Out at the Writers of the Future workshop, we had a couple sessions with Orson Scott Card. In one in particular, he explained to us (in great detail) why he felt the only POV and tense we should write in is Third Person Limited Past. The others, he asserted, were amateurish, gimmicky, and hard to work with and generally not worth the time. Now, a number of us present (judges as well as winners) disagreed with him to varying degrees. It’s notable that a number of us won the contest with first person narrations, at any rate, and that a great many good books have been written in present tense and with first person, and occasionally with both.
One thing I don’t think anybody is going to disagree with Card about is that writing in first person or in present tense is difficult. Deceptively so, actually, since it creates all kinds of narrative problems – in first person, you are locked into one character’s viewpoint with no real way to show anyone else; in present tense, it is very difficult to talk about the past (or the future), since you are so grounded in the immediate. So, unless you really, really know what you’re doing, you’re probably better off avoiding those odd POVs and tenses.
All that said, I’m in the process of writing a novella told in first person and, in large part, told in present tense. I’m not doing this as a gimmick so much as to capture a certain voice. I’ve had this character and this voice kicking around in my head for some time now, and I’ve been waiting for a good way to work it into a nice, meaty story. The novella is proving difficult, in part because of the tense more than anything else. See, this is a character telling us his life’s story, but he isn’t doing it in the exclusive past; he frequently forays into the present, especially when describing individual scenes. This is a kind of anecdotal style that we tend to use a lot in speech, but not in writing.
By way of example: If somebody starts a story by saying “let me tell you about this one time I…” and then breaks into “so this guy is, like, six feet tall, ya know? And his little dog is growling and barking and I’m like ‘control your dog, man’ and he’s like ‘make me'” and then they wrap up with “so that’s how I lost my left ear,” it all sounds natural to us, doesn’t it? We slide from the present to the past in speech all the time. We do it to convey a sense of immediacy. We stand up and start gesturing, trying to bring our audience to the edge of their seats. There’s a certain magic there. Consider this clip from Seinfeld, and notice how the writers have Kramer drifting in and out of past and present tense seamlessly:
There’s no confusion caused there. Nobody is under the impression that Kramer is driving the bus at that exact moment, nor are they confused over the timeline of the toe, the mugger, the bus, and so on. There’s gotta be a way to capture this kind of storytelling on the page, isn’t there?
Well, turns out there might be, but it ain’t easy, let me tell you. I’ve been breaking my brain over this thing for a couple days now, and progress is slow and occasionally frustrating. I’ll keep you posted. The point here is that I think it’s possible and, furthermore, worthwhile. I’d read a story narrated by Kramer, wouldn’t you? That would be a gas.
I mean, assuming it were done well.
Given that I seem to be inundating this space with basically self-promotional spam, I figure it might behoove me to just set up a little section here at the bottom of my posts to update you folks on the latest. Here we go:
- Hey! I’m at 1,002 followers here! Happy dance time!
- Pre-orders for my novel, IRON AND BLOOD, are on sale now! This is the second part of THE IRON RING, which together comprise the first chapter of The Saga of the Redeemed.
- The Writers of the Future Anthology, Volume 31 is selling well, but if you haven’t gotten your copy yet, you’re missing out. Come check out this incredible group of writers and learn a little bit about how to write scifi/fantasy along the way! Win/win!
- Speaking of which, Daniel J Davis and I will be signing copies of WoTF31 at the Barnes and Nobel: Prudential Center (in Boston, MA) tomorrow, May 9th, from 2pm – 4pm. Stop on by! I’ll have free candy! Dan will have dog pictures!
- Finally, I will be giving a talk on world-building in fantasy novels at the Adams Street branch of the Boston Public Library on Monday, May 18th, at 6:30pm. The event is free and I’ll be doing a reading from THE IRON RING, so it should be tons of fun. Hopefully I’ll see some of you there!