Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part IX: why so tense?

No time for small talk today — I’m still plowing through the list of Idol first-page rejection reasons (please see my post of October 31, if you do not know what that means), and I have a lot of ground to cover today. Because this is the day, my friends, that we get into the real nitty-gritty: the technical authorial choices. First up on the roster: tense.

So fasten your seatbelts, campers; it’s going to be a bumpy night.

Only two of the Idol rejection reasons concerned authorial tense choices: #53, the writing switching tenses for no apparent reason, and #71, “Why is this written in the present tense?” The first, as any agency screener will tell you, is surprisingly common in submissions, for reasons unfathomable to them.

I have a pretty good guess, however, so let me take a crack at it: many, many books begin their sojourns on this terrestrial sphere written in the present tense, only to be changed to the past tense later on, when the author realizes some of the practical difficulties of perpetually speaking in the present. And visa versa. Sometimes, writers just do not remember to go back and change every single verb. Thus, unintentionally, quite a lot of submissions appear to be written in two tenses, rather than one.

Which means, ultimately, that unexplained tense switches are very frequently not deliberate choices, but proofreading problems — and ones that your word processor’s spelling and grammar checker is unlikely to catch, since it concentrates at the word and sentence level. Even — and I tremble to tell you this, but it’s often true — if two of the tenses fall within a single sentence.

“Wait!” I hear a bevy of suddenly pale souls out there crying. “What do you mean, my grammar checker won’t catch tense problems? Isn’t that what it’s there to do?”

Counterintuitive, isn’t it? But long experience has led me to conclude that on the whole, the Microsoft Corporation just does not care very much about whether the first and fourteenth sentences of your novel are consistently tensed, or even the first and the second. Yet another reason, in case you needed still more, that computerized spell- and grammar-checkers alone are not adequate replacements for good old human proofreaders.

Don’t believe me? Okay, I’m writing this in Word; let’s see what happens when I start to write a story with severe tense problems. I have to say, I’m not sanguine about this experiment, since my grammar checker routinely begs me to use the wrong form of there, their, and they’re and frowns upon every single use of a semicolon, apparently on general principle, but hey, I’m open to being mistaken about this. Here goes:

Jane threw up on her date, Stan, who backs away in horror. It was a cold, clear, moonlit night, ideal for dating. Yet Jane is sad, not because she is drinking so much, per se, but because Stan soon will be so plying her with alcohol that she will no longer have been able to tell the difference between the past, present, and future. The realization made her weep all the harder. Stan weeps as well.

Okay, now I’m running this paragon of purple prose through my very up-to-date Word grammar checker… which, you will no doubt be thrilled to hear, did not raise a single objection to the preceding paragraph. It did, however, raise all kinds of red flags about my correct use of the word “which” in my last sentence.

I rest my case. Proofread VERY carefully for unintentional tense switches, particularly if you are writing in the present tense.

Tense lapses are a problem very difficult to catch when proofreading on a small computer screen, too, or indeed, any computer screen at all, since backlit screens tend to make all of us skim. Long-term visitors to this site, shout along with me now: there is just no substitute for reading your work IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before you send it out. Yes, it is a touch wasteful of paper (you can always use the back side to print future drafts, right?), but no other method is as likely to catch rhythmic, continuity, and yes, tense problems.

Do I hear a bit of disgruntled murmuring out there at the idea that first-page tense switches could happen only inadvertently? Come on, speak up. No? Too shy after the Idol barrage?

Okay, then, I’ll suggest a logical possibility: the narrative could be switching between the present and the past deliberately, perhaps because the protagonist is having a flashback, or because she is not very well grounded in present reality for reasons that do not bode well for her future mental health. Maybe she is sitting in a time machine, hopping around between the era of the dinosaurs and the reign of Charles I. Or perhaps — and this is one I have seen quite often — the book concerns a traumatic event, recalled in the present tense (and usually the first person as well), so the reader will get a brief flash of it before launching into the past-tense narrative…

All right, I can feel in my bones that there are dozens of you jumping up and down at this point, hands in the air, begging to say why any of these tactics is likely to get a writer in trouble on the first page of a submission. Go ahead, shout out the answer.

Yes, you’re right: they all COULD be construed as tricking the reader, a practice we established a few days back as something the average agent admires about as much as the bubonic plague. So while this is a technique that we’ve all seen used, and used well, by successfully published authors, using it within the first couple of pages of your submission is inherently risky.

Because this is such a common authorial choice for page one, allow me emphasize just how many of the Idol rules such an opening would break, so you will get a clear sense of HOW big a risk it is. To be precise, it would run directly afoul of rejection reasons #27 (the book opened with a flashback, rather than what was going on now) and #54 (the action is told out of temporal order). Often, such openings also stumble over #10 (the opening contained the phrase or implication, “This can’t be happening.”) and #11 (the opening contained the phrase or implication, “And then I woke up.”) as well. Then, too, unexplained switching back and forth could be construed as #20 (non-organic suspense, created by some salient fact being kept from the reader for a long time), or dismissed quickly as #34 (confusing).

In other words: you can certainly do it, if you are up for attempting a stylistic high-wire act, but the chances of tumbling are awfully high. On the plus side, if you can pull off a standing triple back flip from 30 feet in the air, it is going to be a heck of a lot more impressive than doing it while both your feet begin and end on solid ground, isn’t it?

