1. John Carlo
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    John Carlo Active Member

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    Writing in the Present Tense

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by John Carlo, Sep 24, 2010.

    Hey all,
    I'm almost done reading The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter (fabulous book by the way), and besides the sheer talent of the writer, the biggest thing that struck me was that it's completely written in the present tense (and first person). It gives a very fresh feel to it. So much so, I was thinking of changing the tense of the book I'm writing. I always thought this should be avoided, or maybe I'm thinking of of another rule. Any thoughts on writing in the present tense? Has anyone done this before? What are the pitfalls? I usually end up doing it by accident, then have to go back and correct it later on.
     
  2. Blips
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    Blips Member

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    I'm doing this now. The biggest problem I find is that sometimes it can get a bit wordy which forces me to sit back for a few moments to consider how something may be more elegantly written.

    But now that you've said you thought it should be avoided you've got me worried. Does writing in present tense actually make it more difficult to get published?
     
  3. John Carlo
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    John Carlo Active Member

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    As far as publishing, I don't know about that. Like I said, I'm reading this book written completely in the present tense and it has gotten tons of praise from everywhere. I wouldn't worry about it.

    Though I can't remember the exact rule - other than be consistent with whatever tense you are writing in - I did read that writing in the present tense gives a feeling of immediacy that will make it challenging to present info that could easily be done in past tense. But I don't know. I'm five chapters into the book I'm writing now, and I might try it out.

    Thanks for the feedback.
     
  4. Blips
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    Blips Member

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    One other thing that may or may not prove to be trivial for you (it sometimes causes some issues for me) is mixing present tense verbs and progressive present tense verbs. Sometimes the resulting sentence just sounds awkward and usually ends up require an entire re-ordering of words.
     
  5. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I suspect that it would be an issue for getting the book published - yes, you have an example of one book in the present tense that's successful and praised, but it's still true that _most_ novels are in past tense. I would guess that a lot of readers would be unwilling to read a present-tense novel, and readers mean sales.

    ChickenFreak
     
  6. Manav
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    Manav Contributing Member

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    I was reading "The Namesake" recently, and I didn't realise it was written in present tense until the second chapter. So, it all boils down to how well you have written regardless of the tense.
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    A number of well-known authors have written novels in present tense. I have yet to see one in which it was a good choice (in my opinion - which should go without saying, but someone will surely sputter indignantly if I don't).

    Present tense locks the story pace to the reader's reading rate. It doesn't provide any means of modulating pace other than varying the verbosity. It's a fad I sincerely hope dies out quickly, although it will undoubtedly pop up periodically anyway.

    A choice of tense and person should be made in a reasoned mannaer, and the reason should not be "because it's different." You should consider what each element of the writing style has to offer, and what its shortcomings are, and make your decision based on that alone.
     
  8. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    My only add to this thread is that if you are already well into the writing of your story in the past tense and in the 3rd person, simply changing the tense of the verbs and changing the pronouns will likely not be enough. There are other factors at play, and the tense and person you originally chose also caused you to make other choices of scene and perspective that are more pervasive. You may need a complete rewrite.
     
  9. Auskar
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    Auskar Member

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    I'm not a fan of books (or stories) in the present tense.

    However, I agree that if something is written in the first person, it is easy to get confused on when you write about something the narrator THINKS. He is sort of talking to himself. So you look back and see that part of what is in present tense and part of it is in past tense, you find yourself converting it to...

    ...third person.

    Then its easier to stay in tense.

    I prefer past tense. So do most publishers, I think. You're trying to sell a book.
     
  10. Motley
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    Motley Active Member

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    I know it's getting more popular, but I don't like it. Like Cogito said, it requires the reader to move along at the exact rate of the characters. There is no room for pace shifts.
     
  11. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    You can shift the pace by simply shifting the pace at which the viewpoint character is proceeding. I'll think on this a bit further, but on initial considering I don't see why you couldn't adjust the pace in much the same manner as you'd do in a past tense story. Anyone have examples?
     
  12. Blips
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    Blips Member

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    That's fair to say. I however never even considered the option of writing in past tense. For some reason writing in present tense just seemed the most logical / natural and is how I started.
     
  13. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I enjoy reading present tense - I like moving with my character and the relationship it can build between reader and character. It depends on the story and the subject matter how well it works.

