Friday, April 30, 2021

Pros and Cons of Using Present or Past Tense--What's the Effect on Your Reader?

A client told me about a recent meeting of her writing group. They discussed using present versus past tense when writing memoir. What were to pros and cons of each, what effect did they have on the reader?

Interestingly, one group member had spoken to her editor about this. The editor strongly encouraged her to switch her present tense chapters to past tense. She was confused about the virtues of each.

We're talking verb tense here. Past tense of your verbs or present tense--and what's the difference. Just to review, here's how a sentence looks with the verbs in past tense: John went to the game and arrived late. If you use present tense for the same sentence, here's how it would read: John goes to the game and arrives late.

Reading those two versions, you can probably tell the different effect the choice of verb tense has on you, as a reader. Which is more immediate, intense, in your face? Which is more laid back, flowing along?

Present tense has been trending for a number of years in both novels and memoir. It creates an edgier feel. It works very well for short pieces of writing--short stories, especially. But in longer works, like books, it's a big decision to use present tense.

I'll get risky here and make a very generalized statement, but I'd say that novels and memoirs have been written almost exclusively in past tense for as long as literature has been published. It was the way to write. It helped create a certain kind of dream that the reader entered. Past tense is a soothing flow in novels and memoir. It doesn't call attention to itself, so the narrative, the characters and events and setting, stand out more.

But you know writers! We love to push the envelope and experiment with different devices, or tools to mechanically alter the feel of our prose.

We began testing out present tense, writing a little here and there. It was different, startling at first to readers. Present tense is TENSE! It's more in your face, more breathless. But so is our world now, right?

Are there rules? Not really. Are there effects on both reader and writer? Definitely. It pays to know them, so you can choose consciously.

Past tense disappears; it's so usual, we don't even notice it, as said above. To me, past tense conveys confidence from the writer that the other elements of the writing are strong enough to hold attention.

And while present tense is immediate, fast, a little more energetic, in your face, breathless, as said above, it shouts! If the other elements are strong, it just ratchets up the tension and it doesn't feel like a device the writer is using. It becomes an integrated part of the story, a chosen style, like using no quote marks for dialogue (British style versus American, now adopted by some American authors, because, you know, Brits are cool!).

So if you are tempted by present tense in your novel or memoir, you need to ask yourself why. Are you needing a boost of energy via the tension and intensity of present tense? Is it because the narrative itself actually needs your attention instead?

Remember: All style choices call attention to themselves and have to serve the story to be justified. And past versus present tense is definitely a style choice in my mind.

Ask: Is present tense serving the story or is it louder than the story?

If an editor says, Go back to past tense, it might be for this reason. She or he is suggesting that the device is overshadowing the narrative. Test out the strength of your story in past tense--if it doesn't spark you enough, look at the characters, the plot, the setting to see what can be ramped up. Then, if you work from that strong foundation, test out a chapter in present tense and see if you still need it.

I read and write both, myself. But I want the choice to be integrated and authentic with what I'm writing. Not just a trend I'm following.

A few more thoughts:

1. Use tense change to get a new perspective on your chapter. Rewrite a chapter in present tense, if it's in past, or vice versa. This simple exercise can give a whole new perspective and more energy if you're stuck.

2. A friend just got her book accepted--it's very edgy speculative fiction and it's written in present tense. The tense emphasizes the plot. So it works.

3. Some writers who use flashbacks choose one tense for the main story and the other for the flashback. This is tricky but it's great if you can pull it off.

Mostly, find what works for you. Read writers who write in either tense and see what effect you feel from the writing.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Crafting Stronger Mechanical and Emotional Transitions to Keep Your Reader Turning The Page

I learned about the importance of transitions during my MFA study. One of my thesis advisers, a talented novelist, read my novel-in-progress and liked it but felt my background as a newspaper writer hampered my transitions. "You end each chapter like you would a journalistic piece," she told me. "It's complete, nothing left to push the reader forward into the next chapter."

She was right. As a syndicated newspaper columnist for twelve years, I had been trained to keep my thoughts short and wrap them up with a flourish.

The goal was reader satisfaction, a sense of completion. Closure.

"Closure is the last thing you want in the middle of a book," my adviser said. "You want to keep your readers turning the page."

