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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Guest Post: Writing Tense

Writing Tools by peteoshea, on Flickr 
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License   by  peteoshea 

Today I am pleased to bring you a syndicated guest post from freelance editor and book doctor Joyce L. Shafer.

In her article Joyce looks at something that often confuses new writers, the matter of which tense they should write in.

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It doesn't occur often, but occasionally a client sends me a manuscript written in a moment-by-moment manner, as the story is supposed to be happening. Example: Mary walks into the room and looks around. She sees the vase has been moved and puts it back into its proper place. Mary then walks to the sofa and adjusts one of the pillows.

Sorry, but this is not a novel--it's stage directions for a play. And this is never ever how a novel should read. An acquaintance shared that an agent told him his manuscript would never be considered as long as it's written in this manner. His is a compelling story (based on the few chapters he let me read); but until he revises it, it will stay a file on his computer and an unfulfilled dream, unless he self-publishes it as is, which is not a good idea.

A client who wrote her novel this way approached me initially for a critique (developmental evaluation). Among other creative and technical suggestions, I advised her to revise the entire manuscript so it was in the proper tense and so that proper editing could be done. Yes, I could have rewritten it for her as part of developmental editing services instead of a critique, but that would have taken a good deal of time and expense; plus, she learned a great deal from the revision experience. Her book has an agent's interest, which would not have happened otherwise.

I ask you to consider why people read novels (and non-fiction) of any genre--it's so they are taken into a mental/emotional space different from the one they're in. They want to sit back and let the story be a movie in their minds. A novel written in present tense (action as it happens) does something specific: it requires the reader to work. It's akin to asking a viewer to watch a movie on the screen and act out the parts of the characters at the same time, rather than sit back, watch, think, and feel.

This writing style (and a few others) does something specific: It takes readers out of the reading experience they expect to have. This is not something readers appreciate. Readers prefer not to be reminded they're reading. They want the story to engage them, yes, but not in this way. A balance has to happen with writing--what's good for the writer and what's good for the reader. If only the writer is satisfied, this does not bode well for the book or the writer.

Anything that takes readers out of the reading experience is best avoided (writing style, typos, seriously misused punctuation, junk words, extraneous scenes and dialogue, etc.). You do have to trust your head-and-heart alignment about your writing, but you also benefit from paying attention to readers' responses to it, which includes responses from a developmental editor, whose primary concern is or should be to help you make your book the best it can be.

One client wrote a short story as part of a collective and did use as-it's-happening narrative in that one instance. But we handled this in a specific way: We made it a news-type story delivered by a narrator, which was integral to the story, and is akin to listening to an announcer on the radio. Had it not been crafted this way, it wouldn't have worked and would have contrasted with the other stories in the book that were written in the proper tense. It's one thing to do this in a way that works for a short story and another for a lengthier novel. You don't want to wear readers out while reading, if they'll stick with it, that is.

I say this because I'm not just a developmental editor. I'm also an avid reader of many fiction and non-fiction genres. If the way a fiction or non-fiction book is written (which includes memoirs) annoys me, I won't read it (it's different, of course, if I'm wearing my editor cap). I've been trying to slog through a book someone gifted me with that annoys me no end to read. Nearly every sentence--and this is not an exaggeration--starts with a gerund or a participle. There are other annoying factors, but this one really stymies my ability to get through the book to learn what the author meant to convey. (Example: Understanding a choice had to be made Mary walked to the window and looked out. Realizing the choice wouldn't be easy she stared out the window, yet saw nothing. Walking to the door she put her hand on the knob and paused. Turning the knob she walked out; her decision made. Knowing what she had to do, she dialed Mike's phone number. Hearing him answer after the first ring, she hesitated.) Perhaps you can see how tedious it becomes to read something written in this way. And, sadly, it seems it could be a good book (based on the relatively few pages I've managed to read), if only an editor had advised the writer properly.

Let's get back to writing tense. It's also important that you don't change tense in narrative, something I have seen a few writers do. (Example: Mary walked into the room and looked around. She sees the vase has been moved and puts it back into its proper place.) You can shift tense in dialogue because people do speak in past, present, and future tense; but you have to stick to one tense--the right tense--in narrative. Now, relax and write tense well.

I wish you the best with your writing and progress.

Need a Book Doctor or an incentive to write or complete your manuscript? Let Joyce L. Shafer be your writing coach, developmental editor, or provide a critique. Details about her services at
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Thank you to Joyce for an interesting article (although I did wonder why she never referred to past or present tense until the last paragraph!).

Personally I wouldn't go as far as to say that fiction should never be written in the present tense. I have read a number of books and stories in which it has been used successfully (I discussed this a few years ago in this post).

However, it is certainly true that readers and publishers generally expect novels to be written in the past tense, and if you choose to write in the present, you are creating an extra obstacle for yourself.

If you have any comments or questions about this article, as ever, please do post them below.

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Blogger Tony Chianese said...

It would be nice to be able to determine what Joyce charges, before making a commitment. Do you have any idea of how the cost basis is derived?

5:43 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

I'm afraid not. I would suggest you ask her directly via her website.

9:51 AM  

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