Oct 12

Self Edits, Part 3 – Stay in Tense

 Part Three of Self Editing deals with the tense of the book. Past, or present? I could go on about past perfect or future perfect, etc., but for an introduction let’s stick with simple past and present tenses. At this point you will have already written your book, but this may explain why you are having problems with its delivery.

 When writing modern fiction there are some general conventions that are acceptable in terms of POV (point of view) and tense. Most people are comfortable and used to things written in 3rd person, past tense: She sat and took a bite of the apple. Some authors object to this form of storytelling because it seems to present events currently happening in the story as if they are done and complete, but in fact, this is effect generally ignored by the reading public.

 There are exceptions to this convention and the most common exception is in young adult literature where 1st person, present tense has been appearing more and more regularly: I sit and take a bite of my apple. The reason for this is the level of immediacy—YA fiction is aimed at a younger generation, or at least toward readers who like a younger age story—and present tense shows events as they unfold. This may even lend a sense of mystery to the story—even the narrator has no clue as to what will happen to them next.

One of the most common problems I see when editing new authors is the tendency to slip between past and present tense. This happens even more often when a new author writing YA is in 1st person and slides back and forth between present and past tense: I sat down and bite my apple. This example is exaggerated; I most commonly see the slide between sentences rather than within. This kind of error will get your work rejected by an editor, or worse, if you are self-publishing, it will irritate and turn off your readers.

 1st person present tense isn’t easy. There are many ways to make mistakes. Beyond sliding into past tense, present tense must be written in such a way that detail is not forgotten. Your narrator can see everything around them. In past tense, you can discard the items that are not important, but in present, she sees everything. Obviously you can’t have your main character observing each item in her room, but the common backlash is that not enough detail is added to the picture. The author gets into the head of the character and pushes forward constantly with the actions, forgetting the detail of the room description, the scents and textures. These are ignored in favor of the next action.

Historical fiction is particularly hard to write in 1st person for the simple fact that a modern writer has not experienced the events of so long ago. For instance it is truly difficult to imagine how different the thoughts of a character—a young woman perhaps—who is completely used to and accepts (despite it being somewhat frustrating) the fact that they have no say in their future. They have no choice and they don’t imagine being able to change that. They do expect to be married and having babies at fifteen, and do not expect anyone to take their political views seriously. Modern viewpoints in this case simply do not exist, yet they are hard to remove from the author’s subconscious and often appear in their writing.

I have read and worked with a number of 1st person, past tense stories and these make more sense to me. Being in 1st person allows the author to express deep introspective POV, but placing the story in past tense allows for an easier write.

Whatever your choice, be consistent.

Nancy, TheRedPenCoach