The target audience, who may or may not be the right audience.

Any of these categories could misfire or misunderstand.

Coupled with these factors, as I hope I conveyed in my earlier post, is the degree of experimentation teasing open some of these categories before they swallow or spit out. Possibly the easiest (ie most malleable) and most productive item with which to experiment, I feel, is one comprising the intricacies (hopefully shown unintricately in the audience arena) of authorial and/or narrative voice, pov, narrative collusion, narrative dependability (or undependability as a method-in-the-madness) etc etc.
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Gordon Van Gelder
Posted on Friday, March 24, 2006 - 04:39 am:   

Ellen---

Haven't noticed any particular trends, but I'm behind in my reading for the last week or so.
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Lucius
Posted on Friday, March 24, 2006 - 07:20 am:   

There's an intimate third person that's very close to first person, so saying the third person is invisible is a gross generalization. As is saying that first person is more prone to navel gazing that the third. It all depends upon the intimacy of the person utilized, how much one employs vernacular, etc. etc. Also one can slide between the tenses and do so seamlessly. I have a novel, written in an extremely intimate third person, wherein the protagonist, a wiseass, often interiorizes by addressing himself in the second person ("You're a complete fuck-up, man."), and frequently interiorizes about others in the first person plural ("We don't like beer joints, do we? We think they're disgusting.")

So much depends upon the particularity of the story. I've found certain stories I've written in the first person are less prone to navel gazing by virtues of a taciturn narrator or some other reason.

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Vylar Kaftan
Posted on Friday, March 24, 2006 - 08:29 am:   

That's a good point, Lucius--thanks.

I wonder if blogs are affecting this trend. I think more people are reading/writing things in first-person now than they were ten years ago. That might influence their fiction.
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Lucius
Posted on Friday, March 24, 2006 - 08:58 am:   

That interesting about blogs -- I bet it does have an effect.

Further, as regards Iron James point about I felt and I saw and etc, the problem novices have is not recognizing that such constructions are mostly unneccessary, and that applies to third person--he saw, he felt--as well. I mean, take a sentence like, I saw the giant stand. It's much more direct to say, The giant stood. So the problem novice writers face is one of directness, irregardless of tense.
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Matt Hughes
Posted on Friday, March 24, 2006 - 09:54 am:   

"Irregardless?" Say it isn't so, Lucius.

But I agree about the intimacy of the third-person-limited pov. It depends on whether you're writing from, so to speak, just over the shoulder of your pov character, or from within the character's sensorium.

That's the difference between "The wind blew dust in his face, making his eyes water, and he tucked his unshaven chin down into his collar," and "The grains of wind-blown dust stung his eyes and he felt a welling of involuntary tears. He tucked his chin down into his collar, his stubble rasping against the rough serge."

Matt Hughes
www.archonate.com
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Lucius
Posted on Friday, March 24, 2006 - 10:18 am:   

Irrespective, irregardless...whatever's your pleasure.

There are, of course, gradations of intimacy, two of which you have demonstrated. But to my mind, the use of first person is more flexible than third. This may be a strictly personal feeling, but be that as it may, I see very little distinction between the two. Third person can be almost first, and first almost third. The thing that first person does that is hard to achieve with third is to go to a great remove in the story--if that's a necessary function of your narrative, it can be invaluable. It also allows for a certain formality of style--if, for example, your narrative is a tale told, like Lord Jim--and further is more easily adaptable to an archaic form, say, an eighteenth century narrative voice.
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Matt Hughes
Posted on Friday, March 24, 2006 - 10:27 am:   

It's certainly more flexible for character, though it can constrain plotting. So it's a swings and roundabouts choice, decided by what the story's meant to convey.

But it can be a crucial decision when the voice of the book is of paramount concern. Forex, I love Wodehouse in all his forms, but if the Jeeves and Bertie stories weren't told in Bertie's voice, but in third-person like, say, the Blandings stories, they would be a lesser joy.

