Polishing, Plots and Pianos

I’m polishing up the first draft of my novel at the moment. It’s a slow process but I think I’m on track for my 30th September deadline. Once I get some feedback I will start work on the second draft. That will probably involve a lot of rewriting. For one thing, I’ll need to make the four narratives consistent with one another. At the moment I have one in first person, present tense; two in first person, past tense and one in third person, past tense.  I just can’t decide which way to go with that. Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down is an excellent example of a novel with four first person narrators but I also enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories which has several third person narrators. The only thing I’m sure of is that I can’t mix narrative styles. Or can I? Does anyone know of a novel that is narrated in both the first and third person?

Another thing I have to figure out is how to tie the narratives together. I would like the four stories to be intertwined from the beginning but at the moment they are connected only by one big event near the end of the novel. I’ll need to spend some time working out how to involve the four main characters in each other’s lives more.

A final area of concern for me is how to order the four narratives? Iain Pears’ brilliant An Instance of The Fingerpost has four narratives told consecutively, in completion. In Case Histories, the narratives were alternated all the way through.  I may have to try both styles to see what works best for my plot.

Oh, that’s right. The plot. Let’s not talk about that just now. Instead why don’t you read this short section of my novel that I was working on today and I’ll go back to obsessing over point of view.


The music room is in darkness, the heavy curtains are closed. I could open them, but instead I turn on the light. The room maintains a sufficiently gloomy ambiance to suit my mood.

There are music stands piled up in a corner and boxes full of tambourines and maracas. I catch my breath when I see the piano. It is magnificent. How had they got it up here? They must have had to raise it through the window. It is like an animal with a smooth mahogany pelt. I run my hand over it. I expected it to be dusty for some reason, but it isn’t. It smells of wood polish. I sit down at the bench and try a few of the keys. It’s in tune.

When I begin to play, I feel as though I am a kite swooping on the wind and the music is the string that runs through my centre. It tugs at me, setting me free into the sky and anchoring me to the earth at the same time.

I stop playing abruptly when I see someone standing in the doorway. It is Russ.

“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” he says. My fingers are still poised above the piano keys.

“Do you want to play?” I ask.

“No, I brought my own instrument.” He holds up a black violin case.

“I’ll leave you to it,” I say, standing up and closing the piano lid. I’m not sure if he recognises me, but as I start to move past him, he reaches out an arm to block the door.

“Stay a minute…Louise, isn’t it?”

I nod.

“How are things going?”

“Very well, everything’s fine,” I say, then wonder why I am lying to him. I suppose I want to believe it myself.

“That’s good,” Russ says. And then, I can’t really describe what happens next. A moment ago I was a kite, somersaulting in the air, but now the wind has dropped and I am cartwheeling towards the ground, the energy I had inside me spiralling outwards. Maybe Russ feels it, coursing out of me in raw, hard waves, because he fixes his eyes on my face and I hear myself say, “It’s hard. The tutorial work, I mean. I thought I would enjoy it more.”

“It’s often a big leap from school to university. It will get easier soon.”

“It’s not just that.” I feel compelled to say more, although Russ has not questioned me further. “It’s the people too. They’re nice but I’m not sure I fit in. I’m …different.”

I wonder if I have said too much. My words hang between us, just the two of us in the dark and silent room. The world outside is completely blotted out by the heavy velvet curtains.


8 thoughts on “Polishing, Plots and Pianos

  1. Nice preview. Simple and atmospheric. Thanks.

    As for POVs, I think I can recall Iain Banks’ Complicity using First and Third. With that, it’s a stylistic choice; the main story – that of a journalist following a serial murder case – is told in third person, but there are chapters following the anonymous killer which are all first person. Banks then muddies the waters by having some of the journalist’s chapters (the ones where he’s engaging in sex or violence) in first person also. It was very effective, locking the reader into the perspective of someone doing horrible things.

    I guess you need to look at what tool best tells your story: Are you characters dealing with their situations mentally? Or physically? How close do you want the reader to get to the characters? What do you want to remain mysterious, and what do you want to make perfectly clear?

  2. Thanks Stuart! You’ve given me plenty of things to think about. I will see if I can get a copy of Complicity from the library. It sounds intriguing.

  3. This is lovely! I love “like an animal with a smooth mahogany pelt”. Beautiful. What genre is this?

    I like the idea of mixing narratives, rather than running through each story in its completion. I absolutely loved A Long Way Down when I read it a few months ago. Maybe you don’t have to directly involve all of the narrators, though. Instead, show how random people intersect in everyday life. It’s possible that two characters are close friends from the beginning, or are relatives, but I really enjoy the idea of chance meetings as well. I often look at people at the store or driving down the highway, and wonder what’s going on in their lives. Think about how many people we come into contact with on a daily basis–the bank teller, the cashier, a young girl walking her dog–and maybe present that idea. One character sees another at a restaurant and likes her sweater. The second character doesn’t even notice the first, or maybe does and makes up a story about their life, which is probably totally wrong (or spot-on, depending on both characters). Interactions like that can tell us a lot about how someone sees the world, and the people that they share it with.

  4. No problem Helen. I just hope I’m remembering the novel correctly. It must be a decade since I read it.

    Anna, Michael Chabon’s Wonderboys has a running gag where the lead characters (authors both) invent stories for strangers they see on the street (or at least the film does – I’m assuming the book also)

    And for differing points of view of the same events, I’d be remiss not to mention Christopher Priest’s The Prestige. Obviously if you’ve seen the film, its twists are somewhat spoiled, but the book is very different all the same, and one of my very favourites.

  5. Thanks Anna! I’m not sure what genre it is. It started off as a crime novel but has ended up being more about the relationships between the characters. Eventually I just took the one murder I had planned out of the plot.

    I also like the idea of chance meetings between people, especially the way your first impression of a person could be completely inaccurate. I’m trying to work into the novel instances where one character completely misinterprets another character’s motive for doing something.

    So that’s one vote for mixing narratives. I think that’s the way I’m leaning too, at the moment. Thanks for the input!

  6. Stuart, I’ll put those two on my reading list as well. Oh boy, that list is so long…I probably won’t get round to reading them till sometime next year!

  7. “Does anyone know of a novel that is narrated in both the first and third person?” Yes. Mine. lol. not published yet. not finished yet. but an agent read the first 70 pages. and has asked to see the finish product. Anything can be done, as long as it is done well.

    Great excerpt.

  8. That’s brilliant, Jennifer! And you are right, of course: “Anything can be done, as long as it is done well.”
    I think I was worrying about breaking novel writing rules that don’t even exist 🙂

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