Saturday, December 19, 2015

I walk in the door. I see Present tense. I shoot. Present is now past.

The POV in my WIP is set in first person/present tense. This makes it intimate to the extreme. There are a few take-a-breath moments so the reader can reflect, get a cup of coffee, or stop turning pages long enough to sleep, but the whole novel covers about 6 waking hours.

I’ve read there is a renewed trend toward first person, but my question is: how do publishers feel about an entire novel, not only written in first person, but also in present tense? Is this considered experimental? Feedback I’ve received from contest entries have not been negative on this point. However, since I’ll start the submission process after the first of the year, I’m curious about what to expect from the agent community. Does this type work (without regard for the writing or the plot) have sale’s merit. 

Yes/No/It depends/maybe.

How's that for a clear answer?

Here's the real answer: if someone writes back to tell you that present tense doesn't work in the novel, it's not about the tense. It's because the story didn't grip them enough to forget about syntax, diction, tense and grammar and just KEEP READING!

My colleague Penny Moore and I were talking about this very thing recently. Some really not-well-written books are doing very well because the writer grabs you and doesn't let go.

Only later, when you're deconstructing the book (something most regular readers don't really do!) do you notice plot holes, inconsistencies, and the stuff that makes you wonder what the hell the editor/agent/writer were thinking.

The only question you need to ask about your writing is: does this work?  If present tense makes for a gripping story, use it. If past tense makes for a MORE gripping story, use that instead.

You hear a lot of agents or writers kvetching about this that or the other: "I hate present tense" "I hate third person" "I hate dual narrative" "I hate italicized separate chapters" but what that means is that they got bumped out of the story enough to notice the writing.

As Elmore Leonard famously said "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

Tell your story in the way that makes it the most compelling. Don't worry about anything else. The thing agents really like? Compelling stories.


Brigid said...

And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard is written in third person present with poetic intervals. It worked for me (to my surprise), though some readers complained about it.

Peggy said...

The Hunger Games is written in first-person present tense... So I would say yes, it's got sales merit! (If, as the QOTKU points out, it works.)

(Edited to fix a silly typo)

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

There are a number of books that were very successful in recent book publishing history written in first person present tense, The Hunger Games and The Girl on the Train (this one swaps perspectives, too). The Night Circus was third person present tense (and....somewhat omniscient? I didn't finish it, I'm sorry to say. I intend to give it another go. The present tense reached a crescendo of getting in the way for me by the point at which I'd stopped). I can't remember which tense the Twilight books were written in, but you can bet I devoured those as they came out (tense and POV are not what I dislike about the Twilight books).

But my point in bringing up Twilight, and subsequently Fifty Shades of Grey, is both those series drew readers into the fold who do not normally read. And who wanted more books after they finished the ones which caught their attention. I'm not saying that with statistics or an article to reference or link to, I'm saying it as a library clerk who's seen patrons who normally only check out stacks of DVDs for themselves and for their children read those books and branch out from there. And whether it was the paranormal stuff they wanted, or more romance stuff they wanted, we have more of both of those things (and sometimes together, a thing one of my newer coworkers only just learned).

Andrea said...

I'm not a big fan of first person, but some of my favourite novels are written in first person and for those novels, it works. I enjoyed The Hunger Games despite it being written in first person present tense, though I did sometimes stumble over choppy sentences. I couldn't help thinking I would have enjoyed the story more if it had been written in the past tense, but the story itself and Suzanne Collins' vision and intelligence more than compensated for that.
But I've given up on other novels because of the first person present tense, one of them a historical fantasy set in my native country in the 17th century. I loved the premise of the novel, it was recommended to me by a good friend, but I just couldn't get into it. I might try again in the future.

I'm wondering though if my problem isn't with a novel being written in the first person, but with the character's voice. Maybe the best example is one of my favourite novels, Nabokov's Lolita. I have zero tolerance for sexual abuse of minors (that's putting it gently - there's nothing that infuriates and saddens me more), but this story is so masterfully told that Humbert Humbert drew me in and kept me hooked until at the very end I was punched in the gut by the realisation how he had completely destroyed a girl's life, and how much of a sick and twisted bastard he was.

