In my copy of the 1922 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, she says “…a first rule for behavior in society is: ‘Try to do and say those things only which will be agreeable to others.'” So, I wonder if I’ll be ruffling any feathers when I publish this post on writing a novel in present tense?
I know. Throw “present tense” in the midst of a discussion on fiction and you beg for trouble, maybe even set the stage for a form rejection.
But hear me out.
My first writing teacher, Ariel Gore, reminded us one day that a good memoir reads like fiction and great fiction can read like a memoir. The art of the narrative is critical in both genres.
Writers of creative nonfiction often use fiction techniques. And, once in a while, a technique for writing memoir crosses over into fiction. I first considered how the practice of writing memoir can influence a work of fiction in a post I wrote on Stanley Kunitz, Memoir and Fiction. When I flipped open my June issue of The Writer and read an article by Mimi Schwartz on using present tense in memoir, I wondered again about transferable techniques.
I punched out the first draft of my current novel-in-progress during NaNoWriMo two years ago. In thirty days, I wrote a little over 50,000 words of a story that unfolded in present tense. At the time, I was very much a novice writer and didn’t consider the rule that fiction is usually written in past tense. I didn’t consider anything. I was hunched over a keyboard chasing down a character and her tale before she got away. In the end, I was thrilled at having written a full story, even in its most raw stage.
In between the first draft and a serious rewrite, I read a novel that is written in present tense. I barely made it through the novel; each chapter sounded like a running commentary. So, when I sat down to study and rework chapter one of my WIP, I weighed my options: keep the story as is – in present tense – and risk losing the reader after the first few pages, or rework the story into past tense.
As an emerging writer, I wanted to learn my craft (and earn my way) by following the rules first; I could break them later. So, I changed the tense of the story. Each time I re-read my new version of chapter one, though, something pulled at the back of my throat. My gut twisted. My head was telling me to go one way, but the story insisted I go another.
Isn’t that just how it works sometimes? The story has a mind of it’s own, and I am simply a conductor. I couldn’t ignore the pull to return to present tense.
Here’s where Mimi Schwartz’s article (“The special power of present tense”) comes in. Schwartz mentions a few specific ways that present tense can strengthen memoir.
“For creative nonfiction writers, the act of discovery is what makes the genre so appealing.”
When reading a story written in present tense, the audience experiences the immediacy of the character’s own discoveries, adding to the suspense of the story.
Schwartz also says that using present tense can highlight the main character’s “[changes] over time.” Sure, you can do this with past tense as well, but Schwartz emphasizes her point by sharing her own experience when she used it her memoir Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village:
“…[T]he village and the villagers kept drawing me back, literally and figuratively, into their living rooms and kitchens, as I tried to uncover why these people mattered to me in New Jersey, 70 years later. And the present tense let the reader come along; we walk together in my father’s old world, trying to figure it out.”
Writing fiction in present tense can be a stylistic choice that taps into the readers senses and emotion on a deeper level.
There’s still a part of me that worries I’m biting off more than can chew, being so green and all, but I like a challenge. And I also like to listen to the way the story wants to be told. That means, my choice to stick with present tense must be a stylistic move and not a way of avoiding a major restructuring of a draft. Throughout the whole rewriting process, I must make each word, phrase, and passage count.
What are your experiences with present tense? Have you written a short story or a novel that cried out for it? Or, have you read a novel that used it successfully?
Schwartz, Mimi. “The special power of present tense.” The Writer. June 2010: 26-27. Print.
Post, Emily. Etiquette. United States of America: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1922. p. Print.