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Richard Norway

A Question of Tense Within POV

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Being a new writer, I think I need some advise. I'm writing my second novel and am following two main characters, so I've decided on third person. But the antagonist's story starts out 3 years before the protagonist's. I'm interspersing the stories (it's a drama thing, okay?), so that means when I'm talking about the antagonist, it's a different time period from the protagonist's and their times are slowly brought together, so when they meet (for their confrontation), the time line is now together.

I was thinking about using 3rd past for the antagonist's story as it's happening in the past, but using 3rd present for the protagonist's.

My problem is that I think 3rd present sounds hokey. I guess, I just don't like the way it sounds.

I'm considering on writing the whole thing in 3rd past, one, for consistency, and two, the reader might not have as much of a problem in transitioning back and forth, although, the idea of presenting the story from two different time periods might be reinforced by the shift in tense.

Any thoughts?

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These situations are always difficult. But then again, they do offer the opportunity to explore ways to break some rules. :lol:

I understand you don't want to reveal your story yet, but without a general idea of the story situation, it is difficult to advise how you might best proceed.

It seems to me that for everyone who dislikes 3rd person there is someone else, who is put off by 1st person. Tense is similar, one or the other being the favoured flavour. Truth is, they all have the uses.

The 3rd person may give some leeway in being able to switch time periods, but 1st person can be utilised if the present character is telling the story after he comes to know about the past. This does present some difficulty for some readers, whilst others find it intriguing.

By coincidence I just saw this story by talkwriter at Nifty.

Reading all 3 chapters posted so far, he delves into an interesting timeline solution. I am not sure I like or that it would be useful for you Richard, but it may give you some ideas.

http://www.nifty.org/nifty/gay/college/anthonys-desire/

I think the best thing I can think of, to advise you, is to remember that you are telling a story. Within the confines of your story, you can invent anything you like to tell the story.

Now, if I will just take my own advice... :icon11:

I'll be very interested to see what our more experienced writers have to say. :aak[1]:

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I was thinking about using 3rd past for the antagonist's story as it's happening in the past, but using 3rd present for the protagonist's.

I disagree. To me, the goal is for the writing to be as simple and direct as possible. Anything you do that makes it too obvious or calls attention to itself can easily become a gimmick.

What you describe sounds simply like a flashback to me, and I don't think that necessarily requires any fancy literary or stylistic differences to make it work. There's plenty of novels that have used flashbacks without any major tricks.

If you're jumping back and forth a lot, however, that might be a concern. To me, the problem there is just confusing the reader. The question I think you have to ask yourself is, is there a simpler way to tell the story? I know that major published authors simply start a new chapter, put in the date ("Friday, November 7, three years earlier"), and do the flashback. Then, when you return to the present, you simply say, "Monday, October 14th, present day," and continue. I'm positive I've read several published novels by Tom Clancy and also by Stephen King that have gone this route.

That having been said: I still regret in the opening chapters of my story Jagged Angel where I told them in present tense, then jumped ahead three years and continued the story. In retrospect, what I think I should have done was started in the present, then done a flashback to reveal the backstory, then come back to the present. The problem with that method is, it would've required two full chapters to tell the flashback story, and I think it would've been just too long, plus there was too much ground to cover to compress it to one chapter. And I couldn't use the gimmick of only revealing some of the backstory; readers needed to understand more about the lead character, or else the current story wouldn't have made any sense.

Flashbacks are always tricky. Most books on writing I've read advise to avoid them whenever possible, because of the ease in which you can wind up confusing the reader. The transitions between past and present are critical. And if you add to this the additional element of having flashbacks from different point of view, to me, it could get very muddled, very quickly.

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There really isn't a whole lot to go on, and advice from someone who is predominantly barely able to write Flash Fiction is probably not the best of all advice, but I think you should be straight forward about the history. Just write the story part in question, then, when the person is 're-introduced' later, you simply say, "Peter (or whatever), now 24 (or whatever), decided to ..." The person's name is the same, so it is anchored pretty quickly. Mind you, I didn't get the feeling you were doing flashbacks, but rather, longer introductory chapters.

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Guest Brandon T.

Richaaaaaard.

