Choosing the Right Tense
Hook Critique Series: Article 4, Part 2
Today we’re following up with the second part of our article on choosing a tense for your story. Taffy Lovell generously allowed us to post a critique of an early first page draft from her novel It’s Not Me. (You can see that here.) Below is her revised first page. You can engage her in the comments section about her revision process.
I hide the scissors and the red shoebox on the top shelf in my closet. The obituaries can wait. I glance out my dirty bedroom window and wonder at the promises the sky holds for me today. If my days were normal, I might hang out at the pool, pretending not to watch the lifeguards. If my life were normal, I might sit under the shade of the trees and daydream. If I were normal, I might gossip with friends late into the night about everything and nothing. But I left normal behind ages ago—in quiet cemeteries.
Not remembering the deaths of so many friends puts me on red alert to too many people. By the end of the year, I’ll prove my memories don’t hold the key to so many deaths. If my memories were opened, we might find a serial killer. And it’s not me.
My hair is a ratty mess. I flip my head over and force my tangled mane into a ponytail. I peek in the mirror. It’ll work. Easy. That’s how I roll.
The t-shirt I wore to bed reeks like last night’s Chinese takeout. Not how I roll.
No reason to get too excited about high school, but at least I can smell decent. I’ve resigned myself to the shadows of the corners and back rows. I don’t need attention, nor do I want it. I’m a ghost, just like my dead friends.
A black piece of fabric peeks out from beneath my pillow. Pulling my favorite vintage AC/DC t-shirt close, I inhale and pretend it smells like Aiden, the last boy I crushed on. I haven’t lost memories of him.
I trade the shirt with another, cleaner one off the floor and shake it out for good measure. A worn-out and yellowed clipping flutters across the floor. I pick it up and study it. John Birch’s trench coat is thrown over my older sister and me. He’s trying to shield us from the snooping cameras. The caption reads “Lost Memories or Fake Amnesia?”
I tuck the old news story into the red shoebox, too.
* * *
Enjoy a dialogue with Taffy below and discuss the process for revising her first page.
To find anything else our spotlight author has written, loved, or shared, see below:
Time to hear from you. How does Taffy’s new hook grab you? What do you most focus on as the best element of her hook? Comment below!
So I think this is a great revision. It’s more clear and succinct and the hook is more of a focus. I really like it. I don’t notice the present tense at all. Which is great. Any time the story sucks you in rather than something you have to adjust to about the writing, you’re golden. For this one, Taffy and I thought we should do some real-time editing. Here are the final editing comments I would have made if she were going to send it to an agent today:
• “. . . of so many friends puts me on red alert to too many people.” (This is the only line I would definitely suggest fixing because who’s not remembering and who’s on red alert is unclear. It really throws me in terms of what you mean and stops the momentum of the story. Maybe change it to something like “a girl who can’t remember the deaths of so many friends . . . sends up a red flag to anyone wanting answers.”)
• “If my days were normal, I might hang out at the pool, pretending not to watch the lifeguards [This is perfect as is]. If my life were normal, I might sit under the shade of the trees and daydream. If I were normal, I might gossip with friends late into the night about everything and nothing.” (This group of lines works because of the repetition—in terms of how it all builds to the final closing line, but there’s a part of me that thinks it’s trying too hard. Is it possible to get the same building effect without trying too hard to be literary? For example, what if we combine the 3 ideas into two sentences, skipping “If I were normal” once? I’m not committed to this comment, just something I’m throwing around in my head.)
• “I’ve resigned myself to the shadows of the corners and back rows. (Kill “the” before “corners for smoother flow.”)
• “I don’t need attention, nor do I want it.” (Seems too formal for a teen. How about a period between the two ideas and kill “nor” like this: “I don’t need attention. I don’t want it.”)
• “A black piece of fabric peeks out from beneath my pillow. Pulling my favorite vintage AC/DC T-shirt close, I inhale and pretend it smells like Aiden, the last boy I crushed on. I haven’t lost memories of him.” (This last bit is on the wordy side, which tends to slow the flow. Try something like “a black piece of t-shirt peeks out from under my pillow. It’s my favorite–vintage AC/DC–and I pull it close and pretend it smells like Aiden . . .”)
(Also, the very last line could be misleading. When you say, “the last boy I crushed on. I haven’t lost memories of him,” I don’t know if it’s because he isn’t dead and he’s just a boy you crushed on and it’s over, or if you’re remembering someone who died (unlike remembering the others). It’s probably important to clarify this unless it’s a big plot secret (why she remembers him and no one else). So if he’s not dead, follow up with something like: “Probably because he’s not dead. He just doesn’t care about me.”)
Other than that, I feel like this hook rocks. I’d keep reading if I were an agent. And if I weren’t!
Thanks for the great edits, Angela! You’ve inspired me to go through my pages again and tighten them up and make them better.
I didn’t even know what tense I was writing, and honestly, I still can’t really tell you what the tense is from book to book. This story came out in first person and there was no way I could change it; it had to be told in Angelica’s POV. My critique group was really good at picking up when I changed POV, which is surprisingly easy to mess up. And I had to step up the internal dialogue without giving away too much information that Angelica may not be privy. It was hard.
And then the ending! Hello! I’ve changed it twice now. Sheesh. You would think because I’m the writer I would know the ending. Well, I thought I did. But when the ending changed (read: killer), some things on the first page had to change. And that’s the hard thing about getting the first page absolutely right. The beginning affects the ending. Everything comes full circle.
I like this revision! I especially like how it has been simplified from the other draft, but it still grabs my interest. Angela hit the nail on the head with her suggestions for the next revision. Another challenge with writing in first person, present tense is the tendency to start most sentences with I (verb). That first paragraph seems to do this a lot, and feels kind of wordy. After that first paragraph, I felt the flow was pretty good and I, too, forgot what tense you were writing in. That’s awesome!
Thanks, Amy! I noticed the “I” at the beginning of many, many of my paragraphs and had to reword not to have that be so obvious. But rewording has helped me to tighten my words.