Tag Archives: narrative voice

You Win Some, You Lose Some

It must be because I am, essentially, built for life in a fjord that I just can’t cope with hot weather. At the same time, I hate complaining about it, because it’s so rare in these parts. For the past couple of days we’ve been having a mini-heatwave (blue skies from horizon to horizon, barely a cloud, still and heavy air, baking in temperatures of 24 – 28 degrees Celsius, on average), and it completely threw my circuitry for a loop. Today it’s still dry, and warm, and heavy, but the sky is more like a huge greyish-white duvet and there’s a bit of a breeze.

So, I might actually be able to think today, and get stuff done.

I really do enjoy sitting in the shade with a book while my garden gently sizzles all around me, and it’s amazing to look up into an Irish sky and see it blue as cobalt. But at the same time it’s terrible to sit at your computer willing the blinking cursor to turn into words. I tried so hard to write a piece of flash fiction yesterday and no matter what I did, it just wouldn’t work. I tried prompts, of all kinds. I tried re-reading some of my old work to see if anything struck me, or if there was a half-finished idea anywhere which I could complete. I tried flipping a book to a random page and taking the first four words I saw as a sentence seed. I’d get about 200 words in, with no idea where the story was going, and then it would just fizzle out – pfft – like that.

So, basically, what I’m saying is: sorry for the lack of a blog post here yesterday. Be assured I fought a heroic battle. However, I lost – it’s bound to happen once in a while – and I was crushed flat by my own writer’s block.

Image: chicagonow.com

Image: chicagonow.com

I did manage to get some work done on ‘Web’, though, which was the day’s only saving grace. On that topic: you might remember me bleating on about wanting to change the narrative voice from third- to first-person a few days ago; well. As happens sometimes when you revisit something with a brain unaffected by heatstroke, you realise you were talking utter rubbish. I’ve decided to stick with the third-person for the time being; when I re-read what I’d done, it didn’t seem as bad as I’d remembered. I did try rewriting the first chapter in first-person, and somehow it made my protagonist seem much older and far more cynical than I want her to be. Maybe I was channelling myself (because I sure as heck felt old and cynical while I was writing it), but for whatever reason, it didn’t work as well as I’d imagined.

I think the book still needs a touch of first-person somewhere, though. I’m considering writing some sections in my antagonist’s voice, in first-person, and seeing if interspersing those with the rest of the narration would help.

Or maybe I should just finish the first draft and then see what the story needs.

Image: giphy.com

Image: giphy.com

All right, all right. Jeesh!

Anyway, I made a sketch (keeping things deliberately rough) of the rest of the book the other day – my desk is covered with Post-It notes, which seems to be my default way of working – and so I know I can finish this story. I know where I want it to go, in broad terms. I have Themes to cover and Important Things to say about sacrifice and friendship and love. I have (I think) the bones of an interesting tale with a striking protagonist and I’m writing in a genre that I’m not used to, which means it’s always interesting (if a little bit like walking a tightrope).

But one thing never changes: the work. It’s not easy getting a writhing story from your brain (where it seems like awesome squared) to paper, where it can sometimes feel flat and boring. I’ve got to give it my best shot, and there’s only one way to do that.

Quit complainin’, get my butt in the hot-seat (or, today, the pleasantly warm if a little overcast-seat), and write!

Catch y’all later. Good luck with whatever you’re working on, and may all your words be good ones.

 

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.

Some More Friday Flash

Frosty Friday greetings to you all, compadres. How goes it?

It’s a cool day here, and there are dark clouds lurking. I’m waiting for the hailstorms to start. We’re sitting in a little bubble of calm – the calm that prefaces, you just know, the biggest downpour imaginable. It’s my kind of weather.

It doesn't look quite like this, sadly.  Image: layoutsparks.com

It doesn’t look quite like this, sadly.
Image: layoutsparks.com

Work continues apace on the dismemberment of ‘Eldritch.’ I’m down to something like 48,000 words now (from about 63,000), and – particularly over the past few days – the restructuring has been going really well. It almost seems easy, which feels dangerous. I have to keep reminding myself that the words I’m working with (from the old version of the book) are a fourth or fifth draft, so it would make sense that they’re reasonably okay. Because of the revamp job I’m doing, though, it feels like I’m working on a first draft all over again, and so I’m expecting everything to be nonsense. When it isn’t, it feels weird.

Does that make sense? Probably not.

