Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Living in the Present

I remember in high school, getting out to the parking lot where my '90 Mustang was baking in the sun, getting in after a long day of classes, and racing my friends down Indiantown Road.  My Mustang was an automatic 4cyl and didn't have much kick, but I drove it like it was a race car.  Standing between school and my home were a set of railroad tracks and a bridge, both of which I knew I'd catch if I wasn't fast enough.  So I gunned it down the road, going 60 in a 45, weaving in and out of traffic, blasting music and making sure I was ahead of my buddies.  On more than one occasion, I barely made it under the guardrail as the train barreled by or the bridge began to rise.

Looking back on those things now, I realize how many times I should have died.  I was a reckless guy who did a lot of insane things.  And that's because I lived in the present.

Which is why I like writing in the present tense.  I know that a lot of people have instant hate for stories written in the present tense, but it's about more than simply changing said to say and stood to stand.  One of the reasons I enjoy writing stories about teens is because they live on the bleeding edge of their emotions.  Everything is real and raw and NOW.  Teens often walk around like burn victims, every nerve exposed to the air.  When they make decisions, there's often little thought for future consequences.

When you write a story in the present tense, you're saying that THIS moment is important.  Not the past, not the future, now, now, now.  Every moment you write about has to be filled with meaning.  You force the reader into the head of someone who imbues every moment with importance.  There's not much time for navel gazing or thinking ahead.  The pace can be punishing but the rewards great.

My first drafts of The Deathday Letter were in past tense because I'd never thought about writing in the present.  My agent at the time suggested I write part of it in present, and I fell so in love with the present tense, that I ended up rewriting the whole novel in the present.  It gave Ollie's last day on earth and urgency that had been lacking in the first draft.  It forced the readers to live Ollie's last day WITH Ollie.  It wasn't something they were reading about after the fact, they lived as Ollie lived.  At least, that was my intention.

So while many people think present tense is a passing fad, I think it offers the reader a way to get right into the characters' head right now. To live on the edge of life they way teenagers so often do.  And that's pretty cool.

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