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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Fragments and Feedback for Short Works » How to rid the world of present tense prose?

   
Author Topic: How to rid the world of present tense prose?
keldon02
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OK, I have read the instructions posting copyrighted material and according to them it is OK as long as I'm the owner. So I'll post the first 12 lines of my first novel, for feedback as to how it could have been done better. Too late I know but its never too late to learn.

One of my pet peeves is fiction which is written in the present tense, but I never found a good way to change the opening paragraph. I thought about posting a few previous efforts, but they were just more of the same.

OK, here goes...

I wait this long day as if I were new born and without memory. In the peaceful forest I rest, hoping for my brothers to return. My patience is ever abiding as they are very slow to find me.

(blank line)

The sun gradually reached its highest point in the sky as I slept, unknowing. Then when I finally awoke I saw it cast my shadow very weak and small, grey on the shining snow, except where it darkened my red-brown bloodstains. Only in those places where my blood puddled was it black as shadows should be, strong and deep.

When I woke to myself after the morning’s battle the winter sun was close down to the south, the day half over, and with it my own last day on this world.


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keldon02
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(Twelve because one of the thirteen is blank.) :*
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77chevy
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Why not:

I waited all that long day as if I were new born and without memory. In the peaceful forest I rested, hoping for my brothers to return. My patience was ever abiding as they were very slow to find me.

?


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Jeraliey
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I like the shadow imagery. A lot.
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Survivor
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Genre and length? Also, what are you looking for from the forum?
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keldon02
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OK, the problem was that the beginning and ending were present tense and the entire rest of the story was past tense, a waking dream. I just couldn't end in the present unless I started there. Genre was preshistoric fction, about 110,000 words. Yes I think that imagery did well in that particular spot. The trouble with too much pictoral verbage is my wife says she doesn't like to read a story which sounds as if it were a scientific study.

What I'm looking for in the forum? Primarily unabashed critique. It is hard to write and have only friends and family look at your stuff. It is sort of like what happens when you have an ugly baby. Everybody smiles and says, "Isn't she cute? See she has a nose and two eyes." They don't want to hurt your feelings. I'm pretty critical but the trouble with self criticism is that it doens't add any new skills.

I have been living with the flaws of my writing for many years. Primarily I'm used to writing nonfiction reports, so my fiction suffers from severe sparsity and is too hard to read. When you have to write 10 or 20 pages of no-nonsense technical stuff every day it really messes with your fiction style.
So a second purpose for coming here is to learn more of the ART of fiction.

I've got a sequal I've been working on for a couple of years which is also written in the first person and another I've been working on which is one of those third person stories which jumps around in perspective. Just when you get to following a story line it jumps over to a parallel story. Some writers have done well with that technique, but I'm unsure of it.

Too much of an answer? Sorry. I'm a fast typist.


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Survivor
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So...most of the text is going to be like this?

The first part is lyrical and still makes sense. The rest...I can make sense of it, but I'm extrapolating the sense, it isn't part of the text as written. If the bulk of over a hundred thousand words is in this voice and style, there's no way I'll make it more than a few pages before giving up and flipping through till I find something that is coherent without straining my brain.

It's an interesting style, just not one that I can take in large doses.


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autumnmuse
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Out of curiosity, why is it too late now, as you said in your first post? Is it just that you don't want to work on the manuscript, or is it already being published?
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keldon02
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OK, answering the last question first. Its too late because I already sent it in for publication. I still have unanswered questions about how it might have been done, but I couldn't answer them alone so I moved on to something else. (I really wish I'd found this forum ten years ago but one is never too old to learn.)

Once I've presented this conundrum then it will make more sense to post the one I'm working on.

Voice and style: It is terribly ponderous but some of the heaviness fades once the tone is set. The voice reflects the protagonist's place in the twilight world between life and death, with crystal clarity on the one hand and loss of ego boundary on the other. There are a few pages at the beginning and end with more normality for most of the middle.

