Saturday, January 1, 2011

Writing in First-Person, Present Tense: How TENDER IS THE KNGHT Breaks All the Writing Rules

By Jamaica Layne

Congratulations to commenter Maureen B. Johnson for winning Jamaica's book giveaway!

Do you remember all those “rules” your high school English teacher taught you? Like, “don’t start a sentence with because,” “don’t write in the second person/implied second person,” “avoid sentence fragments,” and most of all, “always use the past tense”? Chances are you heard more of the same once you were in college, and maybe even in advanced creative writing classes if you’re a writer yourself. Other common “don’ts” among creative writing teachers include “don’t head-hop” (i.e., switching between the points of views of difference characters) and “don’t tell your story out of chronological order.”

Why do these rules exist at all? And moreover, why do they exist when many well-known authors break these rules all the time? (Nora Roberts frequently “head hops,” Stephen King is fond of sentence fragments, and the great master William Faulkner frequently wrote stories where the events unfolded out of chronological order. ) And we can never forget Jay McInerney’s runaway 1980s bestseller Bright Lights, Big City, possibly the only fictional work ever successfully written in the second person.

The reason these writing “rules” exist is because the vast majority of writers, whether they are green students or even well-published professional authors, simply lack the necessary skill or talent to get away with breaking them. Most writers who attempt to pepper their prose with sentence fragments or odd point-of-view choices simply will end up writing badly. Remember the old adage, “you’ve gotta know what the rules are before you break them?” In other words, you need to master the overall craft of writing the “normal” way before you even attempt to do something that’s not normal.

Case in point: my current Decadent release TENDER IS THE KNIGHT is written in the first person, present tense. Every writing teacher I ever had (as well as several editors) have all shouted DON’T WRITE IN THE PRESENT TENSE from the rooftops. Writing good fiction in third-person present tense is difficult (and unusual) enough, but first-person present tense? Virtually unthinkable. Writing convincingly in the first person is already a challenge (you and your writing essentially have to take on the personality of your main character, not an easy thing to do), so why muck it up even more by making it present tense?

And yet, when I was working on early drafts of TENDER IS THE KNIGHT (which I originally wrote in the past tense) I kept getting the nagging feeling that the present tense was the right choice for this particular story. The main character, Lisa Smith, is immersing herself in a completely new world (the Society for Creative Anachronism, a historical reenactment group) that involves virtual time travel, political intrigue, and a whole new set of social rules. The early drafts in the past tense just didn’t seem to work. Then, one day I was plugging along in the manuscript, and unconsciously switched from writing in the past tense to the present. I was a couple pages in before I noticed what I’d done, but once I figured out what happened, I went back and read what I’d written that way---and found that I’d finally found a way to make my story work!

By switching to the present tense, I was able to have the reader experience exactly what Lisa was experiencing in real time. The story suddenly had a lot more impact. I immediately went back through the rest of the draft and rewrote it in the present tense, and found that the novel was the better for it.

Granted, it wasn’t at all easy to do. I really had to re-align the way I approached the whole book. I had to constantly check and re-check my writing to make sure that the plot I crafted made sense in the present. I also had to alter how my characters reacted to things. Instead of reflecting back on something that happened in the past, they were reacting to everything in real time. It added an increased level of urgency to everything.

Luckily for me, I’d already written several successful novels and had a publication resume out the wazoo before even attempting to write this way. I have a feeling if I’d done it with my first manuscript, I’d have failed miserably.

I myself had read books written in first-person, present tense before (examples include John Updike’s Rabbit, Run and Audrey Niffenberger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife), so I knew it wasn’t an impossible feat. But I knew it was very, very hard to do, and I also knew that to do so might interfere with my ability to get the book published. (My own literary agent even says never to do it unless you REALLY know what you’re doing.) And never having done it before, I wasn’t entirely sure I knew what I was doing. Nevertheless, I sent the novel to my agent for her feedback.

