Thursday, July 08, 2010

Thoughts on Bullshit Arbitrary Writing Rules -- c.anne.gardner

Couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon a post over at the Literary Lab that just made my heart stop. The Post was titled: What I no Longer Believe, and had listed many of the so-called writing rules you will hear bandied about by people who have barely any knowledge of creative writing beyond the main-stream "How to write for dummies" writing guides. One of my favourites mentioned in the post is:

You must maintain a consistent verb tense.

I have got into numerous arguments with novice authors on this one. It is a bone of contention for me because, frankly, we don't ever speak in one consistent tense so why should a story be told in one? Not to mention that if the story is to have any three dimensional time continuity, it can't really be in just one tense anyway.

Mostly new authors are told to pick either past or present and to stay within the tense ranges for those two, but in actuality there are at least thirty of them, tenses that is, and it's good to know the basic six and how to move between them. Purdue University has an easy to understand guide for when you are trying to figure out when and how to shift tense. For example:


"He shimmered in the mirrors. An infinite number of Adrians in beige corduroy trousers and plum colored turtlenecks and brown suede jackets. And infinite number of dirty toenails in an infinite number of Indian sandals. An infinite number of meerschaum pipes between his beautiful curling lips. My zipless fuck? The man under my bed! Multiplied like lovers in the last year at Marienbad. Multipled like Andy Warhol’s self-portraits. Multiplied like the One Thousand and One Buddahs at the Temple of Kyoto. […]

“Hello Ducks,” he says, turning to me.

“I have something for you,” I say handing him the inscribed book I’ve been carrying around all day. The edges of the pages are beginning to fray from my sweaty palms.

“You sweetheart!” He takes the book. We link arms and start walking down the mirrored hall.

From Fear of Flying by Erica Jong.

Did you notice the shift? The majority of the book is told in past tense and its variables, but as the narrator is reminiscing over what is to be a quintessential moment in her life, she switches to present tense to give the scene the immediacy it needs for impact. After the scene is over, the narrative resumes in past tense. This happens often throughout the book.

So you tell me -- six point something million copies sold. Award winning author Erica Jong -- did she and/or her editor make a serious mistake? I think not.

So this is just another one of those rules that has been distorted over time by people who don't understand it yet feel the need to shove it down everyone else's throat. No wonder so many new authors get confused. Feel free to shift tense when appropriate for effect, but make sure you do it right and do it subtly. An author shouldn’t have a fear of flying.

On a side note: I am embarrassed to admit that I am just getting around to reading Fear of Flying. I know, I know, in '73 when it came out, it was lauded as one of the greatest works of literature of all time, and it is. It was one of the first books to explore the feminist psyche in such an unapologetic way, and one of the first to do so written in the style of a memoir. However, I wouldn't have really been able to relate to it as deeply in my Twenties, but now that I am well into my Forties and have one divorce and a second marriage under my belt, I can appreciate the psychological truisms that would have eluded me as a younger reader less experienced in the ways of love, sex, and relationships. The book is witty, shocking in its exhibitionism, but most of all, it's honest. I don't know of any woman who hasn't thought or felt this way at some point in their life about the men in their life and how it all relates to their own sexuality. As a bonus, the writing is stellar.

Cheryl Anne Gardner

8 comments:

Shannon Yarbrough said...

I always think of this "rule" when I start out writing. I tend to write what feels natural, even though it may be wrong, and then clean up the verb tense when I go back and reread what I wrote. It's funny you mentioned this today because I was actually just "checking my verbs" this morning.

Another argument is the whole 1st person - 3rd person debate. I've always heard a book should be from one point of view or the other, not both. 1st person is what I prefer to write in, but I always hear it's the more passive voice. But I usually like one character to tell the story, and not always tell the truth, or not always know what's true. To me, a 3rd person (unknown) narrator should know all.

Gillian Flynn's Dark Places, which you and I were talking about this week, does a good job of using both. She writes in 1st person in one chapter when telling the story from her lead character, then switches to 3rd person in the next when writing from someone else's voice. It's done very well and just works, and like verb tense, it just feels natural.

Good post! I'm glad you brought this up.

-Shannon

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

I happen to like first person a lot for certain situations, especially when psychological intimacy is needed. I also like a close third person as well. I rarely use the omniscient third because I think that works better for epic stories with lots and lots of characters. I don't write that sort of book, so generally I stick with first or a close third for all my stories.

I am re-reading Dorian Gray right now and the majority of the book is in a close third but the POV shifts continuously, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph -- head hopping -- as the dummy books would call it. And again, this is another of those Bullshit rules.

Chris Gerrib said...

It's okay to break the rules if you know that you're breaking them. Too many beginning writers have no idea what they are doing, and the results aren't pretty.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Oh yes, I so agree Chris. I have seen some of the "not pretty" stuff. You gotta know how to use the verb tenses properly before you do anything. That applies to all grammar and writing techniques.

But I can safely say, that shift in Flying was so subtle, I doubt the average reader noticed it at all.

DED said...

I don't think that maintaining a consistent verb tense is either "bullshit" or "arbitrary" for novices. As Chris pointed out, "beginning writers have no idea what they are doing". I know I didn't. There's enough of a learning curve for beginners to master when they're writing their first novel, that playing around with verb tense can wait. So I believe it's sound advice for them.

For experienced writers, sure, go for it.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

But we should be wary about confusing new authors. We need to distinguish between correct grammatical usage and a writing rule that isn't really a rule to begin with.

That's the point I am trying to make. Every novice author needs to learn proper grammar, once they know that, then there won't be a problem. When to shift tenses will become intuitive, as it should be.

Made up writing rules like this actually do more harm than good. Following some made up rule is no substitute for actually learning the real craft, which includes proper grammar.

genjipress.com said...

I agree with what Chris and the others are saying. This is not an inherently bad rule if the reason it is being enforced is to save a relatively inexperienced author from blowing his toes off with the Style Gun. People who already have a good command of the language and are able to do things like shift tenses without dropping whole sentences on the floor are already beyond such hand-holding, so honestly this comes off as tilting at an already-battered windmill.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

No sorry, I don't see how this is "tilting." As I made perfectly clear in the article:

Mostly new authors are told to pick either past or present and to stay within the tense ranges for those two, but in actuality there are at least thirty of them, tenses that is, and it's good to know the basic six and how to move between them. Purdue University has an easy to understand guide for when you are trying to figure out when and how to shift tense.
And...
So this is just another one of those rules that has been distorted over time by people who don't understand it yet feel the need to shove it down everyone else's throat. No wonder so many new authors get confused. Feel free to shift tense [when appropriate] for effect, [but make sure you do it right and do it subtly.]
--
I never said to ignore the "real" rules. Writing is about learning the craft, not about blindly following some made up writing conventions.