For my NaNoWriMo novel thing, I'm doing something funky with the timeline too. The character segues between present and past. And there are memories within memories and things like that. I thought about how to transition between things, between time and even POV (at one point where the story switches not only to the past (after already having moved to the past) but to the POV of a rabbit). What I ended up doing was taking an action, a single sentence describing action and separated it from the last paragraph of a particular scene if I was moving between time. And that sentence, that action was an action the character had done not only then, but also in the present. And so, it allowed me to tie the two scenes taking place at different points in time with that single sentence.

And after that sentence comes the scene after the time-shift. It becomes the new character. And at first, you are disoriented and confused, but as you read, you slowly become aware of your surroundings and who is talking and when they're talking. I chose to do it that way because the woman's got dementia and I think some lurching in her mind is required and some confusion is required and to be legitimate about the experience she is going through, the reader has to experience that sort of confusion too. It's told in third-person limited a lot of the time, but I do switch to third-person omniscient in a scene just to deepen the impact. It forces the reader to watch some particularly gruesome things from a distance when they really want to know what's being thought and what's being felt. Haha, it makes it sound like I'm out jostle and frustrate the reader, and in some instances, I am, I guess. Because the main character is slowly losing her mind so I'd think some frustration was called for.

BUT. That's my solution for the problem of time and new character POV. I write in third person, past tense, and I just do that little action-line thing to thread the scenes together because any other way would have felt plastic and cheap and as Pecman said, gimmicky. I took my cue from Faulkner. -shrug- Though instead of stream of consciousness, I chose to do something a bit different with my time shifts.

THOUGH. You should do what feels comfy. =) No need not feeling comfortable.

I really don't know if changing the tense within POV would be such a good idea though. It could work, yeah, but it's kind of like going from land to sea and back. Those two tenses are entirely different and not only would it be hard to write, I'd imagine, but hard to read. Getting comfortable with one tense and then switching over to another tense. And then getting comfortable with that tense and then switching back. It's kind of wishy-washy. I can't think of any examples of a novel written in two tenses with converging storylines... Actually. I can vaguely recall reading such a thing. Hm. In the end though, I think it would be better to stick with one or the other.

ALSO. This storyline reminds me of The Lakehouse, with Keanu Reeves. :D

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I would recommend against your idea of using tense as a means to differentiate time periods. Pecman has pointed out one way of accomplishing that by putting the date at the beginning of each segment which shifts from one time period to another, but my personal preference is where the narrator simply tells us which time period is being written about. To illustrate, and with apologies to Jay Ward, your narrator might say something like this. "Boris could clearly remember that day three years ago when Fearless Leader had ordered him released from the Siberian Salt Mines to undertake his current mission." You then go on to tell where it took place and to describe the meetings and planning that went into the start of his mission, all in third person past tense. To shift back your narrator could simply say, "In the meantime our heroes were sitting down to breakfast where Bullwinkle was complaing about the difficulty in finding moose milk for his cereal." You continue in third person past tense and tell about the breakfast conversation between Rocky and Bullwinkle about the difficulty of finding moose milk and its high price.

Obviously there are many ways to phrase a shift in that manner and my rather corny examples are only to give an idea of what I mean. If actual dates are important I like Pecman's suggestion best, but if the dates are only relative to each other I prefer doing it through the narrator. To give an illustration, if your story was about the attacks on the World Trade Center it would probably work best by using actual dates in the manner Pecman described. Also, if you plan on using a lot of shifts the date method would likely be the best choice, but that would depend on how much you need to write about the earlier period.

We all have little things which annoy us. I suspect I'm somewhat more tolerant than Pecman on point of view although I do agree with him that it should be constant. In my case I find it very annoying when the author gets tense wrong. I'm a lousy proofreader of my own work, but when I'm reading a story and see where an author used says instead of said it makes me want to take a club and go pound on him until he gets it right. I'll also confess that I'm not a fan of present tense although I have read a number of stories using it that were well written and enjoyable. So with those two caveats, make what you will of my advice.

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I personally feel that the tense should be consistent. That usually means the same tense throughout the story, but it can work to have the two parts of the story (protagonist/antagonist) in different tenses. As The Pecman said, the danger is that it becomes a gimmick, rather than a natural part of the story. As an example, in one of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels she alternates chapters in 1st and 3rd person. The 1st person was from one person's perspective and the 3rd person was 3rd person limited from anothers. I'll admit it took me a few chapters to get used to it, but after that it was a natural part of the story. However, she's a professional writer :icon11:

On the assumption that this is not SF or Fantasy, have the two story arcs establish their timeframes quickly (eg. have one talk about President Clinton and the other talk about President Bush). Do that enough in the first few chapters so that the readers know these are in different times (without being too heavy handed), and the readers will remember that for the rest of the story.

