I was talking with my writing buddy and cousin, Sarah, the other day. She concluded our conversation with “This should be a blog post!” (She tends to end a lot of our conversations that way, and I always mean to write them down, but I usually forget. *cue constant reminder texts from Sarah after she reads this*) Anyways, this time I remembered. We were talking about why I changed my current novel from third person past tense to first person present tense.
If you know me, you know this is a big deal. I have vehemently avoided first person and present tense separately, so to include both in my novel took a major change of view point (literally. As in the novel and in real life. Get it?)
First of all, I eschewed present tense because all I had ever read was past tense. To me, past tense is how a proper book should be written. It’s how the pros did it, and doing anything else was a cop-out. I used to think writers who resorted to present tense were just using a cheap trick to make up for the fact that they couldn’t get the reader engaged with their plot.
The truth: It IS a cheap trick that gets the reader more engaged with the book they are reading, but it’s much harder to write in present tense. It takes a lot of skill to do it well. Once I started reading books in present tense, it made sense. I hope I never again think badly of a writing technique before I try it.
Second, I hated reading in first person because it sounded so selfish to me. The last thing I needed was to listen to someone else’s story that’s all about them. I was sick of hearing “me, me, me” and “I, I, I”.
The truth: Once I gave first person a chance, I realized it was easier to imagine myself in the story. I also realized it was silly of me to be frustrated at a fictional book for being selfish. Isn’t that what I want when I read, to be drawn in, to learn all about everything that’s going on in the main character’s head space? I tried it, and it was really cool. I think first person reading also builds up one’s empathy skills, since it forces you to see through someone else’s eyes. As I’m learning more and more lately, empathy is a valuable and rare commodity in this modern world.
Another writer friend who’s opinion I greatly respect gave me feedback on my story. She basically said I need to start from scratch. That’s not actually what she said, but after reading her notes and taking them to heart, that’s the conclusion I came to. She suggested I turn off my computer, pull out a blank piece of paper, and write the first chapter by hand without looking at what I’ve done previously. That was very wise of her to suggest, since I’ve been working on this book for 4 years now and have all kinds of previous draft baggage hanging out in my brain.
I wasn’t quite brave enough to turn off my computer, but I did open a new file and refused to look at my old work (with the exception of once sentence full of made-up words I couldn’t remember how to spell). And on a whim, I decided to write it in first person present tense. I have to say it was not awful. I don’t think it improved any, but I was surprised at how this first attempt was the same quality level as the draft I’ve been working on for years. With improvement, I’ve decided it could be pretty good.
The other thing I realized is that all the momentum for my story is in the later half. I’ve been frustrated with trying to revise it because I’ve only started from the beginning. So I’m starting from the end this time, re-writing it in first person present tense, and working my way backwards. It’s like my story is a dry piece of toast, with all the butter clumped up on the far side. I’m going to try and spread it evenly over the whole thing, working backwards, and hopefully, there’s enough butter to go around.
These are my solutions to my present novelizing woes and I think it’s the first lesson I’ve learned about editing: Editing is not so much deciding what I like and don’t like in my story, it’s about identifying problems and finding solutions. In this case, the solution was drastic and required me to try something new that I was sure I wouldn’t like. But isn’t that just like life, sometimes? Or vegetables?