Do you want to be a horror fiction writer? Part III

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Do you want to be a horror fiction writer? Part III

Proper Presentation

A couple of articles back I had mentioned that some of us just need to polish our presentation in order to get published. So, here is my 1st tidbit of extremely useful information when it comes to presentation:

Most editors prefer stories to be third person, past tense.

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Examples:

I run to the door and see the commotion through the window. This is first person present tense
I ran to the door and saw the commotion through the window. Now it’s first person past tense
He ran to the door and saw the commotion through the window. And now it’s third person, past tense

Even better: James ran to the door and saw the commotion through the window.

An important byproduct: Using third person ensures that you will name your characters early in the story. Some first person stories start with ‘I’ did this and ‘I’ did that…By the end of the story we still don’t know who ‘I’ is.

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We have all read stories written in first person – HP Lovecraft, Poe, and some of Stephen King’s short stories. When I build  a name and have my books being edited by my own personal editor, I will do more work in first person. However…

First person presents problems that writer’s don’t always realize. When providing information for the set-up or to move the story along, an editor will immediately ask, How does your character know this? And, How was this other scene being played out when your character wasn’t even there? In a first person story, everything the character knows about and all the events taking place, have to happen with your main character present. This is just one of the challenges that go unnoticed by the writer when writing in first person.
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typingAnother way to look at it is this: Do you get annoyed by all the found-footage, first-person POV films that come out? To an editor, that is exactly what a first person story is like. How many FF films are actually good? Out of the dozen or so that come out each year, only a handful have been good in the last 25 years.

One more frequent problem with first person stories – if the main character dies at the end of the story – how is he/she telling the story? If he’s not telling the story, and someone else is, then it should be in third person.

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One more tact when using past tense – every part of your story should be in past tense. If there is a flash back it needs to be in past tense. If someone is telling a story to another character – keep it in past tense. Even though a lot of people will relay an event in present tense (so, I walk through the front door and my girl is mad as hell…) you should keep everything past tense so there‘s no confusion for the reader.

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Naturally ‘third person/past tense’ is not a hard rule. One editor told me straight out, “I won’t even read a story unless it’s in third person.” The publication eventually accepted one of my first person stories, but only after I built trust by submitting a few quality stories in the format they prefered.

Several times, I had changed stories from first person to third person on recommendations by editors. I’m lucky they liked the stories enough to even ask for a rewrite. If they were on the fence with the story they would have just skipped it and I would have never even realized or learned that:

Most editors prefer stories to be third person, past tense

So why take a chance at having an editor skip over your story because of it?

related articles:
Do you want to write horror fiction? Part II

5 thoughts on “Do you want to be a horror fiction writer? Part III

  1. Do you sense that the preference for third-person is specific to the horror genre?

    I sure hope it is. I’m picturing Arthur Conan Doyle’s editor suggesting he drop Dr. Watson in favor of a third-person telling of a Sherlock Holmes story — or Mark Twain’s editor saying that Huck Finn is just a bit too unsophisticated to tell his own story.

    I suppose if you tell a horror story from the first-person, though, there’s bound to be the issue of an unreliable narrator. “So there WERE vampires . . . or this storyteller REMEMBERS there being vampires?” That might not be a question the writer is especially interested in prompting.

    • The preference is in modern fiction publishing and publications. Perhaps it is because so many great authors and great books of the past were in 1st person that 3rd person is preferred now, as a way of differentiating modern writing. I am sure this is not for the horror genre only. If you go into a book store and pick up 20 New novels, 18 of them will be in 3rd person.

  2. These are all great tips, Michael. I’m currently writing in this preferred format and I have been going at it so much easier than if I were writing it in first person. Something I’ve tried in the past with little to no patience for it.

    Anne rice has had so much success writing her Horror titles in first person but that was her niche (and some others, too) but when I pick up a horror fiction book these days, I definitely prefer third person, past tense.

    Thanks for the tips and the great info, Mike!

  3. Pingback: Horror Fiction writer – articles and tips | parlor of horror

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