Present vs. past tense: Which to use in your writing

Over the past few years, I have noticed that more and more writers are using the present tense rather than the past tense to tell their stories. I think this trend started in young adult fiction, but now writers of all genres are employing the technique. Some readers don’t like this and will refuse to read books written in present tense.

The present tense is not a grating style choice for me as a reader, unlike the recent trend of not using quotation marks. (That trend, thankfully, seems to be fading away.) I hated it when authors chose not to use quotation marks because it almost always threw me out of the story. I had to keep stopping to figure out whether someone was talking or not. It got to be so common that I wouldn’t even read a book that didn’t have quotation marks. This rule could be broken successfully, though. Cormac McCarthy famously doesn’t use quotation marks, and his writing is so good that there never is any question about what is dialogue and what isn’t. I broke my own rule as well, because I have read and enjoyed several of his novels.

Employing present tense is different, I think, because when done well, it can help draw the reader into the story. It is harder to write effectively in present tense than in past tense (for reasons that I’ll get into), but it’s not Cormac McCarthy-hard. Even more importantly, using present tense is quite often the right choice for the story being told.

To read a story is to be told a story. The storyteller differs from book to book, but someone is telling it, whether it’s a character, a disembodied narrator, or even the writer. Most stories are written in past tense because we are being told a story that has already happened.

This used to be a much more overt conceit. Many stories used to have a frame that related how the storyteller was telling the story and why. The storyteller might be writing the story down in a letter or diary, for instance. Readers needed this conceit for believability. As novels became more common, the conceit was mostly dropped, although it is still used from time to time.

A story told in present tense, though, is happening now. The reader experiences the events along with the storyteller. This makes the story feel more immediate and dramatic, almost cinematic. It’s like watching a movie: We believe we are watching events unfold as they happen.

The downside is that the present-tense narrator cannot know the future. In stories written in past tense, the narrator has the benefit of hindsight, which can be used to heighten suspense. Stephen King employs this technique quite often when he lets slip a character’s fate: “This was the last time he’d ever…” Hindsight also provides the opportunity to layer in meaning and character development, to interpret past events in terms of what came afterward.

A present-tense narrator is, like all of us, stuck in the here and now. A slip in this regard can derail the reading experience. I recently received a copy of Blake Crouch’s novel Dark Matter for early review. It’s written in the present tense, but early on, the first-person narrator reveals that he knows his own future. I won’t say this is the only reason I chose not to review the book–I really didn’t care for the writing style–but it was one of the reasons. Perhaps it wasn’t a mistake–perhaps the author had a good rationale for this–but I hadn’t gotten far enough in the story to trust the author on that.

Another problem with present tense is that it relates events as they happen, both the exciting and the mundane. For this reason, present tense is often a better choice for novels with lots of action. We don’t want to read about narrators brushing their teeth or sitting through work meetings. Even this limitation can be gotten around. I recently reviewed an indie book that employed the simple but effective technique of “fast forwarding” through the boring bits, again like a movie.

Authors should not choose present tense because it’s trendy, though, or because everyone seems to be doing it. They should choose the tense that works for the story they are writing. Present tense doesn’t seem like a good choice for historical novels, for instance, because they are presumed to have taken place in the past. Then again, Hilary Mantel uses it for her Wolf Hall novels, which I haven’t read, but who am I to argue with books that have received so many accolades?

Present and past tense can even be mixed, if done with purpose. Kristin Hannah does this in The Nightingale: The contemporary sections are written in present tense, and the historical sections are written in past tense. Things are happening to the narrator as she is telling the story, and the choice of tense helps convey that. (Take care when mixing tenses, though; incorrectly used verb tenses will trip up the reader.)

Present tense is another tool in the author’s toolkit. When chosen purposefully and employed skillfully, it can be an effective way to tell a story.

Quality of self-published books, revisited…

Recently, I wrote about the issue of quality in self-published books when compared to traditionally published books. I’m not the first or only person to have written about this (see here and here and here and here). I have also written about it on this blog many times.

On my latest post on this subject, a commenter wrote: “Writing fiction well is incredibly difficult. There are many areas that need to be mastered.” Truer words… Writing anything well is hard; writing fiction is much more so. Good writing is almost invisible to the reader. It allows the reader to slide effortlessly into the story. Errors trip the reader up like stones in the path; too many of them throw the reader right out of immersion.

