10.12.2005

Miss Snark Loves "You"

Miss Snark,

I am an editor and I have a question for all the novelists out there. Why is practically every novel I get on submission written in the first person present tense? Do novelists learn this in school? Do they think it's a novel way to write? If, for once, I can open my evening's reading and find a departure from this oh-so-tired way of thinking, I would immediately raise it to the top of my list of priorities.


You fall into your slush pile. You emerge, clutching an envelope in your sharpened fangs. You rip it open with fevered urgency. You discover a first person present tense narrative that makes you fear for the fate of civilization. Your howl of anguish is heard far and near.

Killer Yapp hears your cry and joins in. The cacophony rings over the city. The Philharmonic pauses, a moment of existential panic. Wynton Marsalis, rehearsing high above Lincoln Center cocks his head and listens, then returns to his horn.

Miss Snark hears your screams of pain, but ignores you. You hear her cackle of sneering sardonic laughter...and there, just beyond, what is that ..words? You listen hard... Is it , is it saying "bright lights big city bright lights big city"?

36 comments:

jason evans said...

I am reading the editors note, and I am agreeing. First person POV grates against my brain.

I lower my eyes, however, because I am guilty of making the same mistake. I am not going to do it ever again.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Miss Snark, I think you missed your calling, with writing like that, I want to read the rest. How does the story end....tell us more!!:-)

dink said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Breathe said...

So first person past tense works... right? I'm thinking Janet Evanovich, Scottoline...

Present tense is for essays. Poetry. Speeches. Heck, not even press releases are in present tense.

THRILL said...

This is SO depressing. I've got a draft ms that I'm re-writing. Yep, in first person, present tense. Waaaaiiil!

But there is one writer who I hope never ever writes in anything but first person present tense and that's Laura Caldwell.

Bernita said...

But, but, how can this be?
Were not many of the subs to Miss Snark's crapometer written in third?

Christine said...

I write in third - limited. But I write middle grade fantasy, which I think is pretty common for that genre. I enjoyed "Good in Bed" which was first person present, I think. I know it was first person, but it's early. Need coffee. Is it a genre thing? Is "chick lit" (which I know isn't it's own genre, but for the sake of argument...) mostly written this way? I can't see Stephen King or Tom Clancy writing in FP PT.

Mad Scientist Matt said...

Here's one theory: Many people tell stories in first person present tense when they are talking. For example, imagine a guy telling his friends about a baseball game: "Derek throws me a curveball. I take a swing and miss. Next pitch, he throws one right down the pipe..."

Perhaps these writers have adapted their spoken storytelling style to their writing. This often isn't a good mesh. I once critiqued a chapter that was otherwise well written but the author had a bad habbit of lapsing into lines like, "and then - BAM!"

Dave Kuzminski said...

Excuse me, but wasn't Miss Snark's reply in Second Person?

kitty said...

Uh-oh. Kitty's polishing her 300 words for the next crapometer and it's in first person present tense.

Demented M said...

So is this why when I talk to NY editors about how I write in first person, their eyes widen in horror?

I never understood their reaction, most of my fave authors write in first person (past tense) and that's the style I model.

Do that many subs come in first person present? Ack!

I guess this is when it would be handy to have an MFA because I would think it would buy you some street cred with an editor. Their eyes might widen, but at least bile wouldn't rise in their throat too.

M

Bunneh said...

There's only one thing worse than first-person present tense, Miss Snark, and you've achieved it: second-person present tense. After three years teaching Intro to Composition to college freshmen, second-person writing practically makes me break out in hives. ;)

I don't understand the love affair with first-person present, unless, like another commenter said, it follows how people talk.

As for me, I can't stand the stuff, and have sacrificed a great deal of red ink in my crusade against poorly-used POVs. (And is it just me, or does present tense prose sound like the narrative for a National Geographic documentary?)

Miss Snark said...

The Bunneh crouches in the veldt. Her brown hair blends with the grass. Ahead, a herd of wary writers circle nervously. They scent the dreaded red ink marker is near. They move away from the scent but hesitate.

The Bunneh sees their movement. It won't be enough to just dot an i or cross a t. No, Bunneh wants this raid to cleanse the herd of present tense. She must be fast and daring.

Ah! There she is! She leaps! She pounces! The herd begins to run but it's too late. In a blinding moment of pure grammatical grace, The Bunneh removes all present tense from the herd and returns to the veldt.

Elektra said...

Even Bronte couln't work it well. There's one scene in Jane Eyre, where she just suddenly changes tenses in the middle of a chapter, and I have to skip it every time

Joanna K. Moore said...

First person past tense is used a great deal in mystery novels. I prefer it as a reader. I can't think of a first person present tense novel I've read! I suppose I have led a sheltered life. :)

Hearthkeeper

Ric said...

WAs anyone present for Creative WRiting 101? It's almost universally accepted that First person is hard for a novice to pull off well. Or some seasoned writers as well.
Why further increase your chances of flunking the Crapometer?

Hide from The Bunneh!

Bonnie, Of the Multitude of Snarklings said...

I don't like first person present tense much, either, but when it's done well, it's great. My FPPT favorite is P.S. Wall. All of her columns were FPPT

Bonnie, Of the Multitude of Snarklings said...

Dang the Blogger commenting system!!! How dare it cut me off! I curse it! I spit upon it! Ptooi! Ptooi!

Bernita said...

~laughing~
Thank you, bonnie, for that stomping visual..

Feisty said...

Don't listen to the editor. It's just her/his personal preference and it's just one opinion. So what if some people hate first person present? Does it really matter?

I'll tell you what matters. Write what you want. In whatever tense you want. Have a real good time at it. Enjoy your writing. Relish those moments when you feel like God. Learn the craft. Write something worth reading. Say something worth saying.

