Henry Miller’s Writing Commandments
- Work on one thing at a time until finished.
- Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’
- Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
- Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
- When you can’t create you can work.
- Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
- Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
- Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
- Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
- Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
- Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.
Shooting Your Point of View Gun
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if our stories came with point of view guns? Unfortunately, they do not, but as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy suggests, “Don’t Panic,” because what we do have is even better. Our words take space in the reader’s mind and the reader will have emotional reactions to them. The trick is deciding which PoV will be most effective in this respect. As you write your first draft and are deciding narrative attributes such as PoV, characterizations, settings, etc. follow Miller’s advice, “Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.”
You will not know what point of view will be best for your story when you write the first draft. Your original point of view might end up being the best or it might not. As Miller suggests, “Work on one thing at a time until finished.” This doesn’t only apply to one story at a time, it also applies to one writing step at a time. Writing is a process. Work the process.
- WRITE the messy first draft. (You don’t yet know what the story wants to be. In this first drafting phase, you will discover details and characters you did not yet know existed and one of these details or characters may end up being central to the narrative.)
- REWRITE as many times as necessary. (Too many writers go straight from first draft to revision, where they will move a paragraph here or there or cut a few lines. Before moving to the revision stage, the writer must be open to complete narrative restructuring of both context and language. Especially important for new writers, who are not only learning the story but also learning their organic voice.)
- REVISE as many times as necessary. (Move paragraphs around, cut unnecessary words, look for the best first paragraph, identify characterization and plot holes, etc.)
- EDIT as many times as necessary. (Focus on language and rhythmic fluidity, identify usage errors, consider word choice and punctuation, etc. Continue to cut unnecessary words.)
- READ the manuscript aloud to a trusted listener. Then have the trusted listener read aloud to you. (It will help you identify the mistakes you are not seeing. Especially helpful if you are on a tight timeline and can’t set the manuscript aside for a few months before doing final edits.)
- SOLICIT trusted critiques before sending the polished manuscript to agents, editors and/or publishers. (It is not the editor’s job to tell you why he or she did not want to publish your story. Seek narrative feedback in appropriate venues.)
* If at any point in the writing process, you feel you need to go back to step one or two and so on, do it. Don’t be afraid to back up and begin again. Keep all your work and file it away. You may come back to it at a later date.
Begin by writing the first draft in whatever PoV strikes you as organic to your voice as well as the story. After you’ve completed this phase, it is time to step into the rewriting phase. Too many writers go straight from first draft to editing phase and this is a mistake. Every first draft needs at least one rewrite–the span of time when the writer is still open to a complete reworking of the structure and focus of the narrative. First drafts are merely putting chaos and ideas on paper. This period of chaos–putting the editor aside–is essential to the creative process. This first, messy draft is where the main characters are discovered, where the imagination reigns, not structure and grammar. The narrative structure will begin to take form in the rewriting phase and this is the best phase in the writing process for playing with PoV.
One way to experiment with PoV, without heading too far down a single path, is to rewrite only a small section. First, identify what you feel is an important scene within the narrative. Rewrite this scene in one or two other points of view. Compare your rewrites with the original. Read the original and the rewrites aloud to a trusted listener. If one of the rewrites “feels” better then choose another scene and rewrite that scene in this same PoV. If this rewrite, again, “feels” better, think seriously on rewriting the entire narrative in this PoV.
Point of View (from Purdue Writing Lab)
You already understand point of view, but for identification purposes, we’ll just list the definition here: Point of view refers to the perspective the writer uses to tell the story. Though writers may switch and combine points of view, in traditional fiction there exists three points of view:
- Third Person: In third person, the writer tells the story. But the writer decides if the events will be objectively given, or if she can go into the mind of every character; to what degree she can interpret that character; to what degree she can know the past and the future; and how many authorial judgments will be allowed. For example, Chekhov uses Third person limited omniscient in his story, “Vanka.” Chekhov tells us when Vanka is thinking, but he doesn’t go into detail about what Vanka is thinking about. Chekhov lets the action show what Vanka is thinking about. If Chekhov had written the story in third person omniscient, then we would know everything that was on Vanka’s mind, and we would be given a great deal of interpretation about why Vanka acts the way he acts. If Chekhov had chosen to write “Vanka” in Third person objective, we would only get those details that could be outwardly observed. Vanka would not pause to think twice about how he should begin his letter to his grandfather. We might see him lift his pen, and then start writing again, but nothing more.
- Second Person: Second person is unusual in fiction and is more common in poetry. In second person, the character is not referred to as he or she, or by name, but rather as “you.” If Chekhov had written “Vanka” in second person, it would begin like this: “You, a boy of nine, who had been for three months apprenticed to Alyahin the shoemaker, were sitting up on Christmas Eve.”
- First Person: Writers use first person when a narrator who is also a character in the story speaks. Baldwin’s story, “Sonny’s Blues,” is written in first person, and begins: “I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work.” The narrator who speaks is Sonny’s older brother, and he is also the main character in the story.
How Do I Know Which Point of View is Best for My Story?
I wish I could give you a hard and fast rule or formula for this, but unfortunately, there are none. Finding the perfect PoV for your narrative craft and voice is as much an art form as writing a perfect novel.