Just a suggestion.

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I personally feel that the tense should be consistent. That usually means the same tense throughout the story, but it can work to have the two parts of the story (protagonist/antagonist) in different tenses.

Long ago for me, I was in college and had submitted a short story to our university's review board for publishing. They refused to accept it unless I changed the three tenses I used throughout the piece to one tense. There contention, which I vehemently refused to accept, was that it was too confusing for the reader and unnecessary.

Time has passed, much "water over the dam"so to speak. The editors were right and I was obstinate without recourse. I'd suggest thinking about it some more remembering that the reader's ease in reading can often trump "special effects" that seem relevant to the author but not so to anyone else.

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...it was too confusing for the reader and unnecessary.

That pretty much sums it up. To me, I think if you throw too many roadblocks up, it breaks the connection with the reader.

I don't know who said it, but one of the writing texts I read a couple of years ago said that one of the writer's goals has to be to essentially hypnotize the reader into believing they're in another world, and that all the people being described in the story are real. The story should lull the reader into a "dreamlike state," to the point where the reader almost experiences the story as they do a movie, where the outside world stops.

I knew exactly what they meant. Sometimes, when I dive into an especially good novel, it's as if the lights go out and the only thing that exists in the universe is me and the book, and the scene unfolds in front of me very much as if I was in a dream. Making that happen takes a lot of work, and the more gimmicks, tense changes, point of view shifts, and so on that happen, the harder it'll be to engage the reader.

90% of the "no-no's" on the "Gay Fiction Tips" and Nick Archer's "Jumping the Shark" list fall into this category -- all things that call attention to themselves, or make the reader too aware of the machinery that's telling them the story. Granted, under exceptional circumstances, a really skilled writer might be able to pull this off -- weird tense changes, radical POV shifts, and so on. But even then, I think it's very rare.

Me, I think the Keep It Simple, Stupid rule applies.

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Guides to keep things simple, and observe the traditional rules, amongst other sensible pieces of advice are needed to keep us focused on the issues of writing. The author-reader relationship is delicate and fraught with being abused, as well as, ignored. Obscure and misunderstood techniques can put the story in peril of being abandoned by the readers, if the author hasn't beaten them to it.

Yet, it must also be recognised that venturing into the unknown, experimenting with the forces of style and form, can be also lead to innovations hitherto not discovered or utilised in a particular way.

I think we would become a very boring site indeed, if we all adhered to a list of rules on how we should write. Personally I like to see our authors, both old and new trying out new things. At worst, we might learn what not to do. Our aim should be to assist each other's creativity.

Basic assumptions that an author should not break connection with his readers, immediately oppose the principle of alienation, formulated by Brecht and used by Shakespeare through the form of blank verse.

Like Pecman, I understand and love the feeling of being transported to a place that the words in a story take me. This immersion in the story does need to have a sustained unbroken link with the reader. However immersion is merely one form of story-telling.

Writing in an objective, aloof form, in which the reader is held at arms length from being immersed, in the details, are perfectly valid where the author desires the reader to maintain a perspicacious relationship to what is being read.

The more immersive elements in a story, leave the reader feeling he has participated in the action. He has felt an evocation of atmosphere and is involved in the excitement.

The alienating elements leave him saying to himself, something like, "I hadn't though of it in that way." It is an invitation to think about what might be the significance of the story, its form, or even some underlying message.

In truth, nearly all writing, partakes in both alienation and immersion, to at least some degree.

Great authors use both. The fascinating thing is that even they, may not be aware of doing it, as the muse guides their creativity.

Therefore I think we should be prepared to explore new ideas, even when they seem to not fit in with preconceived and well established notions of what is right or not.

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The computer and word-processing programs offer a whole range of alternatives to changing tense (or italics or bold) that have not been fully explored.

For example:

  • Change the color of the type or font for, say, flashbacks.
  • Use a different and distinguishable font.
  • Change the background color.
  • Use text boxes.
  • Use buttons to open new windows outside the main narrative.

etc.

What's wonderful about this on-line genre is that we can experiment and find out what works for the reader without the confusion of multiple tenses.

Plus, we can stay with the tried and true.

