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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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Green Leaves
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Postby Green Leaves » Tue Feb 02, 2010 12:50 am

Am I too late for the homework assignment?

I could smell the gasoline all around us; we were trapped. The loaded gravel truck had taken a healthy bite out of the rear of our car. Managing to avoid a head-on collision, I looked around for my three daughters.

I can smell the gasoline all around me; we are trapped. The loaded gravel truck has taken a healthy bite out of the rear of our car. Managing to avoid a head-on collision, I look around for my three daughters.

The past tense is much easier for me, but maybe because I just have more difficulty writing prose...or perhaps, because this is factual and happened in the past.

Carol Penhorwood
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"God has not called me to be successful, God has called me to be faithful." Mother Teresa

"...not to advance in the spiritual life is to go back. But those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep.". Brother Lawrence

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Postby swfdoc1 » Tue Feb 02, 2010 2:06 am

glorybee wrote:have you read works written entirely in present tense? Did you like them, or not? Why?


Variation on a theme: Dean Koontz has several books in which all the scenes involving one character are in present while the rest of the book is in past.
Steve
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Postby Joolz » Tue Feb 02, 2010 8:40 am

Homework assignment -

The sea was pleasantly calm and the day not too hot. We were about 50 metres off shore when Irene cut the motor and threw out the anchor. “Isn’t this a picture?” she asked looking towards the island.

The sea is pleasantly calm and the day not too hot. We are about fifty metres off shore and Irene suddenly cuts the motor and throws out the anchor. "Isn't this a picture?" she asks looking towards the island.


I'd never thought about writing an entire story in present tense before. But just in the last week I read one of the Challenge entries which was written in present tense and I found it quite strange as I'm so used to past tense - obviously I don't read enough! :oops:

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Postby glorybee » Tue Feb 02, 2010 10:55 am

I've got a subbing job today--will respond to the most recent posts late this afternoon or this evening.

Keep writing!
Jan Ackerson

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Postby Deconut » Tue Feb 02, 2010 2:06 pm

Writing homework:

I realized that the decisions my heart had made as a child were not necessarily true. They had been influencing my choices and feelings for a long time. I was making the same rotten choices over and over.

As I reflect on the decisions I made as a child, I realize that they are not true. However I am still allowing those thoughts and feelings to influence me. No wonder I keep making the same rotten choices!


I am pretty sure that Salinger's Catcher in the Rye was a present tense narrative. It's been a long time since I read it though!

Thanks Jan! I have been a master tense-shifter and it's time to quit it.

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Postby glorybee » Tue Feb 02, 2010 4:48 pm

PottersClay 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?


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


Joan, I totally agree with you about present tense working well with 1st person narratives. When I was entering the Challenge, that was quite often my "default" setting.

Thanks for your contribution!
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Lots to learn

Postby glorybee » Tue Feb 02, 2010 4:50 pm

flyingcross wrote: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 :)


Cindy, very well done! I don't have a thing to add but my appreciation. If only the writing rules were hard and fast. Instead, they're just hard!
Jan Ackerson

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Postby glorybee » Tue Feb 02, 2010 4:51 pm

Green Leaves wrote:Am I too late for the homework assignment?

I could smell the gasoline all around us; we were trapped. The loaded gravel truck had taken a healthy bite out of the rear of our car. Managing to avoid a head-on collision, I looked around for my three daughters.

I can smell the gasoline all around me; we are trapped. The loaded gravel truck has taken a healthy bite out of the rear of our car. Managing to avoid a head-on collision, I look around for my three daughters.

The past tense is much easier for me, but maybe because I just have more difficulty writing prose...or perhaps, because this is factual and happened in the past.

Carol Penhorwood


Carol, these are both excellent! Which did you prefer for this particular passage, as far as establishing atmosphere and mood?
Jan Ackerson

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Postby glorybee » Tue Feb 02, 2010 4:52 pm

swfdoc1 wrote:
glorybee wrote:have you read works written entirely in present tense? Did you like them, or not? Why?


