Present vs. Past Tense in Fiction

(Welcome SheWriters!)

Today, I'm writing about first-person present tense vs. past tense in short stories and fiction. I have a client who has written a beautiful literary mystery in first-person present. I remember telling him initially that I thought he should consider past tense. Present tense can seem unnatural - even jarring in some cases. He didn't want to make the change at the time, but now an agent is interested in the novel, and she is suggesting he change it.

Michael Nye, editor of the Missouri Review, posted an interesting blog about it last fall. You can read it here. Essentially, he says first-person present tense is overused in fiction today, and that in some ways it can prevent the writing from exploring the past with the character.

"Present-tense seems to be a default mode for someone who isn’t carefully considering the style choices being made.  It flattens the story.  It flattens emotional and narrative distance and lacks the sense of shadowing, the illumination and darkening of a character’s world that strong narratives can create.  The narrative choice suggests that there is nothing to remember about the past (and the past, to badly paraphrase Faulkner, isn’t ever really in the past) and nothing to expect of the future," Nye says.

I've thought about this quite a bit while writing my memoir. The past has everything to do with the present, and much to do with the future. Without considering the past, one cannot choose between following the same path or embarking upon another. We (or in the case of fiction, a character) cannot grow without having the knowledge of what has gone before and the ability to act on it. If we are forever in the moment, critical aspects of the story - ideas and experiences that inform the narrative - are left out. To understand what is at stake, for the character or oneself, requires a deeper exploration.

You can experiment with this yourself. Write a short story in first-person present tense and then rewrite it in past tense. See if there are elements of the story that emerge - even surprise you - in the past tense version.

Have you done this before? What was your experience?

Tapping Into Your Creativity

I love the fall. The leaves begin to change color. The evenings grow cool and crisp. The holiday spirit begins to seep into consciousness.

This is also a time, at least for me, that is particularly productive. Perhaps it's the shorter days, which makes staying at the computer a little easier (it's so easy to be drawn out into the world when the sun is still shining at 8 p.m.!). Or it may be just the urge to harvest the ideas that come to mind, to tap into the creative spirit that seems to surface more readily when the seasons change.

Tapping into your creativity can sometimes seem elusive, but there are ways to coax your muse to come out and play. Scientific American published a long interview a couple of years ago with Julia Cameron (author of The Artist's Way and many other books on creativity), Robert Houtz, a psychologist who studies it, and Robert Epstein, a scholar who also has written several books on it. You can read the whole article here. But I want to share the essence of what Epstein said about how to corral your creative urges and make them serve you and your writing. He said there are four competencies that help unleash creativity:

“The first and most important competency is ‘capturing’—preserving new ideas as they occur to you and doing so without judging them. Julia Cameron’s morning pages are a perfect example of a capturing technique. There are many ways to capture new ideas. Otto Loewi won a Nobel Prize for work based on an idea about cell biology that he almost failed to capture. He had the idea in his sleep, woke up and scribbled the idea on a pad but found the next morning that he couldn’t read his notes or remember the idea. When the idea turned up in his dreams the following night, he used a better capturing technique: he put on his pants and went straight to his lab!

“The second competency is called ‘challenging’—giving ourselves tough problems to solve. In tough situations, multiple behaviors compete with one another, and their interconnections create new behaviors and ideas.

“The third area is ‘broadening.’ The more diverse your knowledge, the more interesting the interconnections—so you can boost your creativity simply by learning interesting new things.

“And the last competency is ‘surrounding,’ which has to do with how you manage your physical and social environments. The more interesting and diverse the things and the people around you, the more interesting your own ideas become.”






Put them to work for you.


Social Media Marketing for Writers

Do you know what SMM is? You should. It stands for social media marketing, and as a writer, it’s crucial for you to understand how to use and benefit from the various social media in existence today.

There are five reasons to get social media marketing savvy:

  • You can build a platform (brand) to launch a bookwriting career and to land a book contract
  • You can create a revenue stream (by blogging)
  • You can self-publish
  • You can showcase your published work
  • You can promote your fiction, short stories or poetry

Social media operate on the concept of a viral loop, or viral marketing. In the old days we called it word-of-mouth advertising. One person tells another person about a great movie they saw, or experience they had at a new restaurant, and that person tells two others and pretty soon you’ve got some good buzz going. Marketing magic. That’s how social networks operate.

The key to successful social media marketing is to provide something of value. Generally, stay away from the hard-sell. People don’t like to be berated with sales pitches. Generally, about 80-85 percent of your content should be educational/informational and no more than 20 percent sales and promotion.

