Wednesday, 5 August 2009

All in the Past: Why I'm Getting Tense about my New Project

“You’ve gotta come see it, Szandi,” says Yang. I slam the phone down but it misses the base. I hit the clock instead, which flashes 03.00.

I put the handset on the pillow and turn over so I’m looking at it. The white plastic appears faintly red in the clock’s LCD glow. “Szandi?” I hear. The black dots of the speaker seem to wink in the dark as she talks.

Those are the opening words of my last novel, Songs From the Other Side of the Wall. So what? They’re OK – apparently it’s unfashionable to mention time in the opening paragraph, but as it’s a reference to the KLF’s 3 a.m. Eternal, I figured why not. So, perfectly passable and uneventful, right?

Well no. These two brief paragraphs turned my writing world upside down. You see, they just came out like that, natural as anything, and it was only much later – pages later, in fact that I noticed: THEY’RE IN THE PRESENT TENSE.

Half of you are probably still saying so what? But the other half probably winced the moment you read “says”. And when I wrote the words, I was one of them. I hated present tense. With a vengeance. So much so that I stopped reading Patricia Cornwell’s The Last precinct after 5 pages, and haven’t picked up a Scarpetta novel since. It feels contrived, showy (exactly the reasons outlined when I held a straw poll on twitter yesterday) – as though it’s there to keep the reader guessing what’s going to happen. We’re always aware of the author, and never quite lose ourselves in the story.

Furthermore, my favourite agent’s reader, Jodi Meadows, made the very good point that it is very hard to maintain the present tense without letting the POV slip. And as Miss Pitch pointed out, the incessant battering of first person present tense can actually get rather dull (and, I would add, a little bit shouty).

So imagine my horror when I found I was writing in the present tense. Only then the horror started to subside. I found myself reading a whole slew of books where the present tense seemed not to get in the way of the narrative but to enhance it. After Dark by Murakami and Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis are the two that stick most in the mind. They just couldn’t be written any other way.

So why does it work so well for these authors, and so badly for Cornwell? It might seem at first glance that it’s a question of first person against third person, which would in itself be strange because the objections I encountered (single POV, maintenance of a sustained character, claustrophobia) all seemed to apply to the first person. But I have a feeling it may be more to do with genre. I think in a thriller (I have the same issue with Simon Kernick) it feels as though you’re using it as a trick – a “will the character pull through?” or “keep the reader in the moment” kind of thing.

What Ellis does – and this sounds arty nonsense, the very opposite of everything I mean to convey – is perfectly reflect the throwaway lives and casual violence of teenage rich kids in The Valley. The tense is part of that “yeah, so what” voice he has, and that makes it work.

With Murakami, it’s something different, something specific to that kind of literary fiction that I can only describe as poetry. The other day I tried to analyse it, just why the present tense used well sounds so exquisite, and all I could come up with is that the sound “d” is ugly and “s” is elegant. Which is rubbish. Only it isn’t because we so often forget as prose-writers the absolute importance of the way words sound – and poets so often remember.

So I became happier in my present tense. It suits the loose, liquid style I like to write in, where sound matters more than strict meaning – no, where sound often IS the meaning (I write magical realism so I can get away with saying nonsense like that!). AND I write about teenagers.
Now I can’t imagine writing in anything BUT the present tense. It just seems so natural, so flowing, so loose and easy (not, I hope, floppy, stream of consciousness, but it’s not my place to say). Indeed my current novel, The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, is written in the present tense from three separate POVs, one third person, and two first person (one of them plural).

NOW imagine my horror as I sit at the keyboard, tingling with excitement to begin tapping out the opening of my new novel, “Life Drawn Freehand”:

I remember the phone was cold in my hand when they called to tell me Simon was dead. I thought, it’s summer and I’m holding slick, plastic ice, and it’s talking.

The voice was Andrew’s. He said “Mrs Hart?” and I said yes, once, and his voice kept saying “Mrs Hart?” and I thought isn’t it strange this cold thing in my hand keeps repeating my name. Then there was another voice, not Andrew’s, not anyone’s I knew, and it said “Mrs Hart I’m afraid there’s been a terrible accident” and I said “Oh” and for a few seconds I thought the frozen thing in my fingers was Simon’s skin.

Then I put it down while it was still repeating “Mrs Hart” in the other voice, the one I didn’t know, and it was just a hot summer day, and I was staring at the telephone, and my son was dead.

My deepest thanks to @jodimeadows @pitchparlour @pattyjansen @brennig @triplecherry @tommyjaybooks @George9writer @remittancegirl and @vpynchon for their helpful input on twitter


  1. Finally getting to this - sorry it took so long. I think I can see what happened to you - but I am still more convinced that present tense is not for me!

  2. Now that is something for my cover "this writing put me of the present tense for good"!

    :-) Thank you for popping in, and thank you for raising the question :-)