Tag Archives: first-person narration

Back to the Grind*

I can’t begin today’s post without saying a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who read and/or commented upon yesterday’s post, sent me messages of congratulations via one of the (seemingly) endless forms of social media I frequent, or who was – even slightly – pleased by the news I shared in recent days. I am really touched. Thank you, everyone.

Image: windowsphone.com (c) Universal Studios

Image: windowsphone.com
(c) Universal Studios

Now, I hope I won’t let y’all down…

Anyway, it’s back to work as usual today. I had hoped I’d be able to get working on my new WiP (codename: ‘Web’) yesterday but I found myself pulled around by all the other things I had to do. It was one of those days where you do lots of little things, and it doesn’t seem to add up to much, and you end up wrecked at the end of the day without a lot to show for it. (I hate days like those). I promise (pinkie swear) that I’m not putting off getting stuck back into ‘Web’ because I know, for sure, that I need to rewrite the whole thing in first-person; in fact, I’ve thought about little else over the past few days.

Because ‘thinking about stuff’ totally counts as writing-related work.

Image: cheezburger.com

Image: cheezburger.com

There are, naturally, going to be problems with changing the narrative voice, mainly related to the fact that third-person narration (even, as I was using it in ‘Web’, largely restricted to one person’s point of view) affords more freedom in storytelling terms. I used to find myself naturally drawn to first-person narration – ‘Emmeline’ was the first book I’d really tried to write which didn’t use it – and I found that third-person had a lot going for it. Third-person allowed me more scope to tell the story even when Emmeline wasn’t physically present for some of the action, and it would have been impossible for me to create the story world without that particular narrative tool at my disposal. So, perhaps that’s why I gravitated naturally towards third-person for ‘Web’, too.

Except, it really isn’t working.

I had reached a point in the text where I’d felt the story – or, perhaps, its urgency – start to slip away from me. I’m writing about a girl who is facing the first anniversary of the death of her father (which coincides almost exactly with her birthday) and, at the point at which I left the text last week, whose best friend has been put in hospital. Telling the story in third-person was getting the words on the page, but I’m not entirely sure it’s really getting to the heart of the character. I think that third-person, for this story, allowed me too much freedom around my protagonist – in other words, too much distance from her. In a story like this one, distance from the emotion at the heart of it is a bad thing.

All I can do, I suppose, is rewrite the first few chapters and see which voice works better, and which one I feel more at home in. It may be that the story will need a little distance, in which case I can re-evaluate. That’s the best part about creating a story – these decisions are fluid, and you don’t have to remain stuck to one particular way of doing things if it’s no longer working. (If only the rest of life could be so sensible!)

What you do want to avoid, though, when writing a story, is the dreaded ‘head-hopping’, or the rapid switching of narrative points-of-view without giving your reader adequate warning. If you switch between first-person and third-person in alternating paragraphs (though why you’d want to do this is beyond me), or you submerge your reader in the heart and head of one character and then – in the next line, or mid-paragraph – you dunk them straight into the heart and head of another, it can get confusing. With third-person narration it’s particularly hard to keep a lid on this: you can change the character at the centre of a scene, sure, but make certain to do it after a clearly marked scene change, or in alternating chapters, or something equally defined. With first-person, you have to make sure to keep your voice as restricted as it would be in real life – in other words, you need to be very careful not to tell your reader what another character is thinking or feeling (because how would your protagonist, through whose eyes you are telling the story, know what’s going on in the heart of someone else?), only how it appears to them.

In any case, this voice experiment with ‘Web’ is one worth doing. I know I have 30,000 words of solid material in third-person, just in case this first-person version doesn’t work, so all is not lost. The important thing is to tell the story and to tell it as well as I can, and – most importantly of all – get a first draft done before my agent sends me back the eviscerated version of ‘Emmeline’…

Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com

Right! Time to get to work. What a pity this is all coinciding with a week of glorious sunshine, but them’s the breaks. I’d much rather be inside my own head, anyway!

 

*’Grind’ used entirely tongue-in-cheek, just so you know. One can never be too careful with sarcasm, these days.

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Outsiders’

Yes, yes, I know. ‘The Outsiders’ has been around for far longer than I’ve been alive. So, you might reasonably ask, why am I only getting around to it now?

Well.

I don’t really have an answer. I always wanted to read ‘The Outsiders’, and it’s only managed to work its way to the top of my TBR pile in the last few months, and those are the facts. In any case, better late than never.

Image: snazal.com

Image: snazal.com

Among the many amazing things about this book is that it was written by an actual teenager, in the actual nineteen-sixties, and that teenager went on to write lots more books and is still alive, and still writing. Another amazing thing is: that teenager was a girl.

