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Jan's Writing Basics #3: Choosing a Tense and Sticking to It

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 01, 2010 3:48 pm

Shann wrote:I can't believe I said something that insensitive. She must have thought I was the rudest person in the world. I promised myself I would think before speaking, so much for my New Year's resolution.

I'm amazed I'm capable of saying something that insensitive. She must think I'm the rudest person alive. My New Year's Resolution is I promise I will think before I speak.

The first two sentences were easier in the past tense, but I challenged myself with the 3rd one. I think that was easier in the present tense. I think overall I like speaking in the past the best.


Shann, both of your paragraphs mix present and past tense...check out the verbs that I italicized. HOWEVER...they're not wrong. This is another example of what Ann said; sometimes tenses are mixed in one sentence. In this case, it's because you're writing a person's thoughts, rather that writing a narrative describing action.

So...your paragraphs are both fine. But...care to try again, with a more cut-and-dried example? Stay in first person if you'd like:

I sat at the piano bench at stared at the unfamiliar page. The notes danced on the staff--so many of them. I was sure that my fingers had forgotten how to play. Taking a deep breath, I cracked all ten knuckles and placed my fingertips on the keys.

I sit at the piano bench, staring at the unfamiliar page. The notes dance on the staff--so many of them. I am sure that my fingers have forgotten how to play. Taking a deep breath, I crack all ten knuckles and place my fingertips on the keys.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby Shann » Mon Feb 01, 2010 4:51 pm

Shann learned to write in first grade. But as she aged, she realized she hadn't learned enough. She decided she needed to learn something new everyday.

Shann learns to write when she enters first grade. Now that she is older, she realizes she still needs to learn. She decides to vow to learn something new every single day.
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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 01, 2010 4:58 pm

There you go, Shann!

I'd propose another possible way of writing the second paragraph (although the first one isn't really wrong). Since the paragraph refers to two different time periods (when Shann was in first grade and now that she's older), you could write it like this:

Shann learned to write when she entered first grade. Now that she is older, she realizes she still needs to learn. She vows to learn something new every day.

Yes, students, I realize that now I'm TELLING you to mix tenses. Nothing's ever easy, is it? I guess it's a matter of

1. choosing the tense that works for your piece of writing
2. knowing how and when to refer to time periods other than the principle one of your story (I alluded to that when I said that there were more tenses than just past and present...I was trying to keep it simple, but as always, my wonderful students are several steps ahead of me)
3. staying consistent, except when you shouldn't

Thoroughly confused yet?
Jan Ackerson

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Postby ScarletFury » Mon Feb 01, 2010 6:03 pm

Well, I worked up the nerve to stick my head over here. Tenses are my absolute worst. :oops:



The pen was lifeless between my fingers as I stared at the lined pages before me. They were void of emotion and comfort with only the emptiness left. It haunted me.

The pen is lifeless in hand, while I stare at the blankness. The empty pages mock me with their lack of emotion, so white and too empty. It is haunting me.
Sara Harricharan

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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 01, 2010 6:34 pm

Sara, your second one is a perfect example of present tense done right. Love it!

You have nothing to worry about. Can you share with us why you sometimes choose present tense?
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Postby CatLin » Mon Feb 01, 2010 7:01 pm

Good grief! Three pages of posts already! You've probably moved on, but ...

The first paragraph is in present tense, the middle two in past tense, and the last is present tense again. You threw us into a timewarp. :lol:

Ok, now to read on...
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Postby CatLin » Mon Feb 01, 2010 7:25 pm

Homework part two:

I pulled this from one of the many stories I quit writing three or four paragraphs in. I originally wrote it (or started to anyway) in past tense:


George stirred under his huddle of blankets and grimaced at the morning. Larry's snores still rumbled beside him. George smiled as he remembered how thankful he was to hear someone beside him when he woke in the night, which he did plenty of.


Now, in present tense:

George stirs under his huddle of blankets and grimaces at the morning. Larry's snores still rumble beside him. George smiles as he remembers how thankful he was to hear someone beside him when he woke in the night, which he did plenty of.



Reading both of them, I actually like the present tense version better. I got more of an "emotional charge". (I may finish this piece now.) I've written a few pieces in present tense, especially when it's a "true" story.

I read Jodi Picoult's "Keeping Faith" last week, and it is written in present tense, which I rarely see in novels. It was different, but effective.
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Postby CatLin » Mon Feb 01, 2010 7:30 pm

glorybee wrote:
I'd love to have other people weigh in on this...have you read works written entirely in present tense? Did you like them, or not? Why?


