We grieve because we love: why the end is so much harder than ‘The End’

I’ve never actually typed ‘The End’ on a manuscript. Maybe it feels too much like tempting fate to me, especially on a troubled first draft. Like, the more pronounced my certainty and celebration, the more work there will be to do when the edits come back.

‘Finishing’ this time (oh God, I typed it) was harder than before. There was a brief sense of accomplishment, but it didn’t feel enough to justify the amount of work I’d put into the manuscript, and then a terrible sense of loss and dread swept in, and I can’t remember feeling to such an extent before.

I’ve been trying to work out why. What it might mean about my manuscript, or my writing.

It feels a lot like grief.

I’ve lost a world that grew around me and people I had come to love. And of course, I’ve surrendered that perfect vision of what it might have been, if only I were Julie Cohen or Maggie O’Farrell or Sarah Waters.

Not to mention I’ve spent too long in its company now, and as we all know from months of lockdown, that’s an uncomfortable feeling to have about a loved one.

We need a break, me and my manuscript, but that break is going to change us. It has to be read now, and all its faults exposed. (I’m so very aware of its many faults, I had to stop myself listing them point by point in a caveat to my agent.) It’s no longer my own, and that’s not only a letting go, but a letting in… It’s dangerous and scary and exposing.

But there’s more this time around. We’re all already grieving right now, aren’t we? So this is grief on top of grief. This time, when the world I’d written went ‘pop’, my escape hatch closed. I’ve lost the land at the top of the ladder I could climb when the news was all too much.

When you’re grieving, it’s tempting to try and seek out that intimacy in any way you can, knowing (but wanting to forget, each time grief strikes) that it will never be the same.

Starting a new project now is ill-advised. I’m tired. Burnt out. Other responsibilities are calling.

Besides, it won’t be the same. It mightn’t be less, but it won’t be those characters, that world. I dreamed of them. I breathed them. They fed me lines. In the shower, in the car, at the school gates. Anywhere I couldn’t easily write them down, the little bastards.

Now I’ll have to find new loves, write them wrong, dig my way out of one plothole and into the next. Rewrite, rehash, replot, rethink. Relive the frustration and then, with any luck, the limerence.

And then, when I’m finding my way with them, it’ll be time to revisit the old and I’ll rush back to that world I knew so well, with open arms and renewed energy.

Straighten the timeline, bend the arc, drop a hint.

Shift their table into the kitchen.

Make it rain.

Saying goodbye is hard. Starting again is harder. But I love it, all of it. And we grieve only because we love.

‘Set out early’ published at The Same

I’m delighted that my flash fiction, ‘Set out early‘ is over at The Same today.

This piece is really special to me. Like all ideas worth their salt, this one came to me when I was driving on the motorway and had no way to record it. It came fully formed – the meadow, the characters, the heavy, vital moment they find themselves in.

You can read it here: https://thesame.blog/2018/03/19/issue-7-3-fiction/

I truly hope you enjoy it – do let me know what you think!

You can find more of my published short fiction listed here.

Me, myself and I… 5 tips for writing in first person multiple POV (points of view)

first person multiple pov

When telling a story from multiple points of view (i.e. from the perspective of different characters), you’ve got a number of options, including first and third person. In first person multiple, you have a number of viewpoints, each beginning “I…”. In third multiple, you might be following just as many character threads, but the story is told “he…” or “she…” instead.

Writing in first person multi is… an interesting choice. It tends to raises eyebrows, at least among fellow authors. (I’m rather of the view that readers in general don’t care as much, unless the chosen style works well with the read.) Third multi is certainly more common, and probably throws out fewer challenges, especially for a writer starting out.

So why choose first? And if you’ve decided to embark on a project in first multiple, what should you look out for?

1. Where are you going with this – think about what you’re trying to do with your story and see what fits.

Some argue that first person can take you closer inside the character’s head. I’m not sure that’s true (see Emma Darwin’s great post on psychic distance). My choice to use first person for my novel, Unsteady Souls, was more about the relationship between the character and the reader. I wanted to tell a story from three viewpoints that would gain empathy for all three main characters. Given the (often questionable and morally reprehensible) things the characters say and do, I wanted to create the idea of a conversation with a confidante. I couldn’t help but feel that an account written in first person would read more sympathetically.

If you’re unsure what fits your project, try writing your first chapter (or few chapters) each way and see what feels comfortable. What are the limitations of each? When the words are flowing, do you find yourself defaulting to one or the other? Why do you think that is? It may seem time-consuming to write both ways, but it’s a considerably smaller investment than having to rewrite a whole project if you choose the wrong one for your needs…

2. Building blocks – consider the structure of your story in terms of viewpoints

Using first person precludes an omniscient viewpoint – in other words, you can’t have a viewpoint character who knows the whole story, how everyone else is thinking, feeling etc. So you need to decide who takes which scene. Generally, I kept to the rule that the character with the highest stakes in a chapter or scene would get the viewpoint. For the most part, that was apparent, but sometimes it meant trial and error, and changing things around to see what worked.