The good news is that writing, like any skill, only gets better with practice. Perhaps this is how we should look at self-publishing: as a place to practice. As long as both readers and writers are aware of this–and readers who don’t want to spend their time or money on books that aren’t ready for prime time aren’t excoriated for that–I see no problem.

By the way, readers get better with practice too. The more you read, the easier it becomes to lose a connection with a poorly written book.

The self-published arena is mind-bogglingly huge. I’m not saying that every self-published book was written by someone just learning how to write. I am not talking about writers who have been doing this a while and who have established a readership. Their decision to self-publish is primarily a business decision. Their readers will find their books wherever they are. They don’t need me telling them how to produce a high-quality product.

Who am I talking to? I’m talking to writers who are learning and who aspire to become better at what they do so they can reach more readers.

If, as a writer, you want to be favorably reviewed–not by Joe Schmo book blogger, but by professional publications whose recommendations you can use to help sell your book–then you need to worry about quality. If you want to be considered for prizes, then you need to worry about quality. If you want to get your book into libraries–and libraries are a primary market for many children’s books*–then you need to worry about quality. If you want to attract readers who primarily read traditionally published books–who are looking for a great read and nothing more–then you need to worry about quality.

If you have such aspirations and you decide to self-publish, then you need to make your book the best it can be. You will be up against not only all of the barriers that all writers face, but also the stigma of self-publishing in general. Rightly or wrongly, self-published books in general have a reputation for low quality. Even if you in particular are an outstanding writer who pays scrupulous attention to crafting your books, you still have to contend with the fact that the majority of self-published authors do not. By some counts, up to a million books are self-published each year. Think about that.

In future posts, I will talk more specifically about common mistakes I see and how writers can improve the quality of their work. This is meant to be advice, not prescriptive. Take it or leave it. Note that comments are moderated and I do have a commenting policy here.

*Please, if you write for children, please use correct spelling and grammar. They are just beginning to learn the language. They deserve competent teachers.

As a review, here are my ten markers for a minimum baseline of quality fiction writing, slightly updated:

  1. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word usage are mostly correct. 
  2. Verb tense is consistent. 
  3. Point of view is consistent. 
  4. Character names are consistent. So are other facts given in the text.
  5. Sentence structure has some variety and complexity.
  6. There is a balance in dialogue, exposition, and action.
  7. Exposition isn’t given primarily through dialogue. 
  8. Characters have some non-stereotyped development.
  9. There is some plot and plot points make sense.
  10. The story is not overly didactic; the author’s voice does not noticeably intrude.

More is less…

I am currently taking a course in editing, and I thought this gem shared by the professor was worth saving:

“More is less.” Cut as much as you can without losing meaning and you may have it. If you don’t need the words for the poetry of the language and you don’t need the words to tell the story, you don’t need the words.

Experiments in book discovery… (part 1 of many, I hope)

Yesterday, I wrote about self-published books and quality, and I lamented that it is very difficult for the ordinary reader to find the quality reads in the gigantic pool of self-published books. Most self-published authors, especially authors who haven’t established an audience, generally don’t have access to the various means of book discovery that traditionally published authors do. They usually aren’t in bookstores or libraries where readers may browse; they aren’t reviewed by major book review outlets; they don’t have well-known awards.

To be truthful, readers don’t want to work that hard to find books. We just want to get on with the reading. So authors, don’t make us work!

I think the key is author collaboration: authors working together to come up with creative ways of making their books more discoverable, and of reassuring readers that these are books worth their time (not to mention their money).

Author Samantha Bryant turned me on to this website: Peer Reviewed. This is along the lines of the collaborative efforts I was thinking of: authors  reviewing one another’s work. Books chosen for review are books that the author can honestly recommend. More well-established authors, who have already built a reputation for quality, can lend that reputation to deserving newer writers.

I would love to see other experiments along these lines. As a reader who is passionate about good writing, I am fascinated by how all this is developing.