And to top it all off I've recently decided to abandon my WIP's nearly finished second draft and start the third draft, changing to first person because the story needs it. And guess what? My protagonist is a much more interesting person than I thought she was...

(Sorry.. this is way longer than 100 words! My defense is that I don't post very often on this blog)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Wow! Too much wine last night. Ouch. I am hitting revisions hard for next 2 weeks and tense is something I have struggled with although not in same manner as the OP. My battle is in making sure shifts in tense don't jar the reader right out of the story.

Janet nails it on the head- grab the reader so that tense, style, italics, or what have you doesn't corrupt the story. If an experimental style enhances your tale, go with it. If prose is so stylized that it distracts from the story, then as a reader, I am putting that book down. Life is too short.

When I lay down my time and money on a book, I wish to be compelled, whisked away, shown life in some new way. I don't want to care about what your verb tense is doing.

That is not to say that I am not annoyed by poor writing even if the story is interesting. There is nothing new under the sun, and someone who writes well will find a better way to tell that story. I am casting the poorly written tome aside.

I have, like Janet and Penny, come across hugely popular books that read like something any crayon wielding toddler could bang together. Something in the story worked well enough. The masses gorge themselves on them, rewarding poor craftsmanship with ridiculous sales and even movie deals. I don't get it. But what the Hell do I know? I am an unpublished author talking about several writers who can pay their bills on their craft. Despite the shoddiness of said craft.

For me craft matters because it serves the story. So this question is worth asking even if the answer can be summarized as "depends". Now I need coffee. Two weeks until my day job invades once more - must write. Good luck.

BJ Muntain said...

I'm not a big fan of first person POV anyway - although I have read it and even used it - but I really don't like present tense. A book would have to be incredibly compelling for me to not notice it constantly. But then, I haven't read Hunger Games or The Girl on the Train. Someday I might try.

I truly, honestly, do not see that person or tense make something more 'intimate'. I've seen third person past tense so close and intimate you hardly knew who you were. I've seen first person tales as intimate as a GOP debate. When OP says "This makes it intimate to the extreme", I don't believe them. First person and present tense may try to pull a reader in deeper, but if the writing isn't close enough, it's just a gimmick.

As people have said, these things can work, if they're done well. Especially if they're done well enough that the reader doesn't realize what you've done, or doesn't care. But don't rely on these to convey intimacy, because if your *writing* isn't close enough, your reader will feel pushed away by the gimmicks rather than pulled in by the story.

Lucie Witt said...

Happy writing, E.M.

I read enough YA that this question threw me off - I feel like 60% of the YA books on my shelf at least are written in first person present tense. I think category impacts if that choice is seen as risky or not.

To echo everyone else, style choices don't matter when the story grabs you. Chuck Wendig's Miriam Black series (and I think his Star Wars books) are written in third person present. Night Circus (one of my favorite books) switches tenses and POVs, even using second person. The story was so magical and the writing was so pretty I didn't care.

Andrea said...

E.M.: "The masses gorge themselves on them, rewarding poor craftsmanship with ridiculous sales and even movie deals. I don't get it"

I don't get it either. But I can't help but think about which books published today will stand the test of time, and become classics like the classics and modern classics we have today. My guess (and hope) is that books like Fifty Shades won't be among them. In the meantime I try to focus on what I see as true literary (in the broad sense of the word) gems, and fervently hope that one day I might write something as timeless.

Donnaeve said...

We've heard this before - it all comes down to the writing. QOTKU has said so more than once, (today too) and we've all said it ourselves.

"Tell your story in the way that makes it the most compelling. Don't worry about anything else. The thing agents really like? Compelling stories."

