Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Center Code: A Rebuttal from Les Edgerton

Pain is weakness leaving the body. 
A little while back, I posted up an idea I have about writing in the present tense. I asked Les Edgerton, a man with far more experience than I, for his opinion about it. He graciously took the time and trouble to give it. When I received his rebuttal, it took me about an hour to realize that this is the criticism I have been looking for, and for quite a while now.

See, my perspective on failures and shortcomings is that they can be far more instructive than whatever pleases the ego or makes us comfortable. Therefore I have asked Les if I can publish his rebuttal to my blog unfiltered and in its entirety. He gave me the go-ahead. Next Wednesday I'll post up my own thoughts in an effort to try to explain myself a little more clearly on Center Code. But for now, enjoy an inside look at how real editing and real critique is done. And once again, thanks Les. The rebuttal follows; Les's comments in bold.

First, I’d like to commend Chris on his motivation for promoting present tense. Most of the writers I encounter who try present tense are younger or newer writers, who choose to employ it in an effort to look “original.” Which never, ever works. Because… it’s not original. It mostly comes across as a stylistic attempt to appear different. Same motivation as the young coed who writes poetry sans capitals (ala e.e. cummings), or writing fiction with space breaks between each paragraph (ala Lonnie Moore), or any number of other stylistic aberrations which they believe marks them as original but only serve to make them stand out as derivative.
Chris’ motives are much purer—he sees past tense (and past perfect tense) as being impediments to the fictive dream. Very commendable. Alas, I see a number of problems with his thesis.
Which I’ll address in Chris’ article itself…

Center Code: A New(ish) System of Writing
By Chris White

First of all, I know I'm not the first guy who's tried this. But I’m trying to develop a new(ish) style of writing I’m calling Center Code. Really, it's just a new way of looking at writing in the present tense. Center means—well that bit is obvious, but code in this sense has to do with writing; an orderly system of rules; a book. With the concept of Center Code, I’m looking at the events of a story on a timeline that moves from left to right. The fictional past (left), fictional future (right), and fictional present (center) in Center Code are more distinct than in traditional writing and therefore easier both to read and to write, without the author having to use so many words in the story to explain everything.

So allow me to go ahead and use lots of words to explain how it works. Past perfect is clunky. Yes it is. Which is why, about forty years ago, writers learned that when going into a flashback, the first sentence began in past perfect… and then immediately segued into past tense. That offended old-time English teachers, but it worked to deliver the reader to simple past tense, which is ingested by readers as the “present tense” of a story. The only ones who write flashbacks entirely in past perfect tense are writers who haven’t kept up with conventions, or, old-time English teachers… That’s kinda what started all this, in my head. I’ve done some editing lately, some collaborating, some writing of my own, and I noticed that lots of us are using this tool called the flashback when we tell our stories. Except, in the vast majority of quality stories, flashbacks aren’t used much at all these days. For my own students, I suggest that one flashback per novel is allowed in the first draft… to be removed from the final draft. When encountering many flashbacks in a novel these days, it suggests a newer writer, and one who hasn’t learned that backstory isn’t important most of the time, and if it is, it can be delivered in a much better way than stopping the narrative to go there. Flashbacks are mostly (mostly, which doesn’t mean always, but means mostly…) archaic components of contemporary novels, written primarily by tyros and writers who eventually end up self-published. If you haven’t seen LOST, you might have to wrack your brain to get what I’m talking about, but suffice it to say that there are certain signals a storyteller needs to give the audience when a flashback is happening, otherwise chaos overtakes all of us and we drown in a sea of useless words. The “signals” that we used to use were the space break and the first sentence of the flashback written in past perfect tense, going immediately thereafter to simple past tense. I say “used to use” because that’s changed in the past few years, although it’s still accepted, more among brand name authors than newer ones.  I want to be able to write in flashback, or even to be able to show the past on the storyline much more clearly. Center Code allows this, and makes the solution elegant and sensible.

