Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Writing in the Present

By Raelene Gorlinsky

Remember when first person POV was unusual in romance fiction? Then chick lit came along and made first person more common and popular. There are still some readers who don’t care for it, but most of us are used to it and even like it.

Now I’m starting to see a new “style” of voice for romance stories – present tense, either first or third person. Wow, this is different and can be a lot harder to connect with while reading. Here at ECPI, we have an anthology story coming this month that is written in first person present. Sample:

“I stroll down the well-worn path from my cottage to the lake, trying not to break into a run. My pulse races for no real reason except for the hope that rises within me. The tall grasses brush against my bare legs, reminding me of his fingers trailing along my skin.”

Another upcoming book originally had the prologue and epilogue in third person present. The rest of the book, the main story, was ‘normal’ third person past tense; the different style at the beginning and end was a way to bracket a shift in perspective and time. After much discussion by two editors and the author, we’ve decided to change those sections to first person past, in order to make it more accessible for the reader. It was:

“She pads forward and turns on the desk lamp. The room is a modest box too small for its simple furnishings. Books sprawl everywhere, some open, most in untidy stacks. She fingers their spines.
Her head lifts as the door opens and he steps inside.”

That has now been changed to:
“I padded forward and turned on the desk lamp. The room was a modest box too small for its simple furnishings. Books sprawled everywhere, some open, most in untidy stacks. I fingered their spines.
My head lifted as the door opened and he stepped inside.”

I must admit that as a reader I’m having a difficult time coping with the present tense. I think the theory is that having things happening "right now" will draw the reader into the story, make her feel part of it. For me, it has the opposite effect – it distances me from the character and the action, makes me feel I’m intruding on someone else’s life. But maybe I’ll get used to it if I start seeing more stories written this way. And I do appreciate variety in writer styles and voices, something different to read.

So what do you think? Would you enjoy reading stories written in present tense? Does it matter if it is first or third person? Could you write a story this way?


Belle Scarlett said...

Interesting question. I think we eventually become used to what we're exposed to. I had the opposite problem. In screenplay format, the scene action is written in the present tense, third person with dialogue and visual action driving the story rather than interior character POV. After years of reading and writing scripts, I actually had a tricky time reverting my writing style back to the past tense, narrative prose typically used in novels.

Doreen Orsini said...

As a reader, I prefer third person past tense. Like you, I find it hard to become the character when reading first person past or present tense. Why? I'm not sure, but I think that first person is too much like hearing someone talk about his/her experience where third person can be someone talking about my experience. As for present or past tense, present works the same way for some reason. It makes it harder to lose yourself in a tale.

As a writer, I watch my characters evolve and snatch the tale from my grip. Now fully developed individuals who sit upon my shoulder whether I'm writing or calling for another pizza delivery, they lead that story down another path, one I had not considered when creating them. I love that and fear that writing in first person might make them less real in my mind, put the power back into my hands. Since my greatest gripe about writing synopses is that they must be in present tense, I have no desire to ever try it with a full novel.

Natalie Hatch said...

I think I prefer that the story be told in the same tense, so if you start writing in the first person present tense, keep it up throughout and if won't be so jarring, but the changing of tenses actually pulls me out of the groove.
My personal opinion is I like third person past tense for most stories I've read. I have read a couple of first person past tense and they were fine, but the switching and changing I tend to get motion sickness from (don't ask why, I just do).

lynneconnolly said...

I hate it, really hate it. It does my head in and I get so obsessed trying to get over the strange style that I never relax into the story.
I think the skill of a lot of genre fiction writers (romance, crime, etc) is to be transparent, so the reader can "see through" the prose to the story. That's not to say the writing should be simplistic or too much like everyone else's - or there would be no author voice - just that it should be appropriate.
At the moment, writing in the present tense isn't appropriate, at least for me. There are strong reasons for doing so, especially when the book is in the first person, but I haven't yet read the breakthrough book that lets me forget all that and just immerse myself in it.
But never say never! One of my favourite works of literature is James Joyce's "Ulysses" and Molly Bloom's speech one of the greatest anywhere. So one day...

Anonymous said...

As someone who writes in first person POV I won't say that I'd never read a story written in present tense. I'm reading a book now that's written in present tense and I have to say it's not my favorite. But I get so frustrated by people who have closed their minds to first person that I don't want to do that to a writer trying present tense. However, like you, I'm not all that comfortable with present tense. It seems clunky and I find, since it's slightly unnatural, the writer tends to slip every now and then and it takes a lot of thought to figure out why the content doesn't feel right. You don't want your readers to have to think that hard about what they're reading. It interferes with your story.

Terry Odell said...

For me, present tense in any person takes a LOT of getting used to, and the story really has to pull me in. An author friend of mine wrote for Harlequin Next and her books were in 1st person present. After a chapter, I hardly noticed because she wrote a character I cared enough about so the tense issue disappeared.

However, I totally stopped reading a best-selling mystery author because I felt so distanced by the present tense, although it was third person. It felt like it was an outside narrator, not the protagonist, telling the story. Strange, perhaps, that a 3rd person POV feels closer in past than present, but that's how it strikes me.

It's more of a 'gut reaction' thing--I can't really put my finger on why it's a turnoff, but it's another obstacle to overcome in losing myself in a story.

That being said, I did write one of my short stories in present tense. But that whole story seemed to be channeled; it simply happened, and maybe because it's more vignette than story, it worked. However, the sale of that story gave me the confidence to keep writing, so I guess there was one good side to present tense. I haven't done it since.

I don't mind first person past, although my mother said, "I don't like books that start with I. I did write one mystery short using 1st person past because it felt right.

Vicky B said...

Although I've become accustomed to first person/past tense, it will never be my favorite. Though I have found a couple of books that I've really enjoyed in that tense. But first (or third) *present* tense - it's just too awkward. I can't relate to the character. It reads too much like a screen play for me.

Third person past is my preference both in reading and writing. I can -and do - write in first person past on occasion, but never present. It's just too weird.

Vicky B

Stephanie Julian said...

I think it all depends on the story and the ability of the writer to pull it off. If they have the ability to write in the present tense, then I think the story will work. But I think they have to be really good writers otherwise it'll just be a mess.

Anonymous said...

*shudders* Sorry, but no. Present tense, first or third or, god forbid, second person, is like nails on a chalkboard to me. I can handle first person past if the author is really good and handles it flawlessly, but present tense never gets less annoying for me.

I think because it strikes me as bad!fic. Almost every bad fic I ever read on the internet was in present tense. Could be a personal squick because of that.

Amy said...

I can tell you that I’ve rarely seen writing in present tense that didn’t make me drop the book at page three. Unless you write almost all dialog, it inevitably leads to a kind of temporal distortion, especially in descriptive passages and some action sequences, where the tenses become very confused and you (the reader) can’t tell precisely when something happened.

I started reading a mystery by a very famous author who wrote the first chapter in first person, present tense and then the second chapter in third person, past, and after struggling through the first chapter with all kinds of temporal distortion problems, I didn’t trust her to stay in the third person, past, so I dropped the book. I managed to finish one book by another author, but only because it was almost entirely dialog with few descriptions. And even with this author, there were incredibly awkward passages when she did need to describe actions and the scene—it was painful to read because the sentences were so awkward.

So even highly skilled authors have difficulties handling it properly. I, personally, would not use it. It’s great in a blog or conversation, but in a story, it can really mess with the sense of time and place.

Amy Ruttan said...

Hmmm, I don't think I've read a present tense story. I think I'm still for the Third person past tense type of novel.

I find present tense harder to read, and I do not like when tenses are switching through out the book. Stick to one and roll.

I'm alright with certain first person stories, mostly by Katie MacAlister. :)

EilisFlynn said...

I can understand how 1st POV takes getting used to, but some stories demand it. The bottom line? If you do it right, nobody minds.

Ann Jacobs said...

I can tolerate first person past tense for a page or two. I've set down books that won all kinds of kudos because I can't stand reading a monologue, which is how my quirky brain interprets this style of writing. As for writing in present tense, I don't believe I could enjoy it, either, except in a screenplay.

