Monday, December 21, 2009

I'm Feeling All Tense

All men want to be me. All women want to be with me....

Now where was I. Ah yes, present tense.

I have recently noticed that several authors I've been encountering have been jumping into the present tense pool without waiting an hour after eating. As a result they splash their readers and ruin a perfectly good afternoon. Here is an example, just so we're all clear, what I'm talking about:

"I'm standing on the corner, waiting for Tillet, listening to a song inside my head. It's begins with a raucous bass line and some outstanding guitar. I tap my feet and hear the first growl of lyrics..."

When I see someone using tense like this my first thought is WHY? I believe in deliberate writing, and I hope that when they started working that they had a deliberate purpose. I hope they thought: "I'm going to use present tense for reason "A" and "B".  Too often it's a marker, an overused literary device where the author is actually jumping up and down screaming: “Look at me, I’m a serious writer. I’m stepping outside the box and being bravely literary.”

More often than not, it's probably laziness.

The author just comes with it, not bothering to worry about structure and offering a defense of spontaneity. Others will defend this pretentiousness by lamely offering: "It breaks down the wall between the reader and the author. It's what James Wood, the literary critic, would refer to as 'free indirect style'."

Yawn.

Yesterday I read about two chapters of Nancy Mauro's "New World Monkeys". Mauro was an advertising creative director and copywriter in Canada and the United States. And then most recently, she received an MFA. Now, she writes in present tense. To be fair, I'll probably return to her book and see if I can fight my way past this distraction, but as I read through the opening I kept asking: "What? Why are we in present tense? Why? WHY? WHY?!!!!"

Writers, stop distracting the readers by stepping outside the box when stepping outside the box is an empty gesture. Stop trying to break convention for the sake of breaking convention. You owe it to the reader and to the form.

45 comments:

Natasha Fondren said...

First person present tense is used quite often in YA, these days. I like it. I'm experimenting with it.

See, in past tense, first person naturally reads like telling... it diminishes the "active" feel of the story. If you write first person in present tense, you're THERE. It clips along fast and fresh, when done right. It's very immediate.

But I'd change the "I'm standing" to "I stand."

Steve Buchheit said...

If there is no other reason than, "It's a cool trick," there is no reason.

The addendum to "Know the rules before you break them," is "Have a good reason for breaking other than you can."

willow said...

Your editor side is hanging way out there today! ;^)

Avery DeBow said...

I have a particularly strong aversion to present tense in fiction, followed by a slightly weaker aversion to first person viewpoint. I strongly disagree with the "breaks down the wall" argument, as well. Any story worth its salt will do that regardless of the tense in which it was written.

Natasha -- I have to disagree with you. I find first person present to be jarring, frustrating and at times overwhelming--like hanging out with someone who talks to themselves all day.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Natasha, I hadn't thought about that for YA, but it makes sense to me. Maybe it's a reflection that readers need something more immediate these days. Maybe it's a sign of difficulty in suspension of disbelief..or a lack of patience in reading skills.

Steve..I'm with you. I mean that literally. Look over your shoulder.

Willow, that's not my editor side. Let me adjust my..no I won't go there.

Avery, I am a fan of first person, but when it doesn't work, when the author doesn't apply the tense correctly, it brings the narrative to a jarring halt.

Sullivan McPig said...

I hate stories written in the present tense. No sane person would be thinking like that at the moment it's happening and to me it makes the story feel less real. I can believe in someone telling me in first person about something that happened after the fact, but telling it to me while it's happening?! No...

Stewart Sternberg said...

Sully, you raise an interesting point. Here you are, a reader, and you don't buy into the conceit poised by present tense, especially in first person, that someone can be describing, as it is going on, events of a momentous nature. So much for the wall coming down.

SQT said...

I really dislike the present tense. I don't like to even attempt to write in it because it's so unnatural and I revert to past tense automatically, making the whole exercise pointless.

Very few books can keep my attention in the present tense. In fact. I can't think of any off-hand.

stu said...

I've been considering the present tense for the third in my series of urban fantasy novels, largely because someone commented that the past tense in 1st person POV lowers the tension a little, since you know that the main character comes through broadly all right. Writing that though, I realise that it's just as true of almost any 1st person option. And certainly in an ongoing series.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've tried Present tense and have done it with a very short story. But I find it has weaknesses. It moves the story forward at lightening speed, but causes issues with character development. I find it hard to handle over a long piece.

Stewart Sternberg said...

SQT, I share your dislike of it. I am beginning to think that it is something that you won't find in most conventional genre. However, I still think there's a place for it. Not in what I write, but in some literature. My complaint is when and how certain people may attempt to use it.

STU. If your first two novels feel good, why shift for the third and go contrary to the expectations of an audience.

Stewart Sternberg said...

CHARLES
I think it is best in short story form as well...I think it might be used best as a jumping off point linking together flashbacks. Of course, then you're probably leaping between tenses, and that can become a freaking nightmare. And unpublishable.

Anne Spollen said...

I find present tense exhausting after a few pages. It makes me feel oddly "rushed" -- an awful feeling when you are reading for enjoyment.

Then again, editors sometimes insist writers change their scenes to the present tense, especially in YA. Trust me on this.

Joe Ponepinto said...

I am really surprised at the level of emotion about this issue. Or perhaps I should rephrase that: I was really surprised to discover the level of emotion about this issue.

As some commenters mentioned, present tense in prose produces an increased tension—the feeling that something is happening now. If the scenario of the story calls for this tension, then perhaps present tense is justified.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Anne-I think there is a timing in present tense and sometimes the author has to slow it down to give the reader an opportunity to reflect.

Joe-- I am a little surprised at the level of objection, but I think sometimes there is a feeling that an author is trying to put something over on the reader. Just guessing. As for me, as I've been saying, I think it depends on how and when the author is using the present tense.

Bernita said...

I'm fond of first person but definitely not fond of present tense. McPig's objection is well-founded, particularly in descriptions of rapid, violent action.

Sullivan McPig said...

@stu: A well written story in 1st person past tense doesn't take tension away by letting me know the narrator lives to tell the tale as it doesn't say anthing aobut how this person is doing at the end of the story apart from still breathing (and even that isn't always the case).

Jon said...

It's like this for me...if a device is obvious, it doesn't work. First person, present tense, passive voice, stream of consciousness, dialect in dialog, wierd constructions, anything...if it seems that its purpose is to say, "Look at me," then it doesn't work. If it fits to the extent that I hardly notice or at the end of reading I say, "Huh, yeah, damn, that was first person," then I'm good with it.

SQT said...

@Jon..Stream of consciousness. That is probably my least favorite style. I think I'm too straight forward in my tastes and I can't ever get into that style. I have a book to review and it has a lot of that going on and it's driving me nuts.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Bernita, Sully, SQT someone I know recently wrote that story should come first and that people should never consider grammar or POV. Of course that person was blowing smoke out his butt, but that being said, I think the consensus reached here is that tense and other mechanics of writing should be seamless, they should not be on parade but be functional. Jon Zech has put it succinctly, I must admit.....and a p.s....I tend to hate stream of consciousness (like too many attempts at art it screams pretension).

Charles P. Zaglanis said...

A friend's daughter insisted I read her copy of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. 6 months later this gargoyle (the book, not the girl) is still leering at me from my nightstand. Reason? First person present tense. I'm actually angry at this book because the characters seem interesting but the style is so jarring to me.

I've experimented with first person in my story from Cthulhu Frontiers. I find I like it most when the protagonist has a somewhat introverted, darkly humorous personality. Sorta noiresqe I suppose. The Dresden Files or William Jones' Pallid Light come to mind.

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