Shift Storm: On How to Keep Your Tense Clean

I am sat here yesterday, and I write an article for you to read tomorrow. (Hey… hey you… make sure you pronounce “read” as “red” to get the full effect of that stinky sentence. HSBK must have possessed my computer! Sorry!)

I know what you’re asking, and the answer is, “Yes, we do have to write articles about tenses, shifting tenses, and how to spot it in your writing.” The reason for this is because tense is part of the foundation of your story. Think of it like building a house. The tense you use is as important to building your story as nails, glue, and cement is for building a house. If you fuck it up, the house will fall apart, right? Okay, maybe the walls won’t come down and perhaps it’ll maintain its structure for years to come because you didn’t totally skimp when creating your house, but that doesn’t mean should try to get away with it, because you can’t. No one can, and no one should try.

Tense can either turn your story into a cohesive string of thoughts or a disaster waiting to happen. Do you remember reading the first line of this article? If you didn’t, did you just reread it? Do you have a headache now? Now you know how your reader will feel when you have an entire book that shoots all over the tense spectrum. Here are some useful tips to keep your tense in line.

Three most basic types of tense:

Present Tense

Present is a tense that tells a story as it unfolds. The main character(s) deal with the events as they happen right along with the reader.

Example:

The officer standing in front of me doesn’t look impressed. In fact, his face looks as though he’s suspicious of me. I suppose that’s true since I’m the one that robbed the bank, but can he know that? If he does, what am I going to say to throw him off the trail? Well, I don’t know, but I know I need to figure out some story otherwise me and my bro are heading for the clink.

Past Tense

Past is storytelling of events that already transpired. Think of the main character sitting outside a bank that someone just robbed and he’s telling an officer what happened.

Example:

“Well, officer,” I begin, and run my hand through my hair to play it cool. “We was in the bank just minding our own business when these ruffians came in and pulled out their guns. Now, I know what you’re thinking, ‘what kind of gun?’ Well, they was big ones. The kind of guns that’ll fuck you up. Me and Mort didn’t want nothin’ to do with that, so we dropped down and shut the hell up until it was over.”

Past Perfect Tense (Pluperfect)

This isn’t very tricky. Just think of it as the past of the past. Think of all the shit happens before the story that happened before what is happening now. Confused? Me too. No, I’m only kidding. Think of what the main character is telling the officer about how he was right in the action, but then he cuts away from that to tell the officer something he remembers before that point in the story. Rather than confusing the officer, he uses past perfect to clarify when that event happened. I underlined the important text to show the past of the past.

Example:

“You know, now that I think about it, Mort had told me before we left that we should stay home. I had made some rude remark that we was just goin’ to the bank, but he had warned me that it wasn’t a good idea. See, when we was younger, Mort got, like, the sixth sense or some shit. He don’t see dead people, but had had this since age twelve that told us when danger was about to happen. I guess lookin’ back, I should’ve listened to him.”

Which tense should I use?

I don’t personally know, but figuring it out is your first important step. What does the story tell you? When I write a story and I have to decide tense, I always figure out what the story needs. Most of the time, past tense works very well. You generally can’t go wrong with it. However, there is a good reason you might choose present tense over past.

First of all, it has nothing to do with the fact that Divergent Games: Catching the Allegiant Mockingjay uses it. I can’t tell you how many writers go with first person present tense simply because a book made millions using it. If you ask me, both of those series would work perfectly fine in either present or past tense. They are terrible examples of when you really should be using present tense.

So when should you? When you want the reader to bite their fingers down to the wrist about what’s going to happen next. It doesn’t really work in third person, but consider first person present tense. The main character tells his or her story as it unfolds, and shit gets crazier and crazier until you realize it’s first person present tense and you have no clue if he will die or not. That’s the huge difference.

With first person past tense, you can safely assume 99% of the time the character will live at the end. Otherwise, who the hell is writing the story? That’s not to say you should always write first person present tense just to mess with your readers, because most of the time, if your writing is strong enough, if doesn’t matter if it’s present or past because the story is that eff’n awesome. Sometimes, though, even when it is that awesome, you just want to add that much more fuel to the fire you lit under their booty.

Can I mix tenses?

Most of the time, no. Some people will argue that style dictates otherwise, but generally, you don’t want to mix tenses because you’ll just confuse the reader. You always want to avoid that like the plague. There are, however, times when you can use it safely, though. For instance, suppose I’m telling you a story about the girl I met, and how I am embarrassed to say I made a real ass of myself. See what I did there? I’m currently embarrassed about what I already did earlier. There, mixed tense. Use it wisely.

How do you handle your tenses? Do you shift tenses as if someone slipped you a laxative or do you carefully consider your tense with each sentence you write? Let me know in the comments below or find me on twitter/Facebook to tell me I’m completely wrong! Happy Writing!

On How to Survive @nycmidnight – Short Story Challenge Edition

Every year, hundreds of people come together to battle each other in a challenge of skill for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge (among other contests they host). The challenge isn’t easy (for some) because it forces fresh writers or writers who aren’t yet comfortable with the craft to write outside what they normally write.

