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Feeling tense?

In addition to red roses and a Kindle, I got an Amazon gift certificate for my birthday, so I splurged a little. Consequently, I am currently reading two books at once, both YA/MG, and both spec fic (one is fantasy and one is science fiction). Both are also very popular, although with different reader groups. The science fiction one has a teenage female protagonist and the fantasy has a younger male protagonist. With me so far?

Both are well written but I'm having a much easier time with the fantasy, in spite of the fact that the protagonist is a different gender and younger than I usually read. Want to know why?

Well partly it's because the fantasy is funnier, but mostly because the science fiction YA is The Hunger Games, which is told in the present tense. The MG fantasy is The Lightning Thief, which is told in the past tense.

Gah! I HATE present tense in novel-length. It is so hard to read! I can manage it in a story, but in a novel I keep expecting the tense to change, as when an author uses tense to show time has passed in some way. Present tense verbs make me so conscious that I am reading that it's really hard for me to lose myself in the story.

Which makes me wonder why authors use it. Suzanne Collins is not the only highly successful novelist to write a whole book in present tense. Michael Chabon used it in The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which won all kinds of awards (I never did finish that book). So, am I a total aberration? Is there no one else out there who finds that a present tense novel makes them grit their teeth and (all too often) move on to another book?

I wanted to know, so, naturally, I created a poll. -) Please feel free to weigh in with your opinion in a comment, especially if you don't have an LJ account or if the poll options don't adequately convey your opinions, and let me know how you feel about present tense.

Poll #1610752 When is the present not a gift?

Please describe how you feel about reading present tense fiction

I rarely notice the tense of the story; I just read it.
3(27.3%)
I notice present tense but I don't mind it.
1(9.1%)
It's OK in short stories, but I don't like it as much in books
1(9.1%)
I can live with a present tense book only if it's really well written
3(27.3%)
A present tense novel? No, no, no! What was the author thinking?
3(27.3%)

Do you ever write in present tense?

Only in emails; I'm not a writer
0(0.0%)
I write fiction, but I only use present tense for synopses, where it belongs
5(45.5%)
I write fiction, and I use present tense in short stories but never in novels
0(0.0%)
I write fiction, and I use whichever tense I think works best, regardless of word count
6(54.5%)
I prefer to write in present tense
0(0.0%)






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Comments

( 26 comments — Leave a comment )
mtlawson
Aug. 26th, 2010 01:04 am (UTC)
I figure that present tense works for things like flashbacks, when you're also going from third person to first.
karen_w_newton
Aug. 26th, 2010 01:07 am (UTC)
I have no problem with using tense to connote a difference between one segment and another, timewise. That's a) what tense is for, and b) fine with me because I notice the change right away. It's the whole damn book being present tense that makes me grit my teeth.
mtlawson
Aug. 26th, 2010 02:54 am (UTC)
Of course, being in present tense also means that the protag might bite it by the end of the story. Past tense makes that harder.
karen_w_newton
Aug. 26th, 2010 11:52 am (UTC)
I've heard people make that argument, but I don't really see it myself, unless it's also first person.
mikandra
Aug. 26th, 2010 03:05 am (UTC)
Personally, I have something against books told in many POV characters. I very much prefer single POV, but I don't let that preference stop me from reading the story. I'll only notice these kinds of things when the story doesn't engage me and I'm looking for an excuse to say why.

Actually, above, I ticked the 'I'll write whatever tense is suitable for the story' box, but, having said that, I think my stories in present tense are better. For some reason I find it more easy to sink into the voice of the character and stay true to that voice.

On the other hand, sometimes a story is not suited to either present tense or a close POV.
karen_w_newton
Aug. 26th, 2010 12:12 pm (UTC)
I have a problem with too many POV characters, too, but I suspect I might have a different definition of too many. I can get up to about 5 comfortably, and then after that I get annoyed.

Present tense in a short story is easier to take, as if a chapter in a novel written in present tense because it's chronologically out of order.
mikandra
Aug. 26th, 2010 12:20 pm (UTC)
Hey, and I realised today that I have an irrational dislike for book covers that use models (as in real people) instead of artwork. I don't like to be told what the main character is meant to look like.

I know I'm being silly, but it's all so personal.
karen_w_newton
Aug. 26th, 2010 12:23 pm (UTC)
Go ahead and be silly if you want. We all vote with our wallets, anyway. What cheeses me off is re-releasing a book after the movie comes out and using the actor's image on the cover.
mikandra
Aug. 26th, 2010 12:27 pm (UTC)
oh yes. It just becomes a marketing ploy and a very transparent one at that.
bogwitch64
Aug. 26th, 2010 03:59 am (UTC)
Present tense verbs make me so conscious that I am reading that it's really hard for me to lose myself in the story.

