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The Editor’s Clinic: Problem Child

  Child narrators can be a problem.

Children don’t yet have the experience or self-awareness to understand what’s going on around them.  So if you write intimately from their point of view, using only language and concepts that they would have available to them, it’s sometimes hard to convey what’s really happening.  Granted, you can describe events in enough detail so that your readers may understand things that the child narrator might not.  There are times that approach can come in handy – if, say, you want to filter harsh realities through an innocent consciousness.  But it’s tricky to do this without having your child pay more attention than is plausible.  We tend not to pay a lot of attention to events that are going over our heads.

Children aren’t fully aware of what’s going on inside of them, either.  If the child’s state of mind is important to the story, you can sometimes use a more sophisticated language than your child narrator has available to them to capture exactly how they feel.  This approach works best if you keep the narrative voice consistent — if you use the more sophisticated voice from the beginning of the story and stick with it throughout.  This gives your readers a chance to adjust to what you’re doing.  But, again, working in a narrative voice that’s separate from your character’s voice requires considerable skill.

Splitting the difference between these two approaches, as this morning’s sample does – writing most of the narrative in the child’s voice, but slipping into a more mature language from time to time — almost never works.  Readers adjust to a child’s view of the world, and suddenly that view turns more adult. The shifts jar readers, who aren’t confident they can settle into the child’s view of the world.

So I’ve edited this to keep Malcom’s voice more solidly his own.  I’ve tended toward shorter paragraphs and kept the language simple.  And the power of the piece comes through.  Even though Malcom isn’t aware of the dynamic between his older sister and his mother, readers can see it.  And Malcom’s situation is certainly dramatic.  Even more so since he doesn’t understand what’s going on.

 

Twitch Chapter One, Surrey, England, 1833-34

Secrets

 

The others were right.  It was  the devil made him blink and scrunch his face.  Aand it was getting worse.

[Paragraph added] It started in July, just after his fifth birthday.  Fingers inside him pushed and squeezed. He tried to flatten his face with his hands but the inside fingers were stronger to no purpose. [1]  “Devil Face” they called him,.  [2]leaving Mother tried to beat the evil spirit out of him and he had to stay away from avoid his older brother Nigel, who knocked him down and called him “freak.”

He glanced at his brothers, Gilbert, four, and Franklin, three. Theyse normal boys slept in a heap next to him in a chamber so small the bed and wardrobe took up nearly all the space.  They were lucky.  They didn’t have devil hands pushing them out of shape.

When the devil finally left his face alone, Malcolm yawned, lay back and closed his eyes.

[Paragraph added]  Suddenly, he sat up, felt his hands grow clammy., He sat up and pressed his elbows into his sides – he dared not let the devil return!

He threw off the blanket, leapt off the bed, and stood looking out the window, trying to think about anything rather than the devil waking up inside of him.  The pigs slept quietly in their pen across the yard.  The hens roosting in the scattered hay near the bard door gave off an occasional soft cluck.  No one passed on the road that ran just beyond the barn.  Everything outside was quiet.   wondering if people lived on the stars. No one told him. All he knew was that he had a mother, father, three brothers, and a sister and they all lived in a house with trees and hills surrounding it in a place called Surrey. Pigs lived in a pen and chickens in the yard. Horses pulled wagons along a dusty lane that passed by the house.  [3] [Paragraph added]  Just then, the devil’s fingers twisted and wriggled his face again.

Franklin started whimpering.  “Mother. Please come Mother,. Franklin squeaked. He started whimpering.

Malcolm turned.  His’s brothers were on the far side of the bed with the blanket drawn around them.  They flinched when he looked at them.  

“Mother, Devil-Face is doing it again!” Gilbert bellowed, soothing Franklin by putting his arm around Franklin’s his shoulders to soothe himand pushing out his chest at Malcolm.

After more shouts, Mother tottered in with a candle that litilluminated her scowling face, wispy grey hair escaping hera floppy nightcap. “What’s this about?  What’s amiss?”and with her baggy eyes glinting.

[Paragraph added] Gilbert and Franklin pointed their index fingers at him.

“Waking me up in the middle of the night, are you? You’re doing it on purpose, you brat, just when I’m about to have a baby!” Mother swatted him on the back of the head, seized his arm and dragged him out to the common room.   “You’re doing it on purpose, you brat, just when I’m about to have a baby!”

There hHis sister Lydia was waitingwaited, holding blankets. She had long dark hair and wore a woman’s black nightgown that hung loosely from her shoulders. In the candlelight, her green eyes sparkled like a cat’s. She winked at Malcolm and he felt a little better.

“Lydia,” Mother said, “you look like a fool wearing that ridiculous nightgown. You had a white one on when I went to bed,. Mother said.

“I have a right to wear the clothes Aunt Belinda left to me.”

