Writer Wednesday: Watch those tenses!

This one will have to be quick and dirty — I’ve somehow jacked up my wrist, and it would have to be my right wrist. For writers, wrist injuries are like blown ACLs for football players: game stoppers.

But I’ll take it for the team just long enough to tell you one of my pet peeves: shifting tenses. Choose a tense and stick with it. If you’re traditional, stick with past (“He said” for neophytes). If you’re more modern and trying present tense (“I say”), don’t slip into past because it’s more comfortable.

The word “now” always bugs me in past tense. “He had said he would call, and now he wasn’t calling.” If I see the word “now,” I just rewrite the sentence: “He said he would call; why wasn’t he calling?”

And watch the past perfect (“He had said”). In a book, past perfect lets readers know this scene being described happened further in the past than when my characters are talking (“He had said he would call, but he wasn’t calling”). Other than that, stick with simple past! If you see the word “had” anywhere, think about the timeline — is this scene further in the past than what the characters are doing? Do a global search and check each instance. Yes, really. Editors are looking for an excuse to put your book down. Don’t give them one.

The main goal of writing should be invisibility. If your readers notice the writing, you’ve screwed up. The author should be a ghost in the reader’s head, whispering the story without calling attention to herself. (Unless she’s  Maggie Stiefvater, whose writing should always be attended to.) Anytime your reader has stopped reading and said, “Wait, what?” you’ve given the reader an excuse to quit reading. Maybe he’ll come back. Maybe he won’t. Life is short and books are many. But in general, confusion in a reader is a bad thing. Don’t make your reader try to figure out when something happened. Watch your tenses!

Okay, back to editing and whining about my wrist to anyone who will listen.

About alisaacarter

I am a writer of young adult novels, wife, mom of three, lover of animals, former magazine editor, reader of anything paranormal, and coffee fanatic.
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