Friday, April 29, 2016

Questions from Readers

Here are disadvantages of using the present tense.

1. In the present tense, you’re limited to what you, the protagonist, discovers as it happens.

2. Any time shifts are awkward.

3. Realism puts the focus on immediate experience and not on the wider context.

4. Realism in time tends to include trivia and setting. Past tense allows you to skim over them.


Disadvantages of the past tense.

1. We know the protagonists don’t die because they tell the story from their present—after the events have taken place.

2. Too many writers resort to telling rather than showing—that is, informing readers.

3. When the third-person point of view is combined with past tense, many writers turn out a distant style of writing, almost like reporting.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Questions from Readers

Let’s consider the advantages of writing in the past tense.

1. It’s the most natural tense and one we’ve known as long as we’ve been reading.

2. Because it’s a more traditional way of writing, you’re likely to please more readers.

3. Past tense can make you feel more in control of situations as they are already resolved.

4. It’s easier to handle flashbacks and especially backstory by flipping into past perfect tense.

5. More suspense is created when we know there must be a future to the story (because it’s being told in the future looking backward). The narrator can hint of what lies ahead. In the old gothics, a common device was to say, “If only I had known what was behind the door, I wouldn’t have stepped forward.”

6. Characterization is easier and possibly deeper when you can work from then and now.

7. Past tense sets the action in the wider context of past and future and allows you to provide greater drama and understanding of your characters.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Questions from Readers

Stephen McCutchan asks about tense in fiction. He adds, “I know it is traditional to write fiction in either first or third person past tense, but for both dialogue and certain action scenes, present tense seems more intense and immediate.”

Traditionally, authors used simple past tense. That’s in flux these days. Several novelists now write in present tense. I will say that it’s a bit jarring for the first page or two but after that, readers flow with it.

It comes down to preference and style. If you’re comfortable with using present tense, do so.

Here are arguments for using present tense.

1. As Stephen pointed out, present tense can have more immediacy than past tense. The action occurs to the readers as it happens, and the story is projected into the reader’s now.

2. Present tense simplifies our handling of tenses. We’re always in the moment. We don’t have to worry about when to use simple past tense and when to move into past perfect. We can always shift into past tense for a flashback and back to the present after we finish.

3. Present tense shows realism in time. That is, the action remains continuous and as forward moving as it is in real life.

4. You want to make your readers feel that the events of the story are happening as they read them.

5. The best argument is that authors can show the major character’s growth or enlightenment, and this can make for more intense reading.

FYI, whenever you refer to any historical event such as the Civil War or the story of David and Goliath, it’s acceptable to write it in the present tense even if the rest of the text is past tense.

For example: Moses comes down from the mountain and hears the noise of debauchery below. . . .

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Questions from Readers

Here’s the final question for those of you who want to write about your experiences: Who cares? I’ve alluded to that, but I need to say it stronger.

Unless you show how facing and struggling through your past has changed you and made you a stronger person, don’t try to do it.

In writing the personal narrative, you also need to help readers see themselves in your book. How does your material help them? Why would they spend money for your book?

Another way to say it is to ask, What’s the personal application? How can it help readers in practical ways? They don’t have to have your exact experience (and who would?) but your story has to reach out to them so they can identify with you, the writer.

To illustrate that, a major portion of 90 Minutes in Heaven is about Don’s recovery and his 34 surgeries. A large number of readers have said, “At last, someone understands chronic pain.”

None of them went through the trauma Don faced, but many readers live every day in physical torment or went through long periods of intense physical suffering. We call that reader identification.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Questions from Readers

You’re committed to write your personal experiences, so here’s the most difficult part: How deeply can you penetrate your past? Can you write in such a way that readers feel your pain? Rejection? Abuse?

It’s not easy, and if you can dig deeply it still won’t be easy. Of all the books I’ve written, the two I’ve authored on my sexual and physical abuse were the most difficult.

I had to push below the surface and dig up those painful experiences, and it hurt to do that. As I said to my agent, “Some days I wished I were dead because I had to relive the pain.”

And you will relive the pain if you do it right. In my case, I often stopped writing and cried—a lot. Or I went for a walk. One evening I sat on my front porch for an hour, crying and reliving my pain.

Are you willing to probe that deeply? Most people won’t or can’t. If you still feel you need to write the book, hire someone to write the book or ask them to help you.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Questions from Readers

Let’s say you’ve decided to write about your personal experience, especially your abusive childhood.

The first problem you face is how open can you be? Will your writing hurt others? In my book When a Man You Love Was Abused, I mentioned my first perpetrator was a female relative. I didn’t name her because her children and grandchildren would probably read my book. Even though she was dead, I didn’t feel I had the right to expose her.

If you have to name living persons, what will you do? You do have the right to tell your story, and you can name names. The way to do it is to include disclaimers: “This is how I remember it” or “As I understood.” That way you are giving your opinion and not presenting information as absolute facts. That keeps you free from lawsuits.

Too many people advise writers to change names, but I try to avoid that method as much as possible. The more forthright you can be, the stronger your story.

Second, you need to ask yourself: How accurate are my memories? As much as possible, find ways to verify what you believe happened. In my case, my three older sisters verified parts of my story.

I insert that question because of what has been called the false-memory syndrome. It’s been verified that some therapists unconsciously ask about abuse and some clients are so open to suggestion, they feel they were sexually assaulted.

(Still more coming on personal experiences.)

Friday, April 8, 2016

Questions from Readers

I’m continuing the question about writing your personal experiences.

If you want to write a book about your life, start by asking yourself these simple questions:

1. Why do I want to write my personal experience?

2. Is it significant enough to help others or enrich their lives?

3. Do I have only one harrowing/painful account in my life and that’s it? In that case, an article is probably enough.

4. Is there a large enough audience to read my book? Your spouse has Alzheimer’s. You went through breast cancer. You recovered from a heart attack. A powerful, painful experience, but how many people would buy your book?

5. What angle will I take to make my book stand out and not be just another story about a painful childhood?

People who’ve read 90 Minutes in Heaven ask me to write their stories because “I had an experience just like/similar to Mr. Piper.” To that I ask two questions:

1. And then what happened? It has to be more than that singular event.

2. Why would anyone want to read your story? (That sounds more unkind than it’s intended.) But the answer is that unless you offer readers something to help them, they won’t read your book.

(More coming on this topic.)