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PAST TENSE VS PRESENT TENSE IN WRITING – AN EXPERIMENT

In the previous post, I presented four basic grammatical constructions used in present- and past-tense narration.

As you’ll see below, however, it’s not all that easy to write in what looks to be a consistent tense when the narration references something that happened in the past.

I took the following bit of past narrative (it intentionally includes references to the ‘past past’) and tried it. Notice the bit of thought dialogue at the end muddles the tense question even further.

PAST

Terenik had been shocked when Gaelan had first awakened him in the healer’s tent.  But a rovinger was always ready, so leaving hadn’t taken him long despite his injury.  Still, he had to wonder what Gaelan did to upset the Commander into sending them away in the middle of the night.  He also worried for the Cataline and how she might react to find them gone.  She had grown so attached, especially to Gaelan. But then, he mused, it’s probably best that we left.

PRESENT “Equivalent” (ie attempt to convert to present)

Terenik has been shocked when Gaelan has first awakened him in the healer’s tent, but a rovinger is always ready, so leaving hasn’t taken him long despite his injury.  Still, he has to wonder what Gaelan does to upset the Commander into sending them away in the middle of the night.  He also worries for the Cataline and how she might react to find them gone.  She has grown so attached, especially to Gaelan.  But then, he muses, it’s probably best that we left.

Hopefully you can see that a simple exchange simply doesn’t work. It confuses what actually happened when. This is especially true when considering the past perfect vs the present perfect.  For example:

“Terenik had been shocked” vs “Terenik has been shocked.”

The first implies something that happened once and is finished, whereas the second implies something that potentially has happened more than once, eg “he has been shocked each time that…” and that it may happen again.

It had once been my hope that writing in present tense would alleviate the need to use past perfect, but the reality is that it only makes things more complex, not less — especially when attempting to convert prose originally written in past.

In doing so, one must consider each verb individually for original meaning and connotation. Notice in the follow example that much of it remains unchanged:

PRESENT with adjustments

Terenik had been shocked when Gaelan had first awakened him in the healer’s tent.  But a rovinger is always ready, so leaving hadn’t taken him long despite his injury.  Still, he has to wonder what Gaelan did to upset the Commander into sending them away in the middle of the night.  He also worries for the Cataline and how she might react to find them gone.  She has grown so attached, especially to Gaelan.  But then, he muses, perhaps it’s a good thing that we left.

So you see that, although simple past and past progressive forms change to simple present and present progressive forms, respectively, the majority of past perfect and past perfect progressive may have to stay the same in order to preserve the original meaning. Present perfect and present perfect progressive should only be used when appropriate for the connotation, which was true in the sentence, “she has grown so attached,” because it refers to something that may continue to happen, especially if they were to have stayed with her, for instance.

Not to belabor the point, but another possibility is do as in the above example, but in addition, to exchange past perfect/progressive for simple past.

Terenik was shocked when Gaelan first awakened him in the healer’s tent.  But a rovinger is always ready, so leaving didn’t take him long despite his injury.  Still, he has to wonder what Gaelan did to upset the Commander into sending them away in the middle of the night.  He also worries for the Cataline and how she might react to find them gone.  She has grown so attached, especially to Gaelan.  But then, he muses, perhaps it’s a good thing that we left.

But even in this example, some of the original subtlety of meaning is lost.  Can you also see how, considering either of the last two versions, it would not be immediately clear what tense was being used for the primary narration? Present tense doesn’t even occur until the second sentence, followed quickly by another past perfect (or simple past) construction. An agent or editor reading it might assume that the author doesn’t know what tense they’re writing in, or else has poor editing skills, and chuck it onto the reject pile. Therein lies at least one of the dangers of writing in present tense.

Have you ever tried to edit a piece from one tense to another? How did you go about doing so? Was it easy or difficult? Feel free to comment.

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Posted by on May 10, 2013 in Writing

 

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The Dreaded “had had” Construction

I have heard that some agents/editors will immediately reject a manuscript either written in present tense (due to their personal preferences) or with inconsistent use of tense (based on the assumption of poor editing).

The latter (inconsistency of tense) may be attributable to the fact that, when writing in past tense, you are fairly restricted to four basic past tense forms. But when writing in the present tense, you have eight — the four basic present tense forms plus the original four past tense forms — because narrating in present tense does not remove the need to reference something that happened in the past. This leaves you with a lot of grammatical forms to mix and match, but it can potentially lead to confusion regarding what tense is being used for the primary narration.

When narrating in past tense, you have the following options:

(The majority of the narration will be in these two forms.)

1) Simple past: “He had a good time.”

2) Past progressive: “He was having a good time.”

Then you have your references to the “past within the past,” aka the dreaded “had had” construction.

3) Past perfect: “He had had a good time.”

4) Past perfect progressive: “He had been having a good time.”

Narration uses the last two forms when talking about the story’s past, ie something that happened in the story prior to the point in time currently being narrated.

