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.