Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday Fricassee

Why, hello, unseasonably chilly Friday in May!  No, I'm not going to let you affect my mood, thank you.

(Seriously.  It's way spring now.  Right?)

So I want to talk about first person present.

While this tense has existed as long as the English language, it's a relatively new "thing" in literature.  I first encountered it in Hunger Games, and it was a bit of an oh-well-huh-how-about-that moment for me.  I've spent most of my reading life in third person past, to the point where I didn't even want to read anything in first person (past).  Somehow, it didn't feel like it was as much of a story to me.  Or something.

Now?  I adore Hunger Games, and I adore other things that are written in first person present, too (like Rae Carson's Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy, which I adore to the moon and back).  And, lo and behold, I've written some novels in first person present.  In fact, I recently converted a novel from third past to first present.  And I like the added edginess.


I've been hearing (from industry folks who know) that first person present is not dearly beloved by all--and that, in fact, some editors will be completely turned off if they crack open a manuscript written in this tense.

Imagine that.

So here I am, in the midst of the WIP-from-hell--and it's written in (you guessed it) first person present.  I didn't sit down and say, "Okay, Authoress*, I think it would be a smart marketing move to write this next story in first person present." Honestly--and I'm sure this is true for many of you as well--I simply begin writing in whatever person and tense feels right in the moment.  It just...happens.

Of course, it wouldn't have happened had I never encountered it before.  Because there's something a bit less than natural about it.  When we think of a grizzled storyteller sitting by the hearth on a winter's night, we don't imagine him beginning, "The cottage sits in a quiet thicket, and I peer out the window as the sun rises..."   What we really expect to hear is, "A long time ago, in a quiet thicket, a cottage sat hidden from view..."


And apparently, some editors out there feel the same way.

Personally, I don't get all attached to a tense.  Once the WIP-from-hell is actually a finished draft (BULLETIN! I THINK I'VE GOT ABOUT FIVE CHAPTERS TO GO!), I'm probably going to convert it to either first or third person past.

Yeah, that'll be fun.

Anyway, I don't feel strongly one way or the other--I'm simply responding to rumblings I'm hearing from the powers-that-be.  Ultimately, if someone loves my story and wants it in a different tense, I'm totally okay with that.  I won't even bat a clichéd eyelash.

What are your thoughts on this?  Do you enjoy reading in first person present?  Have you written anything in it?  I'd love to know how others feel about this tense thing.

Which brings me to my Very Bad Joke, but I have to say it anyway:

Past, Present, and Future walked into a bar.  It was tense.


*Okay, I don't actually call myself that.  Because, well, it's not my name.


  1. I encountered a few agents, who did not appreciate my present, first person POV, in my first novel. And they told me. I enjoy writing in all POVs, whichever seems to fit the story like you said. I often wonder if I should pull that MS from a drawer, and rewrite it into a completely different POV, like maybe third? Good luck with your rewrite.

  2. I have to admit, I'm not a big fan of present tense, first person or otherwise. I think maybe it stems from my hatred of those old "choose your own adventure" books, back in the day, that were second person present. So far I've only written in past tense, first or third person.

    Looking forward to the day when we can find out what you do call yourself :P

    Good luck with the last five chapters!

  3. The MS I will be querying soon jumps between present & past (both first person), but every MS I've written seems to be different, depending on the character/story.

    I like the immediacy of 1st present -> because your character is living only in the moment (which suits the MS, as the MC is basically in shock and can't think very well), but I also like other tenses as well. They each give a different flavour/atmosphere.

  4. It depends on the story. Different stories demand to be told in different tenses, and if the tense is wrong for that story, the whole tone feels wrong.

  5. I'm not a fan of first person present either. I've learned to grudgingly read it, but only if the story really interests me. More often than not, I will choose not to read a novel if it's in this tense.

    I wish we'd return to more third person past. I really like first person past for mysteries/thrillers (or certain types of novels like Jane Eyre), but not so much in SF/F. I also wish we'd have more third person past in YA (like Laini Taylor, Marissa Meyer). I just think past reads more natural, but that's the beauty of subjectivity.

  6. Not a huge fan of FPP, and I can handle reading it, but it makes me crazy when TV shows interview people who are related what happened in the past and they use FPP - Project Runway is the worst - they must insist that the interviews are done that way because every contestant does it every time. It sets my teeth on edge, or as they would say, "It is setting my teeth on edge."