If you’re not familiar with it, you can visit the official website, but I’ll give you a quick rundown for those that aren’t. Once you’ve paid your entrance fee (around $40-$55) and joined the contest, you wait until the challenge begins (usually January). When the first round (of three) begins, NYC breaks the writers up into several groups of about 30 per group, and gives each group a set of rules they must play by. Here’s an example from 2015:

Group 19:

  • Genre: Action / Adventure
  • Subject: An Invention
  • Character: A Flight Attendant

What this means is that each writer in group #19 (I was included in this group) must write a short story that adheres to these rules. The story must be action/adventure, the subject of the story must include an invention of some kind, and one of the characters in the story must be a flight attendant (or once was a flight attendant). It must be 2500 words or less, and stick to the formatting (or risk 10% penalty to your score, the other 90% is on style, how close you stuck to your subject, genre, etc).

The biggest complaint from writers I hear is that people are writing outside their “comfort zone” apparently. I don’t often agree with this terminology since what they really mean is they never wrote that subject before and don’t know how to do it (for some reason). In my opinion, all writers should be able to write all subjects. You don’t hear a long jumper complaining when he has to do triple or short jumps? Do you? Well, I don’t really know if you would… I didn’t when I was in Track & Field because jumping is jumping—you can do it, you just need to master the different style. Similarly, writers can write anything, they just need to master it. Remember, just because one hasn’t mastered a subject doesn’t mean they can’t write something that passes for that subject.

Your head is the biggest obstacle to completing a story.

If any of you are familiar with my books or stories, you know that I typically write horror or suspense. So, I could have said that getting Action/Adventure as my genre was “out of my comfort zone” as people like to say, but really, writing is well within my comfort zone and I set out to tackle it with that exact attitude.

Read my winning entry here.

My advice to anyone that joins this challenge is to think of all of it within your means as a writer, and tackle it as the long jumper will tackle triple jumping. It’s all the same thing. Go that way, and you can’t go wrong.

The next two rules aren’t a problem once you get passed that ugly three-headed genre. Now, all you have to do is think up a subject that involves an invention with a character who is a flight attendant. Even if you’ve only just started writing, you should still be able to come up with something. It’s all about imagination and making it work for you. If you don’t have an imagination, then you have no business writing creatively. That said, I’ll bet all of you reading this have an imagination, and therefore, you have the means to spend 2.5 minutes dreaming up a solid idea involving an invention and a flight attendant.

These are my ideas for my group:

  • Action/Adventure: Set in a pyramid, Indiana Jones style (What can I say? I’m nostalgic like that heh-heh-heh)
  • An Invention: The story centers around a stolen artifact that the ancient Egyptians invented called the Sun of Ra, which was a power source similar to a battery (which has a real world counterpart without the fancy name)
  • A Flight Attendant: My main character was a flight attendant, one that wanted to see the world, but like her father, couldn’t stay away from a more adventurous lifestyle.

That’s it! The rest is just filling the blanks up to a maximum of 2500 words, which is probably the hardest part for some writers. Sometime later, I’ll go over ways you can trim your story so you can come in under 2500 words and fit more of the necessary stuff into it to ensure you have everything fleshed out properly (like plot stuff).

Remember, the biggest thing that gets in the way of you completing your story is your head. If you’ll notice, I took elements of action and adventure and incorporated it into my typical style: horror. You can do that, too, as long as the judges feel like you hit the mark on your given genre.

What else can you do? Well, here are some DOs and DON’Ts:

DO use the forums and get some input from beta readers. Listen to them, and let them help you. Generally, you’ll find a nice group of people willing to give you honest feedback. You don’t have to listen, but it’s worth it to at least get a feeling of how your judges may receive your story.

DON’T spend all day worrying about what the judges tell you about your story. If for some reason you don’t pas one of the rounds (or even if you do) and you receive negative feedback that you don’t agree with, that’s okay. They’re judges. They aren’t Gods. Take what you want from them. Just remember, all feedback, whether good and agreeable or bad and disagreeable, it’s all going to lead you to becoming a better writer. In addition, learning to take good criticism turns you into a better person. You win more than you lose.

DO make sure you also help others as a beta reader. If you would like help, it isn’t necessary to beta read for other people, but it’s courtesy. It’s like that whole scratching someone’s back thing… (before the 20th century and they banned touching).

DON’T get angry if a beta reader doesn’t like your story. Like Stephen King said: you can’t please all readers all the time. You can’t even please some of the readers some of the time. You can however please at least a few readers once in a while. (Or something like that, don’t quote me.)

DO go easy on yourself. Relax. Enjoy the contest. Even if you don’t win, it doesn’t matter. If you use the beta readers and be a part of the community with an open mind, you’re guaranteed to come out a better writer. Maybe a fraction better… maybe you’ll come out a whole new person. Either way, you’ll come out all right.

DON’T cheat. Be original. The judges are readers, too. If you write a derivative story that so obviously stole from someone else’s work, you’re going to have a bad time with them. (Of course, there are exceptions, but generally, don’t do it.)

