Thursday, May 8, 2008


So the cat is out of the bag. I am writing this story in present tense. Of all the choices I make in writing, of all the elements I choose to write about, this is the one I am most hesitant to share. It is one of those things readers have very strong opinions about, which is because it is so noticeable. And is it good for a reader to notice the writing? Or should they only be caught up in the story?

Originally I didn't choose to write this story in present tense. I have never written anything in present tense, and frankly, it often annoys me to read books in present tense - although there are obvious exceptions. There are books I've loved in present tense; some I've even read a hundred pages or more before even noticing it is present tense, such is the deftness of the writing and the appropriateness of the tense to the tale. But overall, past is the preferred and overwhelming choice for books, and writers and agents have advised sticking with it. It is safe, I assume. No one is going to look at a manuscript and say, "Wow, look at this one. The author chose to write in past tense. What a bold move!"

But they do say that about present tense, and not always in a good way. Some have said it draws attention to the craft and draws attention away from the story itself. Miss Snark commented once that it was the criteria for elimination in judging contests because it is becoming so overdone. But others say, it's only bad if you are trying to hard to make it work.

And I am not trying to make this one work at all.

It came out, without me even making the choice. I began to write, and it wasn't until I was on the third or fourth page that I realized Babs was talking in present tense.... that she was telling the story as it unfolds. I stopped then, and realized I had to make my own choice. Do I override her and go with what is safer, and more commonly acceptable? Or do I let her do the telling in the way she wants to?

People who are not writers do not understand this. I thought, for many years, that I was really wacked out treating the characters like real people, and thinking that the story is theirs, and that I am merely the pen. What kind of lunatic writer isn't actually in control of the story, and finds herself surprised sometimes by the discoveries she makes along the way? Me, that's who. And, it turns out, Madeline L'Engle. And J.K. Rowling. And a host of other authors, published and unpublished. We are all lunatics. How comforting!

I did some research, and though risky, I stayed with Bab's original voice, the one that is telling the story as it happens instead of telling it from the future looking back on it. It's important this way because from the future looking back we have perspective. We can see how far we've come. We can see that what might look like an insurmountable obstacle is, in fact, surmountable. We know if someone lives or dies. We know if people who say they are friends show up when we need them. We know.

And it is important that Bab's, at every point, doesn't know the future. It's important that life hangs in the balance, that she doesn't know who to believe, and that she feels the full thrust of panic and obsessive need for control that the unknowing brings. The story could be happening today, right now, to someone you know. To you.

The trick is going to be in doing it well. And that remains to be seen. But the good thing is that it is entirely changeable, if, in the end, I decide I really can't pull it off. But for now I'm sticking with it. It is a challenge that hopefully will help me as a writer, and what good is writing if I can't learn a little along the way?

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