#71, “Why is this written in the present tense?”, comes as a surprise to a lot of writers. “But the present tense makes the action more immediate!” they cry. “It makes emotion pop off the page in the now! The reader gets to experience what is happening right along with the protagonist!”

Actually, there’s not a whole lot of evidence that readers DO necessarily find a well-written present-tense scene any more immediate than a well-written one in the past tense. Honestly — ask anyone in the industry. It’s the quality and tension of the writing that keeps a reader involved, they will assure you, not the tense. And I hate to be the one to tell you this, but there are plenty of industry readers who believe, rightly or wrongly, that use of the present tense is a sneaky writerly subterfuge intended to cover up pacing and plotting problems in the text.

Now, obviously, this is not particularly fair; as we all know, many writers select the present tense for perfectly valid stylistic reasons, not the least important of which is that they just think their prose sounds better that way. However, occasionally, the agents and editors who dislike the present tense have a point: writing in the present tense is inherently prone to some rather perplexing timing problems, especially if flashbacks are also told in the present tense. (Actually, it’s not all that uncommon for a story to be told in the past tense, with the flashbacks in the present, to emphasize them as thought. Three guesses how well any of the agents on the Idol panel would have liked THAT.)

How do you deal with memory, for instance, or sensations in the present that remind the protagonist or narrator of something in the past? How do you differentiate between what happened five minutes ago and what happened five years ago? And what about ongoing feelings — true yesterday, true today, and probably true tomorrow, but subject to fluctuations throughout — for which French, say, has a perfectly useable tense, but in English requires a bit more finagling?

Human beings are complex creatures, I think; in a sense, we think of ourselves in the past, present, and future fairly continuously. In practical terms, this means that conditionals, quite frankly, can become a nightmare of verbiage in the present tense, even when the same sentiment is fairly straightforward when expressed in the past.

For example, in the past, it is easy enough to say that Lauren might have done X, had not event Y occurred while ongoing condition Z was going on. Nothing too convoluted about that, right? But look how much harder it is to explain poor Lauren’s state of mind in the present: Right now, Lauren is inclined to do X. However, between the time she initially felt that way (which is, technically, already the past by this point, right?) and when she could actually put thought into action to do X, event Y occurred, making her think twice about doing thing X. It was not just Y occurring, though, that influenced her in that split second: it was also the fact that condition Z was in play at the same time, having presumably started prior to either the moment when Lauren thought X was a good idea AND the moment when Y’s intrusion convinced her that it was not, and continued into the future after both Y’s occurrence and Lauren’s response to it.

Kind of exhausting, isn’t it? After you’ve read a few thousand manuscripts, you might well start anticipating running into those problems as soon as you read a first sentence in the present tense. You might, in fact, fall into the unfair habit of automatically regarding present-tense manuscripts as needing more editing on the way to publication. And if you were the type of person who broke out in hives at the prospect of having even 32 consecutive seconds of your life taken up by an extra line or two in a query letter, you might, unfortunately, decide to save yourself some trouble by regarding being written in the present tense as a strike against a book.

This is not to say that you should not write in the present tense, if you feel it serves your story and your style best. Most emphatically not. It does, however, mean that it would be prudent to make sure that the first few pages of a present tense submission are ultra-clean, ultra-logical — and that they demonstrate some very tangible payoff for the work’s being written in the present tense, rather than the past. A payoff, ideally, that will make even a prejudiced anti-present-tenser sit up straight and cry, “Why, have I been wrong for all these years? Here is a perfectly marvelous outcome of using the present tense!”

Remember what I said earlier about high wire acts?

So if you favor writing in the present tense, it might be a good idea to read your opening over and ask yourself: “Okay, absent reasons of immediacy, is it clear here what purpose is being served by this tense choice, just in case my submission falls under the eyes of a present tense-hater?”

And remember, that answer should be pretty apparent on the page, if it is going to help your work get past the screener. No matter how fine your off-page justification is, it will not help if your submission gets rejected before you get a chance to talk with the agent about your work.

I had hoped to get to dialogue today, but I seem to have gotten carried away by the tense issue. More tomorrow, and in the meantime, keep up the good work!

2 Replies to “Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part IX: why so tense?”

  1. Of course we all know that submissions should be in standard format, and that one provision of that is that we only use one side of each sheet of paper. But do the agents, editors, and publishing moguls care what we do in the privacy of our own home? If you are printing something out for you own use, why not use both sides of the paper? Why use nearly a ream when you can use half or less?
    Anyway, I have my manuscript printed out, double-sided, punched, and in a three ring binder. It is my working copy. I can take it with me, read, review, revise, and correct. Then when I get a chance, I can make the corrections on the computer and reprint pages that need it.
    In case anyone is wondering, yes, I am savvy enough to print any actual submissions on one side only!
    If any one is curious as to how to print on both sides, here’s how. (Two ways)
    1. Under “File”, select “Print.” Select “Page.”
    Then enter the first and then every other page number of the document (chapter) Hit “OK” to print. When done, turn the printed paper over, watching the orientation and put back in the feeder tray. Go back thru the “File,” “Print,” “Page” routine. This time selected the second page and then every other page. Hit “OK.”
    2. Still requires you to go to File and Print. On mine, there is a spot with a choice, usually labelled “All Pages in Range.” You can click on this and chose some variations. Select “Odd pages,” print it, turn the pages over and feed back thru the printer. Select “Even pages” and OK again to print the other side(s).

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