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Posts Tagged ‘multiple narrators’

When the audio book of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things went on sale, Audible sent me the ten promotional copies that were promised in my contract. “Use one for yourself and the rest to promote your book with giveaways” their overly cheery email suggested. I promptly did a couple of little giveaways and passed out a handful of the promotional codes.

audible-coverI didn’t plan to listen to the audio book, but then people kept asking me if it was any good. Writer friends were curious how the narration of sixteen different narrators turned out. So I downloaded it, intending to listen to a few snippets. Instead, over the course of the last week, I listened to the whole thing.

It is weirdly compelling. The narrator, Jorjeana Marie, did an amazing job, particularly in light of the fact that the sixteen narrators span from a five-year-old boy to a seventy-year-old woman, and include college girls, old men, drug-dealing heavies, and half a dozen random strangers. She makes it compelling. Nothing weird about that.

The weird part is to find myself compelled by my own work. I have been over this book so many times, I couldn’t give you an accurate count. A few hundred at least. I’ve read it aloud at least a dozen times, because that’s one of the best ways to do revisions. Read it out loud and really listen to the rhythm of it. I was sure that at this point in time there weren’t any surprises for me, but I was wrong. Hearing someone else read it reminded me of details I’d forgotten and introduced me to beats I didn’t even realize I’d written. Weird.

All this to say that I still have some promotional codes to give away, and if you’re willing to take my biased opinion, it is weirdly compelling. To enter to win, leave me a comment with your favorite audio book. Now that I’ve taken the plunge, I’m curious.

(Because Audible is world rights, this is open to international folks, too.)

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One of the cool things about getting book reviews isn’t just having people say nice things about your book. It’s getting a review from a reader who appreciates an element in your book that often gets overlooked.

Recently I got a review from a reader named Gretchen who wrote: “I was wary of yet-another-multiple-POV-story but this is next level sh*t. There are probably over a dozen (or more? I didn’t count) narrators, some first person, some third person, and yet the corners where they meet are perfectly joined. The math of it is impressive. This is hard mechanics but you don’t notice it because it’s done so well. Someone, please analyze this and tell me how she did it.”

There are, in fact, 16 narrators in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.

Some of them are integral to the story, at both the emotional center of the book and at the center of the action. Other narrators are observers. People who know Kellen or Wavy in one way or another, or who meet them in passing.

I have always been a multiple narrator writer. The first real novel I ever finished in 2004 had three narrators, and I can remember going to a conference, where three different agents gave me the puzzled dog head tilt during my pitch sessions. Three narrators? Two of them said they couldn’t even think of a successful novel with multiple narrators, and I helpfully reminded them of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I like writing in multiple narrators, but my reason for using so many in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things was more than just a matter of personal taste.

I chose to tell the story through sixteen narrators for two reasons. Firstly, I needed a way to manage the impact of Wavy’s narrative on readers. When she speaks, it’s fairly intense and to the point. Putting too much of her voice in the story felt like putting too much salt in a dish.

The second reason for all those narrators was to be sure I was being honest with myself. I’m not ashamed of the controversial nature of the story, but I’m not in denial about it, either. By checking in repeatedly with other characters, looking at Wavy and Kellen from other points of view, I was able to write the story almost like a documentary.

As for how I did it? As with all of my writing projects, I radically over-wrote. The first draft of the book was 200,000 words, and before it was all said and done, I had 280,000 words, which I ultimately cut down to the final published length of 120,000 words. When I’m writing the first draft of a book like this, I’m walking through the story with the main characters, and I’m noting the ways they interact with the rest of the world. I’m identifying people who are “key witnesses,” if you will. Then I investigate them. Not just what they saw and felt about their interactions with the main characters, but what kind of people they are, and how they view the world. For every narrator in the book, I could tell you what they were doing the day before the chapter they narrated and the day after, and possibly the most embarrassing thing that happened to them in sixth grade.

woodworking1Sometimes I think of it like woodworking, but instead of joining one piece of wood to another, I’m building multiple iterations of the same piece of furniture and then cutting out the sections I need from each piece, and joining those together to produce a single piece of furniture made up of those parts. For some narrators, I’m literally writing a novel about them, and then superimposing all of those stories together and choosing where they overlap with the story I want to tell.