Please note that this is different than going into a full-on flashback. For a true flashback, the reader travels with the narrator back to that moment, and the tense can either be kept the same as the regular narration (requiring a very clear delineation of when the flashback starts and ends) or else changed (eg primary narration in past tense, flashback in present tense, or vice versa) for effect, in order to emphasize the change. This is very different than a reference to the past, which I like to call a “thought-back.”

When using present tense narration, you have the following four options in addition to the four already listed above:

(These are now the primary forms being used by the narrator.)

1) Simple present: He has a good time.

2) Present progressive: He is having a good time.

So then one might assume that the following forms are now being used to refer to the “past of the present,” ie anything that happened prior to the present point in time being narrated.

3) Present perfect: He has had a good time.

4) Present perfect progressive: He has been having a good time.

One might also assume that converting a piece written in past tense to make it present tense is a simple matter of exchanging all past forms to their present equivalent.

In my next blog, I will take a short paragraph from my current WIP and demonstrate why the above assumption is inaccurate, why some agents/editors might assume the author is being inconsistent with tense when they really aren’t, and suggest some solutions for how to edit a piece currently written in past tense into a true present tense form.

For more information on use of different tenses, “Grammar Girl’s” blog was particularly helpful. http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/present-tense-novel.aspx

Did you learn anything helpful from this post? As always, feel free to comment.

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2013 in Writing

 

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The Tense Problem of Present Tense

A lively debate currently rages in the fiction-writing world, pitting past-tense narrative against present-tense.  Assuming that a (presumably older) writer is interested in learning more about writing in present tense, one quandary they face is that, while present tense has exploded onto the fiction scene and would tend to suggest that the writing world is moving toward it as the desired contemporary mode, the majority of reading materials available are in past tense.

I think this important to note because we learn to speak the language we hear growing up; composers tend to write in the genre they predominantly listen to; writers write based on the works they have read.

The point being that learning another language as an adult requires some effort and—as a good teacher will tell you—immersion.  So how then are we, as writers who have predominantly been exposed to past tense fiction, supposed to suddenly pull off present tense that is readable and engaging?

I believe this may be part of the difficulty with those readers, including myself, who have picked up a book in first person present tense only to feel a little repulsed by it. Although I enjoyed the storyline of the book in question, I continue to have mixed feelings about it even now, over a year later.

The first time I heard an oboe played (by a high-schooler), I hated it. It sounded terrible—the kind of music where you stop up your ears in misery.  Later, I heard an oboe played by a professional, and suddenly I loved it.  The point being that those who hate present tense may not truly dislike the tense itself but rather the imperfect manner of its application, primarily by writers like me who have never been immersed in it.

With that in mind, I recently decided to give present tense another chance and purposefully picked up a book I knew to be written in it.  What a difference!  It was well-crafted, and I easily connected with the main character within the first couple of sentences—the same amount that it had taken to repulse me from the other book.

So to those writers like me who have difficulty with consistent application—go forth and read (present tense)! A basic internet search will pull up several available lists.

To those who have had difficulty with accepting this new-fangled thing—go forth and give it a second chance.  You may be surprised.

What about you — are you a writer or a reader who can relate?  Do you love/hate/don’t care about what tense a book is written it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2013 in Writing

 

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Writing Experiment – Show, Don’t Tell

My last post reveals a pleasant childhood memory written in a style that I hope communicates what happened and the humor of the situation.  As I’ve wandered through the blogs, forums, and websites of other writers, however, I’ve come to realize that it tells far more than it shows.

So, as an experiment, I decided to post a revision and see which one the readers prefer, and why.  Feel free to cast your vote in the comments below.

Summer Folly — revisited

I observed before me a thing of beauty—a massive piece of Styrofoam. Its beauty came not from its substance, but its potential. It perched there on the rocky shore of the lake, ready to jump into my arms, begging to be transformed.

“We could build a boat!” my cousin interjected

“That’s what I was gonna say!” I snapped, deflated.

“Well, then, let’s do it!” He pushed a mop of brown hair from his eyes and grinned. “I saw some wood behind the house.  Think you can find a hammer and some nails?”

My mood slowly lightened as various scrounged-up supplies materialized on a nearby dock, but the final pile of wood screamed “not enough!”

“Let’s draw it out first,” I suggested, feeling the tug of potential disappointment, afraid that the dream might slip between the cracks of the weathered dock and float away.

The chicken-scratch blueprint would not have passed code, but who cared?  A few hours, two sore thumbs, and several splinters later, a great feeling of pride and satisfaction swelled up inside.

“It’s ready,” I whispered almost reverently.

My fingers curled around the splinter-filled edge of our boat/raft/thing-that-might-float.  My cousin’s counting pulsed in my ear, and my heart prepared to soar as my muscles prepared to heft.  “One, two, three!”

But my beautiful Styrofoam would not move.

My sinking heart was buoyed only by my absolute incredulity.

“How did it get so heavy?”

It mocked me—the roundish white block that had just so recently flirted with my imagination now tossed those possibilities back in my face like so much rubbish washed up on the shore.