Decide what you want to accomplish with social networks and devise a strategic plan. Do you want to build brand awareness? Sell your book? Advertise book signings and appearances? All of the above

Here are some of the most important networks and ways you can take advantage of them.

Facebook: Barely six years old, Facebook passed the 500 million-user mark in mid-July. Its rate of growth (it’s added 100 million users just since last February) has it on track to hit 1 billion by early next year. Facebook is essentially an Internet-based water cooler. People swap information, share stories, answer questions and rave about new products or services.

With Facebook, you can send messages to all your “friends,” post or re-post interesting tidbits of information to your wall for all your friends to see, establish a group dedicated to a common purpose, or create a fan page for, say, your latest book. Fan pages are best for businesses, celebrities and musical groups who want to promote their latest movie, etc. A group page, which is set up and connected to a specific user, is better for more personal interactions and can be selective about membership. The average age of Facebook users is 35-64. People who follow you on Facebook are your “friends.”

LinkedIn: With about 70 million users, LinkedIn is a network for professionals and is becoming very popular with writers seeking connections with other writers and editors. Writers who teach and consult can network, find clients and post testimonials. You can join interest groups and find sources and editorial contacts. LinkedIn followers are called “connections.”

MySpace: Initially the stronger social network, MySpace now plays second fiddle to Facebook, but is quickly becoming the social network for music, particularly for young bands interested in making names for themselves.

Twitter: The go-to place for social networking, with 105 million twitterers. It takes a little while to understand how it can be an effective tool, but once you master it, it can be very powerful. Tweets are short bursts of information or musings posted in less than 140 characters. Experts suggest you tweet at least four to five times a day, and up to 20 for optimal effect. They also say the most-effective times to tweet are during Eastern Standard Time business hours, Tuesday through Thursday. On Twitter, people “follow” your tweets and become your “followers.” 

I use Twitter to promote my blog posts, to retweet timely and relevant information for other writers, to send links to my home page and others’, and to promote my appearances and workshops.

The cool thing is you can link Twitter to your Facebook and LinkedIn accounts so that everything you tweet is also posted on those sites, almost instantly. You can also put a widget on your own website that shows all your recent tweets.

Blogging: While blogging is not a social network, it is a critical part of any social media marketing strategy. A blog (short for Weblog) is simply an online diary. Or, as I like to think of it, a brief personal column. Should you blog? Yes. Particularly if you are a nonfiction author, blogging regularly, and by that I mean every day or at least every other day, can help you build a platform, garner speaking engagements, establish you as an expert in a particular field, and even create a revenue stream if you can attract advertisers. (Check out Ree Drummond’s blog, “The Pioneer Woman.”)

If you combine all these tools and provide content that’s relevant and useful, you’ll find your “followers,” “friends” and “connections” will grow – and so will your writing career.

(Want to learn more? I’ll be teaching a one-day workshop, Facebook and Blogging and Tweeting, Oh My!, in Santa Barbara, CA, on Saturday, Sept. 18. Visit my website for information and to register.)

Navigating Book Party!

Had a great time at the party Saturday for the launch of my new book, Navigating the Rough Waters of Today’s Publishing World, Critical Advice for Writers from Industry Insiders. Despite a bit of a breeze, it was warm and sunny in the Santa Ynez Valley. (See photos here.) Many thanks to our hosts, Jeff and Joanne Lockwood of Bella Cavalli Winery and Horse Farm. What a beautiful setting! Thanks to all who joined us!

The book is officially out June 1 from Quill Driver Books, but you should be able to find copies in bookstores soon, and it can be ordered online as well.

Here are some early reviews from folks who bought it Saturday:

“Your book is splendid! What a valuable writer’s resource you have created!” – Dianne Dixon, author of The Language of Secrets, just out from Doubleday.

“Your new book is SO INFORMATIVE and interesting – an easy read that can save writers hours, maybe years, in the struggle to get published. Thanks for sharing your expertise!” – Sharon Dirlam

“I began reading your book the moment I got home and am so grateful for the wisdom you share. I will recommend Navigating the Rough Waters of Today's Publishing World to every writer I know!” – Janet Lucy, writing coach and author of Moon Mother, Moon Daughter

“I went straight home and read your book cover to cover. Got lots of great ideas and my SBWC fix all in one sitting!” – Lynn K. Jones

This is a difficult time for writers and publishers alike. Traditional publishing has been turned upside down by technology and the economy. How can you, as a writer, navigate all the changes? My book offers some much-needed guidance in a world of uncertainty.

I will be speaking to writing groups and conferences in coming months, and would love to come and speak to your writing group about publishing challenges, as well. Send me an e-mail if you’re interested.

And keep writing!