Here, have a picture of Sherlock looking confused. You're welcome. Image: sherlockreactionimages.tumblr.com

Here, have a picture of Sherlock looking confused. You’re welcome.
Image: sherlockreactionimages.tumblr.com

I am losing so much of what I thought made the book unique, and it’s not easy to carve away at words I spent so long perfecting, and choosing, and polishing, and placing with such care. But, at the same time, the story is moving along so much more quickly now and despite everything I’m getting rid of, I’m managing to hold on to lots of the fun aspects of the relationship between my two main characters. Perhaps the reason that my carve-up job is working well is because this is the way the story was meant to be, all along; I should never have been afraid to get rid of the overarching narrative conceit I had been using. I now see that it was confusing and clunky and unworkable, and just because it allowed me to tell the story from the point of view of two characters simultaneously was no reason to keep it.

Sometimes, simpler is better. In fact, nearly always, simpler is better. It’s just unfortunate that this ‘simple’ change has meant the near-total evisceration of the book.

Anyway.

So, it’s Friday. Which means I woke this morning and the first thing I did was check the Flash! Friday website for today’s clues. (No, I’m not addicted. Why on earth would you say that?)

Today’s story elements were as follows:

The compulsory element to include was ‘Aging’ – as a concept, not the actual word itself. The distinction is, of course, vital.

The prompt image was this:

Image: wallartisan.com

Image: wallartisan.com

And so, after much panicked cogitation, I came up with the following small tale:

The Long Step

Pablo knew his time had come, at last. In truth it had come years before, but nobody had wanted to take his hand and lead him to the mountain.

Nobody wanted to say goodbye.

But is wife had been gone so long that only the oldest children remembered her. The sickness had eaten her, and she’d chosen to take the Long Step early.

Pablo had no dependents now.

And so, one morning, he took his silent leave. He dressed simply, bringing only his stick. He slowly climbed the mountain road, savouring the air and the sky and the birdsong, the tang of sore muscles, the thump-thumping of his old heart.

Finally, he reached the end. The Long Step beckoned, out into eternity.

One final breath, and then…

Peace enfolded him, like a closing eye.

Surprised, the women at the mountain’s foot ran to catch the floating baby, newly reborn.

‘Who was due to Step today?’ they asked, but nobody knew.

**

Good luck with whatever the day brings your way, and remember: even if something feels like it’s not working out, or you’re afraid you’re doing something wrong, don’t worry. You could be just starting out on a larger plan, and everything is going to work out just fine.

Wait and see.

 

 

Book Review Saturday – ‘Ghost Knight’

Cornelia Funke is not, for me, an ‘auto-buy’ author, despite the fact that she is a writer I deeply admire. There’s something slightly standoffish in her style, I think: something which gets between me and the words, like a film. I don’t know if this is something other readers experience with Funke, or if it’s just something which troubles me alone, but it sometimes stops me enjoying her writing as much as I should.

Image: worcesternews.co.uk

Image: worcesternews.co.uk

‘Ghost Knight’ is one of Funke’s more recent books – my lovely hardcover edition, a gift from my husband, dates from 2012 – and it is packed with charm. It features beautiful black and white illustrations, like these:

Image: goodreads.com Artist: Andrea Offermann, 2012

Image: goodreads.com
Artist: Andrea Offermann, 2012

 

Image: thehistorygirls.blogspot.com Artist: Andrea Offerman, 2012

Image: thehistorygirls.blogspot.com
Artist: Andrea Offermann, 2012

and there are ghosts, details from medieval history, architecture, tombs, effigies, spooky old cathedrals, graveyards, grandmothers who use their crutches as weapons, love and sacrifice, treasured friendship and adventure… but, I feel, it fell foul of the old ‘Funke film’ thing again. It was a wonderful story, but told at a distance. I didn’t feel emotionally involved with anyone or anything in it, and that was a shame.

Having said this, I really enjoyed the story, and I loved the character of Ella Littlejohn – I was not at all surprised to learn that Funke drew this character straight from life, as she leaps off the page – and I enjoyed reading about William Longespee, the titular ‘ghost knight’, about whom I knew nothing before opening this book. The story opens at a pivotal moment in the life of Jon Whitcroft, who is sent away to a boarding school in Salisbury after a breakdown in his relationship with his mother. Angry and feeling rejected, he resolves to hate his new life, and his bruised feelings are very much in evidence as he makes the train journey, alone, to a place in which he knows nobody. Very soon after arriving, though, Jon has a strange and disturbing vision – three gruesome ghosts, all on horseback, who clatter into the courtyard beneath his window at night, making it very clear he is their prey…

One of the only people who believes his crazy story about bloodthirsty ghosts is Ella Littlejohn, a fellow pupil at Jon’s school. She is used to the weirder side of life, as her grandmother Zelda is a witch who lives in a house full of toads. Ella gives Jon the idea to go into Salisbury Cathedral and beg for help at the tomb of William Longespee, whose ghost – it’s rumoured – appears to aid the innocent when they are in grave danger. Legend has it that Longespee has something dark on his soul which needs to be expunged, and by continuing to do good deeds even after his death, he may be able to repay his debts and find peace.

