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

Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 01, 2010 7:40 am

I’ve lost the list I made of topics for this class, and it’s driving me nuts! I had dozens of ideas, and now I’m totally drawing a blank as to what was on there. Granted, you’ve all given me some really great ideas, but some of them I’m giving to Ann for her “Jots and Tittles” grammar class, and some of them are too advanced for this class (or were covered in my previous class). So now, over the next several days, I need to try to re-create that list, and I’m just plumb annoyed at myself for having misplaced it. Grrrrrrr.

Deep breath…First, a re-cap of the last two lessons:
1. Use interesting words, especially your nouns and verbs. If you find that you’ve used a very generic word, ask yourself if there’s a more specific, “tastier” word that would be better.

2. Trim as many adjectives and adverbs (especially –ly adverbs) as you can, replacing them with better nouns and verbs.

And here’s today’s “Quick Take’ before I get to the real lesson:

Know the difference between its and it’s.

Give the cat its dangly toy. Notice that there’s no apostrophe there. The word is possessive, but no apostrophe is needed; think of the analogous words his, her, and hers. No apostrophe is necessary in possessive pronouns.

It’s amazing how Sophie eats nothing but Deli Cat and rubber bands. The apostrophe is needed because the contraction is a shortened version of it is. The apostrophe takes the place of the missing letter.

It’s been years since I was mistaken for Audrey Hepburn. Here, the two-word phrase is it has. Again, the apostrophe takes the place of missing letters.

When you type it’s, stop and re-read, substituting the words it is. If it’s not right, then remove its apostrophe.


Now here’s today’s lesson, but I’m going to present it backward, with an assignment first. Read the paragraphs that follow, and pick out the biggest error. (There may be several errors; I’m the author. But don’t worry about hurting my feelings.)

After a few people have commented—and I’m going to assume the error will be found pretty quickly—I’ll proceed with the lesson.

***

from
“I Learn Something New About Millie”

I turn off the evening news and reach for my half-solved crossword puzzle. Opera tenor Schipa…The Saturday puzzle is notoriously difficult, but I am determined to finish it. Millie—my bride of sixty-seven years—teases me about my insistence that each puzzle be solved completely, in ink. She finds me silly, but there is something pleasing about the glide of ink on newsprint and a neatly completed black-and-white grid.

I looked away from my puzzle when I heard a small noise from Millie’s chair. She pushed herself slowly upward with an oof and shuffled to her sewing room, one hand on her troublesome hip. When she returned, she was carrying her sewing basket.

I cherished these quiet evening moments. From outside there was only the sound of amorous tree frogs; inside, the house held only echoes of memories. I returned to my puzzle, with an occasional glance at Millie, whose shapely legs still made my breath catch in my throat.

She is sewing a button on a shirt that I have not worn in a decade. Her reading glasses perch low on her nose; nevertheless, she holds the shirt close to her face and squints with each jab of the needle. Sometimes she puts the shirt down and flexes her fingers. They must ache—the evening is humid.
***

Think you’ve found it? If you’re pretty sure you know, hit ‘reply’ without reading others’ responses. If you’re not sure, go ahead and peek; it’s a casual class and no one will mind. I’ll be back later today or early tomorrow with the meat of the lesson.
Last edited by glorybee on Mon Feb 01, 2010 12:59 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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The biggest error...

Postby Toni Star » Mon Feb 01, 2010 8:07 am

The biggest error that I found was the misuse of tense. Sometimes the words were in the present tense; other times they were in the past tense.

Toni
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Postby Kimberly-Russell » Mon Feb 01, 2010 8:09 am

Tense issues?
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From what I can tell...

Postby Toni Star » Mon Feb 01, 2010 8:49 am

Yes, from what I can tell the action words were in the past tense and other times in the present tense...

Will see what Jan says..Could be wrong. Taking an educated guess..

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Re: Jan's Writing Basics #3: Mystery Topic

Postby Ms. Barbie » Mon Feb 01, 2010 10:04 am

glorybee wrote: "I Learn Something New About Millie”


So what DID YOU LEARN?
Barb Culler

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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 01, 2010 10:09 am

Barb, you can read the whole story here.

I'll wait another hour or so, in case someone has a different guess as to what might be wrong with the passage.

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
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Postby Ms. Barbie » Mon Feb 01, 2010 10:15 am

Ok, I agree with the tense issues.
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Jan's Class

Postby browniesgal » Mon Feb 01, 2010 12:39 pm

I think the tense changed. Then I looked. Others agree with me. So is that it?

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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 01, 2010 12:58 pm

Okay, my challenge was ridiculously easy. You all get an "A" for finding my tense switches. Now, on with the class.

One of the most common mistakes I find in Beginner or Intermediate challenge entries is inconsistent tenses. The writer will start her story in past tense, then switch to present tense at some point, then will switch back—often several times—before the story is done. It’s a bit dizzying for the reader. It’s best to stick with one tense throughout a story (there are exceptions; writing is more creative than scientific. Still.)

***
Past tense is the most common story-telling mode. Think about the stories you might remember from your childhood; those were told in past tense.

Goldilocks knocked on the door of the little cottage.
With a single kiss, the prince awakened Sleeping Beauty.
Rapunzel threw her braid down the tower window, and the prince climbed up.

I recommend this style for beginning writers. It’s easiest to write and easiest to understand. Notice how I italicized the verbs in the sentences above? That’s what you should double-check when you edit your writing. Look for those –ed endings, or for words like threw that are irregular past tense. If you find verbs with –s or –ing endings (or no endings at all), you may have slipped into present tense.

