Thursday, January 22, 2009

Voices, Past and Present

I'm about 70,000 words into PURE, my novel about scientific fraud and love running amok in academia, and realizing the difficulty of reining in my impetuous and bull-headed characters.

Yeah, I'm running with six characters. Six voices competing for airtime in my sloggy brain. To get their stories, I have to write six novellas, then condense, cutting and pasting and rewriting into a sensical story line. This stupidly ambitious book raises myriad challenges: Who to write today? Did I already write this scene in B's story? Should P narrate this scene, or should K?

But the greatest struggle is deciding each character's voice and tense. I've written my two main characters in both first present AND past, using past tense to orient the reader to scenes which are, in essence, flashbacks. Julia Glass used this technique to great effect in THREE JUNES. (I'm stealing from her.)

Two other voices also are in first present, largely because they 'talk' through diaries and letters. A fifth voice is told in third past, and the final character, an emotional vacuum, narrates in second voice (a challenge).

But maybe I'll do a total rewrite in close third; it allows head-hopping as well as the ability to peel back and view at a macro-level.

Choices, choices, so many choices, and lucky for me I am (still) writing at a tortoise pace, deliberately and purposefully with joy. Or some similar optimistic emotion.

How do you decide what voice and tense to write?

READING... Just finished A SEAHORSE YEAR by Stacy D'Erasmo, a tale about the unravelling of a modern family when their 16-year old son Christopher goes psychotic and missing. Dense, richly detailed, the book at times overreaches: gay mom dealing with unfaithful partner, gay dad falling in love, past childhood abuse and other baggage, professional frustrations, infidelity, menopause. I kept asking myself: what is this story REALLY about? The book soars when focused on Christopher and his relationship with Tamara, his complicit friend and lover; D'Erasmo writes his voice and experience with searing beauty. Told in close third, the book becomes un-put-downable halfway through.

LISTENING TO... Beyonce's SINGLE LADIES. What a super message - put a ring on it, guys. See the video - the dancing is amazing.


  1. First I try to listen to the characters. Are they loud enough that they scream for first person attetion? Or can I just write in third?

    Then I try to figure out what I'm trying to accomplish with the story. You know how much of a stink I caused with present tense, but the times when I want to use it are those when I want the story to appear like it's happening right now--that neither the characters nor the narrator (assuming they're different)actually know how the story will end. In my opinion this is best when there is a mystery involved, or when you want to make it clear to the reader that something is different. Stephen King, in Lisey's Story, did exactly what you're doing. He used present tense to mark a regression into the past. Funny how we can use the present tense to show a flashback, isn't it?

    For everything else, I'll use the past tense. It's probably a shortcoming on my part, to think of stories that way, but it's my way of thinking.

    Six characters, all with POV scenes? You are ambitious! Tom Clancy can't put a candle to you.

  2. I mostly write in third person, except when I'm doing my noir mysteries. I have another mystery series, more a police procedural type of thing, and use third person for that.

    I think your approach of doing six novellas and then merging them all into one novel is interesting. Kind of a neat concept.

  3. For me voice and tense are determined by the story, and how I want it to develop.
    I like your idea of six novellas that merge into one story, the story sounds fascinating, a page turner. Gillian

  4. 70K words of PURE already?

    Well, hello! Good grief you are way more ambitious than I've ever thought of being. You are a very clever woman [and writer]. Six voices in six novellas is quite a rogue road to take. I love it!

    Voice and tense depends on what I'm writing. For a tense thriller story I might choose First-present. For some reason most of my westerns are in Omni. I don't know why - ?
    My novel was in third then I changed it to First and it was waay better.
    I just think it's a personal choice -- kind of like beginnings and endings. :)


  5. Great insights all. Stephen, I read Lisey's Story and admit, I wasn't as sophisticated a reader then - I didn;t even notice the tense change. I'll go back and reread.

    Jon, I think third is difficult to write - it's a real challenge for me, One reason I want to tackle it in PURE.

    Gillian, I generally think of my story as a massive braid, with each voice weaving in and out and around the others. Right now I think of it as kudzu...

    Ah Kim of the omni view - now there's a challenge. And yes, those beginnings... sigh (ut mine is now sealed with a kiss). Peace, Linda

  6. Hmmmm. I'm making a note on the novella road to character development. I like it. Daunting, it sounds, but I like it. I've been reading a lot of Anne Tyler lately, and thinking that the only way I could ever come close to writing endearing characters would be to know the details in their life stories.

  7. Cindy, I prewrite/overwrite my stories anyway - scenes I'll never use in my novels - to get at characteristics and that all-important voice. It's a good way to get into the characters' heads. For PURE, I need to tell enough of each character's story in a linear fashion before hacking and pasting into a (coherent?) whole.

    This will take years, I am afraid... Peace, Linda