When Did This Happen?

People used to tell me I was a decent writer.  So, last year, when I decided to write my first manuscript The Prison, I wrote like a madwoman.  Afterward, I started researching different aspects of writing novels and discovered that so many rules of writing English had changed as well as wha’s trendy as far as the “in thing” for novels right now (which sometimes makes me question if I ever wrote well at all).  So, I learned all I could and recently started editing everything I’ve written so far.  Now for the complicated part…

As I’ve told you plenty of times, I am autistic.  I have what was formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome.  And because of that, I’m exact-word oriented.  For the most part, I’ve learned how to adapt over the years, but sometimes, things still stump me.

For example, once when my son was near the end of sixth grade, he came home from school and said he couldn’t go back until he got a booster shot for one of his immunizations.  I thought that sounded strange, but he swore that was what his teacher said.  He then proceeded to pull a note out of his backpack which said:

Dear Parent,
Please be advised that your child needs a Tetanus, Diphtheria, and Pertussis (TDAP) vaccine booster shot before s/he may return to school. Please take care of this matter at once.
-Principal Harding

So, it seemed that Jeremy was right.  However, I didn’t get paid for another week and a half, so I couldn’t afford the doctor’s appointment.  As such, during that time, I did as the note implied and kept him home from school.

Now in Florida, you can only keep a child out of school for three days before a doctor’s note is required to return.  But since he was not sick, I didn’t even bother to ask the doctor for an excuse when I took Jeremy for his shot.

Immediately following his appointment, I took my son to school and signed him in late.  But before I left, the attendance lady stopped me and said Jeremy couldn’t return to class without a medical excuse.  I told her I didn’t have one.  She told me that in that case, I was in violation of the state’s truancy ordinance, and I could be arrested!

Then I got heated.

I pulled the note out of my purse and showed it to her, and said that the school practically ordered me to keep him home until he had the required shot, and that I couldn’t afford the shot until I got paid.  I further reminded her that not only did I have an autistic child, but I was autistic myself, so the teacher might have explained things better if the words written on the note were not actually what the note meant.

We went back and forth for a couple of rounds, and she ended up calling the principal out to “calm me down.”  (Bad idea… I only got louder.)  But in the end, the school realized that the note was poorly written because what the note was trying to say was that the sixth grade child could not return to school the following school year without the shot.

They reluctantly admitted their mistake (only after I threatened to get the school board involved which they already knew I wouldn’t hesitate to do), and Jeremy and I were off the hook.  (By the way, don’t let the word autism keep you from laughing.  This was a pretty hilarious mistake, wasn’t it?)

Now, this brings me back to my current exact-word conundrum concerning writing.  If you’re reading a novel and come across a part of narration (not dialog) that concerns time, do you prefer to read the words “last week” and “tomorrow” or do you prefer “the previous week” and “the following day?”

For example:
“Jen was so enamored by Dave, she couldn’t believe they’d only just met yesterday.”
-or-
“Jen was so enamored by Dave, she couldn’t believe they’d only just met the previous day.”

Personally, I think the sentence with yesterday flows better.  However, as a reader, I might’ve read the chapter when they met a few days ago, then put the book down and just got back to it.  So, in that case, it’s not the reader’s yesterday.

I know that sounds stupid, but I can’t find any written rules on this; however, I find plenty of rules that tell me I mustn’t “confuse the reader.”  (And, yes, I understand that my ultimate goal is that the reader shouldn’t be able to put the book down for several days before reading again, so this point would be moot.)  I know I’m probably over-thinking this, but I don’t want to have this be the thing that keeps a good story from being told well.

So, my question to you is concerning the passage of time or the mention of some future time, which do you prefer?  When did it happen?

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58 thoughts on “When Did This Happen?

      • Don’t know how I missed that post. Have read, liked and commented – it was a very fine post indeed and have said that on your blog. Would the lion be bothered if in the opinion of the sheep they should all carry AK47’s?

      • Yes, I think AK47’s would bother the lion greatly! LOL! I think you missed it because you were busy enjoying fine French cuisine with your lovely wife and you forgot all about me and my silly tales. 😉 I’m glad you’re back. I hope you two had a great time. 🙂

  1. You’re totally right (and to be honest, that’s how I would have read the note as well!), the way words are constructed into a sentence makes a lot of difference!

    Great post again 🙂

  2. That was a very poorly worded note! I agree with you. I think “yesterday” flows better, but either way works. The reader will understand that “yesterday” or “tomorrow” pertain to the character’s timelines.

  3. I would go with yesterday. I think we have to stick with the character’s internal timeline or it would get too confusing.