    My first story is about a seventeen year old boy and his challenges. He has a punch first think later attitude to his life. His telling the story works well in present tense. I have found ways of doing it where most readers so far have commented they didn't notice until they went to give me feedback. Third person and past tense would take away from it.

    My second I naturally started writng in the same way but I think it is actually too dark, too emotional and my character is nearly thirty. It may be better told written in past tense and possibly third person, I think both myself and my readers may need the emotional distance - I'll finish the first draft and get the story out just writing it in whatever tense and person the scene calls for, then decide how to approach the second draft.
     
  14. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think pace within any given scene can be modified pretty readily in the present tense but shifts in place and time are more difficult to handle successfully.

    Heller's Something Happened is, for the most part, written in the present tense (first person). Diffiicult, in a first person, present tense tale, not to get bogged down in the narrator's self-absorption/ inessential thoughts. Heller revels in the difficulty, embraces it: the narrator's self-absorption, his repetitiveness, is central to the purpose.

    A considerable artistic achievement; better, in a sense, than Catch-22, but not as much fun.
     
  15. kaylynwrong
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    kaylynwrong Member

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    It's really popular in YA right now, which is what I read the majority of the time. It can be a little jarring for people who aren't used to it, but I personally do not mind it. But it would have to be pretty well-written.

    I wrote 40,000 words in present a couple months ago. After a lot of thought, I decided to switch it to past.
     
  16. S-wo
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    S-wo Active Member

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    I tend to use present tense if what I'm writing takes place in a modern day setting. I write past tense for stories that take place in the past.
     
  17. McHamlet
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    McHamlet Member

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    Try "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", a philosophical novel by Robert M. Pirsig. I thought the present tense was used wonderfully in it.
     
  18. Bearycool
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    Bearycool Member

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    I usually mix present and past tense. I use the past tense to describe past events that had happen to the character, and explain why the character has these traits. The present tense I use to show a linear pattern through the plot so the reader can go in step with the character.
     
  19. cmcpress
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    cmcpress Senior Member

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    The illuminatus trilogy mixes present and past tense to fantastic effect!
     
  20. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake is written in present tense and features some great writing. Most of the books I read are written in past tense, but this book is just so well written that I barely noticed the change to present tense.
     
  21. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    But past tense was the most logical / natural way to present the little bit of narrative in that post? How could you write it in the present? "I however am not even considering the option of writing in past tense. For some reason writing in present tense just seems the most logical / natural and is how I am starting"? Just doesn't catch the decisive nature of the original, does it?

    There seems to be a fashion at the moment for novels to be written in the present tense. I think that the best I can say is that it sometimes works. It might be a useful exercise to try recasting a story in a different tense to see whether it makes things better or worse, but there is a reason that past tense is more common.
     
  22. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    Let's start a new fad and write in the future tense. \o/

    Possibly second person as well. D:
     
  23. cmcpress
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    cmcpress Senior Member

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    One of the reasons i like the Illuminatus Trilogy is because it plays with the narrative - moving between tenses, places and POV in the middle of paragraphs. It's like James Joyce on acid.
     
  24. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Quite possibly.
     
  25. Daveyboyz
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    Daveyboyz Member

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    I was writing a memoir and when I had someone American do a crit on some of it they were horrified that I used 1st person present (for around 80%) of the book. They told me it was wrong and started re-writing everything in past tense, which I found quite perplexing. I played along for a page or two before making the realisation that it worked better the way I had written it. Funnilly enough I let two English people read it who didn't even mention the tense (after all I don't mix tenses in a sentence and it all agree's.) So I wonder are the English just more open minded?

    People on some forums started to worry me that I had written a "Stream of consciousness" book. I looked for examples and was told that Margeret Atwoods "Handmaid's Tale" was such a book...I have read that and never noticed anything odd about it. Researching it further I discovered that "stream of conciousness" writing is not easy to market and it generally skips around, like the mind, making it difficult to read. My book doesn't do this, it's logical and ordered. Much like a diary in a way. I tell my story like a narrator and thats what felt natural to me.

    Though novels are traditionally past tense I feel strongly that it wouldn't have been right for my memoir. It is not an autobiographical account of my life it is a series of observations and stories from my perspective about people and places I have been with my feelings and thoughts along the way.

    When I pick up a book I do not look to see what tense it is written in, this argument that it may turn off readers is rediculous in my view. I want the reader to imagine being where I am and seeing what I am seeing and so thats where I put him.

    If a book is interesting it doesn't matter what tense in my opinion, write it how it feels best.
     

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