Child Narrators

A narrator who is fallible is usually referred to as ‘an unreliable narrator’. The term often applies to child narrators but would not always be accurate.

The term ‘the inadequate narrator’ can be used to describe a narrator who is undeniably truthful, such as Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, who is entirely trustworthy, so much so that it makes for misunderstandings with other people. The term inadequate narrator is not an established critical term in spite of the fact that such voices appeared in fiction as long ago as Huckleberry Finn. The characters are often limited by their innocence or inarticulacy, as in The Colour Purple.

My WIP is a story told by a young girl about her parents’ volatile marriage and her friendship with an apparently rather odd uncle. The child is the narrator. At the moment I am undecided about her exact age. I need to establish a character whose innocence leads her to misunderstanding situations but whose interpretations and descriptions to readers leaves them in no doubt as to the parental emotions. This child also has to be brave enough to take bold steps to save her parents’ marriage.

I was uncomfortable labelling her an unreliable narrator because it is essential to the narrative that she is reliable in her observations if not in her interpretations. Readers will come to their own conclusions, as they do with Christopher.

So I was delighted when John Mullen offered me this alternative way of ‘seeing’ my narrator. A sensitive but wide-awake child, bright enough to take an interest in adult affairs but sensitive enough to worry about her mother and father. Hardly inadequate when she’s described like that but certainly not unreliable.

I award all credit for this knowledge to John Mullan’s book how novels work.

WRITING A NOVEL – Voices and Narrators


I’m following an on-line course run by the Unthank School on How to Write a Novel.

We are in the early stages – it’s a 12 week programme – but are already sharing the way we begin our novels, the importance of an arresting first chapter, that essential opening line – the hook.

One of the exercises, and yes, we are being made to work, not just ploughing heedlessly on with the story, is to write several first lines and then choose one of them to launch the beginning of the novel.

I find that to write even one line I need to decide the kind of narrator I want to use and his or hers individual voice. In my case the narrator is a little girl called Vicky. Immediately, I realise I’m not even sure of her age. I keep changing my mind. I must take a decision. I take the logical approach.

The back story of Vicky’s parents’ story begins in 1945, at the end of WWII, during the occupation of Italy, when they marry. Not that I am going to reveal all their story – only the scenes which matter, those that which are recounted to Vicky later. Research has told me it is unlikely they could have left Italy until 1946. The plot demands that Vicky is born in England. So let’s make her birth day in 1947.  The exact date can wait.

Further research tells me that there are at least 3 events during spring and summer in 1955 England (the scope of real-time in the novel) which could be ‘plot diving boards’. That would make Vicky 8 years old when the narrative of the novel starts. I have the voice, that of a child old enough to listen to grown-ups conversation and think it over, but young enough to misunderstand, to get it all horribly wrong. Six is too young. Ten, maybe, too old. I’ll try 8 and see how I go, how the narrative works as I write more.

Now I have to be sure what kind of narrator Vicky is. Does she tell her story in 1st person present tense, 3rd person present tense (tricky; can sound a bit writerly, all the ‘she thinks’ and ‘she says’) or 3rd person past tense. For me, slightly dull and less immediate. Children live their lives in the present so I’ll opt for 1st person, present tense. I assume Vicky is what is known as an ‘unreliable narrator’. Until I consult John Mullan’s essential book, how novels work.* And I read and read.

*Published by Oxford University Press and one of my bibles.


Last Saturday I went to Birkbeck University to take part in an event Making the Most of Writing Groups with The Mechanics’ Institute Review. (MIR)

You know that sinking sensation when you enter a room, see a crowd of unknown faces, knowing you have to share time and space with these people for 4 hours? I had it in spade-fulls. Of course, I needn’t have worried.

The three young women chairing the afternoon introduced themselves. One was working with The Institute, one was a student on a writing BA with Birkbeck and the third worked with the government helping MPs and the like to improve their speeches and general public image. Rather her than me!

After introducing ourselves, we were instructed in the rules of workshopping.

For rules, as much as some people don’t welcome them, are essential.

The overwhelming principle is that all the participants are polite, positive about the reading of other readers’ work and enthusiastic in the discussion following.

I have worked with 3 different workshops. One was during my MA in Creative Writing, one was formed with those I’d met during the MA and the other one was formed from writers asked to read at an event Pitching Your Novel run by Spread the Word. That event happened seven years ago and we three are still meeting. We must be doing something right.

Here are my guiding rules for a productive writers’ workshop.

Agree a regular routine and stick to it. Every week might be too often; once a month might suit some. We meet once in two months.

