Someone recently sent an email inquiring about my use of present versus past tense. I’ve written two shorter pieces in present tense (more than that, actually, but these are the only ones that have been sold): the “Hunter Kiss” novella, and an upcoming story called “Minotaur in Stone,” to be published in the anthology, Hotter Than Hell.
Personally, I love writing in present tense. There’s an immediacy, a heightened presence in the story, that I find incredibly exciting. And when done right, the lyricism…the poetry! Present tense can be bliss for the mind.
Of course, the same can also be said for past tense. It all comes down to how you do it, and how you do it. Great writing trumps all. And if you can do it, man—either way—then rock on.
But here’s something else: Don’t force it. I made that mistake with the last book I wrote. I won’t name the title—I suspect it’s fairly obvious—but I had it in my mind that the story had to be told in present tense, and by God, I was going to write it that way! Or else! So I battered that story. I heaved, I twisted myself in knots over it, and yeah, parts of it weren’t bad. It was in present tense. I got my wish. But the story did not work. I had to step back and revaluate. I had to ask myself what the fundamental flaw was. There were several. But one of them, clearly, was the tense of the story. What I had pulled off in shorter form was not manageable as a novel. At least, not this novel.
So, I rewrote. All of it. From present to past.
Good times. Really.
I was also asked if there is an editor/agent bias against stories written in present tense. If there is, I haven’t seen it, but that’s probably not a reflection of actual reality—even if more and more YA novels are being published in that particular story format. Something Tracy Rolfe points out, when faced with a son trying to write in past tense—who is finding it more difficult to write than in present:
These days authors, and especially, I think, children’s and YA authors are writing more and more in present tense. This means that our younger generations are being more and more exposed to present tense writing, and consequently to less and less past tense writing, though I would think past tense would still win out.
Interesting. Unlike Tracy, I don’t assume past tense should win out—it’s too attractive, too immediate, and for some, flat out easier—though I don’t think there’s any danger that past tense is going to die out. Here’s another view on the matter:
And I was wondering… Why?! Why on earth do I put a thriller back on the shelf if it’s in the present tense, but have no problem with a YA novel in the present tense? Is it because the sort of YA novels set in the present tense (usually problem novels and general fiction) are so suited to present tense? And what makes them so suited to it?
I don’t know the answer to that question. I’m not even certain YA novels are better suited to present tense. It may just be that teen readers are more receptive to different formats than stodgy adults, and so you see authors able to write as they wish—past or present—and still be published. True enough, in mainstream commercial fiction I almost never see books written entirely in present tense. So if there is a bias—then it’s a reader bias—and if the readers don’t care for present tense in certain genres, then the editors and agents are going to be leery, too.
Anyway, here are some examples of how it should be done. Because that’s the best way to learn. First up, from Kelly Link—and her short story, “Travels With the Snow Queen”—which is the first of her works that I ever read, and utterly changed the way I thought about writing:
Part of you is always traveling faster, always traveling ahead. Even when you are moving, it is never fast enough to satisfy that part of you. You enter the walls of the city early in the evening, when the cobblestones are a mottled pink with reflected light, and cold beneath the slap of your bare, bloody feet. You ask the man who is guarding the gate to recommend a place to stay the night, and even as you are falling into the bed at the inn, the bed which is piled high with quilts and scented with lavender, perhaps alone, perhaps with another traveler, perhaps with the guardsman who had such brown eyes, and a mustache that curled up on either side of his nose like two waxed black laces, even as this guardsman, whose name you didn’t ask calls out a name in his sleep which is not your name, you are dreaming about the road again.
Isn’t that wonderful? It’s a lesson in loveliness.
Another writer who regularly uses present tense, is Charlie Huston:
I SMELL THEM BEFORE I SEE THEM. All the powders, perfumes and oils the halfsmart ones smear on themselves. The stupid ones just stumble around reeking. The really smart ones take a Goddamn shower. The water doesn�t help them in the long run, but the truth is, nothing is gonna help them in the long run. In the long run they�re gonna die. Hell, in the long run they�re already dead.
Again, fabulous writing, and all in present tense. I highly recommend Mr. Huston’s books, by the way. The above selection is from his novel, Already Dead.
So, take it all as you will. Past, present…write what calls to you, but do it well. As always.