Early in the evolution of the historical novel Embracing the Elephant, I elected to present the story from the first-person perspective of an observant and resilient child. I wanted the intimacy of first person so that readers would know the sense of wonder my main character experienced as she ventured into new and varied worlds: a sailing ship, the vibrant port city of Rio de Janeiro, the treacherous Cape Horn, the aptly named Pacific Ocean, the burgeoning city of San Francisco and, finally, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Nothing my heroine had experienced in Boston, Massachusetts would have prepared her for the encounters along her journey to California for a reunion with her father. Of equal importance, I chose the past-tense – for no particular reason other than I figured something with historical content would want to stay in the past.
I was happy with this choice for the first 5 chapters. Then a friend of mine (Tom B. – a former English teacher) read an early draft and provided his insights. They were pretty brutal. In addition to grumbling at my overuse of punctuation, he said that I was not believable. Something wasn’t working. My character didn’t sound like a prepubescent girl — she sounded like a 164-year-old-woman trying to remember what it was like to be a prepubescent child.
He may not have worded the criticism exactly that way, but I could read between the comments.
The worst part was that he was right, although it took me some time to accept that.
So I licked my wounds, then took several (but not all) of Tom’s comments to heart. First, I gave my manuscript something my husband lovingly called a “semicolonoscopy”- eliminating unnecessary punctuation. I also stopped trying to write in an old-fashioned style and began to write more like my own speaking voice. That got me through 10 more chapters.
Then I hit another snag. The story began to plod, almost as if I were writing “I moved my left foot in. I moved my left foot out. I moved my left foot in. . .” I felt hampered by the restrictions of this single voice.
In chapter 16, I started writing in third person (still past tense) to see if that would keep the story moving. When my production went from 2 pages each sitting to 4 or 5 pages, I thought I had hit upon something! Maybe I had been too hasty in choosing the personal view. From this omniscient perspective, the story surged ahead for another few chapters. Whenever I could, I went back and rewrote the previous work in this new voice. It seemed to be just the jumpstart I needed.
Still, every time I re-read and edited and re-wrote, I felt that something was missing.
I put the novel aside for a week in favor of reading something unrelated. I happen to be a dog lover – I’ll read just about any dog book ever printed. Since I am also a John Steinbeck fan, I chose one of his books I had not yet read (recommended by Tom B.) called Travels with Charley (in search of America). For once the dog doesn’t die, so I was pretty happy. Plus it was Steinbeck.
From the first paragraph of Charley, I was enthralled. There was an immediacy to Steinbeck’s novel that mine did not have. How did he do it? How does a book that was written over 50 years ago still have relevance, still have vibrancy, still push the reader? How could I give my story that?
When I returned to Embracing the Elephant, I tried one more experiment. From chapters 18 through 20 (the last), I began to write in first person, present tense (“I move my left foot in, and I shake it all about”). After all, what could imbue a sense of “now” into the pages better than speaking as if it were now?
Well, I breezed through those last chapters in less than a week. My page production more than doubled. And best of all, it felt right.
Thanks to a major punch from a great friend (constructive feedback is hard to give, Tom, and I thank you) and a little slap from Steinbeck, I finally found the voice for which I had been searching – that critical “true voice.”
I went back to page one and rewrote the manuscript in this resonant tone. It took me less than a month. I showed the first three chapters to Tom again and, while he still complained of over-punctuation, the feedback indicated this voice was the right one – clear, concise and child-like, just as I’d intended. My husband re-read those first chapters and was all compliments (which I take with the affectionate grain of salt that I should). He even showed the pages to a co-worker (an avid reader) who flew through the partial manuscript and asked where the rest of the story was and when was it to be published and would it be in paperback.
Several months would pass during which I honed the book and worked with a professional editor to get the manuscript ready for publication. However, at that point I knew I had the voice that invigorated the story, the character, the time – that one true voice that gave my Guine life.