However, there is a contemporary technique that provides the writer a seamless way to segue into the past that doesn’t even create a blink. It avoids all the problems Chris refers to. A great example is in Gerald Donovan’s novel, Sunless. It begins with the protagonist at the age of five and creates (in past tense) the inciting incident that creates the story problem, up until page 27 when, with on simple sentence the reader is effortlessly transported into the “present” of the story when he’s in his twenties. The sentence is brilliant. It reads: A year and then twelve years passed like a bandage.And, voila! we are immediately transported thirteen years from the past into the present of the story. No space break, no past perfect tense sentence to signal a departure from the time previously on the page. Repeat: Not a past perfect sentence in sight. An absolutely seamless transition into the present of the story and both the narrative preceding this and then after this sentence, is all couched in the present of the story.

What Donovan does in his novel is precisely what I think Chris is attempting to do with his Center Code theory. The good news is, it’s already been done and much easier than inventing an entirely new structure.

It’s easy in film or visual media like television. Usually, in the early days, the camera would zoom in on a character and then the focus would go all fuzzy and dreamlike (as in Casablanca), and then the flashback sequence would start and we would understand that what is happening on the screen actually happened before the first part of the narrative that we saw. The way the LOST folks did it was to use a signature sound, very similar to the sound we heard at the beginning of each show, when the letters did their little fly-in thing. (The Lost technique was film’s method of providing a space break for a signal.)

In the early days of film, directors borrowed most of their techniques from books. The original way to signal a flashback or that we’re going to a new pov or time, was to simply state it, ala the “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” scrolling across the scene in Caligula script. These days, fiction writers borrow film techniques. Instead of that later technique with the wipe or dissolve (taken from the space break of books) in the Cassablanca example, beginning with Truffaut, film suddenly began using what was called the “jump cut,” which is today considered an archaic term (even though still appearing in some screenplay software) which no selling screenwriter would ever provide in a spec script. Today, almost all scenes are jump cuts and there no longer exists transitions like wipes, dissolves, script scrolling, etc. While film aped prose at first, nowadays prose acquires film techniques which is why Donovan’s technique works—we’ve been “trained” to accept seamless transitions and no longer need signals such space breaks or that horrid first past perfect tense sentence. They’re still used, of course, but they’ll become rarer and rarer as writers begin to learn how contemporary writing works and quit listening to English teachers on things like this. The point is, past perfect sentences used to signal flashbacks or other departures are pass√©, even if some writers haven’t yet learned so. And, although we’ll continue to see space breaks for perhaps the next ten years, the up-to-date writer won’t be using them. We’ll follow examples like Donovan instead.

It's not so easy in print, especially when so few of us have done very much to move it along. We're still writing basically the same way our forebears did about 150 years ago, about when Charles Dickens was just making it big. I would disagree heartily with this. Nobody writes like Dickens these days. At least, those who get published legitimately don’t. We're still, in other words, like a filmmaker who's using the extreme closeup and soft focus trick to show breaks in the narrative of our stories, and we're behind the times. No filmmaker other than those making direct-to-video or home movies uses those techniques any longer. Even the term “jump cut” is extremely archaic and that ended those dissolves, etc., many decades ago. Now I know this will get me into trouble with the sage and wise among us, but I think—if the written version of media is to stand up to the pressures exerted on it by technology and culture these days—that we writers need to come up with some kind of system of rules for our writing that makes it more interesting, makes it stand out, engages the reader, moves the story along clearly and briskly. We need to develop a system that, by design, translates well into other media the audioBook, for one.

Much like Hemingway found a way to call forth a new style that brought immediacy and purity to his art, I think it’s logical that we today can do more of the same—if we are unbound by the constraint of believing that we have to do things the way they’ve always been done.

One thing that’s always bugged me is how, no matter how awkward, novels are written in two tenses, even three, all at one time—and the way these tenses mix and interact makes little to no sense. I already mentioned the past perfect bit about flashbacks. Past perfect masquerades as the past, making a distinction between it and the past tense, which masquerades as the present in the novel. Still with me? Let’s use some examples. Here’s how lots of novels are written in two tenses at once: The problem with this argument is that no one uses past perfect tense in flashbacks in contemporary fiction. We still see it as the first sentence of a flashback, but that’s over already, even though some haven’t found that out. Therefore, this makes the point moot.

