THE FIRST PERSON DILEMMA
The poet and novelist Mary Dorcey was chatting to me today about writing in the first person, as opposed to the third person. She said, ‘Writing in the third person, you get width. Writing in the first person, you sacrifice width for intensity.”
It’s true. My first novels, the published and unpublished ones, were all in the third person. They were all ensemble novels, with groups of characters, so it made sense to tell their stories from the outside looking in (third person), rather than from the inside looking out (first person).
I wanted to do something different with my new book, to challenge myself and tell story in a new (for me) way, so I’ve chosen a first person narrative. This comes with a set of problems, not least of which is that I can’t reveal the inner workings or points of view of the other characters in the book. They all have to be filtered through my narrator.
Part of me is scared that by writing in the first person, I might not have enough story to stretch over 100,000 compelling words. But then I think of Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch, which is a first person narrative stretched over 771 mostly compelling pages (dare I break with the critical cabal and say that it got annoyingly repetitive in the endless middle section?), and I think I can maybe stretch to 400. I certainly have a strong concept with plenty of conflict to keep it rolling along.
What I’m loving about writing in the first person is how I’m getting to know my narrator, Michael Ryan, so quickly. With the other books, it wasn’t really until I was writing the final chapters that I fell in love with my gangs of third-person characters. I’d done all the character work (more of which later, I promise!), I knew their likes, dislikes, contradictions, paradoxes and what they had in their fridges, but it took a long time of writing them from the outside looking in to make me really get under their skins.
Writing in the first person, you are under you character’s skin from the outset. In a way that character is you, and you are him, or her. Michael Ryan is nothing like me, but he is me, and I am him. I’m liking the process of revealing him, to myself, and the world.
If you haven’t read Mary Dorcey, you should. She’s up there with Colm Toíbín and Emma Donoghue as one of Ireland’s foremost LGBT writers.
Write What You Know
Before I started this book, I was writing another one. I’d got about 20,000 words in when I admitted to myself it wasn’t working. My publisher liked the idea, and my editor was encouraging, but I found myself putting off writing it even more than usual. It was the story of a two sisters and a brother in crisis, after a sibling they never knew about turns up out of the blue, revealing a secret history of their now-deceased, beloved mother. A good idea, but no matter how I tried to make myself excited about it, I couldn’t.
My previous two books are also ensemble novels – telling the stories of groups of people, with one of them getting more chapters than the others, thereby becoming the main protagonist. The characters in them were nothing like me, and came entirely from my imagination, as were the sisters and brothers of my untitled book. I didn’t follow the ‘write what you know’ advice often given to first time writers. Instead I wrote what I didn’t know, and it worked.
But this time, when I decided to give up the manuscript I was working on, I came to the conclusion that it is time to write what I know. Perhaps I wasn’t doing it because I was afraid of delving into myself too much, afraid that what I knew wasn’t enough to flesh out a whole story over 100,000 words.
During radio, television and print interviews for my second book, Knowing Me Knowing You, I was repeatedly asked about being a gay father, to tell the story of how I had my son, my relationship with his mother, how I came out to him, and other details. There were no stories about gay parenthood in the book, and I was uncomfortable about the interviews. I wanted to talk about the book, not me.
When I discarded the 20K words I’d already written, I was casting around for an idea, getting freaked out because I had nothing to work on. I met my editor for coffee and she said to me, what about being a gay dad. You know about that, and maybe it will bring something new to the table if you explore it.
That night I woke at 3am out of a dream and the idea for this book, perfectly rounded, with a beginning middle and end, came to me. So, I’m writing about what I know, and even if it’s as hard as writing any other book, I’m sure I’m on the right track.
All was not lost with the first attempt. I’ve been able to salvage some of the character work I did in advance of writing (I’ll talk about this in a later blog entry), to flesh out the supporting cast for my pair of gay dads, negotiating parenthood in a world that doesn’t fully understand them. I know all about that.
The Barking Dog
One of John Steinbeck’s tips for writers was: If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
I write dialogue more slowly than description, always trying to carefully feel my way around the realness of what’s coming out of my character’s mouths.
Not only does the character have to speak with realism – so that the reader will believe the character is real – and each major character will have to have his or her own speech idiosyncrasies, there also has to be a kind of rhythm to the speech, a stopping and starting, a flow that is as realistic as the words used.
In screenplays and TV scripts you find the word ‘beat’ interspersed through dialogue. This is a pause, maybe before the delivery of a punchline, maybe to indicate the character is taking a pause to think.
An author friend of mine calls the beat in fiction writing: ‘The Barking Dog’. It’s when, in the middle of a conversation, something happens to add a ‘beat’ to the rhythm. It can be a thought running through a character’s head. It can be the sound of a barking dog outside the window. It can be an interruption, or an action. But using ‘The Barking Dog’ is a must in long stretches of dialogue, or there will be no sense of realistic pace to the conversation on the page.
