Writing 101 – Tenses


(c) Robyn LaRue 2014

Hoo-wee! What a week we’ve had here at SarMus HQ (formally SarMus Towers, but we all know what happened there): Amanda has given us the secrets of horror; Robyn has guided us to publishing resources, not to mention her version of The Little Author That Could; and, Michelle has shown us how to play with dots

But Ladies and Gentlemen, I come to you today to discuss a serious matter. I come to you today to discuss tense.

Ladies and Gentlemen, please, let’s have order.

I know that it’s a pain but we all have to do it. When we write, we first have to choose our tense. It’s supposed to be the most basic of decisions we make as writers, but our choice not only affects the way we write and our choice of words, it can affect the whole cadence of our narrative.

Written tenses

Written tense, also grammatical tense, is used to indicate time. English has three main tenses used in writing: past (before now), present (now) and future (after now). All have their uses; all have their quirks.


As the name implies, this tense deals with events that have already occurred. It is the traditional tense used in fiction, especially longer narratives and because of its heritage, it tends to be the one writers are most comfortable with. As past tense can refer to events that happened moments ago or eons, it allows a mechanism to easily move around in time. Thousands of years can pass in a simple sentence or focus can shift from the recent to the distant past without interrupting the flow of the story.

Example – Vengeance.


Present tense deals with events as they unfold to your characters and, by proxy, readers. It offers a sense of immediacy to the narrative, often creating faster paced prose than the past and future tenses. It isn’t as common in adult fiction and, as a result, some writers can have difficulty sustaining it throughout, often slipping back into the familiar past tense. Present tense best serves a first-person perspective and provides a greater focus on voice (both the characters and the authors).

Example – Crow.


Last, but not least, we come to future tense. Future tense covers events that are yet to happen be it tomorrow or in the distant future. It is the rarest tense in fiction and incredibly difficult to master. The average reader, unfamiliar with the format, can find it hard to read. It’s a tense best used for short stories and flash fiction. Future tense is perfect where the narrative calls for an air of uncertainty.

Example – Questions.

Tips when using tenses

1. Let your story dictate its own tense

Most stories know which tense they best fit; it comes naturally. Listen to them and don’t be afraid to change if the story isn’t working. Sometimes the only thing keeping a good story from being great is the wrong tense.

2. Read

When writing in a tense you don’t often use, it pays to read other works written in that tense. Not only will it give you a feel for it, it will also give you an insight into the way other authors have used it to their advantage.

3. Keep it consistent

There’s nothing harder to read than a story that switches tenses, especially one that switches in the middle of a paragraph or even a sentence.

4. Keep tense changes to breaks

Where the story calls for changes in tense, keep them at logical break points e.g. chapters and page breaks.

5. Does it flow?

The right tense will give the story the right rhythm. It will practically sing to you from the page.

6. Check, check and check again

Unfamiliar tenses are riddled with minefields. When we are caught up in drafting, it is all too easy to slip back into the more comfortable tenses. Check your work. Weed out anywhere you may have slipped back into old habits. Rest it and then check it again. I guarantee you’ll find ones you missed the first time.

For more grown up look at the use of tense and aspect, check out Michelle’s post here. Go on…you know you want to.

What’s the hardest tense you’ve ever encountered? Have you ever written in an unfamiliar tense? What were the results?

Writing 101 – Character Creation

Character Creation

(c) Robyn LaRue 2014

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”

― Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury summed it up quite appropriately: without characters there is no story. Characters are strange…erm…characters. They’re the driving force behind our stories, striving to overcome any and all obstacles keeping them from realising their goals. Everything else is either plot or setting, and neither can tell a tale.

I know a lot of writers who struggle with character creation but I’m not one of them. Protagonists, antagonists and whole supporting casts can appear to me with little effort on my part, albeit rarely fully-formed. My problem is usually having a cast without a story. They sit around in my head like freeloading room-mates, eating my food and keeping me awake with loud music and incessant chatter. In the end, I have no choice but to evict them onto paper.

