Monday, 28 August 2017

Editing blues

'Unreliable narrator' by Mike Howland

2017 was a tough year for my poor fantasy novel! I had my heart set on editing my monster pile of notes/drafts/scribbles into a decent novel, but unfortunately it didn't work out.

My main problem has been that the novel started in "third person" form. Specifically, it was a third person narration about Calvin (a poor orphan boy who, as you might expect, is probably going to find treasure, beat the bad guy, get the girl, and just generally do quite well by the final page).

So that was the story I was originally trying to write...

But then I added a dragon.

Crimble is a tiny tree dragon with a personality bigger than the sky. She quite literally takes over my writing and it's damn hard work trying to get her to follow the plot.

I added her as a minor character at first. She was just going to be a friendly little dragon sitting on Calvin's shoulder.

It didn't work out that way.

Crimble, it turns out, has a mind of her own. In my story, she's still sitting on Calvin's shoulder, but she spends much of her time berating him with sarcasm, ear flicks, and the occasional whack from her tail on the back of the head. Often all these at once.

And Crimble, I discovered, wants to be written first person.

THAT was the big problem. Everything I'd written was "third person Calvin"... and suddenly I found myself with a stack of "first person Crimble" chapters.

I tried for ages (weeks, months, years... I don't know!) to merge my old "third person Calvin" story with the new "first person Crimble" chapters. Have you ever read a book that jumps between first and third person? Ugh. Some authors have done it... some have even done it well... but I still don't like it. In fact I've yet to read such a book without feeling a big jolt every time the author jumps from first to third. Try as I might, I couldn't rewrite my chapters well enough to remove that "jolt".

Do I want my readers to feel jolted from first to third person? NO I DO NOT!

So this year, I tried to edit my novel to remove this dreaded jolt. I've tried plenty of different ways before, and this year I decided to give up on my "first person Crimble" chapters, and just rewrite them in third person.

My internal voice kept shouting "THIS IS THE WRONG THING TO DO!" but I ignored it. After all, what writer doesn't have that internal voice shouting-shouting-shouting all the time? Isn't the normal writer life purely about having a voice in your head telling you that everything you write is bad? (Please reassure me that happens to you too!)

Anyway, six weeks later, after much misery and ignoring that infernal internal voice, I finished my new "purely third person" draft and re-read it.


I hated it.

But I'm a writer and I was reading my own writing. It was NATURAL that I hated it, right? So I put the whole thing aside and spent a month playing with smaller pieces. Hooray for flash fiction and poetry - the perfect way to procrastinate on novel writing! You're writing, so you're not procrastinating, right?!! :-)

Eventually I re-read the novel again. Yep, I still hated it. Rewriting Crimble in third person was a horrible idea. Wrong, wrong, wrong. For once, the doomsayer internal voice had been speaking the truth.

What was missing? I'm not sure I can be specific... but it was that elusive quality that turns a book from "just a book" into "something you actually want to read", or at least "something you actually want to write".

Energy - maybe that's the word? Crimble's "first person" voice has a definite energy to it. She has verve. Panache. Snark. And all of that had been stripped out when I rewrote her in third person.

It took me quite a few weeks before I had the heart to attempt another rewrite. Actually, it may have been months. I seem to have lost quite a large chunk of this year - quite possibly to moping around after realising my rewrite hadn't worked!

Anyway... I started rewriting everything in "first person Crimble" voice again. I knew that at the very least, I wanted a few chapters to be told in Crimble's voice. She's sassy and she's sarcastic and I have had GREAT feedback on her voice. (Adults have told me they love Crimble... but, more importantly, KIDS have said so too! And kids are the best critics in the world because if they don't like something they'll quite happily tell you, regardless of how it crushes your soul!)

Crimble's voice HAS to be part of my novel. This is one thing of which I'm certain.

So I rewrote Chapter 1. It went well, and Crimble was her usually sassy self as she chatted to the reader about a dragon called Puggle running in to wake her up. (Yes, I know what you're thinking... I do indeed start my novel with a character waking up... and I like it, so it's staying... for now!)

