I am planning to attack my 2011 story with a major overhaul. A have gobs of feedback I haven’t looked at from a local writer in residence, but I’ve also thought out some of the issues I have with that story and some of the major changes I need to make. I’m coming off of three months of shelf time, and I’m not quite ready to take it on. It will take all of my attention which I can’t rightly give at the moment. Yes, once I’m happy with structure of the story, I can edit and fill in gaps in small chunks, but this is a huge and important task.
So to fill my need to edit, I recently pulled out my 2012 story. I needed something to read at my February 2nd writers group brunch, and I’d already read two scenes. I opened scene three last week and gave it a pass. I read it Saturday and received good comments and feedback. I felt good about the story. The bomb I dropped at the end told everyone where the story was heading. In my opinion it’s one of those class A cliffhangers that virtually guarantee the reader will want to finish the book.
But I struggled with my writing. I journaled yesterday that I write too linear. I write along plot lines instead of the subtler character painting lines. And from the get go I struggled with the voices in my story. I told myself from the start that I had two voices, and that’s how I wrote it. One was from a more omniscient character. He remained limited, but he was perched higher. I called him my dragon voice. This is not a fantasy but a more urban literary story. It’s grounded in real life. But the story revolves around a dragon tattoo. Yes, there’s another dragon tattoo story out there, but that was merely a prop that was mentioned once or twice. In my story it plays significant roles, and because of its significance, the idea that a dragon tells the story came to me. Let’s be real, though. Nobody but teenagers and young children want to hear high level dragon voices ad nauseum. Really, they get tired pretty fast. I realized this during my first paragraph:
A man born with strong muscles doesn’t worry where his feet might take him. An icy dawn is unusual but not rare this far north, where only hardy breeds remain and thrive, in that city of rain and snow, fog and ice, and once in a while warm sunshine, where the weak come thinking it’s an easy life, the land of fortune and dreams, but only the strong or stupid stay. Their likelihood of prospering in this land is easily measured by their initial reaction to stepping onto a drifting tarmac, as true an indicator of character as any psychological test. Those who cut through the shock, the tightening facial skin, the ice cream forehead pain coursing through their whole body, those focused on life’s priorities – business, family, personal achievement – are likely enough to succeed; though success is never guaranteed. Those who whine and fret, those who complain and cling to their family’s coattails or wrap their faces in their insufficient burkas, pagris, or djellabas, or their cheap foreign-made hoods and toques purchased in one of the country’s international airports peddling third world wares, those who wish they were home, might as well return to their balmy lands. Their cries are like a cats’ moaning of insufficient lap time. Nobody that can truly help them will, not freely. If they won’t help themselves, stand up tall and walk where they need to walk and do what they need to do, it’s best to re-board that plane and head back to the jungle or desert.
Good God, could anybody seriously read or write a whole novel written like this? It’s large, telling, pretentious, and boring. It’s writing that makes you want to slit your throat, yet I felt it held a place, was necessary. It frames my other voice, my character voice. Before I show you that, though, My character narrator or my hero voice wasn’t very distinguishable from my dragon voice. They were both written in past tense third person limited. They were identifiable if you looked hard, but they didn’t separate easily.
And this raises interesting issues. Do I really want two voices? Can I have two voices? I’m not entirely sure. I can’t find any discussion on this. None of my self-help authors seem to have addressed it, and nothing shows up in Google: books, blogs, thesis, nothing. I did find first person thesis though. It was promising enough to validate an attempt.
But I need to take a step back t last night. I attended a reading by Madeleine Thien on her novel “Dogs At The Perimeter.” I noticed during her reading she used two voices. One was past tense and the other present tense. I read a few pages and was floored at how vivid, powerful, and appealing her present tense prose felt. I asked her about it, but she had no references for me. It’s the way she writes and her editors don’t particularly like it. I bought her book.
