A Year of Learning

To celebrate the re-release of my Bridei Chronicles in a lovely new Australian paperback edition, I have two complete sets of three signed books to give away. Make a comment on this post by Feb 12 to be in the draw – winners chosen randomly.

A Year of Learning

Today I send off the manuscript of Seer of Sevenwaters to the publishers. This is the novel I’ve been writing before, during and after seven months of cancer treatment. It’s been a time of considerable learning for me: learning my strengths and weaknesses, learning about breast cancer, learning about other people and how different their attitudes can be to something like this. I’ve also gained plenty of writing insights.

This book has a dual first person narration, with each chapter split between the two voices. Previously I’ve always used either a single first person narrator for a whole book, or tight third with a very limited number of POV characters. I experimented with dual first person in a novella I wrote early last year and was pleased with the result. I used both past and present tense in the novella, and I’ve done the same in this novel – one narrator uses past, one present. I love the immediacy provided by present tense. I also like the way it puts a cap on my natural tendency to wordiness.

I do still have doubts about Seer of Sevenwaters. That’s normal – this is novel number thirteen and I don’t remember thinking any of them was flawless at any stage! In fact, the manuscript in which I had the most confidence was the one that got the most critical reception from my editor. That galling experience taught me to expect absolutely anything.

The dual first person narration lets the reader see into the thoughts of the male protagonist, who has lost his memory at the beginning of the story and takes a long time to recover it fully. Allowing him a first person narrative makes him an interesting individual from page one. He lies in bed and hardly speaks for the first few chapters, and refuses to talk about his past for the next few. If we’d only seen him through others’ eyes he would have been not only a complete enigma, but boring.

Present tense seemed perfect for a character with memory loss, who must live from moment to moment. In creating his voice I took the following into consideration:

1. He comes from a different culture than the rest of the characters. When he speaks aloud, he does so with a level of correctness that marks him out as both foreign and a scholar. For instance, he’ll always say ‘do not’ instead of ‘don’t’. He has a tendency to use Latinate words, though overall he speaks simply.
2. Initially he is physically exhausted, traumatised and ill, and has lost his memory. In the earliest scenes his narrative is written in short, separated paragraphs, as if he only has the energy for a few thoughts at a time. I use incomplete sentences and fragments. His perceptions are hazy and dream-like.
3. He’s a poetic soul, so even when his narrative is broken up and confused, he uses evocative images to describe what is around him.
4. As he regains his health and his memory, his narrative becomes more cohesive. Sentences become longer and more correct, but still with the poetic choice of vocab and images.

Example of this character’s voice:

I sleep. Waves crash, men scream, something rears huge and dark. I wake sweating, dizzy, the chamber moving around me. I must … I have to … Compulsion hammers in my blood and whips my heart to a breakneck gallop. Quick, quick, almost too late … The desperate images fade and are gone.

Now what about the other narrator, our female protagonist? I’m less happy with her narration than I am with that of the male character. I wasn’t sure why until I read some of the astute WU posts on voice and realised that my protagonist’s reserved nature limits her narrative style. She is a trainee druid, and expert at holding in her emotions.

Sibeal’s narration turned out pretty close to the voice I most naturally use – unsurprising, as in many ways she resembles me. My tendency to write like an oral storyteller in the old Celtic tradition means I’m usually not satisfied with saying something once, I have to say it twice or three times. Example of Sibeal’s voice:

And yet, in its starkness, its myriad shades of grey on grey, the place was beautiful. Here, sky met sea as if the two were one. Here, where all was harsh and clean and barren, there was a curious peace. It was a hermit’s place, a place of prayer, a place of deep and eternal power. Beneath my feet I sensed the heartbeat of an ancient god.

I ended up cutting around 8000 words from my finished ms, and most of them were from Sibeal’s sections – she has strong tendency to wordiness. I hope I’ve managed to reflect her emotional journey in the way her voice changes through the story.

Now I’m off to re-read the last few chapters one final time, then I press the Send key. By next blog I should know the editors’ response.

The photo is of my editorial assistant, Sonia, helping with Seer of Sevenwaters.


About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.


  1. says

    Enjoyed your comments about writing in the first person perspective, particularly how you use present tense to help define your character’s voice. In the past two years I’ve discovered writing in first person and I actually prefer using past tense because I found present tense a bit tricky.

    Good luck with Seer of Sevenwaters. I know it’s exciting to send a novel off to the publishers!

  2. says


    Your use of the two narrators, one in present tense the other in past will make it very easy to differentiate the POV.

    I was struck by your comment that the novel you felt the best about was the one in which the editor had the most critical comments. Sometimes we are too close to our own work to judge it correctly, but often whether the reader just had a fight with their boyfriend or the cat just hurled on their pillow or they just got a promotion affects how they react to our words. And there’s nothing we can do about that.

    Peace, Jim

  3. says

    I am currently revising a manuscript from third to first person and it IS interesting to see the difference. To me, first person has more emotional pull and more brief and lyrical like free verse poetry. At least for me in my writing, it seems to work better, though I have certainly read a lot of books in third person that are compelling as well.

