Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A Tense Situation

This one almost slipped through the cracks. At the time I wrote this, I'd only written a few stories in the present tense. Since then, I've written an entire novel in present tense. It's more popular now and less of a novelty but I did wonder whether it was the right choice. So I began to tell the story in past tense and I couldn't sustain the voice. It's not just changing "is" to "was" but the past tense gives a vehicle for more self-reflection. No, this story had to be told in the present tense. And soon I'll be able to share it. I am both petrified and excited all at once.  

From the web archives: A Tense Situation

I always wrote in the past tense, thinking it more appropriate since everything I wrote about had happened in the past.  It also seemed foolish to write in the present tense – how can a character write and walk, talk, and jump off cliffs at the same time?  It was pretentious.  But for one of the Institute's assignments, I wrote a story in the present tense simply to flex my writing muscles.  It felt right.  The story was based on a personal experience.  While I wrote the first draft I went back into time and re-lived the experience.  All the emotions were at my fingertips.  Later I embellished the story and it became a work of fiction.  When my teacher’s reply came back, one of her comments was on the use of tense.  She suggested I use the past tense.  I tried it.  But wonder of wonders, I preferred my story in the present tense.  I analyzed why it was effective and there were three reasons:

1.     The story was in first person.

2.     Present tense heightened tension.

3.     The reader implicitly did not know how the ending would be.


There is a certain immediacy to writing in the present tense.  It doesn’t all have to be action either.  There is time for introspection.  An action sequence can be alternated with an interior monologue.  The character’s voice can come through.

My throat is tight and I feel the words getting stuck.  I open my mouth but no sound emerges.  Finally, I spit and stutter, “B-b-back off.”  Randy backs off and I can breathe again.   

Randy is only trying to help but he’s pushy.  It’s not like I don’t know how to swim.  I’m a poor swimmer.  And given half a chance, I can save myself.  I’ve been saving myself from disasters since I was born.  Like the time when I was six.  I forgot to turn the faucet off and the entire universe flooded.  Randy brought towels.  Like that was going to help.  Randy is like that – he always means well, but he ends up being a total pain.

I paddle and float, enjoying the cool water.  Randy watches me, ready to save me.

I purposely have a long passage.  Notice that back-story is effortlessly revealed by using past tense.  There is no need to use the past-perfect form (had forgotten, had flooded), which is what you have to use if the main story is written in past tense.  Here is the scene written in past tense.  I think you’ll agree that it's clunky.

My throat was tight and I felt the words getting stuck.  I opened my mouth but no sound emerged.  Finally, I spat and stuttered, “B-b-back off.”  Randy backed off and I could breathe again.

Randy was only trying to help but he was pushy.  It wasn’t like I didn’t know how to swim.  I was a poor swimmer.  And given half a chance, I could save myself.  I’d been saving myself from disasters since I had been born.  Like the time when I was six.  I had forgotten to turn the faucet off and the entire universe had flooded.  Randy had brought towels.  Like that would have helped.  Randy was like that – he always meant well, but he ended up being a total pain.

I paddled and floated, enjoying the cool water.  Randy watched me, ready to save me. 


If you’re feeling tense, let me go over the basics.  Remember, tense is the timeline of your story.  If you use your tenses carefully, your readers will stay with you and not get lost.  They will know the chronology of events even if you present them out-of-order.  The technique of jumping right into your story and revealing the past bit-by-bit, like peeling the layers of an onion, is well-suited for middle-grade and young adults as well as adults.

Simple Tenses:  An action occurs in the past or present or will occur in the future.

     Present:  Today Billy rides a bike.

     Past:  Yesterday Billy rode a bike.

     Future:  Tomorrow Billy will ride a bike.

Perfect Tenses:  An action occurs in one time-zone but is seen in relation to another time-zone.

     Present perfect:  Billy has ridden a bike many times (and will continue to do so).

     Past perfect:  Billy had ridden a bike all afternoon (until he fell off and broke his leg).

     Future perfect:  By next summer Billy will have ridden a bike for a year.

When things happen at the same time, the tenses of the verbs have to be the same too.

     Right:  When Jack calls, Billy rides a bike to meet him.

     Wrong: When Jack calls, Billy rode a bike to meet him.

Within a sentence, things don’t have to refer to the same time, and you can use different tenses.

     Billy says he rode his bike yesterday and will ride it again tomorrow.

Confusion between will and would:  Use will for the present, would for the past.

     Present:  Billy says he will wear his helmet.

     Past:  Billy said he would wear his helmet.


If you write in the present tense, make sure you stay in the present.  You can slip into the past BRIEFLY while your character remembers something or talks about the past.  Back-story requires past tense.  But the thoughts and actions must remain in the present.  It isn’t confusing one bit.  In fact, it can be more puzzling to have a story in the past tense and have flashbacks and interludes in the past-perfect tense explaining current behavior.