Figuring he has nothing to lose, Jon follows Ella’s advice.

Author Cornelia Funke at the tomb of the real William Longespee, in Salisbury Cathedral. Image: salisburyjournal.co.uk

Author Cornelia Funke at the tomb of the real William Longespee, in Salisbury Cathedral.
Image: salisburyjournal.co.uk

Longespee is indeed raised, and he agrees to come to Jon’s aid. But why are ghosts hunting Jon in the first place? And what is the truth behind the horrible accusations being made by yet another ghost, that of a young chorister who fell to his death from a window a century before? Can it be true that there is more to Longespee’s damnation than he is willing to admit?

For a gut-wrenching moment during this story, I began to wonder if the children would have any role in the action at all. We see them being saved through the actions of adults, several times, and I did worry that they’d be excluded from a central place in the drama. However, the ultimate resolution hangs on Jon, and his courage, and that was enough to keep me satisfied. One of the stranger aspects of the narration – and, perhaps, the cause of the ‘Funke film’ that keeps me separated from the heart of the story so often in her work, this book included – is the fact that Jon narrates this story at several years’ remove from the events described in it. He makes several wistful, ‘in the old long ago’ type remarks when he introduces us to a new person, or a new thing, and it did throw me out of the narrative world a little. I can’t see any reason for choosing to narrate the story this way: it would have worked better if it hadn’t been done like this, I think, because it removes a bit of the tension. Despite this, the world is beautifully evoked and delicately described, and the ghosts – particularly the ones hunting Jon – are properly scary.

Jon is supposed to be eleven years old during this book, but at times I really felt as though the narrative voice belonged more properly to an older teenager. This, of course, may be as a result of the fact that it is the adult Jon who narrates the book, which again makes me wonder why Ms. Funke chose to write it this way. His voice sounds old and world-weary at times (which makes sense, somewhat, when you get to the end of the book, but which is simply confusing at the start), and there are also hints of romance, which I usually feel are unnecessary in a children’s book – certainly one aimed at the 8+ market, as this one is. One thing I must say about ‘Ghost Knight,’ however, is this: the subplots, and the little details, and the stories-that-aren’t-quite-told, such as the tale surrounding the ghost of the mason’s apprentice, are absolutely fascinating. I yearned to know more about the bit-characters in this book, and that has to be a mark of good, solid writing. Despite its strange framing, and slightly ill-fitting narrative voice, then, I would recommend ‘Ghost Knight,’ and I would be fascinated to know what a younger reader would make of it.

I think I should go and dust off my old copy of ‘Inkheart’ and give it another go, too… perhaps I can have a ‘Funke-delic’ weekend.

Image: mustsayno.com

Image: mustsayno.com

May you find time to read this weekend, and may the words you choose reward your effort.

 

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 Post – ‘Robopocalypse’

It’s that time of the week again. Monocles and glasses of sherry at the ready, dears – we’re about to turn into critics once again.

This week, it’s the turn of Daniel H. Wilson’s ‘Robopocalypse.’ For your viewing pleasure, I have provided a cover image. Voila:

Image: scifiward.com

Image: scifiward.com

This is a book which screamed out to me from the shelf. It practically sat up and begged me to bring it home. Everything about it, from the slick, SF cover image to the back cover blurb to the opening few paragraphs yelled ‘I am the one! The book you’ve been searching for!’ So, of course, I bought it.

Well.

This is the kind of book you read with a fevered pulse hopping in your throat, one in which you genuinely don’t have a clue what’s going to happen next. The beginning of the novel sets up the end, so you do have an overall idea of the story arc, but from chapter to chapter (or section to section, maybe), the story could literally go anywhere. And it does. The book is written like a report compiled after a major disaster, with every section bookended with a short explanatory note from a character called Cormac Wallace, whose story we follow throughout. Each chapter, then, is written in a different voice – some of them are written like interviews, others as interrogations, some as reconstructions built from CCTV footage or tapped phone lines. The most moving, I thought, was a chapter written as a series of increasingly desperate letters from a husband to his wife, letters he knew she’d never receive, and in which he describes how he and his men have been tricked into a situation that will lead to their destruction. Each voice has a vital role to play in the story the novel builds – that of the creation of a super-powerful artificial intelligence named Archos, and Archos’ efforts to destroy humanity.

