Friday, July 24, 2009

If Not Now, When?

As I've stated previously, I've been reading a lot of cozy mysteries lately. The problem I encountered is not exclusive to cozies specifically or to mysteries in general, but it has happened in every one. I think it's something that spans genres. And it drives me buggy.

What is this nefarious writing issue?

The use of present tense words in a past tense narrative.

You might be saying, "Huh?" An example: Betty pondered her relationship with Bill as she stared out the window. She wondered how things had gotten so far out of hand. Bill's phone call this morning upset her so badly, she didn't think she'd ever get over it. But today's blue sky helped cheer her up some. Maybe now she could think things through.

Past tense, right? Pondered, stared and wondered all indicate that we're reading about something that happened in the past. Then "this morning" crops up. Okay, if I'm reading this in the afternoon or evening, I guess "this morning" would be past tense. But it still jars, because I might be reading about that evening and the next day and even a month later within a few pages. The "this morning" I just read about will have happened quite a while ago in the context of the story. Same thing with "today's blue sky" and "now."

Most of the time, leaving out the time stamps can fix it. "Bill's phone call upset her . . ." If it's that important a phone call, you've shown it already, right? So we know where she is time-wise in relation to it. "But the blue sky . . ." "Maybe with a new attitude she could think things through." A little bigger change, but it conveys why she can think better.

It's perfectly fine in dialogue. For the character, it is today. Just not for the reader.

In the big scheme of writing, this probably isn't a huge faux pas. But it bugs me, and I can't be the only one. Do you want to take a chance that the agent or editor you submit to has the same pet peeve?

4 comments:

Fleur Bradley said...

I notice these types of mistakes a lot in mysteries, though I read past them a lot. Not every eye is as sharp as yours, Deb :-) Even among editors and agents...
I think the reason mystery writers get away with it is because plot and story come first, then character, and then lots of other stuff (like weapon and police procedure knowledge), and THEN craft. No offense to my crime peeps--or myself.
Imagine how high your book could fly, Debster.

Jenny said...

Actually, this stuff happens in all fiction, and I don't actually think it's incorrect.

Uh-oh, disagreement! Discord!

You're still my favorite.

Fleur Bradley said...

Hmmm... Never thought that might be correct. I feel a Poor Richards discussion coming on :-)

And Jenny: you told me I was your favorite. What gives?

Debbie said...

Well, that is why I asked. Not really. I wanted you all to agree with me. But since it is so freakin' prevalent, I guess I'll just have to grit my teeth and try to read past it--AFTER big discussion at Poor Richards.

I'm still going to mark it on your critiques, though. Fair warning.

Fleur, she lied to you. Sorry. It is me.