We've seen the rules blown out of the water because of a compelling story. And we're left scratching our heads, and thinking, but, wait, it had a PROLOGUE. (CITY ON FIRE) And wait, it was told in 1st person, present tense (books listed above) And WTF! It had page after page of italics! (DESCENT)

They were evidently damn good stories written in an irresistible, powerful, captivating manner. There are rules, but somehow they don't matter much when a story does what it's intended to do - enthrall the reader.

CED said...

About the only tense that throws me out of a story immediately is second-person anything. I react to it the way Janet reacts to rhetorical questions in queries. "You walk down the dark alley..." No. No I don't.

If it's second-person, it had better be choose your own adventure.

I've used first-person present in short stories when I want to be deep in a character's mind (because, for instance, they're losing their grip on reality) and when I want to maintain tension about the narrator's fate. I know there are different ways to achieve this (like having the narrator ultimately be speaking from beyond the grave), but sometimes first-person present seems like the right tool.

As others have noted though, the main distinction is done well vs done poorly.

Unknown said...

I agree with Lucie. I don't think of first person present as experimental at all, but I read a fair amount of YA and fantasy, and I think present tense is more common in those genres.

I don't mind present tense as long as the story is such that I don't notice it. Part of Jeff Vandemeer's Acceptance is even written in second person present, and it took me a few pages to notice. At first it just felt a bit unsettling to read, but in that case, I think that was the point.

CynthiaMc said...

I love first person - as an actor, it comes naturally to me. I work in Behavioral Health so I also like seeing how other people think.

I despise first person present tense. I used to love Patricia Cornwell books. I've all but stopped reading her because it's annoying as hell. (If hell really is first person present tense I'm straightening up my act right now).

Yet people doing that are able to quit their day jobs and live off of their writing so perhaps they're on to something.

I clean the den, neglected by a full time day job and night time theatre job and wonder how I am going to bring order out of chaos, take care of my hubby who is undergoing surgery on Monday and still find time to put up the Christmas tree, buy presents, fill stockings, send cards, and do all the things that make Christmas a moment to rest and hold each other, touch each other across the miles, and let love reign over all.

Hmm...maybe there is something to this after all.

Merry Almost Christmas, everyone!

A.J. Cattapan said...

My YA book Angelhood is in first person, present tense. I never got complaints from my critique partners, and none of the reviewers ever complained about the tense either. Angelhood has won two awards so far and been an Amazon bestseller.

Granted, I'm no Suzanne Collins, but I think first person present tense works in Angelhood for the same reason it works in The Hunger Games. Both are life-or-death stories. In The Hunger Games, we're holding our breath to see if Katniss survives the games. If the story had been written in past tense, we might think, "Of course, she must make it. How could she tell her story in past tense if she were dead at the end?" Present tense makes us feel like we're right there with her in the moment, and the possibility she might die is real.

Angelhood has kind of the same feeling. My readers are staying up late to find out whether the guardian angel can prevent a girl from taking her own life, and thus whether the guardian angel will succeed in her mission, earn her wings, and proceed to heaven, or fail at her mission, not get her wings, and get taken down to the fiery pits of hell by a demon with thirteen tongues of flame.

Now does this mean I write everything in first person, present tense? No. In fact, Angelhood is the only book I've written that way. My next book (a middle grade mystery due out in August) will be third person limited, past tense because that is what works for that particular story.

Go with what works for your story. Just do it well.

Anonymous said...

Janet has hit the nail on the head enough times to build a good-sized house. This is no exception. "Tell your story in the way that makes it the most compelling. Don't worry about anything else. The thing agents really like? Compelling stories."

In an ask agent session on twitter the subject came up, "How do you feel about one POV character being first person and another POV character being third?"

"That sounds like a hot mess to me. I wouldn't read it."

That thunk you heard was my heart dropping because FAR RIDER is written that way. Most of Diana Gabaldon's books are also written that way, so apparently someone reads it. It all boils down to story.

I don't usually like first person, but I realized the only time I notice it is when the story isn't dragging my heart around like a pull toy. I didn't even think about HUNGER GAMES being written in first person until it was brought up here. I just devoured the stories in great, gulping bites without coming up for air.

