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So Tense About Tense!

This post is actually more question than answer, because Lynne did such a great job of summing up the issue and, to be fair, answered most of this question herself. But I wanted to post that process and contribute to it! What’s the issue? Present tense.

For my WD seminar, every writer got to ask me a question and I was guaranteed to answer it. Roughly a tenth of all the questions were about tense or POV. Someone even asked about the tense that should be used in a query letter. What?! I’d never thought about that for a second in my life. I have thought about POV a few times before, and some articles on that are behind this link. Tense? Not as much. So here we go. I’ll start with Lynne’s question:

Lately when I’ve perused the YA section at Barnes & Noble, there seem to be awful lot of new releases written in the present tense. Several have been fabulous and very successful (e.g., Suzanne Collin’s HUNGER GAMES trilogy, Ally Condie’s MATCHED). Others are less well-known, but ten minutes in the YA section and you’ll have an armful. There’s been some buzz about the “trend” of present tense. Some authors don’t like the use of present tense and suggest its a fad (see Phillip Pullman’s take in The Guardian). Others question whether it’s a trend at all, and conclude that in the end, it doesn’t matter because if the writing (in any tense, present included) doesn’t work for you, you can always just put the novel down. (see Laura Miller’s article in Salon). Another article or blog I read recently mentioned the appeal of present tense to young readers is its immediacy; that current teens are so used to a culture where everything happens at breakneck speed that younger readers today aren’t jarred by the use of present tense and may even gravitate toward it.

My question is two-fold: First, do you feel there a trend toward present tense (especially in a first person POV) in YA lit right now? Are you seeing more of it in your slush these days? And second, if so, what do you think about it? Do manuscripts written in the present tense intrigue you? Turn you off? Or are you neutral, and just wait to see if the writing lives up to the challenge? And are editors seeking books in present tense or are they wary of them?

In the end, I would think it all comes down to the story and more than anything, the quality of the writing. Present tense presents different challenges than past tense, and the immediately of the tense can be exhausting for the reader. Also, the stream of consciousness filter can be tough, so can the effort not to mix tenses. It’s still not the norm– but is it a trend?

To tell you the truth, I felt lazy with my short answer to such a long question, but so it goes. I think that tense really doesn’t matter as long as the book works. There is a trend of present tense YA out there right now, for sure. But do I gravitate toward or away from a piece because it is in present tense? No.

Also, I haven’t really heard an editor talk to me about tense in particular. We talk about story and hook and character. Sometimes POV comes into the picture, but the most I usually hear from editors about POV is a thought on really polarizing POV, like second person direct address (YOU by Charles Benoit is an example of that, and comes up often in discussions). It seems like us literary types should spend more time discussing tense but it really does fade into the background for me when I’m reading, as long as the writing, story, character, and voice are there.

Long story short: I think present tense is hot (for the immediacy reasons Lynne mentions, which I also always cite), but it’s not really a consideration for me. I’ve read present tense. I’ve written in present tense. I don’t know if I’ve represented present tense yet. (See? I can’t even remember if my clients’ books are in present tense…although I do know WILDEFIRE has sections of present tense second person direct address, because Karsten Knight is crafty like that…)

Tense is very low on my list, in other words, of things I care about when I’m reading/considering. Hope that takes some of the, ahem ahem, tension out of the issue for you all!

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  1. Creepy Query Girl’s avatar

    I noticed the trend and I agree that if the story is intriguing, it doesn’t matter what tense it’s written in. Great post!

  2. Elizabeth May’s avatar

    This is a great post. I’ve noticed more and more present tense books, as well. When present tense DOESN’T work for me, it’s when I immediately notice it, and the tense takes me out of the story. But I’ve also read some present tense books where I didn’t notice it because the story was so good and the writing was exceptional (HUNGER GAMES is an example, and while it’s not YA, Karen Moning’s SHADOWFEVER is one in more recent memory).

    That said, I do tend to prefer past tense, but I think this is habitual more than anything. I just grew up with more past tense novels. When I was a kid, I think Christopher Pike was the only author I read who wrote present tense.

  3. KDuBayGillis’s avatar

    My MG WIP is currently first person present tense. Only because I want the reader to have a sense of discovery with my MC. I’ve tried present tense in PBs and it doesn’t work for me. But for MG, that’s how my voice flows. (Mary, you’ll be the judge of whether it’s working or not!)

  4. Jenn Jones’s avatar

    I think present tense works well for dystopian novels – and this may sound crazy, but – because they’re set in the future. You can’t very well write a book in second person future, but that’s the impression you’re trying to create. This WILL happen. This IS happening. Not: this is something that already took place and it all worked out just fine.

    I’ve been up early, my mind whirring about this topic in relation to my own WiP! When the rough is complete, I’m going to test out editing a few chapters into first person to see what, if anything, changes tonally.

  5. Jenn Albin’s avatar

    The first time I read a novel in present tense, I hated it. It felt like I was reading the YA version of See Spot Run. I became totally against present tense and then I read The Hunger Games and realized as with all writing, some writing is good, some great, some meh. Tense is only one part of the equation. Poorly executed tense can ruin a good story, but the masterful writer can write any tense well.

