Friday, November 2, 2012

Comfort Tense

I'm editing the first, messy draft of my new YA contemporary set in Hong Kong.

So far it's fun, but I have a confession to make.

I can't write in first person past tense.

I've tried with several books, but then I get a few chapters in and have to switch back because I'm too confused to go on.

This is my question:

Do people who write in first person past tense choose a time period from which their main character is viewing the events of the story?

I'm asking because when I get to the necessary telling bits of the story, I always screw up.

In present tense it's easy. For example:

Gerald has a track record of stealing my best friends. Anyone who hangs around me realizes she has an excellent shot at getting a boyfriend thrown into the bargain. I eye Gerald, trying to see him like a non-sister-person might. He’s painfully awkward and a video-games nerd, but I can see girls thinking that’s loveable. And he’s cute, of course, which doesn’t hurt his prospects. 

When I try to put this type of paragraph into past tense, I get confused. If my MC is telling the story from some point in the future, all this stuff might still be true about Gerald, so shouldn't it still be in present? Plus, I feel like it sounds odd in past tense, as if Gerald is now dead (at the time of the story's telling).... For example:

Gerald had a track record of stealing my best friends. Anyone who hung around me realized she had an excellent shot at getting a boyfriend thrown into the bargain. I eyed Gerald, trying to see him like a non-sister-person might. He was painfully awkward and a video-games nerd, but I could see girls thinking that was loveable. And he was cute, of course, which didn't hurt his prospects.

See what I mean? Or am I crazy? Is that how it's supposed to be or is some sort of hybrid paragraph the right way to go? For example:

Gerald has a track record of stealing my best friends. Anyone who hangs around me realizes she has an excellent shot at getting a boyfriend thrown into the bargain. I eyed Gerald, trying to see him like a non-sister-person might. He was painfully awkward and a video-games nerd, but I could see girls thinking that was loveable. And he was cute, of course, which didn't hurt his prospects.

Any advice from past tense ninjas out there? (MELISSA!) Have I successfully confused anyone else?

I'm reading this book right  now, which happens to be in first person past tense and I'm trying to study it to see how a master like Maureen Johnson pulls it off. Maybe some day I'll get brave enough to switch out of my comfort tense.


Do you have a favorite tense?

14 comments:

  1. I have written both. I think it depends on the premise. I write time-travel and that is better in present tense because it is more reactive. For anything else I would suggest past.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Warning, warning. Long comment! :)

    Hong Kong. Cool!

    I write most naturally in past tense. Present tense is harder for me. So I'm the opposite of you.

    Paragraph two feels completely normal to me. (One does too by the way.)

    I think it throws you because your use of 'had' in present tense tosses you back into a flashback. So you're use to seeing 'had' as a change in tense/time.

    Now I hope I'm not wrong about grammer rules here, but this is how I see it.

    When you move everything into past tense, you're viewing your 'had' as throwing you into a flashback, but that's not the case because 'to have' is your main verb.

    If you meant G. had a track record, but doesn't anymore, you could write. "G had had a track record."

    But we don't do that cause it looks weird. Therefore to get your point across you would probably say, G. used to have a track record... That would show me that G no longer does this.

    But in your story, that's not the idea you're trying to get across. You're meaning that G currently has that track record. (Right?)

    When I read your paragraph two in past tense, I understand that G still has the track record.

    When I write in past tense, when I need to throw something into a flashback, I'll use 'had + a verb' the first time. But I don't keep using had. That's why transitions for flashbacks are important in past tense writing. You have to make it stand out. In present, it's much easier.

    So paragraph two is correct also.

    Paragraph three is wrong. Don't mix the two.

    Did any of that make sense?

    ReplyDelete
  3. I've been writing in first person present tense for so long now, I'm not sure if I could go back to past tense, especially since I wasn't super strong at it to begin with.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Paragraphs 1 and 2 seems fine to me. I write mostly in present tense (I'm completely rewriting this book agh!) it was originally totally in past tense with some present tense scenes. It's hard stuff to go from one tense to another but I am getting used to it. I can't wait to hear more about your Hong Kong book - I remember the summary ish you shared with us a while ago, sounded great :-)

    ReplyDelete
  5. If you write in past tense, things that are still true ought to be in present tense.

    Happy revising. I'm in the same boat as you, and sometimes my head hurts.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Um, just do what feels right to you. If you're more comfortable in first person present, do that. If you have to try to "learn" now to write a certain way, that's not your natural style. Listen to your inner voice.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Well, hmm, now I'm completely confused because what you say makes perfect sense...and yet... I see first person past tense as saying, 'here's how it went down.' Whether it happened yesterday or 30 years ago. The 'now' doesn't matter. So if Gerald still has a track record of stealing best friends...doesn't matter in past tense...completely irrelevant, nothing to do with 'how it went down.' Paragraph two reads natural. I think you'll be okay : )

    ReplyDelete
  8. It doesn't matter if Gerald has a present track record - if you're writing in past, you gotta stay consistent. So pgh 1 and 2 are correct, as everyone has stated.
    Hybrid = editors tearing their hair.
    While I partially agree w/ "write what comes naturally" I'm also a fan of stretching yourself. Why not try third person POV past tense? Or some other way? We don't get better w/o practicing these technicalities. Also SO MUCH YA fic is in first person present that agents probably take notice when something fresh comes along.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Ah, the joys of revison. I prefer third person...I think. I read a lot of 1st person and I even wrote one once. But it's not a place where I'm comfortable. 1st peron past tense boggles my mind.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Your question is RIGHT ON. If the narrator is telling the story a month later, the story events proper will be past tense, while many facts of the MC's life will be present: She still lives at home, still has the same room, school, BFF, and so forth. On the other hand, if she's telling the story years later, or after a totally life-changing experience, probably everything is past tense.

    ReplyDelete
  11. The 1st person past tense you're thinking of is about the same as present tense, just written in past tense. Keep in mind the character is NOT telling the story to anyone. The reader is simply riding along inside the character's head.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I write in exclusively third-person omniscient, sometimes in present tense, but mostly in past tense. I deliberately chose present tense for two of my family sagas, and WAY before present tense became such a trend. Using past for everything else feels so natural. There are times when it's grammatically correct and possible to use past tense in a present tense story, like catching the reader up on something that happened prior to the start of a chapter or scene, or if a character is looking back on something from the past. The popularity of first-person present totally boggles my mind, since it seems like such a strange way to narrate a story. I honestly stop reading when I see first-person present, except for very rare exceptions where I feel it truly fits the type of story being told.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Yes, Amy, I have to know WHEN I'm writing from, when I write in first person.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I don't really have an answer for you, I just wanted to empathize. I also write much more readily in the 1st person present tense. It's my comfort tense too :)

    ReplyDelete