  7. The manuscript that got me an agent was rewritten from first person past tense into present tense. Ultimately, the book didn't sell but I don't think it had to do with that?? Maybe some people do hate that tense! I don't really have a preference, but it is interesting how changing the tense really changes the writing.
    Currently, my first novel coming out this summer (YA survival story) is written in first person past tense, but the second book I'm working on (same genre) I'm writing in present tense. Since it's a survival story, I think present tense gives it that moment to moment intensity that fits that type of book, and it felt very natural for me to write it that way. It also helps me cut down on all the rambling I usually do!

  8. Honestly, I like 3rd past, 1st past, and 1st present. If it's a good book, the unique choice of POV and tense will work with and enhance the voice to make a unique reading experience. In other words, a book can be any of them. :)

  9. I'm doing book formatting for a publisher, and a LOT of these books are coming out in first person present. I think it's quite common now since "Hunger Games." Or maybe it's just something this particular publisher likes.

    I write in past tense myself, but I'm from an older era I suppose.

  10. First person present used to bug me, but I read so much YA that I'm used to it. However, I will say, the authors who use it best, I don't even realize the tense until several pages in, because it's done seamlessly. I've read enough contest entries now to say it takes skill and can come off poorly if there are too many I + verb sentences that end up sounding like stage direction in a play.

    The MS I'm working on is in this tense, and I tried NOT writing it that way. I actively tried against it, and the story didn't sound right. The first scene is a bit dramatic and introspective, and the present tense gave it the right vibe. I had my critique group read it both ways and they agreed.

  11. I've actually always had tense problems. So I was relieved to see something written in present tense. I've even written in 3rd present, and I've only had one person tell me it was weird for them when they read it. I've had other people say it was weird in general, but just the one who has actually read my work.

    I don't care what it is when I'm reading. But I'm only thinking of switching to past tense for my current project because I'm slipping into past, kind of the way I use to always slip into present. Since it's still early, I'm going to play around with it over the weekend and make a decision. It'll be easier to change it now. But I would never change it to fit the industry. It's my story. If they don't want it, then they don't like the story enough. That's how I feel. But it's irritating because it seems like everything I'm good at and like to do isn't "popular." But so is life.

  12. I love first person present (both writing and reading) and have never, for the life of me, been able to understand those who are strongly opposed to it or dislike it. Bottom line, though, I don't give a bleep what tense or POV something is written in if it's written well and captures my interest.
    Like Stephsco said, above, if something is written well (seamlessly) the reader doesn't even think about the tense or POV; they're just caught up in the story.

  13. I used to hate first person present and would never read anything in it because it annoyed me so much. So I tried writing it and I loved it. And now I find it's the way I naturally write and I have to really think about it if I want to write first person past.

    When reading, half the time I don't even notice the tense a book is written in now. If it's a good book, it's a good book.

  14. I loved Hunger Games and didn't mind the first person present, though, like you, I was never a fan of any first person before that. In the hands of good story-teller, tense most becomes mostly invisible.

    I've walked away from a WIP I was writing in first person present for now. It's also dystopian, and, at the moment, I think my time's better spent on something that's more marketable. I hope to go back to it later. I switched my current WIP to first person past, because it felt right. Each story has to find it's own way.

  15. I don't think the tense really matters as long as the story grabs the reader. Having said, my finished novel is in present tense and I have received feedback from multiple agents saying that present tense is not helping me at all.

    After that feedback, I tried changing my MS to past tense, but the story sounded so contrived, I stopped after the first scene. I'm going with my gut on this one. We'll see what happens.

  16. Sorry, I inadvertently responded to your email. Here is my comment:

    The first time I read first person, present, I didn't like it at all and put the book down. Then I read a first person, past, which wasn't my cup of tea either (way too much use of I, me, was, that, were, had been, and numerous other "telling" words and phrases which pulled me out of MC's head constantly).

    In my opinion, it takes a very clever writer to pull off first person, present or past.

    My preference is third person, past. To me, he, she, him, and her have an easier flow/feel than I/me. I don't stumble over repetitive he/she as much as I do I/me, although, even in third past, overuse of telling words gets me every time.

    That said, your story should be told the way you feel it, the way that's right for you. Opinions are very suggestive. I think it's great that you're willing to switch tones to suit the market. I too would be willing to give it a try, as long as the requester is prepared to suffer through my learning curve. :)

    Good luck with your story-from-hell.

  17. As I've mentioned a number of times in critiques here, I really don't care for present tense. One reason is simply that I've seen too many people attempt it and end up making tense errors because they're unable to maintain it consistently.

