The challenges of first-person narrative in a novel

I’ve never written in first person but for my latest work in progress (WIP) I’ve branched out, with three of my four main characters written from this intimate perspective.

First person isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I have to delve deep into the minds of three characters to create complexities I’m not sure I can pull off.

Each character has to have her own unique personality/voice. Each has to view the world she inhabits and the ones she observes from a different perspective.

In her fiction-writing workshop, The Story Doctor, author Kate Forsythe describes first-person narrative thus: ‘this voice is expressed in every single word – the authorial voice is mute.’

I have to inhabit my characters, slip into their skin and be them. I have to shut up for once and let them be themselves.

I chose first-person narrative to bring more immediacy and action to my writing.

Already, it’s a challenge to keep the characters real and not tip them over into parody or a ‘type’ that appears contrived and self-conscious. At the same time, the language I use to empower them has to be engaging and uncomplicated yet rich enough in analogies and description to keep the reader hooked.

I felt I could nail the character the reader meets at the start of the novel, Rochelle, using first person rather than my usual go-to – a third-person narrative.

Here’s a snippet of Rochelle, a 50-something self-help new-age influencer living the life and sleeping with a man who is almost as young as her son:

‘I stop briefly to admire my profile in its reflected light and, at a glance, I like what I see. 

Not bad for a 50-something woman who could definitely pass for… I frown and screw up my mouth. Dunno. Maybe late-40s? But what does that look like?

Am I ‘well preserved’, much like a jar of peaches that has been vacuum sealed and sterilised on a low boil before being cooled and stored? 

What about ‘good for my age’? What the hell does that mean? Does anyone say a 20-year-old woman looks ‘good for her age’?

I wonder what others see when they look at me. When someone meets me for the first time. I’m always amazed when someone my age asks the question, ‘How old do you think I am?’ to a person younger than themselves. 

Why would you do that to yourself? Or to them? It’s like opening a Pandora’s box of ugly truths or stammered compliments that are clearly lies.’

Mmm. Too much like me? Therein lies the problem. (No, there is no young lover in my life. I’m talking about her personality traits, not her lifestyle.🤣)

For my next blog, I will cover third-person narrative and introduce the one character of the four written using this technique.

Speak soon… in third person.

Get organised with a 3 act chapter by chapter outline

I’m not as organised as I would like to be when it comes to my writing.

Of course, procrastination and a lack of self worth play roles in my snail-like pace as I constantly find distractions to keep me from pursuing my latest ms.

But another issue around getting my act together is knowing at least a little bit about how my characters’ stories are going to pan out. I need to get to the nub of the story arc for all of them.

I’m doing what I’ve never done before in my latest ms. Its working title is Millicent is Dying but that’s not giving anything away because I’ve changed my mind hundreds of times about the role of the character Milly in the story. And she’s no longer dying!

This time around, I’m writing the points of view of four different characters. What’s more, it’s in the first person, except for Millicent. Added to this, the narrative isn’t linear.

My other books (surprisingly, there’s a few in the drawer, mostly romances) are all in the third person, and mostly from the main character’s point of view. They also follow one path that leads to a lovely ‘the end’ for all.

I started Millicent with the inciting incident as the opening chapter about three years ago, put it in the too-hard basket and went on to start another novel (now on-hold).

In 2020/21, during COVID-19, I returned to Millicent and wrote some more chapters. Prior to this, I’d described my characters in Scrivener but when I returned to them I decided to change all of their personality traits and their circumstances.

I dropped Millicent again to do a couple of writing courses (a good distraction) and enter flash-fiction writing competitions (no luck so far and I keep botching the prompts!). Catch my drift?

Prolonged procrastination equals maximum frustration

On the weekend I wrote an outline on a white board to go with my mud map, which will need a re-jig.

I can’t just fly by the seat of my pants with this one. I need to have guidelines.

I’m not sure how other authors deal with this. I know that some are totally tied into plot so they must have incredibly organised minds and a huge commitment to getting the work done.

No more excuses from me. I’ve got to get this baby off the ground.

A journey to the heart of Nepal

My friend and critique partner, author Sandra Groom has published her debut novel, The Goddess of Kathmandu.

The story is set for the most part in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, and charts Australian Lara Gordon’s journey of self discovery.

