Friday, April 26, 2013

First Page Friday

So excited for another installment of First Page Friday.  We're talking about tenses again and I learned something new.

As always, thank you to our amazing editors who put forth a lot of time and effort each week and to the writers who are brave enough to submit.

See you next week!

The Entry
Christopher Hitchens at Heaven
by James Workman

“Hello darkness, my old friend.” This was the outcome he anticipated if he didn’t beat the cancer. He has fulfilled his intention to “do death”—to look it in the eye. With just enough morphine to dull the pain, he would doze off, but wake up for talk with family and friends. But, this time it is more than dozing and he will not awaken.

This is not quite the end; it is the transition—the passing. He is very dimly aware of disliking, as he once said in an interview, being unconscious.

A malignancy brought the darkness; the transition toward death is marked by the dawning of a benign light. The light is insistent and Christopher Hitchens opens his eyes to a landscape. He is standing on a dirt path. An appealing meadow of lush grass opens out before him with a small river flowing gently through it. A deep forest is off to the right.

And there’s company—two men have come out of the forest and wade across the river less than a hundred yards away. One remains at the crossing, but the other one approaches Hitchens. Hitchens pegs the man’s appearance as Semitic and strong, with a full gray beard.

“Hello Christopher,” the man calls out while still a little distance away.

“How in blazes do you know my name?”

The man says. “That will be obvious in a moment.”

“Fine, I’ll play along. What’s your name then?”


“Oh, this is rich. Saint Peter, I’m bound to guess. Just like all the jokes. And doubly rich for being my brother’s name. And that other chap there is Jesus of course.”


Well now, Hitchens thinks, Wouldn’t Freud be proud! I’m dying and my bloody super-ego is forcing me to deal with this prime figure of my arguments.

Comments from Angela and Heidi from Eschler Editing

What’s in a Name?

Okay, I got a chuckle at the initial premise. Personally, I think Christopher Hitchens is a rather bellicose, irascible, and misguided piece of humanity, and it’s fun to imagine the conversation that took place shortly after he went the way of all the earth in 2011. (And you have some delightful ways of doing that thus far.) However, making an actual person the protagonist of your story, especially when his body is barely cold in the grave, poses certain problems, both social and legal.

For the sake of argument, I’ll agree there are precedents. C.S. Lewis made George MacDonald a character in The Great Divorce; however, by that time, George had been deceased for forty years. Dante used Virgil in The Divine Comedy—he’d been dead considerably longer. Katherine Neville uses well-known historical characters in her archeological adventure The Eight. Other writers use the roman a clef technique to hide, rather thinly at times, a real person under the guise of fiction. Primary Colors by Anonymous (aka Joe Klein) in which the character Jack Stanton stands in for Bill Clinton is an infamous example of this genre. Despite these, however, see my reasons below to reconsider using Hitchens’s actual name:

Mark Fowler, an attorney with experience in the publishing industry, indicates that there is practically no chance of having a libel judgment against you if you use a real person as a character in your fiction work, but notes that lawsuits do happen occasionally (regardless of the slim chance of winning), and in that case, you may be liable for attorney’s fees.

Hitchens was preaching to his own choir; your story is slanted to a completely different audience—at least it appears to be so from the first page’s satirical fantasy. This creates an audience problem. When I asked people if they had heard of him, I got a lot of “huhs?” If a large percentage of your readers simply don’t know Hitchens, the gimmick loses its impact. I was aware of who he is, and I thought it was funny, but even a few readers knowing who he is isn’t enough to sustain the story. Using a real person limits the character development and story options. Using an everyman atheist as your character will give you greater flexibility and freedom to develop your protagonist (who can still be based somewhat upon Hitchens) as well as your story, without the baggage that comes with using a real person.

There are two other real characters in this opening: Jesus and Peter. St. Peter is probably a safe choice. Jesus has been used as a character in novels before, but that’s a little trickier. You risk alienating a portion of your audience who may think you are treating sacred things lightly (given that the audience who might most enjoy seeing Hitchens “proved wrong” would be Christians). These are all issues for which you’ll want to weigh the benefits and risks before proceeding.

Finally, you’ll want to remember, even if he was a rather unpleasant person, Hitchens was someone’s son, brother, friend. Hitchens may be dead, but his brother and other family and friends aren’t. In the name of being sensitive and respectful, given how recent his death, you should probably reconsider.

Tense about Tense

When picking a tense, you want to be sure that your choice is a good fit for your story. You shouldn’t pick a tense just because it has a veneer of popularity. One drawback of present tense is that humans have a hard-wired perception that any story being told has already happened. Some writers pick present tense because they think it will make the ending more suspenseful for the reader, but the truth is, you can have a surprise ending or an ambiguous one even with good old reliable past tense.

Present tense is oddly centered on the moment. This creates a lack of context for the story. It can create awkward problems when the narrator has to switch back to past tense to relay information that has already happened. So the pacing of the story is affected, as well as the ability to foreshadow and to create emotional depth and intimacy between the reader and character.

Present tense can become irritating to the reader, getting bogged down in sentence after sentence of what’s happening this very moment. It isn’t the “natural” story-telling tense. Several authors/editors have articles on the drawbacks of this. Phillip Pullman’s piece in the Guardian is a good take on the subject:  Les Edgerton’s take is can be found here.  Orson Scott Card notes that “when we want to tell something important and true, we always tell it in past tense.”

Should you never use past tense? Never is a dirty word for writers. There’s an exception for every rule. But you can’t break the rules, or determine if you are the exception, unless you know them very well and why they exist. Do your writing a favor—study the pros and especially the cons. If you fully understand them, and still decide present tense is what you want for your story, go ahead. At least you’ll be informed and ready to deal with the limitations it poses. (As a side note, two of our editors read the beginning of your story, and due to tense, found it very unclear and confusing; it took several readings, forward and backward, for your meaning to come together. You definitely don’t want your opening hook to be confusing and off-putting to the reader.)

Final Thoughts

Your scenario is interesting, your character’s point of view “voice” is engaging and funny, and your attention to narrative detail will prove to be a useful writing tool. But consider experimenting with other tenses, as well as a different protagonist—one who will let the reader focus on the story, not the novelty of your choice of character. Make choices that will serve the story, and your story will be stronger for it. Happy writing!

1 comment:

Debra Erfert said...

I'm sorry, but I had to look up Christopher Hitchens's name after Angela's description of his personality and a date. I was surprised he was a real person. No, I've never heard of him. I don't routinely read articles from atheists. I tend to stay away from people like that. You might read that as being closed minded, but I look at it like this; mine time is precious. Why waste it on getting aggravated?

I do agree with the critique about how James's voice is engaging and funny, and also with her advice about not using Mr. Hitchens as your protagonist. If he were my brother, no matter if I liked him or not, I'd get ticked-off if some stranger decided to use him as his main character in a short story/book, and I would have my attorney check into stopping it. But that's just me. He probably made me mad sometime within the past few years...( you know how brothers are.)

I, too, was lost with the present tense. I'm embarrassed to admit that I thought it was a poorly written past tense, until Angela or Heidi, two women I highly respect, pointed out that it actually is present tense. I reread it again with that in mind. Then it made sense. That's not good. I don't want to struggle with a story.

I tried to imagine what other well-know historical figure could be plugged into this character's place. The count is endless, and could be very fun.