Is it possible that some stories are better told in the present tense?  I think so.  Stories with a lot of reminiscing and non-fiction are best told in the present tense.  Recently I read an adult novel, Sister Of My Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.  She used present tense for the entire story with alternating (first person) viewpoints between the two main characters.  The effect was stunning.  She went over the past through dialogues and interior monologues, had lots of action and even went over the girls’ dreams, without confusing the reader.

In writing non-fiction you are dealing with general truths.  Forget your old science projects, where you had to do an experiment and then write the results in the past tense with a passive voice.  That’s a sure-fire way to put a kid to sleep.  I’m talking about inviting the reader into your world of bouncing balls, sleeping bears and shooting stars.

Why do balls bounce?  The key word here is ELASTIC.  During a bounce from a hard floor, the ball gets a dent.  All of its energy is put into flattening itself against the hard floor.  As the ball returns to it’s rounded shape, it releases that energy into upward motion.

So give the present a whirl and see how you feel about your writing.  Chances are, it will feel fresh.

"A Tense Situation" was first published in the Jan. 2003 issue of ICL's Rx for Writers.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018


I've been plotting a new venture and there's so much to learn; watch this space when I'm ready to share. It's exciting! But I've been simultaneously wanting to share some great books so let me briefly share a few thoughts and pictures. 

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly is the 2018 Newbery winner! Before her win I didn't know of her books but it's always such a delight to discover a new author. I'd gone to the library immediately after the ALA Awards to see if we had a copy and we didn't but luckily I ran into Tim, the head librarian, and he was just marking all the books he was getting ready to order. So I got my request in record time! And I was sucked into the story immediately because I couldn't have said it any better than Virgil. I share the interior pages because I always love good type-setting and art  that make it such a pleasure to read. There are four points-of-view and all are distinct. My favorite was Valencia--she's smart and funny and has a favorite saint, one whose story I actually know. Oh, and she's also deaf. And some of the bully's observations about her are hilarious. The story unfolded slowly but it was such a pleasure getting to know this cast of characters that when the bully, Chet, tosses Virgil's backpack with his pet guinea pig down an abandoned well, half the book was already over. I'll assure all you pet lovers that the guinea pig does NOT die. So go ahead and enjoy this book! I loved a peek into the Filipino culture, how the characters grew. Virgil is still shy and scared yet this experience has given him the courage to ask to be seen. The bully doesn't magically turn into a saint overnight, and best of all, it's the beginning of a new friendship. A most satisfying book, the gold star completely merited.  

 A Family of Saints: The Martins of Lisieux-Saints Thérèse, Louis, and Zélie by Fr. Stephane-Joseph Piat was such a beautiful book to read that I ended up reading it twice so that I could take notes (with a lot of help from the kitties). Fr. Piat does such a beautiful job of recounting the history of this family through primary sources, mainly letters. What we get is a portrait of an ideal family. It's not easy. There are many difficulties--illnesses, deaths of children, work that is a burden--but throughout we see how the parents support one another and never lose sight of their goal, which is Heaven itself.

Zelie writes on the sorrow of losing children: "I didn't regret the sorrows and the problems that I had endured for them. Several people said to me, "It would be much better never to have had them." I can't bear that kind of talk. I don't think the sorrows and problems could be weighed against the eternal happiness of my children. So they weren't lost forever. Life is short and full of misery. We'll see them again in heaven."

I loved seeing how Christ-centered their lives were, how they abandoned themselves to His will and never, ever lost sight of Heaven. It was their hope, their joy, amidst the cares of the world. They were dutiful about providing for their large family  

Father Piat reminds us that "family is the cornerstone of civil society and marked with the divine seal, it assures the building of a nation of unbreakable strength. Eroded by passions, corroded by cohabitation, civil marriage, divorce, it no longer offers society anything but a precarious foundation doomed to collapse. France reigned in the world when it was a country of stable homes and cradles. Its decline began inexorably, when it allowed the home to disintegrate and the flow of new life to slow. What good is hard work, fiscal courage, or military heroism if the race surrenders its gaiety of heart to the collective suicide constituted by the fear of children?"

Most of us are called to marriage and family life and this is a family to emulate. In today's culture, with marriage under attack and families crumbling, we need examples of holy spouses who are united in purpose and Christian charity. In a Story of a Soul, Thérèse writes, "God gave me a father and a mother more worthy of heaven than of earth."

And so, for the first time in 2,000 years, the liturgical books will add "Spouses" to the different categories of saints recognized. Most are martyrs, confessors, bishops, popes, virgins. It harkens back to what Fr. Piat writes early in the book: "Most spiritual books exude a monastic perfume. They would feel out of place beside the marital bed." Saints Louis and Zélie, Spouses, remind us that marriage and family life is a path to sanctification. has beautiful photos of the family and important places in their lives.

