You’ve heard me preach ad-nauseum about how much I hate reading first person narrative in fiction. However, that’s a personal choice and I’m not here to tell you not to write your novel that way. I strongly believe it’s the way to go in an autobiography or in any autobiographical story.
The one thing I and a lot of other readers find very distracting is present tense in any point of view, but especially fiction. This is one reason there are certain authors people avoid. Regardless of whether they write in first or third person, they insist on writing in present tense, maybe with the philosophy that it instills a sense of urgency to the writing, which in my mind (and from feedback I’ve received from other readers), it doesn’t!
I find present tense, used consistently in fiction to be irritating to the extreme. In fact, I can’t even read it, regardless of point of view. It spoils the reading experience. One author in particular has a penchant for that and though she is quite popular with certain readers, she seems to gain an entirely different audience when she reverts to third, or even her first person stories in past tense. There is also an icky bug author I used to like that has a penchant for present tense. He writes third person but the present tense makes for an uncomfortable read and even though I like the stories, it’s a struggle to get through them. Unfortunately, I’ve had to take a pass on his work lately.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest, the real reason for this article is to talk about mixing past and present tense in your story. Let’s forget point of view a moment and look at past and present.
I compile and do the first edit of the Las Vegas Astronomical Society Observer’s Challenge. It’s a non-fiction collection of observer’s notes of astronomical objects Roger Ivester and I and other members of our Challenge group choose to observe each month. Every participant sends in their notes, sometimes along with a drawing or image and I compile them into the report, do the rough and main edit, send the final draft to Roger, he does the final read and looks for anything I miss, then I send it to Rob Lambert. Rob runs through it and looks for anything we miss before posting it on the club web site. Roger and I both post it on our web sites as well.
Since I get the rough data and have to turn it onto the readable draft, I get all varieties of writing quality, mostly very good but still in need of editing. This is where I got the idea for this article because our members notoriously mix present and past tense. I always convert every observation into past tense unless it’s a direct quote in parentheses. It can be tricky because sometimes the tenses are mixed within sentences and Roger will catch them even after I’ve gone through them twice or more!
Since most of us are fiction writers, I’ll use this example:
Detach goes to the edge of the lake where he takes a look into the deep black water. He sees his reflection and shivers. It reminded him of when he was a kid and nearly drowned. His legs stiffened, a surge of adrenaline raced through his veins.
Notice anything wrong?
Detach goes to the edge of the lake where he takes a look into the deep black water. He sees his reflection and shivers.
This is in present tense. It doesn’t match the next two sentences which are in past tense. It can’t be both ways!
Detach approached the edge of the lake and gazed at the deep black water. His reflection stared back up at him. The near drowning when he was a kid came back in a rush. A surge of adrenaline raced through his veins.
One of many ways to correct that problem.
This applies to separate paragraphs, scenes and chapters. My strong recommendation is to keep on tense throughout the novel, unless it is used for special effect. Maybe a letter or, of course, in dialogue, which breaks normal rules. Also, keep the change short and specific.
If you insist on writing a novel present tense, go ahead, just make the entire novel present tense (except for the special effects as noted above). Don’t slip where you shouldn’t. Consistency is the key!
I’ve voiced my opinion on first pages before in the article The First Page. However, after attending our last writer’s conference, a few things came up at the first page read sessions that made me think. I think they’re worth visiting again.
As I told you before, I don’t believe in the first page. As a reader, I’ve never been sold on a book by the first page. On the other hand, there are many agents and publishers that are, so that is a huge hurdle one must overcome to get anywhere in the publishing world. I’m bringing this up because as I listened to the agents critiquing the first pages being read during our Friday lunch, a few things struck me. Universal things that should apply to any story.
First, there’s nothing wrong with getting to the point. Sounds simple enough, right? You wouldn’t believe how many first pages don’t do that. The author goes to all ends to try and impress the reader with their command of the English language by describing minute details about either the scene or the character. By the time we get to the bottom of the page, nothing has happened yet. You don’t have to necessarily slam bang the reader right off, but that’s not a bad idea. On the first page, you should at least move someplace.
Second, something I’m guilty of only once, I found out that it’s a terrible cliché to open a story with the character waking up. I’ve never read a story with a character waking up before. Yet, somehow that snuck into the reading world as a worn out cliché. What’s even worse is the cliché I did know about, having a character look in a mirror to describe themselves. Even worse is to use it on the first page. In one of my stories, I have my character wake up and look in the mirror! Of course, I knew about the mirror cliché and use it for special effect, but also now I have myself a double whammy to fix.
