It’s true that the cost was time, but it was time well spent. Over the course of a few months, I learned so much about my characters—their connections to each other, to the central narrative, to their families—and none of that was lost.
When I decided to switch a 60k first-person manuscript into third person, I was a bit desperate. This novel was 34 Pieces of You, and this was back before it was published and still in that stage of being so close, so very close, but not quite there. I discussed the problems with some close writer friends, and one said that he thought the story was best told in third person, and why didn’t I give that shot?
Hmm…. because that sounds like a lot work?
34 Pieces of You was already complicated. Told over the course of five years from three alternating perspectives (the brother, Jake; the best friend, Sarah; and the best friend’s sister, Jess), I had already spent nearly as many years writing, revising, and generally praying over this book: Please be finished. Please be finished. Please, please, please. And I was at a point when my fascination with the subject matter was turning into toxic dislike. Not having it end SOON felt strangely akin to being stuck in an elevator for several years with one solitary soul who insisted on telling only this one story—again, and again, and again.
But I’m stubborn. I stick things out. And, in general, when a wise writer gives me advice and I’m all out of ideas, I tend to follow it. So, at the start of that summer, I set out on the painstaking task of transforming my novel into third-person limited.
I didn’t know what would happen. Mostly, I thought that it would be an arduous exercise in patience. I switched over nouns, pronouns, and verbs for a while, and then something else, something more interesting, began to happen. Jake, the character I had struggled with the most, began to talk to me. He began to tell me something new! His perfunctory scenes became complex, and additional scenes that showed his dysfunctional relationship with his mother and sister began to write themselves. Why this happened is probably best explained by saying that third-person limited is a much wider lens than first person. With my lens scaled back, my perspective broadened, allowing me to see the bigger picture of the story—a picture I had not seen before.
Months later, the experiment was complete. Excited, I sat down to read the newest version. It wasn’t long before I realized that yes, the exercise had strengthened the overall story, filling in earlier gaps and deepening Jake’s narrative. That was good. Simultaneously, however, this newer version also created more emotional distance from the characters, too much distance, in fact. That was very bad.
I wanted the best of both worlds, and realized that if I returned to first—switched every last pronoun, verb, and noun, all ten-thousand of them--I could keep the new scenes and regain the immediacy. So, back to first I went. Not kicking, not screaming, but slowly, very slowly.
Some writers are taken aback by this story, as if this POV exercise was a colossal waste of time. It’s true that the cost was time, but it was time well spent. Over the course of a few months, I learned so much about my characters—their connections to each other, to the central narrative, to their families—and none of that was lost.
More so, I learned the value of experimentation without attachment to outcome. When I set out to do this, I had hoped that it would lead to the end of my writing. That this book would be DONE. But it was not done. It was just better. But better is forward motion. Better is one step closer to the end. Better is, in some ways, the new goal.
Since then, I often ask myself, what expectations can I let go of to push my writing into that state of better? It might be a plot point that I want to hit. It might be a scene that I love but doesn’t work. It might be a character like Pete, who jumpstarted the story but did not serve a greater purpose. And sometimes it’s the lens—maybe I’ll pull it back or maybe I’ll push it in, painfully close. Whatever choices are made, I allow the outcome to be what it will be and trust that within that new state of being, I will always find some form of better.
What expectations of your WIP can you let go of to push your MS into a better state of being? Make a list and discuss it with a writing buddy. If you’re stuck, try switching POVs to see if broadening or narrowing your lens brings you closer to your story. How did it work for you? Come back and tell us all about it in the comments!