Then I started rewriting Chapter 2 (the first chapter focuses purely on Calvin). And something magical happened. It felt as if the back of my brain had been working on a new solution, without me being aware of it doing so, and suddenly it presented a new solution... I'd rewritten Chapter 1 (in which Crimble is woken up by Puggle) and then, suddenly, I wrote a line at the start of Chapter 2 (in which Calvin is digging his own grave) that opened up a whole new possibility...

Earlier that day, a few hours before Puggle had woken me, a boy called Calvin was digging his own grave.

Okay, I'm not saying this is a great line. For all I know, this line will be cut from the final draft. HOWEVER... this line has done something wonderful for my novel. It's allowed me to travel in time and space!

That might sound a bit far-fetched... but it's true! The first part of the line (Earlier that day, a few hours before Puggle had woken me) reminds the reader of the events of Chapter 1, and then ALSO manages to catapult them a few hours back in time. And it's done with such a tiny amount of effort that I can hardly believe it's so easy. Even better, there's NO JOLT! The whole of Chapter 1 is in Crimble's voice... and this new line is too... so the reader is simply continuing to listen to Crimble... it just so happens that Crimble is now talking about an event she wasn't involved in.

The second part of the line (a Mudville boy called Calvin was digging a grave) anchors the reader in the scene at the beginning of Chapter 2, and allows me to immediately start telling Calvin's story.

Even better, this line means that Crimble is my narrator. SHE is the one who will be telling Calvin's story. Rather than her narrating only her own chapters, she's now narrating everything. And you know what that means...

Unreliable narrator!

I love, love, love unreliable narrators. I love them because they're so true to life. EVERYONE you know is an unreliable narrator - you, me, everyone! Think of every time you've heard someone tell you a story... Did they stumble over their own words? Did they contradict themselves? If you pointed out inconsistencies within their story, did they just laugh them off? Did they get distracted while talking and go off on a tangent, talking about something else?

I'm guessing they probably did all those things. Because this is exactly how we tell stories every day. We get things wrong. We make up details that we can't quite remember. We go off on tangents. We contradict ourselves. We forget what we're talking about halfway through the tale.

Crimble won't be a totally unreliable narrator. She'll get things wrong, but for the most part she'll tell the story "as it happened". However, it'll be very much her version of events. Her own version of the truth. And Crimble has already proved to me that she enjoys talking herself up, so she's bound to show off throughout the whole story. I have a feeling this is going to be fun.

Ultimately what I'm saying is that Crimble can finally do what she's been wanting to do for YEARS. She can take control of the novel! She's been dying to tell Calvin's story ever since I first created her, and I'm finally ready to hand her the pen.

So that's my new plan.  I'm going to allow Crimble to write every chapter - even the ones that she isn't present for. It's the best possible solution I've come up with so far.

There's a tiny niggle/worry because I know people will tell me "if Crimble's alive to write the story then there'll never be a sense of danger, because we know she survives" but I reckon that argument was thrown out of the window the moment everyone was comfortable with American Beauty being narrated by a ghost and Black Beauty being narrated by a horse. Narrators can be anyone and anything - dead people, animals, or even a brain in a jar. Critics might not like it but readers don't mind... and it's only the readers who matter.

Admittedly I'm kind of annoyed I had to REWRITE THE ENTIRE NOVEL in order to reach this happy discovery. All that work just to write this one magic "Earlier that day" segue line! But writing is a journey, and it's a hard journey at that. Sometimes the only way to reach an epiphany is just to put your head down and power through. And that's what I did this year. It was horrible at the time but I kept going and I'm glad I did. Although I don't yet have a completed novel, I still feel like I'm hell of a lot closer to achieving that magic finished manuscript.

Unfortunately, what with the general shenanigans of life getting in the way, I've had to stop editing my fantasy novel at the moment... but as soon as I get back to it, CRIMBLE IS IN CHARGE!

Fingers crossed that this time I've finally found the perfect way to tell the tale.

A great summary of unreliable narrators by John Fox