Sep 23 2017

Self-narration and the self-aware narrator: Part 2 of 2

Self-narration
I make a distinction between the self-aware narrator and self-narration. The two go hand-in-hand, but aren’t exactly the same thing. The self-aware narrator is the character who steps out of her role to tell the readers a story. Self-narration is the writer’s choice of prose that creates the self-aware narrator.

A shorter version: the self-aware narrator is your character; self-narration is the words you choose that make her self-aware.

Here’s a made-up example of self-narration:

I walked in the front door, removed my hat and gloves, kicked my high heels off and put on my slippers, then I walked into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. I pulled the coffee beans out of the cabinet, put them in the grinder and grabbed a filter. I poured the water in the pot and hit the start button, then sat down to rub my sore feet and waited for the pot to brew. My feet had been trapped in those high heels all day at the office. I sighed as I remembered the foot massages David used to give me, and I missed them. I always enjoy it so much more when someone else rubs my feet.

There are several signs of self-narration in this bit.

First, there is step-by-step narration. We know how coffee is made; the writer doesn’t need to explain it. In first-person voice, it sounds like the character has stepped out of the story to detail a process she probably isn’t even thinking about. In real life, we don’t self-narrate our lives like this to ourselves, so it doesn’t feel natural to read a first-person character doing it.

By the time we get to the second half of the paragraph, the voice is clearly established: the character is telling us about her sore feet and that she remembers David’s foot massages. We aren’t inside her head – she is telling us what she is thinking.

Here’s one possible revision of that paragraph:

The warmth of my apartment embraced me. With the coffee brewing, I sat down to rub my feet, imprisoned in high heels all day. If only David were here with one of his foot massages.

A whole lot fewer words (35 instead of 122), and we get that she kicked off her heels (and we assume her hat and gloves) and made a pot of coffee. Then we get something from inside her perspective – her feet ache. Then we get something even more internal – she misses David’s foot rubs (and probably misses David, or at least companionship). This came through an internal thought rather than narration.

Put us in her head and let us feel the mood and hear her thoughts in real time.

All the unimportant actions slow the pace to a crawl. Despite all those words, nothing happens. In the revised version, something happens: we connect just a tiny bit more to her missing David.

This is only one paragraph, but if you can connect to a reader a tiny bit more in every paragraph throughout a novel, those tiny bits will add up to something magnificent.

Another problem with the first version of this paragraph, another telltale sign of self-narration: the I-bomb.

The word “I” appears eight times in the first paragraph. I did this, I did that, I went over here, I thought about something. The revised paragraph contains only one “I.”

I-bombs create self-narration. Or they’re a symptom of self-narration. Hard to say which came first, the Self or the I. We don’t think in “I” sentences about ourselves. We only say “I” when talking to someone. If the narrative is filled with I sentences, the narrator must be talking to someone – to me, the reader.

A third telltale sign is the self-narration of emotion, often through external or physical signs. “I sighed, I frowned, I furrowed my brow and pursed my lips…” These are useless signals of emotion, and it’s not likely your character even notices when she sighs or frowns. She can’t see herself to describe her facial expressions unless she steps out of character and self-narrates from a camera-eye view.

Instead, show the emotion through dialogue, actions, and real-time internal thoughts. When your character cries, you want your readers to cry.

The key to overcoming a self-aware narrator and self-narration is two-fold:

  1. The ‘art’ side: Instead of having your character tell her story to readers, get inside your character’s skin and write from her internal perspective so readers experience it through her eyes and mind as it happens.
  2. The ‘craft’ side: create sentences that greatly reduce the reliance on “I” statements, eliminate step-by-step narration of unimportant details, and replace external narration of emotion with internal emotion.

For more on making readers feel the emotion, see:

Internal vs External Emotion

Writing in 3-D, Part III: Despair

For Part 1 of this article, click here.


Sep 23 2017

Self-narration and the self-aware narrator: Part 1 of 2

Narrative self-awareness
Narrative self-awareness is a frequent issue in first-person manuscripts from clients or potential clients. For a long time, I wasn’t even sure there was a name for it – it just fell into the “I know it when I see it” category that something was off in the writing.

Then at a writers’ conference years ago, a famous author (so famous I’ve forgotten her name or I’d give her credit) mentioned the self-aware narrator as one of the biggest obstacles many beginning (and some advanced) writers face. She went on to define the self-aware narrator as (and I’m paraphrasing):

“…when the first-person character, who is, of course, the story’s narrator, is aware that she is the narrator and mindful of you, the reader. Thus, she tells her story to you, always conscious of your existence and her role of telling the story. This generally makes for a very drab novel and keeps the reader outside the character’s experience. It’s the difference between watching a great movie or having a friend who saw the movie describe it to you in excruciating detail for an hour and a half. It’s boring and awful. Stop it.”

But how do you stop doing it if you don’t know what it is, how to recognize it, or how to address it?

The first-person narrator can become self-aware when the author feels distant from the character and projects the story to the readers through the character. The writer isn’t getting inside the character and letting readers experience the story through the character’s eyes, from inside her head and inside her skin.

Narrative self-awareness may be useful in certain narrative portions of a story in some genres – where the character steps into the role of first-person narrator to ruminate on life, reminisce about the past, or consider her options. But in an active or dialogue scene with other characters, the self-aware narrator needs to disappear and let the character experience the moment first-hand.

The self-aware character “self-narrates” the story (more on this in Part II). She tells readers what happens to her as opposed to readers experiencing the scene from inside the point-of-view character. The narration comes across as the character viewing herself and the story, then relaying that information to readers. It’s a distancing way to tell a first-person story (or a close third-person story, for that matter). It feels like the narrator is speaking directly to readers. It damages the biggest strength of a first-person narrative: the close, intimate perspective.

When the narrator/character talks directly to the reader, the reader’s brain subconsciously processes it as “this is the author stepping onto the page to tell me something… it’s a novel, fiction, not a real character or real events.” The self-aware narrator knows it’s just a story and that she has a role to play, and narrates the story from that perspective. This breaks the reader’s “suspension of disbelief.”

When this happens, it usually manifests as “self-narration.” And that’s often when a reader sets a book down and never picks it up again.

See Part 2 here.


