By Jamaica Layne
Congratulations to commenter Maureen B. Johnson for winning Jamaica's book giveaway!
Do you remember all those “rules” your high school English teacher taught you? Like, “don’t start a sentence with because,” “don’t write in the second person/implied second person,” “avoid sentence fragments,” and most of all, “always use the past tense”? Chances are you heard more of the same once you were in college, and maybe even in advanced creative writing classes if you’re a writer yourself. Other common “don’ts” among creative writing teachers include “don’t head-hop” (i.e., switching between the points of views of difference characters) and “don’t tell your story out of chronological order.”
Why do these rules exist at all? And moreover, why do they exist when many well-known authors break these rules all the time? (Nora Roberts frequently “head hops,” Stephen King is fond of sentence fragments, and the great master William Faulkner frequently wrote stories where the events unfolded out of chronological order. ) And we can never forget Jay McInerney’s runaway 1980s bestseller Bright Lights, Big City, possibly the only fictional work ever successfully written in the second person.
The reason these writing “rules” exist is because the vast majority of writers, whether they are green students or even well-published professional authors, simply lack the necessary skill or talent to get away with breaking them. Most writers who attempt to pepper their prose with sentence fragments or odd point-of-view choices simply will end up writing badly. Remember the old adage, “you’ve gotta know what the rules are before you break them?” In other words, you need to master the overall craft of writing the “normal” way before you even attempt to do something that’s not normal.
Case in point: my current Decadent release TENDER IS THE KNIGHT is written in the first person, present tense. Every writing teacher I ever had (as well as several editors) have all shouted DON’T WRITE IN THE PRESENT TENSE from the rooftops. Writing good fiction in third-person present tense is difficult (and unusual) enough, but first-person present tense? Virtually unthinkable. Writing convincingly in the first person is already a challenge (you and your writing essentially have to take on the personality of your main character, not an easy thing to do), so why muck it up even more by making it present tense?
And yet, when I was working on early drafts of TENDER IS THE KNIGHT (which I originally wrote in the past tense) I kept getting the nagging feeling that the present tense was the right choice for this particular story. The main character, Lisa Smith, is immersing herself in a completely new world (the Society for Creative Anachronism, a historical reenactment group) that involves virtual time travel, political intrigue, and a whole new set of social rules. The early drafts in the past tense just didn’t seem to work. Then, one day I was plugging along in the manuscript, and unconsciously switched from writing in the past tense to the present. I was a couple pages in before I noticed what I’d done, but once I figured out what happened, I went back and read what I’d written that way---and found that I’d finally found a way to make my story work!
By switching to the present tense, I was able to have the reader experience exactly what Lisa was experiencing in real time. The story suddenly had a lot more impact. I immediately went back through the rest of the draft and rewrote it in the present tense, and found that the novel was the better for it.
Granted, it wasn’t at all easy to do. I really had to re-align the way I approached the whole book. I had to constantly check and re-check my writing to make sure that the plot I crafted made sense in the present. I also had to alter how my characters reacted to things. Instead of reflecting back on something that happened in the past, they were reacting to everything in real time. It added an increased level of urgency to everything.
Luckily for me, I’d already written several successful novels and had a publication resume out the wazoo before even attempting to write this way. I have a feeling if I’d done it with my first manuscript, I’d have failed miserably.
I myself had read books written in first-person, present tense before (examples include John Updike’s Rabbit, Run and Audrey Niffenberger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife), so I knew it wasn’t an impossible feat. But I knew it was very, very hard to do, and I also knew that to do so might interfere with my ability to get the book published. (My own literary agent even says never to do it unless you REALLY know what you’re doing.) And never having done it before, I wasn’t entirely sure I knew what I was doing. Nevertheless, I sent the novel to my agent for her feedback.
To my pleasant surprise, my agent told me that TENDER IS THE KNIGHT was the only first-person/present tense manuscript she’d ever read that actually worked. She shipped it off to publishers almost that same day, and I had a publishing contract offer within a week. (My editor at Decadent also said it was one of the only times she’d ever read a manuscript written in first person present tense that worked. High praise from a seasoned editor!)
So, here’s the takeaway. It’s okay to break the rules. Just make sure you know what you’re doing first.
Jamaica is giving away a copy of Tender Is the Knight to one lucky commenter. Leave a comment for a chance to win!