Monday, August 31, 2009

Present Tense? Really?

So, in the shriek heard round the world, this weekend I learned that my YA story is better served by first person present tense. The problem is, I have already written 350 pages in first person PAST tense. Can you spell f-r-u-s-t-r-a-t-i-n-g?

I was doing a journaling exercise to try to get to the emotional core of a scene I needed to rewrite, and lo and behold, using first person present caused the whole thing to LEAP into focus, sharp and bright. I was stunned. For many reasons. Not the least of which is that I have never even considered present tense as a tool in my writerly toolbox. Just never occurred to me. Probably because I’ve heard so much about how many readers don’t like it. Ah well. For that reason alone, I wish I could ignore this revelation I’ve had. But I can’t. Because it makes the story better.

I was also stunned because usually my muse is better about parceling out the hints in a timely fashion. I would be a tad peeved at her for this late breaking development IF I wasn’t so happy that it’s cracked that story egg wide open. Scenes that I was struggling with now write themselves, issues of the heroine getting lost in the milieu have disappeared. Excess words are falling away and the story lens is somehow now permanently set on closeup. Honestly, I am like a 13 year old girl with her first crush—my WIP is all I can think about 24/7. I am well and truly obsessed, cannot stop thinking about it, and pretty much want to schedule frequent makeout sessions with it.

Yes, we writers are odd beasts.

So this is a good lesson to me. I think from now on, whenever I’m beginning a book, I will make myself write the first few scenes in all the possible tenses and POV combinations to see what shapes up.

So that was my weekend. How about yours?


PJ Hoover said...

My last ms demanded present tense on page 2 so I switched right then and there. My current WIP I'm at page 200 in present but have known I need to switch to past since about 100 pages ago. I'm okay with picking that up as part of the revisions, though, and actually looking forward to it.

caboozie said...

I'm in the midst of writing a debut YA novel and started writing in present tense purely out of ignorance! I've read you should avoid the passive voice and confused this with past tense, so I began writing the novel in present tense. Hundreds of pages later, I realized my "error" and began to rewrite in past tense. It just didn't sound as good, so I've returned to present tense! glad to hear someone else feels the same.

Vivian Mahoney said...

I struggled for a half year on how to tell the story for PB, switching from first person to third person, back to first and now it's in alternate first past tense and third past tense. Revisions are much easier. One of these days, I'd like to try present tense, but it really takes some getting used to writing.

Congrats and good luck!

Robin L said...

Well clearly I'm in excellent company!

I once wrote a WIP in alternating 1st and 3rd POV because I couldn't decide which worked best. I figured that way, I'd only have to change half the mss when I finally decided!

Unknown said...

I stumbled across your blog when I did a search on writing first person present tense. I'm glad I did! I'm doing revision now on my 90k-word urban fantasy that I've written in first person present tense as well.

I recently got an edit back from an editor reviewing my first chapter for consideration- one who admitted she was not comfortable with first person b/c she doesn't work with it much. She added 'ed' to most of my verbs, claiming that it would not make the work past tense and that all the first person books she reads for pleasure are done this way.

Umm... has a new rule gone out that I'm unaware of? Doesn't adding 'ed' on a verb make it past tense?

I've read this genre for over decade, and most all of it is first person PAST tense. Is your book close to coming out yet or do you have any excerts posted anywhere? Can anyone suggest a first person present story I could read that would confirm I am doing it correctly?

It kind of scares me to think an editor could be wrong - I assumed they knew so much more about writing than I did.

Robin L said...

C.J., the editor was right, as are you, in that the majority of 1st person books are done in 1st person PAST tense. That is absolutely the norm. What she wasn't right about was claiming ed wouldn't make the work past tense. It does. So you are right. :-) (Personally, I love the sound of those words...)

And the editor is not wrong, necessarily. She's right--for her tastes and possibly her publisher.

I would say only write the book in PRESENT tense if it is the only way the book springs to life, which is the problem I had. There are a lot of people like your editor who aren't wild about 1st (especially in romance, for some reason). In fact, Sue Grimshaw, the romance buyer for Borders posted an unofficial survey she'd done on Twitter that said 60% of readers prefer 3rd. WHich is not to say you can't do first, or first present, you just need to be aware of the hurdles you're placing in your own way.

That said, there are some terrific examples of first present, mostly in the historical and YA categories. HUGER GAMES, CATCHING FIRE, PROPHECY OF THE SISTERS, THE WHITE QUEEN, and SACRED HEARTS, which is actually 3rd person present, but still a good example.

Good luck!

Unknown said...

Thanks! Appreciate your response. I'll be checking out those books.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Thanks for the mention of the 3rd person present tense book...I'm currently rewriting a YA ms. that's in 1st-person present, and was thinking about putting the first chapter into 3rd-person just to see how that might work, and then it occurred to me that 3rd-person present is maybe WEIRD? I dunno... :) I guess I'll have to try it out to really see, but it's comforting to know it's not totally unheard of...

Robin L said...

I actually really, really liked the third person present. Not to mention that Sacred Hearts is a really great book. :-) But I think it was a really intriguing choice that added a lot. I also think it is really smart to play with different POVs in the beginning--one just never knows what will click!

Moses said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Moses said...

Wow R.L. Editor Kristin Johnson passed me on your blog and I must say; this is the inspiration I was looking for! I just finished a 286 page Fantasy/Fiction novel in present tense and It felt so natural to me. Mostly because I am a Screenwriter at heart, so showing is what I am accustomed to doing.

This is the fuel I needed to ignite my fire! Look out for Moses! I am cutting into Fantasy with a two edged sword or pen lolz.

Thank you again for the muse,

*I'm keeping this blog in my archives!

Robin L said...

Welcome Moses! So glad you found inspiration here!

I would agree that screenwriters have been trained to show things rather than tell. That can be a huge advantage.

Good luck with your writing and I hope to hear more from you in the future!

Moses said...

Did I misspell your name I am so sorry. Just caught that two weeks later. Thank you again for your inspiration "R.L.LaFevers." =)