Aug 14 2017

Ellie’s Head: A micro-novel

Ellie’s Head was originally written back in 2009 as part of a contest to write a ‘Facebook Fictionette’ back in the days when posts on Facebook were limited to 420 characters and spaces. The contest rules were that each participant had to write a piece of a story that would fit within that limit each day for 14 consecutive days, and that by the end of the 14 days, it had to be a complete short story.

I decided to up the ante on myself as a challenge. I forced myself to write each day’s piece as a standalone chapter, a complete moment in a scene with all the elements of a scene (dialogue, characterization, action, rising tension, etc.). As a bit of a precision writing and editing practice, I determined each chapter would not just fit within the 420 character/space limitation — each would be exactly 420 characters/spaces.

And so that how I wrote Ellie’s Head in 14 days, one micro-chapter at a time. It was a fun exercise and a fun contest among writer friends on Facebook, and I stumbled across it the other day and gave it another read for the first time in years, and I still like it. So I decided I’d just share it here and hope enjoy!

ELLIE’S HEAD
by
ROBB GRINDSTAFF

CHAPTER 1

Ya see, we was just hanging out under the bridge, looking for someplace warm. Not causing any trouble. Not looking for any. Last thing we needed was trouble. Ellie had passed out in her tent with some guy. No one any of us knew. He gave me the creeps, but when Ellie’s got her mind set on a bit of lovin’, ain’t no talking her out of it. Didn’t occur to me she might not wake up. He was long gone. Never got a good look.

CHAPTER 2

Cops was all over the place, asking us questions we didn’t know no answers to.
“Didn’t you hear nothing suspicious? Didn’t she scream?”
“She always screamed,” Jake said. “Ellie was a screamer.”
A young officer over by her tent puked.
“Ain’t you never seen a headless torso before, rookie?”
“It’s not that, Captain,” the rookie replied, wiping his chin. “It’s the smell.”
Seems when a head is cut loose, the bowels do too.

CHAPTER 3

“Can we tell Ellie goodbye?” Jake asked the captain as the coroner’s team loaded a black body bag into the van.
“Sure.” The cop spit on the ground and waited a beat. “Did you want to speak to her body or her head?”
“Her head,” I replied. “We should tell her we’re sorry to her face.”
“Okay. As soon as we find it, we’ll be sure and let you know. Apparently her lover wanted a souvenir.”
“Or maybe a little head,” Jake said.

CHAPTER 4

“The cops ain’t a-lookin’ for no homeless hooker’s head,” Jake said the next day. “Why don’t we look for it?”
“Where you gonna look? And if’n you find it, they gonna think you the one that hid it to start with.” The last thing we needed now was to find Ellie’s head. We was better off if it stayed hid. Or if the fool that took it got caught, or tried to sell it on eBay or somethin’. It’d be worth more’n Jake’s, anyway.

CHAPTER 5

Jake would walk up and down the riverbank, checkin’ dumps ever’where, determined to find Ellie’s head. He wouldn’t talk to me, just come back every evenin’ all glum.
Third day, however, he comes runnin’ outta breath.
“I seen it. I seen it.”
I refused to go with him. He comes back half hour later looking glum again.
“So it wasn’t a head?”
“It was a head all right.”
“Well, where is it?”
“Weren’t Ellie, so I thro’d it back.”

CHAPTER 6

“What’d you do that for?”
Jake never did have no sense. He kicked the dirt with his worn out Converses, duct tape holding the soles to the uppers.
“But you said if’n I found Ellie, them cops would think I’d done it. If I found a different head, they’d really suspect me, don’t you think?”
I guess he had a point, and he didn’t have those very often.
“Jake,” I said, “seems we got us a serial decapitator living amongst us.”

CHAPTER 7

I tried to think of some plan to catch the killer, or at least make sure Jake and I weren’t nicked for it. But it’s hard to think when you’re deep into the Mad Dog and Jake is hummin’ old show tunes, a particularly irritating habit.
“If the cops find that head, could they get my fingerprints off it?”
“You tossed it in the river?”
“Yeah, but it’ll wash ashore again.”
“S’okay. Fish probably nibbled your prints off by now.”

CHAPTER 8

“Jake Camden, you in there?” The captain’s voice busted into my tent and split my head in half.
“Wrong house. Cardboard box, over there.” Crunching boots faded across the gravel while Jake waited in his boxers and black socks.
“Don’t talk without no lawyer,” I yelled.
“Mind your own bid’ness. He’s not under arrest. We just wanna talk.”
Jake pulled on clothes and sat in the back of the cruiser lookin’ guilty of something.

CHAPTER 9

I fretted over Jake most of the day. Boy was so simple, he’d admit to murder if they promised him ice cream. He’d confess to being homosexual if they threatened to take it away. He’d go down for Ellie’s head even if he han’t nothin’ to do with it. Boy was too meek to kill a spider. Always take a stick to brush it away so’s not to hurt it.
Then, there he was in front of me, grinnin’ like they let him eat the ice cream.

CHAPTER 10

“Well, what did they say?” The tape had come off one of his shoes, so it flapped like a cartoon dog mouth and scooped up gravel when he kicked the ground.
“They ask a lot a stuff that make no sense.” Weren’t much that would make sense to Jake.
“Like what?”
“If Ellie had anyone who would want her dead. And they asked about you two, if you had a thang.”
“What did you say?”
He grinned. “I had to remind ‘em you’s both girls.”

CHAPTER 11

A week passed with no more heads lost or found. Cops didn’t come round no more. They’d moved on to more important crimes and Ellie was long forgot. Not many in the world ever knew she existed, so can’t rightly say they’d forgot. Jake stapled his shoes back together as we sat on the riverbank, said he’s movin’ to the shelter when it gets below freezin’.
“I suspect that’ll be by tonight, so you better git.”
“You cryin’?”

CHAPTER 12

Two months had passed, the air gone bitter, when the rookie cop stopped by.
“You the one who goes by Mike?” he asked.
“Why you hasslin’ me? I’m two weeks clean so I can see my kid at Christmas.”
“I got news. Ellie’s head and body have been reunited.”
“Won’t help to sew it back on.”
“No, just in the same freezer drawer. Captain said you might want to say your goodbyes before they close the case and dispose of the remains.”

