Stories like this are, to me, omens of the apocalypse: Stop. Using. Periods. Period. – The Washington Post
Jane Friedman gives really great advice on whether to self-publish or go the traditional route. Here’s a key point:
I see some writers self-publish mainly because they lack patience with the querying and submissions process of traditional publishing. Or they want the instant gratification of getting their work on the market. But again, this is one of the worst reasons to self-publish. I find many authors on my doorstep because they thought “Why not self-publish now and shop it around later to agents/editors?” — and ended up disappointed with the results. If you have any interest whatsoever in traditional publishing, exhaust all your agent/publisher options first. Get thoroughly rejected (as much as that may hurt), and then self-publish. It’s very, very hard to go in the other direction successfully.
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.
So my attempts to journal my reading here have fallen by the wayside, other than the occasional recommendations of books I loved. If you’re that interested in the minutiae of what I read (some people are–it’s crazy!), you can always check out my thread on LibraryThing.
I still like to share my acquisitions, especially when they are pretty. Lately I’ve been on a ghost story kick. Here are three ghost stories I recently picked up.
Very pretty, aren’t they? The first one is a novel; the other two are short stories.
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:
- Spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word usage are mostly correct.
- Verb tense is consistent.
- Point of view is consistent.
- Character names are consistent. So are other facts given in the text.
- Sentence structure has some variety and complexity.
- There is a balance in dialogue, exposition, and action.
- Exposition isn’t given primarily through dialogue.
- Characters have some non-stereotyped development.
- There is some plot and plot points make sense.
- The story is not overly didactic; the author’s voice does not noticeably intrude.
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.
Ceremony by Leslie Silko is a 1970s classic of Native American literature, a slow but powerful read. Tayo returns home to the Laguna Pueblo reservation from World War II suffering from PTSD and attempts to cure himself by reconnecting with the traditional ceremonies of his people. This lovely cover is for the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition.