Yesterday I chose to start talking about mistakes novice writers often make in the hopes that I may be able to help someone out there who perhaps is having doubts about their own writing, and may recognize some of these mistakes in their writing, and be able to improve.
I started with dialog introductory paragraphs, because it tends to be the most immediate indication of a fledgling writer. Again, not all introductions that begin with dialog are wrong, but they can certainly go south rather quickly. Please read the last post to catch up, if you haven’t already.
The next, most glaring mistake I see that indicates writing inexperience isn’t necessarily in the first line, or even in the first paragraph. Regardless, in new writers’ work, it almost always rears its nasty little head.
I see an immense amount of misuse, or switching of verb tenses. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure why this is such a problem–possibly the use of too many confusing clauses in certain sentences–but I do know that this is a MAJOR problem. It pops up in almost every single critique I do, where it’s clear the writer hasn’t quite figured out the craft.
The problem with tenses also seems more prevalent in writers who seem to not quite know the most effective point of view in which to tell their story.
New writers often use first person, present tense to start. I’m not sure why on that either. In my opinion, it’s by far the least effective way to tell your story. Some authors have done it, and done it well, but I could never get the emotion to come across whenever I had tried, and maybe that’s why I’m biased. Still, when reading it now, no matter who the author is, I feel less like I’m connected to the author, and more like the character is a tour guide, and I’m just being told things, instead of being moved and made to feel things.
It seems that this POV is also where the tense problems mostly occur.
Examples often look like this:
The rockets explode right where we intend. The side of the great machine is awash with flame, hunks of steel and molten metal rained down to sizzle in the snow. The beast slowly wavered and knelt toward the ground. With a groan, it’s knees buckle, and it collapses head-first, burying its face entirely into the powder.
The soldiers and I cheered.
It can be hard to catch, but there it is. I switched from present to past tense verbs five separate times. It’s a massive hiccup when you’re reading it through, and it causes any person who is an actual reader to have to go back to make sure they read the damned thing correctly.
Novice writing is rampant with this, especially when writing in first person, present tense.
Another problem with first person present tense, and another area where people tend to royally fuck up their tenses, is when trying to describe what the character is thinking.
Newbies: you don’t always have to write, “I thought: what a well-placed rocket!”
Newbies: you don’t always have to put thoughts in italics.
What’s much more effective in streamlining emotion and thought processes, is to just type the damn thought as its own damn thing.
After the last sentence of the example, “The soldiers and I cheer(ed)”, if you want to show your character thinking that the rocket was well placed, for christ’s sake, just say:
The soldiers and I cheer. What a well-placed rocket.
Since it is first person present, it’s apparent that the majority of the prose is going to be feelings and thoughts that your character is having. You don’t need to tell us it is a thought, and good god, you don’t need to italicize it.
The problem with tenses being switched, though, seems even a tad bit more prevalent in stories where the character of which the point of view is being written is switched to another character. Where one character was first person, present tense, the next character is suddenly first or third person, past tense.
And that, in novice writing, can be even more muddied, when the change in character isn’t made at a clear break in the the scene or the beginning of new chapter.
We’ll fix the problems of tense in our previous example, and use it again to demonstrate further how tense and POV often go hand in hand, and present problems together.
It often looks like this:
The rockets explode right where we intend. The side of the great machine is awash with flame, hunks of steel and molten metal rain down to sizzle in the snow. The beast slowly wavers and kneels toward the ground. With a groan, it’s knees buckle, and it collapses head-first, burying its face entirely into the powder.
The soldiers and I cheer. What a well placed rocket.
Grenn, the solder that fired, the soldier that saved the village, was hoisted up on the shoulders of his brothers. His fingers still shook, adrenaline failing to let his heart slow to a normal pace.
What if he had missed? The village was mostly women and children. Looking at them now as they cheered and sang him praises, tears began to spill from his eyes. It was overwhelming. They all lived now, all because of him. His brothers, his ragtag group of men-in-arms, most actually still but boys, all lived, all because of him.
He wanted to scream out in joy, to cry out in elation. But just as easily, he could have crawled into his tent and cried.
I watch him as he’s carried off, and I smile to myself. Grenn, our savior. He looks back to me with a frown that scars his lips, and somewhere deep down, I understand.
Now, even with the writing being good (for the sake of argument, not terrible), the changes in tenses are distracting, and the change in POV is confusing at first. Even though it’s clear whose head you are in with each change, something about it immediately stands out as wrong.
If you read a lot, or if you write a lot, the problem is noticeable immediately.
If you do this, you can avoid it easily. My suggestion is that, especially if you are new, stick to third person, past tense. The section with Grenn’s POV reads the smoothest. It’s the most coherent. There is a reason it’s the most common point of view used in fiction. It works the best.
Also, you must stick to one character per scene while you’re perfecting your writing. Third person, omniscient–where you’re constantly jumping around inside the heads of all of your characters–can be done reasonably well, too, but it’s much more difficult to do, and I would say, really only effective when used by a very seasoned author. It’s use usually has a purpose, and that purpose is to show things like lying, or manipulation, things that aren’t always recognizable right away when you’re limited by one person’s point of view.
For now, stick to one character per scene, or one character per chapter. Write in past tense, and keep your verb tenses in the past. Just like you are telling somebody a story about an action of someone you know. My dad crashed his car. William went hunting and killed a deer.
Don’t overthink it. Remember, simpler is almost always better.