CHAPTER 13

The clean smell of death in the morgue made my legs rubber.
“This is her drawer,” Rookie said, “but you don’t want to look. She’d want you to remember her the way she was.”
She was a heroin-addicted whore living under a bridge. Not sure that’s how she wanted to be remembered, either. I rested my hand on the vault and left it closed.
“I’m sorry you’re dead, Ellie. Hope you’re someplace safe and warm. Well, not too warm.”

CHAPTER 14

“We’re still trying to find her kin. She has the initials ‘M.A.’ tattooed on her buttocks. Any idea who that is?”
“No, ‘fraid I don’t, Officer, uh …”
“Dill.”
Officer Dill led me out of the morgue and into the gray metal cold outside, where death didn’t smell so clean.
“Mike, if you need anything, anything at all, let me know. And call me Tommie.” He held out his hand. He had a firm but soft grip.
“Mikayla. Mikayla Adams.”

END

“Ellie’s Head” was published in the short story anthology Summer’s Edge by Elephant’s Bookshelf Press in 2013.


May 11 2017

Grindstaff Editing expands

Robb Grindstaff Editing is expanding with an eye on the future.

On occasion, we have had to turn down prospective editing clients because they weren’t ready for an editor. We point them in other directions and to resources where they can develop their craft of writing before they invest hard-earned money for editing services.

But far too often, we’ve had to turn down inquiries due to lack of time, prospective clients who are excellent writers or show exceptional potential. We can only edit so many novels each month, and manuscripts generally need more than one type of edit.

So I’m excited to bring on two sharp assistant editors with keen eyes for everything from plot problems to semicolon abuse. We will be able to offer at least two sets of eyes on every manuscript.

Meet the team:

Lauren Mckinnon
Lauren spent her high school years in Japan. She is a writer and editor with newspapers and online publications, and has edited novels for internationally published authors. She is finishing her degree in Public Policy with a minor in Communications, and has her eye on Notre Dame Law School.

Laura Oig
Laura is an editor and writer of speculative fiction. She was born in Canada, and currently resides in Denmark with her Danish husband. A literary omnivore, she is never without a book close at hand. She comes by that naturally as she is the daughter of Jonas Saul, author of the Sarah Roberts series.

Grindstaff Editing
We have been in business seven years, with sixty clients and more than 200 books edited, including fiction of all genres, and non-fiction such as memoirs, business, and self-help books.

Clients hail from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Europe, and the Middle East, and include authors with traditionally published books through major publishers, represented by top literary agencies, published through small presses and digital-first publishers, and dedicated, highly successful indie authors.

Most exciting, however, is helping a talented newcomer find his or her voice and polish a manuscript to stand out in a crowded, competitive marketplace.

Robb Grindstaff
Robb Grindstaff is the author of two novels, Hannah’s Voice and Carry Me Away, published by Evolved Publishing, plus a dozen published short stories. His articles on the craft of writing fiction have appeared in print and online writing publications. He and Australian author and writing coach Samantha Bond jointly teach writing courses for the Romance Writers of Australia.

Robb lives on a few acres in rural Wisconsin with his wife, dog, chickens, and assorted wildlife visitors.

Contact us:
Visit our website.

To inquire about editing services, email robb@robbgrindstaff.com.


Apr 29 2017

That which confounds us…

I received my copyedited manuscript back from my publisher, and am proud to say that it was VERY clean, except that I seem to completely miss the difference between which and that. Something about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, but that means nothing to me. Can you explain?David, author

Restrictive and non-restrictive clauses are adjective clauses – they modify or describe the noun, either the subject or object, of the sentence. They’re also called relative clauses because they relate to the rest of the sentence.

Restrictive clauses do just what they say: they restrict the subject or object. They add a specific description to distinguish the subject or object from any other. Removing the restrictive clause from the sentence would change the meaning of the sentence or make it confusing or too vague.

Non-restrictive clauses add additional information about the subject, but they don’t restrict the subject to a specific item. The non-restrictive clause can be removed from the sentence without changing the meaning.

Makes perfect sense, right? Ahem. Okay, it makes more sense with examples.

The car was stolen.

‘The car’ is the subject of the sentence. It was stolen.

What car was stolen? We need more information.

The car, which was in the parking lot, was stolen.

That is a non-restrictive clause. There may have been lots of cars in the parking lot. If you remove this non-restrictive clause, it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. The car was stolen. The non-restrictive clause (‘which was in the parking lot’) adds additional information, but doesn’t restrict it to one specific car.

The car that was in the disabled parking space was stolen.

Oh, that car. “That” added more information that specifically restricted the subject of the sentence to that car. Not any of the other cars in the parking lot. That car. That car that used to be right there but isn’t there anymore because it’s been stolen.

Non-restrictive clauses (‘which’ clauses, adding more info but not restricting) are set off with commas from the main sentence because it is additional information, almost a parenthetical statement. The car, which was in the parking lot, was stolen.

Some ways it can get mixed up:

I love pasta, which this restaurant serves. (non-restrictive)

“Pasta” is the object of this sentence. This sentence means I love pasta in general. Some added information is that this restaurant serves pasta, but I’m not specifically saying I love the pasta served at this restaurant – I’m not restricting my statement to only pasta from this restaurant. In fact, my next sentence might say, “However, this restaurant’s pasta tastes like crap.”

I love the pasta that this restaurant serves. (restrictive)

This means I specifically love the pasta served at this restaurant. I may or may not love pasta from other restaurants — I am restricting the meaning of my statement to refer specifically to the pasta served here.

A way to check: if you can eliminate the word ‘that’ and it still makes sense and is grammatically correct, then it’s a restrictive sentence and you should use ‘that,’ not ‘which.’ Or, even better, you can just eliminate ‘that’ to save on word count and tighten your sentences. I’ve edited novels that contained 1,000 unnecessary ‘thats.’

I love the pasta this restaurant serves.

This sentence removes the word ‘that.’ It’s still grammatically correct, and the meaning of the sentence remains the same. I could use the word ‘that’ if I wanted it, but the sentence stands without it.

WRONG: I love the pasta which this restaurant serves.
‘Which’ is non-restrictive so it needs a comma to set the clause apart as additional, separate information.

WRONG: I love the pasta, that this restaurant serves.
‘That’ is restrictive, so there shouldn’t be a comma in this sentence. If you eliminate ‘that’ from this sentence you wind up with an errant comma and an incomplete sentence: I love the pasta, this restaurant serves.