    If I received that note in my child’s backpack, I would have reacted in the same way. We were told that my eldest needed to receive a HepB shot before starting the next grade. Problem was, the state mandates that you have to be 10 to get the booster shot and she didn’t turn 10 until the fourth week of school. Five calls to the school and three email to the Board of Health later, they let her start school that year with a note from her doctor that we promised to get her the shot on her birthday. The bureaucracy of school systems can tie you in knots. Good for you for standing up for yourself.

  4. Yesterday puts the point of view clearly with the heroine, so to me it works better. But it all depends on what you’re trying to convey. Also, for what it’s worth, I think the phrase contains too many words. It should read either: “Jen was so enamored by Dave, she couldn’t believe they had only just met.” Or: “Jen was so enamored by Dave, she couldn’t believe they had only met yesterday.” But that is my copy editor side coming out! 🙂

  5. I would have read the note the same as you. “Do not confuse the reader”. Imagine these days trying to get “Wuuthering Heights” published!

  6. Yesterday!

    Here’s a new dilemma though, what if your book is so good that when I read about them meeting and then I read, “Jen was so enamored by Dave, she couldn’t believe they had only just met yesterday.” It was still the same day for me as the reader? 🙂
    Diana xo

  7. MBA classes for good for this sort of writing, but I don’t believe the people who have to read it appreciate corrects like “previous day’, etc.

  8. I think the best advice is to leave out the persepctive or the readers and write it the way that best suits the characters in the books. And I don’t know about you, but none of my friends use ‘the previous day’.

    Another vote for the yesterday camp.

    And I sympathise with what happened with the note. My brother is autistic and has had very similar issues!

  9. I prefer the previous day but thats just personal choice.

    You always have a funny story to tell, dont you?!!! And for the record, that letter WAS poorly worded… it also seemed to me as if he couldn’t go back to school until he’d had the shot!

  10. I read the school’s note as saying no booster, no return to school. Next school year never entered the conversation in my brain.

    In your novel example, I like the sound of “… they had only just met a day ago.” I added a third option, which I think agrees with the others’ who say the heck with strict rules, go with what sounds good in your mind’s ear, Rachel.

  11. Wow! That was a TERRIBLY-worded note!! I agree with “yesterday,” and also like the blogger’s suggestion of “a day ago.” I have A LOT of trouble with these types of decisions when I write. “Today,” “tomorrow”, and “yesterday” are words I too struggle with. But “the previous day” sounds too scientific for a novel I think?

  12. I really cannot answer your query, as I am no writer, but I can speak to the ‘Doctor’s Excuse’ aspect.

    You see, My Father was a Physician, (albeit a local, generally practitioner one), and I was his wayward chile. I stole one of his prescription pads one day, then taught myself to counterfeit his signature.

    Now, in my school, if one had a ‘doctor’s excuse’, the point of being truant did not apply.
    I wrote my own ‘Doctor’s Excuses’ for two years. Hence, I never had to pay the piper, and my HS Grades suffered mightily.

    (I did well in College, though)
    Seriously off-topic, but that is what your post made me think.
    Cheers,
    Lance

  13. Terrible school note, I’m with you and everyone else on that.

    I also prefer the “yesterday” version of the sentence. It keeps the narrative into more of a third-person subjective mode. “The previous day” feels a bit more objective, which might work better in context, depending upon your narrative voice, but standing on its own, the sentence feels to me stronger with “yesterday”.

    I would add, though, that if you remove “just” then “only” should be moved.

    “Jen was so enamored by Dave, she couldn’t believe they had only just met yesterday.” [Emphasizes the recency of the meeting.]

    “Jen was so enamored by Dave, she couldn’t believe they had only met yesterday.” [Emphasizes that they met but didn’t also do other things.]

    “Jen was so enamored by Dave, she couldn’t believe they had met only yesterday.” [Emphasizes the recency of the meeting.]

    Yes, I can be a syntax niggler, too.

    • LOL! Thank you so much for the detailed variances. 🙂 I don’t actually have that particular example in any of my work, but only used it as an example. But I do see what you mean about moving the one word how it makes the meaning so different. I appreciate your input. 😀

  14. The choice of approximately equivalent words depends on the voice, the context, and what already appears on the page. You might opt for synonyms to avoid getting redundant with a word – unless you’re channeling Gertrude Stein, that is.

    • LOL! I think I just get so hung up on what I read as a steadfast rule” that I forget those rules are merely suggested guidelines. Sadly so much of “the new way” of doing things feels like it is simplifying writing to a middle school level sometimes.

  15. I can totally picture this happening. I think I would have given the school what for before I kept my kid home, but it certainly was confusing to me.

  16. As one who used to be in charge of the immunization records at a high school your post made me chuckle. That note was worded poorly, and it supports my next upcoming post on the power of words.
    (BTW – I like “yesterday” better than “the previous day.” ) 🙂

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