Tuesday, October 25, 2016

When Your Story Tugs You in the "Wrong" Direction



I know this depends on the story, but I'd still like to hear your opinion: is there an editorial (or agential) preference for narrative point of view or tense?

My WIP is literary fiction, a first-person retrospective of the layers of mental illness that have influenced the narrator's (a ninety-year-old woman) life and family over generations. The first person POV feels powerful, but I find myself slipping back and forth between past and present tense. (That is, either she is describing what happened, or she is in it as it happens). I have to pick one, but neither one seems obviously best yet, and I'm twenty-thousand words into the story. I'm just wondering if there might be a preference further down the editorial/publication line. 


I'm sure individual editors have preferences but that's the wrong question here.

The question is (and always should be) what's right for your story?

And it sounds like you may have one of those rule-breaking things on your hands. WHY do you have to choose one tense? Because that's the rule? If it doesn't serve the story, and you break the rule with elegance and confidence, and your readers are illuminated and not confused, well then, break the rule. In other words, both past and present tense may be perfect for your narrator's confused mind.

Know this though: you're setting a very high degree of difficulty in this trip across the balance beam. Slip, wobble, or somehow miss a step and you're on the ground, not on the beam. Or above the beam!




To answer your question: when I open a manuscript or read pages with a query I don't think "oh blerg, present tense!"  I read the pages or the manuscript and if the story isn't working, I might suggest a shift of tense.

In other words, my preference is for stories that work rather than for a specific tense or POV.

If you were my client and we were discussing what to do with this story, I'd tell you to finish it and see if the use of two tenses works. Often the only way to know is proceed ahead.




54 comments:

Adib Khorram said...

Happy release day to Donna and Dixie Dupree!

Adib Khorram said...

And I am rather fascinated with the idea of using tense as a mechanism of the story and the narrator's mindset. I think as long as you set rules for yourself and follow them, it could be a very compelling device.

Lucie Witt said...

Ah, OP, I sympathize as someone who has had to change the POV of an entire book before. Sometimes you just don't know if it's right until you've tried it.

Night Circus is always my favorite example of a book that breaks multiple POV rules really well.

Okay, raise your hand if Donnaeve's book will be in your mailbox this afternoon.

**raises hand**

CynthiaMc said...

After reading House of Leaves, I've decided there are no rules except what Janet says - do what works. Sparkly vampires worked for Twilight. I despise multiple viewpoints, but it works for the Game of Thrones series (kept me up all night during a hurricane).

I work in Behavioral Health. I see what you're doing working for that character, you just have to make sure it's clear to the rest of us.

Theresa said...

Congratulations to Donna today. I hope she's off on Cloud 9.

I love stories with multiple POVs and shifting tenses to go with them. It sounds like OP's plot will thrive on them.

Sherry Howard said...

**eagerly raises hands** I just left a comment for Donna that her first sentence Fridays left me wanting more! I can't wait to meet Dixie.

Janet's advice is so spot on: you just have to do it and see if it works. No writing time is wasted time! You will ALWAYS LEARN SOMETHING!

Linda Strader said...

I hear so much about how present tense doesn't work, but I've read a number of books where it works quite well. I'm tempted to try it some time, but I totally agree: only if it works for the story.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Oh, that is an interesting question!

In my own experience, I have a character I've been writing (who's passed 50k words at this point, but I won't call it a novel), who demands to be in present tense. Like, I've tried to write her in past tense, and it's turned into a shuffle of both, and I've had to go back and fix it. First person present tense is not a thing I normally do, but if it's what the story and character vigorously demand, then go for it.

Though it also seems to me I've seen a book or story utilize both, though I couldn't say what book or story I thought it was at this point. So I guess using both did its proper job? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

french sojourn said...


Adib, I love your statement " I think as long as you set rules for yourself and follow them,..." it is such a clear delineation of the journey through a story. Sure break the rules, break all the rules, but if you dictate to yourself parameters, and don't stray, the story should hold together.

I don't know how many stories I've read that were so f-ing difficult to get into, but once you divined the methodology; the work put in made the story more rewarding. I'm starting Ancillary Justice for the third time as the writing is like tagging along with Sisyphus....almost there.....drats.

There are so many incredible writers out there, not so intimidating as it is motivation to read more.

Donna, I am a first sentence junkie...yours slayed me.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

OP... I'm already intrigued with your story. And I love Ms. Janet's advice to finish it and see if the two tenses work. Onward!

Donna... YAY! I'm so happy for you.

And Lennon... HUGS to you for the shout-out about DOGS.

Lennon Faris said...