When I started this project back in '91 I was very impressed the stylistic idieosyncracities of Ursula Le Guin's "Always Coming Home", especially how its style exposed the alien cultural viewpoint. I wanted a style which reflected this mournful lost quality.

Could you explain what you mean by extrapolating the sense? Extrapolating from the first paragraph? The peacefulness is illusory, as it is the peace of a field of death.

William Golding did "The Inheritors" in the opposite way, trying to build up alien sense without subjectivity. Beginning without a clue as to the Neanderthals' nonverbal psyche was quite strange. Mark Haddon wrote "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time" by starting off with relatively normal thought process, initially interjecting the autism by description. By the time you encounter the part where every paragraph begins with 'and' you are pretty immune to the disorientation it causes.


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Survivor
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I thought The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time felt a bit contrived, all things considered.

By "extrapolating", I mean...well, extrapolating, filling in data that doesn't lie between the points given, and therefore cannot be interpolated.

Basically, rather than having a context and filling in a few details, I'm seeing a few details and having to fill in the context. It's exhausting, and only a very generous reader will do it for more than a few pages before quitting.


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wbriggs
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I don't have a problem with switching from present tense to the past tense, since it seems to make sense.

I do have a problem with a story being a waking dream. Why not just let it be the story? If there's a good reason, fine, but if not, I'd drop that device.

[This message has been edited by wbriggs (edited February 27, 2005).]


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keldon02
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I see the problem is with the unrelatedness between the first paragraph and the second. It is too disorienting. I think it may be a contrivance I picked up from reading RAH when I was a child. Despite being his fan I have never liked stories where there is excessive detail about people, relationships and names thrown out at first, so this may have been too much reaction formation agaist such stylism.

I had been wondering why I never could get comfortable with this beginning and had been thinking it was the present tense writing when actually it was too much like being thrown into the middle of a story.

Concerning the waking dream aspects, it is only the first and last few pages which is done this way. I thought about separating the death and dying scenes into a prologue and epilogue with his more normally written anamnesis the actual body of the story.

Thanks, all, for the feedback.

[This message has been edited by keldon02 (edited February 28, 2005).]


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Survivor
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Hmmm...perhaps you could have a slightly longer section of easily comprehensible text, with a bit of an explanation or...preparatory introduction for the difficult part? Just so that readers know that it won't last long, it's more like a strange poem or something.
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Rocklover
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I think I sense the mood you are trying to portray here. I just visited the Chattenooga battlefield in, where was I? Georgia, I believe... Anyway, it was rainy and a mist was curling around the monuments and woods and expanse of green lawn. It was spooky and chilling and very mournful. I could imagine cannon roaring, men falling and moaning and dying on those now beautifully manicured clearings. I think in my mind's eye I can imagine your soldier, rising out of his stupor to face his death.

That said, some work needs to be done.

I think I would wait and put the first paragraph later, actually in order sequence of when it happens, later after he is awake. Rewriting it in that context would take care of the present tense problem and it is a weak start to your story. The first line is the best. The sentence about waiting for brothers to return is less effective.

Better to start with your second paragraph as the first and rework it a bit.

I hate to mention this after I can tell you worked very hard on your shadow metaphor, but shadows on snow are neither gray nor black, but blue and shades thereof.
Also the image you are trying to capture here with the blood and all is not clear to me. Is the shadow falling on his pantleg where he is bleeding or on the ground in a puddle of blood? You need to do more to convey what you are seeing in your mind's eye as the writer to your reader.
You have a nice feel for imagery and a sort of misty nostalgic style appropriate to the piece.
Good luck!
Judith


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keldon02
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Survivor, I'm afraid the sense of disorientation gets worse before it gets better, at least for the next couple of pages. Looking at the rest of the chapter it is distinctly dissonant until as we recognize that his normal topology of reality is not the same as ours.

Rocklover, that is the eerie feeling I'm trying for.

