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Last week, our hero and his partner in P.I. put silver-studded arm restraints on a werewolf. ‘Cause that’s how we roll around here.
I’m skipping over a some interrogation and Tom’s building worry over his brother and frustration with the wolf’s fairly smug non-answers, so while Tom’s action is brutal, it isn’t as cold-blooded as it seems when read in context.
The thug eyed me. “What the hell are you?” he said in a hoarse voice.
“Out of patience,” I said, firing a bullet through his kneecap.
He gritted his teeth and huffed out a few breaths. Wolves could take a lot of punishment, but mostly because the pain didn’t last long—unless something stopped the healing process, like, say, a small fortune in silver studs pressed into bare skin. They must have stung like hell, all by themselves.
“You’re. The message,” he said, panting.
I have a question about tenses (Chip, this is your fault for making me think about why I’m doing what I’m doing):
I’m not used to writing in first person in fiction, and while the story is set in the past, my inclination is to put certain sentences in present tense, because that’s how we all tell our own stories when we’re speaking directly to our audience and make statements that are still in effect.
Grandma shouted at the cabdriver to follow that car and floor it, sonny. When he stared at her, she started waving around the hundred dollar bill she keeps in her bra for luck, the one she swears she won from Dean Martin in a pinochle game at the Sands—the bill, not the bra, which please god has no interesting story attached to it and never will—even though she won’t let anyone look at the series date or the treasurer’s name.
The taxi driver took off like a bat out of Hoboken, even though my sister kept screaming at him to pull over . . .
Grandma (not actually one of mine, by the way, I made her up just now) still has that bill in her bra (yerk), so even though the rest of the story would be told in the past tense, that’s in present.
So since Tom is telling his story to you people, my first draft of the above snippet reads like this:
“Out of patience,” I said, firing a bullet through his kneecap.
Wolves can take a lot of punishment, mostly because the pain doesn’t last long—unless something stops the healing process, like, say, a small fortune in silver studs pressed into bare skin.
They must have stung like hell, all by themselves.
Does this tense shift from past to present and back again seem natural to you, or does it bug you as a reader? Do you prefer this one, or the revised all-past-tense one at the top of what has become a ridiculously long post?
Just wondering . . .
57 thoughts on “Weekend Writing Warriors: Odd Duck (Question)”
You shifting between something which is true all the time (in which case present is appropriate) and something that happened.
Thanks, Sue Ann. 🙂
I like the shift to present tense when talking about the essential quality of werewolves, but would shift in past tense when talking about Granny, but I could see it either way. Note: This is not a well-considered copyeditor opinion, just half-a-cup-of-coffee-and-posting-already viewpoint.
Granny is merely an off the cuff example (and please don’t make me write her, indy, I don’t have the strength), and I didn’t want a copyeditor so much as a reader, anyway, so this works!
Write Granny! You know you would try to make me to.
Maybe we should collaborate.
Don’t tempt me. You might something in blank verse.
Thanks for the mention! 🙂
While I prefer the former edit, I cannot disagree with Sue Ann.
I felt the finger of blame pointed in my direction and went to my desk and opened my copy of “The Elements of Style” (Strunk & White). There is a reference to tense in section two, “Elementary Principles of Composition” item 21. In my copy, this appears on page 31. (Did I just change tense?) “Apart from the exceptions noted, the writer should use the same tense throughout.Shifting from one tense to another gives the appearance of uncertainty and irresolution, unless you happen to be speaking of witches, wolves, or men.”
Finally, while we may be limited by the rules to 8 to 10 sentences, the remainder of the post has no limitations. Keep on writing!
Any time! 😀
I may bow to Strunk & White by the final edit (I already have in the second), but they appear to be giving me an out with the wolf thing . . . no?
Thanks for checking, Chip!
(and I can’t seem to post a comment on yours today—I’ll keep trying!)
I agree with the comments about the tense shifting. Also, this part I found odd ‘mostly because the pain doesn’t last long—unless something stops the healing process, like, say, a small fortune in silver studs pressed into bare skin.’ I see the reason for explaining the healing process, but for me the way it was presented seemed unnatural, seeing as this is in third-person. That’s just me.
Apart from that, I loved the action and there is a lot going on in 8 sentences.
I see your point about the awkwardness of that sentence. Maybe if I break it up into another sentence or two . . .
Thanks, Frank! 🙂
That would do, or just make it sound more like it’s third person.
Hmmm . . . (scribbles notes)
I like it the second way better. Switches didn’t bother me, but I’m still too tired to even think about getting out my strunk grammar book, good thing Chip’s got you covered.
I want reader’s opinions, really, Millie, so don’t worry about it. I pretty much knew the rules say to keep the whole thing in the past, but whine, whine, do I gotta really, whine. 😀
(And yep, Chip’s awesome that way. 🙂 )
I’m watching this conversation closely. I fight with tenses all the time and what sounds right in my head, doesn’t always come out right on paper. As for the snippet above, I’m inclined to like the “mostly because the pain doesn’t last long…”
Maybe because first person sounds like a monologue to us and we’re used to doing whatever we like with dialogue? Or not?
And thanks, Gem—I wonder if that phrase is better when it’s read as a small part of the entire scene, instead of a snippet?
I can’t add anything to the comments about tense, Sarah. I learned from the comments, too. 🙂
Regards Frank’s comment: I like the way you’re approaching the story-telling. Since it’s first person, the narrator ( I ) is revealing information he/she is privy to, and sharing with the reader, right? I think it works.