The reason I’m writing about this is because today I wrote approximately 1,000 words of straight dialogue. The child at the centre of my book, Ely, is a very verbal boy. He talks – a lot. But generally, adults who are with talkative children only hear half what they say, because much of what they say is inane. Keeping the reader engaged while Ely talks will be a feat, but I’m using The Barking Dog to help pace it.
In later drafts this 1,000 words might be drastically reduced, but this is another thing about dialogue for me – I have to let it play out to its extreme, without exiting the scene before I’ve let my characters say everything they have to say in the moment. It’s only then that I can get to the crux of what they’re trying to say, realistically.
An email from my editor today, in response to a needy, insecure one from me: “Once you find the truth of this book – what it is you want to risk saying – it will come, but it’s a horrible process to get there. So, consider emulating someone you think does it well until you find your feet…”
This is good advice. For my first novel, I began by emulating Armistead Maupin (author of the ‘Tales of the City’ books), with lots of snappy dialogue to describe action, and quick brushstrokes to describe place and atmosphere. But the final book didn’t end up reading like Armistead Maupin (although he remained a large influence on both my first books).
I know exactly the moment I found my own voice for it, in a scene when one of my character’s fathers was having a stroke. It was a slightly comedic scene (if you can believe it), but the emotional core of it rang absolutely true to me.
I realised that the book, although ostensibly about a group of friends who form a film club, was about parents, and at the heart of it were my feelings about my own parents. This allowed me to clarify who I was in the context of writing, and when I went back to reshape the second and third drafts, I was much more confident in and grounded in that voice.
So, the first draft of this book, as in any other book, is about finding the truth. It’s also about writing forward and trusting that the truth will come.
Today I got more conversation under my belt than writing. I’m staying at the writer’s and artist’s retreat, The Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, Co. Monaghan. At dinner I met a novellist who talked about the excitement of beginning a story without knowing exactly how the plot is going to unfold. “If you don’t know what’s going to happen next, your readers won’t.” she said.
It doesn’t feel exciting to me at all right now. It just feels scary. I’m inching forward, half the time trying to figure it all out in advance, and then telling myself to stay in the moment, to let go of having to know.
So, in the moment, the key character of my book, Missy, has arrived. I’ve spent much of my writing time today describing how she looks, trying to give as much information possible without overdoing it. She’s a transformed character, someone who has re-created herself. The trouble is, I’m not sure exactly why she’s gone to the trouble of such painstaking re-creation. In my mind, she kind of looks like Sammy Jo Carrington, a character from the 1980s soap, Dynasty. Not that her personality is bitchy like Sammy Jo’s, but there’s something about the eyes, a mischevious, bold quality that the actress Heather Locklear brought to the role.
I do feel a bit excited about the character, and how she will develop and infiltrate my main characters’ lives, even if I don’t exactly know how it will play out at this moment. I’m trying to trust in the process, but tomorrow I’m going to spend the day doing a little mapping. It’s okay to strike a balance between knowing and not knowing, I think.
It’s been a slow day. The difficulty of not having a map is that you have to almost wait to see what’s going to happen. In beginning my story – the piece I wrote yesterday is a kind of prologue – I have to establish the pace. My temptation, always, is to give everything away immediately, but it’s one I have to resist.
There are tricks to do this, but I have to make myself use them.
So, I began with action – something that’s fundamental to the story is happening. The surrogate mother of the little boy born six years earlier is turning up out of the blue at the house of the couple who are raising him. She is about to confront my main character for the first time in the book.
I start with the line: She arrived on a hot, sunny day in late September, when it seemed as if the summer might not give up the ghost and morph into autumn.
This opener will change, probably several times, in the redrafting of the book, but for now it’s a scene-setter.
But instead of bringing her centre stage instantly, I now explore what’s happening for my main character at this moment, and how it relates to his life as it is at this time. It’s a kind of winding back from the present, but it’s important not to go to far. No reader wants too much back-story at the beginning of a book, no matter what the genre, because it stops the forward motion.
I want my reader to want to know what happens when my main character opens the front door and finds the surrogate mom standing there, but I have to string the action along a little bit. It’s like throwing down breadcrumbs for the reader to follow. The opening gambit is a breadcrumb, but you have to know when to throw down the next one. You have to feel your way.
500 words in, I still haven’t thrown the next breadcrumb. But it will come soon.
MY DAILY DIARY, WRITING A NOVEL FROM DAY ONE
My third novel, as yet untitled, will be published next Spring (2015), and this is the first entry of a daily diary throughout the writing of the first draft. With it, I hope to externalise the process a little, sharing the writing of a book. Before I wrote my first novel (written long ago, and long before I wrote a book that was published), I was always looking for writers to tell me how it’s done, to help me. The whole process seemed shrouded in mystery.