Now, anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a bit of a robo-sceptic. I worry, a lot, about humanity’s reliance on technology and machines, and (perhaps it’s because I watched ‘Terminator’ at an impressionable age) I fear the increasing involvement of computers in the everyday life of humans. Others hail the invention of things like the ‘robotic car’, which is programmed to drive itself, as a major scientific breakthrough; I, however, am a doomsayer. All I can think is ‘well, that’s all fine, I guess, until the computer decides to throw a wobbler and drive you straight into a wall, or over a bridge, or whatever.’ I once heard it said that George Orwell imagined the Big Brother society of his ‘1984’ as a totalitarian, oppressive regime forced upon humanity, and he’d spit on the lot of us if he knew we’d actually handed over our lives to the all-seeing, all-knowing eye of technology for the sake of a quiet, convenient life. Every time we make a purchase with a credit card, or use a ‘value card’ to collect points on our shopping, or log into Facebook, or write a blog post (ironic, moi?), or whatever the case may be, we’re feeding the machine.

So, this book was written to appeal to people like me, on some levels.

Archos’ tactics are simple – to hack into every possible machine, to make human life impossible in a million tiny (and some rather large) ways, and to eventually drive the species to extinction. The reasons the machine gives for wanting to do this centre on the idea of biodiversity – Archos believes humanity is killing the rest of the planet, and it wants to take the simplest route possible to fix the problem, which is destroying Homo Sapiens. A drastic tactic, but if you look at it from the point of view of a machine, perhaps an understandable one. As well as this, Archos sees itself as the pinnacle of evolution – humanity developed in order to build it, and once it came into the fullness of its power, there was no more need for humanity. Logical, but cold. As an antagonist, you pretty much can’t beat a computer hellbent on the destruction of humanity. Archos is a great antagonist.

There’s a lot to like about this book besides its central concept – its structure and narrative voice(s) were so refreshing to read, and kept me constantly primed for newness, eager to keep reading; it had some fabulous characters, not least of which was Cormac Wallace himself. My favourite character, however, was Mr. Nomura, an elderly Japanese man who is in love with a robot named Mikiko. She (as a result of Archos) turns on him and almost kills him, but he disables her power supply and leaves her inert until he can find a way to power her back up again without Archos being able to control her. Their story is wonderful, and the actions Mr. Nomura and Mikiko take in the overall story are admirable and courageous. I also really liked the character of Lurker, who starts off as a small-time hacker with big ideas, and who ends up being central to the human resistance, almost against his own will. The technology, and the development of robots designed solely to kill humans in the most horrendously efficient of ways, was amazing. I found myself believing every word, seeing the scenes playing out in my head as I read – the writing is strong, and real, and the dialogue sparkling. It’s an easy book to get drawn into.

There were a few things that I wasn’t as keen on, however. One of these is the fact that a lot of the main human characters are related to one another – a heroic army officer turns out to be the son of a heroic police officer, and both are central to the war; a brave Congresswoman turns out to be the mother of a young girl whose ability to sense the machines is vital to the human war effort – and this got a bit grating after a while. I was also a bit put off by the gung-hoism that went on, including the retreat to a Native American community in the hope that the machines wouldn’t be able to encroach into the wilderness, to make humanity’s valiant last stand. I thought that was a bit clichéd, despite making good tactical sense. I just wish the author had done something slightly less predictable.

However, those are tiny gripes. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Robopocalypse’, and it’s one I’d recommend if you have any interest in SF, or robotics (the author has a PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, fact fans), or indeed how to construct a book and create malice that oozes off the page.

Still though. You have to think of Orwell.

I'm WATCHING you.... Image: forward.com

I’m WATCHING you….
Image: forward.com

Narrative Voice, and other stuff

This morning, dear readers, I’m a bit of a mess.  My head’s swirling, my thoughts won’t sit still and behave, and my poor brain feels like it’s trying to tapdance and balance plates on its head simultaneously.  So, before we begin, I beg your forgiveness.  There were so many things I was going to blog about this morning – I flicked through my memory-book from childhood in order to pick out some juicy reminiscences, and then I thought maybe I’d comment on some current events.  Then I discounted that in favour of yammering on yet again about how much I love books, or perhaps lamenting the fact that I need not only to replace my clapped-out mobile phone, but also my end-of-life (and much beloved) CD player.  Sigh.

