On being a writer...

A celebration of the writing process, of being a writer, of all the weird things that pass through a writing brain...

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Present Tense

Philip Pullman has written a piece on the use of the present tense in novel writing (Guardian September 18th). Hooray. I've never liked reading books in the present tense and only once tried to write one, with disastrous results. I couldn't put my finger on the problem until now, but Pullman's right, it's like being texted in capitals. Everything about the present tense is urgent. It is unfolding now, before our very eyes. It therefore feels unprocessed.

Writing in the present tense both solves and presents difficulties. My new book is in the past tense, third person, and I'm faced with the knotty problem of authorial position. Where exactly do I stand? I know everything of course, because I'm the author, but how close do I get to my characters? How much can I reveal, or keep hidden without manipulating my reader (or characters) too far? In the present tense the author appears to be helpless in the face of events, instead of as Pullman says: Taking charge of the story.

I love stories. If you put a gun to my head, I'd say I'd rather be reading than writing because it's so much less work. But for me the initial process is exactly the same: I want to know what's going to happen next. But when it comes to rewriting, or redrafting, it's about making a stream of really tough decisions about how to tell the story, how to get out of a cul-de-sac because something can't be told in a certain way.

Anyway, here's to the good old-fashioned past tense novel. Long may it survive.


  1. Just found your blog, Katharine, and have been reading from the latest posting backwards, if that makes sense? I notice you don't like novels in the present tense, but perhaps you've not tried Elly Griffiths new crime novels, The Crossing Places and The Janus Stone? She also writes romantic fiction under the name of Domenica de Rosa. I didn't think I would enjoy a novel written in the present tense, but the Elly Griffiths have certainly changed my mind.
    Margaret P

  2. Sorry, Margaret, I thought I'd replied to this and must have missed the right button. Thanks so much for being in touch and shall certainly be on the look out for Elly Griffiths. Will let you know what I think....