The middle-grade novel for young readers that I am revising this month has a quirky eleven-year-old boy protagonist. In the original manuscript I chose to use only his first-person point-of-view to tell the story. Ready to wrangle a major revision, however, I’ve decided to add the first-person perspective of the “supporting role,” his conventional twelve-year-old girl cousin. I’ve been balking at starting this revision because I haven’t been sure what to do, but I feel more confident now that I’m building the story with another character’s thoughts and feelings.
Choosing the point-of-view for telling story is a central decision for a writer; most use the first- or third-person. (One brilliant exception is Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, written with alacrity using the singular “you.”) Barbara Pym often uses the omniscient point-of-view; in the chapter “An Afternoon at the Bodleian” in her novel Crampton Hodnet, for example, Pym shifts deftly from the thoughts of Oxford don Francis Cleveland to those of his wife Margaret, his student Barbara Bird, his Aunt Maude, and her paid companion, Jessie Morrow.
In Always Gardenia I narrate from the points-of-view of both Gardenia Pitkin and Arnold Wiggens. I did not feel skilled enough to switch points-of-view in a single scene, as does Pym, so I let the two take turns, one chapter from her perspective and the next from his. I started and finished the book with Gardenia’s thoughts and observations, as she is the central protagonist of the story.
After the Always Gardenia manuscript went out to the first list of prospective editors and then bounced back with rejections, my agent suggested rewriting the entire novel using only Gardenia’s point-of-view — “The novel is about her, isn’t it? Doesn’t the title have her name in it?”
Really? Did I have to? I loved tramping through the story as Arnold. I felt him speaking to and through me; even as I write about him now, he seems utterly real to me, not a person that I made up. How could I share what he was thinking and observing if I couldn’t use his perspective? But dutifully (and also hopefully — if this would make the novel saleable, I’d do it), I revised the entire 230-plus-page manuscript, going over each Arnold scene and converting it to Gardenia’s point-of-view.
I was not happy with the change. The agent was and submitted the revised manuscript to another list of editors. All of them rejected this new version.
When I decided to independently publish the book, I returned to my original manuscript and reclaimed Arnold’s point-of-view. The result feels just right to me.
I’ve started the revision of the middle-grade novel by letting the girl cousin speak to me. I’m sitting down and typing out whatever I hear her saying, using the “I” perspective; I’m learning that she has plenty of opinions about her cousin, the settings, and the situations I’m putting them in. I’m curious so see how this revision strategy works — stay tuned for updates!