Strong Writing vs Sloppy, Weak Writing

Dear fellow writers,

The one thing that gives me hives faster than nettles, hives, or food allergies is SLOPPY TENSE by a writer!

I am currently reading a book (Spinning Jenny) that could have been an excellent story, could have been pretty good writing for a debut book, and could have some well-thought-out and developed characters except for the writer (Sylvia Ann McLain)  who wrote the entire thing using the present tense. Then slipping into past tense and frequently mixing the two.  (Grrrrr….teeth gnashing.)

Here’s a sample, quoting from the book:  “Children race about, babies are wailing, and clusters of women talk among themselves. Some sit by themselves with Bibles in their laps.  Farther off in the woods, blacks (did they use this term in 1833?)  have set up their own camps; their tents are made of quilts thrown over ropes between the trees.”

Edited:  Children raced around, babies wailed, and clusters of women gathered to talk amongst themselves. A few sat by themselves with their Bibles in their laps.  Further off into the woods Negroes set up their camps.  Their tents were made by throwing quilts over ropes tied between the tree trunks.

and:  “But back at Carefree, there’s a body waiting for her to view it. She dreads it as she drives up the hill to her home.  A body! Has she ever seen a dead person before? Not that she remembers. Why can’t Sophronia get up out of her bed and do something for once? But it’s getting on to twelve o’clock. She has to hurry.” 

Edited:  A body waited for her to view back at Carefree. Stephanie dreaded it as she drove up the hill to her home. A body! Has she ever seen a dead person before? Not that she remembered. Why couldn’t Sophronia get up out of her bed and do something for once? But it was close to noon. She had to hurry.

I like to use italics for internal dialogue but it’s not a rule.   What is a grammatical rule is “i.n.g.’ ing” every other word is poor writing no matter how you look at it.  

There is no rule set in stone somewhere that fiction must be written in the past tense. But it is the accepted and expected tense that 98% of writers use.  More importantly, readers expect it even if they are unaware. 
99% of the time, if a book is written in anything other than past tense, it has not been written that way on purpose; the writer is new, and the book is their first one, and they are ignorant of what is expected and what the industry standard is.  It makes them look like the amateur that they are. 

PS. Finally. Finished it. This book was a real slog. And then to find out the ending was a setup for a sequel. The storyline didn’t support that. Ugh!!!!!!


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Watch for more interviews with authors.  September: Culley Holderfield. October: Simon Gervais for ROBERT LUDLUM, November: Kevin J. Kennedy, December: Marc Cameron, writing for TOM CLANCY



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