25 January 2007

Go for My Personal Point of View

Choices in narrative voices kept haunting me this week. On the Child_Lit email list we discussed the intrusive narrative voice from Vanity Fair to The Bad Beginning. I sent a copy of the brochure I'd prepared for an SCBWI New England workshop on the topic to this year's Kindling Words retreat.

In Wednesday's writing group, we reassured one member that the first-person voice she'd chosen for a project--well, that we'd forced on her last year--was still working well. (It's a story about shifting identities, so the first person makes sense both thematically and technically.) Then we encouraged another member to try combining her two drafts of a story into a version that uses both narrators. (I think the result could be surprisingly powerful, each voice casting the other into high relief.)

But the true haunting started with a guilty secret. On Monday, I went to a writing group to hear people's responses to the start of a new project, an opening chapter I'd sent out late on Friday. On Saturday morning I'd woken up to the realization that that story had to be in a first-person voice, not third-person. So my colleagues had read and analyzed something I was planning to rework in a significant way. That situation always makes me feel awkward, no matter which side of it I'm on.

Fortunately, no one loved the third-person voice per se. Since I'm quickly rewriting that chapter, I can immediately incorporate the group's suggestions and snip off all the loose ends they found. And I think the first-person voice will help get out aspects of the main character's personality that I don't think were apparent before--namely that the original narrator's cynicism is actually his own. To whit:

I had been on six field trips to the Clifftop Museum of Vital & Physical Sciences--one trip for every level of schooling. I had even gone along when the museum opened specially for my Ma and Da and older sister Mazie. And each visit was almost exactly the same as the one before.

The long lever always lifted more poundage than the short one. Feathers always fell like rocks in the evacuated tube. Each year after lunch my level sat on the carpets of the Theater of Vitality and watched a staffwoman in a cotton smock walk around with a silver gigapede draped over her shoulders. Half of us squirmed, and half of us laughed, and two of us got to pat the animal as it wriggled and say it didn’t feel slimy at all. In fourth level I was one of those two, so I didn’t need to pat a gigapede again.
I rarely insert episodes from my own childhood into my stories, at least knowingly, but in this case I plan to do so. (Not that I've ever patted a gigapede.) And maybe that's another reason I think first-person is the way to go.


Mordena said...

Well,John, I do like to think I have free will and only switched to first-person narration because your excellent suggestion made sense to me. However, I agree that having it "forced" on me sounds more dramatic. Good luck with your own first-person experiment!

J. L. Bell said...

How about "forced" in the warm, loving sense of a grandmother insisting that one eats just one more dish?