Variation on a theme: Dean Koontz has several books in which all the scenes involving one character are in present while the rest of the book is in past.


Thanks, Steve!

I've never read Koontz; do you recommend him?
Jan Ackerson

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Postby glorybee » Tue Feb 02, 2010 4:54 pm

Joolz wrote:Homework assignment -

The sea was pleasantly calm and the day not too hot. We were about 50 metres off shore when Irene cut the motor and threw out the anchor. “Isn’t this a picture?” she asked looking towards the island.

The sea is pleasantly calm and the day not too hot. We are about fifty metres off shore and Irene suddenly cuts the motor and throws out the anchor. "Isn't this a picture?" she asks looking towards the island.


I'd never thought about writing an entire story in present tense before. But just in the last week I read one of the Challenge entries which was written in present tense and I found it quite strange as I'm so used to past tense - obviously I don't read enough! :oops:


Julie, I like both of these very much.

I think you'll find that quite a few Masters writers write in present tense. Read a few more, and let us know what you think! Maybe even do some experimenting...?
Jan Ackerson

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Postby glorybee » Tue Feb 02, 2010 4:55 pm

Deconut wrote:Writing homework:

I realized that the decisions my heart had made as a child were not necessarily true. They had been influencing my choices and feelings for a long time. I was making the same rotten choices over and over.

As I reflect on the decisions I made as a child, I realize that they are not true. However I am still allowing those thoughts and feelings to influence me. No wonder I keep making the same rotten choices!


I am pretty sure that Salinger's Catcher in the Rye was a present tense narrative. It's been a long time since I read it though!

Thanks Jan! I have been a master tense-shifter and it's time to quit it.


Well done, deconut.

It's been years since I read "Catcher in the Rye"--I'll have to check it out again, in the light of your post and Salinger's recent death.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby Green Leaves » Tue Feb 02, 2010 5:14 pm

I could smell the gasoline all around us; we were trapped. The loaded gravel truck had taken a healthy bite out of the rear of our car. Managing to avoid a head-on collision, I looked around for my three daughters.

I can smell the gasoline all around me; we are trapped. The loaded gravel truck has taken a healthy bite out of the rear of our car. Managing to avoid a head-on collision, I look around for my three daughters.




Jan, I believe for creating the atmosphere the present tense works better in this instance. Am I right?

But personally, I would prefer to write about it in the past tense. Is that maybe because I experienced it and would prefer not to re-experience it? :lol:

Is this what you mean when you talk about first hand experience usually being better in the present tense?

Carol
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"God has not called me to be successful, God has called me to be faithful." Mother Teresa

"...not to advance in the spiritual life is to go back. But those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep.". Brother Lawrence

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Postby glorybee » Tue Feb 02, 2010 5:21 pm

I don't think, in this case, one is more right than the other. Purely your own preference.

I do think there are times with the present tense just doesn't work--humor pieces, stories with a very young narrator, 3rd person pieces with a "story telling" feel to them (I'm not expressing that last one very well). There are certainly other types of stories that are best in past tense--anyone care to name some?

But for this one--dramatic, first person--either tense works for me.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby swfdoc1 » Tue Feb 02, 2010 7:11 pm

glorybee wrote:I've never read Koontz; do you recommend him?


Definitely.
Steve
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"When the Round Table is broken every man must follow Galahad or Mordred; middle
things are gone." C.S. Lewis
“The chief purpose of life … is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis ... We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendor.” J.R.R. Tolkien

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Postby kpwrite » Tue Feb 02, 2010 8:22 pm

I haven't read ahead yet!

Some of the paragraphs use past tense and some use present tense. (I looked vs. I turn...)
Kristi

"When I stand before God at the end of my life I would hope that I would have not a single bit of talent left and could say, 'I used everything you gave me.'" -Erma Bombeck

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