In the oceans of writing instruction and advice available to anyone with a search engine I look for everything publishers have to say about current trends. Since you can’t really access publisher’s marketing info — and certainly not Amazon’s sales data — that’s as close to the horse’s mouth as I can get to learn about sales trends. That’s info that helps me help my clients. One offering stands out about contemporary fiction: keep the narrative fast paced. This digital world of FX, Twitter, flash fiction, etc. has our brains wired for lightening fast action. There’s not a lot of room for ruminating on superfluous details of landscape, the nature of family bonds or the sounds of church bells. The story has to gallop from the starting gate to capture and compel a reader. I think we all get that. What’s interesting to me are the narrative techniques an author can use to set and maintain that just-right pace.
Voice and tense are formidable tools to heighten tension, move action and hook and hold the reader. I don’t know what goes into an author’s decisions about what tense and voice to use but I’ll venture to guess it most often comes organically. When a protagonist begins to take shape in the creative sphere of the brain the author hears 3rd Person or 1st Person (which is tricky to write but such fun to read when done well) and the story grows in the mind in the present or past tense. Past tense is most common in fiction (and has been for eons) and is almost always 3rd Person. Present tense is more commonly used with 1st P voice; it creates an immediacy and intimacy that’s very engaging.
I’d never given a thought to 3rd Person present tense. Then I discovered the who-dun-it series of British writer Bruce Beckham. He’s amazing! Set in Britain’s Lake District his detective, Skelgill, is an irresistible mixture of irascible, self-centered, scruffy, generous and intuitive. Every character is roundly drawn and intriguing, the setting is as integral a character as the murderer and the pace never lags. Beckham accomplishes all of this in 3rd Person (omniscient) voice, present tense. It’s an unusual combination but in the hands of this author it is riveting.
It’s how he uses this tool to set and maintain a perfect pace and to draw the reader so fully into his world that amazed me. Reading a narrative described to you by an unknown, unseen, non-judgmental voice as the action unfolds just shouldn’t work. But it does. It’s like having your eyes covered at the movies while a very erudite friend describes what is happening on-screen.
Beckham is a master wordsmith and so uses dialog to show characterization and plot points but the present tense and 3rd P voice puts the reader in a front row seat as the action scenes unfold before our eyes. I didn’t feel as though I was right there — I was right there.
A writer’s choice of voice and tense would have to be dependent, in some part, on the story they are telling. Not every tale will fit just any combination. But it is amazing what a powerful difference the choice can make.
With a BA in Anthropology and English I pursued a career in advertising and writing and segued into developmental editing. It was a great choice for me. I love the process of creating and am privileged to be part of that process for so many great voices — voices both seasoned and new.
I’ve worked on nearly 400 books over 25 years, books by noted authors published by New York houses as well as with Indie bestsellers and Amazon dynamos. From Air Force manuals and marketing materials to memoirs, thrillers, sci fi and romance, my services range from copyediting to developmental coaching.
Having worked in advertising and marketing, I am always cognizant of the marketplace in which the author’s work will be seen. I coach for content and style with that knowledge in mind in order to maximize sales and/or educational potential. My objective is to help the author’s material stand out from an ever more crowded and competitive field.
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