Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Who's talking? And why should the past be perfect?

Let me make one thing clear up front:  those mysterious lights baffling pilots at D-FW International Airport this week were not lasers.  They were the sparks of glee I gave off when writing friend Robin Y. announced that, for the duration of NaNoWriMo, she was giving up first person and present tense.

Those of you who've tried it know that writing from a first person point of view -- letting a character, in all her shameless self-aggrandizement, tell her story straight to readers without letting them hear from other characters who could diss her -- is like running a marathon with arms tied behind your back.  Add writing in the present tense (think:  I go to the store) instead of the more common past tense (I went to the store) and you've got the equivalent of running in leg shackles.  It can be done.  Just don't expect to set any word count records.

Don't get me wrong -- there are wonderful reasons to use either a first person POV or present tense narrative.  First person is almost required for some genres, such as young adult, although the Harry Potter series stuck to third person and it seemed to do okay.  Harry Potter, of course, was a likeable kid.  Which brings up another major reason to write in first person -- making an unlikeable character palatable.  I used first person in my short story "Eight Seconds" to let a protagonist's questionable actions slide down, like a bitter dose sweetened with sugar.  Is that why it won a Western fiction contest prize?  Maybe, but I've also sold shadyside characters written in third person.

How about writing in present tense?  It's got video game-style immersion in the action to recommend it.  It also lets you write scenes that really are in the character's past in straight past tense instead of the cumbersome past perfect tense (I had gone to the store) that will get dings for slowing your narrative pace to a crawl.  But your inner editor will have to be turned to high, because present tense isn't how people usually talk.  And do you want an editor looking over your shoulder during NaNoWriMo?

Still insist you can't forego the intimacy of first person, the immediacy of present tense?  That's okay.  Because after you've logged your fifty thousand words and won your NaNoWriMo t-shirt, you can add them in revision.  It will require close reading of your manuscript.  But you'll have time for that after NaNoWriMo is over.  For now, though, lose the shackles.

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