Cynthia Dettman:  Author

The Evolution of a Novel’s Voice(s)

I’m always amazed to read that well-established writers might take 10 years to write a novel.  How is this possible?  This could mean that someone like me might take 30 years – and I don’t have that many left!

But of course there’s no general rule to any of this.  It’s just daunting, that’s all!  Where does one put the focus of a multi-layered novel?  First person or third person?  One point of view or several?  One basic timeline, or two or three that weave back and forth?  And how much experimentation and revision does it take to really settle on the final structures?

I learned with my first novel effort (never published) that I really had to have a plan.  I’ve also moved from complexity, trying to copy the amazing work of people like Barbara Kingsolver (you must read The Poisonwood Bible!), to a commitment to simplicity.  As a new writer, I’ve thought that was best.

Now I’m stuck, though, with a first draft all in first person.  I knew there were limits to this voice, as the writer must stick with what the protagonist or narrator knows and sees and feels.  But I spent several years writing that first draft and it served me well as I strengthened my skills in plotting.  And it helped keep things simple as I worked on developing two intersecting plot lines, which have created their own challenges.

Well, now here I am in India tasting the real complexity of my story.  Religion.  Caste.  Modernity clashing with tradition.  LGBT movements.  The relationships of middle class people and their servants.  Law and British heritages.  Changing family structures.  Rural and Urban realities.  The effects of movies and TV and the internet.

Can I present these interweaving and interlocking themes, forces and movements through the one voice of Satyam, my protagonist?  Do I have the courage and the skills to expand back to my Barbara Kingsolver dreams, able to swim through and present these ocean currents through more than one voice?

That’s what my buddy Bob (former English teacher, avid reader) is encouraging me to.  So here I am adding some sections of a third person, omniscient narrator, and exploring the first person voice of a family servant.  Bob thinks I need to build and expand several other key characters.  How will I do that? Do I have the confidence to speak from 3, 4 or 5 voices?

More shall be revealed!




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What a great idea- write a novel in haiku. That may be difficult. But I have thought about writing scenes in poetry before I draft the scene, or as I”m revising. A good way to plunge into the depths of true, intuitive, and simple creativity. Perhaps your suggestion will inspire me. OK, here’s my challenge to myself. Write a simple poem (or a haiku) for one of my scenes and post it on this blog. Give me a deadline! Cynthia

Oh, yes, Cynthia, you are so right that novel writing is fraught with excruciating choices at every turn. But the best thing is that nowadays you get to choose whatever you want. There’s no right/ wrong, even if other people say there is. Experiment away. Do it as you wish. So many expectations and guidelines about literature have been overturned. Your topic is unique in all of English lit! “Keep it yours clearly and directly,” as Martha Graham says.

Speaking for several voices is an interesting concept. The Poisonwood Bible was published after a few books had been published. She developed the skills over time. I listened to an interview of Pat Conroy today. He said his characters are mainly family members. I listened to Beach Music last week. He said his five brothers named themselves in that book and helped develop their personalities. He had one of his brothers commit suicide. Before the book was public that brother committed suicide. He requested the manuscript back because he did not want his young brother to die in the book.

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