DO your research. If you’re going to write historical fiction, then learn about your subject. If you’re going to write horror, then by God take an hour to learn what makes a horror story so scary. It can only make you better. Just remember, stick to trusted sources. There’s tons of good information on the interwebs, but there’s also just as much shit out there. Be wary. :)

That’s all folks! Have fun, and feel free to head on over to my Facebook page or Twitter to yell at my face if you have other ways of doing it!

On Showing, not Telling… and the Dirty Little Secret Your English Teacher Didn’t Bother Sharing

Teachers, friends, and strangers all tell writers to show the reader the story they are telling (I know, funny, right?). “You shouldn’t tell your story!” You remember Mrs. Williams telling you while she points aggressive and unnaturally erect finger in your face.

What exactly does showing mean? It doesn’t exactly mean showing in the literal sense. It means using all the senses to create an atmosphere that the reader can experience. The author should use sight, sounds, smells, tastes, feels(?), and other things to create that atmosphere. Doing this will bring the reader closer to the story, make the things they imagine more vivid, and thus the story more interesting.

Telling is simply telling the reader something happened or something exists. See the difference:

Albert heard a noise, and he opened the door. He looked into the hallway. He walked into the hallway. The door slammed shut. He was scared because he heard something coming. He couldn’t get back into the room. It sucked.

Vs.

Albert heard something snarl in the hallway just outside his bedroom. Against his better judgment, he turned the cold brass knob, and tugged slowly on the door. The hinges protested with a slight cry as if warning him to close the door, lock it, and return to his bed to hide safely under the warm coverlet. He ignored them, of course, and stepped into the inky blackness of the hallway. A subtle breathing sound emanated from the black shadows that cobwebbed through the corridor, and then the door slammed shut.

He turned toward the door and grabbed the handle. His heart galloped in his chest and thumped hard in his ears as he twisted the stubborn knob. His skin tightened with goose flesh. Nails ran along the floor, ticking and scraping closer and closer. He pulled. He yanked. Nothing.

Do you see the difference? One is far more engaging than the other. You might not use all senses all the time, but you should use some of the senses all the time. Putting the reader in that moment makes it real, and that reality check for the reader will make the incredible things that happen more believable. (Re: Suspension of disbelief)

What else do you see in that second part? If you guess that I used some telling, then you’re correct. Teachers don’t tell you this, but you need to use both in your story. You’ll use it for urgency, emphasis, or any number of other reasons, but you should use it nevertheless. When? Well, I suppose that depends on what’s going on in the story. In slow parts of the book, you have the time to explore. When shit’s hitting the fan, though, fragments and short “telly” sentences are your best friends. It increases the pace, yanks the reader by the shirt, and says, “Let go!”

Do you avoid telling at all costs? Do you tell and show? What’s your strategy? Comment below or find me on Facebook and Twitter to let me know how you do it!

On Writing: Death to Passive Voice! Here! Here!

Yes, yes… every writer beats this topic to death. Should we use it? Should we not use it? It’s always the same questions, and there’s always one group defending it and one group saying writers shouldn’t use it.

So how do you know when you’re using passive voice? Well, passive voice happens when something is being done to the subject of the sentence.

The man was punched.

Active voice happens when the subject does something.

Alex punched the man.
Someone punched the man. (If you don’t know whodunit)

There are many writers defending passive voice as a stylistic approach to storytelling. I will never argue that style can’t trump certain rules of effective writing, but unless your main character is penning the book, narrating it, and also happens to be bad at written communication, there is no reason for anyone to use passive voice. I mean that in creative writing, not in business. Writers litter law reports, internal office memos, briefs, and all kinds of business documents with passive voice, and I suppose that’s okay. In creative writing, though, you have the power. (Did anyone else just hear He-Man in his or her head?)

Okay, it’s true that every writer, even those in business, have the power to write strong. However, business writers are stuck in this fissure dug out by decades of shitty passive voice authoring. It’s a lot like business jargon (which unequivocally annoys me): touch base with someone, shift paradigm, and all those other cringe-worthy expressions.

In creative writing, you have a chance to stick to the good stuff with nice strong writing. You can have your characters actively do things instead of… you know… having those things do something to them instead.

I read and critique many stories a year for fresh writers, and I see a lot of passive voice. Every paragraph has at least two or three passive voice phrases, and sometimes you will see a sentence with more than one!

He was killed after being called on the phone and was told the house was being watched.

How can anyone defend that? That’s the equivalent of nails on chalkboard, chewing aluminum foil, and licking Kleenex tissues all wrapped into one uncomfortable feeling. Also, I just died from that goose bump inducing sensory overload. Pardon me while I recuperate.

Truthfully, there is a place for passive voice in fiction, and it’s in dialog. In fact, you can get away with many things in dialog. Poor grammar, mixing tenses, contractions that don’t exist, words that don’t exist, and all kinds of other things. Should you? I don’t really know. It depends on your story, but if you can avoid it for the sole sake of clarity, then you should.

Do you find yourself defending passive voice? Is it all over your prose like chicken pox? Do you avoid it, too, but see it everywhere? Let me know in the comments below or find me on Facebook or Twitter!