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I feel like I've been too quiet lately and ought to say something. Sorry about the general lack of commenting, by the way.

One of the things keeping me busy is the latest novel. It's now over 60,000 words long, and probably three-quarters done. So, naturally, now is when I've decided to stop writing in present tense, as I've been doing since the start for some unknown reason, and change it all to past tense like you find in normal narrative fiction. Present tense, though it nicely captures the current feel of a situation and therefore crops up frequently in short stories and poetry, often strikes people as pretentious or distracting in novels. And, really, why throw down another roadblock in my own path to publication? Having a weird plot that doesn't neatly fit any particular genre is going to make things hard enough.

So, past tense it is.

But this is not as easy as it sounds. It's a mind-numbing, long, tedious task. You can't just hit a button in Word and make it convert all present tense to past. For one thing, there is no such command. For another, you don't want all present-tense verbs changed to past. You just want the narrative verbs changed. The dialogue needs to stay as it is. So you have to search and replace on individual words, and look at each and every instance that Word turns up, and opt whether to change it or not. And that is where the massive time-consumption enters.

We all have several hundred verbs in our everyday working vocabulary, to point out just one problem. To judge from the workload so far, I apparently use most of them. To point out another problem, some verbs, in one form or another, double as other words. For instance, say you use the present-tense verb "remarks," as in "she remarks..." If you tell Word to replace all instances of "remarks" with "remarked," then you may end up with a sentence somewhere that reads, "They made several remarked." Woops. So, thanks to the 3rd person singular present-tense morpheme in English happening to take the same form as the regular plural for nouns ("-s"), you've got to watch out for the nouns and not change those. (Hmm, I think I just freaked out everyone who doesn't like linguistics.)

I'm nowhere near done with this process. I'm wondering if there's any language in which this would really be easy to fix. Maybe one in which tense was expressed by a separate particle, unconnected to the verb root, which always stood alone and never blended with the form of any other words. Yeah, dream on.

Moral of story? When you start writing a long piece of prose, be very sure which tense you want to write in, be prepared to defend your decision, and then stick with it. It's fortunate that in English we only have two tenses to choose from. Imagine the damage I might do if the imperfect were an option...

Comments

( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
darthbeckman
May. 12th, 2004 05:06 pm (UTC)
I remember Winston Churchill once said turning verbs into nouns drove him crazy. It was something up with which he did not put!
mollyringle
May. 12th, 2004 08:55 pm (UTC)
Hehe - I always liked to bring out that quote in Linguistics, when demonstrating that "never end a sentence with a preposition" was a silly rule. But, yeah, verbing nouns (heh) is quite widespread in English, and seemingly has been for centuries. We all have certain ones that bug us to death, nonetheless. I used to hate "impact" as a verb, but I've gotten used to it...
trilliah
May. 12th, 2004 05:06 pm (UTC)
Did that before with a 10-page paper and it almost killed me, so I can only imagine what you're going through.

Why not send out chapters for people to edit for you? Break up the workload, as it were.
aerin_pegadrak
May. 12th, 2004 05:51 pm (UTC)
That sounds like a good idea. That way you'd only have to skim through it and fix the ones they missed, rather than having to do it all yourself. I'd gladly do a chapter.

And don't even get me started on the imperfect. I've been taking Spanish three years and I still can't get it straight.
mollyringle
May. 12th, 2004 08:58 pm (UTC)
I'll be skimming through it several times anyhow, in the usual editing process later on, so hopefully I'll catch anything then. But if I need help, I'll keep you in mind! :)

The worst about the imperfect is that it doesn't end there. There's something called the imperfective in some languages, which is slightly different than the imperfect. Don't ask me how; I blocked that from my mind.
fujerica
May. 12th, 2004 06:26 pm (UTC)
Count me in for a chapter as well! I love proofing and editing. :-)
mollyringle
May. 12th, 2004 08:56 pm (UTC)
Ah, I think I'm too much of a control freak to let anyone else do it, especially this early, when it's still an unfinished rough draft. (Eek! It mustn't be seen!) But if I ever get sufficiently sick of it, I'll try to recruit volunteers. :)
badgermirlacca
May. 12th, 2004 09:34 pm (UTC)
It's fortunate that in English we only have two tenses to choose from.

Huh? Just because some of them use auxiliary verbs doesn't mean they aren't tenses....
mollyringle
May. 12th, 2004 09:40 pm (UTC)
Well, there are lots of things that are commonly called "tenses," but in strict linguist-lingo, English only has two actual verb tenses, past and present. When you involve auxiliaries, they start calling them "aspects" and "moods" rather than "tenses." Fascinating, no? :)
badgermirlacca
May. 13th, 2004 01:05 pm (UTC)
Our language has no future. Well, that figures.

Although honestly, I think calling them "aspects" or "moods" rather than "tenses" is a distinction that doesn't make a difference.
mildred
May. 13th, 2004 01:39 am (UTC)
I would definitely not have the patience for that, lol. Mind you I don't have the patience for a lot of things...
rachel2205
May. 13th, 2004 06:17 am (UTC)
Gah. Good luck!
(Anonymous)
May. 13th, 2004 09:36 am (UTC)
60,000 words
When I first read this post I misread it as ". . .600,000 words long, and probably three-quarters done."

My first thought was "She's writing The Lord Of The Rings!" - then I re-read and saw 60,000. Whew . . .

Best of luck to you - I'm about 25,000 words into my first novel (I've been working on it longer than I care to admit) - Can't wait to be at the point you're at.

Thinkling Bill
mollyringle
May. 13th, 2004 04:43 pm (UTC)
Re: 60,000 words
Hehe. I don't think even LOTR is 600,000 words long! 300,000, maybe...

It does seem daunting to finish a novel, but there's no magic to it - just perseverance. With this one, I did a little math and told myself that if I could just try to write 300 words a day, more or less, most days, then by the time one year has gone by, I'll have 90,000 words: a novel. I haven't quite worked at full speed - this 60,000 words has taken me about 9 months, which comes out to an average of 222 words a day - but every little bit helps!

Best of luck.
teasel
May. 13th, 2004 09:09 pm (UTC)
I shall have wanted to comment, but was unable to decide what tense (or mode, as the case may be :D) I would have been using to do so.

Best of luck. Sounds about as much entertaining as watching paint clip its toenails. :(
mollyringle
May. 14th, 2004 08:17 pm (UTC)
Hehe. Nice usage of just about every auxiliary verb known to English! I'm finding those are something of a pain in this conversion too...
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )