07 April 2018

Options and Preferences

by John M. Floyd

Some quick background, here: Two weeks ago today, my wife and I drove down to Gulfport, Mississippi, where I'd been invited to speak to a meeting of the Gulf Coast Writers Association. The crowd included folks who'd written novels, memoirs, short stories, poetry, and songs (one of the attendees, Patti Ryan, wrote "Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places"), and more than an hour of our allotted time was spent, as I'd hoped it would be, in a question/answer session. It was a gracious and enthusiastic group, and I had a great time. Afterward Carolyn and I looked for seafood in all the right places and then headed back home.

Why tell you about all that? Well, some of the things we talked about in the Q&A that day made me start thinking about certain issues that always seem to come up when writers get together. Here are half a dozen of those:

1. Question: Should I outline, or not?

Answer: Do whichever makes you comfortable. Outlining (a.k.a. in-depth pre-thinking) can provide a structure and a sense of security that can be helpful and time-saving when the actual writing starts--even if the writer chooses later to change direction. On the other hand, some writers feel that planning too many things out beforehand would stifle their creativity and make the process boring. To me, outlining or not is like squeezing the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube or from the top, or always being early for meetings or always being late, or unrolling the toilet paper from over or from under. I think it all depends on the way our minds are wired.

My preference: Outlining.

2. Question: Should I self-publish or seek a traditional publisher?

Answer: There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Self-publishing allows the writer to keep everything he/she earns from the sale of his stories/novels, but it also means handling and financing all aspects of the project: cover design, layout, production, marketing, publicity, distribution, storage, and a dozen other tasks. Taking the traditional approach means the writer earns a much smaller piece of the pie, but is responsible only for the writing (and, to a smaller degree, marketing and promoting). Self-pubbing can also allow the author to publish sooner, and on his/her own schedule.

My preference: The traditional route.

3. Question: Should I use first-person POV or third?

Answer: It depends on the story. First person is a more intimate but also a more limited viewpoint; the writer can get "closer" to the reader (I did this, I did that) but a story told in first person can't reveal anything to the reader that the POV character doesn't see or otherwise experience firsthand. Third person creates more distance between the writer and reader, but it's less restrictive. If the story or novel needs a large scope, third person can allow the reader to know things that the character(s) don't, which can help generate suspense. I've heard that whodunits are usually told in first person because the hero (detective?) needs to find things out at the same time the reader does, while thrillers are usually third person because the reader sometimes needs to know things before the hero does (Don't go around that corner; they're waiting for you there!).

My preference: Third person. But I like both.

4. Question: Should I use past tense or present?

Answer: Again, there's no right or wrong answer. Suit yourself. Past tense is the traditional, safe, once-upon-a-time way to tell a story, while present tense can create a sense of immediacy (it's happening NOW) that some writers feel is more interesting. It seems that female writers and literary fiction tend to use present tense more than male writers and genre fiction, but I could be wrong about that. I've also heard that present tense can be distracting and false-sounding to some readers, although it doesn't bother me. I think I've gotten used to it.

My preference (for my own stories): Past tense.

5. Question: Should I submit my work simultaneously or one-at-a-time?

Answer: How cautious are you? Simultaneous subs, especially of short stories, can be a little risky. If it backfires, and two markets want the same story, that can damage a relationship with an editor or publisher--especially if the guidelines say "no simultaneous submissions." On the other hand, submitting simultaneously can certainly help you get published sooner, considering the extremely long response times of some publications. Editors would obviously rather have an exclusive look at your submission. This can be a tough decision for the writer.

My preference: One-at-a-time.

6. Question: Should I edit as I go, or finish my draft and then edit?

Answer: There are pluses and minuses to both approaches. If you do edit as you go, and try to make every page as perfect as it can be before you go on to the next, you might not have to do much rewriting later--but you run the risk of having to do double work if your story takes a different direction and forces you to go back and change things you've already polished. Also, if you choose to wait until you finish a rough draft before going back and editing, that can give you a real sense of satisfaction--Hey, I've already got the story down on paper!--but you'll then of course have a LOT of editing to do. I sometimes think outliners are more apt to go ahead and finish the draft first before editing anything, and that pantsers are more likely to edit as they go. But I could be wrong about that (I'm wrong about many things).