Third, if you’re going to have some kind of action on the first page, which you should, it should go somewhere. It should lead the reader in the direction of the plot. It shouldn’t be a random scene for effect to either introduce the character, one of their flaws or strengths, or to tell a joke. The first scene should always have something to do with the story (that joke could be there if it’s relevant to the plot). Save descriptive scenes for later in the book where they can do no harm. They should be short and sweet, not jarring, not listy but also shouldn’t set the reader off on the wrong foot. Everything has its’ place.
Fourth is to make sure the tone of the first page matches what you’re trying to accomplish with the rest of the story. Don’t start with a slam bang then shift gears, never to return to that style. What??? Don’t jerk your reader around.
There are probably more things I’m missing, but I got those four points just listening to those agents and pondering later what they didn’t say. Very few of them made it all the way through a first page without raising their hands that they’d stop reading.
The first page should be solid and the foundation of what is to come. It doesn’t have to blow the reader away, but it should not waste their time. Every word, every page counts. At the same time, I never judge a book by the first page. It sets a tone, but there isn’t enough room on a half to three quarters of a page to do much.
I look for point of view (third person, past tense), the genre (of course), the book blurb (which doesn’t coincide with the actual story half the time anyway), the author, the cover art, the print size and even the smell of the pages. I also leaf through as I’m checking for point of view to see how much empty space (as in dialogue) is there and if the author likes full page paragraphs (which usually means the author likes to drone on). Once I start reading, it’s not until I get to the third or fourth chapter that I get a feel for the story. Then I can tell if the book is going to be good or is going to suck. Of course, it could all come crashing down if the hero dies in the end, but that’s another story!
A month or so ago, I addressed this author that got slammed by a majority of his reviewers for writing a lousy first series of three books. Yet he managed to publish a second far more successful series, which I enjoyed despite some annoying irks which I discussed a bit in the original article.
Last week, I received a pingback from the web site F*ck You – Idiosyncratic Wit http://politicalstrife.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/reblog-to-read-or-not-to-readreviews-by-jeremy-robinson/ on an article by one of his favorite authors and bloggers, Jeremy Robinson. Funny, Jeremy Robinson is becoming one of my favorite icky bug authors and I just finished a great icky bug novel of his called Island 731. In fact, it’s the first true monster icky bug I’ve read in ages. I thought the timing was rather unique! With that in mind, I figured it was a perfect opportunity to address the result of my adventures with the author of my frustration in the original article, A Jackpot Of Bad Moves.
I went back to Barnes & Noble and bought the three novels in question not only to fit my OCD completist impulses, but to see if these reviewers knew what they were talking about. Turns out the answer was not what I expected.
With the exception of the exaggerated perspective on the body parts in the first novel from that one female reviewer who took great offense at a few scenes, mostly at the beginning at the book, the story was far from soft porn. As for the other things people pointed out in all three, almost everything they said was true but nothing was as bad as they made it out to be, and none of the issues were story-killing.
The first book was the poorest written and they got progressively better. That being said, they could’ve used a good content editor and they still may never have made it through any agent I’ve ever run across. As for my reviews, I had plenty of positive to say about them and gave each three star ratings. Average. Nothing to write home about, but still a good enough read so that I can say I didn’t waste my money. I could see a lot of room for improvement which happened in the next series, though the author carried a lot of his quirks with him once he became established.
I had lots of time to talk to agents at the recent writer’s conference and they told me once a writer has an audience, they can pretty much get away with anything. That’s just the way it works. I asked them why then are they so severe with what they’re looking for? They all said they get so much crap they have to let the cream rise to the top and they go for those that not only have a good story but know how to write first.
To me, an author puts their heart and soul into their work. They depend on their editors and beta readers to see what they can’t. If they don’t have a good support system or have an ego that won’t let that support system work for them, they’ll write crap and it will drag down their readers. I think my readers deserve better than that.
All good things come to an end. It was a happy/sad occasion when our conference coordinator, Darrah Whitaker said those final words, “Well, folks, that’s it. The conference is over.” It was time to say goodbye, hugs all around and head for the parking garage.
For me, it was a simple five mile drive down the road and two right turns to my driveway. For others, it would be a complicated set of airline stops, or maybe very long drives to other states or even countries. We had a few participants from Canada. From the feedback I heard, everyone left satisfied, or at least happy they attended. I’ll probably hear more about what was said on the critique forms in the coming weeks.
As for myself, outside of a disastrous personal matter which put a bit of a damper on the whole proceedings, this was one of the best conferences ever. Of course, I say that every year because they all are, but this one was not a bad one, it was as great if not at least one of the better ones. As for the biggies, let’s start with the agents.
