Now that we’ve got Southern Girl and her cousin Country Girl out of the way, there’s another pet peeve–present tense–I’ve got to tackle before we get deeper into discussions of major Newbery contenders.
While present tense will probably have no bearing on whether a book receives Newbery consideration, it is nevertheless bad writing, and 90% of the writers who use it can’t pull it off.
Indeed, there are present tense narratives in the canon and I’m sure there will be others, perhaps even this very year as both REVOLUTION and WEST OF THE MOON, for example, are written in present tense.
Don’t tell me that present tense narrative doesn’t bother you, or list books where it’s used successfully, tell me why a book that is written in present tense is better than if it had been written in past tense. And while your formulating your arguments consider these points.
- Present tense calls attention to itself in a way that past tense does not, and that is not a good thing, especially when writers can’t keep their tenses consistent (because even present tense writing uses past tense for things that happened . . . in the past). I just want to read your book, and become immersed in it. I don’t want to have to mentally edit your book. That was your editor’s job. Bad editor. *finger wag*
- Present tense does not lend your book a sense of immediacy. If you use it as a flourish here or there then, yes, the contrast does lend it that sense, but when used throughout your novel it just becomes the new normal. It’s better suited for poetry, picture books, or short stories than for a novel.
- While people use present tense quite naturally when telling stories orally, those stories don’t tend to run on for hours and hours the way that a novel does. So, it really doesn’t come across as natural the way it does in everyday speech.
- Present tense doesn’t make your character’s voice unique. For one thing, everybody is doing it now. Try doing something truly unique, like having your character speak in all caps. For another thing, it doesn’t differentiate characters’ voices (in a novel with multiple narrators) quite as well as . . . um, actually, differentiating the voices. Ditto for using shifting tenses in alternating past/present narratives.
- First person requires a willing suspension of disbelief that third person doesn’t require, so be very careful, dear author, when you combine first person and present tense because you’re setting the bar very high. At it’s worst, it just becomes a rambling monologue chock full of random, irrelevant details.
So tell me again what’s so wonderful about present tense?
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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