Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Writing Tips: Present Tense vs. Past Tense

Writing is a craft--one that I am new to. I'm constantly learning new things as I read and research. Something that came to my attention recently is the emerging trend of present tense in YA books. I read an interview with the brilliant author Beth Revis where they asked her why she wrote her Across the Universe trilogy in present tense. She said she didn't even realize she had until about 50 pages into her manuscript when she accidentally typed in "said" instead of "say." Revis didn't even like present tense stories but when she discovered she was writing her WIP in just this way she decided to just go with it. She felt it was how her story needed to be told and how her characters wanted her to tell it.

This got me to thinking about my own manuscript, I am Caraway. For the first time it occurred to me that I too had written a present tense story. Like Revis, I didn't set out intending to write it that way--it was an unconscience choice. Cara, my main character, took my hand and pulled me back in time. I saw her life as she lived it and related her story in just that way.

Naturally, I started doing some more research on the topic of tenses. What I found is that there is a big line of division on how people feel about past tense vs. present tense. Those who hate present tense argue that it's a trend spurred by The Hunger Games and more common (and better suited for) dystopian novels and the occasional paranormal or fantasy. They argue that present tense is unnecessary and the story can be told just as good or better in the past tense. They say present tense is obvious and distracting and the tense of a story should never be either of those things. While I'm still undecided on how I feel about which tense is better, I do agree with the last part of that statement. When a book is good and the writing is done well you should never notice the tense. The POV, yes, but never the tense. 

Then there are those that love present tense. They feel that it adds a sense of immediacy to the story and allows the reader to experience everything through the main character's eyes. They feel like they are right there living the action and can get to know the main characters better in this tense than they would with past tense. I even saw a comment on how present tense has the power to completely make or break a story. When done right, it's great. When done wrong, it can ruin a book. No other tense has that power.

Ok so here's where I panicked. What if my novel was ruined by present tense? What if Cara's story could've been told better in past tense? What if no one wants to represent me or publish my book because they think I got the tense wrong or just don't like present tense? I sat for a while and considered doing a major overhaul to my manuscript and telling Cara's story in past tense. Ultimately, I decided to leave it be. This was how Cara's story unfolded in my head. This was how it came out and this was how it needed to stay. I can't imagine telling it any other way and I'm not sure I even could without completely messing it up. I poured my heart and soul into this novel and I'm happy with the end result. Would I re-do it if an agent or editor asked me to? Probably. That's the nature of the business and I'm by no means an expert. If someone who knows better says Cara's story would be stronger told in past tense, I would definitely give it a try. I want to share my novel with the world and let everyone get to know and love my characters as I do. But more importantly, I want to keep improving as a writer. And I'll do whatever it takes to achieve that.

We all have our strengths and weaknesses in everything we do in life. Authors are no different. I've only ever written the one novel so I can't say exactly where all my strengths lie but I do know one of them is in first person present. When I get an idea for a story the characters get into my head and drag me to my computer and give me little say over what's going to happen. It happened that way with I am Caraway and it's happening again with my current WIP. My characters decide what to do, where to go, what to say, and how to say it. I never know all the details (which I kind of like). But that's just me. Other writers get an idea for a story and have to sit down and outline and decide on tense and POV, plot and sub-plot and everything else. We all work differently. Hopefully though, the end result is the same thing--a good story with good writing. That's all any of us want to do. Tell you a great story in the best way possible.

Here are a few articles I came across in my research. Enjoy!

Thanks for reading! See you tomorrow!