As I told you before in a past article, I left it right until the last moment to look at the faculty to decide if I even was going to pitch. Since I write in multiple genres, I at least had a variety of them to look for. I also didn’t bother months ago because I knew that the faculty list could be fluid and last minute changes, based on past experience, could change. To my great surprise and pleasure, our conference organizers came up with an outstanding list of agents that covered a wide variety of genres. As a result, I had a shopping list!
I won’t name the agents, but as a result, I went through a mad rush going over my old query letters. I whipped them into shape over the next week leading up to the conference even right until Thursday evening, the first day but the day before pitch sessions started. I decided to pitch my fantasy, my icky bug (horror) and my adventure/thriller. The result? Over the two pitch days, Friday and Saturday, I sat down with four agents and got four hits. Not bad at all. Three genres were represented and I got hits for each. That alone made the weekend.
With any conference, for me, pitching isn’t the only reason I attend. In fact, as you may note above, the pitching was a last moment thing and not the primary reason I wanted to attend, though it did end up being a huge chunk of icing on the cake. I really attended to be part of it all, to help out and to network. I wanted to see faces and talk to people, hear their stories and tell mine, learn what they were doing and see if they were doing something I could use. Maybe attend a few classes I haven’t done before. Just be a part of it. It’s my Woodstock, to coin a term that clearly dates me!
As usual, I helped set up the front desk and worked the receipt book for selling raffle tickets and other stuff. I also at least partially changed door signs on the classroom, though Denice Whitmore, another one of our members and a volunteer beat me to it most of the time. She was also a key figure in keeping order at the door and desk when Jo Wilkins, the club president and I were elsewhere. Seeing as I was also a full paid attendee, I did wander off from the desk, especially later Friday and Saturday so Denice was left guarding things.
I attended a few classroom sessions and garnered a bit of useful information. Most of the classes I’ve done before so there wasn’t much for me in that way. However, I could hear plenty of applause at the end of each session and laughter through the doors as well as see smiling faces as people left the rooms, so the faculty seemed to be doing their jobs, for the most part.
One of the best parts was circulating, talking not only to the participants, but the agents. I did both. I picked agents brains, learning what they looked for, how they worked, and what their pet peeves were. I also found out a lot about that during the first-page reads, conducted at the end of Friday’s lunch and dinner. They were great ways to pick up what agents look for in manuscripts and why they would keep reading or reject them.
I’d bump into people with our telltale conference name badge in the hallways, sitting at the tables, or maybe at the donut shop on the other side of the casino and talk to them. Complete strangers bonded together by this conference. Ask them how they were doing, what they write, where they came in from. I met a lot of first time writers, a few with already self-published books looking to go mainstream, some that have written several manuscripts looking for a first time agent and so on. Quite a variety. Met people from Calgary and Vancouver Canada, Minnesota, Arizona, Four Corners, New Mexico, New York, you name it.
I also have a favorite table in the main ballroom, the Virginia City room. Since I worked at the main desk most of the time and didn’t attend many of the classes, I was usually early to the dinners. I always sat at that table just to see who would sit down. It was never the same. Someone new to talk to including once Friday with four agents clustered at my table. Not bad!
The one consistent bit of feedback I heard from those that have been to other conferences is that we have one of the best there is because it is small and relaxed. It’s not a madhouse like some of the bigger ones in Ellay or New Yawk City. I’ve never been to one of those and have no desire to go to one, but after hearing how those are conducted from people that have been to them, I agree. We have a great conference and if you ever get a chance to attend, do so. I highly recommend it. I’m already planning for next year.
The time is finally upon me. Less than a week to go and I’ll be helping to set up for the Las Vegas Writer’s Conference at good old Sam’s Town Gambling Hall and Casino. I find it funny that though being locals and Sam’s Town being “our” casino where we go regularly, every time we enter through the back parking garage and go past the conference halls by the escalator, I get a huge rush of nostalgia, an urge to go into the Ponderosa room and mingle with other writer’s, even though there’s probably a wedding party or a coin show or an empty room. I never get over the rush of past or future writer’s conferences.
After bemoaning having no idea if any of the agents or publishers would be interested in any of the genres I write in my last article, I finally broke down and looked at the web site. Sure enough, there are those that take a few of my genres! Now that the faculty are written in stone, I know what to focus on. I’ve gone over one pitch letter and synopsis and cringed at stuff I hadn’t spotted the last time I used it in 2006. As for the other one I’m going to use, it should be pretty tight, but upon probably the fiftieth pass, who knows?
