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“I Yearn” Versus “She Yearned”: Wrestling with Tense and Point of View

point of view [1]Last year, as a way of giving myself a meaningful deadline and my writing broader exposure, I signed a contract to participate in a multi-author boxed set. In theory, the expectations around my story were quite doable: a half year in which to write and edit a 20,000-word contemporary romance novella. I even had the nugget of an intriguing idea and began writing without delay.

For a time, progress was excellent.

Famous last words, right? Because of course, with three months left on the calendar, the challenges began.

First, with 30,000 words composed, it was obvious I was on my way to writing a full-length novel.

This wasn’t a deal-breaker, however. I knew where the story was headed (look at me, becoming a grown-up outliner and such!) and I was still in love with the idea. It felt like a fresh take on a hot trend (office romance), and it was exciting to think of writing a marketable book I also adored.

The bigger issue, and the one I needed to solve immediately, was that my characters were becoming emotionally removed. They did stuff, but they had stopped explaining the why of their actions.

The solution was one I have employed to good result in the past: write in first-person, then convert the passages to third. (This approach can provide added benefit by deepening the third-person point of view.)*

And lo, when I tried it, the heavens did part and the pages did sing. I suddenly had character motivation, emotionality, and internal consistency.

I also had the passages in first-person present tense—a problem because, try as I might, I couldn’t get them to match the preceding 30,000 words, written in third-person past.

With the deadline approaching, I could see four options:

What was an author to do, especially an author still building her audience? An author who didn’t want to sacrifice quality, and who hates missing deadlines?

Honestly, the conundrum made my head hurt. This was the first time as an indie writer that I urgently longed for an agent or publisher’s advice.

Here’s how I compensated:

1. I reached out to four astute friends who know the romance market, and who would be balanced and fair-minded in appraising current trends against the weight of tradition.
Result: to a person they all said to trust the story’s direction. One author, whom I’m paraphrasing, said, “Romance readers are all about the feels. Go with the feels.”

2. I conducted a form of market research by looking at the top-selling contemporary romances on Amazon. While it would only be a snapshot view of one format on one vendor in one moment in time, a semi-quantifiable approach might tell me whether my fears were realistic. Result: Alas, I didn’t hang onto my notes, but of the top twenty romances, I recall that nearly 50% were written in first person, and approximately 40% were written in present tense. (There was even one book in third-person present tense.) In other words, if I stuck with first-person present tense, my book wouldn’t look freakishly weird.

With “expert opinion” and preliminary market research concurring, I chose the first option and got busy.

In the end, I rewrote the first half of the book and finished the manuscript. I sent it to an editor who didn’t bat an eyelash at the choice of tense or point of view, and I completed a book I’m proud of, that went in unexpected and rewarding directions. (Preliminary reader feedback is encouraging, too.)

Oh, and I discovered an unexpected wrinkle!

Writing sex scenes in 1st person present tense is just…odd and left me feeling more emotionally exposed than writing in third. (e.g. “He takes my nipple in his mouth” versus “he took her nipple in his mouth”.) This was such a strange experience, I almost had to write the passages of physical intimacy in third-person past tense, then convert them to first-person present.

Go figure!

Now over to you, Unboxeders. Have you wrestled with choice of tense and/or point of view? When considering your options, what guided you in your chosen direction? Ultimately, did you pick well or do you have lingering regrets?

*An example of 1st person point-of-view in past tense: I lathered the dog’s fur.
First-person point-of-view in present tense: I lather the dog’s fur.
Third-person past tense: She lathered the dog’s fur.
Third-person present tense: She lathers the dog’s fur.
Recommended reading: Alicia Rasley’s The Power of Point of View [2].

About Jan O'Hara [3]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [4] left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories that zoom from wackadoodle to heartfelt in six seconds flat: (Opposite of Frozen [5]; Cold and Hottie [6]; Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures [7]). She also contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.