To me, stepping out of the third person past tense style fits better in "literary" fiction than in novels geared for a commercial market. Yes, it's possible to write a story in any person, any tense, including second person present tense--but if one's aim is to write a readable, enjoyable book that explores the story world from the heads of two or three main characters, then third person past tense is the way to go.

Robin L. Rotham said...

I tend to think of a first-person story as that character's account of events written after the fact. First-person present tense doesn't generally work for me because I can't shut off awareness that the character would have to be constantly scribbling down the events as they unfold. Third-person present works better for me because it comes off as narration by an unseen third party -- sort of like play-by-play from a sports commentator.

But I think present tense is best in limited chunks because the immediacy can make it draining to read. You don't get the ebb and flow of awareness that allows the reader to pull back and take a breather before the next high-tension scene. I think it's great for peeks into a villain's POV, like when he's killing someone, because it really ratchets up the tension.

Sally Painter said...

I think it proves that language is a living thing and is always changing. (g) I personally prefer third past, but if written well, I can see how first present could be effective.

I've had moments while writing where I've written a line in first present.It was really an eyeopener to my subconscious and startling, since I don't consciously think in first present.

I'm acustomed to writing and reading in third past and therefore comfy with it.

Cindy Spencer Pape said...

One thing that hasn't really been addressed is switching POV's. I find it very hard to wrap my head around a book with multiple first-person points of view, whereas I have to trouble at all reading a story that hops back and forth between the heads of two charaters in third. One reason I've only done limited experiments with first person is that one of my strengths, I've been told is writing from the male POV. I don't know that I could pull that off in first person.

Terry Odell said...

Cindy, it's not that tough; if you're writing deep POV in 3rd person, you're almost in 1st person if you're doing it well. (But I always have XY readers check anything I write from the male POV.)

Debra Glass said...

I can see where first person, present tense would work well for noir type thrillers. The samples reminded me of Bogart movies or dark psychological thrillers. Anne Rice certainly carried it off well in Interview With A Vampire. This style works well in stories where there are a lot of unknowns and red herrings but I'm uncertain of how I would feel about it in a romance.
I applaud Ellora's Cave for trying new and different! For going out on a limb for their authors. Remember ten years ago, erotic romance was practically unheard of??

Lynn LaFleur said...

I recently read a book in first person present. The book was about three friends, and each friend had her own chapters in her POV. Made me nuts! It was very confusing to try and keep up with whose POV I was reading in this chapter. I finished it only because I'm one of those sick people who must finish a book I start.

I prefer reading and writing in third person past. I want to know what other characters other than the heroine are feeling or thinking, and I want my readers to know that about my characters. There are many, many authors who do first person past very well. It doesn't interest me to read it, so I wouldn't attempt to write it.


Kate Hill said...

I prefer third person past tense. Though stories can be well written in any point of view or tense, I personally can't get into reading them unless they're third person past tense.

Katie Reus said...

As a reader my favorite style is third person past tense, but I have a few choice authors who write in first person past and I'll pick up anything they write because their voice and style is so engaging. (this is usually chick lit)

I personally don't care for pure present tense though. I'm sure there are fantastic authors out there who pull it off but I have yet to find that book. It always comes off as awkward to me and I can't stay in the story and that's the whole point isn't it? To make the reader forget they're reading?

Anonymous said...

Unless the writer is phenomenally, amazingly, an just astoundingly good, I don't think that they should write in present tense.

I agree with doreen - third person, past tense. First person unless done properly can oftentimes come across as slightly condescending to the reader, especially if the protagonist has a gripe or a hang-up about something.

First person is for the powerful ones.

Anonymous said...

Unless the writer is phenomenally, amazingly, an just astoundingly good, I don't think that they should write in present tense.

I agree with doreen - third person, past tense. First person unless done properly can oftentimes come across as slightly condescending to the reader, especially if the protagonist has a gripe or a hang-up about something.

First person is for the powerful ones.

Jennifer Ashley/ Allyson James / Ashley Gardner said...

