Live in the Past – Or Present?

Yesterday, my heart fell to floor when I read some blogs and comments on using present tense in writing.  Many people found it annoying or distracting, but a few didn’t mind it at all.  I’m on chapter six of my second novel and, you guessed it, I’ve got it in present tense.  Now, since I’m only 56 pages into it, it’s not that big of a deal to switch the tense (not as daunting as it would be for a completed novel).

What is your opinion of past versus present tense in general?  I’ve put the first 2 pages of my novel below in case anyone would like to comment on the tense specifically in my piece.  Do you find the present tense distracting?

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I sit cross-legged on the loveseat in complete silence; no TV, no radio, not even the usual cat curled up on my lap.  I’m at one with my latest needlepoint project: a friendship scroll with the quip “Girlfriends are like shoes – just one pair will never do.”  I don’t really understand what this means; are they implying friends come in twos, like the animals on Noah’s Ark?  Or did they have to add the word ‘pair’ because you normally don’t buy just one shoe?  I’m a data analyst, so I over think everything.  Maybe that’s why I’m alone with my needlepoint on a Saturday evening.

In my left hand, I hold the needlepoint hoop with the fabric stretched taut.  With my right hand, I poke the needle tip into the fabric to find the exact spot to pull the plum purple thread through.  After several tries, I finally find it.

“OH MY GOSH!” 

The squeal echoes in my sparsely furnished apartment.  I jam the needle into my thumb instead of the fabric.  “What’s wrong with you?” I snap at my roommate, Brenda Mae Stone, and then stick my thumb in my mouth before it bleeds on my project.

Brenda Mae slams the door and runs over to the loveseat, plopping herself down on the cushion next to me; right on top of my needlepoint thread, neatly organized from dark hues to light.  I wonder how long it’s going to take me to get everything back in order.  So help me if I have to peel the threads off the seat of her pants.

“Emily, you’re not going to believe my day!” she gushes.

“I’m sure I would,” I mutter under my breath, still irritated about my ruined quiet time, and the fact she called me Emily instead of Lee.  I look at her wind-blown sandy blonde hair, naturally tan skin and brown eyes shining with excitement and feel annoyed at the injustice, as it is a stark contrast to my pasty white skin, green eyes and mousy brown hair.  My mom tries to tell me I have beautiful ivory skin and auburn hair, but I think she’s either blind or practicing for a missed career opportunity in marketing.  I’m a little ticked off when I notice Brenda Mae’s khaki pants aren’t a wrinkled mess, even though she wore them all day.  After I sit down in my ironed khakis, they look like I slept in them…in a street gutter.  I don’t know why I bother.

Other than an eye roll, she seems to ignore my sour attitude.  “I wish you would’ve come with me.  I had the best day!”  She wiggles out of her light-weight jean jacket and tosses it on the floor.  Not many places where you can get away with only a jacket in the second week of January; too bad Phoenix makes you pay for it in the summer.

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18 thoughts on “Live in the Past – Or Present?

  1. leighwhitted July 11, 2010 / 1:46 PM

    First, let me say that I love the humor in the first paragraph!

    I don’t write in present tense, except in a blog, but I haven’t ever had a problem reading it. I get absorbed in the story either way. 🙂

    • jannatwrites July 11, 2010 / 8:01 PM

      Leigh, thanks for taking the time to comment. Also, glad you like the humor. My first novel is in 3rd person, past tense, so this is a departure for me also!

  2. 2blu2btru July 11, 2010 / 5:44 PM

    I do NOT give definitive answers on how to write a story. I will say the present tense is very hard to pull off, especially with a first person narrator. I read a piece once, How to Become a Writer By Lorrie Moor. It is a great example of present tense usage. My Intro. to Creative Writing teacher said present tense is hard to keep interesting, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. If it is the best tense and point of view for the story you are trying to tell, then you should use it. Pace, voice, and reader interest are the most important things.

