Writing on Wednesday: The Voice of the Narrator

Does the narrator's voice overpower the characters' voices in Cherry Bomb?
Does the narrator’s voice overpower the characters’ voices in Cherry Bomb?

I’ve begun working with an editor (the same one I worked with previously) on another round of revisions of my novel, Cherry Bomb. The good news is that she thinks the novel has improved. The “bad news” is that it need more work. (And maybe about 30K more words.) From what the agent’s email said, this next round will deal primarily with one of the three main characters—that I had strengthened the others with my last round of revisions. So I put my on big girl panties and prepared myself for the editor’s overview.

revisionsBefore she sends me her overview, we are exchanging a few emails. In one of them, she asked me to do a writing exercise. She asked me to rewrite the first three chapters (which introduce the three main characters) in FIRST PERSON, PRESENT TENSE. They were originally written in THIRD PERSON, PRESENT TENSE (but with PAST TENSE used for flashbacks.) She also asked me to lay the plot out chronologically, without using any flashbacks.

Flashbacks are used all throughout the novel. The prologue is a scene that happens about a third into the book, actually. So this little “writing exercise” involves lots of work. I’m about half way through with it now, but I’m taking a short break to write this post. And to share a little of what the editor said in her emails. These are snippets from longer paragraphs, but you get the picture:

I’m still struggling to hear your main characters’ individual voices; the narrative persona is doing a lot of telling, while the women themselves aren’t speaking.

I think writing from each woman’s view in first person present tense POV will go a long way toward defining the tone and voice of each, and force you to unfold the story through dramatizing action rather than articulating/telling of it.

While your book has an immensely compelling plot, the characters at play in this landscape are not speaking clearly enough for me to hear them as individuals. The narrative voice is extremely strong—louder than any of your characters’ voices—and so I think defining those voices with first person present tense POV is going to bring your intimacy with Neema, Mare and Elaine into the fore.

The narrator’s voice is louder than any of the characters’ voices. She says this like it’s a bad thing. So I did some research on the use of the narrator’s voice in fiction. And also read some passages from books that were written through the voices of numerous characters. One thing I realized is that the sections of my book that deal with the characters when they were children have a strong adult voice in them—the narrator’s. But for me, it works when written in third person. As I make the change to first person, I can see how the characters’ dialogue—internal and external—needs to change. I’m sure this is part of what the editor wants me to learn, but I’m not sure I prefer it this way. Or that these changes will make it a better book.

9780226048567Every work of fiction has a voice. It can be the voice of a fictional character, or the voice of what the critic Wayne C. Booth called “the implied author.” The implied author is the author as perceived by the reader in the story. The voice the author uses in writing the story determines whether the narrator remains neutral or withdrawn on the one hand, or whether she creates a presence and becomes an authorial narrator on the other.  It’s becoming clear to me that I have done the latter with my book, and it seems that this editor’s suggested changes would lead me to withdraw and become more neutral as a narrator.

Dawson-ReturnSo I’m faced with a dilemma. And the bottom line is this: What will make this a better book? And do I have the chops to stick with my initial approach—to write it from an authoritative narrator’s voice? As Paul Dawson says in his book The Return of the Omniscient Narrator: Authorship and Authority in Twenty-First Century Fiction:

From the 1990s, and particularly since the turn of the millennium, a number of important and popular novelists have produced books which exhibit all the formal elements we typically associate with literary omniscience: an all-knowing authorial narrator who addresses the reader directly, offers intrusive commentary on the events being narrated, ranges freely across space and time, provides access to the consciousness of characters, and generally asserts a palpable presence within the fictional world.

All-knowing authorial narrator, ranges freely across space and time, palpable presence within the fictional world. Almost all of these elements are in the voice and style I used to create Cherry Bomb. I will definitely plead my case with the editor, and I’m curious to see how she responds. Once I send this exercise back to her, I’ll receive her full overview and suggestions on how to proceed. With Thanksgiving and Christmas just around the corner, I need a big project to keep me busy, right?
Stay tuned….

4 thoughts on “Writing on Wednesday: The Voice of the Narrator”

  1. I find this fascinating. I am working slowly on a YA novel now (doing NaNoWriMo but I already had 14,000 words), and I’m writing in first person, present tense. But I keep accidentally switching to past tense. I can’t decide which I like better.

    I’ve often had a question about third person narrators: WHO exactly is narrating? The author? A character who is looking back on his/her life? I like the idea of narrative voice, but I also like first person narratives because they bring you so close to the reader.

    I read a great book by Silas House called Eli the Good about a 12 year old boy. It was written in first person, past tense, but at the end of the book, you got the boy’s grown up voice, and you realized that all along he had been telling the story of his childhood. I thought that was an excellent use of first person past tense.

    I can’t wait to hear what you decide. I also think the relationship between editor and writer can be tenuous. I’ve pushed back with an editor before, although it usually ended up in my piece not getting published. But it’s an interesting dynamic: When do you listen to your gut, and when do you follow an editor’s advice?

  2. Thank you for this glimpse into the editorial process. As someone who is not a novelist, I found it interesting to hear some of what goes into the revision process on the way to publishing. One thing I am wondering is if the writing exercise presages any actual change in your book’s structure or if it is just a way to focus your thoughts on further strengthening your characters. I realize you won’t know until you get the editor’s overview. As a reader, I admit to being partial to third person omniscient narrators in fiction, although I realize some recent popular novels use multiple first person narration.

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