I know what you’re thinking (besides all the bad words): if you can pluck them from the air, why are you writing a post about character creation? Well, just because they come natural, doesn’t mean I don’t have to work at them once the spark has gone.

“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”

― Ernest Hemingway

Characters ARE people (not necessarily human but people none the less). They populate the worlds we create. Live, love, laugh, and generally spend their time being tormented by us, their creators. We pick them up, turn them this way and that, even give them a little shake to find out what falls loose. We place them into dire situations for our own amusement and test to see how far we can push before they break.

Love them or hate them, a well-developed character can affect us in more ways than we can imagine. Readers will stay up all night, eagerly devouring our books, simply to find out what happens next and how X will deal with the situation. They want to relate to our protagonists, despise our antagonists (although, not always), and sympathise with the long-suffering sidekick. People relate to other people.

So, how do we create a well-developed character?

I’m not going to lie to you, creating characters is hard work; a labour of love. The greater the influence a character has over the path of a story, the more you, the writer, needs to know about them. A main character should have no secrets from their creator.

1. Characters should have a voice

Every one of us is unique, shaped by our experiences. We all have our own way of telling our story and your character is no different.

How would your character tell their story if they could speak freely?

2. No-one exists in a vacuum

Most of us have some form of support network around us that we can call on for help when times get tough. Family, friends, colleagues are always (begrudgingly) on hand if we need them. We even have those who don’t necessarily want the best for us and will do all they can to hurt our efforts. Your characters have these too.

What is your characters’ support networks? Who are their closest friends/family members and why? Who are their enemies?

3. Goals and experiences

We all want something out of life, things we want to achieve, things we want to own. How we go about attaining these shapes who we are.

What are your characters’ goals, long- and short-term? What will they do to achieve them? How far will they go? How far is too far? Don’t confine yourself to the goals within the story you’re writing, think about their whole life.

4. Remember you’re unique

If everyone was the same, the world would be a very boring place. We all have our little habits and quirks that make us who we are. Some mask fear with humour, others are out-spoken to hide insecurities. I have colleagues who go through a precise morning ritual when they first arrive at their desks. All of these little traits add extra layers to our personalities. For instance, we all laugh at that crazy woman with the funny walk but if we look closer we’d see she walks that way to avoid the pavement cracks. If we took a moment to talk to her, she tell us that as a girl, she didn’t heed the warning and her mother suffered the consequences.

What are your characters’ quirks and mannerisms? Do they have a unique way of saying hello? What are the reasons behind all of these?

5. Be all that you can be

When we’re not out defeating the zombie hordes and saving the world from certain doom, we all have our day jobs and ways of relaxing. Your characters will also benefit from a life outside of the story.

What is your character’s occupation? What hobbies do they have? How do these impact on their actions and skill base?

Minimum character information

Fellow muse, Robyn LaRue, is a character-obsessed nut…has produced a comprehensive worksheet for those dipping their toes into the murky waters of character creation. It’s free and you can download it here from her site. For those who don’t want to read (shame on you), we should know the following about our characters as a bare minimum:

  • Age, gender, nationality, occupation
  • Family, partner, close friends, workmates
  • Desires, motives and fears
  • Physical appearance
  • Attitudes
  • Backstory
  • Reputation
  • Habits, mannerisms and unique vocabulary

The more you know about your characters, the more real they’ll feel. The days of one-dimensional archetypes are long gone, and good riddance. The “perfect” hero no longer excites us. We want to see flaws. Readers don’t just want to know that our characters are going down that pitch-black, blood-soaked staircase. They want to know details of the childhood trauma that caused their fear of the dark, their fear of blood and they expect you to know all about it.

I need to know everything about my main characters. It’s just not enough for me to say “oh, yeah…he tricked the guy into giving him is glasses” I need to know how he tricked him, what he said, what con he used. The information may never make it into the finished book but I HAVE TO know.

After all, the devil is in the detail.