The CEO of the game company I write for was an editor and is a very talented writer. We were discussing an author I was in love with. He read a few pages and said he couldn't go on. He agreed the writing was beautiful, but it was so perfect he caught himself envisioning the writer sitting in a block of sunlight at their writing desk with plumed quill in hand. "I was so focused on what the writer was doing, I couldn't care less what happened to the characters and that's your first job. Make the reader care about your characters."

E.M. good luck on the writing.

Dena Pawling said...

I'm reading Thirteen Reasons Why right now. I'm on Tape 5, for those of you who have read it. This is the Kindle version, so it might be different in the physical book [the Amazon preview shows a little different]. Anyway, it's in first person present tense, altho it's YA so that might explain part of it. But it definitely works, and I don't think it would work any other way. Almost half the book is italics, to denote POV changes between the main characters. And those POV changes happen almost every other paragraph, which also works for this story. Plus, there are no paragraph indentations. The author just types a period and moves down to the next line, which is NOT indented, it's flush left. But that works too.

A little bit ago now, Larry Brooks [Story Fix] had on his site an example of writing which I thought was rather good, but the writer said it kept getting rejected. After analysis, Brooks wrote that her style would be better as third person. And you know what? He was right. I studied that entry and his analysis over and over, and finally figured it out.

I have two current WIPs. One is first person past, the other is third person past. I tried to write the third person as first and it Just. Didn't. Work.

It usually sounds cheesy to say “do what works for the story” but after several years of learning craft and reading critically, and also writing my first chapters in several different POV/tense, doing what works for the story is finally easier for me to understand. Not necessarily easier to execute, but definitely easier to understand.

On an entirely unrelated note, my firm has received EIGHT Clerk's Notices of Trial, setting trials on calendar for December 24. Yes, courts are setting EVICTION TRIALS on Christmas Eve. No Sheriff department is Grinch enough to perform actual lockouts on Christmas Eve, but apparently the Grinch is now domiciled in the court system.

Craig F said...

Ahh, a foray back into the real world...kinda.

The writing business is one of the few where the exception is the rule. For any rule you think there might be someone else can find an exception.

This is a wonderful thing because it means writers let what they write speak for itself. Be kind to yourself and don't build a box around yourself with loves or hates about what and how you write. Find stories and let them flow as they would. A story will tell you how it wishes to be read if you breathe life into it.

I have seen writers go ooh and aah over an idea and then realize that they don't write that. It would be a thriller and I can't write thrillers. I write fantasy.

Don't pigeonhole yourself.

LynnRodz said...

OP, I agree with A.J., it's all about how well you tell the story, regardless of tense.

Only later, when you're deconstructing the book (something most regular readers don't really do!) do you notice plot holes, inconsistencies, and the stuff that makes you wonder what the hell the editor/agent/writer were thinking. I think most writers do the same.

(Yes, yes I did use italics.)

E.M., talk about poorly written books, I wonder is it really how well a story is told, or is it how well-known an author is and they sell books because of their name rather than the story? Do they rest on their laurels? Apparently, some do.

What bothers me is, I'm reading a New York Times #1 bestselling author right now. I swear if someone had handed me the manuscript for this book and asked me to beta read, I would have thought this writer was a newbie and this was a trunk novel.

The dialog is stilted and overuses first names. When there are only two people talking you don't need, "Okay, Mary, I know how much you hate being late." "Well, Jill, it's more than that..." I was bored with the first chapter, but kept reading hoping the story would improve. I'm now on chapter four and it still hasn't.

I need a drink!

PS: Cynthia, hope your husband's surgery goes well.

Colin Smith said...