I've enjoyed many books by Malcolm Gladwell and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference was no exception. Especially with my mind full of Thérèse's Little Way, it made enormous sense to me that all good things, no matter how little, can have mighty results. Much of the book uses research from how epidemics come and go and it was fascinating to see the world of microbes be so applicable to social phenomena, the rise of a particular fashion (like Hush Puppies) or the sudden decrease in crime in NYC (fixing broken windows). Gladwell talks about school shootings, how teenagers are literally being "infected" with this idea. And after reading about the "suicide bug" in Micronesia, I must agree with him. We've always had kids who've been bullied and lonely. We've always had guns. What's different now? Columbine is key. Gladwell writes, "These are epidemics in isolation: they follow a mysterious, internal script that makes sense only in the closed world that teenagers inhabit." I'm afraid that world is nihilism. We must pray for our children.

I discovered Country Diary on Faith's blog. Oh my! I wish I could draw well--we have so much natural beauty on the island but all I can do is just be in awe of all I see. I don't even carry my phone otherwise I'd have more pictures. Must remember to do that. I saw the cutest little baby alligator sunning himself a couple of days ago. In any case, I hope these interiors inspire you to make some of your own observations. Don't you just love the beautiful penmanship as well?


Finally, Two-Moon Journey by Peggy King Anderson just arrived in the mail. Peggy was my very first writing teacher and it's so wonderful to know that this book of her heart finally found a home. The cover is gorgeous and so are the interiors! But I have put it aside so that I can read as many of Max's books as I can this summer. And there's that new venture speaking to we'll see how much I get done. Well, that's all folks and I'm sorry it wasn't brief. Happy reading and writing. And please do share some of your favorites in the comments. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Max's Summer in DC


Here's where Max will be working for the next six weeks. And he has a room with a view! I think the architecture says what the primary purpose of the Church is--bringing souls to heaven! I am so thankful Max can gaze upon a slice of heaven any time he wants. Deo Gratias! 


Saturday, May 12, 2018

May Celebrations


We have so much to celebrate! I thank God for making me a mother of these beautiful children. Locals, we tried a new place, Spero, and all their food was delicious. They had an interesting menu (complete with jokes) and lovely art on the walls. I highly recommend it, along with the little Cuban sandwicherie right next door. We are such food lovers and it was a little embarrassing to tell our waiter we hadn't yet tried many of the restaurants he mentioned. After all, the best place to eat is at Chez Bodach, which has a few culinary experiments bubbling. Michael made a small batch of kombucha. So refreshing! I also made a batch of kimchi. The weather is perfect for all this.
Max has been petting the cats every chance he gets. He was here only a week so these two scaredy cats were suspicious and kept him at arms length. Sigh. It's hard having a catless lap when we all love them so much. They are very relaxed now that he's off to WA-DC to intern with Congressman Mark Sanford. They connected during Max's senior year at Bishop England. It should be an interesting time for him.  

I've been drooling over all the books for Max's history class. Our shelves are getting full again. I'd bought the dozen or so books he needed his first year but after he started classes, he sent me a long list of all sorts of classics. I've only read a couple of these. Although Michael and I received a university education, it wasn't nearly as rounded as the classical liberal education Max is receiving at Ave Maria University. We are just so thrilled with his growth and maturity. Michael and I dream of getting a little house there and sit in on some of these seminars. Of course, it'd be hard to leave Charleston. We are so very blessed to live and work here. Below some pictures from Ascension Thursday--so lovely to hear Mass at Stella Maris, and then head out to the beach. You can't beat this island living.   


Monday, May 7, 2018

May Memories

Newborn Dagny
I love May, the month of Mary and the month of this little munchkin, who is 17 years old. My dear Dagny, you were a delight from before you were born. I loved carrying you and was impatient to meet you, especially the last three months when strangers would ask me if I was having twins and I had to assure them that there was only one of you! You tipped the scales at almost ten pounds when you were born!!! Everybody admired you and wanted to pet your hair. They'd never seen babies with such a full head. I was happiest when you were in my arms. Alas, the first couple of weeks were difficult--you had to stay in the incubator as much as possible. I only nursed you half the time. The other half, Daddy fed you. We'd been through this with Max so I knew to fight for you to get you on the bili-lights as soon as possible. You came home with a fantastic tan! And we held you and gazed upon you as much as we wanted.

Cool shades!
I'm so glad Max is here to celebrate with us. He's the best big brother a girl could ask for. My only regret is that you never got a chance to be a big sister. You'd have been wonderful. Raising you two has been the greatest joy of our lives, even through the difficult times. I know God has great plans for you and I'm waiting patiently to see how beautifully your life is going to unfold. May our blessed Lord Jesus bless you abundantly, remain with you always, and grant you all the desires of your heart. Ask and you shall receive so that your joy may be full. ~ John 16:23
And here's my Gospel reflection for today, written with you in mind:  I love you more than words can say, Mom.

You are 2 wks old, Max 2 yrs
17 and 19 yrs old