Concerning shadows, I actually have a previous draft which describes the color of proper show shadows as blueblack. But I have another paragraph later on which discusses blood being weak and not redblack. So I'd deleted blueblack as being too similar to the more important passage. Why was his shadow weak and gray when we know sunny-day shadows aren't? This is only one misperception among several. Its not a waking dream but an altered state of consciousness.

I wonder a lot about the fact that some people seem unable to write either short or long prose and others do equally well. Bradbury is one whose short stories make you openly weep but who has not had much success in holding longer works together, except as clusters of shorter works.

I do much better with longer stories and consider my major weakness to be the ability to organize exposition so that the reader can maintain interest while exploring the details. This is my wife's second complaint, that one has to re-read to snag details into context. Survivor says one has to extrapolate sense, but I think its more that this chapter has trouble putting the whole sense into chronological order.

Thank you all for the feed back. If you want a copy of the chapter to read, let me know by email and I'll send you one, but as It's already going into publication I can't really change anything.

I think I will concentrate for a while on learning to be a workshop member then later on will post the opener for the sequal in progress.

[This message has been edited by keldon02 (edited March 03, 2005).]


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Ryan Brotman
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Honestly, you don't hook me until the last line or so. This is where your story begins to me, with your protagonist awake, bloody and thinking he will die soon.

Maybe modify the sentence to something like:

I woke in a pool of my own blood after the morning’s battle. The winter’s sun was close down to the south, the day half over and with it my own last day on this world.

and then go from there. It puts the audience into what is happening in your story faster and gives them an immediate conflict, i.e. not dying.

Also, while I find the style interesting, I'd grow frustrated with it after more than a couple pages. It seems too archaic and while your narrator may be tribal or midieval, your audience is not, so I would think about writing in a more modern voice, but show the narrators time and culture through his/her actions and observations.

Good Luck and Best Regards.

[This message has been edited by Ryan Brotman (edited March 10, 2005).]


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keldon02
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Ryan,

Thanks for the interest and info. I like your opener, with its concise style. It brings up a question that I think is more general and which I have moved to the open discussion forum. Considering that I'm 20,000 words into a sequel with a similarly archaic voice this isn't at all a rhetorical discussion for me.


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Christine
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I haven't posted thus far because I caught the comment about this having been sent off for publication already and I didn't want to say anything. (BTW, I would recommend, in the future, postings bits of things that you're ready and willing to work on. While there can be some value in having us look at your work to identify weak points, these weak points don't usually manifest unless we look at a lot of your work. Most of what we can say about a single piece is ways we might recommend improving that one piece.)

But your topic in the open discussion gave me an itch and I'm going to say it no matter how wrong it might be. This isn't written in an archane style. At least, I didn't get that. I got a forced, even contrived attempt to make the English language sound a little lilted. I certainly got no sense of history or even of high English. I feel like this sounds really harsh, but that's mostly because I know you already sent this off. (I can't get past that...I've asked Kathleen to close a couple of my F&F topics after I sent the piece in question off.)

Since we're talking about language, let's do a line-by-line.

"The sun gradually reached its highest point in the sky as I slept, unknowing."

Right off the bat I found this sentence structure to be off-kilter. I wasn't sure what you were trying to accomplish with it. I never thought archaic or fancy, not in this sentence. It seems that "unknowing" refers to the fact that the sun reached its highest point in the sky, but that's not a very interesting thing to be unaware of, so I found myself wondering if it was something else? But it couldn't be, because this sentence clearly says he was unaware of the sun reaching its highest point in the sky. It's almost redundant...because if he was sleeping of course he wouldn't be aware of that fact.

"Then when I finally awoke I saw it cast my shadow very weak and small, grey on the shining snow, except where it darkened my red-brown bloodstains."

FIrst of all, let's address a few grammar issues. There are two correct ways to fix this sentence:

"Then, when I finally awoke, I saw it cast my shadow, very weak and small, grey on the shining snow except where it darkened my red-brown bloodstains."