    Thanks for sharing those excerpts. They drive home the point well. And good luck with the edits.
    .-= Jewel/Pink Ink´s last blog ..Feeling Better =-.

  4. says

    Ms Marillier,

    First of all, allow me to wish you good health.

    On topic with your post, I am intrigued by the idea of a story told in two different tenses. Not being a writer, I can’t visualize how that would work.

    But then, I never understood the appeal of first person until I read Ann Aguirre’s Grimspace :wink: so I guess it’s just a matter of reading an author who makes it work.

    Best of luck.
    .-= azteclady´s last blog ..Oh silent night Cross-Stitched Bookmark =-.

  5. says

    Thanks for the glimpse into your decision-making process. I found this especially interesting: “My tendency to write like an oral storyteller in the old Celtic tradition means I’m usually not satisfied with saying something once, I have to say it twice or three times.”

    My WIP has a dual POV as well and I have switched from two first-person to two-tight-third. Still not satisfied with it but I think I’ll keep writing and see if the story will reveal more insights as if what changes are needed.
    .-= Yat-Yee´s last blog ..Thoughts, mostly obvious, occasionally profound, and sometimes disconcerting =-.

  6. thea says

    i love first person. i become that person and take flight with them into their adventure, experiencing what they feel.

  7. says

    I enjoyed reading about the transition of the male protagonist’s voice, especially how you have brought him alive to your readers by giving him that voice. I am working with some POV and voices right now for a new story idea so this gave me some things to think about.

    Thank you for another great blog post.

  8. LisaP says

    I have read several novels that use duel first person narrative and thoroughly enjoyed them.

    Good luck with the book and here’s hoping your editor’s response is exactly what you need to hear.

  9. says

    I love both voices. Different no doubt, but they come across as people I would like to read about. Despite the hard time you’ve had, it’s great you are looking at it as the Year of Learning. Good luck with the book.
    .-= Dolly´s last blog ..Weekly Goals =-.

  10. says

    I find your reasons for picking 1st vs 3rd person POV, past vs present tense interesting. I dislike writing in 1st person because the character’s voice tends to become MY voice and the character becomes me. Not exactly my intention! So I admire it when a writer can pull off the 1st person POV well.
    .-= Laura Droege´s last blog ..The theological implications of Groundhog Day =-.

  11. says

    I really enjoyed this piece. A few minutes ago I decided to do a google search on creative writing blogs. This is my first stop. I am measurably wiser now.

    I am not a writer. I have always thought writing was a punishment given by a mean english teacher. On Jan 2, 2010, I decided to write one blog post about my joy at descovering woodworking. Now 32 days and 32 posts later I am completely addicted.

    Writing is fun. Who knew?

    I like the background to the site too!

    Ok, off to expore more stuff here.
    .-= Brian Meeks´s last blog ..Technorati Claim Token Test DBFXW28G6JK9 =-.

  12. Vic K says

    I have the original set of the Bridei chronicles, so I don’t need to be in the competition.(The live on my shelf of favourite books.) I just wanted to say that I remember when you first blogged about this work, and I’ve been looking forward to reading it ever since. I’ll be watching the bookstores with much anticipation!

    And of course, as always, wishing you the best of health.

  13. says

    I don’t need to be in the competition as I have already been lucky enough to win one of your books, Juliet.

    I have used a dual POV within single chapters in the most recently completed work and also in the WIP and have found the thing that I really wanted to happen, did indeed happen . . . PACE. The narrative lit up and I was really excited by it.
    In the WIP, the dual structure became even more vital as the male protagonist is mute and the pace has the capacity to drop off when he is in his head. By having the alternate POV within the same chapter, the novel lifts.

    Great detailing Juliet and look forward to the result.

  14. Cassi says

    I’m really enjoying all the talk about voice and POV & why people choose the particular POV.

    Thanks for more examples. It’s all food for thought.

  15. says

    Great comments from everyone, thank you! My editors have promised the report by the end of Feb, which will give me a month to do any required work. The US publisher is now hoping for a November release – if they manage that, my illness will have had no impact on the publishing schedule. Amazing.

  16. Rose says

    The methods that different writers use to create their characters’ voices and points of view intrigue me. It’s amazing that you’ve managed to find a way to use both first person past and first person present in one novel. I’m really looking forward to reading the next part of the Sevenwaters story. Good luck with finishing it up!

  17. says

    Oooh. Good luck! Press that key! Can’t wait to hear what your editor things.

    Thanks for the discussion about POV discussions. I am a bit obsessed with POV and find it incredibly interesting how and why other authors make the decisions they do. I am still very much a “gut” writer meaning I don’t necessary know why I do things – just that one way works and all those other ways didn’t. Discussions like this help me find the words to describe what I am doing.
    .-= Rebecca´s last blog ..What writing is like =-.

  18. Jamie says

    Thanks for this great post! I’m like a grade schooler learning for the first time…each day is something new and informative and today is no exception! Great to hear that even someone as successful as you, Juliet, still has reservations about their work…leaves a glimmer of hope for the rest of us!