What I’ve learned is that there is a mystery involved, some magic that’s inexplicable, when a character says or does something that seems to have come from them, and not from you, or a piece of the jigsaw just lands in your lap, and it’s exactly right. There’s also a magic to the final thing, this whole world you have created that seems absolutely real, even though you know it came from your mind. A finished book is a mysterious object.
But there is also hard graft – structuring, developing characterisation, plotting and pacing, that all need to be worked out, in not such a magical, mysterious way.
For my last books, which had multiple narratives, I drew up plans before I started writing. These plans were based on the three-act structure of most screenplays, and indeed, most books:
Act 1. The Beginning – in which we meet our hero, learn to sympathise with him as he tries to get something he wants, before coming to the conclusion that he desparately wants something else entirely.
Act 2. The Middle – In which our hero pursues the thing he desparately wants against mounting odds and ultimately achieves it, before everything goes pear-shaped again.
Act 3: The End – In which our hero overcomes the pear-shaped situation to get what he wants and learn something about himself in the process.
This is a very simplified version of the three-act structure, but basically that’s what it’s all about. This structure worked for me so well that when my editor read the third draft of my first book, she told me she’d never seen a first novel so perfectly plotted. She just had a major problem with my characterisation, which suffered while I was trying to get the structure right.
It was a good learning experience, re-writing with only character development on my mind, and it served me well for my second novel, the writing of which concentrated just as much on character as it did on the plot I’d worked out for it.
CAUTION TO THE WIND
For this book I’m coming at it in a very different way. I have a basic plot (I know the beginning, end of the first act – when everything goes pear-shaped – and I have some inkling of the ending), but I am setting out without a plan. I’ve spent some time developing three of the main characters (the fourth, a child, isn’t as developed at this time), but I don’t really know what’s going to happen to them for the majority of the book.
I’m going to try to feel my way forward with the writing, to see what happens. This is both frightening and liberating. It’s hard not to have my map, because when I had it, I knew exactly what I was going to write each day. But at the same time, I’m letting my characters come to life, letting them determine the action, which is exciting. And if it doesn’t work out, I can always go back to mapping solutions.
Today, as my book was beginning its birth, the little boy at the heart of it was born. His name is Elijah and he has two gay dads, and surrogate mother. I learned that he has a loud, throaty cry, and that he will grow into a very loud boy. I learned other things about my main character’s insecurity.
Tomorrow I will read what I wrote today, revise quickly and then move forward. This is a piece of advice I took from another writer. Don’t revise too much, always move forward. When you have a first draft, you have something to hone. Concentrate on getting that first draft done, day by day.
For a Valentines feature this February in The Irish Examiner, I was in the good company of Irish writers, Sheila O’ Flanagan, Michael Harding, Catherine Dunne and Emma Hannigan, looking back on our first loves. I really love the way it’s written by Sue Leonard, and sent a copy of the newspaper to my first love.
Read it here.
I always approach the film adaptation of a book I love with trepidation. There’s nothing quite as disappointing when the screen version gets it badly wrong, and no matter how you might love a director or certain actors, you can never be guaranteed what you’re going to get. Peter Jackson may have blown us away with his Lord of the Rings Trilogy, but then he went and took the heart out of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones with directorial overkill. Rachael McAdams might have sparkled in the adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook, but she stank in the shockingly bad movie version of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife.
With good viewing for the avid reader in mind, I’ve picked what I think are the five best book-to-film adaptations of all time. I’d love to hear your suggestions too!
5. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Ronald Neame, 1969)
I think Maggie Smyth’s performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a thing of genius and beauty. Her portrayal of the tragically and mistakenly idealistic teacher, whose girls are the crème de la crème, not only deliciously brings Muriel Spark’s original character to life, but also adds another layer of loneliness and desperation to her. It’s one of those rare adaptations where the film eclipses the book.
4. The Cider House Rules (Lasse Hallstrom, 1999)
Perhaps The Cider House Rules is a perfect adaptation because the book’s author was allowed to pen the screenplay (whereas he didn’t get the chance to write the mediocre film adaptations of The World According To Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire). Michael Caine’s supporting performance is a big pull, but the greatest thing about The Cider House Rules is that it translates Irving’s narrative voice perfectly into the film medium. The experience of seeing it is exactly the same as reading the book. There are lots of characters and storylines taken out, of course, but instead of missing them, you understand why their omission makes the film even better. It is a modern Dickensian adaptation of a modern Dickensian book.