My preference: Write the draft in one swoop (whether it's 100 words or 10,000 words), and only then worry about editing.

One question that never seems to come up is this: Should I write a literary story or a genre story? I think the reason it's rarely discussed is that most writers know already which kind of fiction they want to write, because they know what kind of fiction they most enjoy reading. I'm just odd enough to have done some of both, but (because mystery is my first love) I've written a lot more genre stories than literary. Also, as one genre writer said, I'm not smart enough to write a story that's hard to read.

What are your takes, on these issues? Are you an outliner? Do you prefer self-publishing over the hassle of finding a good "business partner"? Do you prefer past tense or present? First-person or third? Do you send your work out to more than one market at the same time? Do you edit as you go? What are some of the other do-or-don't-do questions you get asked, at signings or speaking events?

Vive la difference.


  1. I'm laughing at your borrowed line there, John: I'm not smart enough to write a story that's hard to read. - oh, the wit!
    Your breakdown of first vs third person is particularly good, I thought. That first is often a good choice for mysteries because it insists that the reader not get information before the protagonist. Like that.
    I'll add something to your past/present tense discussion. The problem with present tense for many of us is that: if it's happening *now*, how did it get written on the page? My science brain can't get around that. It takes me out of the story every time.

  2. Excellent post, John, and I hear these questions at my workshops, too. The only good answer is "what works for YOU."

    I've never seen the stat on present tense being more common in literary fiction and female writers. Don Winslow, one of my favorite MALE GENRE writers (although some of his work could probably be called borderline literary, akin to "somewhat pregnant") uses present tense. Robert Crais used to use it to, didn't he? I don't have any of his books around now. I use it in most of my books set in Connecticut, but the Woody Guthrie series is in past (except sometimes in Megan Traine's POV).

    Michael Connelly used first person for one or two Harry Bosch novels several years ago and I didn't think they worked as well as his third-person ones. Conan Doyle eliminated Watson for one or two short stories and had the same experience. I like multiple third POV because it helps with pacing and you can give the reader information while still keeping it away from certain characters.

    I think the taboo on simultaneous submissions is fading, partly because no publisher in his right mind can expect people to wait MONTHS for a reply. If a particular market explicitly says "no simultaneous submissions," they move to the end of my list. "The Girl in the Red Bandana," coming up in next month's Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, was a simultaneous submission with a long and complicated history that could be a fun post on this site except that I'd have to name names.

  3. Melodie, I've finally gotten to the point where I can read a story/novel written in present tense without its bothering me--but I certainly know what you mean. I think the first novel I read that was in present tense was Presumed Innocent (that was a LONG time ago) and it did bother me then. I just couldn't stop thinking about the "different" way it sounded and made me feel. When I read, I think I just like the idea that it could be someone sitting there telling me a story that's already happened, and past tense is more natural. As for the writing part, if I tried to write something myself in present tense, I think I'd be constantly lapsing into past, and would have to do tons of editing to make sure I hadn't.

    Thanks, Steve! That observation about females being more comfortable using present tense than males was strictly an opinion, but I do think there's more literary fiction written in present tense than genre fiction. But maybe not. Again, that's just from what I remember of my own reading. As for Crais, some of his earlier works that I remember well (Demolition Angel, Hostage, The Two-Minute Rule) were all past tense, I believe, and I think some of his newer ones were also, Again, as I mentioned to Melodie, I've now become comfortable with reading present tense and don't seem to notice it as much anymore.

    I hope you will reveal that "Red Bandanna" history--that would be a fun post. And I agree that most publications are more forgiving of problems resulting from simultaneous submissions than they used to be.

    Thanks to both of you for the comments!

  4. John,

    You offer excellent questions and answers which have fine advice for all of us.