    Here’s a link to the Lorrie Moore piece:
    http://www.ninetymeetingsinninetydays.com/lorriemooore.html

    I hope this helps you decide. Stay positive and keep writing! 😀

    • jannatwrites July 11, 2010 / 7:57 PM

      Well, I read Lorrie Moore’s piece…twice (since I didn’t even notice the present tense the first go ’round). So, it’s safe to say present tense doesn’t bother me. But I’m easy, not much bothers me in a novel, except maybe lame dialog. Thanks for your comments and the link!

  3. Lua July 12, 2010 / 12:48 AM

    Present tense is hard to pull of but I think it all depends on the story… If your story is best told in the present tense, if that is the ‘time’ you feel comfortable with then I say go ahead with it 🙂
    I’ve read books where present tense was quiet annoying but then again I read books where it made me say ‘wow’. And your first paragraph looks good to me, not annoying at all…

    • jannatwrites July 12, 2010 / 8:16 PM

      Lua, thanks for your opinion. Maybe I will take the challenge and stick with the present tense…

  4. jpcabit July 20, 2010 / 6:20 AM

    Pretty good! Present tense annoyed me at first, but I literally stopped noticing it about halfway through.

    • jannatwrites July 20, 2010 / 8:09 PM

      I appreciate your honest reply. I am hopeful that it might work since the annoyance faded as you went along. Thanks again for your helpful comments!

  5. Tim Weaver December 6, 2010 / 4:16 PM

    You know, the last time I tried the “girlfriends are like shoes…” line, I found myself suddenly single. What a double-standard. 🙂

    As for present versus past…it depends on what you’re writing. For that one short story in our class, I don’t think it could have been done in past-tense due to the ending. But beyond that, I had no real reason to write it present.

    The one thing I got from my story was that the present tense is very much an “ongoing journey”…we were in the car with the main character, at the park, then at the store….all in “real time” (as much as can call it that). For that story, it worked.

    Is there a particular reason why you chose to write in the present for this one, other than the challenge?

    • jannatwrites December 6, 2010 / 8:13 PM

      Well, I can see why 🙂 It’s not a double-standard, though because the reference in this instance was a non-romantic relationship.

      When I originally planned the story, I wanted the reader and the character to find out what happened as it happened, not looking back and retelling the story. In recent weeks, it’s occurred to me that I want to start the story in a different place, so I’m going to replot the story. After class is over, I want to get back into this one. I do like my first chapter though…I hope I can still use it 🙂 (It didn’t start to drag on until chapter six.)

  6. momsomniac January 14, 2011 / 5:51 PM

    Actually, all I want to know, after reading this, is…when can I buy the book?

    • momsomniac January 14, 2011 / 5:52 PM

      also, would you like to buy some commas? : )

      • jannatwrites January 15, 2011 / 12:11 AM

        Um, I do like commas. I think you might be insinuating that I like them a little too well?

        I’ll take three dozen.

    • jannatwrites January 15, 2011 / 12:09 AM

      I’ll take this as a BIG compliment – thank you, momsomniac! If find an agent, perhaps there will be a book out there one day. If there is, I’ll be shouting it out on this blog for sure 😉

      • momsomniac January 15, 2011 / 6:04 AM

        Well, I’ll be watching and hoping! And using commas liberally in my comments.

        (I managed to pack 3 of ’em into a realtively short sentence above – so I was attempting to be self-depricating:)

        • jannatwrites January 15, 2011 / 7:28 AM

          Ah, I must have a guilty conscience because I was sure the comment had something to do with MY use of commas. See, I’m a punctuation freak; I love sem-colons, too!

          No worries, commas (and !, and ? and ;, and – are always welcome here.) 😉

  7. crumbl January 28, 2011 / 1:36 PM

    Dexter is present tense. Works for me. No one said writing was easy.

    • jannatwrites January 28, 2011 / 10:39 PM

      Thanks for stopping by, crumbl. Yes, writing can be a challenge…but it’s a fun one!

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