(I might yet mention all these things – we’ll have to see how this thing pans out!)

For lack of any other point of beginning, though, let’s start today by talking about the book I stayed up late last night to finish – ‘The Obsidian Mirror’, by Catherine Fisher.  My poor tired husband had to put up with my reading light for far longer than he should have, and for that I thank him.  I really loved this book, but that’s no surprise to anyone who knows me, because Catherine Fisher’s work always meets a warm reception in my house.  This book is also somewhat connected with my blog from yesterday, where I wrote about feeling as though your cherished ideas are no longer ‘yours’ when you see something similar on a bookshelf; when I saw ‘The Obsidian Mirror’ my heart first leapt, then sank.  It leapt because I love few things in life more than collecting a new Catherine Fisher, and it sank because the book proclaimed itself to be about the theme which has been occupying my mind these past few years: time travel.  Well, my WiP isn’t about time travel, strictly, but there is a certain similarity of theme going on, and I had to read the book immediately to see if there was any point in my continuing with my own novel.

As it happened, the plot of ‘The Obsidian Mirror’ is brilliant, and nothing like my own work, which was a bit of a relief.  I won’t spoil anything for anyone who wants to read it (I recommend it highly), but I do want to talk about some of the things which I feel Catherine Fisher does very well, namely dialogue and narrative voice.  I’ve always enjoyed reading her interactions between characters, especially when they ‘speak’ in their Welsh accents, as they do in some of her books (not ‘Obsidian Mirror’, though).  One of the special beauties of her work is the fact that the reader can ‘hear’ things like accents and intonation, just from the way she writes.  Her dialogue is among the least flat and sterile I’ve ever read, and I know enough to realise that’s a talent she has honed through years of practice.  This skill is immensely useful near the end of the book, when we’re hopping from character to character and from storyline to storyline; it’s never unclear who is speaking, because Fisher is able to differentiate each character’s voice so perfectly.

‘The Obsidian Mirror’ is written in the third-person, but I’d hesitate to call it omniscient – the reader finds things out at the same time the characters do, more or less, but it’s not exactly limited strictly to their points of view, either.  We (the reader) get hints at the start of each chapter, when there are excerpts from diaries, letters or ballads to give us some idea what we’ll be facing.  My own WiP is written in the first-person (with one small exception, yet to be written, at the very end), and I’ve been thinking about the benefits and drawbacks of that choice since finishing Catherine Fisher’s book.  Of course, with first-person, you get the chance to really explore a character’s development and personality; you get the chance to allow your readers to love your character as much as you do.  But there’s so much you miss out on, too.  For instance, my protagonist is ignorant of a lot of very vital knowledge about her world and her family, and because of the way I’ve chosen to narrate her story, it’s difficult to write about her learning process without having other characters tell her things, or without having her overhear conversations, and that sort of thing.  There are things she needs to work out in order to survive, and I want to express her intelligence and resourcefulness, of course.  But because (through me) she’s narrating her own story, that doesn’t always come across – she’s not the type to blow her own trumpet, so the challenge is to hint at it through other characters’ reactions.  Things she might notice, or dispassionately comment on, are far more meaningful to a reader than they are to her.

This works, up to a point, but I know I’ve loads of room to improve.  The last thing a writer wants to do is have page after page of a character gently explaining to your protagonist things like, ‘Well, darling, you really should know that your mother was a flatulent swamp-monster made of broccoli – it’ll make certain aspects of your life now seem much clearer.’  Instead, you want to have your character feel a mysterious pull towards broccoli, which leads her to investigate further and uncover an arcane mythology about broccoli and swamp-monsters which bears some uncanny resemblances to her own life – we should see her put the story together herself, instead of being told what to do or think.  Or, if the story must have explanation, it should ideally be ‘off-camera’ – as in, a character learns something without the reader being privy to it.  Again, this is difficult when you’re writing in the first person.

How do you write, in terms of narrative voice?  Do you have a preference for first- over third-person, omniscient or limited?  I’m interested in how others find ways around the challenges posed by each type of voice.  My current WiP demanded a first-person limited narrative voice – I couldn’t have written it any other way, though I really do feel a third-person would have been easier.  If anyone has any narration tips, I’m all ears!  I’d love to know if there’s something I’m missing…