I’ve been editing a version of my story since this morning. I’ve taken my hero’s voice and turned it into a present tense experience. In 34 pages I think I have about six to eight sections of dragon past tense and the bulk is present tense.
Here’s the continuation of the first paragraph. It will not give you any sense of my story, only a feel for my writing. I’ll mark the voice changes
He trods carefully down the creaky wooden step that led sideways from the tiny front entryway not big enough to be called a porch, no bigger than a storage closet for seasonal coats and footwear. He sees bare wood where paint had worn off before his occupation of the old three-story, white clapboard home with a flaking grey gabled roof. He feels the front windows watching him leave. They face the residential street like so many of the others that are slowly being replaced by modern, prosaic townhouse projects. He tests the cement slab walkway for black ice with the broad front pad of his boot, and feeling a slip, shortens his steps and holds out his lunchbox for balance. His walk is steady, his gait firm and sure, an endemic northern life, a walk he was born having to make. He doesn’t think about falling, smashing an elbow, or breaking a hip. He glides over the fresh ice, a task easier than riding a bike, for him, and more common, for most, around here. He doesn’t expect to fall and he doesn’t. Nobody does this morning in this frigid, northern, maritime city on this icy spring morning. And nobody dances a jig; nobody sings sanguine songs; and no creativity enlightens the dark morning, except for a melancholy black guitar unheard in the bowels of cinder block rental projects somewhere over the hill.
It is one of those working man steel lunch boxes shaped like an old barn, riveted on the ends, and held shut with two aging clamps. The handle is stainless steel and swiveled. [dragon] His father left it to him in his handwritten will, the only thing left to him or his mother, his only possession. The man who delivered it, a lawyer, called it a Sudbury Miners Special. He said the paper inside it made it true. He almost threw the paper out but a certain sense of wrongness surrounded that plan. Why would his father, a man who valued nothing, not material things nor any living creature as far as he was concerned, why would this man he arguably didn’t even know keep a paper of authenticity in his lunchbox; it was beyond his comprehension, except that it must be important. He’d have thrown the box out in the garbage too, but he needed one anyway for his new job, and he and Jill had no money back then. [hero] It now contains his baloney sandwich and an apple juice box. It is big enough to hold a ham roast. If anybody turned it over, they would see the worn name inscribed in large black-marker letters: DAN. Everybody knows it’s his; nobody really cares. They leave it alone like all union lunch boxes are left alone.
The ice on the windshield of his truck offers no resistance to his cotton duck coat sleeve. He jumps in and starts it, turns on the local classic rock radio station just in time for the seven thirty news and listens while the truck’s windows warm up and the morning frost creeps up the windshield into the darkness above him. When the news ends, he shifts into gear and slowly edges out of his driveway onto the street behind another truck. He follows the same roads, stops for the same coffee, and tips the same tip as he does every morning before work. He pulls through the high chain-link gate and into the union parking lot, shoves his black Ford Ranger in first gear, turns it off, and steps out onto a freshly fallen snow. The white blanket crunches beneath his work boots, a mixture of snow and sleet. He walks towards the door on the side of the tall, yellow cement building alongside the other green men attracted like moths to a light by the same promise of mindless work and a comfortable retirement, an army marching to its daily war. Nobody says hello. Nobody smiles.
Funny how reading pasted prose makes problems stand out. At least one sentence needs a re-write. Pfft.
I guess the issue is whether this shifting back and forth is a problem for the reader. So far I feel it really makes the voices stand out, the two narrative modes. Sorry I’m not posting more for a better feel. You can argue my shift into past tense wasn’t a shift up but rather simple backstory. Later sections are not backstory but narrative summary, again not necessarily a higher voice. Yet there are instances where I do step up and become the dragon outright.
I suppose transition is vital. You might have noticed I wrote It now contains his baloney sandwich. “It now contains” transitions back into present tense painlessly.
If you know of any stories that use multiple voices — past and present tense, please pass them on to me, TYVM.