If you’re referring to people, instead of using that/which, use who/whose. Who/whose can be either restrictive or non-restrictive, so it’s the commas setting the clause apart that signal to the reader whether it’s restrictive or non-restrictive.

The scientist who discovered gravity was named Newton.
This sentence is restrictive, so no comma. I’m referring specifically, restrictively, to the one scientist who discovered gravity. And yeah, don’t quibble on my science here. But here we use ‘who’ instead of ‘that’ because it refers to a person rather than a thing.

My favorite scientist, who discovered gravity, is Newton.
This sentence is non-restrictive. Take out the clause and it still make sense: My favorite scientist is Newton. The non-restrictive clause adds additional information. Newton is my favorite scientist, oh and by the way, he discovered gravity. Here, we use ‘who’ rather than ‘which.’

My favorite scientist, whose discoveries included gravity, is Newton.
Non-restrictive clause adds more information to this sentence, but it still makes sense without the clause. The clause is set off by commas, uses ‘whose’ (possessive) instead of ‘which’ because the clause refers to a person rather than a thing.

My favorite scientist who discovered gravity is Bhaskaracharya.
Restrictive clause. Two scientists discovered gravity, and this sentence restricts my favorite to only one of them.

As we’ve seen above, when it’s a restrictive clause, you can often eliminate the word ‘that.’ Sometimes you can change the verb in the restrictive clause to an -ing verb and eliminate the ‘that.’ For example:

I watch the whales that swim next to the boat.
Restrictive ‘that,’ no commas, specifies exactly which whales I watch. I watch those whales that swim next to the boat. I do not watch the whales that swim a mile away. I watch those whales right there.

I watch the whales swimming next to the boat.
Restrictive, same as above, but drops ‘that’ and changes ‘swim’ to ‘swimming.’

WRONG: I watch the whales, swimming next to the boat.
Does not take a comma here as it is a restrictive clause. Also, that little comma confuses the whole meaning of the sentence. Does it now mean I am swimming next to the boat while I watch whales?

Got all that?

Short version:
Use ‘that’ without commas to restrict the subject or object of the sentence to a specific one. The sentence won’t make sense without the restrictive clause.

Use ‘which’ with commas to add extra information about the subject or object of the sentence. Sentence will still make sense without the clause.


Jul 4 2016

Military terms and style in fiction: Get them right

NOTE: The following are general guidelines on usage and capitalization of military terms, services, and ranks when writing primarily for a U.S. audience.

Using the wrong word, or capitalizing a military term incorrectly, may fly right by a reader who has never been in the military or is unfamiliar with military terminology and style, but if a reader has served in the military, it waves a big red flag that the writer didn’t do the research. Minor errors can create the impression in the reader’s mind that the author is writing about something with little to no knowledge of the topic. That breaks the ‘suspension of disbelief’ for the reader.

So as a diligent writer, you do the research on usage, and guess what? You’ll find a variety of conflicting advice, recommendations, and style choices. Which one should you use?

There are two basic and safe choices to make: Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS) or Associated Press (AP). There are even a few differences between the two. CMoS is generally regarded as the primary style guide for fiction and non-fiction books, and AP is the premier style for journalism.

There are also formal military writing style guides. Each branch of the U.S. Armed Forces has its own style guide for how they use military terms. Like many organizations, they prefer to uppercase a wide variety of terms in internal writing and documents that the fiction writer wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, normally capitalize.

RANKS
For ranks such as private, captain, and admiral, there are traditional abbreviations and capitalization styles, and then each service branch has their own set of styles.

For example, if Fred Jones is a colonel in the U.S. Army, the military would write his name as COL Jones (all cap, no period). But Bill Smith is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, so he writes his name Col. Smith.

It’s going to look pretty awkward and inconsistent if you have both COL Jones and Col. Smith as characters in your novel. Your best bet is the traditional abbreviation “Col.”– and the recommendation of both Chicago and AP style is stick with the traditional abbreviations regardless of which branch your character serves.

Keep in mind that different branches of the military have different ranks. Call a Navy officer a colonel and you’ll lose a lot of readers since there is no such rank in the Navy.

In the Navy, a captain is a senior-grade officer, the same level as a colonel is to the Army, Air Force, and Marines. On the other hand, a captain in the other services is a junior-grade or company-level officer, three ranks below that of a Navy captain. One way to help remember this is that in the Army and other services, a mid-rank officer may captain a small group of people (like a company, which usually consists of 100 to 250 soldiers), but in the Navy, a much higher ranking officer will captain a ship or the largest ship in a fleet and all the sailors onboard.

There are also a variety of levels of some ranks. If your character is a lieutenant, is he a first lieutenant or a second lieutenant? Is your character a sergeant, a staff sergeant, a technical sergeant, or a master sergeant? Study the ranks and be familiar with them. Your readers may well be.

When do you capitalize a rank such as Colonel/colonel or Sergeant/sergeant?

Sticking with CMoS and AP style, only capitalize ranks when used as a title with a name or as a name. Use lowercase when referring to the rank generically or collectively for a group.

“I spoke with Col. Jones today.” (title is capitalized)
“I spoke with the sergeant today.” (generic term even though referring to a specific person)
“Yes, sir, Admiral.” (used as a proper name)
“We’re meeting with several generals at the Pentagon today.” (generic, collective)

Notice the title is only abbreviated when used with a name. In other cases, spell out the word, the same as you would with Mr. or mister or Mister and Dr. or doctor or Doctor.

Besides the exact ranks, know the difference between enlisted ranks and the officer corps; between commissioned, non-commissioned, and warrant officers; and between field officers and general officers. Know which ranks, in what order, for each service, and know the general job duties of each rank. You don’t want a general piloting a fighter jet (not likely) in a war zone, and you don’t want a corporal leading a brigade or a lieutenant giving orders to a major.

BRANCHES
The names of the services are another conundrum for deciding when to capitalize.

Is it Army or army, Navy or navy, Marines or marines, Air Force or air force?

Again, assuming you’re writing for a U.S. audience, then remember that proper nouns are capitalized. The names of the official branches of the U.S. military are proper nouns – like corporate or organizational names.

- U.S. Army
- U.S. Navy
- U.S. Marine Corps
- U.S. Air Force

Do you still capitalize the U.S. military branches even when you shorten the term by dropping the ‘U.S.’ It depends. Chicago Manual of Style says no, but AP style says yes. Here, my personal preference goes to AP as the word is still referring to the proper noun of the official organizational name.
CMoS: Bill served in the navy in the Gulf War.
AP Style: Bill served in the Navy in the Gulf War.

