Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The Dissertation, Narrative Mode and Being Jealous of Margaret Atwood.

My supervisor, the Author who is Writing about Neanderthals, has spent hours forensically reading my shitty first/fifth/seventh drafts and I have had the first two of my six dissertation meetings.

The project will be 12,000 words in my chosen genre and 3,000 words of critical commentary.

Initially I planned to write six 2,000 word pieces because I am a blatherer who needs discipline and because I find it so difficult to make longer stories cohesive. The first three story ideas started out as:
The Shoes: a love story over forty years told from alternating male and female points of view;
The Wrong Baby: a story about the social changes wrought by a transfer from a mobile forager/hunter existence to sedentism and food production;
I Was A Nurse: a story about the impact of dementia;

Two of the stories feature dead or lost babies and the third features an infantile parent. I am always losing babies in my stories.

I am about to blather about point of view (POV) or narrative voice and tense so here is a scanty summary of POV and narrative mode - as I understand it:

First person: Uses the ‘I’ voice. The first person narrator is often unreliable because they are presenting events from their perspective.
Second person: Uses the ‘You’ voice.
Third person: Uses the ‘She’ voice. The third person narrator can be:
Third person objective, that is the narrator describes events but not the thoughts of the characters.

Third person subjective (also known as third person restricted (or limited) omniscient) that is the narrator describes events and the thoughts of one main character. Some stories are a series of third person subjective narratives that focus on alternating or different characters.
Third person omniscient: the narrator who sees all and knows the mind of all the characters.
Past tense: 'I was at'; ‘She was at’.
Present tense: 'I am at'; ‘She is at’.

POV and tense can be used in every permutation. To add confusion I am going to talk about a story in which I use a first person, present tense narrative mode to write about a memory. I like present tense because events are unfolding for the reader as they happen.

My love story started out being told by two alternating (unnamed) protagonists. Both were narrated from the first person, past tense POV.

This is a small extract from the first draft (it was well-slated in workshop). Usually the alternating sections are longer but these two just happen to be very short. The girl narrates first then the bloke:

"I was one of May’s bridesmaids. After the reception a group of us went on to Charlie’s. The dress wasn’t one of those dreadful satin carry-ons; we chose a nice maxi-dress from Dorothy Perkins so I could get some use out of it afterwards. I wore ballet pumps with mine. When he saw me he said.
‘Don’t you have any proper shoes?’

Houghton Sue wasn't at Charlie’s this week but she was. She was drunk and looked a bit of a mess, long flowery dress and stupid shoes. Still I took her home and got my end away."

At the first dissertation meeting my supervisor recommended that I read:
Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace to see how a writer can shift between narrators; in this instance between an first person unreliable narrator and a third person subjective (or restricted) narrator;
Postcards by Annie Proulx as an example of how a writer tells one man's story as a series third person restricted narratives; each section present events from the point of view of different characters in turn over many decades;
Burning Bright by Helen Dunmore to see how I might convey how devotion or obsession can blind a character to reality. Burning Bright is written from shifting POV but in the perpetual present tense.

Over a few weeks I found all of the titles except Burning Bright at various Oxfam Books (I found loads of others besides and I did get a bit carried away.... )

I redrafted The Shoes first because, despite it being slated, it is the story that engages me most. It still is not finished and had grown to 7,000 words before my second dissertation meeting so I suggested to my supervisor that I might concentrate on this tale and let it expand into a 12,000 word long-short story, if such a thing exists.

The initial drafts of The Shoes were written colloquially with contractions - weren't, should've, I'd, can't - which I was unhappy about but which I felt were appropriate to the first person voice. One of the books I found in Oxfam was When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishguro's story is a first person narrative that eschews contractions other than in direct speech and I decided to copy his approach in my next iteration.

