Week 29

I’ve been preoccupied mostly with the main voice of my story this week, something that was nagging away at me two weeks ago too.

So far my story is a combination of the present day and extended flashback to 15 years earlier; it's complicated, jumps back and forth and eventually gets a bit confused. I wrote something out of context this week, which was set in the time of the flashback but spoken directly, as if at that time, and not as a memory, and it came a lot easier. I could hear my main character speaking as if she was speaking directly to me, at the reader, and explaining herself.

As soon as she’s describing a scene, or remembering a memory from her childhood, I have to ask why. Why is she telling me this? Is she writing a letter? A diary entry? That seems a little forced to me, but then I suppose that’s how the novel form started.

Then another question forms itself: when is she telling this story? Right now, as it happens? Just after, a rushed narrative telling a strange story? Some time after, once time has transfigured it? This doesn’t seem to be a consideration when writing in third person. And if, as happened to me, you start wondering if you shouldn’t restructure the whole story so that it’s no longer flashback but told in sequence, that means a whole lot of rewriting, just to get that tone of voice right. Narrating a recent event is very different from remembering something.

Then how is she telling it? I might be keen on a descriptive reverie on the colour of the sky, but why would she bother to mention whether the sky was grey or blue? Is that how normal people talk? Do they tell stories with long rambling anecdotes about the weather? Surely it's better to get to the point. Trouble is, my novel would only be 60,000 words too short if I just got to the point.

And then there’s style. As it’s in first person, the whole thing is dialogue, or a monologue really, so abides by those rules. What might seem corny or clichéd is sometimes exactly how a character might express herself. Remembering to write in someone else’s voice is difficult, especially when there’s a story to tell, but I enjoy it when the character pauses and explains a bit more about themselves, or other characters. It’s there, in between the lines, that you get a sense of her and how she sees other people, even what those people are really like (and that’s not necessarily what she says they’re like).

Writing with dialogue in mind inevitably means you have to deal with parenthesis. Sometimes my character’s fluency breaks down, and she struggles to describe something. That’s fine. Because my book is based on some personal experiences, I’ve felt the need to explain what happened, or make the reader understand why and how things happened the way they did. I don’t have to. The more I think within my main character, the less that’s important. Perhaps, like me, she doesn’t know. There is no reason.

But what does she say? Does she hesitate? That’s fine in speech, but writing? Do people pause when they write? Of course they do – the pen hovers above the birthday card while we wonder what message to write, or the cursor blinks, waiting, at the end of the last word we typed. But does that hesitancy make it into print? Why would it?

…and we’re back to the why – why is she writing what she’s writing, why is she telling this story?

This is hard. I'm not sure how much I should be thinking about this mid-first draft, when I should just be getting the story down, but I worry about getting it so wrong a rewrite is more like a write.

I’ve thought back to some books I’ve read in the first person. Some are an act of atonement, some are reminiscences prompted by a change of circumstances in the present, some are an attempt to explain one’s actions or view of the world.

All are claustrophobic, misleading, vivid.

What other ones are there? I really need reading recommendations, to see how other writers have gone about telling a story from the limited view of one person, and perhaps to encourage me to stick with it. I’m determined not to restructure yet, not until the second draft anyway, but want to absorb as much good first person writing as I go. Any recommendations?

Word count this week: 2,061 Total word count: 53,325 First draft: 35,531