Last week at the writer’s group meeting, we had practice pitch sessions. Since I wasn’t a mock agent I would’ve been one of those to either watch or practice pitching. I’ve been doing this so long, for me practicing my pitch doesn’t cut it. I don’t practice. Unlike others, I’ve pitched for real probably fifty or sixty times. I don’t want to practice. I want to be spontaneous, off-the-cuff. I may stumble a bit, but I think it comes off more honest, at least for me. I have enough background that I think I can pull it off without looking like a fool. I usually get bites each time, at least where the agents or publishers have me send them something, even if they usually end up as rejections. I did get two contracts using my off-the-cuff unrehearsed method so something must be working!
Writing is one of the biggest pleasures for me. This conference is the big Kahuna, the Woodstock of the year, the superbowl, or to put it in terms my wife could relate to (besides football), The Brickyard or Daytona 500. This year, our keynote speaker is My Haley, Alex Haley’s widow. He’s the guy that wrote Roots. She’s a dynamic speaker and should be a real hoot.
With the usual mix if regulars and new faces, I’ll get to meet plenty of new writers from all over America. This is a great time to get to see how other people are doing and learning their craft. I’ll get to share my experience and pick up info I can use. I never walk away bored!
There will be agents, editors, screenwriters, publishers, and just about anyone who has to do with writing wandering the halls and the floor. I’ll be constantly bumping into them, shooting the breeze, maybe attending their sessions, eating meals with them, getting all kinds of gossip and tidbits from the publishing world. This inside info is great stuff!
Next week I’ll give a rundown on how the conference went. Successes and failures. Warts and all. I cannot emphasize how important it is for you, as a writer to attend at least one if not more of these conferences. Also, a blatant plug for our conference as it is small and focused for a reason. Everyone gets to talk to everybody. There are no huge lines and paying extra just to see an agent or publisher. No huge crowds to get in the way of the intimate setting.
That’s it for this week. Until next time, happy writing!
It’s Saturday morning. A day early for my usual web article brainstorm, but I have to strike while the iron’s hot. Okay, it’s a cliché but I don’t care. It fits. Here’s some food for thought.
As I was eating breakfast, my mind wandered over all the different projects I have on the front middle and back burners right now. Manuscripts at the publishers, short stories in the can, sequels being worked on, the web site, reviews on Amazon, the Observer’s Challenge. More I can’t think of at the moment. The little stuff takes up most of my effort while the big projects aren’t getting much more than nagging thoughts. It seems I’m on the verge of… something big? Something that won’t quite get there.
Am I missing out? Probably. Are you? Are you in the midst of several projects that aren’t quite panning out yet? Have you gone only so far with them but not taken all the steps, not been aggressive enough to get to the top of the game? Are you swimming uphill?
As one example, we have the Las Vegas Writer’s Conference coming up in two weeks. I still have several manuscripts I could be pitching, including two of my icky bugs. One I have with a publisher right now for review. However, it’s been almost six months with no response. I’ve signed no exclusive deal so I’m not committed. Yet, I still haven’t even looked at all the agents and publishers coming to the conference, not since the tentative list was first thrown together months ago. A simple mouse click. I guess I should grasp that brass ring, take that next step, go further than just thinking about it.
We sometimes feel like we’re being pulled in multiple directions but can’t decide which way we should go. Can’t make the decision. Yet at the same time, I don’t have too much to worry about. I’m accomplishing something every day. I’m getting things done. Almost daily I write a review, compose a short story for my web site, edit or write something new from Meleena’s Adventures – Gods Of The Blue Mountains (admittedly still editing stuff already written), work on the Observer’s Challenge and now I’m writing a new science fiction short story for an on-line publication which may or may not pass muster.
I’m constantly writing. However, my big projects, with the exception of Meleena’s Adventures, are stagnant at the moment. That makes me feel like I’m missing out. Like I’m swimming uphill. While I’m progressing one way, I’m not the other, the way that really counts (as far as making any serious money or national success).
Do you feel that way?
Do you have little stuff, or maybe even something semi-big that’s making headway, yet other projects, maybe your main goal is stagnating? Are you being pulled in several directions? Do you feel frustrated because you think you’re missing out?
I think back on a quote someone attributed to Stephen King. Though no fan of his writing, he’s come up with some pretty good writing advice. I think he’s the one that when asked how he got through the writing process, he said “One word at a time.”
That’s all we can do, except when it comes to reaching those goals, the brass rings, so to speak. We can write all day, but to what aim?
Now, before you think this is just a bunch of whining, the point of this is to get you to think of yourself and what you are trying to do. I have these feelings sometimes but there’s the other side of my coin. As I’ve said it before, I write because I love it, not to make money, so in a way, I’m already successful, on a very small scale. This pertains if I want to take it to the next level. National publication and a bit of cash isn’t my primary goal, but it would be nice and is achievable.