So, in the redrafting I removed contractions, added a present tense (and present day), first person prologue which describes the woman catching a glimpse of the man after the passage of many years:

"I see you today.
I am driving down the hill into the city. It is late morning and the sun is shining in my eyes as I turn a bend. I am about to ask Edie to retrieve my sunglasses from the glove compartment but she is speaking and I think I will wait until she has finished this bit of what she is saying.
I am concentrating on Edie’s words. Or rather, I am alert for a natural break. And then there you are…"

I changed the man's POV sections to third person restricted narrator; I made this change because it allowed me to include details and descriptions that my male character would not necessarily have noted.

I altered both narrative POV to the perpetual present tense so they are not memories or flashbacks but unfolding events. The narrators and the reader does not know what will happen (although the prologue has obviously hinted against a happy-ever ending).

I'm impressed that proper writers are able to let slip early on that all will not be well - that the narrator will be dead by Tuesday for example - but it is done so skilfully that that the reader allows herself to hope against hope that all may turn out nicely. I hope this every time I see Hamlet.

This is extract from above, redrafted:

“I am a bridesmaid at May’s wedding. After the reception some of us travel on to Charlie’s for a dance. My dress is not one of those dreadful satin creations; we chose a flower print maxi-dress from Dorothy Perkins so I can wear it again afterwards. I found some pink ballet pumps that match it exactly. When Tom sees me he says.

‘Haven’t you got any proper shoes?’

Tom cannot find Houghton Sue at Charlie’s this week, but that girl with the frizzy hair is here; the one that seems to be following him around. She is drunk and she looks a bit of a mess in a long, flowery, hippy-dress and stupid shoes. Tom considers for a while, but he does not get any better offers and so he takes her home; and this time it is worth it. He gets his end away.”

I also gave my male character a name, Tom, and the female character became a nurse.
I nursed in the olden days; I know about thermometers and myocardial infarctions and gallows humour and getting bladdered - I have access to credible detail. I'm not sure why I am reluctant to name my main protagonists. It is clear from creative writing blogs and books that not naming a character in an attempt to be 'mysterious' irritates readers. I think I am partly guilty of trying to be mysterious but my reluctance is also based on my prejudice about how a person called, Tom, for example might behave. It is probably time for another trip to a graveyard to harvest some pre-used names.
The Author who is Writing about Neanderthals was happy for me to concentrate on one long-short story and gave me some interesting guidelines for how many words constitute what form:

12,000 is more than a short story; it bites back, it trusts (her words).

20,000 is a long story (a US form she said) which often reflects upon the social morays of a particular time.

35,000 is a novella, like The Great Gatsby or The Turn of the Screw.

50,000-60,000 is a short novel.

So my piece doesn't really have a form. I might call it a Loomidob, or I might get a better idea.

My supervisor said that the new prologue framed the narrative (!), it is set further in the future than the main body of the story and is the point from which the writer can look backward and even forward.

She is happy with the redrafting so far and feels that the removal of contractions has changed the tone of the piece and consequently the impact on the reader. She suggests that the new formality slows the narrative and that the piece has acquired a tenderness that was missing previously. She suggested I read:
Colm Tobin; for tenderness that works very well.

Bakhtin on Dostoevsky's work and the representation of polyphony, many voices. The Shoes has two voices, although I think Bakhtin would say that there is a third voice; the woman who relates the prologue is a decades older version of the nurse and therefore an ‘other’ or changed person.

The Author who is Writing about Neanderthals is a candid and critical reader but she already knows my characters, what I am aiming for and how the piece has developed. I recently attended some intermediate writing workshops and I took an opening extract from The Shoes to get some fresh and cold-eyed feedback...

The counsel I received in this forum was invaluable and (I hope) encouraged me to stop deluding myself.  I was advised that:

My shifts between points of view need to be more clearly signposted.

I need to orient my characters in a place and time with each shift.

I had already made a decision not to signpost shifts in narrative voice by changing font or by other type of formatting (other than by defined line breaks) because I felt it was patronising the reader, but it is obviously pointless to muddle the reader too.
It was suggested at the workshop that I could date sections like diary entries. Again, I'm not keen but I am not sure why. Maybe it is because I am a lazy writer, or maybe it is because I am prepared to be a hard working reader and figure out what is happening in the books I read (those written by proper writers); but I realise that that is not a good-enough reason and that I can't depend on reader-loyalty from MA markers.

