Two thirds of the way into structural editing of my novel Nikolai the Perfect, my publisher summoned me to her office. This wasn’t a routine meeting. As soon as she opened the door I could tell she was psyching herself up for a hard conversation. Had she gone bankrupt? Whatever was heading my way couldn’t be good.
We sat at opposite ends of a table. She squared her shoulders and began: ’I’m making the biggest call of my short publishing career. You’ve solved the big structural problems we discussed, it’s a much stronger narrative. But . . . the voice is wrong. Third person shuts your readers out of the characters’ heads. It’s emotionally distancing. Try to re-write your book mainly in the first person.’
My whole project seemed about to founder. A civil war raged in my head. The idea of changing point of view was too radical. Switching to first person would surely bend the narrative out of shape. Then I remembered a writer friend whose opinion I value had made an oblique comment along similar lines. My rule of thumb is that if two readers respond much the same, they are on to something and I would be precious or obstinate to ignore them.
Anyway, this was my last chance saloon. Nikolai the Perfect took me the best part of thirty years to write. It was equal runner up in the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award. Publisher’s doors flung open, closed one by one. They assured me they liked it, admired it even, but didn’t (I inferred) think it would sell enough. One commented on a certain lack of narrative arc.
But I’d fixed that!
Yes, but that was only the beginning of the repair job. On reflection, my publisher’s suggestion made sense, indeed was logically watertight. First person voice opens up endless comedic possibilities; we see the narrator’s blind spots. It’s perfect for a coming of age novel, which Nikolai the Perfect, a story set in Russia and Australia and describing a young man Vasili’s grappling with love and family secrets, arguably is. Vassili’s character deepens and broadens through marriage, political upheaval, cultural displacement, devastating loss.
Ah, writing used to be so much simpler. Bereft of inspiration, I took out a signature piece from my Grade 1 1968 glory days:
You can tell it has a ripping plot. Its omniscient third person narrative voice drew loud applause when Mrs Drysdale asked me to read it out at Beaumaris Primary School morning assembly. And I was a pretty handy book illustrator back then.
I might have peaked early.
Right, I admonished myself. Stop sulking. I’m up for this. I’ll cross out ’he/Vassili’ throughout, start inserting ’I’ throughout, and will see if it works.
And . . . twenty minutes, and pages, into the session I knew. It did. One of those rare magic moments. The shackles were off. I was free to inject the wit and verve into the work that third person inhibits, let Vassili the narrator be his full, flawed, kaleidoscopic self. The publisher and editor endorsed the changes.
More hard work lay ahead – to make decisions about those parts of the book that possibly required different points of view. But I could glimpse the shape of the final version. Representing this pictorially is way beyond my rudimentary Photoshop skills, so I’ll change metaphors –and media – and lay it out like a map:
Granted, it could be the runner up of a Grade 6 competition to design a national park trail map. But I hope it conveys the idea.
Beginning the prologue in second person – Vassili addressing his unborn son Nikolai at his wife Anna’a ultrasound in Melbourne – was a gamble. The one rule teachers of writing agree you shouldn’t buck with second person, is to make sure in the first sentence that readers know exactly who the narrator is addressing. Hence: Nikolai, you will be the best of us. Without giving too much away, I tried to pack imagery into one-page prologue, to slow down time and accentuate the second-person intensity; I hope italics serve this purpose. Dramatic counterpoint for the later switch to a more leisurely, discursive first person (Vassili’s) voice.
I used third person when writing flashback to the traumatic birth of Anna herself. That section sees Vassili, to borrow an apt phrase from the American writer Orson Scott Card, looking at the world through the wrong end of binoculars. The tone, presaged by the self-deprecating segue ’Tolstoy’s been summoned to high duties, so it (narrating Anna’s story) falls to me’, is flatter, distanced – till its shocking conclusion. After that Vassili’s chronologically linear first person narrative resumes.
And on it goes . . . until we re-join Vassili at the ultrasound – this time in first person, altering the angle of perspective in relation to the prologue. Then revert to second person, signalling to the reader that something momentous is about to occur; Vassili examining Nikolai up close, just as he did on the ultrasound, only this time it’s the flesh and blood version, which is what delivers the narrative punch.
So, what did writing, and rewriting, Nikolai the Perfect teach me about points of view?
You can use them like gears. Third person, especially limited third person, lends itself best to slow, unspooling narratives, or, in my novel slower phases interspersed with explosive family revelations. Second person is great for sharp accelerations. First person is license to meander a bit, and set up comic episodes.
I think of points of view also as lenses, second person being up close and therefore accentuating the immediacy of characters colliding. Third person creates a sense of distance. First person is a sort of intermediate focus; the self-examining ‘I’ can get close to itself, but only up to a point, otherwise it becomes navel gazing…
Jim McIntyre’s stories, non-fiction and translations from Russian have won prizes and commendations in numerous competitions. Several appeared in Arena, Overland, Visible Ink and others, including the Moscow publication Ogonyek, where he worked as editor, translator, education agent, and English-overdub film narrator for Green Cross and other Russia-based environmental organisations. Nikolai the Perfect sprouted from that fertile soil. He has been awarded a Varuna Writers House Residential Fellowship, and Arts Victoria and Australia Council Literature Board grants. In 2015 Nikolai the Perfect was Equal Runner-Up in the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award.