She reflected on how things went down with Sam, last time they saw each other. She had tried to leave, but he hadn’t allowed that. This is simply an example of poorwriting. For starters, the author began the whole thing in the first sentence by “telling” instead of showing, and then repeats the error in the second. This isn’t the level of writing to begin with that Random House is apt to publish. The first sentence blatantly tells the reader she’s going into a flashback and the second isn’t needed. Just… write…. the… scene.

For example, the writer would have been better served by writing (for starters, I’d get rid of passive, “telling” verbs like “reflected.”) Reflected is a particularly odious verb, indicating a person in repose, idly musing over the sermonette of the week. Just not an active verb at all.

            The same thing had happened last time she’d seen Sam.
            “Get your ass back here,” he said. (And then just go on with the flashback. The “had happened” is the only signal needed to let the reader know it’s a flashback.)

See how it starts out in past tense, then switches to past perfect when the flashback is introduced? That bugs me, because, as I’ve said, it’s kinda clunky, awkward, and thick with words that really clog up the narrative. All of that is present because the writer had few skills. Now, to see how novels can be written in three tenses at once, let’s add dialogue:

Bryson was highly neurotic; he hadn’t been the same since his sister had died suddenly all those years ago. “But that’s over,” he told himself. This is a terrible example in several ways. First, colons and semicolons have for a couple of decades been considered archaic punctuation in fiction and are no longer used. They’re too formal for fiction (still used in nonfiction and English classes), but today the em dash is used instead of these. The only people who use colons and semicolons are brand names, and some foreign cultures. Contemporary writers who’ve kept up with today’s usages know better. Then, there’s an adverb used (suddenly) that is the poster child for why most adverbs shouldn’t be used. But, the worst flaw in this is the writer has the character talking out loud to himself! Actually, it kind of proves he’s neurotic, as only lunes talk out loud to themselves. I suspect the writer may have intended this to be a thought, but thoughts are never delivered with quotation marks—only spoken out loud dialog justifies quote marks. Again, this is mostly telling once again (Brian was highly neurotic) Also, another adverb totally unnecessary—“highly.” That’s like saying someone is “highly pregnant.” You either are… or you aren’t. Neuroticism isn’t a condition assigned degrees, as a rule. Also, and more egregious, it’s again the writer telling instead of showing. To be honest, this example just plain sucks and it’s not the past/past-perfect tense that makes it so.

I may as neurotic as Bryson, but it bugs the heck out of me that all the dialogue in any given story is present tense, and everything else is either past or past perfect. I know, I know, I know, it’s always been done that way and who the heck am I to go changing things. I guess I never noticed it either—until I started writing—and needed to generate internal monologue, usually denoted by italics, like this (which brings up yet another flaw with tradition):

I think here Chris defeats his own argument when he says, “I guess I never noticed it either.” Exactly. The whole reason we use past simple tense. The reader never notices it. It’s the entire reason we use simple past tense. THE READER NEVER NOTICES. We all accept it as the “present” tense of the story.

“You’re a fool!” he said, a little too unkindly. And I hate you, he added to himself, which was even more unkind.

Again, an example of poor writing here. This writer seems to love adverbs (too unkindly). While adverbs used with originality can elevate writing, this kind of usage signals a lazy writer who hasn’t yet learned that the dialog should be written to show the reader the intent of the speaker. And, when someone says, “You’re a fool!” (especially with an exclamation point, of which about one should be allowed per novel—in the first draft, and then taken out in the final draft) to tag that with “a little too unkindly” comes across more as humorous than anything. Is this a writer trying to be ironic? And then, the tag to the thought is wordy to a fault. Why not just write, And I hate you, he thought? I’m afraid this writer hasn’t mastered the craft of showing and not telling. He or she is informing every single word spoken. This is a writer who clearly hasn’t learned to trust his audience’s ability to “get it” without his help. As for italics, I always tell my students not to use them for thoughts. While technically okay, they usually don’t work. For one thing, if this is narrative that has a lot of characters’ thoughts, there’s an aesthetic being violated. It just looks like crap on the page when the reader encounters many of them. So long as it’s clear it was a thought, there’s just no need to italicize them at all.

