Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Writing the Rules

Is there ever any defense for writing memoir narrative in the present tense?

Recently an editor and I were talking about the romance market when she told me she was getting a number of romance submissions written in first person, which she didn’t think worked. She felt that romance should always be written in third person. Well, I’m sure the romance readers among you will be quicker than me to tally the list of successful romances that are being published these days in first person, something we didn’t dream of ten or more years ago.

If you haven’t noticed yet I’m not a rules person, never liked the book and never did well in strict classrooms for that very reason. I’m more of a guidelines girl. If someone is telling you a book can’t be done a certain way (in first person, as a series of vignettes, from the villain’s point of view, or whatever) it’s usually not because it can’t be done that way, but because doing it that way makes it more difficult. Sometimes I think the rules are made because so few people are successful at it that people become wary. In other words, I find that it’s often more difficult to tell a story in first person than it is third person, it’s harder to get the story out of your head and really tell it in a way that captivates the reader and brings them into the world you’re building. If anyone is saying a memoir can’t be done in present tense it’s probably because typically it doesn’t work as well, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

If you feel your memoir would be better written in present tense go ahead and write it in present tense. By simply asking this question you show you’re aware of the fact that some editors might not receive it as well as they would if it were written in past tense, but you need to do what you feel works best. My suggestion is to test it out. Write some of it in present tense and see how it feels and reads and then make a decision about whether or not you have a defense.

Jessica

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

A writer friend of mine says present-tense screams "Me! Look at me!"

But then so does a memoir I spose.

Aimless Writer said...

I've read first person romances and loved some, not so much others. But a good writer can definately pull it off. It's an art, a special skill.
Memoirs? Not my schtick so I can't comment there. I don't even read them.

Becke Davis said...

A lot of my romance-reading fans have a strong dislike for first person. It's very common in the mystery genre, so maybe I'm just used to it, since I've been reading mysteries since I was a kid. I've seen it a lot in YA, too.

I think it can be well done in romance, in the hands of a deft writer -- as in Lisa Kleypas' contemporaries. I don't think there's anything wrong with books written in first person; it's just a little harder to pull off.

Andrew said...

If you're doing something just to be different it usually shows.

If the story lends itself to a different or unusual tense or POV then a skilled author will pull it off.

It's that simple.

Robert McKay said...

I never thought I would like first person novels until I read Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber. If I hadn't given that a chance I probably never would have considered reading Kushiel's Legacy by Jacqueline Carey which is now my favorite series.

I'm glad you are open minded enough to at least give those things that "just aren't done" a chance.

Anonymous said...

I'm one of the few romance writers who actually got pubbed with a first person CATEGORY romance. I'll remain anonymous so it doesn't look like I'm commenting as a marketing ploy. Ironically, it's the book that has made the most money for me.

For that project, I chose first person because I prefer writing first person, and for that story, it was absolutely essential. (All the rest of my romances are third.)

First person has some technical issues that don't lend the POV to romance. For instance, romance readers tend to prefer seeing the hero's POV, and you can't do that when you do First POV, Heroine.

Another First POV limit is that it tells the story from ONE character's perspective. I feel that we hear most oral stories (think about how your friends tell you stories) from one person's perspective, and we're comfy with that. But the written novel usually has more perspectives.

That can be a good thing or a bad thing. In a mystery, where first person rules, it's easier to write first person because it limits the amount of info the reader gets -- what the amateur sleuth experiences is what the reader experiences.

In a romance, your hero can come across like a jerk if you don't reveal, in his perspective, what his motivations and reactions are.

In ANY first person, your narrator MUST be reliable -- unless you are a skillful, skillful writer who can show the reader that the narrator is actively deceiving herself. But the narrator in a first person must tell the truth as he or she sees it.

Still, any POV must be deep enough that it is essentially first person with different pronouns. When another writer tells me she is having difficulty getting into the POV, I routinely advise writing it from First POV, and then changing it back to third. Voila! It's almost magic, the way that powerful little pronoun change works.

britmandelo said...

If I open a book and it's written in present tense, I put it down again. POV doesn't matter to me as long as it's done well (hell, Gene Wolfe actually manages second person sometimes, and that's a rare one).

Tense? That matters. I have yet to read any bit of story in present tense that wasn't painfully awkward. Ever. It's the sound of it in the narrative: doing introspection or backstory in present tense is so difficult that most attempts in it are just laughable. I would not ever recommend trying to write in present tense unless it's a literary manuscript (and hence, more art than story) or poetry, or one of the other modes that is more about artisanship then telling a tale. I don't think it's even a matter of skill of the writer, but a matter of comprehension and attractive, logical "sound" to the manuscript for the readers.

This is especially true for memoir, actually. Think about it. You're telling the audience a story about something that HAS HAPPENED to you. You aren't organically writing this memoir every waking moment as things happen. It's a retrospective genre. When you write it in present tense, it removes the weight of that retrospective. It removes the voice of experience for what you have been through, and that's what most people read memoirs for.