*waves hand identifying himself as another fan of THE NIGHT CIRCUS*

So what have we learned this week? That rules are guidelines, and if your story doesn't fit the guidelines, then let your story have its way. And if you finish the story and it reads like a hot mess, go back to the guidelines. Some guidelines:

1) Avoid italics
2) First person works for more intimacy/getting inside the person's head
3) Third person allows you more distance and to observe things the MC may not
4) Present tense gives immediacy to your story, and a sense that the narrator has no clue what'll happen next--the narrator could even die!
5) Past tense gives opportunity for reflection and hindsight.
6) Avoid italics

Go to these (and many others that have adorned this blog over the years) if your novel needs help. But if it doesn't need help from the guidelines, if the story's working, and your betas are loving it and not noticing that you're "breaking the rules" then don't change a thing.

That's my take on this anyway.

Summary of my post for those skimming the comments: What Janet said.


Karen McCoy said...

Oh my gosh, thank you! My current WIP is almost third draft finished and I was concerned about it being in present tense because I was told that it wouldn't be readable (by someone who hasn't yet read the manuscript). I think I'll go with it until I get some more tangible feedback...but seems to be working so far.

*Exhales entire body weight*

Marc P said...


I have just finished my WIP,, with editor now so not finished at all.. but it is for Xmas. Tenses are all past, but a mix of first person narration and third, Which I have done before and got away with so I guess it is ok. Meanwhile here are sone sharks
Happy Christmas

Terri Lynn Coop said...

I like and write in first person. I like being inside the character's head. But, like all things, it depends on the story. First POV keeps your story smaller and close to your main character. If you want something to happen off the screen, you have to switch POV.

I am not a fan of present tense. It doesn't feel immediate and cinematic, it feels gimmicky to me. Like the writer is being clever. In present tense, I can always sense the writer beside me saying, "See, this part is important, it really is, see how I wrote it? SEE? You are RIGHT there. THIS IS IMPORTANT!" I don't like that. Once you deliver the book into my hands, I need you to bow out.

Even Hunger Games. My first read, it felt clunky and awkward, then I realized it was present tense. Basically, I translated it in my head, ignoring all the present tense.

My test for whether or not I will like a book in present tense is whether or not it reads like an old school text-based computer game. If I read:

I pick up my shoe.
I shake it because it might have a scorpion in it.
I put on my shoe and stand up.

Then your book will not make it past the Amazon sample stage. If, at any time, I am tempted to say, "You have died of dysentery," then, no, the clever attempt at present tense failed.

But, at the end of the day, it is about the story, not the delivery system.



Anonymous said...


"I love first person - as an actor, it comes naturally to me. I work in Behavioral Health so I also like seeing how other people think."

Yup. In some cases first person is more immediate. I like a well done first or close third.

I hope all goes well with your house and Christmas preparations. It's amazing how time is gone and Christmas is here. Good luck to husband.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Present tense, does that mean I get ten presents?

Matt Adams said...

I don't think the POV turns people off as much as the tense. Present tense is hard to pull off because it's so easy to cheat -- you have to be strict and not allow the reader access to anything that's not immediate.

It's a lot like screenwriting, though, so if you enjoy it and find yourself stymied, you might give that a try a bit.

Joseph S. said...

First observation: Stephen King in his Mr. Mercedes-Finders Keepers - ???? (Let’s call it “The Wheels Roll On” until Mr. King comes up with a juicier title) trilogy wrote Mr Mercedes in the present tense. In Finders Keepers, chapters featuring the protagonist Bill Hodges are in present tense (but not first person) and all other chapters are in past tense.

Second observation: My reaction every time I read "Tell your story in the way that makes it the most compelling. Don't worry about anything else.” was “What’s compelling to the writer may not be compelling to anyone else.” And vice-versa – “What is a throwaway line to the writer may be a gem to a reader.”

Joseph S. said...

Julie Weathers

The switch from present tense to past tense in Far Rider works well. It is not distracting at all.

Colin Smith said...

This is SO off-topic it's not funny. Well, it might be funny, but you know what I mean. HOWEVER, I'm not going to italicize it, because I want Janet to read it:

My wife texted me to say that LEE CHILD was on NPR's "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" today--in their "Not My Job" segment. The link for the show is up, and HERE IT IS!

