Saturday, April 14

Real Life Diagnostics: In the Moment: Working With First Person Present Tense

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Five

This week’s questions:
I'm trying out 1st person present tense, is it working?
Does my MC's personality come across through the narrative?
Does the present tense flow correctly?
Does the opening grab you and make you want to keep reading?


Market/Genre: Contemporary YA for older teens (MC is 18)

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
I must've dozed off and for a moment I'm in limbo, floating between two possible realities. The next instant, it comes crashing down around me and I have to deal with Shayne being dead all over again.

“We need to talk,” she says. Shira's voice. I'm in Shira's bed tucked in the back corner of her mother's trailer. Fairy lights dangle from the ceiling, a spider-web attempt at making the room less depressing. It smells of Shira's grapefruit body cream and patchouli incense. It smells like sex.

The sheet clings to my sweaty chest. Dust swirls in the sun-rays stabbing through the broken blinds.

“What do you want to talk about?” I sit up, wrapping the sheet around my waist, hands already searching for underwear and socks. I squint through the finger-print smudged window. The sun's just starting to slip beyond the horizon, turning the sky the colour of spilled blood.

“Kyle, you know we need to talk about this, about us.”

I turn to face her. Mascara still stains her cheeks from tears shed hours earlier. Her brown bob is all tousled, like a crow's nest on her head. She's examining her chipped nail polish, not meeting my gaze.

“You don't really want to talk about how you're sleeping with your dead best friend's boyfriend, do you?”

Shira looks up, her gaze intense and tragic as her bottom lip begins to tremble. It's not fair putting it all on her. I kissed her first, but she never said no.

My Thoughts in Purple:
[I must've dozed off and for a moment I'm in limbo, floating between two possible realities.] This is a little confusing The next instant, it comes crashing down around me and [I have to deal with Shayne being dead all over again.] I love the emotion behind this, but then you don't actually show him dealing with this

“We need to talk,” [she says. Shira's voice.] Perhaps use her name instead of she to identify her right away. I'm in Shira's bed tucked in the back corner of her mother's trailer. [Fairy lights dangle from the ceiling, a spider-web attempt at making the room less depressing. It smells of Shira's grapefruit body cream and patchouli incense.] These are all lovely details, but probably not something a teen guy would notice. He'd more likely smell grapefruit, incense, and sex, but not be able to identify exactly what type or where the smells came from. (ie the body cream vs Shira's scent.) It smells like sex.

The sheet clings to my sweaty chest. Dust swirls in the sun-rays stabbing through the broken blinds. This could be a good spot to add some internalization about how he feels about this situation and question.

“What do you want to talk about?” I sit up, wrapping the sheet around my waist, hands already searching for underwear and socks. I squint through the finger-print smudged window. The sun's just starting to slip beyond the horizon, turning the sky the colour of spilled blood.

“Kyle, you know we need to talk about this, about us.” You might put his name in the first question instead, just so we know right away who he is.

I turn to face her. [Mascara still stains her cheeks from tears shed hours earlier. Her brown bob is all tousled, like a crow's nest on her head. She's examining her chipped nail polish, not meeting my gaze.] Again, I love the details, but I doubt a teen guy is going to be so knowledgeable about what the specifics are. Her eyes are smudged black, her hair is a mess, she looks at her fingers. Perhaps look for ways to be descriptive in guy speak here.

[“You don't really want to talk about how you're sleeping with your dead best friend's boyfriend, do you?”] I like the idea, but the phrasing feels too mature and self aware. Would he really blurt it out like this or try to dodge the question? Does he even know why they did this? Maybe he's thinking this, freaking out and feeling ashamed, but says something else. (if that's how he does feel)

Shira looks up, her gaze intense and tragic as her bottom lip begins to tremble. It's not fair putting it all on her. I kissed her first, but she never said no.

The questions:
I'm trying out 1st person present tense, is it working?

Yes. It reads fine and flows well. I don't get that "I'm narrating every step of my life" feeling that sometimes happens with first person present tense.

