Earlier today, I was a tense person.
It's Spring Break for a lot of the schools around here, which can only mean two things. First, it means that two of my three jobs aren't happening this week, so I have to pick up extra hours at the drop-in child care center. Second, it means that kids can't go to school, so their parents bring them to the drop-in child care center.
Thirty-five children at the drop in center equals mass chaos, and I was in the midst of it all.
That actually sounds like a good opening for a horror novel. It's a true story, by the way, but I don't really want to write a blog about how tense of a person I am. If you want to read about that hot mess, then go read my Socially Awkward Adventures < / shameless self-promotion >. Instead, I want to discuss person and tense as they relate to my writing and characterization.
I used to never think outside the box in my writing. My first novel was written in third person, past tense. That's just the standard I figured I had to follow, and really, I hadn't given much thought at all to writing any other way. My second novel? Again. Third person, past tense.
I probably would have never branched out if I hadn't read a book in May of last year. House Like a Lotus by Madeleine L'Engle (I promise every blog post will not mention her, but since she's one of my favorite writers, her name will make lots of appearances--fair warning). I really enjoyed this book, though it's got some themes in it that might make some readers uncomfortable (not for the young kids). It was written in first person.
I was just finishing writing my second book when one of the characters in my story blatantly informed me that she wanted me to tell her story, too. Does that make me a crazy person? Probably. But since this character was haunting me and I had just read Madeleine L'Engle's beautifully written story in first person, it made sense for me to try writing my character's story in first person. So I did. She pretty much possessed me, and I ended up finishing a rough draft in less than two weeks. And it might be one of the best things I've ever written.
Now, I'm having a similar experience. Presently (pun intended), I've just read a couple of remarkable books written in first person, present tense (The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins--I plan to read Mockingjay after rereading Catching Fire). I've had a story lingering in the back of my mind for about a year now, and somehow it's all seeming to click. I have the idea to experiment with first person, present tense. Now isn't the best time for a new writing endeavor. I mean, I have another writing project going on. I'm trying to get things ready for query letters for my first book (again). I've got editing and such. I've got to go to work. But now I'm obsessed with this idea of present tense, and all of the sudden--POOF! Another writing project to worry about!
I say all that about my own projects because I really feel that I'm growing as a writer by stretching out into different styles, but I find that I can't just randomly choose a style to write for just any project. The characters have to fit. For my current WIP, I've chosen third person, past tense because it fits the characters and the story. There's more than one main character. It wouldn't work in first person unless I jumped around to different narrators, and let's face it--that's the most annoying thing ever. I know a lot of people who can hardly even stand to read first person, but if they have to start reading a different point of view every other chapter, then fuhgeddaboudit. ...and I don't know why I said it like that. I've never even been to New York...I've been to Chicago...do they say that there?
But with that book that I wrote in first person, the one that took me less than two weeks to write, first person was exactly right. I was telling one character's story. It made sense to tell it from her perspective. In fact, if I had tried any other way, it wouldn't have worked. She came to me, and I have to admit that I'm so insane that I had a literal conversation with her. I heard her in my mind say, "Tell my story." I said, "I don't know your story." She said, "Just sit down and start writing, and I'll give it to you." So I did, and she was true to her word. I channelled her. I channelled a fictional character.
With the brand new project that I've started (yes, I've already started it in the midst of my chaotic life...because I am a mad, mad glutton for punishment), the main character is someone who lives in the moment. I couldn't figure out how to write him until I had the idea to write from his perspective, in present tense. It makes more sense to see things at the same time he sees them, to experience these things with him. I think his character will develop a lot better if I'm seeing the action with him, not just as a view into his past.
As I said, not everyone likes first person. I'm sure there are people equally (or probably even more) annoyed with present tense. I can understand why. For one thing, it's not what most of us are used to. The reason I didn't even think about writing in anything besides third person, past tense is because the vast majority of everything I read was in third person, past tense. Readers don't always like seeing a deviation from what they're used to, nor do some of them like getting inside people's heads or seeing the plot as it happens.
And I also understand that in experimenting with present tense, I'm doing something a LOT of writers are doing these days. If Suzanne Collins can write an intriguing book in present tense, then it stands to reason that other people should try writing a book in present tense. It's becoming a trend, a fad. Fads and trends fade, and I think a lot of readers are just waiting for this one to go away.
With that being said, I'm not shying away from my experimentation in my writing. I'm glad I didn't when I let that character possess me for two weeks. I'm looking forward to see what happens with this character I'm starting to channel (WAIT! I'M TOO BUSY TO BE POSSESSED BY A FICTIONAL CHARACTER AGAIN...OH NOES!). I'm also going to keep writing old skool--third person, past tense. I might even be open to some other styles or tricks, but I don't want to get too crazy...
...I think this blog has proved I'm already crazy enough. Hmm. Maybe I am a tense person...
Oh, fuhgeddaboudit. You're just jealous because the voices aren't talking to you.