Thursday, October 22, 2009

My Love Affair With Present Tense

I have a terrible admission to make.

I sat to write today and realized I have lost the ability to write in the past tense.

It's true. I don't know how it happened. For my entire life I'd only written in past tense, but when I wrote Some Kind of Normal, it came out in first person present. Scary stuff. Really, it was. I'd never done that before, and when it came out like that I kind of went, Woa! What's this??

But then I grew into it. And now I'm addicted to it. When I went through my novel-of-the-day last winter trying to find the new book in me, every one ended up in first person present. And, now that I think about it, most of the blog writing is that way too. So the past tense sort of grew out of me.

But I'm working on something now in which I've decided part of it needs to be first person present and part is in first person past. (I know, I know! Suicide! Don't even try to talk me out of it though...I'm still early into it and think it's going to be brilliant...)

Today my writing kept slipping into present tense, and when I tried to go back and put it into past tense, I couldn't. Literally, I looked at the words on the page and thought, how the heck do I change this? I added a few "-ed"s to the ends of some verbs, changed a hang to hung... but not all of it was that simple. Some of it I really didn't know how to change. I'd look at a sentence and wonder, "Is that pure present tense, or is that how you'd write it in past tense, too?"

So here is one of the paragraphs I wrote today that I struggled with:

Kristin sprawled out across my bed upside down, her feet hanging off one side and her head off the other, not caring that her shirt was riding up and showing off the belly button ring her mom didn’t even know she had. I tried not to stare at it, but that was really hard. It’s a fake diamond and it caught the light and bounced it off the ceiling, and I tried to follow the sparkle instead of staring at her bare stomach. It’s flat. I wished mine were that flat. I put my hand on my flabby abdomen and pressed it in.

The part that hung me up? "It's a fake diamond." That apostrophe s stands for "is": present tense. But can you say, "It was a fake diamond"? Same with "It's flat." And if you say "was," look at all the was's in that paragraph!

I think I really hate the word was. I love the word is. It feels active. And you can contract it. Was feels... boring.

Sadly, that isn't even the worst of my dilemmas. Some sentences I totally deleted - perfectly good sentences that I really liked - because I had no idea how to make them mean the same thing in past tense.

Sigh. I guess that's what editing is for.


  1. That's exactly it, Heidi. Enjoy the writing. You can ALWAYS edit later.

    (and I love 1st POV Present too!!)

  2. I usually don't go for first-person present as far as reading goes. It feels funny.

    I just wrote a book this way, instead .:)

  3. Jen - yes...the writing is fun, and I'm enjoying it and trying to wait to work on the editing part!

    Caroline - I never think about what tense a book is when I pick it up to read it, but I do notice whether it's in first or third person. Have you had agents suggest you change it? I had one suggest I change to 3rd, but no one said I should change the tense. (Maybe they just didn't want to go through all that trouble!)

  4. It's funny the things we stumble over. My main problem these days, living in Germany, is if something I write really exists in!

  5. Lenore - I can totally see that! My sister and her family lived in Peru for several years and my nieces, whose first language was English, sometimes couldn't remember the English name for things!

    It really is bugging me. I struggled all day with it! I'm either going to need to switch to present tense, or take a break to read some past tense and get familiar with it again!

  6. I KNOW.

    And by the way, the next-current project is 1st person, with both past and present tenses. and yes, I think it's gonna be brilliant too!

  7. How about "showing off the FAKE DIAMOND belly button ring . . . it caught the light . . . ."
    Too wordy?
    Don't worry.
    You'll get it.

  8. Ooh, I love when writers post a little something they've been working on. It's so nice to peek into the world of a novel in progress, regardless of "is" or "was" confusion. I love the way you write!

  9. Christy - Thank you!! Gosh, I always like compliments!

    kathryn - excellent suggestion... I need to get out of my hangup of just trying to change the word and look at changing the sentence structure!

    Heidi - It will be brilliant!! Mine, well - it'll be brilliant until I read through it and decide it all needs to be changed!