I see more and more YA fiction in first-person present, as well as non-romance erotica.

I first encountered first person present when I was ten, (mumble) years ago. I remember it jarred and intrigued me at the same time. It was a first person present prologue that led to a first person past novel. I read that prologue over and over again, fascinated by the rhythms of the writing.

I think it comes down to whether the author can carry it off. I read a first-person present YA novel not long ago that was done so well that I forgot it was present tense within a page or two. Also some of my favorite series are done in first-person past, and I can't get enough of them.

I think in romance first person (present or past) is more difficult, because we want to know what's going on in the heads of both hero and heroine. Although I just read a romance in third person past that was entirely in the heroine's POV, and I thought it was great. Oh well.

I guess it really is the level of storytelling!

K. Z. Snow said...

Quite frankly, an entire story or novel written in present tense annoys the living piss out of me. I've used PT only once, in a fairly brief dream sequence, simply to convey the air of immediacy dreams have.

There are a whole lot of other things I'd rather see in romance and erotic romance than present-tense narration. Ugh.

Anonymous said...

I have a hard time writing in first person, but I'm so deeply inside the head of my POV character, it makes no sense to write third person.

And I hate present tense. I have to change it in my head as I read.

Beosig said...

Many moons ago, I was working on a creative group project, and the group leader stated up front something along the lines of, "We're doing this differently because I'm bored of the 'normal stuff' that is out there." I had to step up and say that some of that "normal stuff" is the way it is because it works. If you want to do something differently because it is better, then by all means let's do it that way. If you want it different just to be a weirdo, then I'm pretty sure the project will flop. He didn't heed my advice, and the project flopped about 6 months later and took countless hours of work down the tubes with it.

My point is that some people are writing in present tense in order to break the norms and make themselves stand out. The norm of past tense is there because it is the easiest tense to read and absorb.

If a writer wants to "be different" then those differences should come out in their characters, story, voice, and other elements of the writing. Abusing the English language is different, but it is most certainly not better.

Anny Cook said...

Present tense. Ick. I find it very stilted and awkward.

Anonymous said...

Everyone has their preferences and that's a good thing. Variety is great!

Unfortunately I can't get into a present tense/first person...I really have tried but I just feel like I'm reading about someone else instead of putting myself into the story...I just can't get into it.

What really ticks me off is reading a back blurb of a book and it is written in third person/past tense and it really grabs me but when I open the book it's in first...grrrrrrrrrrrr.

If it is going to be in the first person/present tense then please use it on the back blurb too! Aiiii

Anyways I prefer the third person/past tense reading.

Great question, Raelene.


Tarot By Arwen said...

As a reader, present tense holds me off from getting to the feeling of the story. If I am kept trapped in the here and now, I have no way to slide into that escape mode that I like. First person is difficult for me to enjoy in a lot of cases. I loved the first person of the Maximum Ride stories by James Patterson because he had the voice right. Too often I read first person that is utterly stilted.

ECPI Editors said...

Lynn and Jennifer (and anyone else), can you give the titles of the recent books you've read that were written in present tense? I'd like to try a few.


Terry Odell said...

Try the newer Patricia Cornwell if you're looking for mystery (although her shift in focus turned me off the books as much as the shift to present tense). "The Last Precinct" is 1st person present. Others may differ.

In women's fiction, Nancy Robards Thompson writes 1st person present.

(I'm answering more because I wanted to type the word verification -- chuwrm -- Chew Worm?

Anonymous said...

My son and his friends eat up the Darren Shan books, done in first person present tense. There are several other series they really love that are that way as well.

I love first person but I prefer past tense.

Bernita said...

I'm very fond of first person. Am not fond of present tense. Yet I was into chapter three of Ann Aguirre's Grimspace before I noticed it was written in present tense.
So there you go.

Denise Rossetti said...

I really REALLY dislike present tense. I'll stop reading after the first page unless the author is drop-dead brilliant. But off hand, I can't think of a present tense book I've finished.

First person can be terrific. I greatly admire any writer who can carry it off.

AmyB said...

