Playing with Tense

A popular post from April 2008

by Annette Lyon

Don’t. Unless you know what you’re doing. Really.

In some of my editing work recently, I’ve come across an interesting trend among aspiring writers: a huge number of them seem to think that writing in first-person present tense makes their work better or sound more literary or intellectual.

The truth is that it’s the author’s voice, word choice, pacing, description, and so much more that make them sound good, literary, or intellectual.

If the author has the skill to pull off both first person and present tense, it’s a nice layer of icing. But it’s not the cake.

Worse, when done poorly, first-person present tense can turn into a real mess, like a lopsided cake with crumbs in the icing and entire chunks missing.

Most fiction, even with first-person point of view, is written in the simple past tense:

I walked, I ate, we drove.

There’s a lot of excellent first-person present tense fiction out there:

I walk, I eat, I drive.

In other words, the piece feels like it’s happening right now as you read it.

One of my personal favorite books written in first-person present is Lolly Winston’s Good Grief. It’s a fantastic book, one that’s funny, poignant, and abounding in excellent writing all around. In a discussion with some friends recently, one pointed out that it was written in present-tense, and another friend, who counts that book as one of her favorites, had to go pull it off her shelf to check. Sure enough, it was present tense. Huh. She hadn’t noticed.

And that’s how it should be. The nifty tools you use as a writer shouldn’t be out there flashing in the reader’s face. They should be used for a reason, and that reason needs to be more than, “It’ll make me look good.” Because chances are, it won’t.

Present tense can provide a different style and feel to your work than past tense. It can make the story feel more immediate. And it does have its place. One of the pieces I edited did it very well—and really needed to be in present tense because of the structure, tone, and events of the piece. But most of the others that used it would have been better off with plain old past tense.

Those pieces felt like awkward toddlers trying to get their feet under them as they try to use first-present present, as if they’re declaring, “Look at me! I’m a writer! I really am!” Instead, they should have analyzed why they wanted to use present tense—what effect were they trying to create, and will present tense help them get there? In the vast majority of cases, the answer was unclear at best and a resounding, “NO” at worst.

One major problem that creeps in with trying to write this way is accidentally falling into the wrong tense.

For example, if a writer includes a brief flashback into the past, it’s all well and good, if they’re now using past tense. You can’t stay in present tense for a flashback. Doing so confuses the timeline for the reader.

(“Wait. Isn’t this a memory? Then why does it say it’s happening now?”)

Similarly, when you come back from the flashback, be sure to stay in the present tense. It’s easy for a writer to accidentally slip into past tense (we’re all more familiar with it, after all) and then go back to present tense, but it’s very hard on a reader to keep everything straight. The back-and-forth reads clunky and amateurish.

And a lot of times, a story can be told more effectively in the simple past tense. It’s a voice most readers are very familiar and comfortable with. A present tense version might call attention to itself . . . in a bad way.

If you do decide to use first-person, present tense, fine. But be sure you can handle it. It’s one more plate to keep in the air, and if you let that one fall, it’s going to make a huge crash.

The great news: you don’t need present tense to be a great writer. In fact, I recommend not using it at all unless and until you have a great handle on all those other plates you need to keep in the air. (Things like plot, characterization, pacing, point of view, dialogue and more . . . that’s a lot of plates.)

Don’t assume that this is a plate you need to sound good. Some of the best writers in history never gave it a passing glance. Using it well doesn’t mean you’re extraordinary.

But if you do eventually decide to pick it up, don’t do it until you know precisely why it might make your piece more effective and you know—really know—how to juggle it.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

The post A Plague of Giants appeared first on Elitist Book Reviews.

The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

The post The Art Of Gary Choo appeared first on Halcyon Realms – Art Book Reviews – Anime, Manga, Film, Photography.

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