I have all that stuff written. How come it’s not out there for the world to see? Because of me, mainly. Swimming uphill.
Are you in that boat yet? Are you advanced enough that you’re in this boat? Are you pulling yourself in multiple directions? Are YOU swimming uphill?
Sunday morning, early. Easter Sunday. No big deal to me since I’m not of that persuasion, not since I was a little kid (and not even then, because my belief system wasn’t formed and I was lucky enough to have parents that let me make up my own mind). To me it’s just another Sunday morning with the usual self-imposed deadline for my Tuesday web site article posting. Or, as some of you might call it, my blog posting. I don’t really like to call it a blog because that implies a quick three-times-a-week smidgen of thought. At least that’s the impression I retained when I first dove into this game over a year ago. On the other hand, a lot of my fellow bloggers can be quite prolific several times a week. I just don’t have the time like I used to.
My once-a-week, Tuesday posting usually comes out of my head every Sunday morning as I’m sitting here by myself, with a quiet house. Everyone else is asleep, even the dawgs. Woof… or, lack of woof, to be more precise.
There’s no real reason for my self-imposed deadline except I like to post on Tuesday because that’s the day I picked when I started my web site. Monday is the Henderson Writer’s Group meeting. Tuesday is the first evening of the new week where I get to spend time on the computer, after nightly news, and before NCIS comes on. I have a span where I can check my e-mails, maybe do a bit of work on updating the Observer’s Challenge and even add to the forums on Cloudy Nights or watch some heavy metal vomit band on YouTube. Or, at least watch part of a video. For some reason, I don’t often watch them all the way through as of late.
My second deadline, which is a bit looser, is the Observer’s Challenge. My friend, Roger Ivester and I compile observations from other amateur astronomers around the country. I put it all together in Microsoft Word and then .pdf documents, then send it to our web master at the Las Vegas Astronomical Society (LVAS), Rob Lambert. He posts it on the club web site. Besides that, Roger and I both post the .pdf files on our own web sites, mine here on my Observer’s Challenge page. This process takes about a month and a half. A much looser deadline than my weekly blog. However, it is still a very important process that does take time and effort, but time and effort I enjoy immensely, just like these articles I write every week.
These deadlines, while self-imposed, provide enjoyment, though no profit. The Observer’s Challenge involves other people so I’d be letting down someone besides myself if I didn’t come through. If I slipped and didn’t post my weekly article, a few of you might wonder what happened after a week or so. Most would probably forget about it for a while then all of a sudden wonder what happened to good old Fred. Then you might shrug and go on about your lives, if that.
When and if my books (Meleena’s Adventures – Treasure of the Umbrunna & Lusitania Gold) ever reach the publishing stage, I’ll most certainly have deadlines. The publisher will go through them and red-line the daylights out of them. Send them back to me with a date of expected return for a second run-through. I’ll be given a deadline to fix those edits. If not, my book will be delayed in publication or they might even drop me from the list. That could be real pressure except I’d be on it like… well, I don’t want to say the unprintable cliché. I know all about deadlines. When I worked as a technical writer, I used to deal with deadlines all the time. With my books, we won’t be talking about work-related deadlines. This has to do with my writing, what I do for a calling, what I do for fun and profit. My self-imposed deadlines because I want others to see my work.
Do you have any kind of deadlines? Do you not only set them, but do you meet them? Or, do you let them slip, over and over again and just go on, never quite finishing what you started? On the other hand, do you set a deadline, or get one for something you wrote and freak out then lose all your writing skill and turn into a blubbering mass of insecurity?
Remember, we’re not talking about the making a living type deadlines, but what you do for fun and profit. This is supposed to be a calling, what you do because you love it, because it’s what you have to do, not something you must to do because someone has a gun to your head.
If you’ve turned in a manuscript and an editor sends it back all redlined and says “Fix it. I need it back in three weeks.” What do you do? That’s a deadline. Are you going to get right on it and fix it and run to the post office and get it back to them, or are you going to freak out, sit on it until the last minute and make a few quick changes then throw what’s left in the mail and hope for the best? Or are you going to blow the deadline and take your sweet time and hope they didn’t notice?
There’s a deadline for submission to a periodical and you want to submit a short story. You have a great idea but keep procrastinating. Either do it, or move on (See? I avoided the obvious censored cliché here).
Deadlines can work in our favor if you are one that can write under pressure. If you can’t, never let one get that close. Start early so you can finish early.