OP, I've been working on a fresh 1st POV, present tense WIP the past few months. I was about 12K words in when I realized I still loved the story but I just wasn't 'feeling' the characters.

Then I remembered that as a general rule, I hate present tense. Why the heck was I writing my own stuff in that?! Just as an experiment, I made a fresh Word Doc and changed it all. Writing the characters' thoughts and words just clicked after that. 75K words in and my working Doc is still titled, "past tense experiment."

Definitely, what QOTKU said about it working for the story, but it also has to work for you. This is your story and you have to be its #1 fan for it to work.

Donna -happy day :)

DLM said...

*High fives to all the Dixie celebrants*

OP, this sounds like a case of your story guiding you. It also sounds like a REALLY intriguing story.

Has anyone else ever heard of Carrie White, once thought to be the oldest woman alive? She spent generations in a mental institution, and there are such mysteries surrounding her life: http://dianelmajor.blogspot.com/2016/09/collection.html.

As always, Janet's response is encouraging.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Both hands up. Yee ha Dixie and Donna!

Opie, only you know what feels right and what sounds right for your story.
But...
Listen to the Queen.
The Queen knows all.
Long live the Queen.

Rules are like highways; they get you where you want to go with exits, off ramps and turnarounds.

Susan said...

Ohh...Now this sounds like something I would want to read!

Opie, I agree with Janet (but of course): finish your draft first. See where it takes you before you get caught up in the mechanics of what's right and what's wrong. The story might be leading you somewhere unexpected, and it's your job as the creative to follow it. Later, you can figure out if it's working or not.

Also keep in mind that literary fiction can be a different ballgame in which those hard and fast rules are often bent. Maybe there's a reason for the switch. Maybe it adds layers and unreliability to the character's mental illness--especially if you're writing this from the first person POV, there's a depth there, a closeness, a trust which sounds like it might lend itself to the story. With third person, the readers are observers, no matter how close we get. With first person, we are the character. Switching tenses could make for a more fascinating look into how the mental illness affects the character.

If you haven't already, I'd suggest reading The Bell Jar. I don't remember if Plath switches tenses, but her character is an unreliable narrator due to her mental illness, and we see the decline into depression very vividly, particularly with the language used during the descent.

This sounds like it's going to be a fascinating story. Good luck!

Susan said...

Happy Book Birthday, Donna! Balloons and champagne for you!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

As per usual, QOTKU has the right of it. Finish the story and then worry about the minutia. And the rules are more like guidelines, and the guidelines don’t apply unless you’re a pirate and ….well, you get the gist.

Donna Release Day! Congratulations. I am curious, will you get a count of all the pre-orders from Amazon of your book? Or do those just get squished into your royalty statement from your publisher. I am wondering. And I am so excited for you.

RachelErin said...

Since I recently finished a book with three combos of POV/tense, and it was a Hugo award winner, I'd say multiple tenses and or POVs can be done. Much of it was even in second person, another no-no (which to be honest, took some getting used to). I thought the technique served the story on just about every level. (It's The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin, for anyone who wants a mindbendingly immersive read). You do have to be a little patient at the beginning, and trust the author. Everything is on purpose.

The hardest part with the changes was that I would get attached to one POV and get a bit grumpy when the story switched out of it. That can work for you, too, because people keep reading to get back to their favorite story thread, but transitions are really important. You have to sell me on why we are transitioning RIGHT HERE, when I want to stay with a particular thread.

Anyway, read some other books using this technique, see what you can learn, and write forth.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Hands raised! I can't wait to read about Dixie!

I also just ordered The Fifth Season because I read a couple reviews (thanks RachelErin!) and it sounds amazing. :)

I have a story that keeps sliding in and out of present tense, but in my case it doesn't really work and I am trying to avoid it. I think it's easier to switch tenses with first-person stories because they can be more conversational. And when people tell stories (conversationally), they mix tenses all the time. "So I walk into the bar and James is all, 'What's up?' and you know I almost slapped that smirk right off his face." Etc.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Opie, is this your first book? I'd so, just write the sucker. The answer to your question might come at the 50 or 60k mark, or it might not come until the end. Sometimes overthinking it will make things worse.

The thing about first books is that you can't determine how it's to be written until after you've written it. Also, don't think you must lay down every word perfectly the first time. It's not a brick house.

SiSi said...

"Often the only way to know is proceed ahead." Great advice on many things, not just verb tense!

While I still read this blog first thing everyday, I haven't had time to comment lately. Nothing bad, just everything busy.

Happy book birthday, Donna! I hope your day is filled with success and laughter. I can't wait to get my hands on your book this afternoon!

Amy Johnson said...