  6. Lois D. Brown’s avatar

    As I writer, I find it fun to play around with tense. One novel I wrote in 3rd person past. The next one in 1st person present. I think it broadens the mind and helps see a different POV. In the end, however, it all comes down to story. Like someone else mentioned, I didn’t even realize HUNGER GAMES was in present tense until my writers group pointed it out.

  7. Shari Maser’s avatar

    I think of tense as part of voice. I have sometimes experimented with my picture books, re-writing the same story in different POV’s and/or different tenses. When I examine multiple versions side by side, I find it’s usually pretty self-evident which approach works best to tell each particular story.

  8. Rebecca C.’s avatar

    When I was really young I wrote in 3rd person past tense just out of imitation of what I’d read, but once I discovered 1st person present tense, I haven’t been able to write anything else!

  9. Emy Shin’s avatar

    May I ask what you think about third person present tense? There are a lot of first person present, especially in YA novels, but not many third person. Is it a polarizing POV that writers should think twice before using?

    I’m a bit in love with present tense — but do believe that it shouldn’t draw attention to itself. I agree with Jenn that it’s especially suited for dystopian/futuristic novels.

    Thank you so much for this post!

  10. LG’s avatar

    Just yesterday I was scouring the web for any info on trends with present tense. I’ve noticed it used a lot in YA’s now as well (recently, ‘I Am Number Four’) and was really excited about it – done well, it’s fantastic! As soon as this post popped up on my rss feed today, I clicked!

    I think it goes along with cinematic third – the feeling of watching a movie as it unfolds and I don’t think it’s too jarring once you let yourself say “yes” to it.

  11. Kathryn Roberts’s avatar

    I’m actually glad you said that. It shouldn’t matter. For me, I am using present tense now only because I got so sick of my first book and trying to break through all my ticks with third person past tense. Now I can make all new mistakes =). If it’s a trend, I’m all on board. It’s fun for me because its new and different. I like feeling like I’m in the head of my character this much. It really does take you into the action. Third person, past tense will always have a place for me, but it’s nice to have a variety.

    And I think that Jenn Jones has a great point. If you are writing about a futuristic world it makes sense that you don’t use past tense. Good thinking!

  12. Franziska Green’s avatar

    “Hope that takes some of the, ahem ahem, tension out of the issue for you all!”

    Bada-boom-tish! Love your sense of humour. Which reminds me, would you, could you, pretty please, do a post on humour one day? Different types/styles? And recommend some laugh-out-loud titles too? And also make me laugh out loud while reading the post? Not too much to ask, is it?! Ahem.

  13. Karsten Knight’s avatar

    Since WILDEFIRE 1 & 2 are a mix of third person/past and second/present, should we throw first/future into book 3 just to be inclusive?

    Best wishes,
    Your cheeky client

  14. Beth Hull’s avatar

    Present tense is so…present (dorky, dorky) that I almost don’t notice it anymore. I DO notice when it is coupled with 3rd person narration; for some reason that jars me out of the story. I have an example but don’t want to even hint at trash-talking in a public forum.

    But with 1st person? These days, if the book is in past tense, I stop and take note.

    Like Lois said above, it’s important to play around, and see what works for the manuscript. It’s possible to change the tense after you’ve written the whole thing, but speaking from experience I can say it is time-consuming and eyeball-burning. It was worth it, though, even if that manuscript is never published.

  15. EricJ’s avatar

    Present tense sounds too “conversational” (“Okay, so I’m waiting in line at the grocery..”), it sounds either like someone who doesn’t quite know what the ultimate point of their story is, or is making it up as they go along. While it removes the safety that a character’s going to be okay by the end, I’d at least like to know that they KNOW the end.
    (And thanks Jenn, now I can’t read present tense without Dick & Jane jokes.)

    My problem is first person: I’ve had critiques say “This character would work better in first-person” for a few stories, but every time I try, my fingers rebel and lock up.
    I’ve never really figured out why, but think it has to do with characterization: Like present tense, you wonder why a character is telling you all this, like the Ancient Mariner who stoppeth one of three. If I have a character who’s bravely covering up her fear with wisecracks, or a character who can’t put his own reaction to strange comic situations into words, letting them describe their own reactions would seem brassy, bragging or obnoxious. I’d always had “Show, don’t tell” beaten into me since high school, and now Telling seems like I’m being “lazy” and betraying that–How or why would a character describe themselves looking puzzled, or edging back nervously?
    (It’s also my own reading experience as a kid that I always thought authors who wrote in first-person were vicariously imagining themselves in the role, and that if the character was unsympathetic, there was a good chance the author wasn’t in real life either. That’s not always true, but it’s been known to happen, and didn’t want it to happen to me.) :)

  16. Anita’s avatar

    I started a re-write of a manuscript recently, and when I started writing the words came out in present tense. When I went back and read through it, I was kind of like whaa….where did this come from? Anyway, I think it’s because, as mentioned in the post above, a lot of YA is coming out in present tense (and i read a lot of YA) and my brain apparently wants to mimic. I wonder if that’s happening to other writers as well. Kind of like the trend is propagating itself.