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Thanks to everyone who responded to my question. The responses were as varied as the people here, and I really appreciate and understand your views. What a marvelous group you all make! :icon11:

I knew that by not giving too much of the story away at this point, your responses might head in different directions, and WOW, did they! I had pretty much decided on how I was going to present my story, and maybe my engineering background came into play here, because I became too detailed, focusing too much on mechanics. My profession is grounded in the laws of nature which are unbendable.

But reading the varied opinions here brought me back to why I'm taking up writing in the first place. And you all said it in one way or another. It's to have an outlet for creativity.

Des' second post brought me full circle back to why I asked the question in the first place...'What is it that I'm trying to do?' I thought about the significance of the two elements of 'immersion' and 'alienation' and how they related to what I wanted my readers to think and feel. And that brought me to ask myself, just whom am I writing for...the reader or myself? For me anyway, the answer is 'both.'

To say that I'm now not concerned with the mechanics of this craft would be delusional, but I now have a better understanding of my thought process going into this story and what I want to accomplish.

I didn't tell you how I plan on proceeding mechanically because that's not the significant point of what I got out of this little exchange. So instead of saying to you all 'Thanks for answering my question,' I need to say 'Thanks to everyone for enriching my writing experience.'

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... I need to say 'Thanks to everyone for enriching my writing experience.'

Our pleasure Richard.

I like to think that when we try to answer questions like yours it helps all of us to see the variety of possibilities to realise our own creativity.

By the way I hope you realise that you are now part of our 'marvellous group' as you so kindly put it. :aak[1]:

:icon11:

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Like Pecman, I understand and love the feeling of being transported to a place that the words in a story take me. This immersion in the story does need to have a sustained unbroken link with the reader. However immersion is merely one form of story-telling.

Writing in an objective, aloof form, in which the reader is held at arms length from being immersed, in the details, are perfectly valid where the author desires the reader to maintain a perspicacious relationship to what is being read.

The more immersive elements in a story, leave the reader feeling he has participated in the action. He has felt an evocation of atmosphere and is involved in the excitement.

The alienating elements leave him saying to himself, something like, "I hadn't though of it in that way." It is an invitation to think about what might be the significance of the story, its form, or even some underlying message.

In truth, nearly all writing, partakes in both alienation and immersion, to at least some degree.

Great authors use both. The fascinating thing is that even they, may not be aware of doing it, as the muse guides their creativity.

Therefore I think we should be prepared to explore new ideas, even when they seem to not fit in with preconceived and well established notions of what is right or not.

Wow, Des! You continue to amaze me with both your erudition and your ability to express yourself.

I agree with trying new things, not simply writing the same way in the same style we always have. It tests us to do that, it forces us to change and grow, and, surprisingly, it's really fun. We can get too comfortable staying in a rut we've fashioned for ourselves. Try something different for your next piece, and you'll be surprised and delighted with how you have to think along new paths, and how you'll have new sorts of problems to solve, one's you haven't faced before.

I'm not at all comfortable when I hear about all the rules we need to follow. Especially when they get really specific. Rules stifle creativity. How can you write anything if, even before you begin, you have to think of the rules for the beginning of a story, then have to try to conform to those rules? It's difficult enough to get started with the enthusiasm you need for the project and for that enthusiasm to make it's way to the page so the story begins with life and is compelling to the reader. Trying to follow a list of rules while doing so would be counterproductive.

I think rules have developed after the fact. People have looked at great writing and compiled lists of similarities of things that have worked. It's worked better to remain in the same voice throughout a story, and so that's become a rule. It's worked best for the protagonist to be gallant and attractive and that has become so standard in writing you could have a rule that that's the way to write a protagonist. Then someone writes a Hannibal Lecter and what happens to the rule?

Creativity and great writing are rule-shy. And that's why I'm leery of a list of rules. They bind a writer instead of letting him romp free. And I don't think being bound to convention helps any of us.

And before Pecman jumps on me with both feet, I do understand where he's coming from, and he's almost always correct with what he says. If we do follow his rules, our writing in almost every case will be better. He does have excellent points to make, and one would dismiss them at his own peril. I simply happen to be a rebel in lots of things, and the idea I must follow rules when I write is anathema to me.

C

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...I'm not at all comfortable when I hear about all the rules we need to follow. Especially when they get really specific. Rules stifle creativity...