The novel I'm currently pitching is told in first person, present tense, through multiple points of view. The reader discovers the main character is wrong about some things by hearing what the other point of view characters have to say about those things. That's a big part of the story. To me, present tense is most effective for what I'm trying to accomplish.

I'm using first-person, present tense with the story I'm currently working on too. Even though I use that tense, it still strikes me as kind of a weird way to tell a story. Past tense seems more sensible. But when I read a story that's told in present tense, and it's done well, I suppose I don't think much about the tense--I think about the story I'm reading.

Dena Pawling said...


Colin – my dentist appointment yesterday was relatively uneventful, despite the fact that I kept remembering your story while I was sitting in the chair.

Donna – happy book birthday! I ordered the audio version at my library. Obviously it's not here yet because you said the release date for audio is mid-November. I haven't heard yet whether the library will buy it, but I'm still excited =)

I have one WIP in first person past and another in alternating third person past. Neither one would work in a different POV. Not sure about past/present, so I may rewrite the first chapters in present and see what that does to the stories.

Good luck OP!

Jenny Chou said...

Donna!!!! So happy your book is out in the world today. Looking forward to stopping by my local Indie for a copy!

Donnaeve said...

ON TOPIC: I actually like the idea of this ninety-year old woman shifting tenses. It makes sense if she's recounting past days, and then BAM! She's in the present and what else would she do? Talk in present tense. I think this could work...but like QOTKU says, it's all in how it's done. No pressure, nope, none at all.

OFF TOPIC/SORT OF ON TOPIC...

:>O is the expression on my face. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for all the support/purchases, and well wishes! My social media has been blowing up all morning, so, I'm off to wrangle that again.

Elise Amazon has an Author Page, and what's cool is I will eventually see Nielsen Bookscan rank, as well as other interesting rankings. Right now though, b/c the book only released today, they show "0" sales. It looks like it goes month to month (as the date was from mid Sept to mid Oct) I'm still learning. THAT SAID, the Amazon page where the book can be purchased showed "Only 9 Left In Stock, More On the Way." I'll take that as a good sign, but of course, "in stock" might have been 50 for all I know. :)

Sort of like winning a road race, and you're the only one in your age category. Still feels good, though!

Claire Bobrow said...

Raising hand!! Yay, Donna!!!!

I agree with Janet. Write the story the way it's coming to you naturally. You can scrutinize it afterwards during revisions (and with your critique partners) and decide whether multiple tenses or POVs are the most effective way of telling your story.

Colin Smith said...

Just a quick comment (for now)...

Donna: CONGRATS!! Looking forward to getting my copy of DIXIE in the mail a little later. I hope you have a wonderful release day with LOTS of sales. :D

Janet: That's exactly what I thought about Opie's question. It's about the story and what works. Your advice about breaking the rules and doing it well is spot on.

OK, well, I'm going to go buy a house now... 8-O Later, peeps!

Claire Bobrow said...

Good luck with the house, Colin!

Donnaeve said...

Happy House Buying Day, Colin!

Cheryl said...

One of my favourite rule-breaking books is Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti. If I'm remembering correctly (I can't find my copy right now), the protagonist POV is in first person past, the rest of the characters POV are in third person past, and the antagonist/audience members/overview are all second person present.

It works because there's a pattern to it. The rule-breaking, if you will, has its own set of rules.

Brigid said...

I came just to say that Goodreads sent me an email letting me know The Education of Dixie Dupree is now available. Made my day! I am so happy for our stbppw Donna.

DeadSpiderEye said...

I seem to recall that the last time tense cropped up here someone, I can't recall who, made very astute distinction between narrative temporal perspective and grammatical tense. Present tense is awkward to maintain and reading it comes out a bit like Buffalo Bill i.e. 'It puts the lotion in the basket...'. Writing an immediate narrative isn't about what tense you use, it's about how you relay events. If something happened, it's a case of "...and then the bus crashed through the wall" if it's happening, you're probably gonna hear something first, then when the dust settles, you're gonna find a bus in the room.

I occasionally encounter this notion about first person narratives being unpopular with industry insiders. It could be worrying I suppose but I tend to dismiss it as folk wisdom.

Bethany Joy said...

Happy Book Birthday to Donna! What a joyful day!

This post makes me smile. I always write third person limited in the past tense. Until my latest novel. It just had to be written in first person present. I had all manner of fevered doubts about it, but in the end I’m happy with the voice.

Joseph Snoe said...

There's more than one way for a story to tug in the wrong direction I guess. I've been struggling with a a chapter that either itself or by following an earlier chapter may be tugging me in the wrong direction. It has nothing to do with tense.