I may be picking at nits here, but that monologue bit is not inside quotations, but it is in present tense—because it’s something the character is saying (unspoken or not). Anyway, all this is to say, if there’s so much inconsistency in our fiction, it sure seems like anything goes, because I can’t really tell what the rules are anymore. How is it sensible at all to write in three tenses at once? Center Code makes a case for writing in one tense at a time, at least most of the time. I think, given how far things have wandered from reason, that we’re overdue for someone to make a stab at generating some new rules.

So here goes. Center Code allows the story to be told from the center, tense-wise. Therefore the entire narrative (depending on where it appears on the timeline) is in the present tense, along with the dialogue. That's handy. It brings everything into sync. Everything that appears in past tense, therefore, can be taken literally as past tense; there’s no need to use past perfect except on rare occasion. Likewise with anything that has yet to happen, a la foreshadowing. But future tense, i.e. He will soon find out, is theoretically rare. Sure, Center Code takes some getting used to, but if you try it, you just may find you like it. All I'm trying to do here is put a name to something that's probably been tried before, but hasn't been well received because of poor packaging or lack of planning. I figure if we at least name it something that is sensible, something that represents clearly the thinking behind the system, we can better understand it, both as writers and as readers.

Center Code allows for a cleaner storyline and makes more sense overall. Plus, if and when the tense changes, the reader is alerted to it quite effectively and naturally, and without any extra explanatory language—i.e., the fuzzy dissolve made infamous by Spaceballs. Flashbacks can be written in simple past tense But, they are, even with writers who aren’t yet aware of Donovan’s example. Nobody writes flashbacks in past perfect tense. Nobody who’s published, except perhaps a hack like Stephanie Myer, writes a flashback in past perfect tense. Hasn’t been done—at least by well-published writers with intelligent editors in about 40 years.  rather than clunky past perfect, and if the story moves back to center, it’s just as obvious that it’s happening without all this heavy-handedness from the writer. Plus there's no weirdness from the coexistence of past tense narrative and present tense dialogue in the same freaking sentence. I know you're chomping at the bit for an example of Center Code in action, so here's an excerpt of something I'm working on:

“What’s it like to die.” It’s not stated as a question.
She looks at K, both intrigued and annoyed. “Nobody really knows, do they?”
“No,” he says. He looks at her, considering things. She’s munching her ice cubes, a habit both attractive and repellent. “I mean,” he continues, “what happens at the moment, say, when a man takes a bullet to the heart? Does he just die instantly, or does he feel the pain?”
“I guess there’s probably some shock.”
“Yeah, but nobody knows that,” he says.
“Sure they do. Lots of people have been shot before.”
“Not in the heart. Not that, and lived to tell about it.”
“There’s a lot of people in the world, K.” She addresses him by his name—the abbreviation a necessity because of its awkwardness. They’ve both agreed to this.
He thinks about it for a moment. “There are a lot of people in the world.” His thoughts churn, touching on the unknowns of death and what it’s like…the actual experience.

Chris, I’m afraid this example is extremely poor. The “author” is all over this. Just highly visible. There are just many, many things wrong about this. For one, who’s pov is this? AT first, it looks like it’s the woman (She looks at K, both intrigued and annoyed.) Giving the internal emotions of a character pretty well tells us this is from her pov. She can possibly deliver her speech showing her annoyance, but there’s nothing here that can show she’s intrigued without telling the reader (from her pov). But then, immediately following that, we read: “No,” he says. He looks at her, considering things.) And now, we’re inside K’s pov. Perhaps the author intended an omniscient pov, but that’s been an unpublishable pov for over half a century. Then we get into unnecessary backstory that completely stalls the read—that lengthy stuff about how they got to just use K for his name, which is completely and unabashedly and unnecessary backstory. This completely takes the reader out of the fictive dream. This example is exactly what Harry Crews speaks of when he talks about his writing theory, to “leave out the parts people skip.” Most readers would skip about all of this, I’m afraid. Almost all of this indicates a writer who hasn’t yet learned to trust the reader’s intelligence.

