They wasted time. You drafted a novel. I wrote a masterpiece.

You type a word on the page, pick up the pencil, initiate the writing process. You hear the sentences in your head. You know the characters, the plot, the style, the voice will coalesce to something that resembles a novel by the end of the month. At least you hoped so.

All NaNovelers know the difficulties of choosing a point of view and tense for a novel. One must strike the balance between straight-out memoir chronicle style and dry documentary; future tense is presumptive, but delightful at times; past tense was the novel default for years, but now perhaps present tense usurps it. And then the direction of the text depends so much on its pronouns. Shall “I” personalize the novel, perhaps too much, blur the lines between narrator and author? Can “you” participate in the novel as character and audience? Does a plural third-person narrator impose a false unity? And what of the glorious omniscient observer, the third person who knows and sees all but is no one?

So, I started in second person, moved to an omniscient third person, and now switch to first person. I have tried writing in a few different tenses and POVs. I still blog consistently in first person; my first NaNoWriMo novel, which was at least as dreadful as everyone’s Novel 1.0, was also in the first person. For this reason, I abandoned it–both that novel and first person fiction. Many perfectly good pieces of writing are in the first person. I particularly like V.I. Warshawski, the feminist detective and snarky narrator of her own adventures in the novels by Sara Paretsky. Many novels I admire are in the present tense, too, and I think particularly of several Margaret Atwood novels. Letters and dialogue allow spurts of first person present tense writing to enliven a passage, of course. But these styles don’t work so well for me.

My worst habit, though, is the past progressive tense–I “was doing” everything under the sun, when Something Happened. Usually whatever I was doing in the background was far more exciting than the “Something” that happened, so when I revise my work I often take out the past progressive in favor of more direct tenses. This accompanies my desire to tell all stories backwards rather than forwards; I have yet to find an effective way to capture this desire. I’d rather start at the end and figure out how we got there than at the beginning and let people evolve, more of a historical approach than a scientific approach!

So in current projects, I’m practicing using second person in honor of a few very effective short stories I’ve read in that mode (this is a good example), and I also practice telling stories forward. I love reading other people’s experiments in the possibilities of grammar, and being able to maniupulate tenses/POV for effect is probably the most compelling reason to study grammar. I would like to choose from these possibilities more effectively and less haphazardly as I advance towards a black belt in word wrangling!


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