Thursday, November 1, 2012

Was and Had and Setting the Bar

This is probably going to be the most technical article I'll write. It's an issue that's been niggling at me for at least a few years and I'm going to take the time to clear up a few things.

Was and Had are not, never have been, and never will be, bad words to use in fiction. I know many writers will argue relentlessly about this, but I will provide the proof to back my statement.

First and foremost, grammatical rules, I'll get that out of the way. Yes, like many writers, I also get frustrated with grammatical rules when I'm just trying to be creative. Or, when encountering another writer who insists on using words like “was” out of context, I also feel frustrated when they just won't understand the other side of grammar. It's not about the words being grammatically correct, it's how you use these words that makes them grammatically correct.

English is a finicky language that way. More often than not, grammar rules are things that you just know.

The reason there's a large growing trend to tell aspiring writers why “was” and “had” are wrong when it's not, is two-fold.

For starters, there are nine types of past tense, but most writers follow only one out of three types. Simple Past Tense, Past Tense Continuous or Past Perfect. Simple Past means whatever is happening in the story is happening right now, even though it's written in the past tense. Continuous means whatever is happening in the story, is happening in the past past tense. Past Perfect means the story is happening in the past past past.


Simple Past: He walked across the room. (Right now)

Continuous: He was walking across the room. (Five minutes ago)

Past Perfect: He had walked across the room. (Yesterday)

I'll admit, I tend to forget the names of each tense or mix them up... all the time. For my writing, I prefer Simple Past or Continuous. See, for myself, I honestly don't care what the technical terms are, I just know what works for me.

Of course, this is just a general, oversimplified explanation. In fiction, sky's the limit. In selling commercial fiction, there are limits.

So, that covers the first fold. Now onto the second.

For commercial fiction, Simple Past is favoured, mainly for editing and selling reasons. Simple Past is easier to edit, easier to sell, easier to read, but it's also much harder to write. Continuous is easier to write, but harder to sell in the 2st century. Continuous is very common in 19th century literature. Times have changed.

The internet came along.

A funny thing happened on the internet. Harlequin Romance was one of the first big publishers to catch onto ebooks and the selling potential. Harlequin has a specific writing style that's exclusive to their books. The Harlequin style became a major influence for aspiring writers seeking help on the internet. Harlequin set the bar with both ebooks and writing style.

The Harlequin style involves Deep POV (point of view) and Simple Past Tense. Sounds simple, but it's more complicated than that. With the combination of Deep POV, the writing isn't just happening right now, it's happening inside the main character's head right this very second, but still written in the past tense. That's Harlequin, for you. They're all about allowing the reader to fulfil the main characters' fantasies.

So, the Harlequin style works very well for their own niche and selling potential. It's pretty much useless for everything else. If writers assume the Harlequin formula and their manuscript of, say, a detective fiction is rejected 100 times, the writer gives up, self-publishes and the Harlequin formula remains as the only successful fiction.

Further proof? Of all the publishers, agents, independent presses, etc, Harlequin is the only publisher who hasn't suffered financially in recent years.

So, back to grammar. If a specific type of past tense is chosen and “was” or “had” are used, as long as it's grammatically correct and within context of the story, it just doesn't matter. Don't want your fiction to read like a Harlequin novel? Then just don't.

I don't write Romance, commercial or otherwise. I'm not crying conspiracy here or whining about rejection, either. If I want a story to be published, then it will be published. I'm simply pointing out, and providing the proof, that if anyone, a fellow writer, publisher, or even an agent, claims your writing doesn't follow Deep POV and Simple Past Tense even though it's not a Harlequin Romance and definitely not that kind of story, show them this article, and tell them to go stuff themselves.

All authors, writers, artists, musicians or even a pottery maker, share a strong responsibility. One publisher out of thousands in the whole world wants to have the monopoly on book sales by setting their own standard and degrading the quality of overall fiction in the 21st century? Who cares! We are the creators. We set the bar.


  1. I really enjoyed this post, Lily, thanks! I always mix up the tenses in my head too, which means I always struggle to explain it properly to people when I'm trying to critique and they've mixed them up, now I can just point them here!

    1. Tenses are bloody confusing lol There's 9 types, geez. I prefer thinking of tenses as a timeline, as I wrote above. Right now, 5 minutes ago, etc. It's the only way I can keep tenses straight in my head.

      Happy that my little trick helps!


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