Tense. This isn’t exactly a new topic for writer’s blogs, but it’s an amusingly controversial one. If you Google “present vs. past tense writing,” you’ll end up in the middle of an angry battle between the fiercely entrenched forces of the past, and the anti-establishment present. I’m not going to reiterate the arguments here, you should really check them out for yourself. This one heats up pretty quick (Fiction Master sounded like he wanted to punch the blog author in the neck). I think it’s fair to say that we’ll see Glenn Beck and President Obama having beers together in the White House garden before any of the “pro-past tense” folks acknowledge the possible use of the present tense in fiction writing.
I feel like I’m listening to an argument between two sci-fi fans over time travel, and I’ve heard it all before…maybe because I’m caught in a perpetual time travel loop that keeps replaying my past experiences…or I’m listening to an author tell a story, which clearly already happened, giving me the impression that I’m hearing it again. Does any of this make sense? Probably not, because if you’re like me, after listening to the time travel argument for let’s say…two minutes, I feel compelled to interject. “Time travel doesn’t exist, so what exactly are you arguing about?” The same goes for arguing that the present tense has no place in fiction writing. It doesn’t matter whether you think it happened in the past, or the present. It really never happened at all, and only the author holds the key to why the tense was chosen. This is the heart of the matter, as I have experienced.
The Jakarta Pandemic started in the present tense for no reason at all. I wrote the story solely from the protagonists view, and after writing about ten pages, the present tense dominated. I actually had to rework the pages to eliminate the past tense. About fifty pages later, I re-read one of my favorite writing guide books, Stephen King’s, On Writing. At some point in there, he discusses tense, and states that present tense is typically only suited for short stories. I didn’t remember much more than that, because I had closed the book and uttered a few profanities. I really didn’t want to dig back through fifty pages and shift the tense back to the past, but I did…or at least I fought my way through about five pages. It was miserable, and didn’t work for me. For my story, it became clear that the past tense was not the right choice, and that a single point of view, fast paced story was well suited for the present tense. Not that I haven’t received some critique. I can live with it, because the past tense failed to propel The Jakarta Pandemic forward.
As for my new novel? With multiple points of view, changing settings, a much larger host of characters, I naturally tended to use past tense. I strayed back to present tense for action sequences (out of habit), but upon re-reading a few pages, it became clear that sticking to the present tense would not be a sustainable practice for the novel. I edited about fifteen pages to conform everything to the past tense, and at first it felt like I was writing in a foreign language, but after a few pages, it flowed naturally.
I think the story chooses the tense, and not the writer.
What do you think?