Matt Hughes
www.archonate.com
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Lucius
Posted on Friday, March 24, 2006 - 10:45 am:   

The first person is easier to adapt to vernacular, and much more effective...though there are no hard and fast rules in writing.
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des
Posted on Friday, March 24, 2006 - 11:36 am:   

No hard and fast rules indeed. Lord Jim was mentioned above. Aren't shadows on the wall sometimes more revelatory than seeing the people that cast them? Chance is another novel by Joseph Conrad. Here, the characters and particularly the heroine are drained of any motive or sympathy because of the layering of narrative: we hear a spoken voice telling an inscrutable narrator of someone else’s view of someone else’s view of certain events, mix and match between. But it does not seem to lessen one’s interest in the book: it is character-driven and sympathy is allowed to take a backseat in preference to exploring one’s own motives for assigning certain motives to certain types of people just on the basis of hearsay and chance. Conrad writes in introduction to Chance: "And it is only for their intentions that men can be held responsible" and this novel seeks to show, I think, that any intentions are essentially unknowable. Perhaps even one's own intentions are unknowable: being shadows, too. The heart of darkness whether from within the third person or first person, or both singularly plural.

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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Friday, March 24, 2006 - 11:45 am:   

Thanks for all the feedback.

I just had lunch with two fiction writers (one who is also an editor and translator) and a nonfiction writer/editor today and they all concurred with the general opinion that skillful writers can provide enough variation within the first person for there not to be a sameness, even if an anthology is all first person.

This all makes me breathe a sigh of relief. And I'll try not to worry too much.

But keep talking; it's fascinating.:-)
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Lucius
Posted on Friday, March 24, 2006 - 12:30 pm:   

As des suggests, layering is much more possible with a first person narration. There's also an easy shift between second and first person that's more feasible than between second and third. For instance, you can have your narrator start in the second personal informal: You know how it goes. The cops start bringing you in on all their open cases, and your landlady hates you just because she's a good Christian hater..." and this can plane into a first person narration. All these strategies help deepen a narrative. Your problem, Ellen, if it is a problem, may be that you're getting a lot of stories that have the same or similar narrative depth.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Friday, March 24, 2006 - 01:34 pm:   

Lucius, I think the narrative depths are varied.

I'm not sure why the pov issue jumped out at me when it did. It didn't with the stories I've already bought, but with the ones I'm still considering. And the noticing compelled me to go and check what I'd bought.
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PM
Posted on Friday, March 24, 2006 - 06:20 pm:   

Perhaps it's not an issue. If after reading a number of stories it didn't leap out then the reader may not notice.

At a certain point it did become noticeable. It became more of the same.

If the goal is to negate this sameness then perhaps the stories can be shuffled in a more satisfying order.

Just avoid the ... I'm far less enamored with that...than I :-)
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Friday, March 24, 2006 - 09:44 pm:   

What? you don't like ellipses? What's WRONG with you? ;-)
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Vylar Kaftan
Posted on Saturday, March 25, 2006 - 04:02 am:   

Perhaps PM was attacked by a circus ellipsis as a child.
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PM
Posted on Saturday, March 25, 2006 - 04:53 am:   

My flaws seer a catalog.

But this isn't about me it's about I.

I use ... for various ends and as with any good riff one may wish to maintain it for one's own triple dot purposes.

It doesn't work that way of course. Like the first person perspective though it can become a matter of saturation.

Hopefully writers will resist ... except when necessary or pleasing :-)
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MarcL
Posted on Saturday, March 25, 2006 - 08:44 pm:   

...
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Patrick M.
Posted on Sunday, March 26, 2006 - 02:29 pm:   

"I find first person a very effective form for BB posts," said Patrick M. "But..."
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Steve
Posted on Monday, March 27, 2006 - 11:20 am:   

"John the Balladeer" 1988, BAEN. A collection of Manly Wade Wellman's short stories about a wandering musician. All are written in 1st person and were produced from the 1950's to the 1980's.

To answer your questions: Yes I notice the first. No, it doesn't bother me. It might--IF I didn't like the stories.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Monday, March 27, 2006 - 12:58 pm:   

Thanks Steve.
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Steve
Posted on Wednesday, March 29, 2006 - 08:30 am:   

No problem, Ellen. I seem to recall another one, too, but the name has eluded me. I suspect they may have a single common thread. I expect they are generally collections by the same author, and often as not about the same character.

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