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My writing has come along slowly this past year, for obvious reasons. A few authors have written whole books during the pandemic. Most of us, however, have been plodding along, going through the motions while we await resolution/normality/the new normal.

I’ve written 1/3 of a novel about Venetian glass, and recently decided to reread what I’d written so far. This is always painful, because a first draft is so rough. What I read felt dull, amateurish, unsophisticated. Yes, after 10 books I still feel these things!

Then I turned to the question every writer knows must be answered: Who should be telling this story, how, and where do you, Tracy, stand in relation? In other words: first person or third person? Am I telling the story through the eyes and mind of my main character Orsola, or am I standing back and looking over her shoulder – or over the shoulders of several characters? And how far back am I standing?

First and third person narratives both have advantages and disadvantages. With first person you get a clear and immediate sense of a character through their thoughts and voice; you get to know them from the inside out. The language is simpler – more prosaic and less poetic, since people tend not to think in poetic terms. Two of my most popular books – Girl with a Pearl Earring and Remarkable Creatures – have been told in first person.

On the other hand, you’re also limited by your character’s point of view. You never get to pull the camera back and provide a wider, more complicated perspective. And being inside the same head for the whole book can be wearying.

With third person, you’ve got the characters, you’ve got the narrator, and you’ve got yourself the writer. What is the distance between these 3 elements? Is the narrator omniscient – knowing everything that’s going on – or limited, sticking very closely to looking over a character’s shoulder? Is the narrator looking over multiple shoulders and if so, how to make that transition from one shoulder to another? And where is the writer? Am I, Tracy, the same as the narrator or have I taken a step back? Does the narrator know as much as me?

Writing third person is all about managing the space between these things – and usually doing so without the reader noticing. It’s damned hard. I’ve always sensed that third person was a much more complicated tool, and thought that when I was finally able to use it successfully, I would at last take my place at the grown-up writers’ table. I think I controlled it reasonably well with A Single Thread; maybe that is my first properly grown-up book. But what I've written of this new novel is in third person, and it has not worked.

Recently I read two masterful novels told in first person: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue, and Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. I recommend both, though I think both slightly fumble their endings. (OMG Endings! Hardest thing to get right. But that’s for another post.) They use first person in different ways: with the Donoghue I felt immersed in the character, pulling with her; with Ishiguro I was constantly standing back and going, ‘Wait, what?’ (The narrator is a robot, so that’s not surprising, and it’s definitely deliberate, and it works.)

It made me wonder if I was telling my Venetian glass story in the wrong way. So I did an experiment: I took 25 pages and rewrote them in first person. This was far more complicated than simply changing ‘Orsola’ to ‘I’, ‘her’ to ‘me’. It was about looking at each scene through different eyes. What Orsola sees and how she comments on it is different from what the narrator and I see and say.

Within 5 pages, I felt light, happier, more playful. I started looking at Venice, at glass, at life through Orsola’s eyes, and the whole thing became something I wanted to write. I am back in the saddle. Maybe I have been kicked back to the kids’ table of first person, but there is still a feast to be had here.