Send work in advance. Not at the last minute.

Agree a word limit and stick to that. We write 2,000 words.

Agree the procedure for the workshop. Before meeting, we read the piece, mark-up with suggestions, amendments, and corrections.

Open your contribution by being complimentary about the piece. Not gushing with praise. The writer needs helpful comments in order to take the work forward. Otherwise, why are they there?

But neither condemn. Even if the writing is not in your favourite style, or about your favourite subject, there will always be something positive to say. Look for the best in the piece, the elements which work and refer to that before you express doubts or point out paragraphs which do not work.

Remember, this is a piece of fiction (if that is what has been agreed). Don’t assume the writer is writing about himself. If the plot seems unlikely, say so, but do it by saying that it doesn’t convince you, so might not convince other readers.

Remember that you are reading a work in progress. Your part in this is to clarify what comes over to a reader, to make suggestions, but, above all to encourage.

Don’t wade in with your own experiences of similar events in the narrative. Put yourself in the author’s head, try to see what they are saying.

Don’t assume your experience is more helpful than others in the workshop. This is a group activity.

Finally, rules for the writer of the piece.

Don’t take suggestions and comments as criticism.

Don’t be too ready to argue. In fact, don’t argue at all. If you don’t agree with a comment or suggestion, note it down to consider later.

If necessary, ask your readers questions.

At the end of the day, this is your piece of writing. You are free to accept or reject anything anyone else says. However, look for the benefits in belonging to a workshop.

Finally, have fun and enjoy!

I left the MRI workshop re-energised and keen to get back to the re-writing (in total, not a piecemeal re-draft) of my novel.

Imagine my delight, when the MIR emailed me to ask if I’d submit work both for their on-line publication and for the forthcoming anthology.

The Mechanics’ Institute Review is a rewarding organisation to follow.





My work for the next week is completing a final edit on my memoir A Green Girl to obtain a publishing cost from Matador, the self-publishing specialists.

Another person, experienced in editing, is reading it and making suggestions. Occasionally we don’t agree. Interestingly the chapter which is the most difficult to agree on is the opening one.

My reader prefers an earlier version, which I have moved on from. I agree that an earlier draft of chapter 1 was dramatic and moving. But the conclusion took readers to one of the most climatic scenes in the memoir. Too much, too quickly.

Years ago I learnt the maxim, ‘Make them laugh, make them cry and make them wait.’

I’d done the laughing and the crying and I needed the waiting.

I think I’ve now created a first chapter which will satisfy both of us.

Luckily, I enjoy the re-drafting process. Not more than the initial, enthusiastic first draft, but the cutting up, sometimes physically, of chapters and see how they work when the order of scenes is altered, is fascinating and challenging.

I read that Jeannette Winterson refers to her writing room as a studio. She writes and prints scenes, puts them on the floor and decides how to put them together when she think she has finished writing.

I don’t print each scene but I do print each chapter. Probably because it encourages me as I see what I have written! This approach does help when things go wrong with the structure or just the ‘feel’ of how the novel will read.

It is also much easier to cut up words on paper and play around with them than it is to copy and paste sections on screen. So easy to lose track of what is where.

In my spare time I do jigsaw puzzles. I get huge pleasure from fitting the pieces together and making the picture perfect.

Not that I am saying my writing is ever perfect. But perhaps my love of puzzles, begun in childhood, has proved a blessing.

The Power of Memoir

New Year’s Day is a day for looking forward, to plan a fresh start with bold ambitions.

Writing memoir is a way of sifting the past, of looking at a chosen chunk of time, perhaps comparing certain years with a present way of life, analysing how the past has affected the present.

Are you someone who plays The Beatles and thinks, those were better days or agrees with yourself that those growing-up years were special but you wouldn’t want them back, you’d rather get on with the now? I’m for getting on with the now.

Life-writing, as memoir is sometimes called, can resurrect sorrows but it also brings joys. There are benefits of seeing situations in a different light, even laughing at yourself. And forgiving yourself those adolescent mistakes.

Memoir is not autobiography.  You, the writer, decide what to include and what to leave out. It is writing around a theme or about certain years, particular events in your life. It is not always written for publication. Certainly private writing, not intended for other readers eyes, is a rewarding and satisfactory way of putting words on paper, recording events even if you would rather they had never happened. Indeed, writing the words down is an accepted exercise in therapy. The process settles the reader’s emotions and brings freedom from regret and undeserved guilt.

Memoir does not need to be broadcast. Many writers are not looking to publish their memoirs.

But I am.