Hat/tip Samantha Bryant

Self-publishing’s quality problem…

When I pick up a book in a bookstore — which, more than likely, is a book issued by a publishing company, also known as a “traditionally published” book — I can usually assume that book will meet my baseline for quality*. In other words, it may not be a good story, the writing may be lacking, or it may not be a book that speaks to me, but at the very least, it will be readable.

As a freelance book reviewer,** I have reviewed a fair number of self-published books, otherwise known as “indies,” over the past year and a half. The majority of these did not meet even the bare minimum baseline for quality. Conservatively, I’d estimate that at least 70 percent of the self-published books I reviewed were essentially unreadable. (A small number of the books I reviewed were published by small presses, but in terms of quality, they resembled traditionally published books more than self-published books.)

This is a problem for self-published authors. Indie books have to compete not only against one another, but also against the millions of traditionally published books that are in print or are being published. As a reader, what incentive do I have to even consider self-published books as an option if I know that any one I happen to choose is very likely to be gobbledygook? I could choose instead to read only traditionally published books and have more than enough reading material to last me several lifetimes.

Yes, some self-published authors are quite good and are worth reading. But readers have no incentive to swim through a vast ocean of junk just to find those few pearls. Amazon reviews are completely useless as a guide to quality. Every self-published book I’ve reviewed, even the most wretched, has several five-star reviews on Amazon, presumably written by the author’s friends or family members or perhaps even by the author himself.

Speaking of Amazon, which is the largest marketplace for self-published books, their business model rewards authors who publish most frequently. In other words, Amazon incentivizes writers to produce more and and more junk without regard for quality, including books shamelessly plagiarized from better authors.

If those who self-publish want to be considered viable alternatives to traditionally published authors, they are going to have to figure out some trustworthy way to signal to readers which books are worth their time and money. I’m not sure of the solution–although I have some ideas–but right now, self-publishing doesn’t seem like a viable alternative for either serious writers or for readers.

*For reference, here is my personal baseline of quality, the ten minimum standards a book must meet in order for me to consider it readable. If a book I am reviewing does not meet these standards, it will not get a good review. Period. Note that these standards are for fiction; nonfiction requires different standards, although there is a lot of crossover.

  1. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word usage are mostly correct. (At the very least, run the spell checker.)
  2. Verb tense is consistent.
  3. Point of view is consistent. (No head-hopping or random switches between first and third person.)
  4. Character names are consistent. (Really.)
  5. Sentence structure has some variety and complexity.
  6. There is a balance in dialogue, exposition, and action.
  7. Exposition isn’t given primarily through dialogue. (“As you know, Bob…”)
  8. Characters have some non-stereotyped development.
  9. There is some plot and plot points make sense.
  10. The story is not overly didactic; the author’s voice does not noticeably intrude.

If, as a writer, you don’t understand what I mean by any of these terms, you need to do some basic study of your chosen craft.

**Note: I am assigned book reviews by the publications that I review for. I don’t receive books from the authors directly. All books reviewed on my blogs are books that I review from my personal reading, not book reviews that I am paid to write.

Coming up, I will discuss some other ways self-published authors can produce a higher quality product.  

Exploding More Writing Myths « terribleminds: chuck wendig

Another great piece by Chuck Wendig myth-busting the writerly myths: Crotch-Punching The Creative Yeti: Exploding More Writing Myths « terribleminds: chuck wendig. My favorite myth is, of course, that you don’t have to know the rules. Writers who know the rules and break them purposefully are awesome. Writers who don’t bother to learn the rules are lazy and annoying and don’t deserve to be read.

Writing advice from Ursula K. Le Guin

The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination as a collection is something of a hodgepodge, but there are many valuable nuggets to be mined, so it’s a worthwhile book for any aspiring writer to consult from time to time. The personal essays in the first section, “Personal Matters,” are especially worth reading because Le Guin is a terrific writer and an interesting person. Other essays throughout the book, particularly Le Guin’s thoughts on gender, are also interesting. Do what I did–leaf through the book and read what catches your fancy. It’s sure to be worth your while.

The final section deals specifically with writing and contains several terrific insights. As ever, most writing advice generally comprises the same few basics dressed up in different ways. What stands out is when the adviser frames this in a different way guaranteed to light some bulbs over some heads, and I think Le Guin achieves this. Here are some specific insights I gleaned from different essays, but I recommend reading them for yourself.