Sweat dripped down my face, and I licked my salty lips. “Let’s try again.”

My muscles screamed in protest and my cousin grunted with effort, and still the petulant raft pouted.  What did I do wrong? All my hopes and dreams for that day lay in that stupid piece of Styrofoam surround by a pile of pieced-together boards, and it wouldn’t work!

I sat and jammed my sweaty chin into my fist, glaring as if I could change it by sheer will-power. A stray nail sneaked its way into my hand, and I twirled it between my fingers until its presence suddenly jumped into my awareness.  My eyes darted between the nail and the wood, and realization washed over me as I fell backwards in uncontrollable laughter.

“Look at the nail!” I gasped, but the nail withheld its insight until I placed it directly beside the wood.  After an initial moment of hesitance, the nail—half an inch longer than the width of the wood—finally shared its secret with him, too.  We had nailed the raft to the dock!

—————–

Do you think that “show, don’t tell” could or should apply to other areas of life? Why or why not?

 
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Posted by on January 8, 2013 in Writing

 

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On the birth of a Siamese Novel

I recently read a book called StrengthsFinder 2.0 that talked about not focusing too much on your weaknesses (i.e. trying to become well-rounded), but rather to capitalize on your strengths.  The idea being that an adequate natural talent can become decent with effort, but a strong natural talent can become awesome with equal, or even less, effort.

Although the book and its focus is designed to help people find their overall strengths in life with correlative advice on job choices and how to interact with other people with other strengths, I decided to apply it to my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and decide what weaknesses might simply need shoring up or “out-sourcing” as opposed to what I should truly focus on improving.

Here are two of my strengths and two weaknesses.  Feel free to share brief versions of yours in the comments below.

Strength: action scenes

I’m a very visual person, so my stories tend to read like descriptions of movie scenes.  I may throw in a sound or a smell every now and then, and a smattering of touch or taste, but I primarily tell you what’s happening as I see it play out in the movie of my mind.  Consequently, my plotlines are typically fast and action-packed.

Weakness: feelings and character-building

As an antithesis to my strength, my plotlines quite often move so fast that the reader barely has time to take a breath, and neither do the characters.  I often have to remind myself (or be reminded) to show what my characters are thinking and feeling, and what motivates them.  I tend to find writing about such things boring, and–as I can’t imagine why a reader would want to read something that I, as a writer, find boring–it’s difficult to justify the effort.

Strength: dialogue

I often hear people ask how to write natural dialogue (obviously, it would fall into their weaknesses category), but going back to my description-of-a-movie-scene style of writing, I find that the dialogue flows rather effortless as I, again, watch the movie play out in my mind.

Weakness: editing

My first effort at a novel started when I was 16 and ended around age 20.  In that amount of time (random moments grabbed here and there between school and work obligations), I wrote a decent first draft.  Then I started editing it.  Or rather, trying to edit.  Since I regularly practice discovery writing as opposed to advance outlining, what I had thought was editing was really just a hideous amalgam of proof-reading combined with discovery re-writing, if you will.  I ended up taking it in a completely different direction such that the story wound up with the same beginning, a gradually divergent middle, and two completely different endings—neither of which I liked.  So what to do?  I balked at the idea of engaging in hours of surgery to separate the conjoined twins I had inadvertently birthed, especially after the hours over years it had taken to create them in the first place.  In frustration, I finally chucked the whole project and chalked it up toward experience.

What are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?  Do you feel that you’ve been focusing your effort on trying to improve areas where you are simply adequate, or do you know your strengths and how to hone them to become the best writer you can be?

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2013 in Writing

 

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Writing Any Story

Writing a  book is no small feat, even for those millions who have already done so.  There are, of course, many shapes and sizes of authors, from those starving artists who nobly (but hungrily) dedicate their lives to writing, to the housewives, high-schoolers, and hobbyists who try to squeeze in time when they can.  Each is met with their own personal lies and truths that struggle to dissuade them from their task or compel them to complete it.

I am more on the side of the latter group, trying to squeeze blood from a turnip to finish the project that I started what feels like an eternity ago, trying to gauge its importance in contrast to the other parts of my life that are equally compelling and part of being human.  And I struggle with those lies that we tell ourselves about not being good enough, smart enough, skilled enough, or just…enough.  The truths that help me are to realize that I don’t have to be.

Each of us is on a journey, and though I’m tempted to go cliche and talk about smelling roses, it goes beyond that.  From the time we are born till the time we die, we are each shaped by the life we are given to live.  From those experiences spring our inspiration and from that, the words we choose to write.

Though I’ve often wished that certain experiences never would have happened, and that others would have, it occasionally occurs to me that without those experiences and lack thereof, I would not have the stories–both the nonfiction story of my life, and the fictional stories that spring from my eternal imagination–to tell.

What experiences have shaped you in your life, and how do they influence the stories you choose to tell and how you choose to tell them?

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2013 in Personal Experiences, Writing

 

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