I'm blogging a little early this week since I'm about to go on a business trip and will have limited (i.e. no) opportunity to do so, much to my dismay. I haven't quite wrapped my head around the concept that I am not allowed to use my "work" laptop for any other activities. Since I object to carrying two laptops on the airplane… Well, you get the point.
This week I'm addressing something I ran into last night. It really bothered me. Tenses.
I'm hardly an expert in grammar—heck, I often forget how to spell the word 'grammar'—and I'm sitting here with a grammar book in front of me to make sure my rant is correct. Pathetic, true, but it does not negate this issue. And that issue is: use of simple present tense—or worse—present progressive. Or present perfect progressive.
Ah, you will say—you're writing that way yourself—right now. I know. But this isn't a piece of fiction and I'm not expecting you to get into the head of the main character—i.e. me. In fact, I recommend you stay out of my head, completely.
Now, I'm probably an old fuddy-duddy, so I admit that up front. Nonetheless, I've read a lot of experimental fiction, Science Fiction, and other just plain weird stuff and I've never run into any issue where the writing actually made my head hurt. I've read books I had to reread a few times to understand all the implications, but the writing was fine. It was invisible so that you could concentrate on the story and the concepts and not the author's use of verbs and tenses.
But just when you think it's safe to go in the water, you pick up a romance and/or a mystery and some author takes a hammer to your head.
About two years ago, I picked up this really, truly famous author's most recent book. I had never read her work before, but I'd listen to her speechify about writing and there were a series of movies based upon her books (mostly geared for young ladies). I thought, this ought to be a lot of fun. And wham, I read the first page and got a headache.
There was a bit of dialog followed by this sentence: The girl in the dressing room next to mine has a voice like a chipmunk.
I thought, well, okay, maybe it was just me—the reader. So I continued. There were a few more bits of dialog, and: I hear a sales clerk come over, his key chain clinking musically.
And I freaked out. My head started throbbing. I was like: What the heck tense is this and why is this author doing this to me? STOP IT—THE AGONY IS KILLING ME! However, grimly determined (because this was SUCH a popular author and I wanted to learn) I managed to suck up the pain and finish the book. But I only finished it because it was about 80% dialog and I just skipped all the action/narrative stuff. And I swore never to read another of her books. I've been true to my word.
That author, my friends, used present tense and it was horrible torture for the reader. It really put me off. I kept thinking—I am not there—I am not in the room with this bimbo narrator and I'm not seeing this. Who the heck is she talking to and when is this actually occurring. The writing got in the way of the story.
Writing should be invisible. You should get so absorbed by the story that you don't even notice the writer. In fact, Jenny Crusie has a rule that you shouldn't even use anything other than "said" for dialog tags because anything else makes the reader pause infinitesimally. (That may be going too far into the "make your writing invisible" but it does illuminate that dark corner a bit.) But here was this author that made me pause for every single verb.
Anyway. Maybe, I thought, this one book is just a fluke or weird thing this popular author is doing and no one else on the planet is writing this way. Because if they are, God Help Me, my reading days are numbered.
About two years passed. I went on about my business, reading and writing quite happily. Then I stumbled upon this wonderful mystery series on BBC America and I searched all over for the author of the books the series was based on. I found one book, and although it was not related to the series, it was so exquisitely written that I rushed out again and bought two other books from this author.
Last night I plucked one of the two books from my shelf and curled up in bed, planning on enjoying myself. And I read: London. A stifling early September afternoon, the sun beating down.
A little unsettling, to be sure, but I went with it. Then I got to the following sentence: Overnight bag and briefcase in one hand, handbag over her shoulder, Fran plunges down into the arguably worse hell…
Suddenly, for me, the reader, I start having issues with temporal displacement. I not only can't get into this, but I'm faced with: Who the Hell is she talking to and when is this taking place? Because it sure isn't now. But she says it is NOW. ARGH!
I really struggled through the first page, almost crying. My head throbbed. It only got worse. Because not only is the author using present tense, but the character suffers from flashbacks or memories (whatever you want to call them) where she explains who she works for and her circumstances. And it's all in the present tense which makes it really like some drug-induced hallucination where you can't keep straight what is happening for real, right now in present tense, and what isn't really happening but she's just thinking. Or really—isn't really thinking but it's the author in a God-like way explaining the heroine's job—but she's using present tense as if she's Fran, but not really, because why would Fran be thinking all this background sort of stuff?
I don't even know how to explain how confusing it was. Or how it really made me feel quite ill trying to read it and understand WHEN anything was happening. And to make matters worse, she didn't just have this character walking through the here-and-now in present tense, and sort of not remembering but thinking somehow in present tense about her job, employer and family, but…she also introduces actual memories. And the memories start out with a few sentences of past tense and then drift around between past, present and perhaps even a few progressive forms of past and present tense. Leaving you completely unable to get into the story because you're so busy trying to figure out what is going on, to whom and more importantly, when.
And as you can see from my own casual use of tense, I'm not perfect. But hey… This is a blog. Not a book.
So—here is what I, as a reader, did out of self-defense. I started to skim so that where the author had a phrase such as: Fran makes a run for it, I mentally substituted: Fran made a run for it. It was hard work. However, I got to the end of the first chapter.
Then the author switched point of view to another character and adopted the standard past tense we all know and love. THANK GOD. But by that time, I was shaken and mentally disturbed. Could I trust the author to now STAY in past tense or tenses like: past, past progressive or past perfect/past perfect progressive? Those, I can handle. I can even handle a few future tenses (future, future progressive, future perfect, future perfect progressive—whatever).
Now, this evening, I'm looking at this book and I'm thinking: why was the first chapter written that way? (And why did I just write that in present progressive—the very thing I hate? Ah, human frailty…)
However, back to my question. There was no—absolutely no—reason for it, particularly since in chapter two, the author adopted the more common and easy-to-read past tense. I read the blurb on the back of the book again and it says that first character is the book's heroine. And now I'm scared. I'm really scared that the author only moved to the comforting past tense for other characters and when she moves back to the heroine's point of view, she'll use that brain twisting present tense (and all it's ugly related brethren: present perfect, present progressive, & present perfect progressive).
I've lost my trust and faith in this author and she has scared me enough that I'm thinking I may not read any more for fear of running into another chapter of temporal displacement. And I'm sadly looking at her other book I purchased and haven't read yet. I'm having buyer's remorse. And yet there was that one, magical book she wrote which was so perfect. It's hard to believe she fumbled so badly on this other one.
Or maybe it's just me. Maybe this is the new "thing" and I'm just not getting it.
Finally, before I get back to my packing, I have only this to say: If you're an author, I'm begging you to avoid present tense (& its related forms) for the sake of your reader. Unless you have a really, really good reason—and frankly—I can't think of one.
Oh—that wasn't my final word. For those of you who are grammatically impaired (like me) here is a quick reference:
Present - He walks to the store
Present Perfect – He has walked to the store
Present Progressive – He is walking to the store
Present Perfect Progressive – He has been walking to the store
Past - He walked to the store
Past Perfect – He had walked to the store
Past Progressive – He was walking to the store
Past Perfect Progressive – He had been walking to the store
Future - He will walk to the store
Future Perfect – He will have walked to the store
Future Progressive – He will be walking to the store
Future Perfect Progressive – He will have been walking to the store
Have a good evening!