To my pleasant surprise, my agent told me that TENDER IS THE KNIGHT was the only first-person/present tense manuscript she’d ever read that actually worked. She shipped it off to publishers almost that same day, and I had a publishing contract offer within a week. (My editor at Decadent also said it was one of the only times she’d ever read a manuscript written in first person present tense that worked. High praise from a seasoned editor!)

So, here’s the takeaway. It’s okay to break the rules. Just make sure you know what you’re doing first.

Jamaica is giving away a copy of Tender Is the Knight to one lucky commenter. Leave a comment for a chance to win!


Maureen said...

I have to admit, I love breaking rules. I was breaking rules before I realized there were rules. And I'm one of those poor unfortunates who really don't 'get' rules until I've broken then thoroughly. And if by chance, I break them and make it work? Then I'm in real trouble because I can't see why the rule was there in the first place.

And I have an AA in Language and Literature! All out the window when I started writing fiction... Kudos to you for knowing the rules and how to make breaking them work for you...on purpose!

Paula said...

Does anyone narrate in the present tense, even in their own head? You either think about what you have done or what you will do, but while you are doing it, you don't think about it in the present tense. You can observe someone else's actions in the present tense, but it is highly unusual to observer your own action, play-by-play, unless you are relaying it back to someone, who is going to give you directions for you next move.

I'm glad it works in your novel, but it seems artificial in concept not having read it.

Samantha Gail said...

Hi Jamaica,

Great article! Your agent Saritza is a neat lady. I'm looking forward to meeting her in first-person at RT.

Happy New Year!

Valerie Mann said...

I recall, not so long ago, when most publishers wouldn't even look at first person PAST tense. While I'm still not a huge fan of reading FP present tense (and it can be a real bear to edit, BTW), I think the very fact you and other authors are writing books in this tense is testament to epublishing forging new ground. So many print publishers aren't willing to take the financial risk to try new things. Good luck and I hope you win more converts!

Kate Richards said...

I was a nervous wreck editing this btw. I kept expecting to find issues that I never did. I know of more than one publisher that will reject any manuscript subbed in this tense just for that reason. Decadent is looking for GOOD in any tense, and in the end it was a fun edit with an author who was a joy to work with.

Wendy Burke said...

If we all followed ALL the rules, we would have never gone to the moon, Steinbeck would have been considered and idiot, and the internet would never have been invented.

Here's to taking the road less travelled! (yes, DOUBLE 'L'...also not true to 'style guides' anymore!)


Wendy Burke said...

Oh, and don't be lonely, Jamaica...I think most the world is moving slowly today and/or watching football....I'm doing both!


Anonymous said...

My high school english teacher would not believe I write at all. I sucked horribly back then.

As for first person present, I think in first person past tense and then changed it to third person on paper. I'm going to write a book that's first person soon because it flows so much easier for me.

Redameter said...

You gotta go with whtw fits your story really. If it works and works well, then do it. If it doesn't then back off and take a second look.

Rules were meant to be broken and how boring if we all wrote the same way with the same attitudes.

AimeeKay said...

It always annoyed me when my english teacher would punish me for not following the rules. (for example taking poetic lisence and spelling nite instead of night in a poem) So I always like it when someone goes against the grain and comes out on top anyway. :) Can't wait to read the book!

Becca Dale said...

Breaking the rules is fun but I am glad you added that you need to understand the rules before you break them. I am so old school on this issue, but I agree that it can work with the right story and the right voice. Sounds like things fell together for you on that part, Jamica. Congrats.

Robert C Roman said...

I'm right there with you with being thrilled to find a publisher more concerned with 'good, well written story' than 'follows the rules'.

I agree in a way with Becca; every story needs to be told the way it needs to be told, and for some stories that means first person, for some stories it means present tense. Tell it the wrong way, and it Just Doesn't Work. Tell it the right way, and no matter what way that is, It Works.

As Edison said, "Rules don't matter - we're trying to accomplish something here."

Kathleen said...

I love first person, but I'm not sure if I ever read it in present tense. Although, I would love to. I think it's great how you went with your instinct and rewrote Tender Is The Knight the way it felt right. It's best to stay true to yourself. Thanks for sharing this with us. Congrats!

Happy New Year,