Cole, I think you're right on. But I'd like to temper that a bit. Real creativity is in the solution to a problem that you're faced with. For example, an architect is faced with many problems that he has to solve in the creation of his building, and his ability to be creative in his solutions is what we're after.

This is another very trite example, but it works. Let's say that I ask you to design something. You would probably then ask me what I wanted you to design...an airplane, a bridge, some computer software, etc. By asking that question and getting an answer, you've now given yourself a restraint. The further you go down that road of defining what it is that you're going to design, the more restraints you've imposed upon yourself.

I believe true creativity is expressed in the solutions that you dream up or create given the restraints imposed either by yourself, or others. The word 'creativity' is derived from the word 'create.'

I think you're absolutely correct is defining the 'Rules Of Writing' as artificial and were designed only after the fact to explain what has already happened instead of laying a solid basis for doing something in the future.

I believe that real creativity comes out of having those restraints in place.

Just a newbe's humble opinion.

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I believe true creativity is expressed in the solutions that you dream up or create given the restraints imposed either by yourself, or others.

Frank Lloyd Wright, famed architect, left his Wisconsin school to found a western branch named Taliesin West in the outskirts of Phoenix, AZ. He chose wood and canvas as two major compoents of this Taliesin West. Both choices proved the difficulty in adhering to the "rule" of his school by implementing a wood that deteriorated rapidly in the southwestern heat and canvas for his roofing material which deteriorated rapidly as well. Both components had to be replaced within a few years of the construction of his building.

My point is similar to Richard's in that we can adhere religiously to our tenets or we can be flexible where it makes creative sense. Writing is something that at least can be improved by editing as opposed to building construction where decisions made during planning can have consequential physical and fiscal results for the outcome.

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Creativity and great writing are rule-shy. And that's why I'm leery of a list of rules. They bind a writer instead of letting him romp free. And I don't think being bound to convention helps any of us.

I think they're not so much rules as guidelines. Rules would be, if you're in a car race, you have to stay in your lane, you can't deliberately crash into people, and you can't drive off the track and take a shortcut.

Guidelines are, if you're coloring in a coloring book, stay within the lines, and make pictures that please you.

Naturally, you get Picasso in there, he'll draw outside the lines and create a piece of art worth $100,000. So there's always exceptions.

Framed within the context of neophyte writers just starting out, I think mixing up tenses and POV's and doing lots of flashbacks are an immediate red flag. They're going to have to be immensely talented to pull that off, and I can't recall ever seeing it done at this level. To me, fledgling writers have to learn to climb hills before they tackle Everest.

I also think it's more important to worry about the meat-and-potatoes issues: what's the story about? who are the characters? does the story have a beginning, middle, and an end? Most importantly, what can I do to retain the reader's interest?

Those are the big issues. Tense, POV, and all that technical crap are just frills. Getting wrapped up in that is a distraction to the hard work that goes into the story.

BTW, I do agree with VWL about the use of alternate fonts and backgrounds to denote a flashback. That would be a perfectly valid way to denote a change in time and place, and to me, it's not too in-your-face. But I'd try to use it sparingly and subtly.

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I just want to comment on the purpose of rules and conventions in writing: they are not there to be straightjackets for the author. No, they are there to facilitate communication between the author and the reader.

To me the purpose of writing is twofold: 1) it is the means by which an author expresses his ideas, narrative and story, and 2) it is the means by which the author communicates his work to the reader.

In order to communicate with the reader, it is necessary to have conventions and grammar and spelling rules, which don't have to be hard and fast but have to be sufficient so that the reader and the writer are on the same communication plain. But the reader is not a captive, forced to read whatever the writer provides. The reader has to be enticed, and that means that the pipeline between the author's words and the reader's eyes needs to be as free of obstacles as possible. The conventions of tense, grammar, spelling, etc., help remove the obstacles

The author needs to realize that reader has thousands or millions of choices, and the easier he makes it for the reader to absorb what he has written the more likely it will be that the reader will stay with what the author has produced.

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I just want to comment on the purpose of rules and conventions in writing: they are not there to be straightjackets for the author. No, they are there to facilitate communication between the author and the reader.

To me the purpose of writing is twofold: 1) it is the means by which an author expresses his ideas, narrative and story, and 2) it is the means by which the author communicates his work to the reader.

