Thursday, April 14, 2011

First Person Present Tension

L. Scribe Harris recently did a blog on first-person present-tense in current YA genre fiction and I felt compelled to respond a) because it was a fantastic topic and b) because I'm justifiably furious at having wasted an hour of my life writing her a damn near essay-length comment only to have Blogger come back at me with its infamous "We're sorry but we cannot complete this request--so we completely deleted everything you wrote. Back button you say? Pssh, naaw'man! We're just gonna reset to square one, mmmk..? Mmk."

I'll begin by pointing out that if you haven't already read it, you should probably read Scribe's blog first for this to make any kind of sense. Really. I insist that you do or this will all just come out sounding like the inane ramblings of a neurotic, misanthropic, glass-is-half-fucked madwoman. But then again.. if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck and blogs like a neurotic, misanthropic, glass-is-half-fucked madwoman, then it's probably a duck cosplaying me. Right?

So before my chagrin for Blogger subsides and I resume my three-week productivity moratorium, let the bitching commence!

First off, you should probably be aware that I do not claim to be any kind of expert on what exactly is the latest and greatest in YA fiction. Hell, I'll be the first to admit that I've been more or less shunning the classification ever since barely-edited fanfiction and poorly-disguised-Twilight/Harry Potter/yadayada clones began showing up in hardback with $16-$26 price tags. Nevertheless, one can never truly separate oneself from one's roots, and many of my most beloved authors still reside in the currently-Robert-Pattinson-poster-spangled section of the bookstore. Thus, I've done my best to stay informed, though I thank all that is good and holy for the John Greens, Neal Shustermans, Garth Nixs, and Robin McKinleys that still exist.

While I agree with Scribe's observation that first person present tense accommodates our culture of "short, fast, and now", I can't help but think that there are further sociological implications as well. In a world where any one-eyed, foul-mouthed halfwit with a soap box and a webcam can become an instant internet celebrity, the words "narcissism" and "hyper-egocentrism" also come to mind. Perhaps, young people of the 2000-somethings (and no, I'm not an exception) are less likely to engross themselves in anything unless it's two inches from their noses and immediately tangential to the story of their own life.

At the risk of sounding like every disgruntled social sciences professor EVER, we already know that American youth nowadays vote less, shop more, and are 100x more likely to kill themselves because their peers taunted them in grade school than ever knowing any true hardship or any direct side effect or war, famine or pestilence.

So how do you make a girl who shoots her own food and doesn't experience the feeling of a full stomach until her sixteenth year of life sympathetic? Or make an unforgiving futuristic hegemony that controls every aspect of life from birth to love seem relevant?

First person present tense? Sure. Okay. I get it. I'll buy it.

But seriously, a boy that comes from a family of curse workers and goes to a dark paranormal private school...? What's to be gained by using the present tense here? Is there something that the immediacy of the present tense can accomplish that the fantasy aspect of a fantasy novel cannot?? Even School Library Journal points out that there are places in the novel "where the action is confusing and clarity appears sacrificed for expediency". I'm not making this shit up, people. School Library Journal wrote it and Amazon posted it. Amazon who is trying to make money by selling this book posted that as the first editorial review on the product page.

Red flag much? In my humble opinion, clarity should never EVER be sacrificed for style. (Unless your first name is Anthony and your last name is Burgess) *End rant*

On the other hand, I suppose this current rash of overusing first person present tense makes Twilight look like a literary classic... Now how do you like them immortal-sparkly-obsessive-stalkery apples?

So before I wax too (much more) jaded and pessimistic, I will sign off on a note of hope: Hope to God or whatever's sacred to you that your favorite authors--YA or otherwise--stay brave against the dreaded forces of fashion-frackers. And until I get the "all clear" signal from my handy-dandy YA-screeners (AKA friends), I'll be in the adult sci-fi/fantasy section, clinging desperately to tried-and-true comfort of first and third person past tense.


