Something happened to me last Fall: I accidentally wrote a book. The story is awesome (according to me) but the writing sucked. Who would have thought you should first learn how to write before actually doing it?
And while most writers and aspiring writers are a part of a vibrant and helpful community online, some really don’t like untalented newcomers:
Well, no one should be discouraged from writing (or from stripping, for that matter). Storytelling is what makes us human. I didn’t write to become a novelist, or to share stuff from inside of me (like a spleen, as suggested by the link above). I did it because it was fun, and I have no intention of quitting my day job – not yet. In a weird coincidence, it happened during #NaNoWriMo last year, although I didn’t know about it.
You can call it OCD or pigheadedness, but I decided to make the most of it. Thus, my ongoing backwards journey of learning the craft and improving a novel after I wrote it began. It probably still sucks, but less so, and I’m afraid I may have traumatized a few people that helped me along the way.
Writing Can Be Tense and Personal
It takes a tenth of a second to form an impression from a stranger. Similarly, a lot can be said from the first line of a manuscript, and my opening is no exception. It immediately illustrates two major mistakes I made:
“The first thing that comes to my mind when I open my eyes is that afterlife is overrated.”
First, I wrote it in first person and present tense. To put it mildly, this is not the preferred choice for most people:
In fact, they loathe it. Hate it. Despise it. I felt like I was watching the end of The Sixth Sense: everything that I believed was a lie. I’ve been reading books since I was a kid, traveling the world with Captain Jack Aubrey, flying to the Moon with Robert Heinlein, loving during the time of cholera.
The Foundation series allowed me to live for thousands of years, The Help made me afraid of chocolate cakes, The Pillars of the World taught me how to build a cathedral. I was on team Peeta, fought Voldemort, learned how to raise a child in a graveyard, and visited Mars with Mark Watney. And yet, I never ever paid attention to the tense or the person. Books were either good or bad, fun or boring.
Table 1 shows how most of the books I mentioned are in 3rd person and past tense, but I had to go back and check. Note that Have Space Suit, Will Travel is not in present tense, and I love that The Martian is all over the place.
|Have Space Suit, Will Travel||1st||Past|
|Love in the time of cholera||3rd||Past|
|The Pillars of the Earth||3rd||Past|
|Hunger Games Trilogy||1st||Present|
|Harry Potter Series||3rd||Past|
|The Graveyard Book||3rd||Past|
|The Martian||1st and 3rd||Present and Past|
Table 1. I’ve made a huge mistake
One day I approached my co-worker to discuss this. He has been reading Science Fiction for decades, and I was hoping to have someone on my side, even if it’s only anecdotal. To my dismay, he said he almost always stops reading when the book is in first person and present tense.
Wake Up and Smell The Coffee
The second mistake is starting the novel when your character wakes up. It’s a cliché for first time writers and it’s usually bad because we don’t want to go through the early morning routine. It’s boring.
“Such an opening signals clearly to the agent or editor that the writer is about to take her through a tedious and thoroughly dull journey of the character waking, eating breakfast, greeting all the numbingly boring children in the house, and so on. “
As you can imagine, the more I read about writing, the more far-fetched my fantasies of appearing on Jimmy Fallon seemed to be. But perhaps all was not lost. Some people still like it: 60 to 65 percent of YA is written in first person and present tense. Awesome, right?
“Cohn estimates that about 60 to 65 percent of YA fiction is written in the first person and present tense, but not because YA readers can’t handle complexity (…) but because the simplicity and immediacy of that particular style helps writers develop the voices of their characters.”
Except that my first book is not Young Adult. It’s an Adult Science Fiction novel. Granted, more than half* of YA books are bought and read by adults:
*If you do the math it’s slightly lower than half: 55% * 78%. But my theory is that the other 22% are just ashamed to admit it.
Too bad there isn’t much space in a query letter to argue this point. Either you like it or you don’t, which can easily be a deal breaker.
Going Down With The Ship
Despite all the changes I’ve made since the beginning of this process, I decided to embrace those two specific mistakes. True, my character opens his eyes in the first sentence, but he’s dead (still a cliché, but less so). Also, I do like first tense and present tense, and my story works better this way due to the uncertainty and fantastic events that happen. The main goal was to perceive the world at the same time the main character (MC) does.
Most pitfalls associated with this narrative choice can also happen with other tenses, and, in my opinion, they can be either avoided or exploited. There’s no need to narrate all bathroom visits or to describe every meal.
You can move forward and omit uninteresting parts of the daily life. Even the fact that the protagonist relies on other characters for missing information may be worked around by skipping forward and not describing scenes where the MC was brought up to date, or where the infamous incident happened.
When did anyone decide this was a problem? My major is in hard sciences; I had never heard of it, and I never considered it as a reader. My pet theory is that someone famous didn’t like it, wrote something about it and a couple of years later it was taught as gospel. I have no basis to say that, but the post-truth era allows me to say anything I want with no proof.
Moreover, even Hunger Games is in first person and present tense, and it starts with Katniss waking up, for god’s sake! Don’t get me wrong: I’m not comparing my book with Suzanne Collins’ successful trilogy. My days of think of Mark Twain as a peer were gone after dozens of query rejections. Yes, my wife cried when she finished reading my book, but she cries when watching Super Bowl ads.
Either way, my plan is to finish my trilogy like that (there are still people that like it this way), but I’ll definitely announce in the Today Show that my following project will be in past tense.
The Tip of The Iceberg
All things considered, I wished those were the only problems with my novel. They were not. Many other cringe-worthy amateur blunders popped up as I kept learning, from places like AbsoluteWrite.com, beta readers and the like. Some of them were really stupid (the mistakes; not the beta readers), but others were not that obvious.
This blog is my channel to describe how I got from there to here, where I’m going, but most importantly, to get people to know me and buy my book when I publish it. Wait, did I say that out loud?
I’m actively looking for agents and publishers for my book. More info here.
Disclaimer: I’m not a writer, I have a hard time paying attention to detail, I overuse adverbs, I start a lot of sentences with ‘I’, and I often confuse words that are similar. More importantly, I reserve the right to change my mind at any time, in which case I’ll deny I ever wrote it. Please let me know if you find something that is too embarrassing. This blog is riddled with typos and creative grammar problems, but it’s mine. Luckily, I can always blame my mistakes on the fact that English is not my first language. Or hackers.