Writing literary fiction is a culmination of fingerprint processes. No two writers and narrative voices are the same. We may find similarities among several writers and works, sure, but never identical attributes. For this reason, even a Pulitzer prize winning author cannot make you a master writer or tell you how to find your perfected version of craft. Veteran writers can point to several errors in craft, which is helpful, but the essence of voice is so singular and personal to the writer that the writer must take this journey on his or her own. Instructors can be guides, mentors and resources, and this is very helpful in the writer’s journey toward finding organic voice, but in the end, it is the writer’s hard work, diligence, reading and more reading, writing and more writing, that will form the writer’s voice and the writer’s sense of his or her craft. With all this said, it may be of comfort to also understand that the path toward narrative is not laid with finite choices. Any story worth writing can be written many ways, with a variety of PoVs. What makes a particular PoV perfect for you and your story is something only you can decide. As we make decisions for our narratives, it is true we are shutting the door to other options, and this may seem scary to some writers, but keep in mind that we can always back up, reopen that other door, and rewrite.
Some Things to Consider When Choosing PoV
Third person will often allow more objectivity, and therefore, the reader will have more room to consider and explore the characters and scenarios.
First person can offer opportunities for such close in experience that readers are drawn in with the up close and personal effect.
Second person can be tricky. Readers don’t necessarily like to be “told” what to think or what their positions should be within the context of a story; however, you can use and manipulate this reader’s instinct in order to “challenge” your reader and make him or her consider him or herself within the context of your narrative. In this instance, make sure to remember that some of your readers may purposely buck this manipulation. You can use this to your advantage as a storyteller. Write to both the reader who will willingly accept your narrative while writing to the reader who will rebel mindfully against it.
Example: In the above film excerpt from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, some women might laugh out loud, siding with a woman’s perspective. Some men might too. Some men might roll their eyes and mutter complaints. Consider how this excerpt speaks to each of these reactions and uses them in the overall context of the narrative and humor. Also notice how the scene is essentially mundane. A cavelike room. A gun. The characters each have interesting quirks, sure, but overall, if you did not know you were on an alien planet, beneath a giant robot, you would think they might be in a nearby park cave. The “point of view gun” is essentially the most extraordinary element within the scene. As the characters point the gun at each other, we come to realize back story that has a science fiction feel, but the SF elements are discussed in a very real and believable way. They might as well be talking about a metaphorical “blowing up” of a party that has destroyed relationships.
Second person and humor, together, can make a very compelling voice. Trillion, the female character in the above Adams’ excerpt, uses a “you” factor, or second person factor, quite literally within the context of the narrative while the narrative voice uses a third person aside to create further context for the scene, explaining the history of the point of view gun. How might you use a “you” factor or multiple points of view in your own work in obvious or subtle ways so to draw your readers in so thoroughly they are able to create meaning from your characters, settings, and scenarios without your characters explicitly telling them what this meaning is or should be. Allowing each reader to make his or her own individual meaning is the art of great storytelling.
Optional Writing Assignment
Below, in 500 words or less, share what you feel is your favorite or “go to” point of view. Why is this your favorite? What point of view would you like to try and adopt in your regular writing techniques?
- Due Date: The following class session.
- Forum: This is where you will submit all assignments, give feedback on assignments and receive feedback on assignments. Link below.
- Narrative Submissions: All narrative submissions for workshop must be submitted to the forums the week prior to the workshop date. For workshop sessions, students will submit their stories/chapters to the forums and in hardcopy in class (for on-campus students). Please refer to the syllabus regarding page count. Format must follow universal manuscript format: MS Word, double-spaced, 12 point font, Times New Roman, 1 in margins, heading with name, address, email, website (if applicable), and phone number on page one. Page two and forward should have in the top right corner your last name and page number. You can use this template: Universal Manuscript Format. Follow first, second and third draft techniques below. After you’ve completed revision, please submit to the forums. Link below. Peer critiques are due by the following class meeting. Critiques for remote students must be uploaded to the forums as a response to the remote student’s topic.
- First Draft: As you write the first draft, let your creativity go where it needs to go. First drafts are meant to be messy and creatively uninhibited. After writing the first draft, lay it to the side for at least a day before revising. Please submit the finished draft to the forums. Link below.
- Second Draft: Read through again, and revise for language and lyricism. Remember, we don’t answer questions for our readers, we simply prompt them to ask good questions. Giving our readers room to make meaning for themselves within our narratives is a sign of artistic literary excellence. Now, lay the work aside for at least a day before your next revision.
- Third Draft: Now read this revision aloud as you record yourself. Upon listening to your recording, consider any language issues in your revision. You might also ask a trusted reader to read the manuscript aloud to you as you sit with your own copy and make revisions. Hearing our language aloud is one of the quickest and surest ways to improve our pacing, tone, and cadence.
- Submit: On campus students should bring one hard copy of your schematic and narrative to class next week. All students, remote and on-campus should upload their MS Word .doc or .docx to the FORUM.
- Please make sure to contact me directly with any questions regarding assignments and technology. firstname.lastname@example.org. The fastest way to reach me is by text at 301-514-2380. The below question/discussion area is for student and lesson interaction. I won’t be checking it everyday.