  1. LOL Rant, indeed. I am enjoying the irony of your use of colorful idioms in a rant which also says: "In a world where any one-eyed, foul-mouthed halfwit with a soap box and a webcam can become an instant internet celebrity" :)

  2. I still don't understand the overwhelming love YA is getting from people who by my estimation are full grown adults... Present tense has always bothered me. There are comics that try to pull this crap, but I have the support of pictures to keep things from getting weird, since my brain sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of present tense writing...

    However I must say that a lot of the present tense stuff reminds me of online RP. *Punches lolercaust in the face with his wicked rock knuckles!* /roll (Fifteen damage, WEWT!)

    Maybe too many text based RPG fans are upset nobody does it anymore and started writing bad novels?

  3. I've always loved first person, though I have nothing against third person and read novels in third person all the time. POVs each have their pros and cons, and writers should chose based on these and not so much on trends or even what comes automaticaly to them. Trends and personal preference should come in when deciding which stories to take from concept to written word, and which stories to try to sell now rather than later.

    I agree that our individualistic society greatly influences the novels we consume en mass,

  4. ... But I think there's another important factor when it comes to YA fiction. Length. YA is generally shorter and first person lends itself to that. Third person allows for more avenues of revealing information, from the omnicent narrator and/or from shifting 3rd POVs between numerous characters, even secondary characters. This allows not only for more complex and lengthy plots, but for the more complete reveal of said plot. Of course you can also have a limited 3rd POV that deals heavily in withholding of information, but 1st POV automatically enacts such limits and more. This isn't to say that you can't set a 1st POV story in a complex, fully developed world - but I ask, isn't such a story more likely to be broken up into shorter novels than the wonderful 800 page behemoths common to adult fantasy? Shifting 1st POV is not well loved, so most authors don't give chapters to other characters in 1st POV like they do in 3rd POV. Whole scenes and info dumps get left out of the narrative, or else pushed on to the next book.

    I've thought about this way too much because I love to write in first person, but as I struggle to write longer fiction, I've come up against several problems. Even when I use 3rd POV I tend towards a more limited narrative, and both have the effect of shortening the word count. That doesn't mean that I write primarily YA, but I can't help noticing that, lengthwise, it would be an easier novel market for me to break into. 

    (sorry, stupid phone split up the comment)

  5. @Michelle: You've brought up some valid points but I just wanted to point out that even though the title of this blog was "First Person Present Tension", the blog itself was really more about present tense vs. past tense rather than the first person vs. third person thing...

    I have nothing against first person. I love it just as much as third person although I've read more third person books.. but I think that's just because more authors just happen to write third person.

  6. This post is a good example of why I love you: funny, intelligent, and perceptive. You wrote the post I was trying to write, and the analysis I wish I had. :) Thanks for being a nerotic, glass-half-fucked madwoma-

    ...did you just *quack*?

  7. @Scribe: Thanks so much, hun ;D Somehow you always bring the best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) out of me! lol

  8. Aaaand now I have another blog to follow. Internet, thy name is time-suck.

    Great post, by the way, even though my YA novel is written in--you guessed it--first person present tense. (I can hear you headdesking from here.)

    But in my defense, I picked it intentionally, and not for the trendiness factor (if there even is a trendiness factor). My protagonist is a con artist and has no real belief in her own identity, history, or future. She lives completely in the now, so I felt like I could only write her voice in the present tense.

    And I have to admit that writing it's been kind of a bitch, because I keep slipping into my old standard past tense. Grr. I'm going to need a serious copyeditor when all is said and done.

    Anyway, I love the way you write, so I'll be keeping an eye out for future blog posts and any books you might be releasing.

  9. @M.E. Summer: A new face! Welcome, welcome! :D No head-desking here. Suzanne Collins pulled present tense off beautifully and I'm sure others have and will too! I don't have anything against a particular POV or tense if it's done well and suited to the cause of the story. Hell, write in second person future tense if it makes your story better and/or more awesome!

    I just find it suspicious when I see a monstrous wave of FP-PT sweep an entire section of a bookstore all within a year...

    Anyway, thank you so much for reading and commenting! Hope to see more of you in the future. I'd love to hear about your WIP too :)

  10. this is probably the excuse i needed to keep away from ya fiction. thank you :D