Yes, this is filled with whisky

Yes, this is filled with whisky

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Writing a novel in past and present tense

 Is it okay to write a novel in past and present tense? I'm talking about changing tenses in different chapters. I've written a crime novel  which is narrated in first person/past tense by the criminal and the detective who is trying to catch him. I thinking about changing the criminal's part so that it remains in first person, but in presence tense while the part of the detective remains in past tense. I wonder if this ok with agents and publishers.
Is it ok to write a novel in the first person except the narrator doesn't speak?

Is it ok to write a novel in the first person except the narrator is dead?

Is it ok to write a novel in which the main character must solve his own murder?

How about an entire novel without the letter "e"

I'm sure you've intuited by now that my answer is you can do almost anything you want in a novel as long as it works.

And by works, I mean it tells a story that holds my attention and entices me to read on.

If writing in past and present tense for different characters serves the story, do it.

I don't pick up a manuscript and run down a checklist of items to try to reject it summarily. 

I pick up a manuscript, open it to page one and start reading.  If I get to page 50, I put it down and ask myself if I want to keep reading.

I don't say "wow, he shifted tenses, that's bad." I say "I don't give a rats asterisk about what happens next"  OR I think "pick up that ms and get back to reading, I can't wait to find out what will happen next."

There are a lot of good novels written in two tenses for just the reasons you list in your question.
Don't worry about whether it's ok to do it. Worry about whether the story is served by it.


Lisa Bodenheim said...

What?! No 2Ns. Oh, that's right. She's working now.

Well, this is so encouraging. So basic. Write a novel that entices an agent or reader to keep reading.

Page 50. Is that usually when the potentially saggy pants of Act 2 shows up? Wait, if there are 300 or 350 pages (a 75,000-87,500 word novel) in a ms, then by page 50 we should have an inciting event and a problem for the main character to solve.

It's morning and I'm trying to do math? Only on Janet's blog. Someone correct me if I'm wrong. I don't mind. I'm not a math major.

Linda Strader said...

What fun it would be to experiment like this! Now if I could just get my memoir accepted I could try something new...

Brian Schwarz said...

I think Janet is on to something here...

What resonated most with me is there's a point in which the device becomes distracting to the story.

And the idea that an agent might someday say to me, "I love this, but can you change (insert device here) about it and send it to me again?"

You'd hear my heart cracking from pole to pole.

It's a risk and it's a reason to say not for me. But it also could pay off in spades, and perhaps we are too conventional at times as writers, and maybe we could use a little more outside-the-box thinking. :)

That's my take.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

In novel writing there is a wildly successful exception to every single pearl of conventional wisdom. For example, you will hear from the publishing community, don't start a novel with a weather report. Yet Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman did just that. Good Omens begins "It was a very nice day". They made it work.

I know one agent that will summarily reject you if your novel opens with someone waking up from a dream so Daphne Du Murier would be SOL with her "Last night I dreamt I went to manderly again."

I have heard other publishers/ agents say don't tell them weight and height of your characters but "Stately plump Buck Mulligan.." Bucks that so called rule.

The publishing community touts all sorts of these rules, well let us call them guidelines, of things that don't work until they do. Janet lists some awesome books that all challenge the status quo and work beautifully. OP, it is your story. You are the author. Write the way you want to tell the story. If it doesn't work, revise it until it does. At least that is my pre-coffee two cents on the matter.

Donnaeve said...

As soon as I read the question from the OP, and before I scrolled through all the examples provided by Ms. Janet of where the author did something "different" in telling their story, I had the answer. To bogart one of Ms. Janet's phrases, "Knock our sox off with great story telling."

For all the questions ever asked by writers in respect to the craft of writing, that's the answer. Yes, there's "housekeeping." (punctuation, spelling, etc.) The MOST important thing is the story.

That is all.

Her Grace, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Goodness, no 2ns, and I'm one of the first commenters. How odd.

So, going to tell a story in 1st person POV present tense while the criminal is committing the crime? Sure, why not?

I'm assuming this is why you are thinking of using this POV for this character? I can see how this could bring an immediacy to the text and ramp up the tension.

Then when the detective comes along, his POV is in past tense, as the crime has already been committed.

If you're not narrating the criminal's POV as he's committing the crime, then what is your reason for the tense shift? You can do whatever you want, as long as you know why you're doing it. What do you hope to accomplish?

Voice 'n' style is what hooks readers. That's how an agent can tell if a book isn't going to work in the first few pages. Don't worry about your use of tenses offending an agent. It won't, if you demonstrate mastery of the craft. If you are doing it for the right reason and you are consistent in the application of how you've set up your rules, I don't see why it can't work.

S.P. Bowers said...

Brian nailed it. "There's a point in which the device becomes distracting to the story"

I've read a book that switched from past to present. I put it down. There were other issues that contributed, and of course the fact that I really don't like present tense and rarely read it. That doesn't mean it can't be done well, though. You just have to do it in a way that isn't distracting or annoying.

Amanda Capper said...