Lara travels to Nepal for a three-month sojourn after her work and romantic life falls apart in Sydney. In Kathmandu, she stays with a Nepalese family and enrols in a Nepali language course where she meets a group of fascinating people all seeking answers to questions about their own lives.

But this story is not just about Lara. It also examines the life of a young Nepali girl who is destined to become the Kumari, a young female goddess viewed as the embodiment of the devine female energy.

Sandra didn’t pull the concept for her novel out of thin air. She’s visited Kathmandu on numerous occasions, and continues to learn Nepali, the native language of Nepal.

Sandra writes with empathy and compassion about the Nepalese and evocatively of the incredibly beautiful yet dangerous Himalayan mountains.

If you’ve never been to Nepal and dream about going there (and it is a dream during the lockdowns imposed since the advent of COVID-19) or you’ve been there, done that! and hope to return one day, this book is a lovely introduction or refresher.

The Goddess of Kathmandu is available from online bookstores as an eBook (for example, Booktopia, Dymocks, Amazon) and I think Sandra has some hard copies available for those who prefer reading a real book! Here’s the link: https://sandragroomauthorcom.wordpress.com/2020/12/02/the-goddess-of-kathmandu/

Congratulations Sandra! XXX

What’s trending now in publishing

I recently attended a Zoom presentation where members of the Penguin Random House Australia team talked about the changing face of publishing and gave some insider tips on publishing trends.

I scrupulously took notes. And now I can’t find them!

But I promised I would get this post out to my readership of four, maybe three (eternally grateful – you know who you are). Drawing like crazy on my fragmented alcohol-addled recall skills, here’s an overview of what’s about to be hot or is already scorching.

What’s hot for little kids
Forget the reading and writing. It’s all about arithmetic when it comes to the new trend in children’s books.

Since COVID-19, there’s been a push for educators in Australia to focus more on STEM subjects. These are the science, maths and computing subjects that can sometimes be skimmed over in children’s early years of schooling.

Children’s authors who can weave maths and science into a story in an entertaining and engaging fashion are in demand. Author, presenter and political commentator Jamila Rizvi has written a picture book I’m a Hero Too set in a COVID-19 world that revolves around a character whose mum is a scientist working to find a medicine to help stop the pandemic. Rizvi already has a huge public profile and was recently named one of Australia’s 100 Women of Influence by Australian Financial Review.

Trends in adult non-fiction
Memoirs are hot. If you have an exciting story to tell, then my advice is write it. BUT it is more likely to grab the attention of a publisher if it contains trauma. The more traumatic the experience, the better. Let’s look at two memoirs, not written by famous people, that have shot up the bestseller lists in the last two years. American author Tara Westover’s Educated and Australian Bri Lee’s Eggshell Skull, remain hugely popular.

These women’s compelling stories have trauma by the truckload. But they also contain hope. And in these dark times of pandemics, recessions, climate change, deforestation of the planet and global chaos, that’s what everyone is looking for.

H-O-P-E
Turia Pitt, who has several memoirs behind her that deal with her traumatic experience of suffering burns to 65 per cent of her body, has a new book titled Happy – and other aspirations. Pitt has interviewed lots of famous people on the topic of happiness.

The ‘self help’ genre is flourishing big time during COVID-19 with books with titles like Untamed, stop pleasing start living by one of Oprah’s favourites Glennon Doyle and Think Like a Monk by ‘social media supertstar’ Jay Shetty.

Adult fiction favours historical but don’t go too far back
Historical fiction that focuses on the more recent past (we’re talking 19th century to early to mid 20th century) is trending. Natasha Lester, whose books are set, usually in Europe and specifically Paris in the early to mid 1900s, was mentioned in glowing terms in the Zoom presentation even though her books are published by Hachette Australia.

If I had my notes, I would be able to tell you about a recent PRH aquisition. All I can remember is that the novel is set in Sydney in the late 1800s/early 1900s? Let me dig up those notes… if only I could find them.

But back to Lester. In June, Hachette Australia announced a world rights deal for two books for the Perth based author. These are To Lillie, From Paris and The Riviera House.

Australian crime thrillers are hot to trot, especially where the setting takes on a life of its own. Think Jane Harper’a The Dry and Chris Hammer’s Scrublands.

Recent movements such as #metoo and #blacklivesmatter have also spurred a flurry of relevant publications and for books to be brought back from the archives to find a new readership. Likewise with the pandemic, which has generated apocalyptic fiction that is pretty bloody scary.