Also check out my Twitter and Facebook pages!


Monday, March 25, 2013

Choosing Tense

Picture Credit: http://www.neatoshop.com/product/
In this blog, I'm going to first discuss choosing an appropriate tense in your writing, then below I will cover the different types of English tenses.

Choosing an Appropriate Tense

Even though there are 17 tenses in the English language, they break down into 3 distinct groups: past, present, and future. In writing, it is just as important to consider the tense you will use for your story as it is to consider the point of view.

First, let's just get future tense out of the pool of options. I don't want to say it would be impossible, but I really can't imagine a whole book of saying what will happen next.

The debate of past versus present seems to be a hot one. Personally, I believe your choice should depend on your story and what you want to accomplish. There are probably times when past tense isn't as good as present, and other times when present tense isn't as good as past. With that disclaimer out of the way, let's look at the give-and-take of past and present.


While present tense is getting to be more common every year, it is still newer and less common than past tense. Think of the good-old phrase Once Upon a Time. Even in the course of daily conversation, we tend to use more past tense (or future) than present. This familiarity may lessen the adjustment period a reader has in getting into the novel. It will also draw attention away from the words used and into the story.


The novelty of present tense may entice readers by bringing the story from a distant past to right here, right now. This in turn can create a more exciting environment and deeper involvement.


Both sides of the argument seem to think they have the corner on this one. In present tense, the verbs announce the action to be happening at the same time as the book is being read. In the present tense, there is argument that the familiarity with the verbs makes the action go smoother--which in turn makes it seem more immediate.

Active Writing

It is much more difficult to slip into passive writing when using the present tense. Is it possible to still use passive sentences? Absolutely. But it is easier to express active verbs and actions when using the present tense. This may create a more engaging book.


Technically speaking, if the present tense is on every page, then the book shouldn't have already been finished. By the time there is a story to tell, everything is in past tense. Do readers get hung up on this issue? No. Or if they do, it has to be a small percentage. But proponents for past tense would argue that theirs is the more believable tense.

Reader Prefereance

Some readers hate present tense. Some love it. The same could be said with past tense. These readers could be editors, agents, or the general public. Most people fall somewhere in the middle, with a preference for one or the other, but acceptance of both. The bottom line is, no matter what tense you choose, there will be someone who disagrees with your choice. Just make sure that you look at your options so you can tell your story in the most effective way possible--and whatever you decide will be the "right" answer.

Don't Switch

Whether you choose past or present tense, pick one and keep it. Of course, you can always go back and re-write your story to change from one tense to the other, but you should not be jumping from one tense to the other during your writing. But like every rule, there are exceptions:
  • In past tense, all speech will still be in present tense, but it needs to be in quotations.
  • In present tense, you may use past tense if the character has a flashback.

Let me know what you think. Tell me if I failed to hit on a point that you feel is important in the discussion over choosing your tense.

As always, thanks for reading.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Opening Pages

Picture Credit: http://strangersinkenya.blogspot.com/
No matter what genre you write, or what your story line is, there are certain things that readers unconsciously look for at the beginning of the story.

Much attention is placed on the first sentence and the first paragraph--that's good. But today let's look at what you should be present in the first 3-4 pages.

In opening your story, you should have 3 goals in mind:

  1. Hook the reader 
    • The reader should be hooked by the first sentence to want to know more. A good first sentence will buy a minimum of the first paragraph. A really good first paragraph will buy a minimum of the first page. But if the first few pages start going downhill, then you'll loose your reader fast. There are many specifics about creating good hooks that we won't go into here--this blog wil deal specifically with story-related hooks.
  2. Introduce the story
    • Your readers are taking a step into your character's life and mind. You must give them an idea of what is happening and who everyone else around the character is without overwhelming them with information.
  3. Forecast the ending
    • You must also forecast the ending. Now before your eyes bug out of your head at the thought of giving away your intense, unexpected ending--don't worry, that's not what I'm saying. Readers want to predict the ending...they also love being wrong. One genre that gets harder with unexpected endings is romance. Usually everyone lives happily ever after and readers like that--but they still like having twists and turns that they didn't expect. Don't try to feed the reader everything that will happen, but mixed in with the taste of the story problem should be a clue to what the main character wants, and that will forecast the ending that your readers will be guessing at.
Great, so now we have these 3 goals. How do we accomplish them? There are 7 elements that should be present in every story. As you make sure you have covered all seven, you will find that doing so will mean that you have met the 3 goals.