    But even when it's done correctly by someone with the skill to pull it off, I still feel that it isn't right for most stories because, just as you mentioned, it isn't really the natural way to tell a story. And that's not only because of the traditions of grizzled old storytellers and the 'Once upon a time' format, but also because when you sit down to tell a friend about something interesting that happened to you yesterday, you certainly don't relate it in present tense!

    It used to be that present tense was rarely seen outside of the occasional piece of experimental short fiction, and -- with a few exceptions -- I think that's usually the best place for it. So I rather hope it's a fad that doesn't continue, but considering how popular it's recently become in YA fiction, who knows?

    Regarding the separate issue of POV, I do think it's interesting that when I first dipped my toes in the querying waters when I was in college, the novel I was submitting was in first person (past tense, of course!). Actually, my first three novels, all written in my teens, were in first person, and I've read that it's common for young writers to feel most comfortable with that POV.

    But at that time I had several agents and editors tell me they wouldn't work with first person. And obviously that particular prejudice has pretty much gone away as most agents seem equally fine with first or third.

    BTW, I have to tell you that I got a chuckle out of the references to your 'WIP-from-hell'. The novel I worked on for many years and put through countless drafts earned the designation of 'NFH', and now I'm struggling so much with my current WIP that I'm considering calling it the 'NFH 2' . . . ! ;)

  18. I couldn't get my latest book to work in first person, but I didn't realize that was the problem until I woke up one morning with a third person past first paragraph in my head. I then re-wrote the whole thing and the story came alive, and also went in a different direction because of the shift. So I don't think POV is interchangeable. It's an intricate part of the story.

    My first novel is first person and I had tried writing that one in third, but it also didn't work. Some stories require distance, some immediacy, it all depends on the story and POV is part of that decision making process.

  19. I have a friend who went on sub with two manuscripts: one in third past, the other in first present. One house (which shall remain nameless :)) rejected the first MS because it was in third past. They are interested in the other MS because it's in first present (among other things). So I think it's really hit-and-miss with editors and their interests. And for all we know, they may have just gotten a whole sludge of submissions in first present, and they can't stand to look at another. I know, after a while, I feel the same and need to revert back to reading books in third past.

    Plus, I think it also depends on the genre. I want my fantasy (in all its forms) in third past. (Although, like you, I ADORE Girl of Fire and Thorns.) In my contemporary, I'm much more flexible, but I prefer first past. In sci-fi, I like first present. I have no idea why I like things this way, but I do. =P

  20. Personally? I really dislike first person/present. It comes off as unnatural and very gimmicky to me. I can tolerate reading first person/past. But I can't really settle into a book and "forget" about the mechanics of the writing unless its in third/past. I have tried, but I become too aware of the writing. I won't read another first person/present, but hey, its my money and I can buy what I want. :)

  21. Editors are going to CRY at my book,'s got two MCs and they alternate chapters. But here's the kicker: MC1 is in first person present and MC2 is in first person past. That's what works best for the story because you NEED to be in MC1s head to understand him and his side.

    This is going to be a hang up, isn't?

  22. I wonder? If you don't notice the POV it works. Whatever it is. If it doesn't "in ya face" then it's a living novel.

    Zara Penney

  23. Holy laugh out loud, that joke did make me laugh. Can I steal it?
    I was wondering if the rumors you're referring to relate to a specific genre. YA seems to be filled with first person present tense books that are doing really well...

  24. Nice joke! And, with my mind, I will promptly forget it dang it. I really need to start a 'Toastmaster's File'.

    Ultimately, it's about voice. My Chaos Theory, out by The Poisoned Pencil, is in first present. An SCBWI mentor suggested it. Talk about 'popping'! It raised the work to a new level. For that character, it was the only option.

    Here's what I'm interested in finding out. Our youth crave it. Look at the list of FPP books out there right now. And why you are at it, look at the number of books that do not define a physical description for the main character. Surely this is a result of a video game driven world where the young reader wants to BE that character, where they want the on-the-edge-of-their-seat suspense that only FPP can deliver for them.

    Now here is the real interesting fact? If an editor/agent doesn't want FPP, then why don't they list that in their submission guidelines? Because they know it sells if the voice is unique, strong, compelling, etc. And, I would suspect, that a preference for never reading a FPP? Perhaps a sign of an older traditionalist not willing to experiment?

    On the other hand, there is no hiding in FPP. The voice will pop in the first paragraph or it will die, die, die... Still, blaming a youth driven desire for FPP? That's silly.

    Write on, Dear Authoress!