Once you’ve got an idea of who has which scenes, think about how this fits with scene and sequel (see K.M. Weiland’s How to structure your novel for great help on this much overlooked topic). If one character has a dramatic event, and another takes the aftermath, that can give you the opportunity to let us into another character’s view of the same event, without having to repeat on the timeline.

3. Voice, voice, voice – be prepared to put in the work

Voice is perhaps the biggest challenge for first person multiple POV. Your character’s voice is his or her lens on the world. To be believable, and interesting, each character needs a distinct – and relatively consistent – voice.

As well as the larger, more obvious factors which can differentiate individuals (such as gender, age, cultural heritage, dialect, class and level of education), there are more subtle markers, such as attitudes, values and interests, which can shape the way they think, speak and behave.

What do they do for a living? How does their experience affect how they see the world? What are their interests – what do they read, what kind of films they do watch? Do they have a primarily optimistic or pessimistic outlook? Are they introverted or extroverted? A worrier or fairly relaxed? Funny or morose?

If one character is artistic and ephemeral, perhaps they might describe a dress as “floating chiffon, ruby red and bejewelled with sequins”. If another is more practical and down-to-earth, perhaps it’s just “a glittery red dress – the kind that sparkles under a spotlight”.

When it comes to speech, do they speak quickly or slowly? In long rambling sentences or short, choppy soundbites? Are they fairly considered in their speech or do they tend to blurt the first thing that comes to mind? Do they use slang or swear a lot? Even if dialect is the same, choice of words and turn of phrase can (and should) differ. One character might say “kept schtum” whilst another says “remained silent”. Remember this applies to dialogue between your characters too, regardless of which viewpoint the chapter is in.

The acid test? You should be able to look at a chapter at random and determine, without too much difficulty, whose viewpoint you’re in.

If you can’t, it might be that the voices aren’t distinct enough, and usually that means that you don’t yet know your characters well enough, or you’re allowing your authorial voice to intrude and cramp your characters’ style – well, styles.

That said, whilst a viewpoint is unlikely to change beyond recognition, the voice can develop as the characters go through their character arc. For example, your heroine might sound less confident when disaster strikes, and more definite when she comes through her trials. But in order to sound like parts of the same whole, hints of that character need to be present – and consistent – throughout.

It comes down to knowing your characters well – fleshing out who they are, what their backstory is and where they’re headed. Depending on how you write, sometimes it may take the first draft to find this out.

4. Acting out – think about how your characters’ actions support characterisation and viewpoint.

The same rule applies to a character’s actions. What are their foibles or mannerisms? Do they click their fingers idly when they’re bored or play with their hair when they’re thinking? In the character’s own viewpoint, this might not be mentioned much, apart from the odd action beat. Perhaps it’s an unconscious habit and, for the most part, he doesn’t realise he’s doing it. From the viewpoint of his love interest, it might be a gesture that she observes in minute detail. For his arch-rival – the antagonist – perhaps it’s a tell.

5. Telling lies how reliable are your narrators?

In first person multiple POV, narrators are always unreliable – think of eyewitness testimony, for example. If there’s no omniscient voice, there’s no possibility of an unbiased version of events. And that lets you play havoc with the reader. That’s not to say you can’t do in close third person, of course, but I think the effect is more immediate in first. There’s no one to contradict or filter their story, perhaps until you hear the same event from another viewpoint later on. In the bestselling novel, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins uses unreliable narrators to great effect, disorientating the reader and keeping back the truth until the final pages.

How are you finding it?

Have you embarked on writing in first person multiple? Do you have any experiences, challenges or tips to share? Feel free to let me know in the comments.

Understanding infidelity

The recent breach of security at Ashley Madison has thrown infidelity into the media spotlight once again. But what can we learn about the way we understand affairs?

couple-in-car

I began researching infidelity about four years ago. My novel, Unsteady Souls, is the result. I believe that infidelity, and the emotions and behaviours behind it, are not well understood in our society. The result is often either the glamourising of affairs, or utter condemnation without reprieve. This lack of understanding is one good reason for the prevalence of extra-marital affairs. The past shows us that whenever we fail to comprehend human behaviour, we expose ourselves to the same vulnerability. In other words, when we don’t learn from our mistakes – and the mistakes of others – history has a tendency to repeat itself.

I have never been in the position of any of my characters, but I have read hundreds of real stories from all sides, as well as numerous articles and books by professionals.

It was interesting to read how many people’s views changed when infidelity became a reality about the person they loved and had built a life with, rather than an abstract. Or when people realised what they had done and were at a loss to understand how they could have done it or how to address the changes needed in themselves.

Some of the behaviours in infidelity are counter-intuitive and incredibly difficult to understand, but I wanted to write an infidelity story as realistically as possible, with a journey of understanding for each of the characters, whilst showing the devastation those behaviours can cause.

There are many people rebuilding their lives after infidelity, whether alone or together, and whichever side of it someone is on, I’ve seen that it takes immense courage to work towards reconciliation or to end the marriage, because it often means either accepting a terrible betrayal, or working every day on the darkest parts of oneself and living with the guilt of the pain caused.

Unsteady Souls is a creative, not a didactic, work, but my hope is that the treatment of infidelity in the novel will broaden understanding of affairs, and encourage us to avoid a simplistic view of a very complicated subject.