OP, everything you want to write is okay. You seem to be asking, 'will it sell?' You won't know until you've shopped it around, and even then you'll have six people telling you to change the POV (happened to me) and six more telling you to cut out all the sex scenes. All part of the learning and growing. And by growing, I mean a thick skin.

(Whiny voice) All Janet does for me is increase my TBR pile, which also means I'm probably going to end up spending money. Here's hoping the library stocks it.

Okay, maybe that's not ALL she does for me, but do I really need to buy that Steve Hamilton book?


E. M., I bought "Good Omens" and it was entertaining, but then I put it down and haven't gone back to it. I'm thinking it's because there's no plot. Just a bunch of interesting characters having funny conversations. Or do I need to give it more of a chance?

Susan said...

I follow a couple of agents who answer questions on their blogs. Many of the questions are like this one--specifically looking for guidance regarding writing a novel in XYZ POV, using this plot device, with that setting, etc, etc, etc.

The answer is always: if it works.

That was a huge lesson for me. When I first started thinking about traditionally publishing, I researched like crazy, reading all the advice out there I could find (EM sums up some examples nicely while also making me want to go back and read Rebecca again!) and in many cases, it was helpful. But in some ways, it also held me back.

For example, the MS I'm querying is written entirely in letters, which some people like and some people don't. One agent did a #tenqueries on Twitter over the summer where she said the epistolary format turned her off. I made sure I didn't query her, but I remember it threw me for a loop, and I went back and tried to revise my manuscript so it was written as a standard novel.

It didn't work. The story just wasn't meant to be told that way.

What I learned was that your story will tell you how it wants to be written, and sometimes rules can be broken when there's a purpose to it. I think too often we get into the headspace where we critique our own writing before a word is even down on paper, but that's detrimental to the creative process, which is where the first draft of the story should come from.

Break the rules. Ignore the advice. Trust your instinct. Get the writing down as it wants to be written. Then go back to make sure it works within the confines of what and how you want to write.

Colin Smith said...

Good morning!

To piggy-back on EM's comment, "rules" like "don't start with a weather report, or waking up from a dream" are not simply to stop us being clichéd, but to stop us being lazy--which is essentially the same thing. After all, why do we fall back on a cliché? Often because we can't be bothered to think of something original. Sometimes the cliché fits and is right, just as sometimes the "rules" can be broken. But more often than not, we need to use those rules to move us from being competent to being great.

And now I take up Janet's open invitation to fanboy a book. WATCHED by CJ Lyons. I reviewed it on my blog (the address is under the "List of blog readers and their blogs" on the top right--go there and look under "Reviews" and "Book Reviews"). It's a YA novel tackling a very difficult subject: cyber-stalking and child pornography. However, there's nothing graphic--you get the idea of what's going on by implication--and the pornographer gets no sympathy. The story focuses on the two protagonists, one is a current victim wanting to break free of the pornographer's hold, and the other a former victim living with the consequences of escaping his clutches. The story is how these two team up to bring the evil dude down. It's very, very well written, with great pace, and plenty of plot twists. One of the best books I've read this year, and one of the quickest reads--I found it hard to put down.

How is WATCHED relevant to this discussion? CJ uses a 1st person POV for the teen currently living the nightmare, and 3rd person for the teen who escaped. And what's one of the "rules"? "Don't switch POVs!" Here, though, it works beautifully. Not only does it help us keep track of which character we're following at each point of the story, but it says something about each character. Third person is a bit more remote, where as first person is closer, more emotionally intense. Read the book and you'll see how this fits beautifully with their characters and situations.

Get this book and read it. You too, Janet. I'm sure fellow Amazing Literary Agent Barbara Poelle has one to spare. :)

Marc P said...

I'm taking my hat off to Janet who will read fifty pages before deciding to read more. I guess this is on a requested MS though - so a bit more tolerance factored in I also guess.

DLM said...

The rule-touters pretty much look like twits to those of us who don't like being in boxes - NO ADVERBS EVERRR! - NO DREAM OPENINGS - insert trope here ...

But we all have our rules, we just form rules on different lines and we think our lines are better.

"The rule-touters are missing out on classic literature!"

Yeah. So am I. So are you, for one reason or another.

We're all going to miss out in life, it isn't possible to be a completist. This means there'll be agents who do themselves out of Du Maruier and us chickens; but it doesn't mean ALL the agents will miss out, because eagles all have eyes and some of 'em are looking for squirrels, but others are looking for fish.

Different woodland creatures will get nabbed by different eagles.

And I won't take that any farther/further because: ew.

Colin Smith said...

Susan: If the epistolary format is the best vehicle for telling your story, then stick with it. And query it that way. Janet may flay my knuckles for saying this, but I say don't mention the format in the query. Your query should lay out the premise in third person, but I don't think you should say anything about the story being told in the form of letters. I don't think this is being deceitful; it's about grabbing people's attention with the story, not with your clever form. After all, it's the story that should captivate attention, not "Ooo, look at her amazing epistolary form!" We don't usually say in our query what POV we use, or what other form tricks we've employed, so why even bring up the fact it's told in letters? And query the agent who doesn't like epistolary form. If she loves the premise, she'll request. And if she loves the novel despite herself, you'll probably hear from her.