  5. Thanks, Jacqueline. These things have been discussed a thousand times, but they continue to come up during Q&As. I think it's interesting to find out how different people handle the different issues. Always good to see you at SleuthSayers!

  6. I don't usually comment on blogs, but you always include some useful information developing authors can use, and that needs to be appreciated.

    I honestly don't think most of these dime-a-dozen tiny indie presses and eBook publishers around now can do much more than a writer with a good product can do for himself if he has the skills or can learn the skills of proofing, layout, and the rest. It's a lot more work, but as somebody smart said, "You get nothing for nothing."

    I liked the "smart enough" quote enough to include it in my eBook Writers' Devils 6 years ago. You probably know how I generally feel about "literary" writing. To me, there's no such thing as non-genre or literary writing. What there is is good writing and bad writing. (That quote is from an interview with Jerry Jenkins, the co-author of the Left Behind series of novels: "I admire them, the literary-type writers, you know. I wish I was smart enough to write a book that's hard to read.")

    Anyway, thanks for doing what you do. I think you've helped a lot more starting-out writers along the way than you realize.

  7. Hey Dan! I know you don't usually comment on blogs, and it's kind of you to stop in, here. Your advice has helped me on many occasions, directly and indirectly, and I truly appreciate it.

    I do know your feelings on literary writing, and I agree with you. The only reason I make the distinction is that so many publications specify in their guidelines things like "no genre fiction," "literary fiction only," etc.--so sometimes we have to be able to categorize what we're written, at least in the publication's terms, in order to know where to send it. And I'm especially pleased to find out where that quote came from. I wish I could say I remembered it was from Jerry Jenkins, but I didn't.

    Thank you again for taking the time to comment, here. Hope all's well with you and your writing!

  8. Another thought provoking article. I've had these same questions at my workshops, too. I don't always outline, but I always know the ending by the time I write the first paragraph. Usually I use third person, but that depends on how the protagonist speaks to me.

  9. John,

    Dickens wrote parts of Bleak House in present tense, and that's the oldest book I remember using it. In Alone With All That Could Happen, his excellent collection of essays on fiction writing, David Jauss opines (I've always wanted to use that word) that literary historians of the future will consider our use of present tense to be the most distinctive and perhaps problematic feature. Robie Macauley and George Lanning called it "the most frequent cliche of technique in the new fiction" in 1987.

    I'm comfortable with present tense, but maybe because I did lots of theater, and stage directions are always in present. It also reminds me of the radio sports broadcasters giving the play-by-play in the 1950s, when I wanted to grow up to be Al Kaline. I like the immediacy of it.

    Now that I think of it, I started The Whammer Jammers, my first roller derby novel, in past tense and it dragged badly. Just as an experiment, I shifted to present and completed the last 3/4 of the first draft in about a month...60K words.

    I used to struggle a lot with point of view, but now I just jump in and write. If it feels wrong, I try a different one. I don't know if it's odd or not (I suspect it is), I think I use more female POV characters in my novels than male.

  10. Deborah, outlining means different things to different writers. Probably because I write mostly shorts, my "outline" is just a mental overview of the plot, including most if not all of the scenes, and the ending. Nothing written down. It just gives me the kind of structure i need to make sure I stay on track and that nothing in the story veers off into the hinterlands. Knowing the ending fairly early sounds like sort of a partial outline to me.

    Steve, I didn't even think about DIckens--I had heard that about Bleak House but didn't remember it. I envy you your comfort with present tense, because I think it'd be a good thing to have in your toolbox--I just can't seem to use it effectively. And I like your thoughts about POV: don't worry about it, just jump in and see if it works.

    It's always been interesting to me that Robert B. Parker wrote all those Spenser novels in first person, and all of his Jesse Stone novels were in third person. And he did a good job with both series.

  11. You covered the waterfront in this post - thank you. I particularly appreciated your to-the-point discussion of first vs third POV. I write mostly mysteries but am venturing into the thriller world.

