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?

Things to Do and Jubilee

I’ve got the first edit draft back from the editor for Finding Gaia and I’m about 1/4 through.  The way it works (at least between Karen Babcock and I) is that she makes edits/marks/suggestions/comments throughout the piece I give her, all highlighted as her edits, then I go through and finalize them, clarify, fix, or whatever’s needed.

Other things to do this week include upgrading the main website, including posting the cover art I just got on the weekend from Charles Dowd:

Finding Gaia cover

Isn’t it awesome? I already posted it on G+ here. If you want to be informed of stuff early (including some seeeeekrit super special pre-release info), go tell me you want to be in the notification circle for that.

I also need to set up a Facebook page for the book (yes, I personally loathe the site and won’t ever be on there as me, but I’d be a fool not to market the book there, at least).

So there’s a bunch of online and offline stuff going on this week for the novel, all aimed at an early July release. Still waiting for final confirmation from the second music company for the permission for the John Denver lyrics (they’ve already given permission and taken payment but I need the final contract with the specified Acknowledgements information), but that should arrive any day now, so if all goes well, I’ll plan to release on Monday, July 2. Maybe it’ll be good post-Canada-Day, pre-Fourth-of-July reading material for some!

Other thoughts for today:

I was just at the gym on the treadmill (there’s something about a looming 40th birthday coupled with writing about immortal people that makes one take stock and decide to get some exercise), and the TV in front of me was covering the last day of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.

Since the fake people who live in my head my characters are omnipresent, I found myself wondering how Jason would react to the Jubilee. How would a man born in 1620, who fought his first war under Cromwell’s wing, served as a Redcoat for many generations, but then became dedicated to peace and environmentalism and moved to the New York area in the early 1900s feel about the British monarchy today? I had conflicting thoughts about it for some time and realized that, in and of itself is the answer: he’d be conflicted.

One one hand, he has no love for authority taken by force. He came to despise both Cromwell and the monarchy equally, seeing them as puffed-up blowhards casually sending “lesser” men to their deaths. And his addiction to killing Frenchmen was less about service to the British King and much more about his own personal nefarious needs. But even the most begrudging soldier, over time, can come to see his colours as an important symbol, even with dying for. That’s part of the psychology of war. He never would have even contemplated turning sides to fight for the French.

After his despicable downfall, he rebuilt himself under Victoria’s reign and became a proper gentleman in that context. That would have included all due deference to Queen and country, and he most certainly appreciated – and still does – the finer qualities of Victorian culture. When he left England, it was not out of any disregard for his mother nation, but to advance his causes and avoid the temptation of the massive war on the horizon. He will always consider himself an Englishman at heart, even when he worked to adopt the accents and mannerisms of those around him in New York to better blend in.

Given all that, how would he regard the Jubilee? Going by the timeline, Trish and Don are around now, and Trish would consider it a gigantic waste of money for a bunch of rich, spoiled, living anachronisms. Don wouldn’t care, as there’s not a great deal of interest in royal watching for a man consumed by the harder sciences. It wouldn’t specifically be on Jason’s radar to pay attention, but what if he, like me today, happened across a television showing the Queen on a balcony, flanked by Charles and William, with WWII planes going overhead and the crowd singing, “God Save The Queen”?

That much I know: he’d stop and look, compelled to. He’d feel a tugging in his heart at every scene showing portions of London, the city where he was born. He’d sigh once again at how much it’s all changed in nearly 400 years. He’d want to look away and tell himself that it’s a bunch of useless posturing, and possibly even use Trish’s sneering to bolster that, but then the flags would wave and the anthem would ring in his ears, forcing him to stand there, transfixed, likely with his arms crossed defensively against his chest. He’d ache for his old estate and remember how the cold, rough stone of the outside corner felt on his hand when last he touched it and the servant behind him had said the words that echo in his mind every time he feels perpetually alone and adrift: “We none of us can live in the past, sir.” A lump would come to his throat, and he’d want to hide that, especially from Trish, lest she notice and tease him. It would be too painful to be teased about. If she was in the room, he’d turn to keep his face unseen, but not so much as to make her notice him hiding.

But at the same time, he’d feel pride in the people of his homeland. He’d see the crowd on television and wish to be anonymously among them. He’d smile at the ladies dabbing their eyes, and ache to be one of the stalwart men doing likewise. He’d likely tell himself that his bevy of emotions were about the people, the land, and the history, not about Elizabeth and most certainly not about Charles. His brow would furrow when Charles next came on the screen, and that, coupled with the coverage turning to an ad break, would break the spell. He’d take a deep breath, walk away, and try to forget about the whole rotten business.

Only later that night, as he stared at his white ceiling in his bedroom, would it occur to him that it might have been worth scanning the crowd for Gaia’s face. At this point in the timeline, he’s reasonably sure she’s in North America, but it would occur to him that it’s not unthinkable that she too may have felt the pull of an historic event and gone back to England. Only by contemplating the enormity of the cost and hassle for her would he be able to shake the feeling that he ought to have at least looked. Then he’d fall into a troubled sleep, replete with nightmares of ancient battles.

Fortunately for him, Gaia is nowhere near the Jubilee, and doesn’t even know it’s happening. But it’s quite unfortunate for her, because she knows little of anything happening up on the surface…