Of course, I'm just a wily woodland creature, and Janet may tell you different. But if this is your story, then query without apology or excuse. :)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Amanda, I am a huge Pratchett fan. I think he and Gaiman are not everyone's cup of tea. A better introduction to Pratchett would be Equal Rites (his Disc World Series) and for Gaiman, his Newberry winner The Graveyard Book. You will find these authors, even though there are fantastical elements in their books, and they are satirical and funny, they write about childhood in a way I find profound. Might be just me.

BJ might have better recommendations. He loves Pratchett too and seems better versed than me.

While Good Omens is a rather satirical look at the apocalypse, it is also a story of childhood where the childhood in question is that of the antichrist who has been placed quite accidentally in a loving home and not very good at doing evil things. The story involves the demonic and angelic narrator trying to find this kid and stop the Apocalypse so they can go on drinking lattes in little cafes which is much more fun in their minds than any version of eternity.

This blog also keeps my TBR stack out of control as well Janet constantly expands my library. I will need a new house just to hold it all. I have all the new gadgets for reading electronic copies of everything but I remain a book snob. I just like the feeling of a book on my fingers. Ah well.

Susan said...

Can I amend my comment to add a holy crap to the Gadsby novel? I have enough trouble writing as it is, nevermind having the patience or brain power to figure out an entire 50,000 word novel without using the letter "e"! Mind is blown.

Julia said...

I have (as you all - those of you who know me by now) two very different types of writing. And I - like all of you - am obsessive about revising.

One of my series depends very heavily on tense.

During one of my revisions, I went back specifically to pay attention to tense change. Some of it I changed; some of it I moved - shifted chapters and sections around - so that the changes weren't so obvious; and some of it just worked as it was.

I completely agree with QOKTU (which probably goes without saying) - the time ought to be spent on making sure that whatever else you do, it needs to work. The reader needs to enjoy the story and not be hung up on the fact that you wrote it. YOU as the writer need to factor in - not at all.

(Shrug) - at least, that's what I think.


Colin Smith said...

Okay, now I, too, am curious about Gadsby. Is it any good? I must find out... :)

DLM said...

Susan, for a moment I thought you were being funny saying "letters" as I was thinking of it in the characters sense, not the missive sense. I write all in letters too, because l33t drives me bazoo. ;)

LynnRodz said...

I tried to write a short story once without the letter 'e' after hearing about the Gatsby novel. I got about two pages in and decided it was too much work. I wrote a comment once without the letter 'e'. That even took time, but I managed to do it. It's a lot harder than we think.

(Janet, what about a flash fiction contest without the letter 'e'? That would be interesting. Yes, I know I can make that suggestion, I'm already here in Carkoon.)

OP, if you've got a great story, there are no rules.

Susan said...

Colin: I appreciate the thoughts! I ended up revising the MS to pick up the pace and raise the stakes while adding a crucial character, which interestingly enough reiterated the importance of the format for the story. The format is one of my dealbreakers--I'll happily work on and revise anything else that's asked of me, but I want someone who understands and shares in that vision and reasoning.

As for the query, I revised that, too, with the help of an author's critique. Now it reads more like a back-of-book blurb rather than the dry summary it was--I cringe at the thought that I actually sent that first query out to agents, including the Shark herself! The author says it's more compelling and shows I can pull off the epistolary format (to be clear, I didn't write the query as a letter, just changed the language so the tone was more reminiscent of the story). So, I'm happy with it, and I've gotten a few requests off of it.

I agree with you 100%, though. I don't care that it's in epistolary format and I don't think anyone else should, either--I didn't write it that way to impress anyone. It's simply the way the story wanted to be told, so I followed along. That's what I meant to say by using my MS as an example: the story will be what it wants to be. When you force it, it becomes something else.

Susan said...

DLM: "Susan, for a moment I thought you were being funny saying "letters" as I was thinking of it in the characters sense, not the missive sense. I write all in letters too, because l33t drives me bazoo. ;)"

Ha! With all the Gadsby talk, I should have been more clear! ;) A novel in code: now there's a challenge for you!

Susan Bonifant said...

E.M. Goldsmith, this exactly:

"The publishing community touts all sorts of these rules, well let us call them guidelines, of things that don't work until they do. OP, it is your story. You are the author. Write the way you want to tell the story. If it doesn't work, revise it until it does."

Good for all of us. Rules make some good things - like formatting - easier. But rules also have the power to stop some good things - like voice and style - from happening at all.

Craig said...

The most important thing of being a writer is a cockeyed perspective. You have to be able to look at something ninety nine other people would pass over and see something more in it.

Making that bland whatever into a good story is where all devices come from. How you exploit those devices is dependent on the twist of your sobriety(yes I plagiarized it from Tanita Tikaram). From there you build an outline to get your tempo, pacing and plot hole minimization.

Many of the devices my Queen mentioned are forms of backstory and like other forms of it depend on how well it fits into the rest of the story. If it stands out like a sore thumb it will hurt the gestalt of the finished work. Other than that make it your oyster, this world. Go for it.

I also salute my Queen for being able to make it to page fifty before deciding to continue.

DLM said...

