Writing a Novel: In the desert, the excitement is intense*

Clementine_Bendle-ThompsonWell, we weren’t in the desert, (I could tell that because of the trams) but there was still a sense of excitement as we all turned up for the second session of the six-month Writing a Novel course at the Allen and Unwin office in East Melbourne (read about week one here). This week was focused on all things tense and we had our first guest speaker, the inspiring Melbourne author Sophie Cunningham, writer of Geography, Bird and Melbourne.

It was also our first writing exercise – a ‘tense situation about tense’. Sophie instructed us to write an argument scene in the tense which came most naturally to us, and then to rewrite it until we had written the same scene in all three different tenses – past, present and future – all in about 10 minutes! It wasn’t as simple as swapping had/has/will around, all the surrounding language had to be adjusted. Most of us realized that in fact we wrote in a bit of a hodgepodge of past and present tense, writing what ‘sounded nice’ rather than what was, you know, actually grammatically correct. There may have been a few red faces (mine included) once we had the myriad of mistakes pointed out to us!

We discussed the constraints of present tense, and I realized how much I enjoyed writing in the future tense, it makes everything sound rather portentous and Biblical. We all agreed that this probably isn’t sustainable, and so I won’t be writing an entire novel in future tense, because no one will ever read it (see what I did there?).

Sophie also talked about structure, and about how a novel can have a musical sense and a rhythm, which I think is a really great way to think about writing a book – sections from different character’s perspectives can function like a motif or a counter melody.

Next week will be our first workshop, and there was a bit of a Year 10 moment when Carrie asked for a volunteer to go first – lots of studiously avoided eye contact and sudden interest in examining fingernails. One of us was eventually brave enough to put up their hand (FYI – not me) but clearly this whole ‘sharing what you’ve written’ thing is something we’re all going to have to work at – but give us time! As I made my way home I realized that there were actually useful reasons behind why I’d chosen to write sections of my novel in past or present tense, but which I hadn’t really been consciously aware of when I started to write – so lots to think about!

* “in tents” – geddit? 🙂 A terrible joke from a long-suffering, high school teacher trying to whip up enthusiasm for Latin grammar.

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