Friday, April 16, 2021

The Joys of Scrivener--My Favorite Software for Organizing Your Book-in-Progress



Before I wrote books, I wrote stories, essays, and poems, columns and articles. Short stuff. Short stuff doesn't require that much organization. I had a friendly relationship with Word and Pages. I kept files of the multiple versions of my short stories, for example, in separate files within Word--not so hard to scan and use if needed. I often printed hard copies and kept a file folder until the piece was published. I used an Excel spreadsheet to track where I sent writing and what happened to it.

Totally manageable.

Then I began writing books. Within months, pages accumulated. Way beyond anything my short stuff generated. I was swamped in paper, with no great way to organize it.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Power Positions--How to Increase the Tension in Characters and Locations

"Who's on first?"

We're not talking baseball. We're asking: Who is the power person in a particular scene? Who is the character that holds the control over present and future outcomes? Who will most easily score the home run?

Once I identify that player, I can begin to work the elements of tension in my fiction and memoir more skillfully.

To create tension, two or more elements of power combine, and one wins out. Just like people try to exert control over their lives every day. so must characters on the page. Story is about that give and take, that gain and loss of control over oneself and one's circumstances.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Enter Late, Leave Early--A Great Piece of Writing Advice for Chapters

Not everyone wants to pay for an MFA degree, and I didn't either, for a long time, until I started writing fiction and realized I knew nothing about it. I'd been published for years in memoir and nonfiction, but fiction was truly another animal. I researched schools, found one, got accepted, and began. In those two years, I learned a lot I didn't know, but one particular piece of advice reshaped my understanding of chapters, scenes, and books.

It was this: Enter late, leave early.

I learned, after graduation, that this slogan is widely known among screenwriters. Less so among novelists or short story writers, although it's just as valuable to us. William Goldman and David Morell wrote it as "jump in late, leave early." It applies to scenes, to chapters, to the entire book, in my mind. But I find it most useful in chapters.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Finding the Shape of the Forest-- Learning How to Read Your Own Work

I'll never forget the writer who approached me many years ago, asking me to read her work. "I can't read it myself," she said. "It makes me too upset."

I asked her, out of curiosity, how she went about reading it.

"On the computer, of course," she told me. "I edit every sentence as I go." She shook her head. "I haven't made it past chapter seven."

Over the years since, I've spoken to other writers who literally hate to read their work. They want someone else to do the deed and tell them what to fix. Totally understandable. A client emailed me this week about how she "can't see anything anymore; it all looks like mush." We do get blind to our book's strengths and weaknesses. We've been studying the leaves so long we forget how the forest should look.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Revising for Meaning--Beyond the Basic Revision Checklist

With the long winter wrapping up, it seems many of us are also wrapping up book projects.

I'm hearing from quite a few writers in revision. Behind progress reports and exhaustion lies the usual self-doubt: Are we there yet?

And more importantly, How do I tell?

Friday, March 12, 2021

Making Your Scenes Rock--Seven Tips for Stronger Scenes

One of my favorite writing-craft guides, often recommended to writers who want to hone their scenes in fiction and memoir, is The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield.

Not all writers know how to write scenes, truthfully. Neither did I, for many years. My scenes began as "islands," or unorganized snippets of writing that kinda felt like what a scene should be. They were a far cry from what I learned as I studied scene-making. Scenes are the backbone of a book, at least in the fiction and memoir genres. I knew my scenes had to move the story along, had to take place onstage in front of us versus in the character or narrator's head. But other than those two rules, I had no guidelines for how to write them.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Learning New Tricks from Published Writers--What Advice to Make Your Own?

I learned early in my writing career that just because a writer was brilliant--well reviewed, published, and capable on the page--that didn't mean they were the best teacher. Or even a reliable dispenser of advice I could use. The lesson came hard.

I'd signed up for a weeklong class with a short-story writer I admired intensely. His story ideas were amazing, his execution of them even more so. I anticipated the workshop for months, rereading his work and listing questions to ask. I wanted to get the most from the week.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Summary Tells, Scene Shows--How to Use Each in Fiction and Memoir

I've been thinking a lot this week about the ways we tell stories. Some writers come from a background of oral storytelling, as in gathering round the fire and relating tales. A tradition of vocal rhythm, handed down from culture or place or heritage, crafts their stories almost unconsciously.
Stories are something told, not necessarily something shown.

There's much beauty in this. Much to value.