Writing Epistolary Devices

In which I talk about the fun of attempting to write a full scale epistolary novel – and why I love them so much.

Regular readers of my Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook will all be aware of my continued attempt at writing my first full length YA novel. My working title is ‘The Final Confessions of a Little Rebel’ and is written entirely in an epistolary format.

Regular reader will also be aware of the fact that on a personal level I have been dealing with a crap tonne of medical and health things over the past 3 years so it’s been quite a journey and I am just as surprised as anyone else that I’ve made it to this point of editing.

But using this device has meant certain constraints: it’s been a confusing 3 years of messed up tenses, my MC * Rosa, switches between the present, the recent past, the distant and very distant pasts and even slips in a few wishes and hopes for the future. I decided early on not to use formal dialogue (for the uninitiated amongst us that means using “quotation marks” and he said or she said dialogue markers) which has brought with it its own set of problems. One reason for not including the formal dialogue is that when a character is relaying the information in a letter or similar how is it possible that they can remember exactly what was said and how by each person earlier in the story? This is especially true if the MC is discussing events that happened years before.

Also, as the novel is set 40 years in the future I have to find a way to show world building and explain certain situations without just using “as you know, bob”** dialogue or explanations.

Something we learned on my Masters course was the difficulty of writing first person. If we chose to use this POV*** we needed to answer certain ‘conditions of narration’: who is telling the story, why are they telling us specifically and how are they telling us? Thankfully epistolary devices answer all of these easily.

Whether it’s a signed letter or a text message it’s easy to include the narrators’ name. That answers who is telling the story. As to telling us, again it’s pretty simple to see who the letter etc. is addressed to. It’s possible that the reader is not the original intended recipient but that can be discussed in the 3rd condition: how are they telling us? When someone throws a message in a bottle – that’s easy to know how we are reading it. A letter can be found, delivered to the wrong address or simply lost. This answers how we are getting the information, and can often help answer why they are telling us, specifically.

My Love for This Device Knows No Bounds

Keen observers (actualy casual readers too) will know how much I adore this device in literature – I have read countless books using the device, even before I decided to write my novel. Sometimes these novels ignore some of the rules mentioned above and it bugs me but I just love it so much.

I also studied writing for graphic fiction and we often talked about the gutter or the gap between panels in graphic novels in comics. There is so much that goes on in this gap. We’re expected as readers, to understand and to work out what is going on – what’s been left unsaid. Epistolary devices are the exact same. So often it’s what is not said that’s important, rather than the simple facts described by the characters.

So We Have Our Constraints, Let’s Get Writing!

I’ve also always loved first person narrations – even before the MA it was my go-to POV when writing; so my course tutor and I spent some time trying to work out how I could use it for my novel and answer those pesky conditions of narration, until we hit on it: essentially I would tell the story backwards and use a ‘confession’ or letter in order to do it.

So I had my device and I had all my constraints: time to get started.

I have to admit it took me at least a month of trying to write this before my tutor (the amazing Sam Boyce) pointed out something that should be obvious: what was happening to Rosa while she was telling this story? So that’s how the present day tense and plot-line came into being. Of course things would be happening while she tried to write her “confession” of course time is passing, and of course she will mention current events in this letter.

How did I juggle these different timelines I hear you ask? Well, as it turns out I found it a bit confusing by the end. This is where editing will come in to play!

I now have supplies to replot! Using a trick I was taught on the MA. I will be using different coloured post-it notes for different timelines/plot points so I can quickly and easily see where everything is and how it’s working!

Also since Rosa is really the only character with a voice**** it was really important to get the rhythm and the tone of her voice perfect. We also see every other character through her eyes – through her bias. I still spent some time working out the different registers**** for each character then worked out how that would get changed through Rosa’s narration.

Another important preparatory task was building up each character’s motivation and characterisation that can then get fed through the filter of Rosa’s words. Otherwise they will all be one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs just there to push Rosa’s story along. I needed to see each character as if they were the MC of their own story and then incorporate it into Rosa’s story.

I also decided to add another level of difficulty because I do in fact hate myself: Rosa is a second generation Russian immigrant and during her confession she often switches into telling the story or commenting on the events in Russian. This means I actually had to write it in Russian.

I tell you, in writing this novel fun was had by all.

And so, I have now reached the point in my blog post where I can’t quite remember why I wanted to start it in the first place. This happens frequently.

As much as I love reading epistolary novel I am now faced with editing one. I finished my first re-read about a week ago and now I am about to start my first round of edits. Right now it’s the macro stuff: the continuity, the correct characterisation; themes; plot lines (so many tenses) and most importantly that I’m actually telling the story I meant to tell.

After that I get to read the whole thing again, trying to see if I managed to do what I meant to do with my first edit. And round and round it goes until I get down to the micro-level stuff – like spelling and grammar; names etc. and until I finally feel ready to give it to beta readers – so that someone other than me can read my words. Then another couple rounds of edits in response to what my beta readers have said. Then it’s onto the scary idea of writing a synopsis and querying agents.

The Rambling Continues…

I hope that this post has at least been interesting if not always wholly coherent (much like my novel, I guess!) I’ve tried to both explain why I love epistolary novels so much and how difficult it is to actually write one. I’ve also tried to explain some of the terms I’ve so often ranted about in book reviews and other posts.

But I guess until next time…

See you in the future!

*Main character – often in writing or publishing circles people shorten it to MC for ease.

**a very common writing expression to describe dialogue describing something about the world that both characters would already know or understand; for example two brothers discussing their mother may say: “As you know, Bob when our mother died last month, she didn’t leave a will.” Why would the character explain this to the other character? Unless your character is describing something that ‘Bob’ reasonably wouldn’t know.

***Point Of View – often in writing or publishing circles it’s shortened to POV for simplicity.

****basically how the character tells the story; it’s how they see the world, the lens through which we are told things by them.

*****A term I haven’t really seen outside of the MA. It’s similar to a character’s voice as it shows the world through the lens of the character’s knowledge and experience but it’s almost another level up. With register we talk about rhythm and tone: how the character tells the story is just as important as why. The character’s life experience, education etc. will impact how they tell the story, the language they use. A register shift can be a shift in the language used because the character is describing an event that makes them particularly angry or sad, a shift away from their normal language. If we have an unreliable narrator who is lying to the reader, register can also be used to tell the reader this without changing the narrator or out and out telling the reader they are lying.

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