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because I say so
Thursday, 26 September 2013
Too Tense?

One of the interesting questions I've had in all of the books that I've written (I like saying the term "all" because it makes me sound that I've written an awful lot of books) is around the question of tense.

Not tension, you understand, but tense.

Recently, I read a book by David Rosenfelt called Bury the Lead. It was an enjoyable enough tale (hey I promised the occasional book review)and I like the protagonist so I'll likely pick up more of his books. But what struck me as I was reading the book was his use of tense, specifically, the present tense.

Before you protest of flashbacks to eighth grade English class, let me assure you this isn't a rant by a hostile grammar fanatic, though I maintain there is always time for good grammar (which may affect how quickly - or whether - you receive a response from me when you send a text message to my phone). Story tense, if you will, has a significant impact on the telling of the story.

It was an issue with which I struggled when I was into a second draft or so of Deadly Lessons. For the uninitiated, that book, and its sequel are both written in the past tense. But sometime during the initial editing of the first book, I was also reading a book by renowned crime novelist Patricia Cornwell. At the time I was a fan, though I confess I lost interest in her Kay Scarpetta series. That could be a post for another week.

But one of the things that I noticed in the book I was reading at the time (I don't recall exactly which one it was) was that Cornwell switched from writing in the past tense to the present (she has since gone back and forth a few times). It kind of set me into a panic; here was this famous, super best selling writer changing her story telling mode. I guess I should do the same.

So I spent many hours re-writing the draft of Deadly Lessons into the present tense. And I hated it. Not just the doing the work (I'm rarely a fan of extra work); but the outcome as well. Suddenly the book had lost its tone and it didn't seem to work for me anymore and I suspected wouldn't work for the publisher, much less the reader, either. So then I spent many more hours putting it back (I know, I know, you're thinking surely I had saved a version to which I could return. I had but I had also made other edits I thought worthy of keeping while in the process of present tensifying so going back to the past involved significant more work...again).

Though I don't have specific statistics to back up my theory (I already mentioned I'm not a huge fan of extra hard work), I have read a number of analyses of past vs present tense writing, particularly with regard to fiction writing, that suggests much if not most fiction writing seems to be written in the past tense. A common description given is that books written in the present tense read more like a screenplay than a novel, and I agree. Though I don't know how many novel readers - or readers in general - spend much time reading screenplays and wouldn't necessarily be distracted by that fact - there is something inherently less real to me about telling the story as it happens. Certainly the screenplay comparison is especially apt when the present tense story is told in the third person. "Winston enters the classroom," seems far more removed from the story than "I walked into the classroom."

It can be argued, and it has been that present tense can lend a greater sense of immediacy to the story, as though the reader is traveling along on the journey. But the story can also feel like a running commentary of the protagonist's day, with no time or reflection between the action and the re-telling to winnow out the important details. The story comes across as occasionally feeling forced and clumsy and while I enjoyed the essential plot details of Rosenfelt's book, the present tense was enough a distraction to frequently take me out of the story. And no one needs that.

Thus, for now, future installments of Winston's adventures shall remain in the past tense, at least until I can find a way to make present tense work without distracting from the story.

Don't hold your breath.

Next week: Shhh! I'm trying to write.

News Flash: (in case you didn't get here via my website where this was also posted). This weekend is Word Vancouver Festival (formerly Word on the Street) at and around the downtown Vancouver Public Library. I'll be at the Crime Writers of Canada table (selling books!) between 12:30 and 2:30 and will appear on a moderated panel on crime writing at 2:50 inside the library in the Alma VanDusen room - ground floor. Come down - bring friends - meet authors - buy Canadian books!

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
Updated: Friday, 27 September 2013 10:28 AM PDT
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