I'm equally happy with third-person past tense, or first-person past tense. But present tense anything bugs me. I'll read it anyway--it seems more common in literary fiction--but I always find it makes the novel less immersive, because the writing distracts me from the story.

ECPI Editors said...

Question: Do you think present tense (1st or 3rd person) would work in a children's book? For the elementary school age, or for picture book age? Why or why not?


Belle Scarlett said...

Unless the story is set "Once upon a time, and far, far away," I think present tense lends itself very well to children's writing, since the present tense is the active, simple tense that wee, beginning grammarians can grasp easily and often use themselves.

A Sampling of Books Written in the Present Tense (listed from the Grammar Girl website - some I've read and recommend* and some I haven't yet)

*Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
*House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
*Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Ilium by Dan Simmons (some parts)
Olympos by Dan Simmons (some parts)
*Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Line of Vision by David Ellis
The Sound of My Voice by Ron Butlin (also in second person)
Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins (also in second person).

K J Gillenwater said...

Present tense in a book is something I consider to be a literary in nature. I don't particularly like it. It takes your brain some getting used to, and, at first, it can be downright annoying and jarring.

Hope this is not the new trend. No thanks.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion. First person present is something I associate with fandom rather than 'literary' works. It became something of a trend a few years ago and I've used it myself in writing fan fiction. Of course, fanfics written in this POV tend to be short. They also have the advantage of the narrator being immediately identifiable to the reader, something an original story (unless based on a historical figure) won't have. For that reason, I don't mind it in fanfic but I wouldn't read it in original fic.

astrologymemphis.blogspot.com said...

It doesn't matter one bit to me. The Last Girls by southern writer Lee Smith is written in present tense, and that's fine with me. Personally, I feel it brings me right into the moment along with the narrator.

I don't have a problem with first person, either, and don't understand why so many writers react to it as if it's something new. First person has been around as long as I've been reading, and I don't want to tell you how long that is.

Second person takes a bit more getting used to for me. A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan is in second person, and I remember reading the first paragraph about five times before I finally understood, "Oh. Duh. It's in second person." Once over that hurdle, I found it to be an engaging story. I figured out the ending early on, but it didn't spoil it for me. I never have a problem finding out I was right in the end. :-)

ECPI Editors said...

I just stumbled over a review at AAR for a romance written in present tense: That's Amore by Wendy Markham. The reviewer gave it an F, said "I simply never connected with the author’s writing style. I found it distracting, uninvolving and – from this reader’s point of view – a total failure." According to the review, there is much head hopping between heroine and hero, both in first person present, making it very difficult to understand the perspective.

Of course, it didn't help that the hero's name is Ralphie, or that much of the action is about eating or talking about eating.


K J Gillenwater said...

Carol Goodman writes in present tense. Just another to add to the list.

Vivienne Westlake said...

I also prefer third person past tense. I think first person works in chick lit a la Bridget Jones, but I don't read much chick lit, so I prefer the third person.

Reading in the present tense is distracting, though it's worse in first person present tense. Unless it's one of those kids books where the kids are part of an adventure and have to imagine themselves as a character and pick the outcome--I forget what those are called.

As a historical romance writer, it also makes more sense to me to write third person past tense. Everything I'm writing happened at least a hundred years ago.

Recently, I'd bought Alison Weir's fiction novel on Lady Jane. I love her history books, but I put this one down after reading the first few pages because it's written in first person with MULTIPLE viewpoint characters. That is the most distracting thing ever! If you're going to write in first person, stick to one POV character unless you're writing an epistolary novel! It's so annoying as a reader to read two pages in Jane's mother's POV, then in the Queen's POV, then in some other random woman's POV, and back again. I'm so sad that I can't get into this book as I'm sure it was well written and researched otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Libba Bray's YA trilogy are in first-person present tense. It was awkward at first, but by the second chapter of the first book, I was rolling with it. She is the exception though. Unless it's part of a dream or fantasy sequence, present tense drives me up the wall. The best way I can describe it is literary tunnel vision, like that feeling you get right before you pass out, but in book form.

Anonymous said...

That was supposed to be IS, the trilogy IS first person... Sorry