Tag Archives: editing

The Editor Pontificates: Past Perfect

Double-Stuf-OreosNo, I’m not talking about the perfect past – you know, where your grandma keeps going on about the Good Old Days in the Past, When Everything Was Perfect. What I’m talking about here is the grammatical “past perfect” tense.

Bear with me for a moment here. I keep stumbling over this matter in my work as editor (ahem – I almost feel like I should capitalise this: My Work As Editor. Spoken with a suitably declarative intonation, so that the capitals become evident and everyone is duly impressed. Anyway…). Now, most of you probably don’t give a rip about grammar. If so, just ignore me. But some of you might actually care, and for those, allow me to pontificate for a moment.

“Pontificate”, incidentally, comes from the Latin “pontifex”, which was an early word for “bishop” (the Pope is still called Pontifex Maximus today). So, to pontificate is, quite plainly, to preach. Speaking of Latin, “perfect” is, of course, also Latin, from “perficio”, “through + make”, or “finish building”. Something that’s perfect is completed, all the way. So in grammar terms, something that’s “perfect” is something that’s finished, over with.

I was in an online discussion the other day on this very topic, and one participant, who is an ESL teacher in Asia, said that when he talks to his students he calls the past perfect the “double past”. That’s a great term, because it describes exactly what it is. Like a Double Oreo cookie, where you get twice the filling (the Oreo of Oreos, as it were), the double past means you get the past of the past.

So, when I’m talking about today, I use, of course, the present tense. “Today I waffle on about grammar matters and bore my readers to tears.” If I talk about yesterday, I use the simple past: “Yesterday, I thought of this topic.” Now, if I want to talk about something that happened before the past, I use the past perfect: “Yesterday, I thought of this topic, because the day before yesterday I had discussed it with other writers online.” When I thought of the topic yesterday, the discussing was already in the past. Double past, or past perfect.

In English, to put it simply, the past perfect is formed by “had” and the appropriate verb form: today I eat, yesterday I ate, the day before that I had eaten. (There are some convoluted verb forms where you end up with stacks of “had”, but we’ll ignore those here.)

In daily life, we rarely use the double past. But in writing, it does become relevant. Most fiction is written in the past tense (“It was the blue bowl that started it all…”), so if you describe something that happened before that moment you’re describing, you’ve got to put it in past perfect: “It was a turquoise blue, very much like the eyes of the weird guy that had stared at Cat so disturbingly in the Room of Local Antiquities.” If that “had” wasn’t there, it would mean that the guy is standing there right now, staring at Cat – but it happened earlier, before she walked into the Ceramics Room and saw the fateful blue bowl. Because the whole story is told in past tense, anything that happened prior to it requires the double past. (If you want to know what else happened with Cat and the blue bowl and just who that weird guy was, go read Seventh Son. End of advertisement.)

The most common mistake in this regard is to have your story told in past tense, but forget to use the double past when you’re telling of events prior to your “narrative present” (i.e. the time the story takes place in), which can leave the reader scratching their head as to exactly what’s happening when. But I’ve also seen stories that are told in present tense, where the author overcompensates: the “narrative present” is the present, so anything that happens before then should be in the simple past tense (single Oreo) – but then the author tries extra-hard to get the tense right and ends up putting in an excess of “had”. Nope, you don’t want that. If you’re telling it right now, a prior event goes in the simple past – single Oreo. If you’re telling everything in the past, a prior event goes in the past perfect or double past – it gets the double Oreo.

Make sense? Good. I’ll get off my editor’s pulpit then and stop boring you.

Life, the Universe, the Past Perfect and Double Oreos. Pass the milk.

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Tangles and Darkness

This week in telegram style: RAN ERRANDS STOP DID SOME GARDENING STOP TRIED TO UNTANGLE THE STORYLINES OF CHECKMATE STOP TRIED TO UNTANGLE THE TANGLES I CREATED BY UNTANGLING STOP SIGH STOP (In case you’re wondering what a telegram is, it’s a form of communication from the last century that no longer exists. It was kind of like texting on paper. The world’s last telegram was sent in July 2013 in India.)

With the way I write, events tend to flow from one scene to the next – I write something, and then the next thing is the logical step after that, referring back to a small piece of information that I’ve given in the last chapter, or the one before that. Now, when it comes to implementing some of my most excellent beta readers’ suggestions to the tune of “This really ought to happen sooner/later/not at all/much more often”, I can’t just take one scene and drag and drop it into an earlier part of the story. It would have the effect of taking a chunk of fish net and yanking really hard – the whole weave is destroyed. So I have to carefully un-knot the section and reconnect it elsewhere – this sentence could go here, three chapters previously; while this piece of information could come in there, in the middle of chapter 22; and this bit here could be deleted altogether, but then we better add another paragraph over here. Speaking of chapter 22, that got moved about three times this week – first up behind chapter 16 (so it, and all the intervening chapters, had to be renamed); then both of them back down again to become chapters 22 and 23 (or maybe it was 21 and 22, can’t remember); then back again to position 16 & 17… Oh what a tangled web we weave / when first we practise to, umm, write a story.

IMG_20150515_092758In other news, I’m reading a fascinating book at the moment: At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, by A. Roger Ekirch. It’s totally shifting my thinking about history, about my fictional world (which is, after all, a pseudo-pre-industrial-European setting), and even about our current sleeping habits and lifestyles. What is so revolutionary about this is the realisation that up until about 150 years ago, nighttime was dark. I know, I know, that’s pretty much a “d’uh” – but is it? Today, we can have daylight brightness whenever we want. Even when we’re gingerly making our way along a dark campground lane towards the outhouse and back to our tent, we know full well that when we go home tomorrow, we’ll be right in 100-Watt-lightbulb range again. And even then, the little flashlight we carry to keep us from tripping over roots on the way is multiple times brighter than any lantern our ancestors had. We only play at being in the dark, but in the past, once nighttime fell, that’s all you had until the sun came up again in the morning. I wonder if the invention of artificial light wasn’t one of the most revolutionary moments of history.

Life, the Universe, Tangles and Darkness. That’s today’s news from the writing and reading trenches.

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Filed under this and that, writing

First Draft

So the first draft of Checkmate, Septimus Series Book 3, is in the bag, as of two hours ago. And by first draft, I mean raw, unvarnished, un-spell-checked, NaNoWriMo-ish, plot-hole-riddled, wordy etc etc. (you get the picture). I had frozen in place at the end of NaNo in the middle of a scene, having crossed the 50K-word finish line. Then Christmas happened, aka no writing for about a month, and then a January full of sort of limping along, stuttering my way to the completion of the book. But now it’s done – there is a STORY here.

And I’m exhausted. Writing is tiring, you know? Especially if you write the way I do, which is in spurts – nothing, nothing, nothing, writewritewritewrite, nothing, nothing… I’ve yet to master the fine art (which some of my friends are experts on) of writing so many words a day, come rain, shine, or cloudy-with-a-chance-of-meatballs. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do in little bits every day – I tend to be an all-or-nothing person, sort of a single-track mind. I obsess on whatever-it-is until I’m done, or lose interest and pick up the next subject.

So, draft is finished, dinner has been had, and now I think it’s time for another glass of wine and an episode or two of Once Upon a Time (we’re up to Season 2, Episode 10). And tomorrow, or whenever, it’s back to the drawing board for Checkmate. Re-read, re-write, rinse and repeat.

Life, the Universe, and Finished First Drafts. Checkmate!

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Sunrise on sea of fog – this morning as I started writing.

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Filed under The Septimus Series, writing