Essential Elements for Opening a Story:

  1. Open with the character in the middle of the inciting incident
    • When people are in their comfort zones, they don't want to leave. Something has to push them out. It could be a small something that is the final straw. It could be a large something. But whether the change a person makes is a positive or a negative one, something brought it on. What is that something for your main character? There is generally at least some sort of chain reaction leading to the inciting incident. The chain should begin at the start of the story so the readers can see the main character uncomfortable and being pushed out of his or her comfort zone.
  2. Introduce an initial surface problem
    • The initial surface problem is what the story seems to be about. Generally, this is an action-based problem, with the real story problem being more about what the character has to overcome emotionally. In Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, the story initially seems to be about Ender being taken from his home for military training. But the real story problem that is developed along the way is what the training does to Ender psychologically and how he copes with it.
  3. Introduce the story problem
    • I have a separate posting all about the story problem. See it here. Basically, the story problem is the key thing that the main character must overcome. You might be thinking to yourself that in the first couple pages the main character doesn't know about the extent of the problems he or she will be facing. Good! That means you have a story problem with depth. But is there a hint of a problem--even an undeveloped one?
  4. Establish the story rules
    • The story rules need to be established to the best of the main character's knowledge. Maybe there are unheard-of monsters in existence that the main character will meet later. No problem. But if monsters are a norm, then that norm should be established. Are people flying around in personal space ships? Do they travel in horse and buggy? Is the main character involved in a cult? The reader should be able to quickly get an idea of what rules to expect in the story.
  5. Build the character
    • In the opening sentence, the reader should be able to glean just a little bit about the main character. In the first paragraphs and pages, the character should be introduced well enough that the reader will feel comfortable with him or her. DO NOT make a detailed list of facts about the character or have your main character stand in front of a mirror examining himself or herself so you can give a checklist of physical appearance. But put time and thought into what the character says and does. Everything happening should be revealing the main character. Starting him or her out in an uncomfortable situation helps with that, because discomfort forces actions and thoughts. Does he or she run to or away from the opposition? Or does the main character stand frozen in the middle? Why?
  6. Relate the setting
    • This is another thing that tends to be a trouble spot. A list of exactly what everything looks like is boring! Don't tell everything. Give small, but specific, details and move on. For practice, have your main character walk into a busy room. What does he or she specifically notice? An attractive person that he or she would like to get to know? The location of all the exits? The inviting fireplace? A friend that he or she picks out of the crowd?  Your main character should see something different than another of your characters. Focus on the thing that is different that the character sees. When you give a description of a character (whether it is your main character or a side character) do the same thing. Is there a noticeable scar or mole? Is the character the only one of his or her race or even species in the community? What is unique?
  7. Backstory
    • I'm guessing that by this point you've already guessed that my first piece of advice is to NOT make an itemized list. Tell tidbits as they cross a character's mind or are needed for the situation. Characters are more interesting if the backstory comes in pieces. Readers will feel like they are getting to know your character over time. In your opening pages, you may not need any specifically-spelled-out backstory. But if your character didn't have an existence before page 1, then he or she won't be believable (unless page 1 tells about his or her birth). The fact that you know the character's backstory inside and out will come through in your pages.
Wow! That's grazing a lot of different topics. If you have these 7 things present (even if it is just to hint at some of them) then you will meet your 3 goals for your first few pages of your book. And we all want our first few pages to be spectacular. Just don't forget that you need to carry these things out through the rest of your book. Meeting these goals will set up a promise of what is to come--you then must deliver on that promise.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Passive and Active Voice

Picture Credit: http://www.tickettoanywhere.net/2012/08/
Okay, I'll be the first to admit that passive aggressive behavior and passive voice have nothing to do with each other. But I couldn't resist this poster when I found it! Isn't it great? I'd hate to be the owner of this truck.

As a writer, you've probably heard repeatedly to never use a passive voice. As a general rule, this is correct. But any rule that starts with "never" is meant to be broken sometimes. Before we start looking at the why's and the exceptions, let's look at what passive and active voices are.

What is a passive voice? Passive means that the verb is acting on the subject. A basic example is:
The ball was kicked by John.

What is an active voice? Active means that the subject of the sentence is acting out the verb. The active form of the previous example is:
John kicked the ball.

These basic examples show why "was" is criticized as a indicator of a passive sentence. But remember, "was" is NOT the reason a sentence is passive. A sentence may be active and contain a "was" and a sentence may be passive without the word "was."

Go sentence by sentence through your work. In each sentence, pick out the subject and the verb. Is the verb being done to the subject or by the subject?

Credit: http://writeworld.tumblr.com/post/34047956454/
I love this tweet that I found on identifying passive sentences! It works. The point is that in passive sentences there isn't much emphasis on the thing performing the action, so "by zombies" can be inserted without a problem. (As a side note for anyone reading this blog translated into a language other than English, this quick way of identifying passive versus active voice may not work.)

In my earlier example, I used:
The ball was kicked by John.
John kicked the ball.

In the passive sentence, John can be left out entirely (or changed to "by zombies"). It becomes:
The ball was kicked.
The ball was kicked by zombies.

But the active sentence doesn't work that way. If we tried to do the same thing, we'd end up with:
Kicked the ball.
Kicked by zombies the ball.

Now we'll dive into why active is USUALLY better than passive. Think of the books that you couldn't put down, the one's that kept you up all night even though you knew you'd have to get up for work or school in the morning. What did you like about those books? I'm guessing there are a lot of things you liked--but one thing that is probably high on the list (if not the top thing) is that you could "see" the world through the character's eyes. The character's problems were your own problems, and you had to see how they'd be resolved or you couldn't rest.

That type of intensity can not come if the characters are side-notes in the story that are being acted on. In your own life, you actively experience things around you. Even if you are sitting on the couch watching television--or reading my blog--you are actively taking in what you see. You are mentally processing it.

Now for the exception. Sometimes we do want the passive voice for special emphasis. For example, if an unknown driver hits and kills the main character's child, the main character's immediate response will likely be in the passive voice of: "My child was hit," rather than the active voice of: "Someone hit my child." Later in the story, as the main character tries to come to terms with a hit and run and is dealing with anger, it would make sense to switch to the active voice, which is much more accusatory. But during initial shock and grief, the normal reaction would be to put all the emphasis on what was done to the child.

I have a similar instance in my book where the main character is dealing with shock to the point that she feels like she is in a cloud. To help emphasis this, when she notices that she must make dinner, I turn it into a passive sentence and say that "dinner must be made." In doing this, I take emphasis away from her, and give it a feel that she is going through the motions as opposed to consciously doing anything.

I'd love to hear your comments about times you have found a quick passive sentence or two has helped set the tone for your scene. Or tell me about a success story of making a scene more vivid and real by turning a few passive lines into active ones.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Horse Coat Patterns

Picture Credit: http://www.petsfoto.com/
Last week I went over the names of horse colors. This week I'm continuing to discuss horses by going over the names of coat patterns.

My book is not a western, and it hardly goes into horses at all--but as I explained in an earlier blog, I did quite a bit of research on horses because my main character grew up with them and encounters them from time to time. A character who knows horses is going to see them differently than someone like me would see them. Giving my character a natural response and knowledge of horses meant research for me!

As with my previous blogs, all you horse-lovers out there are not going to be learning much from this. But as always, I appreciate any comments you may have.

Horses are not only classified by their breeds and colors. They are also classified by their coat patterns. You'll notice that some of the coat patterns are the same as in the colors list, but many are different. There are 6 main types of coat patterns:

  • Appaloosa- This denotes any type of spotting--such as the picture above--but the spotting doesn't have to be so distinct for the horse to be called appaloosa. As a side note, there is also a breed of horse with the same name. But the breed and the coat patterns are separate matters.
  • Dominant White- These horses are white, but may have markings of other colors on their coats. They have brown eyes.
  • Dun- The pigment in each hair of these horse's coats is concentrated to just one side of the hair. The legs of these horses tend to be darker because the pigment is better distributed, but their bodies have a diluted look to them. They can be shades of red or black.
  • Grey- These horses have a mixture of white and colored hairs over a dark skin.
  • Pinto- The pinto horse (frequently known as a paint) has patterns of white and colored or black hair. Within the pinto family are the following four types of coat patterns:
    • Overo/Sabino/Splashed White/Tobiano- A layman  like me, will have a difficult time determining which of these four classifications to assign a white and colored coat pattern. In fact, even among those with horse experience, these horses are mis-classified--the safe way to tell would be to take a look at the horse's genes. As an interesting note, the splashed white pattern is linked to deafness--though most splashed white horses are not deaf.
  • Roan- White hairs grow intermittently with the colored hairs in these horses' coats except for on the head, tail, and legs. This creates a body that appears lighter than the head and legs. Horses of any color can be roan, but it is more visible on darker horses.
That's all for now on horses, but I hope you'll agree that it has sure been interesting to learn about! As with last week's blog, I'll refer you to another site for more-detailed information. Click here to learn more about both colors and coat patterns.