by Clare Langley-Hawthorne
My current WIP uses a first person perspective which is new for me. New, not only because I usually write in third person (a close third person voice I grant you), but also because this time the first person narrator is a seventeen year old. Oh and living in 1914. So last week I just rewrote the first chapter for a third time – not because I’m anal (well…) but because I hadn’t nailed the voice yet.
For any novel I think voice is important but when dealing with a first person narration it’s critical – as far as I’m concerned a reader has to fall in love, has to inhabit the ‘body and soul’ of the narrator, right from the first page or (I fear) the novel is doomed to fail.
Why did I chose the first person POV for this book? Well, almost all YA novels adopt this perspective and I think wisely so. The journey normally taken in a YA novel is, after all, a journey of self discovery, one we want the reader to identify with as closely as possible . However, once I adopted the first person it was much harder than I had anticipated to get the voice just right. I’ve had a ‘challenging’ few weeks…and the process I went through to try and establish the ‘voice’ of my protagonist Maggie Quinn was far from perfect, but here’s what I did…
- I reserved and read as many YA historical/paranormal books I could. I took note of how the authors approached the issue of voice and how they appeared to achieve making that voice as authenticate and compelling as possible. The best YA book I read so far was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (an awesome book which is also illustrative of the fact that great YA books are really just great adult books with strong YA characters and themes).
- I started compiling a backgrounder for Maggie and brainstormed ideas about her inner self – delving even deeper perhaps than I have done for other characters in previous books (but then again that may also be because my husband is convinced Ursula Marlow is actually me!).
- I then walked around for a week or so with Maggie in my head, ruminating on how she would act and react to things.
- I drafted a prologue and first chapter.
- Read it. Realized the voice was not there.
- Got despondent. Decided perhaps I should focus on research for a day or so…
- Tossed the prologue – don’t need one!!!
- Rewrote chapter one. Wrote snippets of key parts for chapters two, three and four (as an outliner I already had these place marked:))
- Read second draft…realize I have no talent for writing whatsoever (shit!). Got even more despondent.
- Watched teen movies. (John Hughes, come back!)
- Did more historical research….
- Walked around a bit more with Maggie in my head. Still despondent.
- Rewrote chapter one again…and then a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Maggie is finally taking form. (hmm…is that ‘lucky’ number 13??)
So how do you approach the issue of voice? How do you know when you ‘have it’ or you don’t? What challenges do you see for someone attempting a first person POV – any advice on the do’s and don’ts? I’m already realizing it’s limitations but believe it or not, I think I’m starting to finally enjoy it…until next week when I reread chapter one and decide Maggie’s voice (and my writing) sucks once more.
By Clare Langley-Hawthorne
Inspired by Michelle’s blog post last week on gender bias I decided to tackle the question of whether women and men write differently and, if so, can authors write convincingly from the point of view of the opposite sex.
In my latest writing project I tackled the issue head on – having multiple ‘voices’ in the book including a male character. I have to confess I was worried initially as the female characters came very easily to me – their voices (though quite different to one another) rang true and clear. Once I was about a third of the way through my first draft however I found myself thinking that something was lacking and I realized I needed to get the perspective of my lead male character. I hesitated – would I really be able to write it convincingly? Would the voice sound authentically male?
Of course that question opens up a whole range of others but fundamentally my concern was whether I could write from the point of view of a man? Was that even possible? When I asked my husband he said he thought the whole issue was a non-issue. My female characters went far beyond my own experiences or personality so why would I not be capable of moving beyond gender? He didn’t seem to think it mattered whether the writer was male or female and I admit that, as a reader, I thought many writers (both male and female) have managed to write from the opposite gender perspective – but it’s always different when it’s your own writing!
I was worried that I would make my male character too ‘soft’ – a feminized ideal of a man – capable of articulating his feelings and noticing elements that quite frankly a man would not – like the color of someone’s eyes or their clothes. I got about half way through my second draft and had my writing group give me feedback and they told me that my male character seemed to be a bit of a bastard. I realized that in worrying about making him too idealized I had actually succeeded in making him sound like a shit. So back I went – refining and editing the voice until finally a real person began to take shape. It took a while but I found his voice emerging and then the writing flowed so much easier. I had the character in my head now and gender no longer mattered.
But the real question is should it matter at all?? Should the gender of a writer change the way a reader perceives the POV or character in a book? Do you think it makes a difference?
Have you ever read a book and been surprised to discover the writer was a man because you had assumed it was a woman (or vice versa)? In short, does gender even matter when it comes to writing effective characters?
“Careful, dear. You’re acting like your character.”
That was my husband’s warning to me last week, after I survived a risky (and slightly smelly) stand-off with a mentally challenged dude on board a tram in Portland. For the roily details, see last week’s post, Too close for comfort.
I escaped from that little adventure with nary a scrape. In fact, I ended the episode with a thumbs-up sign and a jaunty little wave; but seriously, my part in the encounter was stupid. I could have gotten my ass seriously kicked by that guy, or worse.
All of which got me to thinking: To what extent (if any) does our writing affect our choices and actions in “real life”? Is there a bright red line that is never crossed between fantasy on the page and reality? Or do you find that there is ever any psychological “page-bleed,” as they say in the publishing world?
In my case, last week’s tram episode was completely out of character for the “real me,” Kathryn Lilley. Ever since I was an adolescent, I’ve always been a shy, retiring soul. I’ve traditionally avoided eye contact with strange men, much less interaction. In the past, I would never have tried to remove a mentally disturbed person on public transportation. (And let’s be honest—what I did was supremely stupid. I’ve been told by a number of Herman Munster-sized, macho-macho guys that the only reason I’m alive today is that I’m a woman, and that I stayed utterly calm throughout the encounter. Seriously, my heart rate didn’t even increase. I have no idea why.).
But ever since I started writing the Fat City Mysteries, I’ve found that I’ve been getting deeper and deeper into the emotions of my main character, Kate Gallagher. And now, I’m like one of those actors who stays “in character” between shooting scenes of a film. In many aspects of my life, I find myself coming up with quicker ripostes, more assertive actions—bottom line is, I’m acting more like Kate.
So my question is, is this experience a unique and unhealthy response to getting too deeply involved in the writing or characterization process? Have the rest of you experienced anything remotely similar?
But just as a reassurance to myself, I have made a solemn vow—no matter how much Kate Gallagher inhabits my thoughts and feelings, going forward, I will never, ever again attempt to toss someone off a tram.
It can be way too hazardous to your health.