Enjoy! :)

Panda in Chief said...

Hey, Lee Childs is on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!

Colin Smith said...

Panda: See comment above yours! :) BTW, yes, it IS funny.

Colin Smith said...

I'll also draw your attention to the fact that my comment was in the PAST TENSE, while Panda's was in the PRESENT tense. While this may reflect different time zones, and different local NPR station scheduling, which grabbed your attention more? My "Hey, Lee Child was on NPR" or Panda's, "Oh my! Lee Child's on NPR!"

And all of a sudden, an off-topic comment becomes topical! :D

Unknown said...

Even with so many YA in 1st person present tense now, the past tense is still common enough that to a lot of readers, I think it 'feels' present tense. When I read past tense, I still assume the narrator or main character could die at any moment, if the story is compelling me to think that. I've known more people who prefer past tense than present, but then: hunger games, as everyone has pointed out. So, who knows? I'd be interested to see a real poll of preferences.

Panda in Chief said...

Thanks for saving me from the embarrasment of being off topic, Colin, because Lee is on RIGHT NOW!!!!!!!

CynthiaMc said...

Thank you. Hubby told me this morning a home health nurse will be checking on him after he gets home. I said that was fine as long as she brings pizza and a maid with her.

Stacy said...

I've read widely enough now that I don't particularly care about tense or POV as long as its done well. If you can make it work, work it.

Donnaeve said...

That 2N's. Pops her head up like a gopher, tosses out comment and ducks down in hole again.


Donnaeve said...

Ha! Marc P - that's one cool, calm cat. The baby looks like, waaa? Wait. How come mine doesn't do that?

Colin Smith said...

Sorry Marc--I missed your link!

Marc P said...

Cheers Colin and Lol.. its not much of a contribution to the debate but hey... that's what I am good at :)

CynthiaMc said...

I am reading Stephen King's On Writing. My favorite quote so far is "the road to hell is paved with adverbs" - he hasn't said anything about resent tense yet.

Marc P said...

At least the road is paved... why does no one ever look on the bright side?

CynthiaMc said...

Laughing all the way to the theatre on that one.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Hey Donna, had to pop up because I was at work and only had a few minutes to gopher with a dumb joke.

Donnaeve said...

Don't worry 2N's - we aren't playing whack-a-mole (gopher?) yet. You're safe, unless you tell us another cheesy joke.


Megan V said...

Good evening everybody!

Once, I abhorred first person present; people don't speak in present tense, said I. Then I started writing in first person present and, as I didn't want to call myself a hypocrite, officially decided that I adored first person present.

It's easy to be prejudiced against a certain style or form of writing. It's difficult to make any style or form of writing work.
But if you choose the right style or form of writing for you, the writer, then you might erase prejudices(including your own). So write on!

Tamlyn said...

I got rather confused at first about whether the OP actually meant present tense to mean verb tenses that are present. The way they described the book made it sound like they were confusing present tense with a book... I don't know, set in the present exactly? Like 24, the tv show, with their description of the book covering '6 waking hours' and a few moments to pause, etc, which would have nothing to do with the tense.

But I have no idea how you'd do 24 in book form aside from not having time skips. And no one else read it that way. So obviously I'm just confused!

(And I guess this comment is a little pointless?)

Marc P said...

Read Ulysses Tamlyn.. can't promise it will help with your confusion any though. :)

Brittany said...

I feel like the real answer to most of these kinds of questions is, "You need to read more broadly." Because this is not the first time I've seen a question, either here or through other ask-agenty venues, where someone thinks that they're doing something completely out of the blue and unheard of when it's been done repeatedly. And not in obscure releases, but in high-profile, buzzed about stuff that should be at least on the radar of anyone trying to get into the industry.

One of the things I've learned in the querying and pitching process was that I needed to seriously step up my game as far as knowing the market. It's a lesson I think a lot of my fellow aspiring published could stand to learn.

Rob Santana said...

Is past tense frowned upon by today’s publishers? That’s my nagging question.