So who here is going to write the novel all in Cuneiform? I understand it is extremely easy to pick up!

Colin Smith said...

LynnRodz: I was thinking the same thing (a flash contest without the letter "e"). Maybe with a few prompt words thrown in too. After all, we have Donna's deal to celebrate, and there's that map book Janet's been tormenting us with... :)

Colin Smith said...

Diane: Now, are you talking about transliterating English into cuneiform, or actually writing the story in Sumerian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, or one of the other languages that use it? An interesting aspect of transcribing English to cuneiform is the fact that not all English sounds are represented. That would be an interesting challenge. :)

Julie.M.Weathers said...

As QOTKU said anything works if it works.

There was a Q&A with some agents from an agency during the summer and the question came up about using first person POV for the MC and third for another. The agent responding said he thought that would be a hot mess, don't do it.

That's exactly what I've done in FAR RIDER. My MC is in first and the other POV characters are in third. THE RAIN CROW only has two POV characters, but I have the female in first and male in third. I don't know if it works. Obviously, no agent has liked FR well enough to say yes, but neither has anyone commented on the POV thing. It's always been something else.

Gabaldon does the switched POV thing in later books, from book three on I think if I remember correctly.

I suppose if things aren't done according to Hoyle, some people are going to be put off by it, but you have to do what you think is right for the story.

In my case one of my beta readers noticed I didn't go as deeply into character on my MC as I did my other POV characters. She suggested me re-writing her parts in first person to get deeper in her head and then switching it back later. Afterwards, the readers all liked the change and suggested I just leave it.

That goes to serving the story rather than being a gimmick.

In other news, sometimes agents get divine signs a writer was meant for them.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I do love all the Reiders but please, Lynn and Colin, no flash fiction without the letter E. I am already exiled to Carkoon. Without the letter E, I have no name. I just can't... A 50,000 word novel without E, how? Is there a story? I am going to read it just to find out. Maybe I could do it without the letter X or Z. I need E. I just do. Please carry on. I need to breathe into a bag.

Colin Smith said...

E.M.: Remove the periods from your initials and you become "M"... it can be done... :D

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Colin, if I become just M, I fear I will become embroiled in an Ian Fleming 007 escapade but without any Es. And the kale will degenerate into kal.

Julie.M.Weathers said...

I am forthwith dragging Lynn and Colin off to the well. Yes, that well. The one with the man-eating dragon. Say goodbye and ask forgiveness for suggesting a flash fiction with no "e".

Alas, poor Lynn and Colin. We knew them well. Then, we tossed them in it.

Colin Smith said...

Awww, Juli, whr's your sns of advntur? ;)

Julie.M.Weathers said...


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

On break, can't read all the comments 'til later when there will be so many I'll have to skip my aperitif.


What's this, "It's all about the story stuff?"
Oh wait, that's what we do huh.

Back to work, carry on gang.

Janet Reid said...

Y'all really REALLY do not want to know where you go if you're exiled FROM Carkoon.

Let's just say Julie M. Weathers trip to the well is a day at the beach in comparison.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

For all that is holy, please do not cause me to be cast out of Carkoon. I will take the dragon, but please don't throw me in the briar patch. Colin and Lynn, I will make you a kale cake with Lima bean curd and tofu jelly of you persist in this no Es flash fiction boondoggle. I am just saying.

Colin Smith said...



just a regular flash contest will do then...

Maybe posted on a separate blog, with the finalists' entries compiled into an anthology... WAIT... NO! I WAS JUST KIDDING!!! :D

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I've occasionally put a book down because it was written in present tense. Or, not solely because it was written in present tense, but rather because there was a point at which that and other issues made it un-overlookable.

Perspective changes in a book can be done well. Stephen King has in the past used it handily, to establish setting, pace, conflict, and tension. Using it not-handily is an issue, though, when you as a reader are settling into one character and then the switch happens to somebody about whom you do not care a fig (and unfortunately, for me anyway, this happened in George R. R. Martin's latter two Song of Ice and Fire books, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. POV characters I liked were missing from the former, and POV characters who at this late date I have a hard time believing matter were added to the latter, in addition to the timeline woes.)

I also, and this'll get me sent to Carkoon if calling Janet the Good Fairy didn't, found it a little off-putting that the first Jack Reacher book was in first person and the rest apparently are not. This doesn't mean I won't read them, I don't think, I just haven't yet. The number of books I want to read far outstrips the number of books I'm able to read.

Amanda Capper said...

Geezus, now Colin is recommending books as well. I'm so torn. Do I keep reading in my genre in order to write better in my genre; or should I read widely, and by doing so, exercise my imagination?

I don't know. Can't see how Pratchett can help me write the next great thriller except...he does write wonderful characters. Hm.

BJ Muntain said...

As Janet wisely says, anything can be done if it's done *well*.

One thing you want to be careful of is doing something 'different' just for the sake of doing it different. This isn't inherently bad, but if it's done at the expense of the story - that is, if the reader reads it and says, "I know you did that, but I don't know why you did that" - then it's time to rethink.

Experiment all you want. Just make sure the story is good, and the experiment only makes it better.