On tense changes, for what it's worth, Stephen King's Mr Mercedes trilogy is filled with tense changes. If I remember correctly, the main character (Bill Hodges) POV is in present tense. Everyone else's is in past tense.

On the Education of Dixie Dupree, Amazon.com sent me an email a few weeks ago saying Dixie's expected delivery date is Oct 31 to Nov 4. (I better hurry up and finish The Atlantis Gene.)

Craig F said...

Congrats again Donna. Hope she flies high for you.

Colin: best of luck with the house

On Topic: When I write first person I end up using third for all of the other characters. Usually I use third all the way through just because it seems easiest to me.

I also tend to sprinkle chunks of backstory through what I write so the tense responds to that. Again I do it because it is easier for me. I think it would be a pain in the ass to try and stay first person present and not get confused. Come to think of it I have tried to read several books that were first person present and did get confused. It is probably my fault because I can be pretty low minded at times.

JulieWeathers said...

Donna Congratulations! I know you are thrilled and you have every right to be. I wish you every success.

Colin Happy house-buying day. This is truly an exciting time for you and your family.

To the OP, you must do what is right for the story and forget about what is popular with agents and editors. Too many times I've seen an agent say, "I don't even like this point of view, but this writing is so magical I can't resist." Of course, you also see, "I can't abide first person. Pass." If an agent has a focus that narrow they aren't the right agent for you.

If anyone remembers my horse butt picture, you'll note the horses were all sorrel with very little white. That's because the Scharbaurers don't like white feet believing, justifiably, are not as solid. They tend to avoid white on horses and grays when they buy.

Another colt we raised is a dark dappled palomino with silver mane and tail and four high white stockings. I picked out the stud for his bloodlines and he was a massively good looking horse. Color had nothing to do with my decision, but color was the first thing everyone went nuts about with the colt.

Color doesn't make a horse work cows or run better, but it might make people notice them faster. I used to always bet on a gray horse named Lavender Cowboy because I like grays and his name and always won a little money with him. My husband hated my stupid logic because the horse wasn't that good, but I had a winning streak with him. Sometimes it's good to irk all-knowing people. Yes, there may be a reason I'm single.

In Far Rider and Rain Crow the mc is in first person pov. Other pov characters are in third person. First person helps me zoom in on the mc's emotions, but it's tiring to do an entire book in it for me. I don't particularly care for reading many first person books. Cowgirls is being done the same way because I want the reader to intimately feel getting down on a bronc and I do it better in first person.

Anyway, don't do as I did and pick a horse because of his color. Pick what works. Once you set your rules, you have to abide by them.

Keep writing your story. 20,000 words is barely scratching the story. You'll figure out what feels right.

It sounds like both tenses are right for this story and if it were mine, that's the way I'd write it. You've almost got a flashback thing going which would be done present tense. You just have to be careful about which scenes you choose to let her relive. Make sure they are powerful ones emotionally.

Good luck, it sounds like an interesting story.

And now I need to go deal with demon spawn bankers in 1861 or a man with God in his pocket.


JulieWeathers said...

Because y'all need something positive out of this election cycle. This has to be the best campaign ad ever. It's for a county commissioner in Texas.

Theresa said...

Julie, thanks so much for the campaign ad. Between that and Dixie's birth, it's been a light day.

Karen McCoy said...

Happy Book Birthday to Donna and Dixie Dupree! And happy house hunting for Colin!

Opie, remember that there are no wasted words. Neil Gaiman has said that each novel he writes teaches him to write that particular novel. So I agree with what's been said--feel free to explore and see what this novel has to say.

Cheryl said...

Guys, I just wrote a 1500 word story between these two comments of mine. I didn't even intend to, but it's one I've had in the back of my mind for years.

Huh. Funny how that works.

Colin Smith said...

Back! We now own a house. Our first. :D Thanks for all the well-wishes. It was a fairly painless process, just signing a lot of paper. After a while I was just signing my name without thinking much about what I was signing. Had to count the kids when I got home in case I accidentally signed one of them away... ;) Seriously, since we have some legal eagles in the room, the lawyer did explain what we were signing, so I don't think anyone's pulling a fast one. We're working with some pretty straight-up people, which, frankly, has made this whole process pretty stress-free.