Do not capitalize when referring to a generic military or to the military of another country, unless you’re specifically using the proper noun for the foreign military organization.

Sarah became friends with her counterpart in the Iraqi army.
The navies of five countries clashed in the battle that waged for three days.

SOLDIERS, SAILORS, AIRMEN, MARINES
Another point you want to get right is the correct term for a service member based on which branch of the military he or she serves. Meet a Marine in a bar and call him a soldier, you may find yourself with a black eye. Call a Marine a soldier in a novel, you’ll get a black eye from many readers.

Army – soldier
Navy – sailor
Air Force – airman (male or female, doesn’t matter, they’re all airmen)
Marine Corps – Marine

One exception: the word ‘soldier’ is a good generic term for a military service member, especially of a non-U.S. military, when the specific branch is not specified or known. But if your generic military member is serving onboard a ship, chances are he’s a sailor, not a soldier.

Did you catch the capitalization difference on Marine used above?

In AP style, Marine is treated differently than soldier, sailor, or airman. That’s because Marine is one of two cases in which the title of the service member is the same as the proper noun of the organization (we’ll get to the second case later). CMoS, however, doesn’t draw that distinction and does not capitalize marine when referring to an individual member of the Marines. To me, the AP distinction makes sense because it is specifically using the proper noun. But if you want to be consistent and stick with CMoS throughout your book, then go with lowercase marine.

Joe is a Marine, serving in the Marines. (Marine is capitalized in AP Style, but not in CMoS)
Susie is a soldier, serving in the Army. (soldier is not capitalized)

Only follow this capitalization rule on Marine if you’re writing about a U.S. Marine (who serves in the U.S. Marine Corps, which is often shortened to ‘the Corps’), and writing for an American audience.

Boris is a marine, serving in the Russian marines.

Here again, the military branches have their own style guides that differ. If you’re in the Army, for example, and you’re writing a document for the military, the Army’s style guide will capitalize Soldier. But that’s not the style fiction writers should follow.

Here’s a point you won’t find in style guides. For those who have served in the Marines, they take a lot of pride in their service and their branch of the military, and they have a saying: “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

If you’re writing about a character who used to serve in the Marines but is now out of the military, the word ‘ex-Marine’ can cause a lot of consternation from readers who are or have been Marines. “There are no ex-Marines,” you may hear from readers. While there’s nothing technically wrong with this term, why irritate readers unnecessarily? A ‘formerly active-duty Marine,’ or ‘a Marine who served in the 1990s,’ or some other phrasing that makes it clear this character used to be in the Marines but no longer serves might show a Marine reader you get it. There are no ex-Marines.

One other organization to mention: the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is slightly different in that it is under the Department of Homeland Security. Previously, it fell under the Department of Transportation. It is not under the Department of Defense, but it is still considered a military service branch, although it’s the only military service not under Defense.

A member of the Coast Guard (male or female) is a Coast Guardsman, capitalized like Marine since it shares the same title as the proper noun of the organization.

MEDALS OF VALOR
One last pet peeve of mine, and this will set teeth on edge with any military readers.

Athletes win medals at the Olympics.

Service members do not win medals.

Service members are awarded medals for acts of valor and heroism. It is not a contest or a competition. It is awarded for an unselfish act of courage. If someone has received a medal, he is a recipient of that medal, not the winner.

Never say a soldier won the Congressional Medal of Honor. You’ll have military readers throwing your novel across the room in anger.

OTHER STUFF
If you’re writing about military matters in any detail, do your research. It’s important to get it right. How many people are in a squad, a platoon, a company, a brigade, a battalion? How many sailors are onboard an aircraft carrier? What’s the difference between a destroyer, a cruiser, and a frigate? Why do some Navy ship names start with USS and others start with USNS? Isn’t every fighter pilot in the Air Force? (The answer is no.)

The details are endless, and a good portion of your readership will know if you get it wrong.

Post Script: Discussion has arisen about use of periods in the abbreviation U.S. vs. US. Again, there are different styles. AP still uses periods in text (U.S.), but CMoS says either are correct and prefers without (US). However, CMoS says to use without periods if you use the postal code abbreviations for states (NY, MD, IL, CA), but use periods with U.S. if you use the standard state abbreviations (N.Y., Md., Ill., Calif.). I find the postal abbreviations in states awkward in fiction writing, so my personal preference is to stick with U.S. and standard state abbreviations.

RESOURCES
Army ranks: https://www.army.mil/symbols/armyranks.html

Navy ranks: http://www.navy.mil/navydata/ranks/officers/o-rank.html

Air Force officer ranks: http://www.military.com/air-force/officer-ranks.html

Air Force enlisted ranks: http://www.military.com/air-force/enlisted-ranks.html

Marine Corps ranks: http://www.marines.mil/Marines/Ranks.aspx

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robb Grindstaff has never served in the military, but for thirteen years worked for Stars and Stripes, the daily newspaper published for U.S. service members and their families stationed overseas. He served in positions including general manager of the Asia/Pacific region, based in Tokyo, Japan, and executive editor in the Washington, D.C., headquarters. Robb’s newspaper career has spanned more than thirty-five years. He has edited fiction for ten years and has two published novels (Evolved Publishing), one of which is about a teenage military brat growing up overseas (Carry Me Away), plus a dozen or so published short stories.

 


Feb 6 2016

In search of the perfect sentence

What makes a perfect sentence in a work of fiction? Should writers care? Do readers care?

Stanley Fish in a New Statesman article (Feb. 17, 2011) says: A sentence is a structure of logical relationships. Fish is the author of the book How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One.

Those well-crafted, logical sentences are what conveys the story in a way that pulls the reader in.

Well-crafted sentences with well-chosen words have a purpose: to engage readers with the story and characters. Sentences aren’t meant to stand alone so we can admire the sentence and think, “What a beautiful sentence. What a brilliant writer.” Well, perhaps in the realm of poetry, but not so much in fiction.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In other words, a writer can spend so much time finding the perfect word or perfect sentence that they never finish the story, or have a blah story filled with perfectly crafted but blah sentences.

