This cartoon has nothing to do with my post, except that I think it's funny given many of my blogging friends' recent posts about their fears that their plot isn't 100% original. Comic from www.inkygirl.com
Before I get started on what I learned today, I have updated stats on how out-of-touch the rest of the literary world is with YA (at least at this conference):
- My MS was critiqued today (I'll be posting all about the experience on Wednesday, after I've thought about it and looked over my comments), and near the end one of the women - who, admittedly, is probably in her 70s or 80s - had to ask what "young adult" meant.
- During lunch, I was talking to someone about how Laura Lippman said we all needed to have a novel that was our "role-model novel" - the novel that we want ours to be. I said I've known for awhile what mine is, and the person I was talking to asked me what. I said The Hunger Games and got a blank stare. Then I mentioned The Handmaid's Tale and everything got better.
- No comments on my age today, though. Well one, but I sort of said something about it first, and it was a polite mention, not a rude one, or the kind where everyone assumed I was in college.
It all started during my critique, when someone casually mentioned that I seemed to be struggling with my tenses (ugh. I really thought I caught all of them, but apparently not. When I looked back there were so many I was mad at myself.) Stewart O'Nan, who's leading my group, literally said, "You change tenses so much you make us want to stab you." Nice.
But the classmate (who, incidentally, is having a YA novel published in Sweden, where she's from, next year) said something that really got me thinking. Basically she implied that the entire narration, tone, and story of my novel could change depending on the tense.
And she's absolutely right.
I have to admit...and boy is this going to make me sound like an amateur...but when I started writing this book, I picked first-person POV with a past-tense voice because that's what I like to read. I like to get inside character's heads, and I think past-tense sounds more natural somehow. I don't know, it just felt right to me, so I didn't think about it too much. I briefly played with present tense (with the result that every single person who looked at my frist draft commented on my inability to keep to one tense) but ultimately decided past sounded better. That was that.
But my classmate got me thinking: when you choose your tense, what you're really doing is deciding when your narrator is telling the story from. If you use present tense, then the narrator is telling the story as it happens - no problems. But if you choose past tense...well, that opens up a whole can of worms.
Past tense can mean the narrator is telling the story from so many different times - anywhere in the future, really. It can be five minutes from now. It can be at the end of the events of the book. It can be at the end of the events of the book series. Or it can be at the end of the narrator's life.
Now, think about this: if your narrator is telling the story from a time far, far in the future (or even after the book happens) that means they already know everything that takes place in the book. And although that doesn't mean they need to react any differently, that does mean certain things might stand out that wouldn't have if a story was narrated as it happened.
Let's consider this example: a girl and a boy go to the store, and on the way to the store they got mugged. The girl dies. If the boy narrates the story from the present tense, he might emphasize what seems important about the trip to the store, because he's living in the moment. So he might talk more about the fact that they're out of eggs and he's annoyed with the girl for not telling him before they wanted to bake a cake, etc. But, if he narrates using past tense, he already knows that she's going to die. Instead of being annoyed with her, he might point out some good things, too, (of course he still wants to show his annoyance, since that was part of the initial experience) or he might point out how the girl had her money hanging out of her back pocket, making her an easy target.
Maybe that's not a great example, but you get what I'm saying: the tense that you choose has a lot more to do with what sounds good. You also need to think about when the narrator is telling the story from. No matter what tense you choose, make sure you can answer these questions:
- When does the story take place relative to when the narrator is explaining things?
- If the narration is far in the future, do you want to play with omniscience? Just because the narrator knows all doesn't mean he or she has to tell the reader.
- If you write in the future tense, you are probably writing something crazy, and I might want to read it. Unless it's crazy.
There were a few other things I learned, just little tidbits which don't fit in with this overall "tense" theme. They include:
- Don't describe your character's clothes just because; everything needs to have context.
- Example: Don't say "The 40-year-old was wearing jeans and a shirt from Hot Topic." have one character say to the 40-year old, "Aren't you a little old for that shirt? What are you, going to a rave?"
- Don't write for people with ADD, but always keep the story moving forward. It doesn't have to move forward like a bullet, it can move slowly, as long as it moves.
- A scene ends when a character gets or does not get what they want or need. The novel ends when the character gets or does not get their super objective. (Dennis Lehane loves the ending of the movie Sex, Lies, and Videotape because it ends exactly where it should.)
- Finally, the quote of the day, "The best thing that can ever happen to writers are the accidents. Don't ever walk away from a character that speaks to you." - Dennis Lehane