The Present is Tense: 2 mistakes to avoid when writing in present tense.

Another guest-post by K. Alan Leitch. Please visit my blog for tips that have helped me to write, and for samples of my fiction.

All this present tense in recent fiction really is making me tense. Perhaps it’s just because I’ve been reading since before it was popular—I’ve been accused of that during discussions—but I genuinely feel that more and more authors are writing using present tense for the wrong reasons. Present tense can seem more erudite, more literate and more immediate, but it carries with it a number of pitfalls that erode favorite novels like The Hunger Games without us even noticing. They pull off the improbable feat of a heroine narrating in detail while being chased by poisonous wasps and fireballs, and they give their narrators the super-power of predicting the future.

Mistake Number One: Narrating in first-person & present tense

hg

Is there a Mockingjay helping Katniss make notes?

Tortured Katniss Everdeen, sought-after by receding hunks for her very belligerence, pulls off double-duty by dodging assassins in a hostile forest, all while taking the time to carefully describe every sight, smell, and anguished emotion that occurs to her. When you think about it, this is quite a feat: for an archer whose only targets were rats, prior to her fight-to-the-death in a dystopian arena, her aim remains surprisingly true while she is nattering away every detail of the life and death around her. Of course, as a reader, I could choose to suspend my disbelief and just assume I am reading her thoughts, but the muscle in my brain that suspends disbelief is already too busy believing that twelve districts will be pitted against one another for the entertainment of Utopian overlords. In other words, I want to focus on the highly imaginative elements of this fictional world, not cringe over every faux pas that its narrator commits. And Katniss commits many, such as…

 

katniss_everdeen

It’s hard work memorizing narrative detail while fireballs descend.

Mistake Number Two: Predicting the future

Most good novels make use of techniques that help readers link the plot together. Sometimes, we are helped along through foreshadowing, while at others the narrator directly lets slip some tidbits from the characters’ future. Harper Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird, brings to mind a mature, adult Jean-Louise Finch sitting at her desk, penning (perhaps using an inkwell) her adventures as innocent little Scout. Every so often, though, she tells us what she knows now, not just what she knew then. Of course, Mockingbird was written in the days when past tense was virtually an author’s only choice; The Hunger Games, to follow a trend, chooses to use present tense, but still lets these tidbits slip. It is as if Katniss has the additional power of predicting her own future; she knows in advance what behaviors the Gamemakers will reward, and how her initial ill-will toward her fellow sook, Peeta, will morph into the bond between them. Collins is not even particularly subtle about this,writing narrative with the word ‘will,’ willy-nilly, throughout the entire trilogy. Katniss knows, a little too often, what ‘will’ happen to her.

rabbit-runOf course, present tense is an effective tool, when used very carefully. One of the first novelists to make regular use of it was the great John Updike; his Rabbit series, by purposefully eliminating all sense of foreshadowing, truly gives readers a sense that they are living a starkly real life alongside the protagonist. Furthermore, occasional use of present tense can stand out, from a novel largely written in past tense, as being either highly emotive to the narrator, or part of a tapestry of a life ‘then’ being narrated ‘now.’

The problem, though, is when authors use it just to make their novels ‘sound better.’ I was pleased to see that I am not along in this opinion, with Philip Pullman expressing the view that, “If every sound you emit is a scream, a scream has no expressive value.”

Perhaps that is why so many present-tense novels make me want to scream; I just need to be heard over them.

More Words from K. Alan

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Constant Change

This is a guest-post by K. Alan Leitch: another attempt to express what has been troubling me about the friction between creativity and social media. Please visit my blog for tips that have helped me to write, and look for  samples of my fiction from the menu of my projects page.

oceanThe ocean is constantly changing.

It churns millions of gallons between continents every year, and each cupful of water on one beach could well have visited another. Enslaved to tidal forces even greater than itself, movement and change are essential to the ocean; they keep the life underneath it thriving, and sculpt the land between it. A still ocean, one imagines, would surely herald a dying world.

Of course, the ocean isn’t all that changes. Timber wheels evolve into rockets so powerful that they break the force of the very gravity holding that ocean here, so that we can watch a privileged few explore the distant force of those tides. Literature changes, from just a few men being watched playing women on a small wooden stage, to women directing masterpieces that are watched on screens worldwide. And communication changes, too, perhaps most of all; a single letter that was once an act of true devotion is now a daily expectation, to be read and discarded with a swipe.

All the while, the ocean keeps churning, its water travelling the world and pausing only to freeze, for a time, near one pole or the other. Inky around life we have yet to discover, the ocean feels just as playful stippled with tattoos of sunlight at its surface. Millennia past the time that its depth began to vary, the ocean continues to vary it; those depths crush crust beneath it, and the shifts in that crust make it quake.

From some change in pride, though, we no longer allow ourselves to quake. The fears we once held—fears of heights, and of speed, and of demons—have been transferred to entertainment, with roller-coasters and cinemas the only places left we allow ourselves to scream. Where darkness once drove us to cower with our families, it now invites us out into cities to seek some sense of family from strangers. The only fear we have now—the only real fear, that we feel every day—also comes from a change in us.

Where most of us once feared being watched, we now crave it. We crave it so badly that we fear the moment it stops.

So we tweet shrilly when once we pondered, and our walls are now for posting instead of for privacy. We journal, and we blog, then we wait and we waver and we watch, until a message appears that makes us feel like someone might be watching us back. Our philosophy of existence has moved from ‘I think therefore I am,’ to believing that ‘I am’ only when the opinions that ‘I think’ appear on the devices of others. Thought has become the effect rather than the cause.

Still, the ocean keeps changing, too. That cupful of water that travelled and froze—then thawed, so it could travel again—has come all the way back to the beach where it started. The churning waves roam from the same deep blue across the same stripes of green as they shallow, foaming into the familiar bronzed shores that they always have.

Perhaps water doesn’t recognize where it is, where it’s been, or when it’s returned. Perhaps people don’t, either.

But the ocean, at least, is constant.

– More Words from K. Alan

 

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