“Oh, aye, it’s your right to go aroun dressed , a twelve-year old girl who goes around wearing black like a widow. May your mother be informed of the dead gentleman’s name you married?”

“Mother, stop. You will wake Father and Nigel.”

Mother dropped Malcolm’s arm and advanced to Lydia, gave herLydia a slap. “Don’t you tell me to stop. You watch out – nNext you will be thinking you are a witch like my sister who ought to have been locked up in the madhouse. A hundred years ago they would have burned her.”

Malcolm cringed., realizing t  This was all his fault,. amazed at [4]  But how could Lydia for not crying and just sticking out her chin at Mother.?

[paragraph added]  To make things worse, Father staggered out of the bedroom in a grey nightshirt and cap.  , preventing a further altercation between mother and daughter. He wore a white nightgown and cap. He He pulled Mother and Lydia apart, then drifted up to Malcolm like an angry vengeful ghost.  His breath was like rotting potatoes.  The devil was still pushing Malcom’s face about.

“Stop making that evil face or I will give you a hiding spanking you will never forget. A You are a five-year old runt like you that should never have been let near a mother’s teat. When we had cattle, we used to cull calves like you,.he said from his slit of a mouth. His breath was like rotting potatoes.

Malcolm’s face scrunched and his eyes blinked. Father said,

[Paragraph added]  “Tomorrow I’ll take him back to where he come from.,” Father said.  Just watch me.”

What didcould he mean? Malcolm had seen kittens born, and did Mother have a hole like mother cat that he could be stuffed back into again? He heard a giggle – the little boys peeped out from their bedroom door, scarecrow faces.  [5]

“He has less than a year to go and we need the coinmoney,” Mother said.cautioned Father who looked angry and defeated.

[Paragraph added.]  And what did that mean?Malcolm wondered what Mother meant. Would the devil kill him in a year?  And pay them to do it?

“Never fret,” Lydia said.  “I will stay out here and keep him quiet,.

“What!” Mother said.  “Fine.  He’s yours, and  Only you would do something so ridiculous. You are welcome to him,.Mother said,  She dragginged away Father, who was having trouble with his balance, blowing. She blew out the candle on her way. Her voice came out of the darkness, “Be quiet, you two.”

After the bedroom doors closed, Lydia lit a candle with a spill from the fire. She spread one blanket on the floor, bunching it up at the end to make so it could serve as a pillow., and t  Then she took Malcolm by the hand and told him to lie down. She cuddled next to him and pulled the other blanket over them.

“I will leave the candle lit until you are sleepy,” she said. What happened in there? You can tell me.”

But, if he told Lydia about the devil, would she hate abandon him like just as everyone else did?

“You need not fear,” she said.  “Let me guessbe afraid. I suppose y You dreamed you killed someone with an axe. That does not mean you did it, you know.”

“Not a dream . . .it was . . . the devil went in me,. Malcolm said in desperation.  [6]

She sniggered.  “I have seen enough of you to believe there is a spirit inside you, but I do not think it is the devil. Even if it is, I can help you. So calm yourself Come on now.”

Could his sister really help him? Her face looked happy and beautiful now, not like the scowl she wore unlike her expression while doing the chores, such as the weekly scrub-down of her three little brothers.

“He shakes my face from inside,” Malcom said. I am not the one doing it. It has to be the devil like Mother says.”

He heard loud snoring from his parents’ bedroom.

Well, mMaybe it he just wants to get out?”  She glanced at their parents’ bedchamber.  A soft snoring came through the door.   . . .I know what we shall do, she whispered. I will try you out as my apprentice and then you may be fixed. Do you agree?”

“Yes, please.  What’s an apprentice . . . but what is that?”

“An apprentice is someone who learns something from someone else. The teacher could be anybody, someone who makes horseshoes or wooden spoons.” She dropped her voice even further.  , o“Or even a witch or a magician.”

“Which are you?”

“Well, I don’t make horseshoes. Now, no more time for questions now as we both need sleep.” Lydia put out the candle, lay down and kissed him. He turned on his side and snuggled back up to her, sensed her breathing and felt her warmth.

[Paragraph added]  Did Mother ever lie with him like this? He could not remember. The floor below was hard but he felt good and safe.  Even better.  He felt good.

 

NOTES

  1. “To no purpose,” is far too advanced.
  2. I’m tending toward both shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs.  Children are less capable of a sustained, complex idea.
  3. The speculation about aliens doesn’t seem right for a five-year-old from the early nineteenth century.  I kept the focus on what’s in front of him.
  4. Show him realizing it.  Show him being amazed.  This is what interior monologue is for.
  5. His brothers are a distraction at this point.
  6. His dialogue shows his desperation.

 

So who are your favorite child narrators?  I’m thinking of young children — Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield are pretty self-aware.  I’m thinking more of the narrator from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or even the narrator of parts of The Sound and the Fury.  

About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer’s Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer’s Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.