“A War Without End” is a rather long and rambling piece on the power of story to make change imaginable and is worth reading to remember why we read and why we write. Here’s a snippet:

The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.

Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truthteller.

In “A Matter of Trust,” Le Guin explains that in order to write a story, you must trust first yourself, then the story, and finally the reader. The only way to build trust in yourself as a writer is to — you guessed it — write, write write. Commit yourself to learning the craft.

Trusting the story means being willing not to have full control over the story as you write it. In order for this to work, a pre-writing stage of semi-conscious gestation and/or conscious planning is required. Don’t rush to the writing–that won’t work. (This idea is fleshed out in a subsequent essay.)

Once the writing is done, you must again trust yourself to make the story better. You must be willing to go over it until it goes right. This means revision, people! Dull drudgery, I know, but absolutely necessary. Only after careful and deliberate revision, Le Guin says, will you know what the story is about and why it had to go the way it went. Trusting the story also means that you can’t conceive or manipulate the story to serve a purpose outside itself, because then it will not be true. (This is also expanded on in a later essay.)

Finally, trust the reader. This means thinking of the reader as an active, intelligent, worthy collaborator. Think of the story as a dance, and the writer and reader as partners in it. Revision — again! — clears unnecessary obstacles away so the reader can receive the story. Le Guin is talking about respect here, and as a reader, I completely agree. A lazy writer, a sloppy writer, a didactic writer is a disrespectful writer, and there is no reason why any reader should have to engage with that kind of writing.

In “The Writer and the Character,” Le Guin warns both writers and readers that characters are not stand-ins for the writer. If you are using your character to fulfill your own needs or to trumpet your own ideas, they can’t be themselves and they can’t tell the truth. They will be puppets, and readers will recognize them as such. If the author’s point of view exactly coincides with the character’s, then the story is not fiction; rather, it is “disguised memoir or a fiction-coated sermon.”

“Unquestioned Assumptions” is a terrific essay that discusses the biases inherent in writing, in which the writer assumes that “us” is “everybody.” In other words, we are all men, we are all white, we are all straight, we are all Christian, we are all young. Le Guin gives this advice:

All I would ask of writers who find it hard to question the universal validity of their personal opinions and affiliations is that they consider this: Every group we belong to–by gender, sex, race, religion, age–is an in-group, surrounded by an immense out-group, living next door and all over the world, who will be alive as far into the future as humanity has a future. That out-group is called other people. It is for them that we write.

Finally, “The Question I Get Asked Most Often,” is of course about the secret that all successful writers must know:

The question fiction writers get asked most often is: Where do you get your ideas from? Harlan Ellison has been saying for years that he gets ideas for his stories from a mail-order house in Schenectady.

When people ask “Where do you get your ideas from?” what some of them really want to know is the e-mail address of that company in Schenectady.

That is: they want to be writers, because they know writers are rich and famous; and they know that there are secrets that writers know; and they know if they can just learn those secrets, that mystical address in Schenectady, they will be Stephen King.

Here is the secret, as Le Guin reveals it:

For a fiction writer, a storyteller, the world is full of stories, and when a story is there, it’s there, and you just reach up and pick it.

Then you have to be able to let it tell itself.

“Ideas come from the world through the head,” she says. Fiction is “imagination working on experience.” In other words, it’s not just enough to write what you know. You experience and read and learn a lot of things, and let it all synthesize and compost in your mind, and apply imagination to it, and that is what you write. This is not a quick process. Again, don’t be in such a rush.

Also, writers must read! A writer who doesn’t read is a charlatan. That’s because writers stand on each other’s shoulders; they use each other’s ideas, plots, and secrets. They don’t plagiarize, but they expand, adapt, react to, and comment on what has come before.

Before Le Guin can start a story, she says, she must be able to see the landscape and know the principal people by name. The story has to find its voice. Wait for it, and it will give itself to you. Writing, above all, requires patience, a willingness to sit still every day and wait.

The core of this is the same writing advice that all successful writers give: Write every day. Learn your craft and practice. Read a lot. Don’t rush it. Revise. Le Guin’s spin on this advice is thoughtful and different, and it can possibly help make that a-ha! moment happen for aspiring writers.