The rest of it doesn't matter. Unless you're in this to get rich in which case you should stop now. Your chances are like one in ten million that that will happen.

Do whatever you want. And if you do it well, eventually someone will notice. And if they don't, well, write anyway. That way you can get even.

Feisty

al said...

First Person Present Tense works extremely well in Chick Lit. Now, before people start knocking Chit Lit and I have to throw something at my computer, I want to add the reason it works well is because with CL the main character does a lot of navel gazing and FP Present Tense fits the bill perfectly.
I think some POV's suit certain styles of novels, and not others. I would hate to read a novel by, say, Vikram Seth, in first person. I don't think he could pull it off. But with CL, FP Present Tense works well. That's my two cents for the day... ;-)

Saundra Mitchell said...

A lot of YA is written FPPT, too- Meg Rosoff's exquisite "How I Live Now" among them.

harridan said...

Funny enough, in the romance genre, third person is most often prefered. But it's not easy to hold POV. In fact it's one of the hardest things to learn.

So a lot of writers advocate newbies to practice by writing scenes in first person. Live in the body of the character. Then go back and change the work in to third.

Bizarre, huh? But often effective.

Chris said...

Do you suppose that Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, authors of the universally-gushed-about The Rule of Four suffered either artistically or commercially for having employed the first-person present tense?

It seems to me that this editor, frustrated and perplexed as he or she is, is not railing against FPPT so much as railing against indiscriminate use of FPPT. So for the panicked out there, take a breath. Remove your finger from the Delete key. Ask yourself why you chose to write in the voice that you did.

Is your writing any good? Does your narrative serve the story? Then relax. Even if one real, live editor doesn't like it, you'll still be fine. There's plenty they don't like. They don't all agree. They don't have to. Just write well, and let somebody else worry about the rest.

Rhonda Stapleton said...

Not everyone has to like FPPT, and that's fine. If the author feels it's appropriate to the story, then use it!

I actually write in this manner. My story is chick lit, and I feel it was the right decision for me. I did try third person past, and I didn't like it as much. It was less immediate and felt more formal, which wasn't the tone I was trying to go for.

Just my two cents,

Rhonda

someone paranoid said...

FPPT can sound disingenuous and overly self-important when used wrong, as well as annoyingly imperative, anything over 1000 words in present tense need be in the hands of a master.
-ed, -ing

Jeff said...

Wow, what a fascinating discussion here. I started writing my current novel in FPPT, but switched it to past tense, and for the better. This style is very good for keeping things focused on the immediate here and now, but is also very limiting. By switching from present to past tense, it felt like I had opened up a whole new room in my story.

Kristin said...

I like present tense for short stories, but for anything longer it starts getting on my nerves. I wrote my novel in third person limited, past tense; then switched it to first person. The change to first person definitely let me get inside the character's head more. I found that the story sounded too distant in third. But now that I've added in the appropriate depth of character, I might switch back to third AGAIN. *sigh* I'm having such a tough time with this darn novel. Maybe I should shove it under the bed and write another one.

Ray Rhamey, Flogging the Quill said...

Seems to me both pov and tense should be chosen to serve the story's needs. For example, in my current WIP I use a first-person narrator for the primary protagonist and third-person narrative for the other key points of view. Why? Because her voice spoke strongly to me and I wanted to listen to it. And I wanted clear separation between her and the other characters.

The narrative is in present tense, too, but for a technical reason. The first-person narrator will die at novel's end. Past tense wouldn't be possible for a first-person narrator in this case.

As for the editor's complaint, I'm with others who have posted here and cited strong narratives that use FPPT--there's nothing wrong with it if the storytelling is strong enough and the writing professional enough. Unfortunately, I suspect many, many beginners start with FPPT because it is a "natural" way to tell a story--but maybe the most difficult to pull off.

Bunneh said...

The elusive Snark [Literus Agentus Snarkus] peers down from her perch upon her unsuspecting prey, the author [Firstus Personus Presentensus]. This particular herd is heavily populated and must be culled. We can only watch in awe as the Snark sharpens her talons, preparing for attack.

Witness the grace with which the Snark swoops downward, and her deadly speed as she captures the squealing, wriggling prey.

And then, as quickly as she descended, she is gone. With a flap of her mighty wings, the Snark returns to her perch, the clicking of her talons a warning to all who wander unchecked into her territory.

THRILL said...

Hey, FPPT is confusing me even more...are we talking about First Person Present Tense, First Person Past Tense--both used above? Perhaps it's First Person Perfect Tense--for which I personally prefer First Person Aorist Tense.

Yeah, I'm anal, but I'm still confused by FPPT.

Feisty, you should be in politics. You said absolutely EVERYTHING I needed to hear to convince me to slog on.

Bernita said...

Well,after all that, I'm tense.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

You and me both, my head hurts!

Tribeless said...

I guess for the length of a novel first person present tense might grate, however, I think it can be quite appropriate for some short stories, at least. It does create a sense of involvement, and is good for building tension.

And I hope agents, etc, aren't imposing rules. Each work to its own, surely.

Tribeless said...

Actually, is the problem really the first person, or is it just the use of present tense. Are editors so biased against, say, third person present tense?

Anonymous said...

I just came across your comment while surfing, and I can't agree more. I can hear your anguish.

I'm sick of picking up a book that looks worth reading only to turn to the first page and find it's written in the present first person. I turn to the middle of the book, hoping it will have 'turned over' into a tense I can relax with, and what do I find: it's STILL in the same tense. So what do I do with the book? Reshelve it.

As a writer I have used present tense for effect only. I'm not at all bothered by first person, but this present thing keeps me on edge and annoyed.

All things pass. I hope this will too!