For example, I have what is essentially a whole novel about Wavy’s cousin Amy. Not just where her life intersected with Wavy’s, but all the other parts of her life, too. There are other narrators for whom I wrote novellas, so that I could understand how they fit in. Of course, there are also narrators who didn’t make the cut, including a few very important characters, like Wavy’s parents and her aunt. Ultimately, Wavy’s mother and father were too self-absorbed to make the cut–they weren’t focused on Wavy enough to tell part of her story. Wavy’s aunt simply had a habit of derailing the narrative with peripheral concerns, and she did so well at verbalizing her opinion in other character’s scenes.

Ultimately, my goal in the revision process for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things was to give every character a narrative arc. Some of them are quite small, and some of them take place off stage, but by the time I’m finished writing a novel, I know all these people intimately and I want to understand how they got here and what happens to them.

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These days, I spend my lunch hour visiting my elderly aunt in the hospital. I’m always pressed for time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have time to be a good person. That bumper sticker on my car is the truth. I believe in Random Acts of Kindness. At the intersection of Tennessee and 20th, I saw a woman on a bicycle, waiting to cross the street. She looked hot and tired, and there were half a dozen cars behind me, so it would probably be a while before she could cross. I came to a stop and waved her on, even though I knew I was already going to be late getting back to work.

She gave me a blank look and then pointed toward the stop sign at her corner. I couldn’t hear her, but I think she mouthed the words, “I have a stop sign. You don’t.”

Seriously, who does that? Who refuses a polite offer like that? It made me so mad, I pulled up across from her and rolled down my window, even though there were cars behind me, waiting to go through the intersection.

“I was trying to be nice,” I yelled. “You don’t have to be such a bitch about it.”

“How does calling me a bitch count as nice?” she said. So superior. Like she never lost her temper. Then she shook her head and said, “You’re blocking up traffic. Just go.”

I did, because screw her if she couldn’t take a favor. Screw her! It made me so mad, letting her have the last word, so even though I was through the intersection, I slammed on my brakes and yelled, “You fucking bitch! Fuck you, you fucking bitch!”

She threw her hands up in the air and shouted, “What are you doing, you moron?”

I would have said something back, but then the car behind me honked. Jerk was right up on my bumper. Some people.

***

Similar to how I look riding my bike

Similar to how I look riding my bike

That’s all true. It all happened, except in reality, I was the woman on the bicycle. I was the person who declined a favor. Because in my experience, that kind of favor is dangerous. It changes traffic patterns in ways the average motorist doesn’t comprehend. For example, I have to later cross the street that all those cars were backing up to. Also, it’s fairly common for the very people who try to do something nice by stopping traffic and waving me on, to later try to kill me. They get distracted by their cell phone, someone behind them honks, and having already forgotten they waved me on, they surge forward, nearly clipping me as I cross the street. After all, it takes a cyclist a bit longer to get started from a dead stop. After the third time this happened, I stopped accepting these kinds of “favors.”

Of course, immediately after it happened, I was astounded and eager to tell people that I’d been called a fucking bitch for turning down an act of perceived kindness. I wondered what would have happened if the car behind my would-be Good Samaritan had rear-ended her. Later, I did what I always do: I imagined the whole incident from the other person’s point of view. Almost no one sets out to yell obscenities at strangers over a minor incident, and yet she had gone from generosity to vituperative hostility in a second. As much as I didn’t appreciate her attitude, I recognized it may have come from a completely understandable place.

This is how I always approach my writing, and why I so often end up with multiple narrators. It’s not that I want two characters to tell the same story, but that I want them to tell their own story. I’m interested in how the different POVs intersect and diverge.

I date some of it back to my early days of writing. The first creative writing class I took was with Ben Nyberg, and his tried and true method is to force people to tell stories from other points of view. He tricks beginning students a bit, first asking them to write a story in which they are the protagonist. Then, he makes them tell the same story, from the POV of the antagonist. That is the story they are made to edit and polish until the antagonist becomes the protagonist. After all, you may be the hero of your story, but you’re probably the villain of someone else’s story.

PS: Nyberg’s book, One Great Way to Write Short Stories, though out of print, is still a great way to write a short story. Used copies are available in all the usual places.

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