‘The Outsiders’ tells the story of Ponyboy Curtis, a fourteen-year-old in a dangerous world. Where Ponyboy lives, there are two groups – the Greasers and the Socs, or in other words the kids from the wrong side of the tracks and the upper-class, privileged set. Ponyboy is a Greaser, as are his brothers Darrel and Sodapop, who live by themselves after the deaths of their parents. Early in the book, Ponyboy notes that his oldest brother (Darrel, or ‘Darry’) shouldn’t have to work ‘like an old man’ as he is only twenty, but this is the reality of their lives. He is the main supporter of their family, and they are fiercely protective of one another. They, and the other Greasers, regularly rub up against the Socs, and these encounters are never pleasant. The novel opens with Ponyboy leaving a movie theatre having watched a Paul Newman film and being set upon by a bunch of Socs. He is rescued by his older brothers, which leaves him a confused mix of relieved and embittered. Later in the story, the boys meet some Soc girls, which begins the process of learning about ‘the other’; ‘The Outsiders’ of the title is an easily switched label, for of course the definition of who, or what, is ‘outside’ depends on where you’re standing. The girls are nice, and sweet, and treat them decently, which makes them wonder whether there is some good in the Socs after all.

Shortly thereafter, a serious rumble between the groups takes place, and a character is accidentally killed in the course of it. As a result, Ponyboy and his friend Johnny skip town, hiding out in an abandoned church some miles away where they spend a week with little to do besides reading ‘Gone With The Wind’ and wondering about their fate. When their friend Dallas – a volatile, charismatic, dangerous, compelling character – eventually comes to find them, he brings bad news: the situation between the Greasers and the Socs has become grave. The boys decide to return home to try to pacify things, but before they do, they realise the church is on fire – with children inside…

‘The Outsiders’ is a remarkable novel. There are things about the way it’s written which make it clear that it is the work of a young author – and, sometimes, a young female author – including passages of description, and a focus on the appearance of the main characters. Ponyboy describes himself within the first paragraph, comparing himself unfavourably with Paul Newman; several other characters, including his brothers, are described by him as handsome or some derivative thereof, which is a little unlikely in the mouth of a fourteen-year-old boy. I doubt the majority of fourteen-year-olds would notice whether or not their brothers could be considered ‘handsome’; somehow, I don’t think it would be important to them. However, this is my only slight gripe with the book. In every other respect, it is a masterpiece.

The cast of 'The Outsiders' movie (1983) Image: sf.funcheap.com

The cast of ‘The Outsiders’ movie (1983)
Image: sf.funcheap.com

In its characterisation – particularly of the narrator, Ponyboy – it is touching, real, and honest. In its dialogue, it is rounded and believable. In its plot, it is moving, powerful and relevant, even now. Anyone familiar with ‘West Side Story’, and innumerable other teen movies and books since ‘The Outsiders’ was written, will not be taken by surprise by the plot overmuch; however, that doesn’t remove anything from the fact that the story of the Greasers and the Socs is as important now as it was then. I loved the people of this novel, especially the orphaned Curtis brothers and their attempts to live well and to conduct themselves in a way which would have made their parents proud. I loved their emphasis on hard work and education, and Sodapop and Darry’s paternal worrying over Ponyboy’s tendency to throw away his own potential. I loved the fiery Dallas, unhinged but loyal, dangerous but loving. I admired Johnny, despite his faults, and I loved the delicate way Hinton deals with the Socs, gradually unpicking Ponyboy’s lifelong conviction that they were out to get him, and nothing more.

Parts of the end of this book had me in tears. Hinton is wonderful at handling emotion – not only the heightened senses of a fight, but also the agony of loss and the punch of love – which is hard to believe, given that she was fifteen as she started to write this novel and eighteen by the time it was published. It felt real as I read, immersing me in its world from the very first line. The central message of the book – outsiders are people, just like us – is one that I don’t think the world has yet learned; there is a lot to be said about the way in which Hinton describes death and destruction in this book, and how it affects everyone. With every death, we are all lessened.

‘The Outsiders’ has been a staple on school reading lists for decades in the US, but it should be recommended reading everywhere. It’s one of the most enjoyable – if a little corny and clichéd in places – books that I’ve read in recent memory. If, like me, you’ve been meaning to give it a whirl, don’t delay any longer.

