Present Tense

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Moni12
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Present Tense

Post by Moni12 » October 26th, 2010, 1:09 pm

I'm not really big on writing in first person, although I have done it, and I have never tried writing in present tense until now. My inspiration came in part from the Hunger Games and so it is absolutely vital to my WIP that I write in present tense. I wonder if anyone has any advice on how to do this or books I can read to figure out a strategy. I find myself constantly getting stuck and I'm never sure how to move forward. Any feedback is welcome!

Louise Curtis
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Re: Present Tense

Post by Louise Curtis » October 26th, 2010, 6:11 pm

I teach writing sometimes, so excuse the lecturish tone.

Present tense is (for most people) easy to write and hard to read. Primary schoolers seem to embrace it, but everyone else would prefer people just wrote in past tense (with a few notable style exceptions - which I don't recommend emulating, because it's impossible to take someone else's style).

First person is great for voice and for exploring your narrator's motivatons, but terrible for showing the bigger picture - you can't possibly show what's happening unless your narrator is there.

I like first person and write that way naturally. A sense of voice is one of my strengths. When I write in third person, my book is weaker. But if you don't have a character's voice in your head (or can't find it), why restrict yourself? I have found through lengthy experimentation that the advice I received about writing in this person or that person was rubbish. The best writing I do is the type that comes easily to me - but in past tense.
Louise Curtis
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Truth and Fiction
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Re: Present Tense

Post by Truth and Fiction » October 27th, 2010, 12:45 pm

I don't mind present tense if it's done well. I think, however, it is more difficult to sustain successfully over a longer work (especially in first person) compared to a short story. So you're giving yourself an extra challenge right away.

I don't think anyone should be told to absolutely avoid a certain POV, etc., but I also think you should give past tense a shot and see what happens. You might be surprised to discover you can maintain your vision for the piece even if it's not in present tense -- and it might make your job a bit easier.

Moni12
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Re: Present Tense

Post by Moni12 » October 27th, 2010, 2:06 pm

I've written in past tense before and usually it's my preference. Like I said, though, present tense is extremely important to the outcome of my WIP.

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smasover
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Re: Present Tense

Post by smasover » October 27th, 2010, 3:29 pm

My current novel project shifts between present and past tense -- the principal plot (and a vast majority of the chapters/pages) in past tense, the sub-plot in present. This has mattered to some readers, others haven't even noticed -- presumably because the sprinkling of present tense isn't so awfully intrusive in their experience. I do think that a sustained span of present tense prose is difficult to read, and you're likely to scare off readers (and agents/editors) if you insist on using it. One agent (in an early round of looking for representation) rejected my query explicitly because the first pages were written in present tense -- that's as far as she read, and, as it were, "that's all, she wrote..."

I'm about to go looking for agents again after an extensive rewrite, but I've left present tense at the start of the mss. I'm hoping to find an agent who is sufficiently compelled by the story to read past those first 6-1/2 pages and see that the mss. reverts to past tense (it's a strong opening, if I dare say so myself...).

All that said, my novel does not deeply depend on the use of present tense, so I'm not facing your predicament exactly. If an agent or editor insisted I edit out the present tense, I could do so (why haven't I done so already? because I think the novel works better with the subtle unease caused by the switches of tense).

I don't think there are any tricks by which you can make the vast majority of readers like extended runs of present tense better than they do. If I were in your shoes, I might try to write a few chapters and show it around my writers' group in order to have some back-and-forth that's informed by actual pages, characters, and plot.

Good luck!

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polymath
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Re: Present Tense

Post by polymath » October 27th, 2010, 5:29 pm

A narrative has a main tense with auxilliary tenses transitioning as needed. Present tense to my way of thinking is a best practice for ongoing, in the moment action. That's also its challenge and handicap. If the unfolding action all takes place as it unfolds, present tense challenges willing suspension of disbelief, but potentially enhances participation mystique. To my mind that latter is one of present tense's main strengths, the other being the subjective reporting aspect with its delightful unreliableness and bias potentials. A close third strength comes from reliableness due to being reported from the closest in time and place to the unfolding action, for close narrative distance's sake.

Thoughts in present tense must either be momentary reflection reactions to perceptions or left for cognitive processing in after-action scenes. A thought about the loveliness of a blooming wound at the moment of injury is a credible reaction in present tense. Cognitive processing of paying for medical attention might be too burdensome at the moment of the injury.

An example of mixed tenses with present tense in main position due to default of first position.

  We band of knotheaded frat brothers wait beside the traintracks for the midnight coal train.
  Jeremy spoke the stupid thought. "Let's hop a train instead of driving to the river." It sounded like a cool thing to do at the time. Logical too; we'd been drinking.
  Monk puts an ear on the track.


Not suitable for every readers' comfort zones, I'm sure, but I've seen similar done quite well often enough.
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steve
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Re: Present Tense

Post by steve » October 28th, 2010, 12:43 am

Disgrace by JM Coetzee might be the best present tense novel ever written.
Read one of the best stories by Borges.

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sarahdee
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Re: Present Tense

Post by sarahdee » October 28th, 2010, 12:52 am

One of the last Margaret Atwood books I read (Robber Bride if memory serves although I don't have the book to hand) was in present tense and it worked very well. But then Margaret Atwood is a genius and I am sure If I tried to write in present tense I would sound like a primary school child.

I think you can break any 'rules' and do what the hell you like as long as you can do it well.

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Colonel Travis
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Re: Present Tense

Post by Colonel Travis » October 28th, 2010, 1:11 am

Big fight in the UK about this recently: Has present-tense narration really taken over fiction?

Philip Pullman goes off/has gone off about present tense here, and I don't read enough modern fiction to comment about the trend of using it more these days, but he makes/made a point I agree with in general:
I want all the young present-tense storytellers (the old ones have won prizes and are incorrigible) to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.

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Robin
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Re: Present Tense

Post by Robin » October 28th, 2010, 10:42 pm

The first present tense book I read was a very jarring experience for the first few pages, but by the end of the first chapter, I couldn't put it down. Then I found Margaret Atwood books and then Hunger Games.... Wow!
My current WIP is written in present because I have so much backstory that is sprinkled throughout the story. It just seemed to work better after I changed it from past (yes, i even tried third).

Best of luck.
Robin
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Moni12
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Re: Present Tense

Post by Moni12 » October 28th, 2010, 10:53 pm

My sister/writing buddy has recently gotten into Atwood and now I'm reading the Handmaid's Tale. I think Hunger Games was first I read and I don't think I noticed it right away, but I like the perspective and the voice of present tense.

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