"My son (13) has just started writing a book – he did NaNoWriMo in November as well, so now there is no stopping him! He has always read a lot of fantasy but recently he read ‘Wasted’ and loved it. He’s also just read Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now. As a result, his writing style has taken a swerve and he’s trying something altogether different with his new piece. He is writing in the first person and is having some conflict about what tense to write in, present or past; his first few pages have flipped between the two. His present tense section works really well – it’s vivid and he has a real voice going there - but from my experience, present tense can be hard to sustain, which may be why he’s unconsciously slipped. But you’ve done it! Is it something for more experienced writers or something that can be picked up on with careful editing?"Firstly, hats off to that boy! Interesting that both Wasted and Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now have inspired him to try something different. I'm a huge fan of Meg's writing and she and I have communicated quite a bit.
Anyway, back to the present tense. The problems that my correspondent raises are exactly the normal problems of present tense. Sometimes it feels like the right thing to start with, because it tends to feel vivid and fresh, but it is hard to sustain because it's not the natural story-telling tense. It's cinematic, allowing us to see what is happening but not allowing the usual variations of narrative tension. It can - and very often does - become irritating and grating because, in story-telling terms, it is purely a device, a trick.
Also, counter-intuitively, it doesn't always create immediacy. You'd think it would, but it can in fact make things seem more detached. This is why it works for Wasted, because the voice is detached, so the present tense is right for it. I first realised this point about detachment when, shortly after finishing Wasted, I launched into something else. I was so used to present tense by then that I did it again. I sent it to my agent who said, "I love it, but I think the present tense makes it rather detached instead of exciting and immediate." I was surprised but experimented by I switching it all back to the past and immediately found I could play with pacing and narrative in a way I couldn't with the present. She was right.
I think it is partly because the present tense feels floaty. It feels transient. "I'm walking along and I'm thinking to myself" - well, as soon as you've said it, it's no longer true. Whereas, if you write it in the past, it remains true.
So, my theory is that present tense works for something floaty and transient, something philosophical and ethereal. Which is why it works for Wasted.
Present tense can also be made to work with a genuinely special voice, a first person narrative through a character so real and true that we are happy to live the story, now, for real, in one person's head. That's why it works for How I Live Now, which is not at all floaty and ethereal. Also, How I Live Now is so raw and shocking that we absolutely need constant immediacy because we are living in the moment all the time. We are holding our breath all the time.
The present tense is less capable of showing different gradations of tense, whereas the past tense is a whole range of tenses, giving you much more expression. So you may have trouble expressing all the different aspects of the story. You will restrict yourself to immediate observation. That is right for Wasted, which is about immediate observation.
As I wrote this post, I remembered that Philip Pullman had spoken out against the use of the present tense so I thought I'd find the piece to show you. Here is the Telegraph piece where he was apparently vehemently against it - indeed, he is quoted as saying, "I just don’t read present-tense novels any more. It’s a silly affectation, in my view, and it does nothing but annoy." (Well, he won't like Wasted, then!) But here is his Guardian piece in which he clearly and sensibly explains the problems of the present tense and the times when it works beautifully. And I'm interested to see that he also makes the points that I've made above that it's cinematic and fails to allow all the different aspects of story.
Think about it: "story" is the past. So the present tense is something to be used only for very good reason. If it works, it works, and you can then use it with confidence. If you find it restrictive, or you keep slipping out of it, you'd be better not using it. Or, think about whether there's a case for mixing in some present tense passages, as Pullman mentions. (Though you must never do this without good reason - it must feel right.)
As to whether it's something for experienced writers only: no. It's for any writer writing a story where the present tense is right.
And here's an exercise for you: take a chapter you've written in the past and change it to the present. How does it affect it? Or, if you're writing in the present already, change a chapter to the past and see what happens.
Do you know some other books where present tense has worked well? Or badly? What do you think about it as a device? Have you used it? Have you tried it and then discarded it?