I love how helpful warriors are to one another. Makes me smile!
I think Frank’s objection was more to the awkwardness of the statement, rather than it’s tense—or maybe I’m projecting—but either way, it’s helping me examine stuff I’m sliding past in edit.
The constructive criticism is always of the highest quality around here on Sundays. 🙂
Oh-ho! He might be “prey”, but he’s as bad-ass as the wolves. Nicely done, Sarah. 🙂
He tries, Siobhan—though he’ll pay for it later.
Thank you! 🙂
Personally, either snippet worked for me. I’m all right with the first person sharing information. I loved that chip dragged out his copy of The Elements of Style” (Strunk & White). So sweet.
Interesting post today. I’ve enjoyed it and the comments. 🙂
It’s nice to know I can ask a question and get a good assortment of honest opinions along with some cited research. 😀
And thanks, Karen! 🙂
I’m not sure that shifting adds “uncertainty” … It’s just plain wrong to shift back and forth with no apparent purpose, but in this case it does have a purpose: either you want to convey sudden immediacy or, like in this case, the statement is still true. So, Chip, I’m curious: what were the exceptions mentioned above in the Elements of Style?
I’d kind of like to know that myself—my Chicago Manual isn’t geared for fiction. 🙂
I love the answer “Out of patience.”
And either version worked for me — neither one jarred me out of the flow of the story.
Thanks, Paula! I think I used that line on my kids, once, though (I hasten to add) without the guns.
And that seems to be the prevailing opinion, Struck & White aside. Cool! 🙂
I liked both also.
I’m tense with all the chat about tenses. My feeling is, folks and I “don’t know much about history”, a little music here, just write, reread and if it sounds right, move on. Enjoyed the eight.
Fair enough Charmaine! 🙂
The observations about werewolves work fine in present tense. I’ve seen a lot of older past tense books switch into present for general narrative observations and such. Sometimes I go the other way around and use past tense in my present tense stories, for wraparound narrative segments summing up longer period of time in between major events or scenes, or to catch the reader up at the start of a chapter or scene.
I read a lot of older fiction; maybe that’s where I picked it up?
I’ve never written present tense fiction, but your methods sound reasonable to me, Carrie-Anne. 🙂
Nice action, which makes you curious as to what is going on in just 8 sentences. Good job. I wasn’t jar at all.
Juneta at Writer’s Gambit
Thanks, Juneta! 🙂
It sounded okay to me. I like the mention of the silver studs even though some didn’t.
Thanks, Elaine. The studs are staying, but perhaps in a smoother sentence structure. 😀
Call me cruel, but I like the mention of silver studs too. Interesting detail that I can imagine easily. Thanks for the tense discussion too. Helpful. 🙂
I’d never do that, S.J. 🙂
I’m really glad I decided to ask the question—it’s been bugging me for a while. I’m really pleased at the response.
Out of patience… 🙂 Love it!
I think the mention of the studs is appropriate if enough time/action has passed so the reader could forget about them. Otherwise, they might be left wondering why the dude isn’t healing. He is a badass werewolf, after all, so a regular bullet wouldn’t slow him down for long and that question would pull readers out of the story. Unless you set it up that the rules are different in your world. Capisce? *lol*
Thanks, Charley! 🙂
This is the first time the silver is explained in any detail but there’s a sentence I skipped about his wounds closing up by the time Tom gets the restraints on him—maybe the combination is enough?
That’s what happens when you don’t answer questions! I’m not sure why Tom isn’t getting it, though–his battered, or possibly dead, body is going to be the message to his brother, right?
Excellent question, and I went back to make sure: Tom knows what the message is, but he doesn’t know exactly what it was supposed to achieve and who in particular was supposed to take notice of it. Could be his brother, could be himself (he is a detective with connections), could a number of people. And he’d kind of like to know who wanted it sent. 🙂
It reads a little quicker when it’s not parceled out. I hope.
I left the tense question to better-qualified commenters LOL and just enjoyed the snippet. I like this story!
Oh, please, Veronica, I can’t imagine any question about writing that you would be under-qualified to answer!
But thanks for the compliment! 😀
Liked this!! It promises to be an action read. I have just started Weekend Writing Warriors so look forward to getting to your your story and characters more in the coming weeks.
Thanks, Elsa, and welcome to the Warriors. 🙂
Thx Sarah, it feels like a great group of writers to be part of!
Awesome! Thanks, Tina! 🙂
Love the snippet! Want to keep reading. As far as tense, I think the second reads more naturally to me. It seems more in the moment than the first one…but that’s just my two cents. Not a copy editor!
It seems that readers don’t mind first person narrators to occasionally use the present tense, but those with editing experience (or experience with editors) prefer to keep the past in the past.
Good to know! 🙂
“Out of patience.”
What a great hard-boiled line. Nicely done. One of these days you’ve got to tell me your secret of how you get lots of people to read your snippets.
Thanks, Jeff! All that Chandler and Spillane I’ve been mainlining all these years may finally be paying off. 🙂
Honestly, I have no idea, but I’m really grateful that they do. 🙂
Now I’m starting to feel sorry for the wolf. It looks like he can barely speak.
I’d go with the switch to present tense. It makes the distinction between events in the story (past tense) and explanation of an ongoing state – as if a narrator broke off telling events to give you a bit of an aside. It feels more natural storytelling to me.
That seems to be the majority opinion. Is seems more natural to me that way, too.