There was an age when all our stories were epic, and deserving of the term. They were myth and legend, and had happened long ago and in exotic places. It made sense that they were told and retold in the past tense. Ahem, but it makes sense that all stories are told in past tense. Unless the listener or reader is a complete moron, he knows the story already happened. To pretend otherwise is to attempt to manipulate the reader. We know it’s already happened… because it’s been written. To somehow “pretend” it hasn’t already happened doesn’t make any sense. It’s asking the reader to go even further to suspend their disbelief than simple past tense does. Those who feel that present tense makes the read more “immediate” are simply wrong.  I argue that past perfect and its use in modern fiction is a cobbled-together reaction, a field-expedient result of the past tense tradition of epic storytelling having collided with modern literary devices like the flashback, and not some intentional elegant solution conjured up by professors of English somewhere. But, what’s wrong with your thesis here, is that no one uses past perfect tense in publishable novels. It’s only used in those novels that are “only available in their rooms” or are self-published. Not in anything of quality. If a writer is using past perfect in flashbacks or anywhere else, it’s highly unlikely a decent agent or an editor is ever going to take it on. It's not elegant. It's awkward, and doesn't really stand up to the sense test, as I've demonstrated. Increasingly, especially in mainstream fiction, it just doesn’t make sense to stick to the stodgy past tense for the bulk of our narrative. But, the argument is spurious. Nobody uses past perfect tense. Haven’t for eons. Today our stories are hard-hitting, dynamic, happening in the moment, and moving at the speed, quite often, of technology itself. It makes sense to develop a system of writing like Center Code for this reason.

In the present media age, it’s difficult to write in the past tense and still retain a sense of relevance to the now. After all, we don’t live our lives in the past tense—we live in the now. Why shouldn’t our best and brightest stories be told in the same way? Why can’t we read our stories that way? And why not call our happening-now-stories Center Code?

Here’s a post on flashbacks that may be of interest.

Chris, I have no idea if the examples given in your article were written by you or taken from somewhere and it’s obvious I’m not a diplomat in any sense of the word, but in case they were yours, I didn’t want others seeing my crits. [These examples are all mine, and again, I obtained Les's permission to publish this critique--CW.] While I understand your frustration with what you view as the “rules” or “norms” of writing, I suspect perhaps you’re not really current with contemporary usages. I get that because many of your examples and criticisms are over things that are no longer existent in contemporary writing, and more reflect writing of an earlier age perhaps. The truth is, almost all that is taught in high schools as far as writers go, is dead wrong, and most of what is taught in college is as well. In fact, when I encounter a young person who wants to be a writer and they ask me what they should major in, I always advise them NOT to major in English or creative writing and to avoid as many literature classes as possible. If they attend those classes and buy into lit professor’s stuff, it’ll ruin ‘em as writers!

The people I’d recommend as models of quality contemporary writing are folks like Ray Carver, Harry Crews, Gerard Donovan, Paul D. Brazill and the like (Chris Ewan gives great examples of how to utilize backstory in his novels) and the only good writer’s how-to books out there (besides mine…) are Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction and Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure. Most of the others suck or just regurgitate the same stuff, many times giving archaic information.

It’s my nature to be blunt so please forgive me if I offended—it’s never meant as personal.

BTW, as a general rule, I’d avoid flashbacks like the plague! In almost every instance they have a negative effect on a novel and most good editors will turn down most novels who use ‘em. If used, I’d advocate delivering backstory like Callie Khourie does in Thelma & Louise. That is, not until at least 1/3 into the story and not as flashback but brief hints at a backstory. It’s a good exercise to watch this flick and pay attention to Louise’s backstory and how she delivers it. (Her former rape in Texas). Very instructive.

Blue skies,

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