EM: By 'don't tell them weight and height', the publishers/agents mean the numbers. Unless it's vitally important to the story to know exactly how tall or heavy a character is, don't say, "Buck Mulligan was six foot six and three hundred and fifty pounds." Instead, call him "Stately plump Buck Mulligan." 'Stately plump' really says something about a character, while the numbers don't. The words tell us not only that he's tall and heavy, but how he carries it - and that's so much more than numbers can convey.

Also, don't fall into the trap that someone who wrote a novel in 1938 could 'get away with' starting with a dream. In 1938, it was not yet cliche. Just like Bulwyr-Lytton's "It was a dark and stormy night..." (with the long weather report after it) was normal for his time period, but would never get published today.

There are no rules to writing. Seriously. I don't even know if you'd call them guidelines. Writing is an art form.

But if you want to get published, you need a damn good story that is also unique, because it has to stand out among thousands of other novels published that year. Cliches (like starting with the weather or a dream) are anathema to uniqueness, which is why, if you want to be published, you want to avoid them - at least in the beginning of the novel.

And thanks for suggesting I might have recommendations for Pratchett books - I appreciate that.

I haven't read Good Omens yet (I've been meaning to, and it's on my Christmas list), but I've read all but the last two Discworld novels by Pratchett. While Pratchett's novels may seem shallow on the surface, he reaches deep under that surface to grasp handfuls of the seaweed of nastiness inherent in human nature, pulls them up into the light, studies them, then feeds them to the nearest sea cow and makes clocks out of the sea cow patties... (How's that for a hodgepodge of metaphors?)

My suggestions for Discworld novels to start with:

Wyrd Sisters - strong female protagonists, a spoof on Shakespeare that makes interesting comments on ecology and class.
Guards! Guards! - gritty life-on-the-streets-but-with-unexpected-magic-thrown-in - like Hill Street Blues, but with a more inept cadre of cops and with dragons.
Moving Pictures - spoof on Hollywood - right down to swashbucklers and Lassie - that says a lot about a culture that venerates actors over reality.

Susan: "When you force it, it becomes something else."

Bingo. And that goes both ways. When you force it to be something it's not AND when you force it to fit some 'cool' style. In other words, don't force it. Do what is best for the story, whether that means changing the tenses or writing it in a specific form.

I'm sorry. I haven't read everyone else's comments yet, so I may be re-stating something or missing something, but I've got to get moving. I'll try to continue or backtrack my points when I get home again this aftenroon.

Janet Reid said...

Farewell party for Colin this Friday.
Maybe a writing contest to memorialize his departure for *other places*

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Okay Janet so who replaces him, Trump ?

Janet Reid said...

Oh, and LynnRodz is going too.

I'm booking their *flight* now.

Janet Reid said...

Carefull there 2Ns, there's a third seat on this 'copter. As in Velocicoptor.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I will bring the cake and Dragon Milk (amazing bourbon stout my daughter smuggled into Carkoon for me) to Colin and Lynn's farewell party. I call dibs on Colin's place here in Carkoon provided I don't get carted off on the Dino-copter. Please don't take Carolynn away, Janet- I do not wish to be here all alone. :/

Colin Smith said...


Dear Sir or Madam or Alternative Life Form:

I have received orders from Her Majestic Mighty QOTKU-ness that I am to withdraw from this place of exile unto another place of exile. I would like to say that my time here has been deeply rewarding and character building, however I fear such fabrications would not help my cause.

My replacement for the High School English Teacher position is currently under review. I understand The Great Shark has her eye on some possible candidates. In the interim, I'm sure the students' needs can easily be fulfilled by substitute teachers, temporary staff, lima bean pizza, and other edibles.

It is my sincerest hope that our paths never again cross. May the twin stars of Mallux and Ballux collide into the suns of Carkoon.

Have a lovely day!

Susan said...

Ooohh. You guys are in TROUBLE. =P

Colin Smith said...

I ordered Patrick Lee's THE BREACH yesterday, so I should get it by Thursday--just in time for the trip to... wherever...! *gulp*

E.M. Goldsmith said...

To: colindsmith@carkoonhigh.kalenet
From: clemthejanitor@carkoonhigh.kalenet

Dear Mr. Smith,

We regret to inform you that your resignation cannot be accepted at this time. The principal has disappeared. We believe this due to a malfunction of the time machine. The children have returned, but they all have the plague. And a dragon in a well. Your pay check of kale shares and lima bean curd will continue to process under the care of she who must not be named here in Carkoon for fear of being cast into the ocean and used as chum until such time as the principal is found or replaced.

Good luck in your future endeavors in your new place of exile.

Clem the Janitor

(Colin, this was delivered to me in error I believe)

Kate Larkindale said...

My most recent novel has 2 POVs and one writes in present tense the other in past. I haven't figured out if it works yet, but it was certainly a challenge to write!

