present imperfect

LOTS of people wrote and called to tell me how wrong I am about the present tense. Here’s my response to your responses:

1. I do not wish to eliminate the present tense.

2. Stories and novels written in the present tense can be stunningly beautiful and original.

3. It takes a lot of skill for someone’s present-tense prose not to sound like everyone else’s present-tense prose.

4. But of course it is completely possible.

5. Using the present tense because it is the best possible choice for your story is perfectly valid.

6. Using the present tense when there is a better choice for your story, simply because present-tense prose is your default mode, is a shame.

7. The ability to fully control and manipulate all available tenses is an essential element of craft.

8. The previous blog post, and this follow up, are directly almost entirely at myself and issues that I identify with my own writing.

9. That is what this blog is all about.

10. I reserve the right to change my mind about any of this, and everything else, too.

11. For those of you into the number 11,  I thought I’d better add an extra point. You’re welcome.

present complicated

Let’s skim over the fact that I haven’t posted anything here for yonks, and talk about present tense instead. I am so over my love affair with the present simple. I really wish everyone else would get over theirs, too.

I know why people like writing in present simple so much – it’s because it automatically gives you a ‘voice’, a style. Used in conjunction with short sentences and a few too many conjunctions, it creates the impression that you are actually writing. She looks up. The bird circles, its wings outstretched like grey sails. It soars and dips and lifts upwards and she thinks she can see her own reflection in its shining eyes and beak. Then it poos on her head. (Sorry. I am a child.)

The trouble with this is that it isn’t really writing. It’s a cheat. Sounds poetic and deep and meaningful, but in exactly the same way that everyone else’s present-tense prose sounds poetic and deep and meaningful. It’s a formula. And behind the formulaic prose is hidden, I sometimes suspect, an ignorance of how to write any other way.

It is surprisingly easy to write a short story in the present tense, but I am not sure it is often justified. I’ve written plenty of things that read more or less like the example above, and so has almost every other writer I know. Why? Because it’s so easy! Your writing seems all beautiful and metaphorical, and you never have to sit there and work out why you’re doing it. Why does this need to be told in the present tense? Why am I not using any of the other 11 tenses in the English language? (Or is it two tenses with various voices, moods, and aspects? No need to answer that, grammar police, as I don’t actually care.) And, an especially interesting question: why doesn’t it bother me that my prose reads almost identically to every other writer’s present-tense prose?

People claim that the present tense gives a sense of immediacy, but in fact it does exactly the opposite. It creates an atmosphere of distance, timelessness, fairytale-ness and ungrounded-ness (which are all completely real words, thank you very much.) In everyday life, we use the present simple to talk about things that are usually or always true, facts, things that stay the same for a long time. We might use it to accent a story, or even to tell a whole one, if we are particularly dull speakers, but more often we use it to give instructions, lectures, describe the workings of the internal combustion engine. If you want immediacy in your writing, the present simple will not do. It will bog you down and keep pulling you back to its same voice and everything you write will sound the same as everything else you write and everything else that other people write. It will inevitably fall upon the spectrum of mild to gross pretentiousness. And you will never learn how to control your storytelling using all the tools that are available in the language.

Of course there are stories which demand distance, timelessness etc. But not every story does. A writer has to make choices about tense, not just default to present simple without considering the needs of the story.

Yes, there are a few writers who can make any prose brilliant, and there are several stories written in present simple which I love unreservedly. So there’s no need to accuse me of being some kind of tense-fascist, even though I might be one. Of course there is a place for the present simple in all kinds of prose and poetry. In general, however, I am far more impressed with writers who deploy the full range of tenses, who can use four or five tenses in a paragraph, and who do it so skilfully that you don’t even notice, or you do notice and it makes you swoon. That is hard to do. That takes craft and application and a huge amount of failure. That is a level of mastery to which I aspire.

Feel free to tell me how much you disagree with me in the comments.