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Author: Subject: The Robert’s Rant Against First Person Present Tense Narratives
RobertArend
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[*] posted on 3/5/2014 at 08:48 PM
The Robert’s Rant Against First Person Present Tense Narratives


Philip Pullman — author of the bestselling series of young-adult novels “His Dark Materials” — wrote in The Guardian that blaming an aversion to the past tense on the “timorous uncertainty” of “sensitive and artistic storytellers” afraid of the “politically dodgy” implications of seeming to know too much about their own story: “Who are we to say this happened and then that happened? Maybe it didn’t, perhaps we’re wrong, there are other points of view, truth is always provisional, knowledge is always partial; the narrator is always unreliable, and so on.”

In my own excursions into the literary magazine landscape, in search of just what these mostly university press publications award top prizes and publish these days, I have been both astonished and appalled by so much first person present tense short stories headlining their fiction. Not that I haven’t written a couple of short stories from first and present (“The Butterfly” and “Creation”), but those were against an otherworld, not this world, background; where past, present and future had no bearing. Stories set in the real world should never be narrated first person present tense; otherwise they unfold like italicized thought streams—lazy dreamy sleepwalk writing instead of a serious crafting of something readers will long appreciate and remember.

It appears so many of today’s 30 and under writers were massively and fatally exposed in their younger and much more vulnerable years to such a massive dose of this lazy dreamy sleepwalk style of fiction writing that they can’t even begin to embrace any other way to narrate their stories; aborting as consequence all hope of ever rising beyond the fad in order to achieve a level of literary excellence and immortality worthy of talent first person present tense narratives will never command
.
So I rant against this France-originating fad of first person present tense fiction that has fully gripped Europe and has grown new roots in contemporary American literature. I reject immediately any story or novel that makes it clear in the opening paragraph that the narrative shall be the lazy dreamy sleepwalker. I immediately run from those works no matter they be first prize published in respected literary magazines.

Yes, it is true we don’t have Shakespearean prose in modern literature. Those days are long and properly long gone, though still studied and valued. So it is with the structure of great literature that evolved over the last one hundred years. But though first person present tense fiction may thrive in today’s literary marketplace, its cheap and watery narcissistic characterizations and streaming landscapes will eventually be discarded like the leisure suits worn to those 70s discos: a fad without substance, quickly outgrown, with some nostalgia yet devoid of any desire to return to those days again.

The proper way to tell a story hasn’t really changed much after many centuries. There’s a reason that is so. So this first person present tense way of storytelling can only be a temporary aberration. I pity those whose talent has been so corrupted that they will never be able to write their stories any other way….


sleepwalker2-431x300.jpg - 54kB

[Edited on 3/6/2014 by RobertArend]

[Edited on 3/6/2014 by RobertArend]




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Nancy G.
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[*] posted on 3/6/2014 at 09:41 AM


I agree with you, Robert.



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Michy
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[*] posted on 3/7/2014 at 05:35 AM


I don't mind the first-person, present-tense narrative when it's done right. Read The Hunger Games Trilogy and you'll see first person, present tense done right.

However, I am totally agreeing with you about the university presses and the literary journals and what they are publishing. These things read more like bad diary entries instead of fiction short stories, and often, the purpose is to expose the feeling or emotion and there's little 'story' to the story. This is where I get frustrated and it's why I've stopped submitting to many of these journals after getting copies to read.

I keep trying to read them and keep wondering where the stories are... there aren't any stories.







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Nancy G.
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[*] posted on 3/7/2014 at 07:46 AM


I read something in first person present tense not long ago. I don't even remember what it was. But it was totaling distracting. I guess I'm just too used to third (or even first) and past tense. It feels more like "telling the story".



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RobertArend
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[*] posted on 3/7/2014 at 12:42 PM