Love the idea of flash fiction with no 'e's. That would be even harder than the challenge I set myself for the contests - not repeating any words in the 100 words. At least, I think it would be.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

On, on the topic of Neil Gaiman: I haven't read other Terry Pratchett things, so Good Omens was really a miss for me, because it wasn't "Gaiman" enough. My starting point with Neil Gaiman was American Gods (I happened into a bookstore around the time of the paperback release, looked at the title/cover combo, and took it to the cash register), followed up with the graphic novel series Sandman. Those are his big 'uns for me; his more recent stuff doesn't strike quite the same tone, and while I absolutely would not discourage anybody from reading his books (do read his books), The Graveyard Book is very different (in my opinion) even from Coraline or Stardust.

Stephen Parrish said...

Nice answer, as usual. I disagreed with you once a couple of years ago, but I can't remember what it was about.

stacy said...

I've read three novels recently that alternated between backstory and present story by chapter. I can't remember which ones used past tense for the backstory and present tense for the present story, but they're all worth reading: ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Anne Leckie, IN A DARK, DARK WOOD by Ruth Ware, and THE WEIGHT OF BLOOD by Laura McHugh. I think at least one of them used that technique. Definitely an effective technique when there's a great deal of backstory that affects the present story.

Colin Smith said...

E.M.: Ahhh, good ole Clem. I'll miss him. I believe he used to be a writer, until he called Fine Print and dissed Janet's minion because she wouldn't put him through to discuss his 500,000 word fantasy fiction novel. And we all know you never NEVER diss the minions. Next thing he knew, he was in the basement of Carkoon High with a broom and a tool belt. He still has nightmares of flying sharks and seven-headed hydra with red pens... said...

Oh, Colin. Tsk. And Lynn? I thought you knew better.

I'm not generally a big fan of first person, although I've read some novels where it was very well done. It has to be a voice I enjoy or it's just irritating (to me). That would be my only reservation about switching from one to the other in a story. Make it work.

If I could go off topic for a minute... since this post is more about writing than some others are, maybe it won't be too egregious of a diversion.

Jenny Crusie is putting together a book about writing fiction and right now she's in the early stages of posting short overviews of each section. Sort of a beta testing. The one she posted yesterday about The Conflict Box is such good information and so helpful, I wanted to share it here. It's really a template for the basics needed to write an effective query, and a great tool to figure out whether your story has a solid conflict. Her focus is on writing romance, but Crusie is so smart and such a fantastic teacher you really can't go wrong no matter what you're writing.

Anyway, here's the link:

And now I'd really like to know what Julie Weathers meant by this cryptic remark: "In other news, sometimes agents get divine signs a writer was meant for them." Got something you'd like to share with the class, Julie?

Colin Smith said...

kd's link: said...

Thanks, Colin. I was hesitant to link to Crusie's blog, but I really do think many of the writers in this community will find it helpful, and that's sort of the goal over here. I hope.

Well, that and getting oneself exiled. To places where I imagine it's difficult to focus on writing.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

SUBJECT: What did you do?

Mr. Smith,

What did you do? You may not withdrawal from Carkoon without first giving us back the lttr “E”. Your pupils' compositions on organic lit flout my capacity to fathom.

Auxiliary Professor
J. Buttonw… (you know)

(Colin, I simply can't...)

Colin Smith said...

kd: I don't mind linking other people's blogs. Now, if Janet objects, she will no doubt remove it. But, as she has said before, she usually doesn't object as long as the link isn't to a site dedicated to increasing someone's bank account or naughty bits. :)

BJ Muntain said...

Julie said: "Alas, poor Lynn and Colin. We knew them well. Then, we tossed them in it."

Beautiful. Really - it fits so ... um... well. :)

Like KD, I've never been a fan of first person, and even less of a fan of present tense. I honestly do not think that what person and tense a story is told in makes much difference in how close or far a reader feels from that character. I've seen some first person that feels remote and third person where I *was* that character. It's the immediacy of the writing that does it. I think that relying on first person present tense to get closer to a character or to make the story more intense is doing a disservice to the story.

I'm not saying don't do it. I'm just saying don't rely on it. It's not the sure thing many people think it is.

I do, however, often suggest to others the same thing Julie's reader suggested she do - if you're having a hard time getting into someone's head, then change something. Sometimes changing to first person POV can help with that. Sometimes writing an entirely separate short work about that character can help, too - maybe something from that character's background. Or sometimes switching the POV character in a scene can help the writer to figure out what that scene is missing and what needs to be done differently. When a writer is too mired in something and can't see a way to fix it, often a big change of viewpoint can help.

But if the reason you are changing from third person past tense to first person present tense is simply to make the reader feel closer to the character or to make the plot feel more immediate, that's not enough. You have to be able to write it more or less immediate - no matter the person or tense - to make it work that way.

LynnRodz said...

Yikes, I was gone all day! I didn't realize my suggestion would cause such an uproar. Julie and KD, I don't know what came over me? Honest!

Janet, can you make my ticket "first class"? There's no 'e' in first class, only in business and economy.

Colin Smith, I think since we'll be flying somewhere together, you can perhaps call me Lynn. Then again, I'll be in first class so we may not see one another until we land.

E.M., no need to worry there are quite a few people left on Carkoon, you just have to seduce them out of their caves with your kale cake, or offer them a ride in the Dino-copter! I think I like the sound of that one better than Janet's Velocicoptor.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I knew keeping latrines clean would be my saving grace. All Clem does is sweep the hallways and rake the beach.

