Sunday, March 7, 2010

I'm a Tepee, I'm a Wigwam: I'm Torn Between Two Tense(s)

Okay, wow, I'm a little disappointed in myself for such a terrible title. Apologies.

Moving on.

Recently, I've been doing some very pleasurable pleasure reading. Just finished Hannah Moskowitz's BREAK and just started GOING BOVINE by Libba Bray (who, by the way, makes my teeth sweat with her wonderousness.) Both of them write in the present tense (at least in these two books).

Turns out, I'm embarrassingly suggestible. Here I am, trying to start my new project, and I keep slipping into present tense. It's like an infection in my brain. Maybe these clever ladies are secretly infecting the whole literary world with present tense-itis!

So today, after two days of writing sentences that mixed tenses like a third grader, I have finally decided to give in. I am writing my first present-tense story. I may live to regret this, but I think it's worth the noble experiment.

In a spectacular feat of rationalizing, I have come up with a short list of reasons that present tense can be the right fit for a story.

1. It puts the reader smack-dab into the main character's experience. There is no sensation that there are secrets being kept from the reader.

2. It eliminates that pesky past-perfect tense if you have a lot of backstory or flashbacks to get through.

3. It's jam-packed with all sort of swell actiony verbs for that sense of immediacy!

4. In first person narrative, it eliminates potential confusion between direct thoughts and narrative.

5. It's kind of trendy! Something I can so rarely say about my projects!

What's the verdict, people? Do we like present tense?

- Liz


Ann Elle Altman said...

Me personally? No. But, I'm getting used to it. I read a lot of fiction written in present tense and after awhile, I can get into it but... as for writing in it... I prefer past. But, I think your story will be wonderful.


Kristan said...

HUNGER GAMES was so well written that the present tense was invisible to me. I can't say the same was true for some of the other present tense books I read, BUT I don't think that's a function of present tense being bad, but rather of those particularly books not succeeding as well.

No worries, I have the same "suggestibility" problem. I kept starting my latest WIP in present too. But now that I've forced myself to stay in past, I see that it really is much better for this story.

I think you just have to do what's right for your story, you know?

Liz Czukas said...

There is a book called How I Paid for College, and I swear I didn't notice it was written in present tense until I was halfway through the sequel. Fantastic book, and even better in audio format, because the reader sings all the Broadway tunes that make this theater-geek fiesta so wonderful. It can be done perfectly and be all of the things I listed. We'll see if I'm up to the challenge.

- Liz

Katie said...

I can't stand present tense. That's my stance and I'm sticking to it.


I've recently run into a few present tense books written SO FREAKING WELL that I had zero idea they were present tense until, like, halfway through the story. If an author can write in present tense without me, Mrs. I-Hate-Present-Tense, noticing, I'm all for it!

Good luck with your new story. I bet you'll do great!

LindaLeeFoltz said...

I think 1st person present tense is the most difficult, but the most compelling. It is definitely my favorite read, and it is how I'm writing my Thorny Memoir. Good luck to us both. I have also written a post about Writing Memoir that you and your readers might find helpful. I hope you'll check it out and let me know what you think. Thanks, and, again, best of luck to both of us and all who write present tense.

mepowell said...

I often feel torn between present and past tense, too. It can be useful to separate the action the character is involved in now, from the action that took place in her past or memories. It can be very compelling, for all the reasons you mention. I find myself favoring it for short stories. It's trendy - and that worries me a little, because if it's overdone, it'll become dated. Great discussion! Good luck with your new project!

Christi Craig said...

I like present tense. The first novel I attempted was in present tense, for some reason. And, I think I liked writing it that way because of your reason number one.

Since that first novel, I've written mostly in past tense, trying to follow a set of writing rules, I guess. But, after your post, I'm eager to try present again!

dirtywhitecandy said...

I usually write a pre-draft synopsis in present tense, so when I write the first draft it's actually quite hard to go into the usual past-tense third or first person. In fact, with the novel I'm crrently writing, I decided the present tense of the synopsis had better immediacy and energy and decided I would change the whole novel to that!

eleven said...

I just wrote a short story in present tense and didn't realize I was doing it until half way through. It's one thing when you're the reader, but the writer? The story demanded to be present. Some things just work better in that tense.

I think present tense will work great for your style. You do in-the-moment so well, the tense might as well go along with it. Plus, like you said, past perfect is a bear. And if that bear gangs up on you with his other time-shifting tensory monsters like future perfect continuous and present infinitive, it's a relief to stand on simple present ground to tackle them all.

(I know tensory is not a real word, but I really like it.)

Bring on the present tense Czukas novel! said...

It really depends upon the writer. The old Private Detective genre was filled with present-tense narratives, and I believe, more than any other stories, they kicked off this style.

In my experience you have to be very careful with the present tense, especially if it is not your standard way of writing. It is very easy to fall back to past tense, and if that is your norm, it becomes that much harder to catch the slips when you self-edit.