I came away from the workshops with some more reading suggestions:
Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood; for effective use of present tense memories or flashbacks and for technically accomplished tense shifts.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell; for a portrayal of interlocking lives.
Morven Callar by Alan Warner for a self contained female narrative voice.
Lorrie Moore.
Ann Beatty.
Miranda July

Cat's Eye is my favourite so far, it features a motif that is familiar to me and, I expect, to my other reader. That is, how a child can be terrorised by a bully who is ultimately revealed to be feeble and pitiable. For my part, that syndrome is not limited to childhood; I spent whole swathes of my adult life not getting or being afraid of people I saw regularly - other parents, people at evening classes, work colleagues - only to eventually realise that it wasn't necessarily me who was stupid or out of kilter.

In Cat’s Eye, Atwood keeps her child narrator in the eternal present, which contrasts with the nebulous and disjointed childhood memories of the her same character as a grown woman.

I am very jealous of Atwood because she manages time shifts between forty years ago and now that are mostly in first person present tense and occasionally in first person past tense without clunky signposting; italics or diary dates. That is what I am trying to do.  The difference is Atwood is a skilled technician and I am not.

My first person narrator presents information in an immediate, simplistic way:

"I am a bridesmaid at May's wedding. After the reception..."

Although Atwood is writing in the present tense as a child her voice is more lyrical and knowing and her scope is broader:

"The snow erodes, leaving the pot-holes in the roads near our house filled with muddy water. The bubbles of ice form across these puddles overnight; we shatter them with the heels of our boots."
Atwood's narration feels like an adult looking through a child's eyes but, as I said, the adult narrator does not remember the childhood events with clarity or order.

My story is not complete yet. I know what happens but I am not sure how it happens. I think I just need to get it finished using the current narrative modes and then work on trying to make it accessible without being patronising.


Valerie O'Riordan said...

I LOVE Postcards and Morvern Callar. Alan Warner's brilliant. His book The Sopranos features alternating teenage girl narrators, though offhand I can't remember if they're first or third person - it's an excellent book. Best of luck, Kim!

Max Henry said...

Kim, this post is simply wonderful and beautifully written. Well done you.

kim mcgowan said...

Really, Valerie, I don't know why I don't just get all my reading advice from you because you're always spot-on, Morvern Callar has just arrived today (see photograph, I'm very excited!)

Did I read somewhere that you were not impressed with Zadie Smith? I listened to the Audio CD of White Teeth and enjoyed it - but then, when I read the book last year, for a Contemporary Writing and Marginality module, I couldn't get beyound the way she was breaking all the rules, head-hopping and stuff.
Thanks, you too. Is you novel going to be your project?

Thank you Max Henry, that means a really lot coming from you.

Jenn Ashworth said...

I really liked this post, it's made me think about the way my own writing moves from shitty first draft to near-acceptable final draft, and how many writers (me especially) tend to draw a veil over the nitty gritty of this process. I don't know why - I think becoming aware of the editorial decisions you make when you're creating a piece - bringing what starts off as instinctive, into a more critical and analytical place in your mind, only helps with the writing - even though it sounds a lot less romantic than tosh about the muse and inspiration and staying up late with a bottle of whiskey and a packet of Lucky Strike.

I think I am going to write a post just like this one when I get Cold Light off my desk. It's been through so many incarnations over the past three years, and many of them have been to do with switching around narrative mode and tense - even though I know about this sort of thing and ocassionally try to teach it - I can't really make my mind up about the way I want to do it until I do it, read it and see how I feel.

Maybe writing more reflectivley about my writing, the way you have here, would help me make decisions like this and get away from my trial and error method...