"When I finally awoke I saw it cast my shadow, very weak and small, grey on the shining snow except where it darkened my red-brown bloodstains."

I realize now that there is some intriguing information in this sentence, but I didn't catch it in my first read. I was thrown, first of all, by the use of the wore "awoke" instead of simply woke. Once again, I see no attempt at archane language, just a heavy-handed attempt to use description to heighten the tension. The use of the word "very" here is entirely unnecessary and even distracting. It is one of those words that should be used with care because. very, just, only, many, etc....all of these words are crutches that have their place in the language but a skilled writer can usually find a way to leave them out. In this case, by simply dropping the word with no meaning lost.

Actually, fixing the grammar issues solved a lot of my problems with the sentence. Now I would simply call it heavy-handed, but I still don't get any sense of archaic style or language.

"Only in those places where my blood puddled was it black as shadows should be, strong and deep."

Now this doesn't make sense. The "it" thus far has been the sun...what does it refer to here? If I correct it to mean shadows, then what we've got here is a meaningless string of adjectives that neither further the plot nor tell us anything we didn't know in the previous sentence. Once again, I don't see any attempt to be archane, simply heavy-handed.

"When I woke to myself after the morning’s battle the winter sun was close down to the south, the day half over, and with it my own last day on this world."

"woke to myself"? I have no idea what that means. It sounds....bad. If I modify it in my mind to make sense I find myself reading a sentence that has a little bit of new information at the end......his last day on the world....interesting. On the other hand, the rest of the sentence is still going on about the sun, which we've already seen quite enough of for so few sentences.

I find myself wondering what you would come up with if you didn't try so hard. This opening has the serious feel of one who is trying to write a certain way that isn't their own style. I highly suggest that you find your own voice and let it out to play. I think it will serve you far better than what I've commented on above.

Please, in the future, give us a chance to tackle something you haven't shipped off for publication. My intention on this board is always to help, not to tear down or rip your spirit away, but I feel as if that's what I've done here. My comments are honest as usual, but usually my honest comments come with the knowledge that, with a little tweaking, the author in question can turn on a wonderful story. This critique left me feeling quite empty. The only reason I tackled it is because, as I said, I didn't find even the tiniest hint of an attempt to be archaic in language, only heavy-handed.


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keldon02
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Thank you Christine. I am happy to have your critique, as it seems to be exactly the sort I need if I'm ever going to break some of my long term bad habits.

No need to worry about hurting my feelings. Ever since I read "For Us, The Living" and "The Inheritors" I have realized that there is no embassesment about starting off writing horrible stuff as long as a person is willing to learn from their mistakes and improve.

Give me time to digest the commentary if you would. I agree that what is needed is a sample which isn't irretrevable so I'll put up the first 13 lines from a current story in a similar style.


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Ogi_Ogas
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keldon2:

I might add to the diversity of perspectives in the responses to your submitted prose. Overall, I experienced no striking annoyance or notable shortcoming in your 13 lines. 77chevy's proposed past-tense revision seems sound to me, though I confess I'm not clear on your need for the present tense at the beginning/end of your narrative; perhaps it would be more clear from the story.

I'm also agnostic on whether this style reflects "the twilight world between life and death"--I'd postpone judgment on that until I'd read how you handled the rest of the narrative. How you contrasted this "twilight" style with your subsequent syntax would be important.

I felt the style was certainly a bit contrived and ponderous, but also sufficiently wistful and ghostly and most of all effectively poetic to compensate; I personally would advise you not to give up. If your story switches to a more mundane narrative style, then I think this opening could be quite strong. If you go on for another ten paragraphs like this, as a reader, I'd put it down.

In sum, I'd say it's a worthwhile experiment whose ultimate success depends heavily on what follows. But I'd advise you to kickstart some vivid storyline as soon as possible.


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