Dear “Masters”: C Lee Mackenzie asked me to post something today in our Craft Masters discussion group, and I’ve learned, since I’m been part of our merry band of YALITCHATters, to pay good and careful attention to whatever C. Lee says, so here goes. First, however, I need to ask you to indulge me for a bit, because I feel I need to provide a bit of context. Hopefully, it will serve as a nice lead-in to the question that I ask you later one in the post. Cheers, S.D.
A book that I like to teach in my Fiction Writing 1 classes at The Ohio State University is a little gem by Ursula K. Le Guin called Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. As far as I know, none of my other creative writing teaching colleagues at OSU use that book in their classes, but I love it. It’s relatively short (so that my students and I can do many of the book’s writing exercises and still have time to workshop), extremely well written (hey, it’s Ursula K. Le Guin), and delightfully idiosyncratic (for instance, unlike other craft books that start out on a topic like “setting” or “character,” say, Le Guin starts out talking about the shape of our sentences, and her first exercise is to ask us to write a page or two of something gorgeous, something that sounds wonderful to read out loud; her next exercise, called “I Am Gabriel Garcia Marquez,” asks us to write a passage without using any punctuation; and one shortly after that, “Long and Short,” asks us to write a passage where each sentence is no longer that six words, and another passage that is all one sentence).
Another reason I love the book has to do with Le Guin’s passionate jags on various aspects of our craft. For example, she cheerfully does a number on the current fashion to use the present tense as the dominant story-telling POV in so many contemporary novels. She much prefers the simple past tense, what she, idiosyncratically of course, insists on calling the “inclusive narrative tense.” The present tense is too narrow, she says, and it presents more of a challenge if you want to go forward or backward in time, like when one of your characters is remembering doing something in the past. And she distrusts the reason that many writers give for writing their stories in the present tense – immediacy. She doesn’t use the word, but she basically thinks that idea is poppycock. You don’t need the present tense to give your writing a sense of immediacy, she argues.
Le Guin is also idiosyncratic in the part of the book when she explains the various story-telling POV voices that are at our disposal as writers. Of course, there is “first person” and “limited third person” (or “persons” as many of us know and practice), and even second person (that “we” who narrates “A Rose for Emily,” for instance), but she doesn’t like the term “omniscient narrator,” with its suggestion of a godlike status for the author. She prefers the term “involved author” instead. It’s less pretentious and more true to what we do when we use that story-telling voice. Sure, we’re busybodies when we use that POV, we get to stick our noses in anybody’s business, heads, and hearts we choose, but godlike? Not quite, she seems to say.
And of course there are other story-telling POVs, as well, such as the more distanced “detached narrator,” what she calls the “fly on the wall” POV, and the POV when a minor character tells the story (I forget what she calls that one); however, regardless of which story-telling POV we choose to use in our tales, Le Guin insists that we need to be aware of the why, as well.
Which brings me to my discussion question for you, my fellow “craft masters”: What story-telling tense and POV do you use in your work, and why?
In my first novel, for example, The Flowering Hands of the Borealis, which I recently completed and am looking for an agent to represent, I chose to use the simple past tense (Le Guin convinced me on that one) and the limited third person to tell my tale. Or tales, I should say, because I tell a few different stories from different characters' POV, characters who are in different physical locations in the overall story from one another. Here’s how the novel begins, from the POV of character named Non:
They were almost beautiful.
Non could almost admire the three shadowy figures coming toward him, how they
leapt into the air as if catapulted over the slums of Purge. Once in flight they
stretched their wings, not so much to fly, but rather, like hawks riding thermals
of air, to glide. When they settled down at last, their veiny, pellucid wings
extending like parasails before they folded them into their backs, the figures
looked like pieces of cinder fluttering to the ground. One leap, two leaps, three,
and they were fluttering down upon Non.
But in the novel I’m currently working on, tentatively titled The Mapmaker’s Daughter and the Magic Latitudes, I’m using the first person story-telling POV. The book is about, among other things, the myth of the island of California and its Amazon queen, Califia; the ghost of Hui Shan, a Chinese explorer who is said to have sailed to California in the 5th Century; the origins of Shakespeare’s characters from The Tempest, Caliban and Ariel; and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his great grandson, Tommy; but the story is told from the POV of a character named Waldo Prospect. As we go back and forth in time from the dramatic present of the story, 1971, we see the story unfolding bit by bit through his eyes. No godlike or even busybody narrator here, just a nerdy, often scared fifteen-year old who could use some help. The story starts this way:
I’m hitting fungoes with Tommy Doyle and Ricky Bernstein when I notice
another hole in the future.
It’s way over beyond the left field fence, beyond the rickety wooden stands,
the concrete block concession stand, and the parking lot, way over toward
the horizon, where the clouds, whitish grey things that look like bears
shrugging their shoulders, have parted, dissolving one of the bear’s paws
and leaving a donut shaped hole surrounded by gauzy, cotton-like batting.
Oh, yeah, you might notice I’m using the present tense here. I don’t know about immediacy, but that story-telling tense seems more natural to me this time around, and since time travel into the past is such a big part of the book, keeping the story-telling tense rooted in the present seems to me, at this point in the writing, to subtly get across the idea that, for our time travelers, the present represents that safe space called home, the place they all ache to get back to on their travels.
So that’s me, old pontificating Professor Lishan. But what about you and your sweet words? What story-telling tense and POV do you use in your good work? Why? Tell us.
Peace and write on,
-- S.D. Lishan
Mine are all first person, simple past! I have to be in my character's heads and nobody else. I've dabbled in writing alternate POVs from two characters in alternate chapters, but I have a really difficult time writing third person. Too many "he" and "she". I prefer a quick "I"!!