  19. says

    Good for you to continue writing through cancer treatment and recovery. I was so exhausted (didn’t heal well after the mastectomy/reconstruction) and was working full time) that getting through the days was all I could manage. But I recovered and am doing great, and you will, too. Congratulations on your successes.
    .-= Valerie´s last blog ..Secret Confessions =-.

  20. Sheena says

    I don’t have anything wildly insightful to say, except that this was a fascinating post, and I can’t wait to read the news from the Sevenwaters world.

  21. KylieQ says

    Hi Juliette – thank you for your thoughts. I’m writing in first person for the first time and am enjoying it. This book is a departure from the world I’ve worked in for the last ten years and I had expected it would take some time to get to know my characters. But unexpectedly, the main character’s voice seemed to come through within the first few pages. I’ve been toying with the idea of adding a second first person narration but wasn’t sure whether it would get too confusing so it was most interesting to read your comments. Perhaps I’ll play with it and see what happens.
    Love the piccie of the cat on the manuscript and can’t wait for the next Sevenwaters book!

  22. says

    Kylie, originally I only had a double line break where the first person narration changes to the other character. Despite the difference in their voices, I was advised by test readers that it would be a lot less confusing if I headed each section with the narrator’s name. That’s what I’ve done – we’ll see if the editor thinks it works. Just to add a level of difficulty, the male character doesn’t know what his own name is for quite a bit of the story, so nor does anyone else.

  23. Cat says

    I loved the narration in the Sevenwaters Trilogy, but I am a big fan of first person, as well. Combining the two = brilliant! I nearly jump with joy every time an addition is made to the Sevenwaters saga. I personally love wordy characters. I already morn the loss of those 8000 carefully crafted sentences that were cruelly cut down in their youth.

  24. says

    Congratulations on your manuscript! I cannot wait until the day I can say I have 13 under my writer’s belt. I’ve been a freelance writer for 10 years, but I just finished my very first book – a non-fiction biography. I could have picked something much easier to write for a first big project, however I echo your thoughts about the experience of learning. As writers, we have to stretch ourselves and try new things. I figure all else after this will be easy! (Ha!)

    It must have been very difficult to write through your treatments, but I wonder if you will sense a new element to your voice…
    .-= Deborah Carr´s last blog ..The Good Earth =-.

  25. says

    Congrats on finishing your manuscript, Deborah!

    It’ll be interesting to find out whether readers think there’s any change in my writing voice after the cancer experience. I have a novella coming out in July, which will be the first taste.

    Most of what I wrote during treatment was less than great, but it was important to me to keep writing the book, even a little at a time. That had a huge effect on my general attitude – anyone who has read my posts here for last year will know that being positive during that challenge was extremely important for me.

  26. Kara-Anja M. says


    Once again your words come at a time when I most need them. I can’t wait to hear Sibeal’s story. I feel as though she will be Sorcha and Finbar and Connor in a single spirit, and that is a tale I’d love to hear. I send you love and healing my friend, and I think your assistand is adorable.

  27. Kara-Anja M. says


    Once again your words come at a time when I most need them. I can’t wait to hear Sibeal’s story. I feel as though she will be Sorcha and Finbar and Connor in a single spirit, and that is a tale I’d love to hear. I send you love and healing my friend, and I think your assistant is adorable.

  28. Bernadette B. says

    Thanks for posting this Juliet,

    The past year I’ve been really trying to find my groove in writing, and I have a story that I’m really excited about. Your posts here have helped me get going, and this post reminded me of some of the obstacles I’ve run into.

    Thanks for all the advice, and I’m hoping to read another Sevenwaters story soon!

  29. says

    While I already own my own copy of this series, this would make a lovely gift for my friend who introduced me to your writing. I hope I win.

  30. says

    Looking forward to reading “Seer of Sevenwaters”, Juliet: I’ve been fascinated by Sibeal ever since she surprised Fainne through her mature, druidic ways!

    It is so very interesting to read about your writing endeavours. I am curious to see as to how will this technique of dual first-perspective will contribute to enrich the plot – Eyvind and Nessa come to my mind, as their story was told through close third-perspective if I can recall ;)
    .-= Susie Blacksmith´s last blog ..Level one – absorb all details =-.

  31. says

    Firstly, I wish you good health; being ill must be so difficult on writing and finding the motivation to keep going. Your writing is a big inspiration to me, so I am really glad you were able to keep going with your art during such a difficult personal time. Knowing that might just give me the proverbial kick in the pants to keep going on with my own work.

    Secondly, I can’t wait to hear how things go with Seer of Sevenwaters! I love all of the Sevenwaters books and am so excited you’re returning to the world you created with them again. I just read Heir to Sevenwaters last month and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I’m excited that we’re going to have a male telling us the story; the other Sevenwaters books have all been from a woman’s POV, and while I love them all, I’d really like to see inside the minds of some of your male characters!

    Again, best of luck and health!
    .-= Amanda ´s last blog ..Blwyddyn Newydd Dda! =-.

  32. says

    Thanks, Amanda. I hope you’ll enjoy Seer of Sevenwaters! I think the dual narrative works pretty well – I liked the way it broadened my storytelling possibilities.