    Can I comment on a comment? If so, I want to say amen to Dan Persinger's take on self-publishing vs. very small publisher. Doing it yourself, admittedly at a cost of time and money, not only gives you a bigger share of the proceeds, it also gives you control over your book - title, cover, etc. That can be important to the writer. It was and is to me.

  12. Thanks, Patricia. Dan Persinger is always worth listening to, and yes, doing it all yourself gives you full control of everything. I see why so many folks have chosen that route. I've not yet waded into those waters because I have a great publisher who allows me to do nothing but write. I sincerely hate the business side of publishing, so I took the easy way out. I've also not yet self-published any of my stories, although (again) I see why many writers do. Thank you for stopping in, today!

  13. hi, John - Thanks for the virtual Q&A here!

    Wanted to toss in some thoughts on question 6, re: editing as you go vs at the end.
    I take a hybrid approach to this task. Each time I open the WIP, I go back a few pages and read through what I wrote in the last session or two (and the longer the break between writing sessions, the further back I'll often go). I'll often catch typos, missed punctuation, and odd word choices which I fix quickly, and may flag other issues to spend more time on later. By the time I get to the blank page, I'm back in the world of the story, in the mind of the characters, have found the rhythms of the voice/pacing, know where I left off, and am ready to move on. Editing as I go, in this quick sweep-through to tidy things up fashion, keeps me from getting bogged-down in it, and serves much the same purpose for me as warm-up stretches before a workout.

    Other days, I'll go through and look at the bigger issues I flagged earlier, and deal with them. Again, for me, it's a way of eating the elephant in a series of small plates, rather than trying to tackle the entire edit all in one go at the end.

    In much the same way, if I'm going along in the story and suddenly discover that I need the villain to be distracted by the intended victim's pet, I'll go back right then and make sure that I gave the victim the pet early-on. I'll then hop-skip-jump through the story, adding the pet in at a few spots, just so their critical appearance later on doesn't come quite so out-of-the-blue. I know that a lot of authors prefer to just leave themselves a note (give Jane a pet) and address it during the rewrites, but for me, the appearance of that pet (or going back to put the gun on the mantel, the pile of papers where the will is later found on the desk/near the spilled wastebasket, etc.) can make a difference in things going forward (what kind of pet is it? A dog? Cat? Parrot? Is it friendly? Territorial? These things might matter!) If I add it in now, and weave the thread through the story-in-progress to the point where I'm currently writing, I know how that addition has affected the story in the past, which will inform how it plays out in the current (and future) scenes.

    Between as-I-go editing and working new elements into the story along the way, by the time I type "the end" of that first draft, I've actually been through the whole book enough times that it's much more like a sixth or seventh draft. At that point, it's ready to hand-off to my beta readers and see what they think of it.

    Oh, and because you made the comment about as-you-go editing being more common to pantsers vs after-the-fact editing being more common to plotters, I suppose my hybrid style of editing is perfect for me because my approach to outlining is also a hybrid. I typically outline at a very high level, just jotting down the bones of the story and any important, must-have scenes/elements, but like to discover the details as I go.

  14. Lauryn -- That's a good approach, and yep, it IS a hybrid. Moderation in all things, right?

    I too do some of the things you mentioned, with my editing. I like to say I blast through the first draft and only then go back, but occasionally (certainly after having to stop for something in midstream) I'll go back to the beginning and read through what I've done so far before proceeding--but I really don't do a lot of in-depth editing until everything's down on paper (or on the hard drive). The big advantage to your approach is, as you said, when you finish the first draft you've actually done far more than just a first draft, with a lot less editing remaining. And it obviously works for you!

    Thanks so much for this look into your process!

  15. John, YMMV but if I were editing a magazine or ezine I wouldn't allow simultaneous submissions at all. I can understand why people do it. I've noticed recently that a very few publications aren't operating at such a glacial pace as before, probably because of email. I hope this trend will continue.