Image: fanpop.com

Image: fanpop.com

Book Review Saturday – ‘Red Ink’

One of the main reasons behind my purchase of ‘Red Ink’ was the fact that it is published by Hot Key Books. I’ve only recently become aware of this publisher, but I already know how high their standards are; all the books I’ve picked up from Hot Key have been very good indeed, and this one is no different. They’re well-written, and edgy, and fresh, and slightly off-beat, in all the best possible ways.

Image: forbookssake.net

Image: forbookssake.net

‘Red Ink’ tells the story of a fifteen-year-old girl coming to terms with awful loss, and trying to rebuild her life, and herself. It takes us from London to Crete and back again, describing the differing landscapes with such precise and poetic language that we can feel the streets under our feet, see the sparkling blue sea, hear the passing traffic, smell the warm dust in the air. The writing in this book is a living thing. It is the voice of our narrator; for the duration of the novel, we are her. It absorbed me completely.

Our narrator has to live under the heavy burden of a name she despises, and this is the point at which we’re first introduced to her. We learn her name is Melon Fouraki, and we learn that her mother is dead. At the beginning of the novel, Melon is living with her late mother’s partner, Paul, who – wonderfully – is portrayed throughout as a good, kind, compassionate and caring man, who wishes to look after Melon and keep her safe. He loves her, and he loved her mother, and his grief is as real and as raw as Melon’s, though we experience it at a remove. Throughout the novel, people raise eyebrows over Melon and Paul’s relationship, projecting sordid and distasteful things onto it; this serves to make their bond seem even more precious, and it was one of the things about the novel I enjoyed the most. Of course, Paul’s guardianship over Melon causes her irritation at first, and she rails against his efforts to show her the parental love which, in many ways, she has always lacked, but one thing she always has for him is respect. He is a great character, and I loved what Mayhew did with him.

Melon herself is a wonder. Funny, abrasive, full-colour, so real you can nearly hear her voice narrating her story to you, I absolutely loved her. She’s one of the most convincing characters I’ve ever met, and this is largely because Mayhew tackles the concept of grief so well. Melon obviously loved her eccentric, slightly batty mother, and she is devastated by her sudden and tragic death, but at the book’s outset she is consumed with anger, and doesn’t even realise it. Her mother’s death is ‘no big deal’; she doesn’t have any feelings on the matter, besides the fact that she feels like there’s a brick lodged in her ribcage. As the story goes on, the reality of her loss begins to hit home and we walk by her side as she processes the stages of her grief. Every step of it is utterly believable. She finds herself feeling normal at times, then feeling guilty for feeling normal, as if it’s a betrayal of her mother’s memory to spend the occasional day unbowed by grief; she makes jokes to cover her own awkwardness and that of other people in discussing loss, and death, and sorrow. It’s one of the most touching, and true, expositions of grieving that I’ve ever read.

Alongside Melon’s present-day journey, we also have ‘The Story’ – the story that Melon’s mother has told her all her life, her ‘origin myth’. It is the story of her father, and how Melon was conceived in Crete, and the heartbreaking romance of her parents’ separation. Everything about Melon’s life, from her strange name to her father’s absence, are explained away in beautiful terms by ‘The Story’, which Melon has heard so often that she can recite it by heart. It is, in real terms, the only thing her mother left her. It is her legacy. In an attempt to find out more about herself and her family and to see the real landscape behind the story, Melon traces her mother’s life back to where it began – in Crete. The results of this search go to the foundation of Melon’s own life. She learns the truth behind ‘The Story’, and it begins to be retold.

There is a lot to like in this book. Besides the characterisation, I enjoyed the structure, which flips back and forth in time. Some chapters describe Melon’s life before her mother’s death, some after, which builds up a gradual picture of their relationship. The language is pitch-perfect, the settings are fantastic, the depictions of family life are excellent. It is full of love and loss and truth, and it tells a strong story. There was one aspect of the book that I didn’t like so much, but I’m not going to give it away here, of course; one aspect of the conclusion of Melon’s story felt unnecessary to me, and a little too ‘pat’. If you’ve read it, you probably know what I mean, and if you haven’t, I hope you’ll read it in an attempt to find out.

Even if it's only to have images like this created in your mind! Image: finestgreece.gr

Read this book. Even if it’s only to have images like this created in your mind!
Image: finestgreece.gr

Happy weekend, and happy reading. I’d love to know what’s currently on your Bookish Radar. Feel free to share in the comments!

The Wavy Green Line of Death

I am tired today. I worked until midnight last night, because my husband went to bed early (like a sensible person). Instead of seeing my abandonment as an opportunity to perhaps read a book, or watch some TV, I grabbed the WiP and edited until my eyesight began to fail.

Image: someecards.com

Image: someecards.com

But, in a way, it was worth it.

