Thursday, October 13, 2005

On Tense

Miss Snark, whose blog is as entertaining and enlightening as it is vicious, recently posted a letter from an editor who lamented the fact that nearly every submission she receives these days is written in the first-person present tense. The post sparked a flurry of comments, many of which echoed the editor’s apparent disdain for the first-person present tense, while others worried that their first-person present writing was a waste of time, or possibly an indicator that they lacked talent or originality. My immediate reaction, having spent the last year working on a FPPT-narrated manuscript, was CRAP CRAP CRAP CRAP CRAP. Not because I feel I’ve made a horrible mistake in writing the novel that I’m writing and wasted a year of my time in the process, but because I believe that the voice that I chose is truly the right one for the story that I’m telling, and now I’m going to have to work all the harder to make it stand apart from the sea of bad FPPT submissions.

In his essay The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler says that “the good detective story and the bad detective story are about exactly the same things, and they are about them in very much the same way.” Similarly, all first-person present tense narratives sound very much the same, be they in the service of the story or merely a misguided attempt to glom on to a passing trend. The trick, I think, is to write well, and to be able to defend the choices you make in the service of doing so. I can only hope at the end of the day that I have written well, but defending my narrative choices is another matter. My story hinges upon both an understanding of the mental state of my narrator and the immediacy of the situations she finds herself in; for that reason, I believe first-person present tense is the best narrative voice to tell my story.

Of course, that may all be bluster, no more than panicked self-justification in the face of overwhelming odds against publication, but I don’t think so. I think that the debate about the propriety of FPPT is missing the point – it makes no more sense to say that FPPT is always a bad choice than it does to say that never in film should you resort to a jittery hand-held shot when a smooth dolly shot would do. Present tense is a tool. Use it when it’s called for. Don’t blame it when it’s not.

Think I’m wrong? That’s fine. Think I’m right? Even better. Either way, let me know.

UPDATE: It seems that Miss Snark herself has weighed in on the subject. Here's an excerpt:

Those commenters who've pointed out that tense must serve the story are saying exactly what Miss Snark thinks. Bright Lights Big City was a wonderful novel and telling it in second person was a stroke of genius. It doesn't have the flexibility of first or third, but when it's right, it's just right.

You can read the rest here. Though I suspect this debate is far from over, it's nice that someone with a rather large pulpit happens to agree with me. Oh, and the rest of you? Just plain wrong. (Hey, it is my website. Fair and balanced I'm not.)