THAT'S IT!!! I feel the same way. You articulated it perfectly.
karen_w_newton
Aug. 26th, 2010 12:13 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I knew I couldn't bee the only one who felt that way.
peadarog
Aug. 26th, 2010 08:06 am (UTC)
It's just a convention. As simple as that. There is no reason in the world why, for example, futuristic stories have to be told in the past tense, except for convention. There are several good reasons for breaking out of convention, one of which is that present tense stories can feel more immediate.

When the young readers of Suzanne Collins grow up, they will do so without this particular hang-up ;)
karen_w_newton
Aug. 26th, 2010 12:06 pm (UTC)
Yes, it is a convention, as are the rules of grammar. Sometimes a writer will have a good reason not to follow convention, but I don't really see THE HUNGER GAMES as having one. It's a good, dystopian YA novel that I think would have been perfectly fine in past tense.

Years ago when I was on the Del Rey Digital Workshop when it first started, before it became the OWW, I read the first chapter of Karin Lowachee's WARCHILD. It starts in second person present tense, with something like "You're six and your parents made you hide when the pirates came" or something like that. It's an absolutely gripping start to the novel—it won the Warner First Novel contest—but she only kept that up for one or maybe two chapters.
mikandra
Aug. 26th, 2010 12:26 pm (UTC)
I totally love the first person present tense choice in Hunger Games
karen_w_newton
Aug. 26th, 2010 12:27 pm (UTC)
I have no problem with first person; I think that works really well here. I guess other people feel present tense is "more immediate" whereas I don't see that at all.
mikandra
Aug. 26th, 2010 12:32 pm (UTC)
I know people use the word immediate when describing the need for present tense. Personally, I have a very different relationship with my charatcer and my writing when I'm writing in present tense. Some stories won't work any other way. Mind you, some stories can't be written in present tense, no matter how much I've tried. I hate the in-betweens, stories where the voice of the character just won't come to me and neither changes in POV or tense will settle on one or the other.

I'm an organic writer and can't really explain why I choose present or past. It feels different. Immediacy is just a weasel word to prop up what is essentially an emotional argument that defies definition.
karen_w_newton
Aug. 26th, 2010 12:34 pm (UTC)
>Immediacy is just a weasel word

I like that phrase! But unfortunately, it brings out my punnish tendencies. I'm tempted to say you use present tense when you feel you otter. -)
peadarog
Aug. 26th, 2010 12:48 pm (UTC)
Sounds like a great first line...

One of my favourite stories -- despite the fact that I cannot remember the name -- is a list of instructions:

"Put on a good jumper and move outside..."
karen_w_newton
Aug. 26th, 2010 12:57 pm (UTC)
When Google Books launches, you'll have to search that line and see if you can find it.

p.s. Jumper is one of those words that confuses Americans and Brits/Irish folks. Over here it means a sleeveless dress meant to be worn with a blouse under it. I'm pretty sure we would say "Put on a good pullover sweater" which loses a little impact from the qualification, I think.
peadarog
Aug. 26th, 2010 01:22 pm (UTC)
Maybe the line did say it your way. It's so long ago I only remember the sense. It's not an exact quote. Sadly, no searching of google books will find it again.

But then, it's not really necessary: I can recall all the relevant bits.
mikandra
Aug. 26th, 2010 12:24 pm (UTC)
at a workshop a woman commented on a story of mine in first person by saying that I should write in third person past tense.

I hate 'should'.

So I wrote a story in second person future tense just to piss her off. I sold the story.

You're so right: it's a convention, and anything else encourages people to look outside the box. Some won't like it, but not everyone loves epic fantasy or hard science fiction either. Horses for courses.
peadarog
Aug. 26th, 2010 12:49 pm (UTC)
I agree and congrats on the sale.
david_bridger
Aug. 26th, 2010 09:21 am (UTC)
I replied "I can live with a present tense book only if it's really well written" - but feel I should qualify it by saying only two authors have fallen into that category in the past ten years for me: Audrey Niffenegger in The Time Traveler's Wife and MG Harris in her Joshua Files series.

Edited at 2010-08-26 09:22 am (UTC)
karen_w_newton
Aug. 26th, 2010 12:10 pm (UTC)
Well, a book about time would be one place I might expect an author to play tricks with verb tense. Interesting that the other one of the two is an MG book. Maybe peadarog is right that younger readers are more accepting of present tense.
mindyklasky
Aug. 27th, 2010 09:58 pm (UTC)
I'm always very aware of present tense when I read it; I think it can distract unless it's used brilliantly. A *LOT* of chicklit is/was written in present tense, and I think that's part of what gave the genre a "fluffy" reputation. (OK, there were lots of other reasons, too...)

That said, I think Collins is a genius. I just bought MOCKINGJAY today.
karen_w_newton
Aug. 28th, 2010 12:26 am (UTC)
Hunger Games is a good book. I just don't think it needs to be in present tense. Argh! She could have been just as brilliant in past tense!
( 26 comments — Leave a comment )

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