In order to communicate with the reader, it is necessary to have conventions and grammar and spelling rules, which don't have to be hard and fast but have to be sufficient so that the reader and the writer are on the same communication plain. But the reader is not a captive, forced to read whatever the writer provides. The reader has to be enticed, and that means that the pipeline between the author's words and the reader's eyes needs to be as free of obstacles as possible. The conventions of tense, grammar, spelling, etc., help remove the obstacles

The author needs to realize that reader has thousands or millions of choices, and the easier he makes it for the reader to absorb what he has written the more likely it will be that the reader will stay with what the author has produced.

I agree with you Richard that conventions do facilitate easier communication between author and reader. We all would agree that printing the letters upside down in relation to the text on the cover is not a good idea. (Though no doubt, someone has probably done it just to flaunt convention.)

Grammar and spelling rules also assist in keeping us on a level playing field. I am learning more everyday from our discussions and stories.

There does occur however, the thought that if we are too restrictive in our demands for our writing to be easily read and understood, that we might all end up being enticed to eat fast food instead of making the effort try something new, more challenging, perhaps French or even stir-fry.

Finding ways to encourage a reader to make the effort to read something that is unusual or somewhat more difficult, is part of the satisfaction of writing.

I am not convinced that using text colours and backgrounds are anything more than distractions from achieving literary merit. It might make it just a bit too easy to bypass inventiveness in the word structure. I think a story has to be perceivable by a blind person when he hears it. No, I am not against pictures and drawings accompanying a story, but neither do they intrude on the well written text, they are an adjunct.

Of course that objection might not apply to a new media format.

It is worth considering that both the form and the content, style and substance, lend themselves to investigation.

And yes, I say this with the intent of encouraging the Picasso, the Shakespeare, the Mozart that lurks in us all, but more to the point, to encourage the unique creativity that I believe is at the heart of every individual. In many respects I do think we are a breeding ground of excellence. Obviously not everyone is going to reach the dizzying heights of some kind of perfection. They don't have to, but they do owe to themselves to do as good as they can.

In fact, I think, all the conventions and guides, all the questioning of what might be possible, and all our comments are of help in that.

Besides which learning to be an author, to write, is like anything else, practise makes perfect. After all, as a homosexual I have found it necessary to keep practising in hope of that perfect...perhaps I will leave that to your imagination. :stare:

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I just want to comment on the purpose of rules and conventions in writing: they are not there to be straightjackets for the author. No, they are there to facilitate communication between the author and the reader.

Just to offer a different perspective on this, I've made some minor changes in the above:

I just want to comment on the purposes of rules and conventions in sex: they are not there to be straightjackets for the lovers. No, they are there to facilitate loving communication between the couple.

Some time ago I read that if you want to test a 'truth' you need to change some of the details to a different setting, and if it still holds, then it is much more likely to be truth, and I think this fits that test nicely.

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I just want to comment on the purpose of rules and conventions in writing: they are not there to be straightjackets for the author. No, they are there to facilitate communication between the author and the reader.
Just to offer a different perspective on this, I've made some minor changes in the above:

I just want to comment on the purposes of rules and conventions in sex: they are not there to be straightjackets for the lovers. No, they are there to facilitate loving communication between the couple.

Some time ago I read that if you want to test a 'truth' you need to change some of the details to a different setting, and if it still holds, then it is much more likely to be truth, and I think this fits that test nicely.

Hmmmm Trab!

I'm not at all sure about that. From what I see there are quite a lot of people who do not understand the pleasure of sex without a straight jacket. Sex in a gay jacket of course is something else. :stare:

Seriously, Trab, that is a nice trick to substitute for a truth test.

Hmmmm I think if we substitute the jackets on quite a few straights, we might get to their inner truth. :stare:

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QUOTE (Cole Parker @ Nov 6 2008, 12:19 PM)

Creativity and great writing are rule-shy. And that's why I'm leery of a list of rules. They bind a writer instead of letting him romp free. And I don't think being bound to convention helps any of us.

FROM PECMAN: I think they're not so much rules as guidelines. Rules would be, if you're in a car race, you have to stay in your lane, you can't deliberately crash into people, and you can't drive off the track and take a shortcut.

Guidelines are, if you're coloring in a coloring book, stay within the lines, and make pictures that please you.

Naturally, you get Picasso in there, he'll draw outside the lines and create a piece of art worth $100,000. So there's always exceptions.

Framed within the context of neophyte writers just starting out, I think mixing up tenses and POV's and doing lots of flashbacks are an immediate red flag. They're going to have to be immensely talented to pull that off, and I can't recall ever seeing it done at this level. To me, fledgling writers have to learn to climb hills before they tackle Everest.

