Last week my daughter, in 7th grade, was learning to write a Persuasive Essay for school. She had a lot of opinion in it, naturally, and that led to a lot of sentences in the 1st person. Her teacher told her that she could not use the words "I", "My" or "You" in her essay, so I helped her figure out how to write more objectively. It was a fun lesson for her.
What's interesting is that in my writing, I often do the opposite. I tend to write my first drafts of stories and books in 3rd person. Perhaps it's because I don't know my characters that well yet, or I'm still seeing their world from the outside. Later on, when doing my second or third go round I realize that the book would be more interesting and lively if it were in first person. When I rewrote Cry of the Sea, I completely started it over again in 1st person. I am now doing the same exact thing with a novel I wrote hastily during NaNoWriMo last fall.
Here's an example of how my writing in Cry of the Sea changed from 1st draft to final:
The phone screamed alarm into the chilly September morning. Its piercing cry yanked June out of her dreams. The shock to her system quickly wore away any grogginess. Bolting up from her pillow, June glanced at the clock. She wasn’t even sure her eyes were open yet until she saw the digital numbers click into place. Three o’clock. No good calls ever came at three o’clock in the morning.
By the time her hand touched the receiver the phone had stopped ringing. Her sleepy brain wanted to believe it hadn’t actually rung at all, but the soft murmur of her father’s voice coming from his bedroom across the hall assured her that it had. He answered so fast. Like he expected the call. Maybe he slept with his hand wrapped around the phone.
What was it this time? Hurt animal? Fallen tree? No, those calls could wait until morning. Only big calls came this early. Forest fires. People chaining themselves to trees. That kind of thing.
Or it could be Mom. She was in Alaska. Maybe she was sick from the cold. The people she had been doing business with had been harassing her. Maybe they did something to her.
Unable to wait the five minutes until her dad told her who called and what about, June slipped her fingers around the receiver and used the other hand to cover the mouthpiece so no one could hear her breathing. At the sound of her mother’s anxious voice, June’s eyes bugged out of her head. She wanted to scream into the phone, “Mom, are you okay?”
Now it reads like this:
No good calls ever came at two o’clock in the morning. Only ones that wipe out any hope of having a normal day. On this particular morning, it wiped out hope of anything ever being "normal" again.
The piercing scream of the phone yanked me out of my dream. One moment I was swimming with dolphins in the warm, blue waters of Waikiki. The next, I found myself on my stomach, arms above my head, sheets and pillows everywhere except covering me and keeping me warm.
I bolted upright and faced the clock on my bedside table. My movement was so quick, I wasn’t even fully aware my eyes were open until I registered the digital numbers clicking into place. 2:03.
By the time my hand touched the receiver the phone had stopped ringing. My sleepy brain wanted to believe it hadn’t actually rung at all, but the soft murmur of Dad’s voice coming from his bedroom across the hall assured me that it had. He answered so fast, like he expected the call. When Mom was out of town, I think he slept with his hand wrapped around the phone in case it was her.
Getting calls like this wasn’t that unusual. My dad’s business was a nonprofit organization called EE Alerts, a website and call center for environmental emergencies that was basically a one-man operation run out of our house. What was the call about this time? Hurt animal? Fallen tree? Probably not. Even though we get those kinds of calls a lot, and I mean A LOT, those calls could usually wait until morning. Only big calls came this early. Forest fires. People chaining themselves to trees. That kind of thing.
It winds up being more active and interesting when we're inside the character's head instead of outside, and I think that is why so many YA novels are in first person. When working on your story, try doing a version in 1st person if you've written it in 3rd. Or vice versa, just to see if it gives you a new perspective.
D. G. Driver
Author of Young Adult books Cry of the Sea and Passing Notes.