Tenses make me tense

Often new writers mix up their tenses until the veins in my temple throb. Present tense is one of the most difficult to maintain throughout the entire story. The first time the writer has to return briefly to a past occurrence, everything falls apart. And why does it seem okay to shift from past to present over and over? Worse, they often add the first person to this and so many of those first person nouns fill the page it sounds like a coyote somewhere in the background.

The easiest tense to maintain is past tense. Third person is easier too. There’s a lot of confusion. One member of our critique group said, “Yes, but if I use third person I can’t get in their head like with first person.”
Wrong. In fact, one of our better writers, Larry McMurtry, said that he writes much of his work in first person, then goes back and changes the pronoun to third, leaving internalization, narrative, etc., the same. Try that sometimes, you’ll be surprised. She as a character can think and narrate just like I as a character can.
Then there are the writers who write one chapter in first person, another in third, yet another in someone else’s third person viewpoint. This is very popular today, but the beginning writer has to be very careful. It’s important to learn all of these styles thoroughly before attempting to mix them up.
We are talking here about viewpoint, or the dreaded point of view (pov) that is spoken of so often in writer’s groups. It appears to be the most difficult concept for new writers to grasp, and they leap about from one head to another like a table tennis ball. Curl yourself firmly inside the head of your protagonist and don’t start showing us stuff she doesn’t know or couldn’t possibly have seen, heard, smelled, felt, tasted. If it happened on the other side of the wall, she may have heard something, but that’s as far as you can go till she learns, usually from dialogue, what was going on next door.
That brings up omniscience, which means the author stands above the story and moves the characters around, showing us what’s going on everywhere, what’s said and done by everyone, and using dialogue for feelings of the characters. The writer is the camera or God.
There are many more complicated povs and tenses, but these should suffice to get writers on the right track. Learn them thoroughly before going on to write the GAN. Attend workshops and conferences and lectures. Take notes, make sure the people you’re listening to know what they’re talking about. And read tons of good books in the genre in which you wish to write. See what works and what doesn’t. Become your very own self with your very own voice and learn your craft before submitting anything anywhere.
Most of all, enjoy writing. It’s a tough business and not always as rewarding as we think it should be.

About veldabrotherton

For thirty years I've been a writer. Publication of my work began in 1994 . I'm pleased to have recently settled with Oghma Creative Media as my publisher. My brand is SexyDarkGritty and that applies to my western historical romances, mysteries, women's fiction and horror novels. I recently signed a contract to write westerns again, and what fun it's been working on the first one. If I weren't writing my life wouldn't be so exciting.
This entry was posted in conferences, past tense, POV, present tense, Uncategorized, Velda Brotherton, workshops, Writers. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Tenses make me tense

  1. Velda, you've just received the Kreativ Bloggers Award. Please read the rules at Mysterious People and pass the award on to seven other bloggers.

  2. Sheila Deeth says:

    I just followed Jean over here. I enjoyed your article. I read something recently that switched from third person to first and it really frustrated me. Then I wrote something that switched. And I still can't quite decide if I should change it… But at least you're helping me clarify my thoughts.

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