3. The Remains of The Day (James Ivory, 1993)
Long before Downton Abbey thrilled us with stories of upstairs downstairs shenanigans, the Merchant Ivory adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker-winning The Remains Of The Day, scooped up multiple Oscars for it’s telling of the story of star-crossed love between Stevens, a repressed butler and, Miss Kenton a hopelessly romantic housekeeper in a Big House, played by Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, respectively. Hopkins’ performance invested the upright, traditional Stevens with great humanity, leading to a tear-jerking final scene that failed to move to the same extent in the book.
2. The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939)
When L. Frank Baum published The Wizard of Oz in 1900, he didn’t have an inkling how the symbolism he was creating would play out into the popular imagination via the film nearly forty years later. I loved both the book and the film as a child, but for different reasons. The book was pure story, it immersed me in a fantastical world, but the film was more about its parts, rather than the sum of its parts. Judy Garland’s “Over The Rainbow” rendition in sepia close-up; the twister moving over the fields; the ruby slippers appearing on Dorothy’s feet; snow falling on the poppy field; the Wicked Witch of the West writing ‘Surrender Dorothy’ in the sky; the trip from black and white to techno-colour at the beginning and back again at the end; the repeated line: ‘There’s no place like home’ – all of these things make us respond on a deep level to the story, showing us how film can enhance literature not through a literal adaptation but one that fully understands the author’s intention.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1966)
As Alice says at a film club meeting in my first novel, The Forced Redundancy Film Club, when they watch To Kill a Mockingbird, the film brings out the bits in between the lines of the book, particularly the children’s sorrow over the loss of their mother. The scene between Gregory Peck and Mary Badham, as Atticus tells Scout that she will get her mother’s jewelry when she grows up, is one I’ve replayed over and over again. It’s as near perfect a scene in a film as I’ve seen, in terms of writing, directing, acting and cinematography. Harper Lee was on set for much of the filming and her presence is almost palpable.
Follow him in Twitter @finneganba or Facebook: brianfinneganauthor
Watching Saving Mr Banks, it’s difficult not to imagine PL Travers literally spiraling in her grave. The film, brought to us by the Disney company, tells the story of the culmination of Walt Disney’s 20-year battle to secure the film rights to Mary Poppins, when in 1964 Pamela Travers finally travelled from London to LA, to oversee the development of the film, before agreeing to sign on the dotted line.
Travers was a notoriously controlling character, as was Disney, albeit in a very different way. While the latter, as played here by Tom Hanks, used charisma to get his way, Travers (Emma Thompson) was implacable and ruthless. Much of the film plays this conflict of character for comedy as Walt tries to charm the socks of an unbending Pamela, and with it, Saving Mr. Banks goes a long way in charming its audience’s socks off.
In between we get two other stories: a flashback to Travers’ childhood and the tragic genesis of Mary Poppins in her imagination, and in ‘current time’ the development of the film of her book, helmed by visual scriptwriter, Don DaGradi and the Sherman Brothers, who wrote the songs, over the course of a fortnight at Disney’s Burbank studios.
As Travers battles against every tiny little decision DaGradi and the Shermans make, she increasingly ruminates on her childhood relationship with her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). Even though the flashback segments of the film are supposed to poignantly underpin Travers adult eccentricities and isolation, they’re the weakest, possibly because of Farrell’s performance, which is so increasingly over the top, a sense of realism is sacrificed. Plus these are the parts of the film when Emma Thompson, who literally shines forth with complicated brilliance from every scene she swallows up, is not on screen.
Tom Hanks plays Disney as an inscrutable character, a man who insists on all his employees using his first name, but who is barely accessible on an emotional level. Even in the big moment, in which Walt ultimately convinces Pam to sign over her book’s rights by describing his own brutal childhood, you get the sense of a showman pulling heartstrings to his own ends.
The idea that Travers would have been convinced by such sentimentality is what might have her spinning in her grave. Yes, she did weep throughout the screening of Mary Poppins at a lavish Hollywood premiere to which she wasn’t actually invited, but it wasn’t because the film’s father-child relationships resolved her own childhood suffering. Instead she felt Disney had bowlderised the book she so identified with. She refused to give him rights to any of her other Poppins novels, and the truth is she signed over the first two, from which the Oscar winning film was adapted, because of financial difficulties.
Truth aside, Saving Mr. Banks is a rare thing, a Disney film that’s a very adult entertainment. Whether it will melt your heart will depend on how you like your adult entertainment, dolloped with a spoonful of sugar or ten in the closing reels or not. But in the meantime it’s a witty, dark and acerbic, and even though the Disneyfication of Travers triumphs, it’s not afraid to cast a cold eye over the mass consumerism at the heart of Disney’s particularly American dream. Indeed, old Walt might be spinning in his grave too, just a little bit.