I’ve read several John Grisham novels. No one has ever accused him of being a great literary writer. But his words, sentences, paragraphs, and scenes are tight and serviceable – in service of the story. I can read one of his books, be caught up in the plot and action, and enjoy every moment in the story. At the end, I never noticed his writing. Not good, not bad, but invisible. A fun read. But neither are they stories I remember for life or have a desire to re-read time and time again.

I’ve read several Dan Brown novels, and enjoyed them the same as I would a Grisham novel, except for that occasional clunker, amateurish sentence that stops me cold, takes me out of the story, and I wonder how a writer (and numerous editors) missed it.

I’ve read books – I won’t name the writers or titles – that were so caught up in making a pretentious point of exhibiting all the writer’s glorious literary skill that I was bored in minutes. Often those sentences come across as amateur middle-school poetry. Blah.

And then there are writers like John Irving, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Amy Tan, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Haruki Murakami, and countless others – writers who craft a story and characters that draw you in from the first sentence and carry you away in another world until the last sentence, with unique insights and perspectives and an art in their writing that never interferes with, but adds to, the beauty of the story and the depth of the characters.

Most novels are made up of thousands of sentences that are ‘good enough.’ Simple, straightforward, functional, and taken as a whole, they tell a story that engages readers. That’s what matters.

All sentences need to be ‘good enough.’ Every sentence needs to convey information in the best way possible while still conveying the individual writer’s unique style and voice. A few clunkers or confusing sentences in a novel can ruin an otherwise good story for readers.

Even what might be a simple, straightforward sentence might be ‘perfect’ in context – it was exactly the set of words in the right order for that specific moment in the story. If you read that sentence alone, it might be grammatically correct and clear but not particularly memorable or powerful. But in the context of the story, connected to the sentences preceding and following, it might have tremendous impact on readers.

The Bible verse “Jesus wept” is a simple, declarative two-word sentence, the shortest verse in the Bible. Editors today might say it’s “all telling and not showing.” But in the context of the scene and story, that two-word sentence is emotionally powerful and conveys layers of depth.

While the sentence “She cried” probably isn’t going to have that level of power in your novel, it could, depending on context.

But now and then, while reading a good story, a particular sentence will so perfectly capture a moment that it can take your breath away. Or make you see something routine in a whole new way. Or describe a scene or setting or action or emotion in a way that resonates deeply. A sentence that you can stop and re-read two or three times to savor it, wallow in it, and doing so doesn’t take you out of the story, but pulls you in even more. The sentence that, as a writer, you slap yourself on the forehead and say, “Why have I never thought of saying it that way?”

These are the sentences you can read “standalone,” with no context, and they still resonate. These are the ‘perfect’ sentences I have in mind.

A perfect sentence may be a longer, complex sentence with several clauses, lots of big words, commas, and, for crying out loud, even semicolons. It may use words that are clear but unusual, not the most obvious word choice, but going for something different, and it works especially well. Or that perfect sentence may be a simple sentence using common, ordinary words to describe something those words aren’t normally associated with.

The perfect sentence may be a simile or a metaphor, or a simple declarative sentence. It may have a rhythm or cadence that sings in the reader’s mind.

In short, there is no formula for the perfect sentence or we’d all be writing perfect sentences all the time. There’s no book or course that teaches how to write a perfect sentence. What’s perfect in one writer’s style and voice won’t match another’s.

What do some other writers say about the ‘perfect sentence’?

Diane Nelson: “Rather than ‘perfect’—which is too subjective, too prone to popularization, too cultishly precious—my metric is based on how a particular arrangement of words slices through the fog of banalities and reveals some essential truth.”

Matt Sinclair: “I will revise often, which might involve changing words, revamping the sentence, removing perfectly good sentences that don’t add to the story. Rhythm, pacing, selecting “le mot juste,” etc., all factor in. And I pray that others think the story is as interesting as I do.”

Jim Murphy: “The goal for me is to get the idea into the reader’s head with the least possible effort. If the reader has to stop and think about what the sentence meant because of some ambiguity of wording, then that presents a hurdle for the idea.”

Marj McRae: “It depends on what sort of story you are writing. I want my reader to be so absorbed that they never give a thought to the actual words or the arrangement of words, but are seeing the action in front of their eyes. If they stop to think about the perfect sentence, then the action is interrupted.”

Rick Pieters: “For me, anyway, when I hit that kind of sentence, it doesn’t take me out of the story, it immerses me more deeply. The pause is no more than a brief, deep breath, a moment that lets me ‘see’ more deeply what the author is saying. If it stopped the flow, interrupted the story, my pause would more likely be to throw the book across the room.”

 

I asked some writer-friends on social media to submit examples of their best sentences. Most writers are willing to share their work, their favorite passages, even their favorite sentences. Writers can have egos, but they can also be very insecure. Ask a writer to provide a perfect sentence they’ve written, the insecurity rises to the top.

No writer wants to say, “Here’s a sentence I wrote, and it’s perfect!” That’s opening yourself up to a barrage of critique, criticism, and snarky derision–mostly from other writers.

But the examples below are sentences the writers felt, and I agreed, are better than the average sentence, a sentence with some degree of depth or new perspective that makes the sentence stand out, even when read with no context of the surrounding story.

 

This night, this time and place, the music and the slow rhythm of not belonging ached in ways that sinned. – Good Boy Bad, Nya Rawlyns

His blue eyes danced with merriment and he smiled, revealing dimples at the corners of his mouth, held slightly open, as if he were weighing the effect of his pretense on this unsuspecting observer. – A King in Time II, Mary Enck

Arson was sounding a lot more sensible than living with a pothead and his Jesus freak boss. – Cassia (publishes March 2016), Lanette Kauten

And whom shall I fear if not the devil, the grim torturer who conquered my aspirations and left me without a recognizable world of my own? – Forgive Me, Alex by Lane Diamond

The silence while they ate occupied palpable space in the room, a constant guest at their table. – “Winter’s Birds,” Summer’s Double Edge short story anthology, Rick Pieters

Turning my back to you, I sought to distance myself from the beat of your irregular heart. – “Bedtime Story,” from Alalitcom, Alabama Writers’ Conclave 2008, Deanne Charlton

The bourbon smelled like a hangover and a fight with my wife. – Untitled work in progress, Matt Sinclair

Very little of what you learn is ever useful or important, Nikolai. – Sin Eater, P.K. Tyler and Jessica West

 

I’ll even toss in a couple of my own to wrap things up.