Regarding Opie, different is sometimes amazing. Here's one word for you, "Enzo" and THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN. 'Nuf said.

Julie.M.Weathers said...


I read fantasy, since I write it and love it, but I also read mystery, historical, romance, thriller, memoir and anything else that appeals to me. The only problem I have is I've noticed I have a tendency to drop a mystery into most of my stories, quite unplanned. I'm reading Bernard Cornwell now and taking CC Humphreys' Jack Absolute with me on the plane.

Good writing is good writing. I think I can learn from a lot of writers.

Poof! said...

Susan wrote, “What I learned was that your story will tell you how it wants to be written, and sometimes rules can be broken when there's a purpose to it.”

True. I’m writing a Chapter Outline for non-fiction work in present tense. For one chapter, I shift to past tense, having the MC look back at events in her life. It was a way of maintaining pace. I didn’t want to slog slowly through a bunch of happenings. Better to have the MC summarize it and bingo, done!

E.M. – without an “e” it is not just you that is without a name. It is also Gadsby’s author, Rnst Vincnt Wright.

Julie M Weathers: “In other news, sometimes agents get divine signs a writer was meant for them.”
Is that when we greet the agent with, “Halo!!! How are you?”

Julie M. re no E-Z contest. Thank you, A perfect end to an imperfect concept. Well done!

Finally, thank you, Janet Reid, for coming to our rescue. I was afraid that without Es I would change from Moose to Moos, leaving me cowd.

Julie.M.Weathers said...


Some years ago I sent two cups to Fine Print Literary. One for Miss Janet and one for Colleen Lindsey.

I don't remember for sure which ones they were, but something similar to this.

So the company somehow got their wires crossed and years later started sending my mail to Fine Print. Won't Janet be surprised when she learns I'm living in the liquor cabinet?

Julie.M.Weathers said...


The glory of having beta readers who have been with me lo these many years is they know me, know my style, and know how my mind works (and stick with me anyway). They can see when something isn't working as well as it should and are usually able to come up with a solution. It's kind of like hiring a good horse trainer. They study the individual, then figure out the solution.

Yes, I know some people don't like first person. I didn't used to and finally figured out what I really don't like is first person done poorly. Some people don't like dragons, or wizards, or shape shifters, or sword and sorcery fantasy. Some people won't like my historicals. If I try to write to please everyone I will never write anything.

So, I'm not saying the solution will work for anyone else, but it works for me.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Y'all. Thank you for the absolute pleasure of reading through the rest of this days' comments and the lol. I have absolutely nothing witty or fun to add. I love the imagination and education that shows up here. said...

Poof! This: “Halo!!! How are you?” made me literally LOL.

Julie, are you trying to warn me that I'm getting on your last nerve? *backs slowly away from the blog* (The expression on that horse's face is priceless.)

BJ Muntain said...

Julie: I'm glad the solution worked as well as it did. It sounds like that's one heck of a novel, and I'd love to read it someday. And I agree - beta readers and crit partners who understand a writer and their writing are invaluable.

I was only saying that sometimes writing from a different view can help the author get a better handle on a scene. Not everyone's trial from a different POV will wind up in the final story, but a different view can open the author's mind when it's locked on something.

Kind of like editing in print form or a different font - the brain can look at it differently, maybe more objectively, and maybe get an 'aha' moment as to what the scene, character, or situation is missing.

The novel I'm shopping around felt pretty shallow for me a few years ago, and I couldn't figure out why. I'd read something somewhere - and it's a great piece of advice - that the villain is the hero in their own story. Now, I knew why one villain was the way he was, but the secondary villain was kind of slippery. I just couldn't get a handle on her. So I wrote a couple scenes from her point of view. Only one of these scenes made it into the novel (after several revisions, of course), but once I got to know her, I realized what was really missing from the story. It added an emotional depth to the story that I would never have found if I hadn't done that writing exercise.

Julie.M.Weathers said...


*laughing* No, I seriously think the mug was something similar to that. I think one of them had a picture of an old woman in a rocking chair with a gun warning people to stay away until she's had her coffee.

I can't even remember now what prompted the mugs. Some conversation or another about coffee.

Julie.M.Weathers said...


Yes, the villain really is the hero in their own story. I remember once a minion on a revise and resend saying how much she hated my pirate in the beginning, but grew to really like him at the end. Once she knew his story and he evolved, he took on a different persona.

Julie.M.Weathers said...

I'm jamming the final bits and bobs into the suitcase and a button came rolling out of the suitcase that read "shark bait". I forgot we had those made for the Denver conference where QOTKU was holding court. I shall hang on to this. I might use it again. said...

One great thing about being nocturnal is I'm highly unlikely to get between someone and their first cup of caffeine, being safely sound asleep at that hour of the day.

Is Surrey this coming weekend? Already? Hope all who are attending have a terrific time and get out of it what you need. (BJ, hope you end up being able to go and meet up with Julie!)

Annay Dawson said...