Writing 101 – Outliners vs. Pantsers

Outliners vs Pantsers

(c) Robyn LaRue 2014

It’s nearly that time again. You know what I mean. A time of darker nights, of ghosts and ghouls, of languished, tormented cries, of horrific punishments, and even the sweetest rewards. What do you mean Halloween? I was talking about NaNoWriMo….pffft Halloween. Try sharing an office with Amanda and then you’d understand Halloween. Anyway, it got me to thinking. Mostly about how unprepared I am for November but also about the two main writers’ camps: Outliners or Pantsers.

Over the course of our writing careers, each and every one of us will belong to one camp or the other, often without realising. For those who are new to all this, or think I just enjoy making up stupid words (I do that too, but not today…maybe later…schwiffle (verb) to schnork), I’ll explain the difference.


These are the kind of writers who lock themselves away for weeks, even months, at a time, plotting every scene. They know almost every path of every character who will appear in their books before they even write the first paragraph. In short, they work from outlines.


These writers have a story idea and they have some characters and that’s usually all they need, so they sit down and just write. They have no clear plan as to where they will go. Instead, the characters and situations they encounter dictate the course of the narrative. They write by the ‘seat of their pants’ – hence, pantsers.

I’ve occupied both of these camps over the years, with a brief stint in a third, highly secretive camp but I’m not allowed to talk about that. When I first started writing, I was definitely a pantser. I thought that outlines added nothing and stifled my creativity. Even now most of my short stories, especially my flash fiction, is written in pantser mode because this is when I feel I’m at my most creative.

For longer projects (e.g. novels, novellas), I can become easily distracted without an outline and wander off at a tangent that is more detriment than discovery. I never start a long project until I know where it will end. I don’t always know HOW it will end or which route it will take to get there, but I do need to know how far to shoot and an outline helps to keep me focus.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still not strictly one or the other but a combination of the two. You have to find what works for you but I urge you to try both. I use my outline as a rough road map showing me where to start, to end, and the odd detour to take along the way. The actual meat of the story is all discovered through writing.

With the title of this post hinting at a grudge match, I suppose I should include a few pros and cons of each method:



1. A solid outline will keep your project on the desired path

2. Outlines give you a skeleton on which you can hang the meat of your story

3. Allows you to plot out the most intricate twists and turns of a story prior to drafting

4. Allows easier management of multiple plot lines


1. Some find it too rigid and stifling of their creativity

2. A lot of up-front work is needed before you can start drafting

3. You already know how your story will end

4. Needs to be used correctly for it to be beneficial



1. You can write with little preparation (besides research, fully realised characters etc…)

2. It’s probably the most creative thing we can do as writers

3. Allows you to discover the plot at the same time as your characters

4. Readily adaptable – scenes can be changed instantly if you don’t like where they’re going


1. Some writers find it difficult to leap into the void without, at least, some form of a safety net

2. It’s difficult to manage plot twists and multiple plot lines

3. It’s easy to write yourself into a corner or go off track

4. Mistakes can’t always be easily rectified with extensive editing

 So over to you, are you an outliner or a pantser? Why do you prefer your method? (I want a good response on this one. If I get enough, we’ll have a real life grudge match).

Writing 101 – Observational Skills

Writing 101

(c) Robyn LaRue 2014

Alright, alright…I’m calm now.

Ladies and gentlemen, fellow readers and writers, thank you for bearing with us following last week’s breakdown…technical difficulties i.e. my rant.

Regular programing will resume shortly….

Writing 101 –Observational Skills

…And welcome back. This week, I thought it would be a great idea to look at a key writing skill that’s often overlooked: observation.

Writers are well known for their ability to live inside their own heads but, in order to create believable worlds and realistic characters, we must learn to venture into the realms of in real-life. I know that for many of us this is a daunting prospect (downright terrifying, if you ask me). Fear not, you don’t have to do it often.

All description comes from observation. Whether we draw from real life, movies, or pictures, our imagination needs input. What do we do when we need a setting? We look up places from the world around us to use as a basis. What about how a character looks? A certain muse (name withheld…ahem…Kirsten) collects celebrities in her basement to use as “inspiration”.

