Since publishing my first mystery in 1993, my preferred point of view has always been third person. In the Mellingham/Chief Joe Silva series I used multiple points of view, and in the Anita Ray series and later the Felicity O’Brien series I used only one. All were third person. But a few years ago I wanted to try first person, and started a stand-alone. After numerous rewrites I had something my agent liked, and out it went to editors, where it has died a pandemic death of neglect.
While I’ve been waiting for responses I’ve had time to think about all the parts of the story I couldn’t tell because I’d committed myself to first person and one main character. I had no interest in adding other points of view in either first or third, but the initially quiet moments of dissatisfaction at what I’d left out grew and I wondered what it would have been like to write the story in third person. Immediately I was reminded of why I liked that particular voice—for the intimacy and also the flexibility it allowed me as the narrator. And that did it. I decided to rewrite the mystery in third person.
Over the years I’ve heard plenty of writers groan about an editor’s or agent’s suggestion that they rewrite the entire book from first to third (or third to first), always with the reminder drumming in their brain that this means more than changing “I” to “she” (or “she” to “I”), along with all the other pronouns as well as correcting the verbs. But the thought of what I could also do prodded me forward and I began. The first discovery was the opening. I needed a different opening, and once I began that I could feel the difference in how the story would unfold.
One of the reasons I’ve avoided first person for so many years comes down to the voice. Too many of the voices in crime fiction seem flip, sarcastic, chip-on-the-shoulder tough, the teenage swagger, a voice that doesn’t sound authentic to me and one I didn’t want to imitate. The strongest people I know are also the gentlest, and that was something I couldn’t seem to capture in first person, at least to my satisfaction. Now that I’ve moved back to third person I feel the other characters opening up, and exploring them more has given the story new dimensions that I’m eager to learn and write about.
In some parts of the novel I’m rewriting an entire chapter—the same plot steps but rewritten line by line. I’ve added new scenes and chapters, but in other instances all I’m doing is changing pronouns and verbs or crossing out entire paragraphs or scenes.
When I began the rewrite I thought about how much work it would be, but still I was curious. I wondered if I’d get bored or frustrated reworking a story whose characters and details I already knew too well. But once I got into a new perspective on the main character, much of the story began to feel new to me (and much of it is new to me). I’m energized every morning as I sit down to work. The characters and plot are the same, but this mystery unfolds like an entirely new experience. For once I’m not cursing the pandemic; it has given me the time to rethink and rewrite a story I care deeply about and want to see succeed. And when this is rewrite is done, I want the pandemic to be over so my new novel can go out into the world and be read by others.