I open my eyes. I am in my living room, but I don’t remember getting out of bed and going downstairs. I sense a presence—something of an evil nature—just above my head. I can even smell it: the putrid scent of meat left too many days out on the counter to thaw. I think of covering my nose and mouth, but I have asthma and a touch of a cold.
My head turns to the coat closet’s full-length mirror, and I am reminded of how very old I now am. Today is my twenty-third birthday, and nobody cares but me. I should be famous for something by now: an Academy Award winner, a bestselling author; a Grammy-winning singer. But I haven’t acted since my portrayal of an angel in my sixth grade Christmas play. And the novel I started to write in high school—about a girl torn between loving a vampire or the female werewolf who used to be her BFF—remains at the halfway mark of page one. I haven’t sang “Our Last Summer” on karaoke Tuesdays at Danny’s Bar since last summer. I miss that, but ever since Josh left me for that 17-year-old skank, I just sing to whatever songs come up randomly on my Ipad.
Is that a streak of gray hair I see in the mirror? A frown line on my forehead? Aging is dreadful. Where has all the time gone? My parents (still asleep upstairs) have been unbearable since I dropped out of cosmetology school. They pressure me to get a job, but nobody in this freaking town has work for an actress, writer, nor singer. Walmart is where dreams go to die.
I wonder if death is really so final. Maybe in another life I had all the fame I ever wanted, so in this depressing life I chose to live unloved, unappreciated; unfamous. Old before my time and counting away the days until one last song forms a bubble in my throat and I choke to death on it. Serves my parents and Josh right. I wonder if they’ll shed any tears.
Tears fill my eyes as I face my despair in the mirror. Alice could escape through her mirror; why, oh why can’t I.
I firm my spine. I reject my tears. I run toward the mirror on legs defiant of their old weak knees. I will pass through the mirror to the fairyland on the other side—where I will be loved for all I never was instead of judged for the failure I have become. I will be young again and adored again as I was when a girl. I will be loved for me instead of the not me this world demands me to be.
Ow! Ow! Ow! My nose makes a painful cracking sound when it collides with my other nose in the mirror. Blood flows rapidly to the corners of my dry and fragile lips. I fall on my knees. I can’t breathe.
Excuse me for being in too much pain to finish this story, but perhaps it is enough to make you hold your own breath until I am recovered enough to think into words part two.


[Edited on 3/7/2014 by RobertArend]




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Melanie
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[*] posted on 3/7/2014 at 06:05 PM


I much prefer 3rd person past, but that above was just bad writing. No offense, Robert.

Starting each sentence with "I" and rambling about nothing, no matter what the tense and point of view is just bad.

If that's what they're publishing, that sucks, but it seems to have more to do with some "style" rather than the POV etc.




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RobertArend
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[*] posted on 3/7/2014 at 06:27 PM


Melanie,

It's deliberate snark, meant to be a funny spoof of the narcissism streaming through this style of story streaming. Perhaps my bias is too over the top....




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Melanie
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[*] posted on 3/8/2014 at 08:33 AM


Yes, I understood that. I didn't imagine that quality was what was being published, but something in that vein. My response wasn't clear.

Is it narcissistic because they say I instead of he? Or because the narrator is telling his own story? Or because he's telling his own story that is boring and no one cares about but him and includes nothing of the world around him?

If it's the last one, I still say it's just bad writing. Like Michy said, there is just no story.

Or I guess I really don't understand what you're saying. I don't read literary fiction, so I wouldn't come across this type of thing often.




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[*] posted on 3/8/2014 at 09:50 AM


I am not a fan of present tense first person. I prefer third person and past tense, definitely. However, I have seen present tense in snippets where the author was describing a dream sequence. It was extremely powerful, I remember. But the rest of the book was past tense.

I'm currently reading Sydney Katt's Undercover Series, book 1. She head-hops within the same chapter, and she goes from third to first. In the beginning I found it very weird, but after a few scenes I got the hang of what was going on. I don't see myself doing it, but some people just know how to make things work. She's a wonderful writer, by the way. :)

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[*] posted on 3/8/2014 at 11:25 AM


Yeah, the thing of it is this: it’s unfair and unhealthy to buttonhole some things into a ‘never do this’ category or to write any portion of a hobby off entirely. But it happens no matter the subject. On the bike forum, some believe it’s high quality or nothing, but then there are those of us who would actually rather have a Huffy or a Murray we bought at a garage sale. Same on the Jeep forum, on the guns forum, on the metal detecting forum, etcetera.

With writing, getting back to the nitty gritty of it, we are supposed to write what we enjoy. Just like a chess opening that’s not sound and any grandmaster in the world would break easily, the name of the game is fun. If you enjoy the opening or the style of writing, and don’t care about getting to the top, then go for it!

There are so many styles out there it’s not even funny. In the end, there are going to be good writers and bad writers, just as in every other hobby, profession, or activity in the world. Stephen King could, without a doubt, pull off a killer first person present tense story far easier than a complete n00b could. Does that mean that the style is a good one? No. It means Stephen King is a good writer who has special abilities.

Just the same as a really bad writer can obey all the generally accepted rules and still come up with a steaming pile of crap.

I have a really nice, high-end drum set. That doesn’t mean I can make it sound like John Bonham is playing. A really good drummer can make a crappy set sound spectacular. It’s all about the artist, not the tools used, for the most part.

When a new writer begins googling things about the craft, he or she may come across threads like these and be disappointed to find their favorite style of writing, first person present tense, is a big industry no-no and then may abandon it entirely. But what if they are really good? What if they have what it takes to pull it off? Won’t matter, because they’ll switch gears and the world would never receive the story it should have.

Anyhow, /rant lol.




