09 June 2010

The mermaid and the sardine: Points of view and time

La Sirena & La Sardina
Now, if only they told their stories in the first person —
though would either, neither or both say, "I flap my tail . . ." ?

Hi Anna,
I've been working on on a story that is set in .... when it was .....
I wanted to explore the impact of ....on ......
Anyway I've got a favor to ask . . .
Hi . . .
I'm pleased that you're writing yet another story, and would be happy to look it over for you on one condition (and this is a subject that I almost brought up with you before). Please don't write it in the first person present. This is the default stance of most modern amateur writers, and it is a pain in the bum, to be honest. It is a faddish stance brought on by, I think, the overabundance of writing groups and classes, and the self-centredness of our times. The tense being the present is the primary wearier.

A natural stance for a story is to relate it in the simple past. It gives a distance to the reader and the narrator that is necessary for perspective, I think, and also allows a certain flexing in the tense. One can bring it forward to the present if needs be, for a reason. Or one can even go deeper into the past.

And as for the first person, this also is wearying. Unless the character has some character to explore, the protagonist being in the first person can lead to a preponderance of "I", and engender an unintended lack of sympathy for this person in the reader's mind. If there is a reason for the story to be told in the first person, to for instance, highlight the difference between this character's perceptions and that of the reader in what this person says and how this person reacts, then by all means, this point of view can be very effective and can add greatly to the story. If, however, the writer defaults to the first person, there are too damned many stories that are in the first person as this default.

So, is the story told as "I . . ." and is it told in the present tense? If not, great. Send it to me whenever you like. If it is either of these, and especially both, I beg of you to challenge yourself. Rewrite it in the simple past with an omniscient point of view. And if you couldn't be bothered and disagree with me, then I'm not the right person to read it now. I am OD'd.


Looking forward to hearing from you,

Hi Anna,
Thanks for your email . . . The story is present tense . . . I've never been made aware of the logic you outlined but it does make sense. I will print out your brief and keep it near me when I re-write. I will also try and keep an eye out for the things you mention when I'm reading . . .

POSTSCRIPT: One intense and brilliantly effective story told in the present tense is Spar by Kij Johnson, in Clarkesworld Magazine. The point of view, however, is omniscient—and nothing in the writing of this story was done by default.

I can't think of any stories that work that are told in the first person present, but I'm sure that they exist. So please tell.

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