LOL! Already answered this one. :lol:
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Postby CatLin » Mon Feb 01, 2010 7:32 pm

glorybee wrote: Secular writer Jodi Picoult is a master of present tense writing.


:lol: I must be in your head. ;)
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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 01, 2010 8:25 pm

Cat, I felt something rattling around in there this morning...it was you!

Thanks for you contribution, and for your thoughts about tenses. As one of FWs best, you contributions are always appreciated!

In the "George" example you cited, I actually like the past tense one better. George does too much remembering what happened in the night, so that you're forced to use the past tense in your present tense sentences. That's okay in small doses, but the light tone of this makes me prefer the past tense.

But hey--you're the writer. Whatevah floats yer boat...
Jan Ackerson

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Postby ScarletFury » Mon Feb 01, 2010 8:53 pm

glorybee wrote:Can you share with us why you sometimes choose present tense?


Mainly the feel of it. Not a very technical answer--sorry--but it depends on the character I'm writing. If the piece is particularly "emotional" in a sense, the MC struggling through a great trial, the choppy short pacing of something in present tense is much easier to write. Sometimes I will go back and change it over to past tense, but it's just easier to write for me. I am able to crawl inside the character's head and poke around with a lightstick. I can hear them argue and whine--and when writing, it comes out in present tense.

It also reminds me of the old classics like The Secret Garden and Little Women and even though they are past tense, the feel of them makes me see the story happening in present and I try to duplicate the same feeling when I aim for present tense.

:roll: Yes. That's my complicated answer. I'm stickin' to it. ^_^
Sara Harricharan

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Postby CatLin » Mon Feb 01, 2010 9:12 pm

glorybee wrote:Cat, I felt something rattling around in there this morning...it was you!

Thanks for you contribution, and for your thoughts about tenses. As one of FWs best, you contributions are always appreciated!

In the "George" example you cited, I actually like the past tense one better. George does too much remembering what happened in the night, so that you're forced to use the past tense in your present tense sentences. That's okay in small doses, but the light tone of this makes me prefer the past tense.

But hey--you're the writer. Whatevah floats yer boat...


Actually, it's a very somber piece so your feeling is correct. ;) And thanks for the generous flattery! :hugs2
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Postby PottersClay » Mon Feb 01, 2010 10:44 pm

I'd love to have other people weigh in on this...have you read works written entirely in present tense? Did you like them, or not? Why?


I read a John Grisham book, Rainmaker, which was in 1st person, present tense. He wrote it so well that it actually changed my view on a 1st person perspective, which I previously thought of as a bit arrogant sounding. The present tense seems to suit 1st person writing well, I think. It pulls you right in to the scene.

What was so strange to me was that after I read that book I struggled for a while to write in the correct tense (past tense) of the novel that I'm writing.

Joan
Give me the love that leads the way,
The faith that nothing can dismay,
The hope no disappointments tire,
The passion that will burn like fire.
Let me not sink to be a clod,
Make me Thy fuel, Flame of God.
Amy Carmichael

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Postby PottersClay » Mon Feb 01, 2010 10:54 pm

Oops, as to the homework:

I was almost a bit nervous to do the homework since I could see that it was possible to tie oneself into some great big knots. The only reason I persevered was that I could see the value of it. I was just not sure that I could handle the criticism.

I am almost a bit nervous to do the homework since I can see that it is possible to tie oneself into some great big knots. The only reason I persevere is that I can see the value of it. I am just not sure that I can handle the criticism.

Personally I've enjoyed writing in present tense in the challenges, but I'm not sure I could write an entire novel like that. It seems to work well for shorter pieces.

Thanks Jan.

Joan
Give me the love that leads the way,
The faith that nothing can dismay,
The hope no disappointments tire,
The passion that will burn like fire.
Let me not sink to be a clod,
Make me Thy fuel, Flame of God.
Amy Carmichael

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Lots to learn

Postby flyingcross » Tue Feb 02, 2010 12:45 am

Okay, here goes.

Looking at the assignment in horror, I find myself sinking in despair. What of these verbs that have a life of their own? No matter how I try, they live in the present and past tense all at the same time.


I looked at the assignment in horror and found myself sinking in despair. What of these verbs that had lives of their own? No matter how I tried, they lived in the present and past tense all at the same time.

All I can say, is, help, and thanks...and I have a lot to learn, or is it remember? How long ago school was and here I am again!
Thanks Jan,
Cindy
PS...I don't think we learned any of this in nursing school :)

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