Why I write in present tense

(A friend/fellow scribe wrote me yesterday asking about my rationale for using present tense in MIRRORED HEAVENS, as well as whether I had any advice on problems one might encounter in so doing. Some may be interested in my reply.)

hiya—To be honest, I was so green when I started out that I didn’t realize present tense was an unorthodox choice (I’m sure if I’d ever been part of a critique group they would have beaten it out of me, which is one more reason I’m glad I never was)….but I liked it because it was a tone that was at once both urgent and dream-like.  You might check out Peter Watts’ STARFISH, which I was pretty heavily influenced by; his underwater scenes (which constitute most of the novel) are all present tense.  That said, it took me several years to really get my style to work the way I want it (I started writing in fall of 2000, and didn’t really find the “voice” until more than four years later).

As to problems, hmm.  Coming off as pretentious/ponderous is definitely one (though maybe I have that one naturally : ).  Another is the tendency to use the word “now” all the fricking time; as you can see by looking at the first book, this is not a problem I’ve necessarily shaken.  (I often use the phrase “and now” almost as a ritual phrase, which my editor keeps trying to rein me back on—but I was deliberately trying to get the style to be more arresting/bracing than your average book). Choppy sentence structure is also something to watch out for. I certainly would disagree with [SuperFamousAuthor] that present tense is by definition problematic/flawed (it’s funny how some senior/veteran writers seem to be given to ex cathedra statements about what constitutes good/bad writing—I take this to mean that they’ve finally lost the battle with their ego, which I suppose is THE occupational hazard of writing).

There’s also the philosophical aspect of all this, which given my interest in history I found compelling.  Writing in present tense felt to me somehow fairer to both the reader and the characters; I suspect this is why:

Try writing what you have written in the past tense in the present tense and you will see what I mean….What we have to do is to give back to the past we are writing about its own present tense. We give back to the past its own possibilities, its own ambiguities, its own incapacity to see the consequences of its action. It is only then that we represent what actually happened.


hope that helps . . .


4 Responses to “Why I write in present tense”

  1. Michael R Underwood Says:

    The present/past tense discussion is one I find very interesting, especially given that I’ve chosen to write in present tense in several cases, most notably the novel I’m working on right now.

    My choice to use present tense was genre-based. When I read and think of superhero comics, they’re always in present tense. It’s not “Superman flew across the room and punched Darkseid,” its “Superman flies across the room, then he punches Darkseid.” The immediacy is tied in to the feeling of interacting with the medium, since in graphic novels I control the pacing in how fast I read, which gives more of a range in pacing than in prose narrative or in film. Taking that immediacy and bringing it into the novel form has the problems you mention, but when I started writing the novel in past tense, it didn’t feel right, even though I’ve written almost everything else in past tense.

    I think present tense worked well for The Mirrored Heavens, and helps it stand out from the pack. The immediacy of present tense helps the reader burn through those pages, hurtling through scenes with kinetic action.

    Have many of the reviews you’ve seen of the book commented on the choice of present tense, and if so, what do they have to say?

  2. David Williams Says:

    hey Mike- -It wasn’t really a big issue for the reviews, to be honest. Reviewers generally tend to be pretty pragmatic–it’s all about execution, and if it works, they’re not going to raise problems.

    That’s interesting with “in graphic novels I control the pacing in how fast I read”. I’d never thought about it that way before, but you’re obviously right.

    It’s the contingency that one can achieve with the present tense that interests me the most. The Dening quote is critical for me, in that it’s too easy to look back on history and think, shit, it really was inevitable that events would end up culminating the current now. . . .

  3. Joni Says:

    Whatever the reason, the pacing in Mirrored Heavens was excellent and really grabbed me so much that I really devoured the book.

    Personally I have not given much thought to past/present tense in writing (when I read something) so I don’t have a preference. Still, while I have written something (game journals and a very short story) I found out that it worked out better for _me_ to write in past tense. Game journals are in past tense because as journals they are like diaries and tell what has happened. The short story was just a matter of how things went. Funnily enough I started it out in present tense but when the story begun to unfold I veered to past tense :P So I decided to change the whole story to past tense to keep it coherent enough.

  4. David Williams Says:

    It’s definitely the safer bet–I do think the burden of proof has to be on why one *wouldn’t* use present tense. Actually, I think some of the very early drafts of HEAVENS were in past tense; the fact that they were also totally incoherent had much more to do with me than any intrinsic problem with the tense. : )