    That is awesome that you met the lady who wrote "Looking for love in all the wrong places" ... when my daughter was about three, she used to sing that song, but made it about looking for puppies & kitties instead! She wanted a pet but we lived in an apartment at the time, so it didn't happen.

  16. Liz, I know what you mean. I'm sure sim-subs are maddening for editors. And yes, some magazines are responding quicker these days--but not all. It'll always be a buyer's market.

    Patti Ryan, who wrote that song, is a sweet lady, and super talented--I'll be sure to tell her about your daughter. One of the perks of writers' events and conferences is running into folks like that.

  17. Getting to this late. Had a gig. Excellent post. I intend to quote you when applicable.
    Like most of you said - whatever works for the writer.
    I like present tense but don't use it for my historicals. Some magazine editors do not like present tense.
    I find present tense is more immediate, so is first person narrative. But it's all a matter of taste.
    As for Indie publishing, I'll have a long blog about it later. I used to be traditionally published but I switched and never looked back.

  18. Thanks, O'Neil -- Good point, about historicals. I'd never thought of that. And yes, I do know some editors don't like present tense.

    On the subject of indie vs. traditional, you and BJ Bourg are always the first two folks I think of, who have been SO successful after turning to indie publishing. (Is it a Louisiana thing??)

  19. Another excellent post, John, with valuable points to ponder, not only in your original thoughts, but in the comments from others. I prefer third person for the reasons you stated even though I occasionally write short stories in first person. Sometimes a story comes to me with its own preference, and I just go along with it. I'll never forget the first time I read an Alex Cross novel by some guy named James Patterson. He used first person when Cross was in the scene and third when he wasn't. "Who is this idiot," I thought. "He can't do that. He'll never make it in this business." Just shows to go you what you can and can't do if you so it well.

  20. Earl, I often use Patterson's Alex Cross novels as examples of how to mix first person and third person, though a LOT of writers are doing it now. It's still one of those "don't try this at home" techniques, though--it can be disastrous if not done correctly.

    I too have written a lot of first-person shorts, but--like you--I wind up using third person more often. Maybe I'm not sure I can always be convincing with first-person. It sort of depends on how closely I (as the writer) can relate to the character.

    Many thanks for coming by!!

  21. I found myself agreeing with your "preferences." I always do a rough outline but it usually ends up changing drastically as I write. Also, I hate present tense. But no ranting here. I agree with most of what you said and wish I had one tenth of your success.

    All the best,

  22. You're too kind, Bob--thank you for your comment. Like you, I have certain ways I have to do things. They're not necessarily the best ways. I wish I could write without all that pre-thinking, and I wish I could edit as I go, etc.

    Writers have to do whatever seems to work for them. I'm just fascinated by all the different approaches.

  23. I love the way you presented this, giving pros and cons and then your preference. I may borrow that format in the future. Thanks for an informative thoughtful presentation here. The group was lucky to get you.

  24. Hi Kaye--thanks so much! I wanted to do it this way because there's no "right" or "wrong" solution to all this, and this format allowed me to say how I do it rather than trying to tell folks how they should do it. SO much of writing, and marketing too, is just individual taste, and no size fits all. As for the group, I've been at SS (and previously Criminal Brief) so long they probably don't know how to get rid of me.

  25. As always, a useful post for all of us. It's interesting that the same questions come up, but there's always a new crop of writers coming along who want to learn. I prefer third person, but I've occasionally used first if the voice of the character is distinctive enough to capture the reader. You're a good teacher, and I save your essays on writing to pass along to others.

  26. Thanks, Susan! There are a bunch of interesting things to talk about anytime you have gatherings of writers, because no matter how much you write or how much you think you know, there's always something to learn from the way others approach all this. And we haven't even mentioned anything yet about plot, characterization, dialogue, setting, etc.

    Glad you stopped by. Best to you in all your writing endeavors!

  27. As with most of your posts, John, I've made a pdf of this & put it in my "Learner's File." Thank you.

  28. Larry, that's kind of you! If any of that turns out to be helpful, I'm pleased.

    Hope all's well with you--keep up the good work!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>