I’m back in writing mode now, which is a lovely, though sometimes aggravating mode to be in. It’s interesting to me how it doesn’t seem to matter how many novels I write — and amazingly, I am now starting on my fourth – the same questions always trip me up. I suppose all novelists have their strengths and weaknesses. Most of us struggle with inventing plot sometimes, or really knowing what is going on in each of our character’s heads. But each novel also brings up its own set of technical issues, like structure and point of view, and if you get those wrong, nothing will seem right. No matter how exciting your plot might be, no matter how compelling your characters, if your structure is clunky or convoluted, your reader will be lost. But if you have the wrong character telling the story, then you’re in real trouble, and for me, this is always the most difficult question to answer of all — whose story is it, anyway? Who is the story about, and who gets to tell it?
Point of view is a necessary component of this. Is your character speaking his/her own words in his/her own voice? Is there a disembodied third person relating the story, and if so, how disembodied is (s)he? Unfortunately, fashion sometimes gets in the way of making this decision. A century or two ago, there was the God-like, all-knowing all-seeing omniscient narrator. I loved that guy. But it seems as if more sophisticated readers struggle to take the fictive leap necessary to believe such a narrative voice. To combat this issue, many novelists began to write in the first person, i.e. the voice of the character telling the story. But trusting this narrator — in lit crit speak, is it an unreliable narrator — is an issue which all readers confront and so, necessarily, all writers must deal with. Even if the writer wants the narrator to be reliably believed, the reader won’t believe the narrator if the story doesn’t really seem to be his own. For example, if the story happens in Town A and the narrator is sitting comfortably in her rocking chair the entire time in Village B, then how can she narrate the story? How can the reader be sure that what she is telling us really happened? After all, she wasn’t there, was she? What she tells us must be based on second-hand information or on memory, which all plots in the past are, and memories can be faulty, can’t they? If I don’t believe my narrator is telling the truth, then my reader will never believe it, either. And what is truth? What is reality?  Ugh…..I do wonder if obsessing over this issue as I do is really just a way for me to put off writing it.
Some novelists just start writing however it seems right at the time and see if it works. That’s hard for me to do. I need to have everything in place before I start writing those 100,000 words. I need to have all my questions answered. The answers may not be final. I am always happy to change my mind as I go along. But I have to believe in the choices I have made before I can write that first word. It’s interesting for me to look back at my previous choices and how they were made. My first novel, Tangled Roots (the one not set in Cambodia), had alternating chapters of two different first person narrators.  Two characters told that story, and so you saw it from two different sets of eyes. My second novel, A Clash of Innocents (the first in my collection of Cambodian novels), had its story told in the very strong voice of the character who was both involved and observing the plot. So many people liked the voice of Deborah, that I was compelled to have her voice there in the next novel as well. Out of the Ruins (the most recent novel, also set in Cambodia), had her voice appearing at key moments throughout the novel, commenting, almost like a Greek chorus, on the action which had been narrated by a close third person. So that’s three novels, three different narrative approaches. But this new novel has different needs, just like each child  has different needs, and how to decide which approach suits those needs best is, for me, the BIG question.
Now, all this makes me think of my husband…wait for it.  This past weekend, he ran his first marathon. He did it strongly, in a great time (4 hours 4 minutes, for those who know about these things), despite his fears and misgivings. He had learned an expression which I, in turn, must now also learn:
                                                           Trust the training
He put his faith in all that he had learned and experienced over the past months of preparation. He didn’t allow himself to double and triple guess himself. He put one foot in front of the other and ran. As I sit in front of my notebook full of research notes leading to empty white pages, I think I should probably do the same. I’ve learned a lot from the past decade of writing, editing and publishing novels. I should probably just trust that training, stop double and triple guessing myself, and get on with it. But…..