Robena Grant said...

Patricia Gaffney is one of the few authors that uses first person POV in romance that I will read. Generally I don't enjoy them, but Pat is a master and draws you in immediately.
We had a discussion on Jenny Crusie's forums recently about writing romance, especially a sex scene in first person. It's not easy to do.
Memoir in first wouldn't ring true for me, because the author is looking back, telling the story from the past so I don't think so, hmmmm? but again it would be about the voice.

Suzan Harden said...

The best writing advice I've ever received is follow the 'rules' the first two or three books you write. Once you know the 'rules' by heart, then you'll know how to break them to the best effect.

And I give the questioner props for willingness to experiment.

Watery Tart said...

Present tense puts a voice in my head that sounds like Spencer Tracey solving a detective case. I think it can work in a campy sort of way, provided that adds to the feel, but it definitely comes with a lot of baggage that might be contraindicated, depending on who it's about.

PoV I'd agree with all else... It depends on the skill of the writer on whether breaking genre trends work or not. The only 2nd person I've ever read that works is personalized erotica or RL Steins "you choose' stories.

Madison L. Edgar said...

As a beginner writer, I'm starting to hear a lot about these "rules." It's driving me crazy... I'm currently in the editing stage and, thus, am doing tons of research and talking to tons of people who I like to think are literary experts. But I get mixed advice.

At one point, I was told my MS would work better in the present tense. So I shifted the first few chapters to present and found that it didn't work well at all... Then I was told my MS would work better in third person (as it's currently written in first). That's where I drew the line...

Finally I just said, "Screw it. Screw the literary experts. Screw the rules."

Dara said...

I've tried writing in first person and it's a lot harder than I thought. I've also realized I'm more of a third person limited writer; I can convey the story better that way.

Of course, it may change as my writing improves, but for now I leave first person to the more talented writers. :)

Kimberly Kincaid said...

Okay, right now my brain feels like it's made of literary scrambled eggs...

My romance novel is written in the first person, but switches between the hero and the heroine. They each have very distinct voices. I've seen this done with 3rd/omniscient a ton, but chose 1st because it felt better to me as the writer. I wrote it in the present tense because it just came out that way. I didn't really give it much thought, to be honest.

The "rules" are making me *blind* today! If 6 out of 1,500 queries from unpublished writers are offered representation (with no guarantee of the work being sold, mind you), am I swimming upstream while simultaneously shooting myself in the foot by writing my novel this way?

I want to say "screw the rules", I really do...but I want to be published MORE. I get that the encouragement is to follow your gut (and, as a writer, I am so grateful for that), but honestly, REALLY...are most of the agents that I query going to look at my MS and flip it into the recycle bin because of the POV or tense if the story is otherwise successful? Can the story even be successful if presented this way?

Does anyone want a side of bacon with her literary scrambled eggs?

AHHHHHH!

Sheila Deeth said...

I like your attitude to that rule book. Some rules are guidelines.

Carradee said...

...I find it easier to write in first person. O_o

I also like writing in present tense. It sounds better to me to be able to use past tense to specify the past, rather than having to use the awkward past perfect.

Mira said...

I really like your advice to the writer, Jessica. It feels accepting and practical - as your posts usually are. :)

I think the trick is to find out how the story wants to be written. If it wants to be told in present tense, then that's the story.

Also - voice. If your first person voice is more comfortable in present tense, than that's the story, too.

I'm afraid I don't agree with trying to write the story with an eye on the market. Let your muse write the story. It will be a better story that way.

Kate Douglas said...

Something I've learned in writing is that a character in fiction that doesn't feel three dimensional will often pop out if I write their scenes in first person. I can go back and change it to third, but for me, the immediacy of first person present helps me bring a character to life. I don't see why it wouldn't work for any writing, including memoir. Those are all things that can be easily changed once the story's written.

Kim said...

Memoirs written in the present tense: Angela's Ashes, Tweak, Smashed, Dry...
I've heard people say that writing in the present tense makes the reader feel as though they are "running along side the author". I think, though, that this is the point of memoir - to bring the reader to the experience. Then again, a memoir is what I'm trying to find an agent for, so....you know. Maybe I'm biased.

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Anonymous said...

Like the other anonymous writer (I'm not the same one), I've published a (niche) romance in first person. Not only that, it was also in present tense. I'm not sure why it worked, but of the five books I have out, this was by far the most successful (and none of the others were in first person, nor in present tense).

I think the reason it works is because it reads like a friend telling you a story: "So I go down to the corner diner, and I'm feeling all sorry for myself, and this guy walks in who catches my eye without even trying." It gives it a very immediate, almost urgent feel.

As for getting both POVs, well, I alternate sections between the two main characters, so you get both stories.

It's completely non-traditional and I was terrified about releasing it, but the free bits online were popular and the book itself has done really well. So there is some concrete evidence that it *can* work. YMMV.

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