And I agree with your other teacher about the effect the lack of contractions is having on your writing - and the way that the present tense used to relate a memory - the tenderness, formality - almost coldness or detachedness that really suits your main character. I wonder why that should be? I've been thinking about it a lot, and I wonder if it's because we know that it must be artifical - it isn't possible for someone to be always in the present and at the same time move back and forth in their memories - we know the narrative is an artifice and constructed, and this artifice makes us trust the narrator less. I'm not sure. The idea seems a bit unfinished (mine I mean, not yours) but I want to think more about it.

And I am jealous of Margaret Atwood too. About a Million.

kim mcgowan said...

Cheers, Jenn.
I probably would not have written this post if I didn't have to produce a reflective critical commentary to accompany the MA project - but it was a really useful exercise, it made me focus on what I am doing and the impact that has on the narrative.
I used to find it difficult to work out (or remember to check) what the writers I read are doing, but that has become much easier with practice. I imagined I would enjoy a story less if I was analysing narrative modes but, for me at least, it doesn't take anything away from the pleasure of reading because I like seeing how different techniques work.
I am really looking forward to reading Cold Light, the extract I heard at the glittering awards was so tempting… hurry up! It’d be good to read about the process and decisions you went through to arrive at your final draft too.

Benjamin Judge said...

I am aware that the last thing you need is more books to read but if you do feel like another...

I recently bought The Original of Laura, the sort-of-last-book by Vladimir Nabokov. It is, in essence, a very shitty first draft. They have even reproduced the index cards it is scrawled on and you can, if you want to, remove them all from the pages as they have serated edges. (No, I have no idea why you would want to either) point is that the fact that he could produce anything as sublime as Pnin or Pale Fire from a first draft presumably as garbled as this one leaves the reader with the feeling that maybe their first draft isn't so bad after all.

Will we be able to read your finished Loomidob?

kim mcgowan said...

Hi Ben

I am going to say this in a very little whisper because I am ashamed, 'I haven't read anything by Vladimir Nabokov.'

But now you have made that excellent point, I definitely will.

I think I have resisted reading his books because the people I admire the most rate him - so I imagine his work will be too difficult for me. No I realise that makes no sense at all...

The Loomidob is still way too shitty to ask anyone to read the whole thing. Actually, the more I write, the shittier it gets because I keep thinking things like,
'Oh quick, better slot that stuff about whether it's correct to say toilet or lavatory (or whatever) in before I run out of words!'

However, when I start to feel slightly less ashamed parts of it I would certainly welcome an opinion of an excerpt – from an expert.


Katherine Woodfine said...

Really enjoyed reading this Kim. And I am definitely also a fully subscribing member of the jealous-of-Margaret-Atwood club.

kim mcgowan said...

Thank you, Katherine.
The Jealous-of-Margaret-Atwood is such an illustrious club! I'm really glad I'm in it now!

Jessica Wadsworth said...

Hi! I just stumbled across your blog when I was searching for the opening quote about time from Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye. I didn't have enough time to read the Feb 10 posting in full so I just skimmed it. But I like it and will follow your feed. Where are you doing your Master's in Creative Writing?

kim mcgowan said...

Hi Jessica

Thank you for your comment. I work at the university of Cumbria & am doing my MA there, part time. Sadly, the course isn't recruiting this year. Are you studying creative writing? Do keep in touch.


dissertation said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michelle said...

Kim, this post was beautifully done and gives me the greatest confidence that your dissertation will be fantastic. The story snippets you shared were incredibly intriguing and I'd love read the rest.

Best of luck!
Michelle (@theshelledone)

kim mcgowan said...

A bad peson who SELLS dissertations left a comment on this blog post about my dissertation, I've deleted it, of course.

Michelle! My favourite American. How lovely to see you here! There an bigger (but still small) extract at - if you fancy a little read.
I hope the LSE is treating you well.
kim x

Rachel Nixon said...

Just found your blog- I also play at writing;)...brilliant insight into how hard it is to actually make a piece work, well done!


kim mcgowan said...

Hello Rachel

Thank you for your comment and well done for being shortlisted for the MADS award! Your blog IS inspiring (and un-sentimental too, which is brilliant).