Tension Over Tense

I’ve always described the initial part of my writing process as transcribing the lives of the fake people who live in my head. During the editing of “Finding Gaia”, I noticed that a side effect of that is I always write my initial scene blurbs in the present tense, and then I have to do careful editing all the way along to change it to past tense.

In writing some of the scenes for the prequels and sequel, I tried to avoid that workload by writing in past tense to begin with.

It didn’t work.

I found myself stumbling constantly, spending far too much time worrying about the tense instead of paying due attention to the flow of the dialogue or action of the scene. I’ve been contemplating this in recent weeks and determined that I’m compelled to use the present tense in those early blurbs because they are indeed live transcriptions. I can’t say something like “Jason bent forward to kiss Anna’s blushing cheeks” in the transcription phase, because he didn’t do it in the past for me. He’s doing it now, so the only way I can get it down without getting tangled up in the formality of prose is to say, “Jason bends forward to kiss Anna’s blushing cheeks.”

Combined with the fact that I don’t worry about the “saids” until later – choosing instead to do the initial blurbs in point-form – my early drafts resemble scripts with stage directions more than proper writing. Here’s a rough initial scene that appears in much better edited form in “Finding Gaia”:

when anna asks to go to mudslide, trish behind her is shaking her head and mouthing no, anna says “I know I can do this. I know I can help and you promised you’d help me find a way to not feel so useless and disconnected and Trish I can see your reflection in the tea pot and I don’t care, honestly, really, this is important and needs to be done. I will find a way down there myself if I have to but I’ll probably be too late unless you help me get there faster.”
he closes his eyes for a moment, takes a deep breath, nods and says “okay, let’s go”
anna: “Good! We need to pack some stuff like clothes and towels because we’re going to get wet and -”
trish: “No! No! You can’t do this!”
anna: “Yes I can!”
trish: “You maybe but not him!” looks at him “This is insane! You’re not super heroes!”
don: “Well, actually, they sort of kind of are…”
trish smacks his arm, “No they aren’t! They don’t fly, they don’t break through brick walls -”
jason: “Nor do we die.”
trish: “You don’t know that. You don’t know how far you can be pushed. You could end up buried in twenty feet of mud and you have no idea how long you can live through that.”
anna, quietly “At least 32 hours, according to testing.”
they all look at her
anna: “They tried me in water, soil, and just plain vacuum and had gotten up to 32 hours before you got me out.”
don: “And you were okay after that?”
trish hits him again: “No it’s not okay, what’s the matter with you?”
don: “If the science has been done the results are useful even if the methodology was unethical.”
anna: I technically did die each time but within a minute or two of being exposed to air again, everything started back up and any decay that had started began to heal.”
jason groans and closes his eyes again
trish: “that’s…that’s just sick.”

You can tell it’s from my early writing on the book because I was still spelling out their names at that point. Scenes written later – when I’m more familiar with the characters – just list their first initials.

Although if a book is in even earlier stages, I may not have named the characters yet, or even cities and kingdoms in the case of fantasy. Here, for example, is a conversation from the first chapter of a book I currently call “The Book I Am Not Writing Because I Don’t Have Time” (you can tell because I’ve only got about 16,500 words of such blurbs):

she arrives with troops, king intends to approach second in command, can’t see a princess, approaches obvious leader of troop and greets but turns out to be princess in full uniform along with her men
– she tells him soon after: I realize that you likely see my arrival as a burden, or perhaps even an insult. It is probable that you believe my father to be ignoring your request for aid. I assure you, he has not ignored you. I am here because I have long studied and experimented with defensive strategies. I would never profess to be a battlefield expert but I do know how to lock down a fort and keep all intruders out
king, attempting to be pleasant, but with grating edge: Your highness, we welcome you with open arms and appreciate your desire to be of assistance. However, you need not fear for your safety here. [fort] has never fallen.
she: Yet. You face a better-armed, more tactical foe than ever before. [invading kingdom] isn’t whipping boys at your walls for lack of anything better to do. He is set on full-out conquest and domination. What his father began, he is determined to finish. Had his father not slaughtered my brothers then I’m sure you would appreciate their company more than my own. I sympathize. However, I am what’s left of my generation and once more, I assure you that I am up to the task of securing [fort].
king sighs through a forced smile: Of course, we welcome your input, your highness. turns to prince. Are you available to provide our guest with a tour of our defences to assure her of our competence?
prince: if your highness wishes, of course.
she: certainly.
king: there’s no rush to it. I’m sure you’ll wish to rest, bathe, and eat first.
she: there is most certainly a rush, your majesty. I made notes on our approach. There is a tremendous amount of work to be done.

I haven’t even bothered with punctuation for most of that, because I had to type quickly to keep up with the lady’s fast-paced and derisive speeches.

Every author has their unique way of doing things, and those techniques frequently evolve over their careers. It’s part of why books on how to write are almost meaningless beyond education of basic grammar, style, and general readability: what works for one person will almost certainly not work for another. I have no idea if my weirdness with tense and scripting is similar to anyone else’s process or not. I’d be amused to learn that it was, because it’s always nice to chat about similar techniques with other authors, but I’d also be surprised because the whole thing does feel very odd when looked at from an external point of view.

So to any writers reading this – amateur or professional – do you transcribe in present tense like this, forgoing grammar and punctuation in the initial phase? Or are you more compelled to put the proper prose in from the start?