first person narratives

There are fads in storytelling just as there are fads in clothes. A visit to any bookstore makes that clear; if you pick up a dozen new novels in a row a couple of things will ump out at you right away.

First person narratives are very popular just now, and have been for a while. The narrator tells the story to the reader, and thus we live in the narrator’s head and see the story only from the narrator’s limited point of view. I don’t particularly like first person narration, for exactly that reason. I think of it as the Charlotte Brontë approach, or the Reader, I Married Him school. In addition to writing first person narration, Charlotte Brontë was quite nasty about Jane Austen‘s work. Thus my scorn. Sniff. Scowl. (Quotes from Miss B about Miss A in the extended entry below.)

Okay, so I’ll admit there are many excellent first person novels out there. I just can’t think of a single one at this moment.

Now here’s the rub: the one place where first person narration works for me (in a limited way) is in epistolary form. If Character X writes a letter to Character Z, then I get to hear X’s voice, and I learn a lot about the relationship between the two of them. I am very fond of doing this for my own characters. It helps me figure them out in a way nothing else can. If Curiosity sits down to write a letter her voice sounds very clear to me, more so than at any other time. If the character wants to write a letter, I am very pleased to take dictation.

In general I love novels that mix up forms. Third person narration interspersed with letters, newspaper reports and advertisements (there’s another topic to write about here, old newspapers), legal documents. In my own work I don’t often use poetry as I’m not very good at it, though once in a while I have made a small exception.

Possession: A RomanceA.S. (Antonia) Byatt is a superior novelist and she also writes some of the very best literary criticism and analysis. For people interested in thoughtful, intense discussions about storytelling, her collected lectures are really worth reading. Otherwise I love her Possession: A Romance. Byatt is a former academic, and she dissects academia with laser-like precision in this novel. It’s everything in one: a well-plotted mystery, an intriguing love story (times two), an academic satire, a wonderfully done historical, a clear and striking picture of the lot of women (and especially women artists and writers) in Victorian England, and an ode to the poetry of that period. How this book didn’t get onto the lists of the century’s best is beyond me. Stunning prose, and first class storytelling. Possession is a demanding novel, one that has to be read closely and re-read many times to get all the complexities, but it’s so worth it. (I have also listened to it on tape, which was another wonderful experience).

Unfortunately, I can recommend the movie, which was a terrible disappointment.

Continue reading “first person narratives”

writer's block

… that’s the wrong term. There’s a period when the story is coalescing, coming together in strange ways in my head. I think about details and snippets of dialog and ask myself questions: what is it Hannah wants here? why is this character so persistant? what does the air smell like just now?

I keep myself busy with research and reading, reading, reading (a study on the history of the British army called Redcoat just now). Making notes to myself, and losing them and spending an hour looking for the notes and then starting all over anyway. Studying maps. Maps are great for helping the process along (for me personally).

Somebody asked on the discussion board at Yahoo whether or not plot comes first, or how that works. I can only answer for myself, and here it is: yes and no. I have the greater historical framework to pay attention to, and that is a kind of mega-plot I can’t change. Or not much, anyway. From there, it’s a fairly organic process for me. I have an overall knowledge of what’s going to happen (at least, I think I do; sometimes big things change half way through because a character just refuses to go along with what I had planned). While my conscious is busy thinking things through (okay, in this next chapter Jennet will have to…) my subconscious is getting up to tricks, and will spring surprises on me at the oddest moments. While I was writing Into the Wilderness I had no idea that Julian had seduced Kitty until she came around the corner in the middle of the night and ran into Elizabeth. Then it made perfect sense. Julian was a healthy male without female companionship and with a terrible habit of acting out on his worst impulses, what else was he going to do? That’s the way my plots develop: by hook and crook.

Just now the whole fifth book is simmering, and I’m jumpy and will remain jumpy until i get the first chapter nailed down. Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitutude) once said that it takes him forever to write the first sentence, and everything flows once he’s got that down. For me it’s a whole chapter. I have thirty pages written that I will rewrite and rewrite until I’m comfortable that I know the setting and the characters and where they’re headed (at least at first).

If you know Márquez’s work or any of the authors who are known for magical realism, you might notice that I actually lean towards such things myself once in a while, in a small way. Think of Treenie.

reading and writing male characters

Someone asked in a comment how reading science fiction and crime novels contributes (if at all) to my own writing. It’s a good question, but I think the answer is fairly simple.

It seems that people who write well are people who read a lot. I don’t know anybody who writes for a living who doesn’t need to read constantly. It’s like… gassing up the car, you gotta have fuel to tell stories. Now this might seem like I’m saying that you take stories from elsewhere, but that’s not what I mean at all.

It has more to do with the fact that storytelling is a community endeavor, something that can’t exist in solitude. If you tell stories you have to listen to them too, or your ear for the rhythms starts to deteriorate.

So I read widely, all kinds of fiction and non-fiction. Pretty much across genres. There are those corners of the storytelling universe where I don’t go often (I’m not a big fan of traditional whodunnits, for example). But I love the needle sharp prose of quality crime fiction, the tight plotting, the strong characterizations (when it’s well done, of course). I read Dennis Lehane, John Sandford, Stephen Hunter (he’s got a new _Earl Swagger_ novel coming out, be still my heart), Lee Child, Andrew Vachss and half a dozen more writers in this genre with great enthusiasm.

Dan Simmon‘s Hardcase and its sequel, Hard Freeze, typify why I like this kind of story: the opening chapter is hair raising, and I defy any reader to put down the book once Joe Kurtz has made his first move. _Here’s a hint:_ it involves, first, a garbage disposal and second, a third story window.

As a writer, I often find it hard to just read for enjoyment. I’m too busy observing how the author did one thing or another, thinking about process and alternates and word choices. If a book draws me in to the point where I forget to pay attention to those details, then the story really works for me. Then I read it a first time for story and a second time in order to observe process. This is especially true when I’m reading crime fiction, because the characterization of the kind of man who populates these stories (hard, hardened, cynical, often sad, almost always with a big simmering lake of anger right at the surface) is a challenge for me in my own work. I think, huh, that’s interesting, how Joe or John or Reacher reacts to this; I wouldn’t have gone there first thing.

So reading outside my genre, reading widely, is an important part of my process. Science fiction feeds into my work in a different way; I’ll try to talk about that sometime soon.

Today I did do some writing of my own. There’s a new male character who shows up for the first time in Thunder at Twilight (I’m fully aware that you haven’t read it yet, I won’t give much away here, don’t worry). He’s a career soldier in the British army, a veteran of the Napoleonic wars in Spain, with some twists that are just being revealed to me as he has jumped feet first into the beginning of Queen of Swords. Uninvited, I might add. There he was, wanting to tell the opening scene from his point of view, so now I’m following him around while he observes, and talks to himself, and tries to convince himself that he’s not neck deep in something that’s threatening to drown him.