Anyway, enough about me (probably too much about me already--though I will say, Dena, I had to smile at you thinking of my story while in the dentist chair. I may not win the contest... but that's a win right there. Thanks! ;)

Donna: As of this moment, Amazon has 4 copies of DIXIE in stock, and she is currently ranked 14,477 in Books. Since "Books" is quite a big category on Amazon, I think that's pretty good going. :) She's currently #44 in Women's Fiction/Mothers and Children, #441 in Women's Fiction/Domestic Life, and #499 in Genre Fiction/Coming of Age. More importantly, my copy is on its way to my mailbox! :)

On the topic, I don't think I really have much more to add to what's already been said. The last novel I wrote vacillated between 1st and 3rd person. I wrote a few chapters in each before deciding to start over and go with 1st. For me, it depends on the story. First person lends itself to more introspection and emotional immediacy. Present tense can be good if you want the reader to experience the story as the narrator tells it. If your MC dies at the end, that can make for an interesting twist--you usually expect 1st person present narrators to survive. :) On the other hand, I've written my share of 3rd person because I want a little bit of detachment from the MC, and perhaps include details the MC is not aware of.

All the best with your work, Opie. Do what's best for the story, and you can't go too far wrong.



Colin Smith said...

Julie: That's an excellent campaign ad. Can we vote for Gerald? ;)

Karen McCoy said...

What a great campaign ad, Julie! Thanks for sharing.

David Wolf said...

In my as-yet-unpubbed YA novel, The Stranger in the Mirror, one MC has amnesia, so for his POV I used present tense (he has no past) and 2nd Person (he doesn't know who he is: no "I" yet.) I alternate chapters with my other MC, 1st person, normal past tense.)

Amy Johnson said...

In the early days of writing the first novel I tried first person, present tense with, writing in that tense was challenging. Something I found useful was starting each writing session by re-reading a portion of a well-received published novel told in that tense. Got me into that tense mode.

Donna, I read some pages of your story earlier today--Wow! Looking forward to reading more. Congratulations!

RachelErin said...

Heidi, "don't think you must lay down every word perfectly the first time. It's not a brick house."

Your metaphor encapsulated all the perfectionism I struggle with.

My father is a bricklayer and stone mason.

Getting out the embroidery thread....

And a belated congrats to Donna!

Timothy Lowe said...

Great timing. Dixie came the same day I finished King's On Writing. Can't wait to dig in. Congrats DE.

kathy joyce said...

All, as today's OP thanks for the great insights and encouragement. I think I've figured out how to move forward. Or, at least I know what I'll try. This book is speaking to me, so I'm setting aside #2 to finish it. Maybe nanowrimo... Congrats to Donna. Can't wait to read the book and recommend it to my book group! Colin, congrats on the house. Thanks again to all!

John Davis Frain said...

Kathy,

Thanks for asking today's question. Soon as I read it, I thought great question, I should've asked that!

I appreciate Janet's answer too. Especially the best part: "I'd tell you to finish it." Touche!

And Donna!

AJ Blythe said...

Julie, thanks for sharing. I needed a chuckle this morning.

Diane, I tried to follow your link, but I get a 'page does not exist' message.

Colin, congratulations! Now you just have to survive the move.

Donna, enjoy your day =)

kdjames.com said...

Chiming in late (as usual) . . .

Kathy, all I can do is second what Janet and everyone else has said. Excellent advice. One other thing to keep in mind, and perhaps be wary of, is that at some point in writing a book you will undoubtedly get a feeling that nothing is working right and the entire thing is dreck of the lowest order. In fact, I've never heard of a writer who didn't feel that way. You need to keep writing through the self-doubt when that happens, because you're mistaken. Good luck!

Donna, happy debut release date to you! I hope it has been everything you've dreamed of it being, and then some. Thanks for sharing this journey with us over here; it has been a shining beacon in more ways than you know.

Colin, congrats on being a homeowner! I'm sending you a few traditional (virtual) housewarming gifts of bread and salt and candles and wine. Wishing you and your family much happiness in the new place.

Julie, I almost didn't watch it, because #%$&*# politics, but that ad was wonderful.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Donna I got the book... in my hands. It's so good.

Colin Congratulations on the new house. It's got to be better than your digs in Carkoon.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Colin, yippy on the new house.
Nothing like it.

Dena Pawling said...


Colin - congrats on the new house! And I have a temporary crown so I can only chew on one side for a few weeks. Otherwise the worst part of yesterday's appointment was me wondering if the dental office would lose power mid-drilling every time there was lightning, and remembering your story =)

Julie - that ad is wonderful!

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

I can just see it now, how ppl will remember this day:

"So Donna, remember the day when Dixie Dupree came out?" "Yeah. Same day Colin bought his house."

"So Colin, remember the day when you bought your house?" "Yeah. Same day Dixie Dupree came out."

"Hy Opie, remember the day your question got posted to Janet's blog?" "Yeah. Got some really good advice that day."