  17. Jenna’s avatar

    In my Creative Writing class we talked about tense, and when I said how I enjoyed the present tense in The Hunger Games, my teacher was shocked. She hadn’t even realized that it was in present tense until I brought it up.
    Generally, I like present-tense if the story has a lot of action (like The Hunger Games). But books that are slower, without as much action, have present tense (like Matched) I don’t enjoy it as much as one written in past-tense. Present tense seems to be for more immediate, jarring narratives.
    Something another student in my class brought up when we were talking about present tense was that in Seinfeld, they’re always telling their stories in present tense. Maybe it has a comedic use as well?

  18. Melissa K’s avatar

    I read that Pullman article, and it surprised me how vehemently he was against writers making any literary choice that narrows the range of expression. Maybe he’s right a masterful writer has more range of expression when using all the tenses. I’ve never thought about it before, so I haven’t decided whether or not I agree. But I’m pretty sure the rest of us–those of us who aren’t masters, I mean–are more likely to hurt than help our story by trying to do everything at once.

    Especially for newer writers, I don’t think making narrow tense or POV choices reduces the power of a piece of writing. Regardless of limitations, language allows an incredible amount of range, and it takes years (decades? a lifetime? longer than I’ve been writing, anyway) to learn to use it to full effect. I certainly don’t see the harm of playing in a single area of language for a novel or two, or longer even. If it works for the story.

  19. EricJ’s avatar

    I’ve always considered Pullman a narcissistic jerk (an opinion formed from reading three chapters of Golden Compass and sending it back, long before he embarked on his angry-atheist “CS Lewis Is Poisoning Our Children” campaigns)–And between narcissist and atheist, he’s the type who wants to see himself printed in the Guardian as the Sole Defender of Reason, tilting at every industry windmill while it’s still under construction, to protect the deluded masses from themselves…

    In this case, though, he does hit some correct whines: Present’s too indulgently personal-expression for overly idealistic young YA writers who just want to talk, and there’s not enough literary perspective to see the entire deeper thematic arc of the story from A-B, since the reader is being bounced from one immediate event to the next.
    It’s good for diary format, if the focus of the story is actually on time passing in a diary, but when used just to “show off”, it gets back to the points in the Trend thread: More young YA writers want to personally “live” the “experience” of the story and not literarily shape the genre craft of it.

  20. Lynne’s avatar

    Thanks again, Mary. Love the post’s title too– very crafty. :)

    I love the image of the book’s tense “fading into the background” with the writing, story, character & voice taking center stage. Like Elizabeth May noted in her comment: “When present tense DOESN’T work for me, it’s when I immediately notice it, and the tense takes me out of the story.”

    Thanks again for your perspective. I’m feeling less tense already…

  21. Stina’s avatar

    One of my friends had her book turned down by a publisher because it was in present tense. Fortunately another publisher didn’t feel the same way. :D

  22. Emily White’s avatar

    To be honest, I hardly ever notice the tense of a book I’m reading. If the writing is done well, the reader can feel immediacy in any tense and POV.

  23. Kerry’s avatar

    Mary! I think you were in my dream last night. It was totally awesome until this Italian bombshell crashed our plane into a giant swimming pool and then held us hostage in her restaurant and kept threatening to throw us in the cheese grater. It was really tense until the Elementary school choir came in to sing. That gave us a chance to escape. Go team!

  24. Mary’s avatar

    Kerry — You are crazy and I love you. A liiiiiittle creeped out by all your crazy visions and dreams. (Also, I wasn’t the bombshell?! I am offended!) Every time I hear “gloaming,” I think of you! Can’t wait for Utah this summer!

  25. marlene sardoff’s avatar

    don’t write ya or mg, but adult fiction…writing for this genre in present tense reads like a screenplay ..ie: telling characters what to say or do…
    (he goes here or there…he drops the book…he smiles, he walks to the door etc…)

  26. Sarah’s avatar

    Its more of a question to me how long the sentence should be in present tense. Personally I’m also fine reading both past and present tense in the same book, as long as it goes something like this:

    Part One: Present
    Part Two: Past
    Part Three: Present

    Just don’t change tenses when its not a flashback or something like that. (And don’t get me started on flashbacks. Flashbacks do work for some people.)

  27. Heather’s avatar

    I’ve definitely noticed an increase in YA present tense lately. It used to be that present tense was the exception to the rule; but lately whenever I browse YA new releases, I have a hard time finding anything written in past tense. I prefer past tense (I even prefer first person past to first person present), but present tense is occasionally narratively necessary–were “Hunger Games” in past tense, we’d know Katniss survived to tell us her story. Present tense grants a sense of immediacy and unresolved danger than past tense couldn’t capture, since “WILL SHE SURVIVE???” is a critical aspect of that book.
    Anita–I had the same experience. I was rewriting a novel and it came out in present tense. I don’t write present tense well, so I quickly corrected myself, but apparently it’s contagious.

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