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[*] posted on 3/8/2014 at 02:04 PM


I get your gist, Derek, but I kinda disagree.

If you have a burning desire and a good story to tell, you're going to tell it, regardless of what threads like this say. And if they see a thread like this and it makes them change their mind, they are never going to have the fortitude to get through agents and publishers and editing. And if they decide to self-publish their work they'll never have a strong enough constitution to handle a bad review and won't have the passion to market their work intensely.

Even when I was a noob, no one could have talked me out of doing what I wanted to do when I thought I had a good idea. Later on, I may have decided with some of those ideas that, once I learned more about the craft, the people who were talking either were right or were dead wrong, and I did, of course, look at all the reasons why someone said what they said, but there is nothing anyone could have said that would have deterred me from writing what I wanted to write.

The world is full of excuses not to succeed--the only person to blame for failure is you--because the only way you can fail is to give up before you succeed.






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RobertArend
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[*] posted on 3/8/2014 at 06:22 PM


Perhaps I am being too harsh about this. Of all my free estories, "The Butterfly" has been my most downloaded on both Amazon and Smashwords. If I had sold as many as was given away, I think my entire cost to heat my home this winter would have been covered. I narrated it first person present tense, with the exception of the protagonist's reflections on past events. Go figure....

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Butterfly-Robert-Arend-ebook/dp/B00CGCWA3A/re...

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/308304




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[*] posted on 3/9/2014 at 03:19 PM


See, I disagree with you, Michy and agree with Derek.

As you know, when I wrote my first book- I did let people change my writing- thinking they had more experience than me and they were right- but they weren't. If it wasn't for you telling me to go back to my original and ignoring their edits it would have been a horrible story.

But that was inexperience that made me listen and had nothing to do with having the fortitude to go through the publishing process or the ability to handle bad reviews (which, I haven't had to deal with yet- so I may very well curl up into a little ball when they happen, who knows).

I just did a blog post because I got so mad when a teacher at a local college was laying out her rules as absolutes in writing. It pissed me off because there are no absolutes- just because a style, tense etc worked for one writer, doesn't mean that is the only way to do it and all other writers who don't will fail.

The funny/not-really-funny-but-sad thing about this teacher is she included handouts and both handouts she had written and/or approved of used the wrong there/their/they're. The first I thought was a typo or a mistake, but then I saw it wrong in other places too. I could not believe it.






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[*] posted on 3/10/2014 at 12:53 PM


I guess I would like to think you would have eventually gotten frustrated with them all and realized they were taking your voice away and would have come back to the conclusion on your own.

But I get what you're saying... I guess I was never that insecure about my writing. If anything, I was a little cocky about my writing in the beginning, and I laugh about it some now, because I see how badly I wrote then compared to now. I joke all the time that in ten more years, I'll look back on this time and laugh at how poorly I wrote today.





Love and stuff,
Michy
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Do just once what others say you can't do, and you will never pay attention to their limitations again." James R. Cook

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[*] posted on 4/19/2014 at 08:11 AM


Tried very hard to write my book in third person, past tense. Could not get it to work. It's a very personal story and I found it difficult to approach from a third person point of view. I tried mixing p o v, having different segments written from different perspectives, but didn't like the results. I'm not trying to be recognized as a literary genius - just want to tell my version of events.

I also object to the self-centered focus of many things written in first person, present tense, as Robert so adeptly parodied, but it is possible to tell a story from an "I" point of view without starting every sentence with "I." It's also a matter of education. Our schools and our society (in the US), unlike Japan or other Oriental cultures, emphasize individually. Young people are told they are important, that they matter, and they do. We all matter; however, many parents cater, cater, cater to their children, who grow up thinking the universe revolves around them. While good self-esteem is part of a healthy psyche, an inflated sense of self-importance can have a negative impact on many aspects of one's life. The tendency for younger writers to use first person, present tense, is simply indicative, imo, of how they were raised and is a "sign of the times." Hopefully, they will mature out of it.

One of the problems when writing in the first person is telling the reader what another character is feeling or thinking. Of course, as the author you know, but the "I" narrating the story can't, unless the other character tells them either in words or by body language or expression.

Even writing as "I" an author has to keep some separation between his/her "real" self and the character in the piece. It isn't easy.
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[*] posted on 4/19/2014 at 08:36 AM


More thoughts on this - it is our job as a writer to entice the reader to care about our characters. If the reader is not engaged, if the characters in the story do not have some sort of appeal, whether because they are terrific people or so evil we want to know what makes them tick, why they do the things they do, then there's no point to writing the story because the reader is not going to waste the time to get involved. When people write "I did this. I did that." there's not much appeal, at least to me. It's a matter of getting the reader to connect, to identify with what the character is feeling or has experienced. If you make that connection, the point of view or verb tense is secondary.
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