Sunday, October 04, 2009

Writing in the Present Tense Makes Me Tense. Not in a Good Way.

In a couple of weeks I'm running a workshop for adults on how to write for children. So this afternoon I've been composing my thoughts and putting a few things together.
There's a lot that I don't know, but there's also a lot I won't be able to fit in. I've decided to focus on the stuff that I do know and will also be able to fit in. I think that's a good tactic.
Which leaves a couple of things for me to rant about here, which I'm going to call, 'Writing that really annoys me.'
1. My biggest one is beautifully summed up by a cartoon I found a week or so ago:

Why can't we stop people writing novels in the present tense?
Sometimes I can see what the writer is trying to do, and, yes, there are some very good novels written in the present tense. Not many, but some. And they are good despite being in the present tense.
They would be even better if they were written properly, in the past tense, the way that humans have understood stories for centuries. I know it's just a convention, but it's pretty well entrenched and there is no good reason to muck about with it.
2. Journals. I have read (or tried to read) so many children's books which at some point near the beginning have a passage that goes, roughly, something like this:
I'm writing this to set down exactly what happened in my amazing story. Maybe someday, somebody will read it. Who knows. There are parts that I couldn't possibly have seen myself, but those bits I've pieced together from what other people told me. Or I've just made them up.
Just tell me a story. Don't pretend that somebody has written all about it in a diary and that I've somehow found that diary and I'm reading it. That didn't happen. Nor did the things you're writing about in the book - it's fiction - so can you please just tell me the story without all that diary rubbish?
A variation on this is the 'Police Report Narrator'. Books that use that little trick have a passage near the beginning that goes something like this:
I've been a detective for 27 years but I'll ever forget this case. I'm going to set everything out in this official report, hoping that my seniors will know what to do. I promise this is all true and I'll try to be fair to everybody. I was at my desk late one night when I got a strange phone call...
To top it all, this week somebody gave me a children's book to read which began with the Police Report Narrator trick, and then the policeman writing the report very quickly explained that he'd found a diary, and that the whole story was set out this diary that I really needed to see if I was ever going to understand what really happened...
I threw the book against a wall.
At least it wasn't all written in the present tense.
To end on a plus, the best present tense book I've read, and the only book I've ever come across where I think the present tense might in some way contribute positively to the tone and the story, has just been published.
It's called Hell and it's by Robert Olen Butler. I urge you all to read it:

5 comments:

Greg John said...

I'm writing some of my novel in the present tense, and in the second person. Is that allowed?

Joe said...

It's allowed. I just won't read it.

Oh OK, I'll read it, but I won't enjoy it.

Fine - I might very well enjoy it. But I'm still going to moan about it.

And there's nothing you can do to stop me. (Which, ironically, is a sentence in the present tense and second person.)

NutmegAngel said...

I wrote a story entirely in first person present tense, but that was mostly to get back at my English teacher who complained that all my stories seemed rather similar. So I wrote a historical romance... But it still ended up with people flying in it (although as a slight difference, they were flying in an aeroplane...). However, I've decided that the present tense is not really doing anything for the story, so now face the mammoth task of rewriting it all in the past tense. Which will probably never happen, but oh well.

Anonymous said...

I read the first 2 books when I was ten and I loved them.Its been six yeats and I still want to read them. Do you know when they will be available in the United States.

Joe Craig said...

Hello, Anonymous person. YES, as it happens I do know roughly when the rest of the Jimmy Coates series will be available in the US. I don't have an exact release date yet, but a publisher has taken them on and will be doing a big digital release later this year, or early 2015. I don't know whether they'll all be coming out at the same time or whether the releases will be staggered, but all 7 existing books in the series will be available to read in digital form in the US very soon. At some point after that I hope we'll move to a release of physical books, but I don't know about that yet.
I'm so pleased you still remember my books after 6 years and that you've had the patience to still want to read them. That's wonderful to hear and I really hope that you enjoy the rest of the series. Personally, I think the books get better as the series goes on so I hope you agree and that the story is worth your long wait. Maybe leave another comment so I know that you've seen this, to put my mind at ease. Thanks for the great support - spread the word round the US for me! Joe.