Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Crises in the present tense and their averting

I've now reworked about a quarter of the novel which means, given that it's the quarter that needs most work (the first), that I've done the bulk of the heavy lifting, as it were. But yesterday I had a bit of a crisis about the restructuing. To understand the crisis, you need to know about tense.

The novel, in its previous form (I won't say original form as that beast died long ago after my first readers had read the first 100 pages) began with a prologue in the present tense. We then moved back in time six weeks or so to begin Part 1 of the book which explained how we'd got to the prologue. Part 1 was written in the past tense. At the end of Part 1 we'd caught up with the mood and timeframe of the prologue and Part 2 was written in the present tense.

Since I've now hacked away at those six weeks and made the prologue problematic if not redundant, I decided to abandon parts and to write the whole thing in the present tense. I know, given Philip Pullman's recent remarks, that this looks like a 'brave' decision but I'd always wanted at least the latter parts of the book to be in present tense as it allows for a final catastrophe in the life of the first person narrator more readily than past tense. I also felt (and I made this decision before reading, or hearing the furore about, Wolf Hall) that a historical novel written in the present tense would have a better chance of breaking the barrier between now and then, that the reader might get more readily involved, be more prepared to suspend their disbelief and enter into that world. And, given that the fourteenth century is so long ago as to constitute a really different country, that seemed important.

Anyway, by Monday night, I had got to the stage where I felt that writing it all in the present tense had been a mistake and that Mr Pullman was right when he said that it makes it impossible to show a wide temporal perspective. I began to long for the little asides in present tense which I'd allowed myself in the midst of the past tense narrative, the hints to the reader that things are only going to get worse; I mourned the loss of the moment when the reader finally caught up with the prologue and began racing, headlong to the end. I was, in short, having a crisis of confidence.

So, I printed out the first hundred pages – roughly the section of the novel I've reworked so far - and I began to read with a view to re-winding back into present tense.

But I'm not going to. Because present tense works. Right from the new opening, which has the flavour of the prologue but is now very firmly unknowing of what is to come, I think it works. And, because it works, I now see the tense-devices tricks I was playing with in the previous version as facile and a bit cheap. I went back and read some of the asides and found them artful (not in a good way) and nose-tapping. I've never really been convinced by obvious foreshadowing of the 'if only I'd known then what I know now' variety in other people's work, so why was I perpetrating a slightly more sophisticated version of the same thing in my own?

I like the new present-tense narrative. It's taughter. Interestingly, despite cutting the slides into present from past, it feels more emotionally keyed-up, not less. And it also makes flashbacks much easier to write. There's no convoluted use of the pluperfect in the seguays from main narrative past tense to flashback past tense; as we spring back into the main narrative with a sprightly 'now' it actually means 'now' and not 'in the main timeframe of this book which is set in the past and is actually, therefore, then'. And I'm finding that having the main character reflect on the past from the standpoint of a present to which he cannot possibly know the resolution gives his recollections a poignancy which they wouldn't have if he was already in the past, narratively speaking.

Gold stars to those who kept up with that.

So, crisis over. Others may not like it, specifically putative agent and subsequent editors, but at least I like it now. And that's a huge part of the battle for a decent novel, isn't it?

10 comments:

Frances Garrood said...

Alis - I had a similar problem with my WIP; using both present and past tenses. I thought it was good at the time, but on reflection (and taking advice from my sister, who reads everything I write) I decided to keep it simple and write the whole thing in the past tense. It's much better; simpler; sticking to one tense. Mixing up the tenses may work for some, but not for me. But I enjoy writing in the present tense, too, provided I stick to it. If it feels right for you, then it probably is.

And oh - the pluperfect! The moment in a flashback when you decide to drop the "had" and leave a simple perfect, because you've done enough hads to establish where you are, and any more would read very clumsily (and if you understand that, you too dserve godl stars!).

Alis said...

Yes.. count those 'hads'!!!
Gold stars all round, I think.

Aliya Whiteley said...

My WIP uses both present and past tense, and also first and third person, but it feels pretty right to me so I'm sticking with it. I love this description of how you realise when a change is right, Alis - when you read it back through and something about it satisfies you as a reader and writer. That's a great moment.

Alis said...

Thanks, Aliya. I'm really looking forward to reading whatever Sensitive Skin has morphed into!

C. N. Nevets said...

Sounds like you slogged through challenges and came out on the right side of it. Your liking it and being comfortable with it is the biggest part of the battle.

Alis said...

Hi Nevets - I think being comfortable with whatever you have to do to make the book work is essential if it's going to work, isn't it?

C. N. Nevets said...

Heading towards my first MS that I'll actually be querying, so it's the voice of inexperience, but I can't imagine how you could adequately pitch a book you didn't believe in, and you're not going to believe in it if you're not comfortable with it.

Alis said...

Sounds exciting, when's it going to be ready to go?

C. N. Nevets said...

Should be ready in December, which in some ways sounds like a long way off and in some ways sounds like tomorrow. lol We'll have to see.

Alis said...

Great! As I'm all too aware, December will be on us before we know it...