Friday, 13 January 2012

A Gift of a Tense

*ba-dum tish*

So, I've probably left that post about penises up long enough (far too long, honestly, though that may be the first time anyone's said that in a sentence involving penises... >.>)

I saw this post by Ava Jae and found myself thinking about why I use present tense so much. Despite the fact that pretty much all the novels I've ever read (with only one notable exception that I can remember) have been past tense, I use present often and it comes to me rather more easily than past.

Ava's post is a great guide to the merits of the present tense, and really accessible. This being a me blog post, it's going to be a bit more abstract and weird, but bear with me. I'm going to talk about two different ways of thinking, why present tense helps with presenting (ha-hah!) one of them, and hopefully also a bit about why it's important to present that type of thinking in your characters.

So, first off, two types of thinking. I'm not drawing on any established body of psychological or philosophical work here, just a categorisation I've noticed and found useful. I'm going to call the two types 'reactions' and 'reflections' (alliteration is awesome!). 'Reactions' are the thoughts, emotions and so on that you get in knee-jerk fashion during and immediately after some event or other. 'Reflections' are the thoughts you have later about your reactions.

To give an example from my own life, let's talk about my embarrassing emotional fragility when it comes to receiving feedback on my writing. Let's say you've just sent me an email listing a bunch of problems with my latest masterpiece (unlikely, I know...). Shameful as it is to admit, my first response will probably be to shout at the screen about how you haven't paid enough attention, I definitely put that in there, no, that's just part of my writing style, clearly you're just the wrong beta for me and this whole thing was a mistake.

That's a reaction (arguably, several). I have learned not to act on my reactions when it comes to feedback. Even when the feedback is very positive, my reactions tend to be a bad guide to what to do. Usually after getting feedback, I will go and play piano for a bit (my number 1 'calm down and happy up' activity), get on with the day for a while, and then come back and re-read. Often, I'll send an email back asking for clarification on some of the points. In said email, I may well mention my reactions to specific points, not to say that you've got x wrong, but to highlight areas where your response to the manuscript doesn't match my intent. The way I describe my reactions to you in that email? That's a reflection. Technically, the reflection is the thought I have that I then write down in the email, but close enough.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. Write in past tense, particularly in first person, and you create the feeling that you're mostly dealing with reflections - measured, mature responses to the events, the thoughts and insights of a character who's had some time to get their head around what's happened. This is NOT A PROBLEM.

But write in present tense, and you get the feeling that you're dealing with a character's reactions. You get a less clear picture of what's going on, but much more visceral emotion.

There are times when getting a character's reactions is more important than getting their reflections. There are also times when getting both, and seeing how some rationalisation or self-delusion has led the character to misrepresent their actions, is key to a plot or story.

As an example of the former situation, 'Bad Romance' (my deeply weird, still unpublished first novel) is about a not-terribly-reflective lad, Joe, who gets into a bunch of deep but quite analytical philosophical debates in which he has a secret personal stake. Writing it in present tense (which I did out of instinct, but in this case the instinct proved a good one) meant that I could really get to grips with Joe's reactions, which allowed me to show him becoming more reflective as the story went on in a way that only having his reflections right from the start wouldn't.

I mentioned above a particular book which is the only present tense book to make a serious impression on me. I'm afraid I can't remember very much about it, except that the plot was about a boy whose mother disappears, into some sort of environmentalist protest group, and the boy spends a week trying to find her. The thing that really impressed me (and I can't have been more than about 10 when I read this) was that the main body of the story, written past tense, is tied up in a present-tense frame narrative as the boy makes a record of everything he did during his investigation, then says what he's going to do to find his mother. I can't remember whether he finds her or not, but I remember even back then being stunned by the simplicity and effectiveness of the technique.

Naturally, I stole it, in this case for 'The Non-Agency' (finally back with beta readers as of Wednesday). In 'The Non-Agency', the present-tense frame story is the main character's trial for all the crimes he's gotten up to, and the main narrative is his own testimony about what's happened. You can see why the reaction/reflection divide - and the accompanying present/past switching - is of use here, as Tom tries to put the best face on what he's done, while fighting the pressure of the courtroom.

By the by, I'm looking for a beta reader who hasn't read any part of 'The Non-Agency' before, just to check that it holds together to a completely new reader. If the preceding brief summary has interested you, please get in touch! ;) Also, if anyone can identify the mystery present-tense book, I'd really appreciate it.

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