The Quandary of Present Tense


I’ve spent some time playing with first person present on my current work in progress. I love it. My main character is a jerk, not that he means to be, but his circumstances throw him into a position of self-defense and that translates into his treating another student at his high school unkindly. “But no one is that mean.” That’s the comment of one of my beta-readers. My son, who was a sophomore at the time turned to his father and said, “Oh, yes they are.”

Which brings me back to my work in progress, written in first person present. I love being inside Jake’s head. I love that everything unfolds right here and now. I only get to hear his thoughts, his reactions, his feelings—and it’s all pretty knee jerk for him.

When I first started reading books written in first person present, it jarred me a little. But now that I’ve spent some time writing in it, I find that I love it.

Susanne Collins wrote in first person present in her novel Hunger Games, a book I really loved. Collins not only tells a gripping story, but does it in such a way that I felt like I was right there, and I’m sure that was because the story unfolded as if I was Katniss. I felt her inner struggles, her love for her sister, her horrors, her triumph. That I owe to the present tense of Collins’s storytelling.

Here’s the problem. Editors, for the most part, hate it.

When I pitched The Penny Project, my current work in process about Jake the jerk to my editor, she loves the story and wants to publish it. The problem is the present tense. She hates it. So do I abandon my notion of writing in present tense so that my publishing company will take the book, or do I risk not getting published at all because I love first person present for this story? I’m afraid to say that I will probably wimp out and change the whole novel to past tense. What would you do?

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7 thoughts on “The Quandary of Present Tense

  1. Don’t do it!! Be true to your convictions! If this is unfolding in first person present, and it’s a good story, and you’re not doing any of the “faux pas” of head-hopping or any of that junk, then it’s just a personal taste on the part of the editor. Which, really, they need to get over and give the book a chance FIRST. IF they can point out flaws in the writing, those need to be fixed. But your choice of how to write it is yours. (I know this is hyperbole, but what if the editor said, “It’s nice, but if there could be just a little more swearing…” you would laugh at them right? It’s YOUR book.)
    Be strong Betsy!!

  2. The problem editors have with 1st person, is that it is sooo hard to do well. It’s hard to keep consistent, and it’s hard to keep the story moving well with only one person’s view point. That’s why it’s so rare to find someone who can pull it off- but those who do pull it off are usually spectacular because they are so carefully done.
    I would say look inside hard at what you want to accomplish with the story- do you want an easy sell, only for profit; or do you want to bring Jake’s story to the light because of what it says to you. If you are writing Jake for deep, personal reasons- don’t change for nothing; it will be untrue to Jake. If you are just having fun crafting, an editor’s advise is very helpful- but remember that changing tense is also a pain to make it a consistent change.
    Whatever you choose, make it your choice, you can’t please everyone, and shouldn’t try.

  3. Betsy, remember you can always change it later. My first book was written in 1st person, past tense. Then I changed it to 3rd person, past tense. Not as big of a change as present to past, but both are doable.

  4. I couldn’t read The Hunger Games because I felt as though I were somehow participating (watching) the games. Collins’s use of the present tense made it seem very real. I felt like a Roman watching the Christians being thrown to the lions. Awful. I know—most people loved the book. Not me. Anyway, I’ve noticed that more YA novels are in the present tense now–probably as a result of the success of The Hunger Games. It’s trendy. But if your editor said change it–I think you probably should.

    • Suzanne Collins certainly tells a gripping story by using first person present tense. It’s a book I couldn’t put down. I felt like I was watching a horror show through my fingers. Thanks for your ideas, Gussie.

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