***
Present tense is the one we usually use for telling jokes.

A salesman, a cowboy, and a clown walk into a restaurant. The salesman says, “I bet I can get us a free lunch.” Meanwhile, the waitress is walking toward them with a pot of hot coffee…

You also see present tense in stage directions:

Jan: (she holds out Sophie’s dangly toy) Aren’t you the cutest thing? Hey! Is that a hairball?

A common beginner error is that of changing from past to present tense, particularly when relating a true story. The writer starts out in narrative mode, then falls into writing the story as if she were telling it to her friends, and the present tense just seems more natural.

As above—if you’ve started out writing in present tense, keep at it through the whole piece. Check your verbs: in present tense, they’ll end in –s or –ing, or they’ll have no ending at all. If you start seeing –ed endings, you may have fallen into past tense.

If tenses are a problem for you (have commenters mentioned them?), then do one read-through just for the purpose of tense-checking.

***

There are other tenses than past and present; I’m not going to cover them here. Too complicated. A few final thoughts:

1. Stories written in present tense can be quite literary and artistic. I think they work best when:
a. they’re serious or moody rather than light-hearted
b. they take place in a very short period of time (keeping the reader in the NOW)
c. they have a first person narrator
d. the narrator is not a child

2. A good way to show a flashback is to switch tenses intentionally. Write the body of the story in past tense, then the flashback in present tense, in italics. It gives the flashback an almost dreamlike quality. Or do it the other way around; either way would be effective.

3. When in doubt, while developing your skills in fiction writing, use past tense and stick with it. Branch out when you feel confident.

4. Non-fiction—devotionals, informative articles, and the like—is often written in present tense.

Homework: Write a 3 sentence paragraph in past tense. Then write the same paragraph in present tense. Keep it at 3 sentences, please—I have to read a lot of these!

Tell us about your writing: which tense worked better for that piece of writing? Why? Which was easiest for you?


Do you have any questions about picking the right tense and sticking with it?
Jan Ackerson

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Postby Shann » Mon Feb 01, 2010 1:05 pm

The tenses bounce around like a ping-pong ball. I think some of the commas are messed up too.

Millie—my bride of sixty-seven years—teases me
(How do you get it to quote? Oh well I'll paste and copy for now.) I'd write it this way:
Millie, my bride of 67 years, teases me; she insists each puzzle be solved completely in ink.

But, the change of tense disturbed me the most. I think there were a few unnecessary words : that, from and about.
If we take the prior lessons in account, the paragraphs could be tightened a bit.
Another guess is the dash was overused or perhaps misused, but now I'm only guessing.

My heart is thumping, I don't want to appear too much like the ignorant beginner that I am. Fearfully, I'm pressing the submit button in between the thumps.
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Postby PamDavis » Mon Feb 01, 2010 1:19 pm

I found two that seem to be biggest problems. (I also found 4 ly adverbs which could be removed.)

#1 "one hand on her hip"...What about it, just seems to be hanging there?

#2 "my breath catch" in my throat....I can picture something "playing catch" in my throat!

Jan, I feel for you in losing your list! We must be identical twins! I lose things all the time!

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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 01, 2010 1:30 pm

Shann wrote:The tenses bounce around like a ping-pong ball. I think some of the commas are messed up too.

Millie—my bride of sixty-seven years—teases me
(How do you get it to quote? Oh well I'll paste and copy for now.) I'd write it this way:
Millie, my bride of 67 years, teases me; she insists each puzzle be solved completely in ink.

But, the change of tense disturbed me the most. I think there were a few unnecessary words : that, from and about.
If we take the prior lessons in account, the paragraphs could be tightened a bit.
Another guess is the dash was overused or perhaps misused, but now I'm only guessing.

My heart is thumping, I don't want to appear too much like the ignorant beginner that I am. Fearfully, I'm pressing the submit button in between the thumps.


Phee, you get this week's gold star for being brave and critiquing my paragraphs beyond the tense issue!

By the way, to get that quote box, look at the post that you want to quote. At the upper right side, there's a 'quote' button. Click it, and you'll be taken to a text box that you can type in, and the person's quote will already be there. You can even delete parts of their quote, or highlight parts of it. Just don't mess with the HTML symbols in the brackets.

You'll have seen that the tense issue is the one I was going for, but thanks for pointing out the other problems in those paragraphs! Hope to see you report back with your "homework."
Jan Ackerson

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Postby PamDavis » Mon Feb 01, 2010 1:32 pm

Jan prepared a helpful list for her beginner’s writing class. Jan put the list away for safe keeping. Jan has not been able to remember where she stored the list.

Jan prepares a helpful list for her beginner’s writing class. Jan is putting the list away for safe keeping. Jan is not able to remember where she stores the list.
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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 01, 2010 1:35 pm

PamDavis wrote:Jan, I feel for you in losing your list! We must be identical twins! I lose things all the time!

Pam [/b][/i]


I sitll haven't found it, either.

Thanks for pointing out my adverbs. Gack, do as I say, not as I do, huh?

Did you catch the tense switches, too?
Jan Ackerson

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Postby Tricia » Mon Feb 01, 2010 1:43 pm

Jan, here's my homework:

Almost as soon as we were in the car, Ol’ Blue started barking and pawing at the door. I opened it and he vaulted out, running toward the house. A choking, black smoke billowed out the screen door.

We are in the car, Ol’ Blue barks, and paws at the car door. I open it, he vaults out, and runs toward the house. Choking, black smoke billows out the screen door.


Past tense worked better. I was telling about a past event. Writing in past tense is easier.
Tricia

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight." Proverbs 3:5, 6 (NIV)

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