Talking about tense: past vs. present

It occurred to me this week while revising: Would my story feel more alive if I wrote in present tense?

I wrote my manuscript in past tense without giving it a thought. That’s the tense I’m used to from my journalism background, the kind that comes easy to me.

But I’m reading Mary MorrisThe River Queen, and it’s in present tense. That discovery prompted me to go through my bookshelf of travel memoirs to see what tense those authors wrote in. (I’d done this once before, but now that I’m farther along with my own writing process, it has more meaning.)

Turns out the jury is split. Eat, Pray, Love and Tales of a Female Nomad are written in present tense, as is Under the Tuscan Sun. But Somebody’s Heart is Burning, The Great Railway Baazar and The Lunatic Express are all written in past tense. So is another book by Morris, Nothing To Declare, which makes me wonder: why did she choose past tense for one travel memoir and present for another? (I’ll send this to her and see if she might answer in the comments.)

I remember reading Eat, Pray, Love for the first time and feeling like the present tense was slightly awkward, but perhaps that’s because the types of books I read — mostly narrative nonfiction — are usually written in past tense. Now I’m looking at her book again and wondering whether that present tense helps the reader feel like she’s on Gilbert’s journey with her right here and now.

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So now I’m asking you: What works best for you as a reader? What tense do you prefer to write in?

This just in…

My manuscript is complete! Ready for submission!

Word count: 83,500

Microsoft Word pages: 280

Chapters: 33

Time to write: 13 months

Dance with me! C’mon, you know you want to.

Using themes to stay focused (& the importance of Post-its)

I keep a yellow Post-it note behind my computer. It reads:

*Why you should follow your dream*
Appreciate what you have
Value of solo travel

You can probably tell what these three phrases have in common: they’re themes in my book.

Why you should follow your dream gets asterisks because it’s the main theme. I’m writing about taking a leap in life, and I hope my story will inspire readers to do what they’ve always wanted to do, whether or not it involves travel. I want to help people realize that if I could leave a job I loved to backpack solo, they can make their dream happen, too.

I keep the Post-it on my desk to remind myself just how important these themes are to my book. More important than the premise (woman backpacks solo through Africa). More important than the story (which I ain’t giving away just yet). (And if you don’t know the difference between your book’s premise and story, here’s a blog post from Writer’s Digest to help you figure it out.)

My themes keep me on track. Whenever I start to feel frustrated or lost in my manuscript, I check out my Post-it. Is the scene I’m working on helping to advance one of those ideas? How can I use this part of the book to strengthen a theme?

Notice that none of my themes are really about me. Yes, my travel memoir is about my experiences in Africa. But although memoir is the story of an individual, it’s never solely about the author. Memoir is about something bigger than the author. It’s about resonating with readers. And how do you resonate with readers? With your themes.

If you had a Post-it on your desk, what would it say?

Word count, with a little help from Amazon

Did you know Amazon.com has a new function that gives a word count for each book?

(I did not discover this myself. Props to Suzanne for pointing it out.)

This is awesome enough for me to get excited over. Why? Because it allows me to check out length for published books in my genre. To be picked up by a traditional publisher, my manuscript needs to fall in a similar word-count window.

How to find a book’s word count: Go to that book’s page and scroll down to “Inside This Book.” Under that heading, click “Text Stats.” (It’ll be a blue link.) A new window will pop up. Under “Number of,” you’ll see “words.” That’s your number!

I did a little reconnaissance for a few books in the Competitive Books section of my proposal. Here’s what I found:

  • Eat, Pray, Love: 130,000 words (Could this be right? If it is, it just goes to show that books with more than 100,000 words — which most agents say is too many — can do fabulously well. If it’s not accurate, well, then this Amazon function isn’t as cool as I think it is.) 352 pages.
  • Somebody’s Heart is Burning: 85,000 words. 336 pages. (This author actually told me her book came in at 85,000 words, which makes me think the feature is accurate.)

* For full titles, authors and descriptions of these books, see What’s on my travel memoir bookshelf?

What did I learn from this? That my word-count goal of 85,000 – 90,000 is right on target.

What other Amazon tricks do you use?

Stephen King’s On Writing

I just finished reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A memoir of the craft.

Since I started my travel memoir nearly a year ago, I’ve read quite a few books on writing. So far this is my favorite.

Why? Because King offers practical advice. Instead of emphasizing that writing is different for every writer, he tells us what works for him and what might work for us.

Full disclosure: I skipped the first third of King’s book, the part about his life, and went right to the sections on writing. I’d never read one of his books before — I’m not a horror fan — so I wasn’t much interested in learning about his life. But the writing parts were so well done and offered enough enticing glimpses into his personality that I may re-read from the beginning.

A few things I learned from King:

~ When you start writing, it’s okay not to know how the book will read when you finish. Start with an idea — a situation, King calls it — and uncover the story like a fossil. Symbolism in particular should not be plotted; if something is meant to be symbolic, he says, you’ll notice when you revise and polish till it shines.

“Once your basic story is on paper,” he writes, “you need to think about what it means and enrich your following drafts with your conclusions.”

While he’s talking primarily about fiction, this advice also can apply to nonfiction. I thought I knew how my travel memoir would turn out; after all, I experienced it. But ideas, themes and realizations have become clearer through the writing process.

~ Think about your story as a What If? What if a woman decided to backpack alone through Africa? What would happen? And since I’m writing nonfiction, what did happen?

~ 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10 percent. I love this formula partly because it reaffirms my own revision process, which has included cutting about ten percent of my first draft.

~ It can’t hurt to hear certain advice a second, third, fourth time. Don’t use adverbs. To write well, read a lot. Write every day. Description is a matter of how-to and how-much-to; don’t overdo it. Even though I’ve heard all this advice before, King’s explanations of why they apply, as well as his specific examples, were helpful.

(Want more? Read excerpts from the book here.)

I was also shocked to read advice that King attributed to novelist Elmore Leonard: Leave out the boring parts. These exact words came out of my mouth three months ago when I was talking with a writer at my Hambidge residency. I was trying to explain how I would cut word from the first draft of my too-long travel memoir, and when I said that, the phrase sounded awkward, not well-thought out. But the writer friend (or, more accurately, best-selling author friend) told me the following day that he’d thought a lot about those words, that they would change how he revised of his own book. Little did I know they’d already been said and attributed.

Any fans of On Writing out there? Care to share what you learned?

Best Posts of 2009 (or what I learned this year)

Since launching this blog in April, I’ve learned a lot.

I’ve come so far, in fact, that it’s almost embarrassing to read some of my initial posts, when I was confused about newbie details like when to query literary agents (when my memoir is done) and what’s an appropriate word count for my book (90,000 max).

But that’s why I created this blog, to document my learning process so you don’t make the same mistakes I have. When I write my next book, I’ll have this blog to remind me what works and what doesn’t.

To celebrate the end of this year, I’ve created a Best Posts of 2009 list. It includes some of my favorites, as well as posts that were popular with readers:

  • A kick in the butt. Advice from an author who said I should spend less time learning about publishing and more time writing.

Now I’d love to hear from you: What did you learn in 2009?