I never thought about how to write, until it came time to turn my scribbles into books. By then I had spent many years putting pen to paper and burned a lot of midnight oil tapping away on a computer. As a result, my natural style had defined itself, and I had to admit I had a lot of bad habits (and…I still have many of them). But it also brought me to a question: does being stylistically correct matter all that much today?
As a reader or a writer, what do you think?
Are you feeling Tense?
“It’s good to get away from England this time, good to leave my worries and cares behind me, falling away like baggage from the plane as it launches off the runway, gravity pulling my emotions down into my gut with that familiar feeling of expectant pleasure mixed with a fear of the unknown.” – The start of the opening paragraph from “The Road to El Palmar: A Traveller on the West Coast of Spain by Mark DK Berry”
Tense is one of my bugbears, and where to put commas is another, but I won’t go into that here. The above quote is an example of how I start my travel journals. It was the first paragraph that I ever wrote, and was the start of my first travel journal. It is in the first-person point of view, it is narrative, and it is in the Present Continuous Tense. (Experts, feel welcome to correct me throughout this article. Amateurs, please do NOT assume that I know what I am doing!)
Once I decided it was time to publish my many journals, I realised that I had a lot of learning to do about writing. I have a long way to go still.
Feeling the Tense?
After a while my journals invariably start to swing around the tenses, switching from present to past, and switching away from first-person, to second or even third, only to revert back again. It happens because I write them as streams of thought, and on different days, about different observations, and from different perspectives.
Some notes are immediate, happening as I observe what is going on around me, like in the quote above which was written on the plane. Others will be written as I sit and think about something from the past, then it tends to drag me off the main method and into other tenses and points of view. I also have a nasty habit of changing tense mid-sentence, and you may notice that I do it in my blog posts too.
I barely knew I was doing it in my journals because I never re-read them. Then one day it came time to turn one into a book, and that was when I realised that I was switching tense and person back and forth and that it was going to be a problem. Personally, I kinda liked it… and that was the problem. Apparently, it was wrong to do it. Hmm.
If in doubt, consult the gods
One of my favourite writers does the switching of tenses very well, it is part of his style, his name is J.P. Donleavy. He somehow changes tense in the middle of a page and then jumps back again, and it works.
Often he saves it for the end of a chapter, which I guess gives it some positional sense because it switches from talking about the subject of the book, i.e. the protagonist, which is usually the fictional version of the man himself, to sharing the thoughts that his man is having at that moment. It can be jarring, but it definitely works, it makes the whole thing suddenly feel immediate and more intimate.
It is because J.P. Donleavy is one of the gods that he can make it work, and his style actually rests on it somewhat. I was still not sure that my random tense-changes worked, and since I am not a god, I won’t likely get away with it. (See what I did there? Changed the tense in that last sentence back and forth a bit. Apparently, that is a no-no.)
If it comes naturally, how is it wrong?
The fact my journals happened naturally, and the fact they made sense to me, well, this all left me thinking… maybe it is not the changing of the tense that is the real problem, rather, it is the way the reader then interprets what has been written, and so maybe there are conditions when you can get away with it.
Certainly it could be worse, I could be writing with emojis or in London speak, init.
J.D. Salinger wrote in a second-person narrative style and in what became known as ‘stream of consciousness writing’. While Hunter S Thompson virtually invented his own style of writing that came to be called Gonzo Journalism, which was a first-person narrative and a form of writing that also used the stream of consciousness approach, but maybe in a more brutal and hallucinogenic way than Salinger.
I am not sure if either of them switched tense mid-way through a sentence, but they bent rules, and we all know that rules are there to be bent and broken, though admittedly in their case it was being done by “the gods”. It’s okay to break the rules when you know them and are a god, then it is deliberate, and you can prove that you know what you are doing.
Then there is Mark Twain’s book Huckleberry Finn, that I am still not convinced it is readable. I think I am also right in saying that Charles Bukowski was somewhat dyslexic, and that his early work was put together by his publisher John Martin, as The Buke tended to leave off quotation marks and didn’t bother with trivial things such as punctuation or getting the grammar right.
but these writers… are the gods… they can do what they like, and we define new rules from their rule breaking, because it works.
It was all so damn complicated, or is it? eh?
Going back to the opening paragraph from my travel journal, “The Road to El Palmar”, when it came time to revise and prepare the scribbled journal to become a book, I got stuck for a long time on the opening lines (and the whole of the book for that matter, but the first page was most important). Take the very first sentence,
“It’s good to get away from England this time, good to leave my worries and cares behind me…”
I guessed it was wrong to be putting the word “good” in there twice like that, but it was exactly how my mind had flowed when I thought it. I could still hear the words as I first thought them, and for me, it just worked. But there was another problem, originally it had been this,
“It was good to get away…”
The word “was” completely threw a spanner into the Present Continuous Tense of the rest of the paragraph. So I fixed it by changing “it was” to “it’s”, but I really wanted to leave it how it was. I was not sure how bad it is/was/would be to do that. Basically, I was scared. It was the opening two words of a book for christ sakes!
So, I got someone else to read the first paragraph, and they said it was wrong to change tense like that, and they felt that saying “good” twice was wrong too. Damn it.
In the end, frustrated at the hours spent mulling over the first section and not getting it quite right, I just got rid of it altogether,
“It’s good to get away from England this time, good to leave my worries and cares behind me, falling away like baggage from the plane as it launches off the runway, gravity pulling my emotions down into my gut with that familiar feeling of expectant pleasure mixed with a fear of the unknown.”
From the second-draft and right through six more book revisions, the entire thing lived with the above section removed. I had tried to fix it in a million ways but just could not shape it into a grammatically correct opener. In the last moments before launching the book I had a queer turn and thought, “TO HELL WITH THE RULES! I must have those words back in.”
It now stands as probably the most incorrect start to a book, but who knows, maybe there is some magic in doing that. I conceded the “It was” opener, it was all I could do, but to be honest I wish I had not.
Anyway, the following section was the beginning of the book for at least six revisions, right up until I had my last-minute tantrum and re-introduced the original opening section back in. The below works as an opener and is possibly better too, but I just had to have the original piece back in. Why? Because that was how it happened in my head originally, and it was the only way that it felt right to me.
“It’s a clear day, mid-May 2004, as I watch the patchwork fields of England slip away below me. Matchbox cars, silicon-chip-like cities, scourged-out quarries, and muddy brown lakes. I am bound for Jerez in Spain. The seat beside me empty where she should have been and would have been if it weren’t for a duty-bound hen night. Myself? Skipping on the related stag-do, the guilt far outweighed by a desperate need to get away for a while. I need to get out of the pressure cooker that my life has become, escape the city, my friends, my work, my obligations such as they are, and just leap into the unknown again.”
“The Road to El Palmar: A Traveller on the West Coast of Spain” was my first travel journal, written in 2004 and published Dec 2019. I wrote it as I travelled with a tent, a guitar, and not much else. Many adventures have happened since, and I have journaled a lot of them, and I am currently working on turning them into books.
What are your writing styles? Do you have any bad habits that you have picked up along the way? Do they serve as unique quirks of your particular writing style, or are they just outright wrong…tell me in the comments section.