Thursday, August 22, 2013

Past tense vs. present

John here.

Just started a new job chairing the 17-member English department at Northfield Mount Hermon School in western Mass., and the week got away from me. Here's a 7 A.M. photo of the river valley.

I don't have much to say, but I'll share what I'm thinking about this week: present tense vs. past. I'm 125 pages into my May 2015 novel, and I have two versions of the opening scene. I'm toying with the idea of making the opening page-and-a-half scene present tense. A drop-the-reader-onto-the-treadmill approach. There's a lot to consider: will the transition to past tense in the next scene be too jarring? It's not a prologue and can't be, given the narrative structure. And there's a lot of backstory that must be moved, which is probably a good thing.

Anyway, as you can see, I'm drafting, stressing, and am consumed by this. I'll share the opening three paragraphs of each with you here. Any thoughts?


1
The charred remains of the cabin were blackened and smelled like dying embers from campfires she remembered from her youth. A two-by-four tore away from the remnants of the roof and fell, hitting the soft ash floor like a branch landing in new-fallen snow. Cinders danced, sparked, and spawned a small flame.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent Peyton Cote stood outside the cabin and pocketed her radio after reporting the fire. The volunteer fire fighters would have trouble getting out here, four miles down a rut road off Route 1. But they could take their time. At this point, all they could do was douse the ashes.

She moved around the perimeter of the structure, not risking entry. She could see inside the small cabin because no walls remained, the roof held up by only three two-by-fours. Firefighters would have to knock it down before entering the middle of the structure. In the distance, she saw a rolling, fifty-acre canary-yellow canola field, its beauty a stark contrast to what she stood facing. Shed smelled what was left of the cabin well before shed seen the broken glass and chunks of blackened wood, which landed near the tree line. The explosion sent debris, according to her count, forty-three paces from the cabin.


1

The charred remains of the cabin are black and smell like the dying embers from the campfires of her youth. A two-by-four tears away from the remnants of the ceiling and falls, hitting the soft ash floor like a branch landing in new-fallen snow. Cinders dance and spark, spawning a small flame.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent Peyton Cote stands outside the cabin and pockets her radio, knowing the volunteer firemen can take their time: nothing left to do but douse the ashes.

She moves around the perimeter, not risking entry. But she can see inside. The walls are gone. Three charred two-by-fours support the roof. She sees a metal bed frame, now twisted and blackened.

3 comments:

Aline Templeton said...

Good luck with the new job, John.

Charlotte Hinger said...

John, the very best of luck on this great new job.

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