Does my MC's personality come across through the narrative?
Hard to say from this because there's so little of it. It's more description than his feelings or personality, and those descriptions didn't feel like a teen guy to me. He seems a bit of a cold jerk so far, and all I know is that his girlfriend is dead and he's sleeping with her best friend. He did say it wasn't fair of him to put it on her, so he might have some redeemable qualities.

I'd suggest a little more internalization so we know how he feels about this. Grief makes people do crazy things, and wanting comfort from someone who knows what you're going through is a powerful force. It's easy to imagine how they got to this point, and him trying to figure that out would help show the kind of guy he is. Perhaps tweak it so he sounds more like a teen-aged guy, and let readers get inside his head more so they understand him and like him (or at least sympathize with him).

Does the present tense flow correctly?
Yep. I didn't trip over anything except that first sentence.

Does the opening grab you and make you want to keep reading?
Yes and no. I can see the inherent conflict here, which is intriguing, but their attitudes about sex feel more adult to me than YA. I'm curious about the dead girl and what happened, and what these two will do now. But there's nothing in the narrative that's really hooking me yet. Mostly because I'm not connecting to Kyle. The situation is interesting, but not the character so far since I don't know them.

Without knowing anything about the novel, I wonder if this is starting in the right place. The conflict is over as this opens (he's made the choice to sleep with Shira) and the new conflict hasn't quite taken hold. (they made a mistake, but so what? What are the stakes and ramifications of this?) We don't know Shayne or any of these characters, so any "betrayal" of Shayne's memory or trust has no emotional affect. And since they've already slept together, the tension is gone. (though new tension as a result of this could be there)

You might consider looking at your core conflict, and then looking at the situation right before and right after this happens. If we knew Kyle and Shira a little first, then them falling into bed would have more impact. We'd understand what it meant to them and what the consequences of this action were. Or, if we meet them as people dealing with both a loss and a mistake, we'd get to know them first and then wonder what mistake or past they have that makes them so uncomfortable around each other. (you'd of course write this for your plot, I'm just throwing guesses here based on this snippet and human nature) Depending on the core conflict, this scene might even be the inciting event or act one ending. What does this situation create?

If I knew more about the book itself I could be more helpful here, so feel free to e-mail me to discuss further if you'd like.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

5 comments:

  1. I agree that the present tense is flowing well. Janice brought up a good point with the smells and mascara, that sometimes a viewpoint character will notice things they don't have words for. That's a balancing act I wish I knew how to handle for myself.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The description about patchouli etc is so well done and so vivid I would hate for you to lose it. ButI did get mixed up and thought the POV was a girl so maybe Janice has a point. Having said that, can't Kyle just be the kind of guy who knows that stuff?! Well written. Go for it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree somewhat with Elizabeth. I did get the gender mixed up (and I did love the description). I also had some small issue with the present tense, but that's a personal thing.

    It flowed well enough. I did not feel involved with Kyle. Shira's situation might have appealed to me" did she have anything to do with her friend's death and is now having second thoughts? Does she wonder if Kyle really cares about her or resents her (one of those girls things, worrying) for being with him now?

    Stuff like that.

    It's such a small piece, I can see possibilities, but I haven't read enough to feel like I would like to read more.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm the author of this bit and appreciate everyone's comments.

    It's interesting that readers thought Kyle was a girl since he's actually gay in the story (sleeping with Shira is part of his whole grief-dealing process and adds to his general confusion).

    Again, thanks for the comments!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Interestingly, I had no problems with Kyle being a boy, despite his knowledge of smells, but I'm still not sure whether Shayne is a Boy or Girl. (ie, whether Kyle is openly gay--in which case his having Sex with Shira for comfort is...really really strange to me and would require some explanation; or whether Shayne is a girl, maybe he dated her while in the closet--maybe she died around the time Kyle was sorting himself out?)Obviously that might be solved just by having more space.

    Also the names "Shayne" and "Shira" are close enough that I did confuse them once.

    ReplyDelete