Finding the most compelling point of view for your story – even if it takes a loooong time

In 2000, I was contacted by a nun from the order of the Sisters of St Joseph – the order established by Mary MacKillop (who is now Australia’s first saint). They wanted to commission me to write a children’s book about MacKillop, and I’d been recommended because I’d been brought up Catholic.

I said, ‘No thank you.’ I didn’t like the idea of a commission, because the commissioning people often think they have the right to control the narrative (literally), and I’d had thirteen years of school with nuns telling me what to do, and that was enough. But Sr Kath invited me to see the then-new museum about MacKillop. Now my mother had been on at me to go and see it, so I accepted Sr Kath’s invitation and by the end of the visit, I was convinced I had to write this book.

I did 18 months of research. And then I started to write. Because I thought I was writing a children’s book, at first I thought I would keep to her childhood. So the first draft was written from the child’s point of view, and because I was hesitant about writing from the point of view of a literal saint, I used third person limited point of view. Forty thousand words.

It didn’t work. There just wasn’t enough story there in what we knew about her, and although her childhood had some big events, it didn’t form a natural narrative.

Okay. Maybe I needed to take the story further, and write it as a YA novel. So I turned the narration into an adult’s voice (but still third person). The period of MacKillop’s life I was covering in this draft was from her birth to age 26, the year she put on a black dress to be a quasi-habit, and began the process to form the Order of St Joseph. This made a natural stopping place for the story.

It didn’t work. And it didn’t work in a very specific way. The people who already loved MacKillop (i.e. the nuns), enjoyed it. The people who didn’t (i.e. my workshop group), didn’t like it. Or, more precisely, didn’t like her. They felt very distanced from her.

Okay. I bit the bullet and decided to write in first person. This made me quite nervous, so I went back to the idea of a kids’ book, and wrote it in first person from the child’s point of view.

Didn’t work.

Okay. Fourth try. I wrote it in first person, from the point of view of the 26 year old.

While that was definitely better, and structurally I had found the right balance and order of scenes (I thought), the response of my workshop group was still ‘she’s too holy oly’, ‘too goody-two-shoes’.

So I put it away and wrote something else. I recognised that what was getting in the way was my own relationship to MacKillop; I admired her too much. I had done tonnes of research on her and found not one single bad thing. She was a saint! And saints are very hard to write.

The book sat in my computer for another 18 months (so we’re up to five years now). Then, prompted by my mother-in-law, I visited the Kincumber ‘museum’ at the old St Joseph’s Orphanage, which was a place MacKillop visited regularly. And there, in laminated A4s stuck to the stone walls, I found some delightful stories about her interactions with the boys there. Stories that made me laugh out loud, and showed me what a fabulous, irreverent woman she grew to be.

That was the voice I needed. The mature, insightful, rebellious woman who was excommunicated for not following a stupid order fast enough (the bishop changed his mind later). So I wrote one more draft. Sixty thousand words, from the point of view of MacKillop as she lay dying, remembering her childhood and, in particular, her relationship with her father.

This point of view allowed me to tell so much more of her life, but more than that, it allowed me to draw on her many many letters to craft a voice as close to her own as I could. The book poured out of me.

So, five major drafts (and then three more with the publisher, including one with big structural changes – I was wrong about having the scenes in the right order).

In each of those five drafts, I threw away everything except the content of the scene (i.e., me knowing what happened) and the dialogue. All the narration went.

It was hard. There were times I cried. And I gave up for a long time. But it was worth it, because without that authentic voice, there was no novel.

The final book is called The Black Dress. It was published in 2006, won the NSW Premier’s History Prize for Young People, and is still in print 17 years later. None of those things would have happened if I’d given up at the fourth draft and submitted that to the publisher.

Takeaways for new writers:

  • Voice is the centre of a novel or memoir, especially if there’s only one point of view
  • Point of view can be changed! Many times, if that’s necessary
  • Keep at it. One draft is never enough, and usually three or four aren’t either. If you go into writing your book knowing that, it will be much easier for you to commit to the next draft, and the next, until your story is ready to share with an agent or publisher or reader
  • There will come a time when you hate your book and just can’t bear to work on it. That’s fine. Part of the process. Put it away and go and write something else. When you come back to it with fresh eyes, you’ll know what you need to do.


Author bio
Pamela Freeman is the award-winning author of more than 40 books. Pamela has a Doctorate in Creative Writing and is the Director of Creative Writing at the Australian Writers’ Centre. She has developed many highly regarded writing courses that have inspired and educated thousands of writers.

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