As the baby waves ran back to their ocean mother, they erased my footprints and left only a faint trace, a distant memory of where I’d walked. – Carry Me Away, Robb Grindstaff

She’d learned to shoot left-handed after he’d removed her trigger finger with a pair of pliers. – “Desert Rain,” from Sonoran Dreams: Three Stories from Exile, Robb Grindstaff

 

Do you have a favorite sentence from fiction, whether something you’ve written or from someone else’s work?

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Dec 10 2013

Tag, you’re it

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“Why do you recommend avoiding dialogue tags as much as possible?” she asked sweetly.

Dialogue tags do good and necessary things. They help readers keep it straight in their minds who is speaking, thus reducing confusion and getting lost in the dialogue. The problem with dialogue tags is when they’re overused. Keeping them to a minimum is the key. With almost any writing issue, overuse is the problem rather than a ‘never do this’ rule. This is true with dialogue tags.

Tags aren’t the only way to cue readers as to who is speaking. There are several ways to do this. Many newer writers haven’t mastered all the different ways to do this, so they rely too heavily on tags.

Tags have some inherent negatives, so overuse amplifies those negatives. When used sparingly and intermixed with other types of cues, those negatives are minimized and don’t attract attention to themselves, which interrupts the story in the reader’s mind.

Negatives for tags:

- They constantly remind readers that they are reading a story. Just when the reader is getting good and involved in the scene, there’s a ‘she said’ that momentarily — subconsciously and for a fraction of a second — reminds the reader that they’re just reading a work of fiction, not experiencing a real moment. Load up on tags, and all those fractions of a second start to add up and interrupt the story for the reader.

- Choppy writing breaks up the smooth flow of dialogue. Overuse can give the prose a staccato, repetitive sound in the reader’s head.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hi,” she replied.
“How are you?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she answered.

- Overcompensating for too many tags by getting too creative with the tags.
“You’re sexy,” he growled.
“So are you,” she purred.
“Let’s go somewhere quieter,” he suggested.
“That’s a great idea,” she concurred.
This type of tag draws attention to itself, away from the words of dialogue, the characters, and the scene.

- Adding adverbs or phrases to tell the reader how something was said. Rather than letting the spoken words carry the tone, the writer feels the need to describe the tone.
“We could go to my place,” he suggested suggestively.
“Is your wife out of town?” she inquired curiously.
“Yes, she went to stay with her mother,” he responded in a conspiratorial tone.
“Then let’s go,” she purred sweetly.

All of this overuse, repetition, staccato choppiness, awkward ‘saidisms,’ overuse of adverbs and tone description adds up to a mess that creates stilted dialogue and breaks the moment of the scene for readers. It adds ‘tell’ at the expense of ‘show.’

A few other tools you can use to reduce the need for dialogue tags:

- Action beats:
“Then let’s go.” She stepped to the curb and waved for a taxi.

- Internal thoughts. Similar to an action beat, but an internal, first-person thought:
“Then let’s go.” What am I doing? He’s a married man.

- Internal narration:
She’d never had a fling with a married man before, but her lust overpowered her Catholic guilt. “Then let’s go.”

- Proper paragraph style. Keep each character’s dialogue lines and actions (and internal thoughts/narration) in a separate paragraph. When a line of dialogue, an action, or an internal thought/narration is from a different character, make it a new paragraph. For example, look at this paragraph:
“Then let’s go.” She waved for a taxi. He opened the door to the cab for her and slid in after her. “410 Main Street, please.”
In that paragraph, it’s impossible to tell who said “410 Main Street” because both characters take action in the same paragraph. There should be a new paragraph beginning at ‘He opened the door…’ Then, if “410 Main Street” is in the same paragraph with his action, it’s clear that he said it. If she said it, then “410 Main Street” would go in a third paragraph, and might still need a dialogue tag or action beat so it’s clear who is speaking, depending on the overall context.

- Nature of the dialogue. Take this bit of a scene. Isn’t it clear in each line who is speaking?
“Your place? Your wife isn’t home?”
“No. She’s at her mother’s for the weekend.”
“You know, I’ve never been with a married man before. I don’t want to be a homewrecker.”
“Our home has been wrecked for years. You couldn’t possibly do any more damage to my marriage.”
“I don’t want to be the ‘other’ woman. I can’t share you with her.”
“I promise I’ll leave her as soon as my youngest graduates college.”
“How old is your youngest?”
“Three.”

- Differentiation of voices. This may be the most difficult, but it’s the best way. Readers should be able to tell from a sentence of dialogue which character is speaking because of the manner of speaking.

And finally, a tip on how not to replace dialogue tags: characters repeatedly calling each other by name. In natural conversation, we don’t call each other by name every other sentence. We know who we’re speaking to.
“Bill, is your wife not home?”
“No, Stella, she’s gone to her mother’s for the weekend.”
“Then let’s go, Bill.”
“Okay, Stella.”

“So that’s about everything I know about dialogue tags,” he pontificated wisely.

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Feb 1 2013

The politics of silence

It’s interesting how different readers react to the characters and events in Hannah’s Voice – either praising or being offended by how certain characters are portrayed. Some think I’ve written a Christian novel, or a novel that ridicules people of faith, or a conservative novel, or a novel that makes fun of people with conservative values or people with liberal values.

I didn’t write a political novel or a religious story. It’s a story about a little girl whose life gets caught in the crossfire of the adult world, and how she maintains her integrity and her childlike faith despite the dysfunction all around her. The innocence and forthrightness of childhood clash with the selfishness and guile of grown-ups.

Some of the various groups that interfere in Hannah’s life are portrayed – or at least were intended to be portrayed – at a level approaching absurdity. In the course of real world events, now that the book is published, it no longer seems so absurd.

I’ve found it mildly amusing that some readers have picked up on the portrayal of one group, but not another. The story contains some deluded religious fanatics. A couple of readers have said they liked how those ‘fundamentalists’ are portrayed. Another thought it was going to be yet another novel that presents a distorted negative stereotype of Christians. But the story also contains sympathetic, even heroic, characters of faith, and bumbling, dishonest left-wing ideologues. There are reactionary forces, political and religious, at both extremes, each of which displays hate and intolerance toward the other side for trying to impose their beliefs, while they are also trying to impose their beliefs.

Other institutions get the same treatment as well, such as the news media, public school administrators, psychologists and counselors, social workers, and the foster care system. There are rigid bureaucrats and loving foster parents; journalism vultures and an ambitious but compassionate news anchor; incompetent administrators and devoted teachers and nurses.

The characters with big hearts and actions to match are from all walks of life, just as the deluded fanatics are.

Isn’t that how real life is?

Hannah, however, is silent. She doesn’t try to impose anything on anyone. She just wants to live her life. She maintains her faith, but she certainly doesn’t hold herself up as perfect. In fact, she breaks one of the Ten Commandments in the opening lines of the novel.

So what is Hannah’s political viewpoint? She’s six years old when the story begins. She has no political views. She just wants to be left alone. She doesn’t want to be the center of attention. She wants to be understood and believed when she speaks. When she has nothing to say, she wants to be ignored. She wants to be with her family. She wants to live her life and her faith without interference and without the meddling of those whose intentions are infused with personal agendas.

If Hannah spoke, she might say “Don’t tread on me,” rather than, “It takes a village.” In Hannah’s case, it’s a village full of idiots – idiots of all political ideologies, occupations, and religious beliefs who think they are the sole owners of revealed truth.

Perhaps Hannah is a libertarian.

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Jan 5 2013

Why are verbs so tense?

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I’ve heard that mixing “ing” and “ed” verbs in a sentence is wrong. But isn’t this is the grammatically correct way to describe when a second action takes place within the time frame of another past tense action? – Ben H. Hugh

What verb forms should you use when a sentence contains two actions? It depends. How’s that for an answer?

There are lots of variables, and verb tense gives writers and editors fits. I see it done incorrectly all the time on work I edit. I also mess it up in my writing until I go back and edit myself, or my editor catches it.

There are two basic ways in which multiple actions occur in the same sentence. Either sequential (one thing then the other) or simultaneous (both things happen at the same time).

Sequential actions—a character does one thing and then does another thing:

He drove home and cooked dinner. [Correct. Don't use the -ing verb]

Driving home, he cooked dinner. [Wrong, unless he's cooking dinner in the car while driving.] 

Simultaneous actions—a character does two things at the same time:

He drove home, thinking of her. [Correct. The -ing verb shows the two actions happen at the same time]

It can get slightly more complicated if the two actions are done by two different characters.

She walked down the beach, the sun shining on her face. [Correct. The two actions are happening at the same time]

You could break it into two separate actions and it will be just as clear.

She walked down the beach. The sun shone on her face.

You can also use one of those timing words such as then, as, or while to indicate timing of actions. Sometimes one of these is necessary, but they can be cumbersome, so don’t overuse them:

As he drove home, he thought of her.

He drove home then cooked dinner.

She walked down the beach, while the sun shone on her face.

A problem shows up if the actions are sequential, but written as simultaneous, like the example above about the guy driving and cooking dinner at the same time. It’s not always that obvious:

She walked down the beach, going for a swim. [Wrong. She didn’t walk on the beach and swim at the same time.

She walked down the beach and went for a swim. [Correct.]

Another problem comes in with the famous dangling participle:

Walking down the beach, the sun shone on her face. [Wrong. The way this sentence is written, it means the sun was walking down the beach.]

You could say:

She walked down the beach, and the sun was shining in her face.

But that adds a passive ‘to be’ verb where it’s not needed and weakens the sentence.

Then there’s the past continuous tense, which pairs a ‘to be’ verb with an ‘ing’ verb. This indicates an action that was in progress over a period of time in the past. If writing in simple past tense (the standard for most fiction), the continuous tense indicates an ongoing action.

She was walking down the beach. [Shows an ongoing action; she started walking at some point in the past, and continued to walk for a period of time]

Why is it needed if ‘She walked down the beach’ is just as clear in context? The continuous tense gets used a lot when it’s not needed, even if technically correct.

But let’s get back to sentences with two actions. If you need to show a continuous action that started in the past and continues until the next action, you might need the past continuous verb tense:

She was walking down the beach when the assailant robbed her of her flip-flops.

This shows she was in the process of walking down the beach—she started walking before she was robbed, and she was still in the process of walking at the moment of the robbery. Sort of a mix of the sequential and simultaneous actions because one action took place over a period of time, then the second action occurred at a single moment in time while the first action was still happening.

Then there’s past perfect, which often uses ‘had’ with the -ed verb:

She had walked down the beach.

This shows she started the action in the past, and that action is now completed. It happened at a prior time, such as:

Every day this week, she had walked down the beach. Today it rained, so she stayed inside. [Note that this is all in past tense, even the current moment of 'today.']

The word ‘had’ makes it clear that this was a prior action that had been completed in the past. That, of course, gets confusing if you’re writing in past tense, because everything technically happened in the past. When writing in past tense, use the past perfect to indicate an action that was completed before the ‘present moment’ in the scene. It helps differentiate between the present moment written in past tense and an action that happened prior to the present moment.

To really get confusing, when ‘had’ is paired with a ‘to be’ verb + an ‘ing’ verb, you’ve got the past continuous verb tense.

She had been walking down the beach.

This also refers to a prior time (maybe five minutes ago, maybe five years ago, doesn’t matter). But it shows a continuous or progressive, longer term action, something that started in the past, continued for a period of time, and was completed in the past. This verb tense works best when it leads to the next action or event.

Yesterday, she had been walking down the beach when the assailant robbed her.

This indicates that it happened at a time prior to the present moment in the story, not the current, live action scene in the story; that the walk was a progressive action that took up some amount of time; that the walk had finished before the current moment in the story; that the walk was still in progress when she was robbed. That’s packing a lot of information into two verb tenses.

The issue with these various verb tenses is that they get misused, or they’re used when not needed. They use extra words and pad the writing. My personal preference is more direct writing with as few words as possible (not that you can tell from this blog post). I like to reserve the more complex verb tenses for the times when they are truly needed.

To complicate matters even more, all these recommendations change slightly if you’re writing in present tense.

Remember that each verb tense has a specific use. Sometimes more than one tense can work, depending on exactly how you want to portray the actions to readers and the surrounding context. There are lots of ways to use them incorrectly, and there are ways that are technically correct, but tend to water down the prose, especially if used too frequently.