Chip MacGregor

March 8, 2013

What first-person authors do you recommend?


We’ve been going through the hundreds of questions people have sent it, and trying to catch up. One person noted, “You’ve said that first person novels are hard to do well. Can you give some examples of successful books done in first person?”

Sure. Historically, both Mark Twain and Charles Dickens wrote books in first person. William Faulkner and numerous other great writers have done so on occasion. The Great Gatsby is in first person, as are all the Sherlock Holmes books (written by his close friend Dr. Watson). Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, and Jeffery Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides are all told in first person. And, as I noted in an earlier post, two of my personal favorite writers, Ross Thomas and John D. MacDonald, regularly wrote in first person.

Another person asked, “I’m trying to write a story that’s true, but change the names and places of the events. I’ve had dramatic, criminal-headline-grabbing events in my family, but I keep going back and forth between creative nonfiction and a novel based on facts. What’s the difference? Which is better?”

First, neither is “better.” They’re just very different. A nonfiction true crime book will garner a much different audience than a well-done novel that is loosely based on actual events. Fiction, in my humble opinion, is harder to do well. But both need to offer great storytelling.

Second, you have to be very careful in terms of the legal issues with both forms. If you do a true crime book and name names, you’d better make sure the bad things said about people are a matter of public record. If you do a novel based on an actual crime, you’ve got to change names and events enough so that a reasonable person cannot tell who the characters represent.

Third, the best way to tell the story will probably become clear as you begin to write it. Creating fiction allows us to clean up loose ends and make the ending neater and more redemptive — something that is harder to come by in real life. As you work on the project, you’ll probably find yourself either being compelled to reveal the true story, OR to fabricate your own story that relies more or less on the events of your life.

An author we represent wrote this: “How do you feel about MFA programs? I’ve heard the University of Iowa has a good program, but I wonder if these are actually beneficial to working writers.”

We Scottish people have a saying: Time spent sharpening the tool is rarely wasted. I’m a huge fan of MFA programs. Most undergrad writing programs spend very little time actually getting students to write. Or they’re focused on obscure literature (or a professor’s favorite research topic) so that the writing is academic but not usable in the real world. But most MFA programs are designed to help adults sharpen their writing so that they can create good work that is salable. You’ll spend the majority of your time actually writing, and hopefully learning from those who are a bit further down the path and therefore have some wisdom to share.

The University of Iowa has a well-known program, but there are more than 100 MFA writing programs around the country. Several are very strong. Here’s how you evaluate them: Look at the faculty and alumni of the program. If the faculty are publishing the sort of material you find valuable, you’ll no doubt enjoy learning from them. If the alumni are getting published and producing the sort of work you value, then you’d probably appreciate what you would be studying. If you’re a CBA writer, Seattle Pacific University has started a fine program. I’m an Oregon Duck, and I know the University of Oregon has a good MFA program. There are good ones across the country; many with low residency requirements. It’s a great way to stretch yourself and learn new skills from experienced instructors.

Another wrote to ask, “What’s the best length for a YA novel? It seems like young people don’t want to sit and read a huge 400-page book (face it — I’m in school, and most kids think it’s a sin for an 8th grader to read more than 20 minutes a day).”

There are two schools of thought… Some people like shorter YA novels (ranging from 25,000 to 45,000 words) that can be read quickly. Others, no doubt influenced by J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer, like to see the giant tome (80,000 to 110,000 words). So take a look at the story you want to tell… Is it best told in a fast-paced, shorter version? Or do you need those 400 pages to work through the entire saga? Both take considerable skill to keep a 14-year-old reading. And, of course, most 8th graders are uneducated twits. That’s why they’re still in school — so they can learn the value of words and books. Don’t let the twits shape you. We’re shaped by the people we hang out with, so hanging out with wise writers might be a good direction for the long term.

And one author wants to know, “As an agent, what do you think is the best way a writer can improve his or her writing, without actually writing? (I’m serious about this question.)”

My response: By reading great writing. I think a writer can improve, get ideas, and be inspired by seeing what a great writer is doing — how he or she handles the text, what words are chosen, how the story unfolds. Too many writers ONLY write, or only read in their genre. Most of the great writers I know read widely.

Finally, a writer wrote to ask, “Can you tell me what genres are hot right now (and what genres are not)?”

This is always changing, of course, so by the time you read my answer, this could very well be out of date. But right now the hottest genres seem to be romance, paranormal and supra-normal stuff, Amish books are up and down depending on who you’re talking to, romantic suspense is growing, edgy sexual stories, and, on the nonfiction side, self-help books, reflective spirituality (especially books that call on people to do something big), pets, and going green. I think memoir is doing well in the general market.

What’s not hot: gift books, westerns (though that could change), men’s fiction, books from pastors, books from minor celebrities, and anything expensive. There are others… help me out here… What do you find is working and not working?

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  • Jaime Wright says:

    I don’t read cookbooks very well, either 😉 … but if you ask my MIL they’re a widely popular “genre” … off to eat my homemade scone and wondering why I DON’T read them

  • Robin Mooneyham Archibald says:

    After leaving the previous comment about authors Mary Stewart and Laurie R. King, I opened my latest nook book and found this first line: “It was Thursday and I was making soup.” The novel is The Memory of Love by Linda Olsson. Also check out Anita Brookner and Iris Murdoch.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Robin. I do like Iris Murdoch.

    • Robin Mooneyham Archibald says:

      And what a voice Murdoch has–so relentlessly compelling that the only reason I stop reading is because I’m exhausted!

  • Robin Archibald says:

    Two first person POV authors I love to read are Mary Stewart
    and Laurie R. King. Mary Stewart wrote women’s suspense (The Moonspinners, My Brother Michael, etc.) before she wrote The Arthurian Saga (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, etc). Laurie R. King’s Mary Russel series is written in first person POV. Mary Russell is the fictional wife of Sherlock Holmes.

  • Jennifer M Zeiger says:

    Wow, I didn’t realize how many wrote first person and I’ve even read most of what you listed. Maybe I should go back and reread them all.

  • Cheryl Russell says:

    Hi Chip,

    I just finished a low-residency program in January and thought I’d add some info.

    A low residency program is exactly that–low-residency. Instead of moving to a campus to start classes, students spend time on campus for a given number of days a year. My program required 4 ten day residencies (end of Dec/early Jan & early June), plus a final residency of 2-3 days. Residencies are when you get your classroom time/workshops. The rest of the semester is spent sending packets to your mentor and getting feedback. For my program, five packets were required each semester and what was required for each packet was worked out with my mentor during residency. It’s a great option for people who want an MFA, but can’t pick up and move to attend a university.

    AWP (Association of Writers and Writing programs) has a searchable database for undergrad programs, and graduate schools-both regular programs and low-residency programs. You don’t need to be a member of AWP to use the database.
    Results are listed in alphabetical order, not ranked according to best program.

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