I love it when an author experiments with different types of writing. It lets us all discover different ways to look at what we do!

Her Grace, the Duchess of Kneale said...

If I were to write a piece without any Es, I would first create a style sheet of synonyms for common words that contain e:

He = That guy

I'd write my piece without sweating too much in-line about whether or not I'd slipped in an E. Then I'd do a search'n'replace with my list of synonyms.

Then I'd do a colour highlight of all Es, then I'd do another editing pass.

Trying to worry about Es while writing the first draft is a one-way ticket to insanity.

Having the right methodology really helps an author.

Colin Smith said...

I just want to point out that if you find writing stressful, then you can never write with Es...


Brian Schwarz said...

So glad I missed this comment string that Colin, Julie, Lynn, and 2Nn's started because I would have most definitely made some smarties remark about Janet forgetting my birthday writing contest and how I am compiling a database of birthdays so no birthday flash fiction contest is ever missed again and.... Ohh no.... What have I done...

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Capt. B.S. oops, voted off you-know-where.

furrykef said...

The post says "you can do almost anything you want in a novel as long as it works", but I'm convinced there are certain things that never work. For instance, writing a novel in the second person. You're just inviting the reader to say, "But I would never do that" -- and the reader is pulled out of your world. If I crack open a book and I see it's in the second person, I'm not even going to bother to read it.

I was working on a novel where the first four chapters introduced a new main character around whom the chapter would be centered, and the characters in the first three would not be seen again until later in the novel. I eventually became convinced that all this did was exhaust the reader's patience. So if someone were to ask me if it's a bad idea to start a book with a new main character in each of the first few chapters, I would say yes. Might there be an exception to this rule? Sure. But I think someone who could pull it off would not have to ask; he wouldn't have any doubts about it.

Poof! said...

Oh, Colin!

E-Z for you to say, writing with Es as you do. I''m just glad that our beloved Toothsome Grin Reaper chompd th hck out of your ida.

Miri Baker said...

Oh goodness (going alllll the way back to the OP, because I could have sworn I commented yesterday and am apparently mistaken). I see this sentiment so much and it makes me sad (and faintly annoyed, but that's more a factor of repetition than any particular query) every time.

"Am I allowed to write this?" they say, wrinkling scuffed and coffee-stained pages between shaking fingers, and I have to wonder which it is: do they need the explicit affirmation to continue, or are they waiting for a response as a means to procrastinate?

And if you DO get a "no," what exactly is your plan, small woodland creatures?

LynnRodz said...

Well, actually Poof, it was my idea. Yes, I take responsibility for it.

Her Grace, you have come up with an excellent way of writing a story without Es! I was definitely going to do a first draft without worry about them too much and I would've done a Ctrl F search for those little buggers once my story was complete. But I love your idea of synonyms for common words that contain e. That would be really helpful.

Poof! said...

Ah, LynnRodz! So right you are!

My mistake. It seemed, however, that you and Colin, both sans Es to your name, might have a head start writing E-less.

Although my blog name likewise contains no Es, I could not proceed heedless of the needs of Swanee, Tennesee, and Needles, CA.

E Eterna, et cetera!

BJ Muntain said...

Colin: GRRROOOOOAANNNNNN <- yes, it merited repeated capital letters

furrykef: About a decade or so ago, a thriller or horror novel used second person to great effect. It wasn't the whole novel, just from the point of view of the villain, if I remember correctly. I hadn't read it, but people were saying how incredibly creepy and effective it was. But I can't for the life of me remember what novel that was.

Miri - perfect. If it feels right, then write it. Even if it doesn't work out for that book, you've gained a tool in your writing box. Me, I never thought to ask ahead of time if I could write something. I would write it, then ask if it worked. Of course, that was once I was a more mature writer. When I was young and impressionable, I let nay-saying books and articles keep me from writing what I wanted. I've grown out of that now.

Brian Schwarz said...

Bahahaha! :)

DeadSpiderEye said...

Yeah--those lists of don'ts for writers, I consider those as about as effectual as the typical written instruction that follows from the title: The correct way to tie a sheep shank. Okay I will confess, I have contributed to such a list myself within a specific context but--only in the face of reiteration so frequent, it would seem to the very embodiment of eternal. During that list's compilation, much amusement was derived at the expense of the repository of well pressed phrase and figurative prose, which kind of illustrates the flaw in the thinking that leads to such proscriptive notions. It's structured around common experience and the process by which such collective wisdom evolves, is influenced by the aggregated perception within a particular collective context. And--the tendency, the very strong tendency, is for that perception to be the product of social interaction within that context, not through any means of assessment with practical value. There is also usually no attempt to relate that perception to wider or alternative context. All this has to be true, because 99% of those lists are comprehensively but not quite completely: bunk. Oh that other 1%? Yeah the bunk in those lists is complete.

Writing the perp's part into the present tense sounds great in theory, if it were a project you were starting, instead of one relatively complete. The question I would ask would be, is time well spent, because I don't think rewriting into the present tense, is a particularly trivial task. The other issue is one of over egging the pudding, does the narrative work in it's present form? Is the proposed re-write just a ploy to make it appear distinctive?