Monday 16 September 2013

Past or Present: What's Your Preference?

This weekend while I was writing my next Writing in a Nutshell book, I posted the following on Facebook and Twitter:

"I hate past tense. That is all."

Of course, this started a pretty interesting discussion, which I'd like to continue here. But first take a look at what others had to say ...
Trisha Farnan: I am well out of the habit of writing in past tense, and yet my current CP seems to only like past tense. so it's interesting 
Hart Johnson: Aren't we funny in our tenses. I really am not a fan of present. In fact I WON'T write in it, but really have to have a GREAT story to enjoy even reading it. 
Author Jessica Bell: yeah, present tense is my favourite.  When I write in past tense it feels like I'm rewriting something that has already been written. It loses its mystery ... 
Stina Lindenblatt: I'm so used to writing in present tense, I'm not sure if I can write in past tense anymore. 
Sarah Ahiers: whereas I hate writing in present tense. gross 
Laurel Garver: I feel like I'm in a flashback when I write in past tense. I guess it's a matter of what you're used to. 
Helena Halme: Me too, hate getting tangled up in all those pluperfects. Sometimes, though, it's unavailable. 
Daniel Wynne: I love writing in first person present tense. Some people might see it as a bit overbearing, but I think it works for fast-paced and humorous stories (which most of mine are). 
Roslyn Ross: I like past tense for its flexibility and deeper reflection. There is a limit to the Now for all sorts of reasons. Past and Future enable imagination to be completely at work in the literal and the metaphorical. 
Dennis Higgins: As a writer of time-travel, tense is very important to me...or was...or will be. 
Author Jessica Bell: Roslyn, I don't see how writing in the present tense means you can't deeply reflect on the past. There's nothing stopping a character reflecting on what they have done in the past just because the book is written in present tense. 
Example from String Bridge: "Alex’s watered-down Greek accent is stifled by the filthy rugs we have yet to remove from the corridor for the approaching summer. His voice is smooth, deep, and gentle. Unlike mine, which will forever be polluted with a brutal Australian twang. Alex’s voice was the first thing I was drawn to when we met five years ago at my debut solo performance in this city. It was just me, my voice and my guitar, battling the fear of laying my soul out for scrutiny, below the hot stage lights and in front of the quiet, unresponsive Greek crowd." 
If anything, I think it's more natural this way. Then all the past simple doesn't have to turn into past perfect. If you write a book in the past tense, then when you reflect on the past within that story all the tenses go wild and it drives me bonkers. But that's just me 
Roslyn Ross: I think the operative word Jessica was deeply, inferring a capacity for greater reflection than in the present, which is, by its nature, busy in the now. But I don't see it as important. Everyone writes differently and there is no wrong or right way. Compare Hemingway to Proust or Joyce - all very different from the average - and apart from Hemingway, would not be accepted by publisher or agent in this day and age, but all excellent writers. 
Author Jessica Bell: I know what you mean, Roslyn. And I still think you can reach as "deeply" in present as you can in past. 
Debbie Young: I write in both - sometimes present feels right for some stories/narrators, sometimes only past will do. Anyone ever written anything entirely in the future tense? Hadn't thought of doing that before! Might be interesting... Btw, sometimes I find reading a book that is written in the present is more tiring, maybe because I get more emotionally involved? 
Author Jessica Bell: that could be so, Debbie! 
Michael L Swift: I write in "Michael" tense. Just bring me another damn cup of coffee, dammit.
But my most favourite comment, however, came from Heather Truett on Twitter:
I like writing what IS instead of what WAS ... [past tense] loses its immediacy. I like my reader to be with me, not in my memory.

What's your preference? Past or Present? Why? Also, has the tense used in a book ever effected your enjoyment of the read? Why?

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  1. I let my first sentence tell me whether it's going to be past or present - I'm happy with both.

  2. I’m not sure I’ve ever written any fiction in the present tense. I think I made a half-hearted effort once but it wasn’t me. I guess I’m generally in reflective mode when I’m writing. I think we spend more time talking in the past tense normally. Rarely do we narrate what we’re thinking and doing as we do it. I suppose I must’ve read some book written in the first tense but I’m damned if I can think of one. I just scanned the list on Goodreads and there was only one book, Room, and I only read a few pages while I was working on my review of your book. I didn’t see many old books on Goodreads’ lists so I guess it’s a new trend.

  3. I don't have a preference when it comes to reading, but since I just finished rewriting and entire novel from first person present to third person past, it has become pretty clear that my best writing comes when I stick in third person past. So far, anyway. It was an interesting experience, to say the least. I don't think it's fair to any writer to say one tense is better than another for all writers. It's simply a matter of each person figuring out what works best for them. I desperately want to write well in first person, but it's not something I have mastered yet, and my greatest emotional impact and storytelling skills are best suited in third person for now. I will continue to work on first person with other projects I don't intend to publish anytime soon. Maybe one day I'll get it right. :)

  4. Very interesting conversation, and one that I'm sure will be debated for years to come. The industry seems to feel it has a say in selling tense. When talking with other writers about this, they don't agree, feeling it should be up to the writer in how he/she wants to communicate their story. I'm still not sure. I write in both tenses. It's funny. When I began writing first person present tense was all I liked to exercise. Now, that I'm more versed in third person close past tense, I like using it too. Everyone has their preferences for both reading tense and writing it. I say do whatever feels right to you with your target audience in mind.

  5. I guess I write in present although sometimes switch to past.

  6. Michael's answer cracks me up. I had an author suggest that I write in present tense because I was struggling with writing emotion. Fortunately I later realized that wasn't why I was struggling.

    Great post, Jessica!

  7. I wrote 15 novels in past tense (3rd person) and used to think present tense was soooo weird. Then my agent suggested I rewrite my novel in present! Eeep. I reluctantly gave it a try, and now...I don't think I want to go back. I've written another whole novel besides that one in present (first person). I like a deep POV and this makes it easier. Also easier to differentiate between "her" and "she" pronouns in scenes with another female if my MC is female!

  8. I will write in whatever tense the story requires, but up to now I've only written one short story in the present tense. Past tense is my usual, with a varied POV.

    Thanks for posting this, Jessica, it's nice to see where the discussion goes on a topic like this.

  9. Well, you know my thoughts on the matter ;)

    I like the tense options available in past tense. I can jump to present if need be. It's a PITA to jump into future tense from present.

    Also, i just like the sound and feel of past tense. Present frequently pulls me out of the narrative when i'm reading. Unless it's done well. Then i don't even notice the tense which is how it should be

  10. As a writer, I prefer past. As a reader, I'll read either so long as it is done well. :)

  11. What a great post... loved reading it. My go to tense is past tense... just comes more naturally, though I have written in present tense... it needs the right kind of story to pull it off.

  12. Oddly enough, I've never thought about it! HA! I guess I write in present but I'm honestly not sure! When I write, I'm writing about what's happening for the character right then, but always (ALWAYS) their stories are peppered with loads of what happened before. I guess you could say I'm a huge fan of backstory that comes back to haunt the present.

  13. Wonderful post, and something interesting to think about. I prefer to write and read the past tense. The present tense feels too weird to me. It pulls me out of the story. Yet there have been a few exceptions. A great story is great no matter which tense it's written in.


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