Yesterday’s editing was brutal – it was a merciless slaughter of words. Line after line of useless text fell beneath the blade of my Green Felt Pen. (In fact, my word-thirsty Green Felt Pen may need to be replaced with the even mightier Blue Felt Pen later today, because I’ve nearly worn out the nib on Green the Destroyer, such is the swathe it has cut through the excesses of the WiP.) And, surprisingly, I’m learning that it actually feels good to edit. It feels good to re-read a paragraph or a page after I’ve cut lumps out of it, and realise that it now says exactly the same as it did before, but in fewer words and without doing all the work for the reader.

It won’t have escaped anyone’s attention (that is, if you’re a regular reader) that this edit is my seventh. Seventh. And I’m still finding things to fix. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’ve read the manuscript of this novel about ten times at this stage, and it’s only becoming clear in this edit that I’ve made a huge amount of rookie mistakes. Thank goodness for the all-powerful Green Felt Pen of Doom, then! Maybe the power is in the pen – that would explain a lot, actually.

Anyway. Let’s do a little round-up of Things I Have Done Wrong, in the hope it’ll help other writers:

Item the First: My book is narrated in the first person. This can pose tricky problems for me, because all I have to go on is my protagonist’s viewpoint. Yet, at regular intervals through the book, my protagonist describes for the reader how other characters are feeling. This, of course, is a no-no. It’s only striking me now how silly this is, and how badly it reads. People can make guesses at how others are feeling, of course, based on body language, tone of voice, and so on – but for a first-person narrator to say something like: ‘He looked at me, and there were dark circles under his eyes. He was so anxious. His heart was racing,’ is plainly ridiculous. (I have to point out that the sentence I’ve just used is most definitely not taken from my WiP – I wasn’t as silly as that. I’m just trying to give an illustrative example!) So, anywhere I’ve noticed my protagonist making assumptions about other people’s feelings which are not based on very clear physical cues, the Green Wavy Line of Death has been employed, and those needless words have fallen. And hurray to that.

Item the Second: I’ve also realised that my protagonist describes things in too much detail sometimes. If she encounters a machine, or a vehicle, or a piece of technology, she tends to go on and on about it, describing every last dial, switch, and piece of tubing. She’s not a particularly enthusiastic engineer, and she’s not a machine-nerd. These things are not out of place in the world she lives in. So, I ask myself, why does she go on about them for half a paragraph? It’s equivalent to someone in a modern novel taking fifteen lines to describe a washing machine, or a refrigerator. Unless the refrigerator in question was powered by a meteorite and made from solid diamond, or the narrator is a freshly-arrived alien, there’s no need to do that. Of course. What I’ve done – as, I’m sure, will be clear to you – is I’ve mixed up my own voice with my narrator’s. That is a shocking mistake to make. I’m fascinated by the machines and technology in this world, and I’ve thought deeply about them. I’ve done some research into steam-powered engines, and condensers, and propellers, and so on. So, when someone in the book enthuses about something which should be totally ordinary from their point of view, it’s actually me speaking, not the character. I’ve slapped myself on the wrist for this already, don’t worry. And slash slash scribble goes the Green Felt Pen of Doom.

Item the Third: One of the things I was most proud of yesterday was condensing six pages (or, approximately 3600 words) of descriptive exposition with a bit of dialogue into about 2.5 pages (hopefully, fewer than 1000 words) of pure dialogue, with a tiny bit of exposition. It was a scene which had bothered me for a while, but until yesterday I had no idea how to fix it. Eventually, I just ended up rewriting the entire thing. It’s an important scene, because in it, our Fearless Protagonist is learning things about her family, and realising how little she understands about them and what they do. But, as I’d written it up until yesterday, the scene was basically a lecture given by one of the other characters, both to the reader and my protagonist. Now, it’s more like a discussion – she engages more, puts things together herself (without having to be smacked across the head with things that are, actually, obvious), and I don’t feel the need to expand on every tiny detail. As before, with the overdone descriptions, I’ve sketched around things that would be clear and unremarkable to the character, and allowed them to gradually reveal themselves to the reader.

So, basically, this is what I’ve learned (the hard way): Don’t give your characters knowledge they couldn’t possibly have; Don’t confuse your enthusiastic, nerdy voice with theirs; and Don’t allow Captain Obvious to visit your manuscript and explain everything in minute detail. Smack him with the Green Felt Pen of Death.

I hope this has been helpful, and mildly diverting. Do let me know if you have any other editing tips, or if you disagree with anything I’ve said here. It’s all about the discussion, people!

Have a wonderful Thursday.