I also think it's more important to worry about the meat-and-potatoes issues: what's the story about? who are the characters? does the story have a beginning, middle, and an end? Most importantly, what can I do to retain the reader's interest?

Those are the big issues. Tense, POV, and all that technical crap are just frills. Getting wrapped up in that is a distraction to the hard work that goes into the story.

BTW, I do agree with VWL about the use of alternate fonts and backgrounds to denote a flashback. That would be a perfectly valid way to denote a change in time and place, and to me, it's not too in-your-face. But I'd try to use it sparingly and subtly.

I must say, I greatly prefer the word 'guideline' to the word 'rule.' It seems so much less dictatorial, so much more encouraging.

In fact, everything said here has merit. I agree that beginners should work within a different framework than more experienced writers. It is a given that this is a craft where you learn by doing. You can begin to take chances, to pull on your leash, as you have some solid work behind you. I agree that you shouldn't, for your first opus, attempt something to rival Beethoven's 9th, or to move four paces past Picasso. Better to just start with a jingle, or drawing a representation of a tree. If you can do either or both of those well enough to satisfy yoiurself, then you can look forward.

C

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I am not convinced that using text colours and backgrounds are anything more than distractions from achieving literary merit.

Well, that's the reason why I advised try to do it sparingly and with some subtlety. For example, if you had an entire chapter as a flashback from five years earlier, I think just going with a different font -- Times, perhaps, instead of Helvetica (or vice-versa) -- might work. I've certainly seen this done with published books that alternate between typical fiction and diary entries, where a handwritten font was used for the diary entries. Stephen King has done this in several novels, to good effect.

After all, as a homosexual I have found it necessary to keep practising in hope of that perfect...

That's the old joke about being a "practicing homosexual" -- I'm just practicing until I get it right.

It's funny: I never think of the word "homosexual" to describe myself. To me, that's a medical/psychological word that doesn't apply. Gay works fine.

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I just want to comment on the purpose of rules and conventions in writing: they are not there to be straightjackets for the author. No, they are there to facilitate communication between the author and the reader.

Yeah, I think VWL has zeroed in on the crux of the matter.

Maybe a comparison I should have made was comparing writing fiction to writing music. Sure, you can avoid all the rules, hit flat chords, change tempo every measure, come to a complete stop every so often, avoid conventional harmony, have lyrics that don't rhyme, and so on. Very avant-garde.

But I don't think it's as entertaining as a well-constructed song that flows from the first note, follows a conventional structure, has verses, a chorus every so often, pleasing harmonies, and a melody you can hum along with. I can do this with everything from The Carpenters to Guns N' Roses, from The Beatles to Metallica, and from Burt Bacharach to Rob Zombie. Even a group of musicians this diverse still followed those rules. (Excuse me... guidelines!) Granted, there are true avant garde devotees -- take musique concr?te, please -- but I'm not one of them. (Not a big Yoko Ono fan, either.)

Just going by standard musical structure can still yield tens of millions of different possible songs, as-yet unwritten. I think the same is true for fiction. There's millions of stories out there, still unwritten, and I bet quite a few of them are potentially great. I don't necessarily mean commercial best-sellers, but at least stories that entertain, stories that engage the listener, and at least help people forget their troubles for a little while.

BTW, I was trying to think of noted authors who eschewed convention and broke all the rules. Aside from e e cummings, who always wrote in lower case and avoided some punctuation, I can't think of a lot of others. Anybody?

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QUOTE (Cole Parker @ Nov 6 2008, 12:19 PM) BTW, I do agree with VWL about the use of alternate fonts and backgrounds to denote a flashback. That would be a perfectly valid way to denote a change in time and place, and to me, it's not too in-your-face. But I'd try to use it sparingly and subtly.

C

I used a change in both fonts and colors in my story Childhood Memories. I did it that way because a reader complained that he couldn't follow the flashbacks in this story. There is a today-story of the protagonist with a flashback to the protagonist's grandfather who then has a flashback to the protagonist's great-grandfather; the story returns to the grandfather then to the protagonist where it ends. It's like this diagram:

  • Protagonist
    • Grandfather
      • Great Grandfather

      [*] Grandfather

    [*]Protagonist

I think it was successful and kept confusion at bay.

Colin :stare:

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