In the past, I’ve remarked that I would very much like to be Neil Gaiman when I grow up. I do not, of course, mean that I would like to be a middle-aged man with perpetually untidy black hair, a keen wit, and a ridiculously awesome English accent, though of course some of these things are indeed things I envy and/or aspire to. (I currently have perpetually untidy red hair. It’s very different.) No, what I admire about Neil Gaiman is this: he is, I daresay, the authorial version of the Renaissance man. He’s worked in a vast array of media – comics, prose, poetry, music, beekeeping – and it’s gotten to the point where I’m not sure there’s anything he can’t do. That’s the course I’d like my career to take. Ten, twenty, thirty years down the line, I’d like to look back and say that, yes, I, too, have done a little bit of everything.
Except the beekeeping. I have a deathly fear of bees. …I probably shouldn’t admit that kind of thing on the open Internet.
I realize I’m burying the lede, here, so let me get to the point: the stories we tell, the shapes those stories take, are determined by a million different decisions. Some of them are quite big and obvious. Medium, of course, plays a central role in the final development of a story. A film is not the same animal as a short story, a novel, or even a television show. But some of the decisions you’ll make will be smaller. Subtler. They are, nevertheless, vitally important, and at every turn, in considering every aspect of your tale, you should ask yourself how this choice or that will alter your story. Will it make your job easier? Will it help you tell the story you want to tell? If your choices are going to make the story more difficult for you to write, then why are you making those particular decisions? What benefit will you gain, and how will it outweigh the costs?
Case in point: my two major projects, Ten Witch Grave and Fall. Ten Witch Grave is the working title of my children’s book, something that I hope will follow in the footsteps of His Dark Materials and Stardust. It’s currently on the back burner, though I’m planning to return to it after I’m done with Fall, and I hope to have it done by the time my niece (currently around 23 months old) is old enough to appreciate chapter books. Structurally, it’s very much a traditional novel: I’m writing in the third person, limited omniscient, past tense, all that. Narratively it reads like a fairy tale, which of course it is, to some degree. All well and good.
Fall is quite a different animal. It’s in the first person, told entirely from the perspective of my heroine, Bree, and thus it follows that the information available to her (and thus the reader) at any given time is limited. It’s also in the present tense.
I always saw the present tense as gimmicky at best. When I was younger, any book written in the present tense had to work that much harder to win me over. I vividly recall a silly little science fiction novel called This Place Has No Atmosphere which I did, ultimately, enjoy in all its corny, fluffy glory – but only after resisting the impulse to take the book straight back to the library after discovering it was written in the present tense. Even now, looking back, I wonder why the author made that decision, because I don’t think it served the book well. And while I liked the book, at the time, it reinforced my perception of the present tense as inherently artificial and hokey, something done in a flawed attempt to grab the reader’s attention or experiment with the narrative, seldom if ever yielding positive results.
This led to something of a crisis of faith when I started thinking about Fall and came to the realization that it would work so much better in the present tense – that, indeed, I wasn’t sure I could write the same story in the past tense.
Luckily, it was around this time that my friend Katie came to my rescue again. You may recall that I was inspired to write Fall after I read the Twilight series – entirely Katie’s fault, but since it did inspire my current project and it led me into the rather amusing world of Twilight fanfic, I’ve since forgiven her. (The jury is still out on her decision to expose me to His Dark Materials, which made me cry like a baby at the end, but I guess that’s inspired its own projects, so I have to let her off the hook for that one, too.) Katie ultimately made up for the aforementioned atrocities by making me read The Hunger Games, which also made me cry, but in a good, cathartic kind of way. More importantly, it showed me that the present tense was not a gimmick. It could be done well. In fact, it could be the only viable choice for some stories. Can you imagine that book, or its sequels, written in the past tense? Would the events therein have carried the same sense of immediacy? Would we have believed that literally anything could happen to Katniss if she was narrating those events from some undefined future date? I won’t say that Suzanne Collins couldn’t have written The Hunger Games in the past tense – but it would have been a very different series.
Similarly, the more time I spend with Fall, the more I realize that I can’t tell that story any other way, either. It has to be in the first person: this is Bree’s story, the tale of a girl coming to terms with her past and her future, discovering her roots and forging a new destiny for herself and the people she loves. It’s a lot of other things as well, but at its core, it’s Bree’s tale to tell, and no one else’s. And it is important – vital – that I as the writer and you all as the readers take that journey with Bree. This is not a story she’s going to tell at some unspecified future date – or, if she does, she’ll be editing it and censoring herself heavily. This is a story we will only get if we’re inside Bree’s head as it happens.
I talk a good game, but I have to admit I faltered on these points recently. Someone (I’m honestly not sure who) told me that they were surprised at my use of present tense and found it odd, and all my old doubts came rushing back. I tried writing a chapter in past tense, and it was like writing with one hand tied behind my back – and, more importantly, the prevailing opinion was that the story worked much better in present tense. Will I give up the faith again? Maybe. But maybe that’s not the end of the world, either.
Your story is not a breath of divine inspiration. Nor is mine. They do not, they will not, emerge fully formed from our brows. Neither are they flat-pack furniture: we can’t pull them off a shelf and assemble them from the standardized instructions with the standardized tools. Rather, we should think of our stories as the vast, complicated machines they are, sprawling devices full of moving parts. We must, with the utmost care, select just the right tools and parts for the job. We must make no assumptions. We must question every choice we make: structure, character, plot, narrative, dialogue, all of it. Only then will our stories function properly.
Don’t go with the crowd just because it’s the ‘default’ choice. Make your own decisions. Find your own voice. And keep at it. But that’s probably another post entirely.