Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Me, here, now!

My name is Keren and I am a First Person Present Tense Addict.

 I know, I know.   I’m a shallow action junkie, a trendy poser who wants to be down with the kids. I peddle cheap thrills to vulnerable reluctant readers.  I wouldn’t know a proper metaphor if it hit me on the nose.

I even use dangerously short paragraphs.

 I didn’t have the self-control to keep my FPPT experiments to the odd  recreational use (a party scene maybe, or a druggie flashback). No, it grew and grew…from a sentence, to a chapter, to a book, to a trilogy. Approximately 240,000 words, all about the me, the here, the now. Except the me isn't me, the here isn't here and the now jumps around all over the place.

My next book (still to be inflicted on the world) has two FPPT narrators, and there are no labels to tell readers which boy is speaking, apart from context, syntax and vocabulary. Yes, I am actually trying to confuse my readers. I like to think it’s the written equivalent of a film, shot with a handheld camera. I realise that's trendy too, but it can feel fresh, intimate and exciting. Of course some movie-goers (hello Mum) complain that it makes them feel as though they’re on a flimsy boat on the high ocean in a Force Ten gale. On the other hand, the long-shot, fixed-camera approach can feel tedious, detached and soporific. It rests on the skill of the director and editor, as well as the viewer's taste and resistance to nausea and sleep.

I was virginal (fiction writing-wise) and innocent, if not actually young when I started writing FPPT.  I had no idea that I was tinkering with something so controversial. I didn’t even realise that FPPT was considered trendy. Please don’t snort!  And I had no idea that First Person was considered easier to write, until I read Lily Hyde's thought-provoking post yesterday. I actually thought it was more of a challenge to write in someone else’s voice, particularly when I tried to overcome the handicaps of a narrator’s limited POV and vocabulary to present rounded characters.  I so agree with Lily when she says that every story finds its voice. The wrong form can be as damaging as dull characters or a plot full of holes.

 So, yes, I'm open to writing third or even second person. I have no objections to the past tense. I'm trying to break free of my addiction.

It’s just that I enjoy FPPT so much! I love the feeling of that someone else is inside my head. I like thinking of ways in which a limited  viewpoint can show more than it comprehends. I like the way FPPT sounds too. So clean, without those messy hads that litter the past perfect.  

 I especially like the feeling that anything could happen. There’s no safety net. No feeling that someone’s sitting in a rocking chair telling you a story where all the threads have been neatly tied up.

Oh, and there are all the clever things that other writers do with FPPT. Patrick Ness, magnificently creating an illiterate boy with a voice and a world of his own. HM Castor, persuading me that she knows how Henry VIII thought, lived, loved and hated. How can something that feels so right be wrong?

I am mastering my addiction. All three projects that I am working on at the moment are safely in the past tense (although two of them are showing signs of…but no, no, I must resist!). I draw the line at re-drafting them into the third person, but I truly have no objection at all to reading books in the third person and I find, oooh, far more than 5% of them really excellent.  

 So, thank you for your support. Thank you for helping me break this terrible habit and thank you -  oh my God! Mr Pullman! Put down that knife! Aaaarggggggggh…..


Savita Kalhan said...

I completely agree that every story finds its own unique voice, whether it's FPPT or third person past, or whatever grabs you. If you write in a way that comes naturally to you, the character and the story and it works, then you're doing it right. Your trilogy works, Keren!
I'm more of a third person past kinda gal, but I have dipped my toes in FPPT, which I have to say I found harder to get my head round. It worked for that book, but my present WIP is back to the past!

Lily said...

I didn't realise it was an addiction! Maybe that's why I'm so reluctant to try it...

Enjoyed your description of the thrills of FPPT - interesting that you feel it gives much more of a sense of loose threads and no neatly-tied endings- I feel the opposite, that a lot of FP books feel all neatly tied, and that's why I often don't enjoy them so much. However, I did realise after posting yesterday that a good many of my favourite books are in FP so... go figure (and I should think my opinions through a bit more before making them public)

But why have you decided to kick your enjoyable present-tense addiction for your next books?

fionadunbar said...

Hi Lily, well like Keren, I was curious about your aside "don’t get me started on first-person present tense" – it struck me that you found FPPT very annoying indeed, so it would be interesting to know exactly what you meant by that. Any examples of books written this way that you dislike especially, and for that reason?

I have enjoyed Keren's books, for example, immensely, and am actually trying out FPPT for the first time myself. I have written in both 1st person and 2nd person, but to date, always in the past tense. I started writing one book in the 3rd person and it felt flat and stilted; as soon as I switched to 1st person, it sprang to life. As for present tense – I've avoided it until now, but I was interested in trying it as I think it can work really well to give the reader a sense of events unfolding real-time, as it were.

Inbali Iserles said...

Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Keren, and please don't disappoint your fans by giving up your addiction any time soon.

I agree with Savita, every story will have its own voice, a tempo, language and style that is uniquely apt. It is the story that should dictate the form, not any assumptions about what is "appropriate".

Story is king! Long live the story!

fionadunbar said...

Correction: 1st and *3rd* person! Though will not be doing a Jeffrey Eugenides any time soon and trying out a first-person-plural POV!

Gillian Philip said...

I'm not sure why the actual decision on voice is such a deal-breaker for many people. FPPT isn't my usual style but I have used it, most recently in a short story for Keith Gray's anthology Next when there simply wasn't any other voice that made sense in the context! (I haven't got my copy with me as I'm on hols, but I think I'm right in saying I'm not the only one in that book who used FPPT - to be honest I remember the stories in it, not the voices used.)

As Savita and Inbali have pointed out, it's the story that lets you know what voice is appropriate. I agree that's hard to get right - I've seen some FPPT that's irritating, but then I've read a LOT of third person past that bored the pants off me. Keren's trilogy works beautifully in FPPT and HM Castor's VIII is just perfect in that voice. And then you get someone like George RR Martin, who writes third person as if it were first, never 'head-hops' between chapters, and is so deeply inside his characters' minds you might as well be hearing their real-time voices.

I certainly don't understand how anyone could consider first person 'easier'. As Keren rightly points out, creating an entire world and the people in it purely from one person's perspective is a huge challenge. Not everybody pulls that off, either!

My current fantasy series goes from exclusively first person to multiple-viewpoint-first-and-third. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that that's how it had to be, but it did. It's the story that dictates, not a dogma.

Keren David said...

Lily, it's not the FP aspect that gives a sense of dangerous uncertainty, it's the present tense. First person past tense can be prone to a lot of foreshadowing ('little did he know that three weeks later I would hammer a spike through his heart') which can give a very neat feel to it.
My three projects are in the past, because that's the voice that works for them. Althoguh I may tinker with two of them.

madwippitt said...

Who cares what tense it is in? If it's a good story, well written you are too busy enjoying it and turning pages to be bothered with thinking about this sort of thing!

Jane McLoughlin said...

Keren, I'm so out of the loop that a)I didn't realise that FPPT had "issues" and b)I had to check to see what tense my WIP was (is?) in. Although some writers may consciously tinker with tense,many of us it instinctively, depending on how a story takes shape.

Keren David said...

Ah,Jane, I didn't realse either until I read the comments under Lily's post of the day before.