I just finished Retribution (#5) and Chosen (#6) in the Anna Strong Vampire Novels by Jeanne Stein. I admit I haven’t had time to read The Watcher (#3) and Legacy (#4), but one of my hobbies is to skip parts of series anyway. This helps me see whether a writer provides enough backstory and drops it in transparently, which Jeanne does with ease.
Chosen showcases both Jeanne’s talent and courage. I mention courage because Jeanne doesn’t use the “literary past” but bravely writes in the present tense, which can put off readers and editors alike, unless done skillfully. The present tense has the advantage that it can grip readers and hold them in the moment—but has the disadvantage that any misstep such as awkward wording, a false tone, or impractical timing will jerk readers out of the narrative flow. I’m not talking about crass grammar mistakes here (which can happen with unskilled writers), but anything that reminds us readers that we’re reading a present tense narrative, which our English teachers told us can’t happen. However, Chosen was so smooth that I totally forgot about the tense. How can a writer get that effect? Well, with lots of work and editing.
How to Avoid Missteps With Present Tense
Many authors mix present tense with the literary past, particularly for inner dialogue. But writing an entire novel in present tense is more difficult. Here’s some techniques for pulling it off successfully:
- The first person point-of-view (POV) will work better than third person. Today’s genre writers have to work harder to immerse the reader, perhaps because of the distractions of our society (for instance, authors rarely intrude and address the reader directly, nor take omnipotent/authorial POVs, as common in past centuries). With present tense, a modern reader has to believe they’re reading a sort of “ticker tape” inside someone’s head, seeing what that character sees, feeling what that character feels, as it happens. If an author uses present tense and writes in third person, the reader rides on the shoulder of an invisible documenter, flitting about from face to face, possibly even head to head. Maintaining “suspension of disbelief,” which we genre writers strive for, is harder in third person. Not impossible, but more difficult.
- Cut back on the descriptive prose. I mentioned impractical timing, above, pulling a reader out of the narrative flow. Think of the internal ticker tape again, where the reader sees what the character sees as the character’s gaze roams around the room, over the horizon, etc. It doesn’t take long for the human eye to record and send that information to our brains. Even worse, in moments of stress the character may jump/trip/fall over something, the existence of which was never described by the character’s eyes until the character is running for his or her life. The author has to figure out how to record this in real time. If your words dwell too long on an item or view, the timing isn’t “in the moment” and feels artificial. This false note gets highlighted in present tense.
- Internal dialogue and decision-making must simulate, as much as possible, real time. I say “simulate,” because writers can never provide prose that reads as fast as neurons fire in a character’s brain. Of the two, internal dialogue (i.e., guilt, second-guessing, planning) is fairly easy to put off for quiet times, when the reader can believe the character might be examining past events, actions, or thoughts. Decision-making and balancing options, however, is difficult to simulate. If you read Chosen, and I hope you do, you’ll notice that Anna rarely has any externalized decision-making thoughts. She acts, and the reader often isn’t given the basis for her decision. What Jeanne does is build up Anna’s opinions and emotions regarding people, places, and situations before the snap decision is required—so that Anna’s response stays in character. This is necessary to avoid any false tone in the character’s narrative, yet help the reader understand Anna’s decisions. Obviously, this should be done in any type of writing, but remember that you have no appropriate time to clarify a character’s decision when writing in present tense. Another point: present tense can become torture for a reader when a character waffles, overanalyzes, or agonizes over decisions.
- Finally, make strong, specific word choices and edit, edit, edit. The present tense gives you a chance to hold the reader in the moment, as long as your language is strong (stay away from adverbs) and your verbs and adjectives are specific. Not “I smell rotten meat,” but rather “My nose curls at the roast beef, green and splotchy, abandoned on the kitchen counter.”