I belong to a number of writing communities, each with their own pros and cons.  One that I’ve joined has quite a few high school girls in love with Twilight as members.  Each writes a story about love and vampires, then posts it and solicites feedback.  Her friends flock to it and pour on the undeserved accolades, lauding it as the best thing ever written.

Usually the writer will ask for feedback in the forums as well, and I’ll take up the challenge.  The story, which I’m sure she intends to turn into a whole book if only she had the skill and attention span, is generally only 1000-1500 words, which doesn’t take long to read and critique.  Depending on the talent and ability of the writer I’ll give a more nuanced, detailed evaluation, but many, with their myriad grammar mistakes, have far bigger issues to tackle before they’re at this stage.

One thing that I often find a problem with is tense.  Perhaps I’m hypersensitive to this because I taught grammar for a couple years, or maybe it’s my linguistics background (I speak bad French and worse Russian).  Either way, this is something that sticks out to me and something that trips up readers.

There are three tenses, generally speaking – past, present, and future. 

  • Past means it already happened – I went to the store.  I was going to the store.  Use past or past participle. This is the tense used for the majority of fiction works.
  • Present means it’s happening now – I go to the store.  I’m going to the store.  Use present or present participle.  This is used for some fiction works.
  • Future means it’s going to happen – I will go to the store.  I’ll be going to the store.  Use future or future participle (is that even a tense?).  This is stupid.  Don’t write like this.

Whether you choose to write in past or present is really up to you.  In the novel I’m working on, The Lone Wolf, half the novel is shown through one POV in past tense, and the other half is another POV in present tense.  Some people like it, and some people are confused as hell.

Whichever you decide to use, however, be consistent.  All too often, I see this:

I got up and walked down the stairs.  I go outside.  Man, it’s hot out!  I wiped my face with my sleeve.  Then I saw my friend.  He’s working on his car.

This makes me cry.  There are two ways to fix it.

  1. Past tense.  “I got up and walked down the stairs.  I went outside.  Man, it was hot out!  I wiped my face with my sleeve.  Then I saw my friend.  He was working on his car.”
  2. Present tense.  “I get up and walk down the stairs.  I go outside.  Man, it’s hot out!  I wipe my face with my sleeve.  Then I see my friend.  He’s working on his car.”

See the difference?  Yes, I’m sure you do.  And you’re thinking that I’m an idiot for thinking you’re an idiot.  Sorry about that.

I have one final point while building on this, something I didn’t even realize I was doing wrong until it was pointed out to me, and something you’re probably making mistakes with too.  Some pronouns and indefinite articles are always past tense, and some are always present.  This and these are present; that and those are past.

For example –

  • “Their smugness, their pity, their fervent believe that their own husbands would never stray – that was the worst.”  This is past tense, so I write, “that was the worst.”
  • “I want to stop, want to go back home, but I know I have to do this.”  This is present tense, so I write, “I know that I have to do this.”

If you find this helpful, please let me know!  And of course, even if you didn’t, any and all feedback is appreciated.

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