Thursday, July 21, 2016

Technical Goulash

I'm nearing the 10,000-word mark of a new project that is very different from other books I've written for a number of reasons, the first being that I'm writing in present tense.

Goodreads List of Present-Tense Novels

Interestingly, I taught Naomi Hirahara's Murder on Bamboo Lane this past year, and none of my students noticed the tense (or mentioned it until I did). As a teacher, that was frustrating; as a writer (nice job, Naomi!), that's a good thing. I know if I'm consistent in voice, point-of-view, and tense, I'll go unnoticed, something I'm always striking for: I want readers to be so lost in the story they forget they're turning pages at all.

Writing present tense is interesting on many levels. The syntax, for one, has changed. Sentences are shorter (for me, that's never a bad thing.) I find myself writing a lot of fragments (missing subjects). This is happening naturally. Just riding the rhythm of the book. And my nemesis, the To Be verb, is getting very little airtime, something that pleases me immensely. The chapters are averaging less than a thousand words.

Additionally, the pace of the book is faster because of the tense choice. Dialogue propels the action for me, as always. But the I see this book being shorter than some others I've written in recent years. (Whether that holds up or not remains to be seen. Every time I start a book I tell myself this time I'll be really efficient.)

Like any writer, I will do my best to show and not tell: 

My second-floor classroom looked out onto the quad. There was a grass courtyard nearly the size of a soccer pitch and boxed in by brick dorms and brick office and academic buildings. Morning sunlight reflected off benches that glistened with ice and snow. Christmas was a full three weeks away, but twenty inches of snow had already fallen. Parents' Weekend took place only a month earlier, when cobblestone paths were ablaze with autumn's fallen leaves and playing fields' sidelines were awash in light blue swag and proud parental voices. That seemed a distant memory.

My second-floor classroom looks out onto the quad, a grass courtyard nearly the size of a soccer pitch, boxed in by brick dorms and brick office and academic buildings. Morning sunlight reflects off benches glistening with ice and snow. Christmas is a full three weeks away, but twenty inches of snow have already fallen. Parents' Weekend – only a month ago, when cobblestone paths were ablaze with autumn's fallen leaves and playing fields' sidelines were awash in light blue swag and proud parental voices – seems a distant memory.

The differences are evident. Immediacy being the most obvious. No surprise there. But more subtly, the imagery, particularly of the final line, is punched up. The present tense version in the second paragraph is more forceful.

Now I put the challenge to you: Take a paragraph you've written recently, and rewrite it in the present tense. What differences do you find? This might serve as another technique for your toolbox. After all, a present-tense scene well-placed in a past-tense novel might heighten suspense and add to your reader's experience.

I'd love to hear readers' thoughts on this and my Type M colleagues' opinions.

4 comments:

Mary Jane Hopper said...

Thank you for the look at present and past tense. I'm not a writer but I do love to read what you all write.

John Corrigan said...

Thanks for reading!

Rick Blechta said...

Interesting view of something not often done. Thanks!

Donis Casey said...

Novels in the present tense seems to be on the rise. Tim Hallinan's Poke Rafferty series is in present tense, and I've just finished a Wendy Corsi Staub novel in present. I've written some short stories in present, and I find you as the author really have to engage your brain. It's interesting and a very good exercise, I think.