We don’t need to go into great detail with our descriptions. A few choice comments are all we need to build the character in the reader’s mind. Overdoing it is all too easy though and often a problem for beginners. With that in mind (and the fact that I’ve just watched SAW again), I want to play a game…


  1. Grab your notebook and take a walk.
  2. Find somewhere public – a coffee shop, busy park, bus station or airport terminal work great for this.
  3. Choose one person and give them a quick once over – take no more than one minute (if they make eye contact, try not to wink. It only makes things awkward).
  4. Write the first three things you noticed about them. Don’t just rely on sight either. Did you notice their smell? Something they said?
  5. Pick someone else and repeat until you get bored or thrown out.
  6. When you are done, bookmark the page in your notebook and go home.
  7. Use your notes to build at least two characters. What do your descriptions tell you about them? Do they give you any insight into how they live? Notice any interesting points that may need looking at further?

The great thing about this exercise is that you can do it almost anywhere. You can even adapt it to places, taking time to observe places and using notes to recreate them at later dates.

 Do you have problems with observation? Have you devised any games of your own?

Writing 101: Finding Inspiration

Writing 101: Finding Inspiration

“I only write when I’m inspired, and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 a.m.” – Peter De Vries

‘Where do you get your ideas?’

A question heard at least once in every writer’s career. The correct answer is, of course, ‘are you going to buy my book or not? You’re holding up the line.’

In truth, it’s a good question and one that’s often on my mind (usually when I’m supposed to be writing).

So, where DO we get our ideas?

They come from everywhere. They’re drawn from the world around us, from those within us, from the depths of our minds, from the exciting and the mundane. The trick is to recognise when we’re doing it. Finding ideas is easy; keeping them, on the other hand, is like platting fog. They’re intangible wisps which, when left uncaptured, burn up like nightmares on a dreamcatcher’s web.

I suppose the real question should be:

How do we know when we’re having an idea?

The truth is that it’s rarely clear cut. Eureka moments are as prevalent as unicorn droppings. Sometimes, all we have is a snatched snippet of overheard conversation, the briefest of thoughts on the periphery of our consciousness, something half-glimpsed from the corner of our eye; barely a trace of anything.

I recognise an idea as being anything that sparks the question “what if?” and anything that invokes that response is recorded in my notebook or note-taking software, on a napkin or the back of my hand – anywhere, so long as it’s recorded. It may be a complete idea or a fragmented shard that needs something more.

The act of finding inspiration is often mistaken as a being a passive process. I can count, on one hand, the number of times inspiration has found me. More often than not, it involves me actively searching for it. We have to be prepared to do the legwork, to get our hands dirty. We search, we hunt, we dig until our hands are sore and our nails are broken, and we keep on going.

How to find inspiration?

1. Read

Read everything you can get your hands on. Read newspapers. Read magazines. Read junk mail. Read books and stories, especially ones outside of your preferred genre. Taking ideas and situations from one world and putting them in another can have amazing results…don’t believe me? Take a look at Star Wars.

2. Question everything

Writers are curious creatures; we want to know everything. Why? What If? How? are all best friends to a writer. Never stop asking questions, who knows where the next one will lead?

3. Get out and observe

Leave the house, take a walk, do something to get you out in the larger world and while you’re there…observe everything. I don’t just mean with your eyes, either; use every sense. What is that smell? What does the ground feel like? People watch and listen to the conversations of others. Snippets of overheard speech are gold mines for idea hunters.

4. Use mind-maps and other brainstorming techniques

5. Look through old notebooks and unfinished work

Who knows what unpolished gems they hold?

6. Write

Just sit down and free write. Don’t think, just do. Write fan fiction, write garbage, write shopping lists, anything…just let the words come.

7. Carry a notebook and use it

It doesn’t have to be a physical notebook but have a way of capturing your ideas. Record everything that makes you ask a question.

Above all else remember, ideas travel in packs; don’t stop looking after you’ve found just one…

Anyway, I better go. Amanda is stood in the doorway rolling her eyes at me. The last time she did this, it took us over an hour to get them all back in the jar.

How do the rest of you search for ideas? Are you always aware when you do have an idea?