Blue: First Person Present Tense at Its Best

First, a quick note. My "Writing Career Advice from a Neuroscientist" series was featured on Science Magazine's career blog! :-) Thanks for the kind words, James, and I hope the scientists who came here via that link found the advice helpful. (Given this development, I guess the series should be called "Writing career advice from a neuroscientist, but still applicable to scientists," ...hrrmm... )

We had such great discussion about tense and point of view two weeks ago that I wanted to continue the conversation. Many comments centered around first person present tense, which I'd like to explore more today.

Take a look at this following example, a passage that I think showcases first person present tense (from here on abbreviated as FPP) at its best. A bit of background information: the narrator is a young woman who lives with her parents. Her nieces Izzy and Lawrie are visiting them.

everyone's wearing blue today, accidentally: izzy, lawrie, mom, and me matching like a benetton ad. so dad runs off and puts on a blue polo of my mom's, and emerges looking very uncomfortable, as only a 59-year-old minister can look in a woman's sky-blue shirt that is a little too small.

this kind of thing strikes my mom as very funny, so she shrieks like a good witch, which of course gets the girls all riled up and pretty soon lawrie is grabbing my hands and dancing me in a circle in the living room, and we are shouting "blue! blue! blue!" with each bounce. "blue! blue! blue!" we shout, dancing clockwise, then, "eulb! eulb! eulb!", counter-clockwise, and dad searching for the camera while mom yells after him, "take a picture! we need to take a picture!"

we pour out the back door onto the sunny porch, still shrieking like the bunch of girls + one crossdressing boy that we are, still yelling "blue! blue! blue!" as mom is crying, "we are blue like the sky! the sky of heaven! we are heavenly blue!" and izzy declares joyfully, "we are the blue team!"

dad sets the saran wrap box on the picnic table and i put the camera on top and everybody arranges themselves for the picture, except for dad, who is still screaming, "blue! blue! blue!" and trying to sneak various blue objects into the picture with us: an old plastic jug with the top cut off, the recycling bin.

our next-door neighbor is standing in her backyard and staring at us. i wave and yell, "we're all wearing blue!" as if she can't tell.

This example is actually an entry from my cousin Caren's blog. To see the photograph they took, hop over to the original entry. While you're there, try to convince her to do more writing. She's wonderfully talented.

I love this passage because it uses first person present to the author's advantage, creating a vivid and realistic experience for the reader.
So when does first person present work, and when is it simply a distraction? After some reflection and a lot of help from commenters on the last post, I've compiled a list of advantages and disadvantages of FPP.

Possible Advantages of First Person Present Tense:
1. Immediacy and vividness - As commenter Judy mentioned, 1st person present tense feels more immediate and urgent. If done well, FPP can have a "virtual reality" type feel where there is absolutely no distance between reader and protagonist. It's great for making sensory imagery come alive and also works well in passages where action take place in "real time."
2. Freedom with voice - Judy and Caren (yes, the same Caren) mentioned that FPP is more chatty and casual, which makes it more tolerant toward ungrammatical sentences and colloquial constructs. The advantage to this is that it gives the writer more freedom to develop a unique voice for the narrating character.
3. Contemporary feel - Because stories are traditionally told in past tense, telling the story in present tense gives it a modern feel.(Thanks,Surya) If contemporary is what you're going for, then that's good news.

Possible challenges of first person present
1. Unusual -- As flaxeloquent and Beth mentioned, FPP is relatively rare. Because of that, readers will notice your choice and may find it distracting.
2. Lapses in voice are more noticable - Again, because this is such an intimate POV, it's easier to notice the narrator breaking character. You have to be extra careful that the voice stays intact.
3. Harder to write about past or provide background information- FPP often feels like a "what is he thinking here and now" narration mode. If you want to provide background information about a character or setting, you may find it harder to accomplish this without artificially pushing your character's thoughts on tangents. (If anyone knows of an example where this is done well, do let me know!)

Whew, halfway through writing this list, I realized what a crazy undertaking it was to summarize the advantages and disadvantages of an entire mode of narration in a single blog post. Please help me out in the comments!

Blog Carnivals:
The Mad Editor's Roundup

Writing Career Advice From a Neuroscientist Part 4: Don't Take Criticism Personally

This is part 4 of a 4 part series about career advice my graduate adviser gave to his graduate students and postdocs. His advice is for people pursuing an academic science career, but I'm sharing the ones that also apply to writers.

Part 1: Choose your projects carefully
Part 2: Know the literature
Part 3: Don't spread yourself too thin

Part 4: Don't take criticism personally, and respond professionally

Few things are as hard on a scientist's self esteem as the peer review process. Whether for grants or for papers, you can expect to get emails from anonymous reviewers whose job is to scrutinize your baby and dig out all its flaws. While it's tempting to shoot back a response insulting your reviewer's intellect and mentioning how you'd like to see THEM come up with a better experiment, that is very unlikely to help you in the long term – especially since these people
have the power to accept or reject your grant or paper. It's better to walk away for an hour or two, recollect, and then respond professionally and appropriately.

I think writers have it easier in this sphere. Yes, there are snarky and hurtful reviews, but often, critiques are well intentioned and are actually trying to help improve the piece. So when you get some suggestions that batter your ego, don't take it personally. Step back, take a deep breath, evaluate, and then decide on the appropriate response.

For something from the agent's perspective, here are some funny rejection stories from agent Jessica Faust, as well as a more serious post about burning bridges.

That's the end of the neuroscience/writing career advice series. Thoughts? Are the two career paths similar, or are these analogies a stretch?

Switching up tense in the narration

Last week in Twitter's kidlitchat, the subject of narration tense came up. In addition to the traditional 3rd person past tense and 1st person past tense, some authors also use 1st and 3rd person present tense.

This discussion reminded me of A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly, which incorporates a clever use of tense switching. The novel weaves together two narratives: a flashback and a more current narrative about the main character. Each chapter is written in 1st person past tense or present tense depending on which narrative it belongs to.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about that strategy. It's a nice subtle way to signal context to the reader, but it might have been a bit too subtle. I was a few chapters in before I realized what was happening. Nevertheless, it's a nice technique to be aware of.

What tense do you prefer in your reading or writing? Have you read any books that employed tense to its advantage?

Noting the things that are missing

There's an excellent post today at edittorrent on "The Words Not Spoken, The Steps Not Taken." The main idea: noticing events that don't happen or elements missing from a scene can make for elegant and powerful description. Go check it out!

Writing Advice from a Neuroscientist Part 3: Don't Spread Yourself Too Thin

This is part 3 of a 4 part series about career advice my graduate adviser gave to his graduate students and postdocs. His advice is for people pursuing an academic science career, but I'm sharing the ones that also apply to writers.

Part 1: Choose your projects carefully
Part 2: Know the literature

Part 3: Don't spread yourself too thin, especially early on in your career

There's so many interesting topics in neuroscience that it's tempting to investigate them all! However, that's a bad idea for two reasons. First, as a young inexperienced scientist, it's hard enough to stay on top of the literature for one topic, let alone two. Second, you want to become well known and established in your subfield. Publishing two papers on memory and two papers on schizophrenia doesn't make you twice as impressive. It just makes you half as impressive to the memory and schizophrenia communities as you would have been if you had focused on one topic.

Likewise, as a young author, it may be tempting to genre hop. This is a bad idea for analogous reasons. First, it is easier to “keep up with the literature” in one genre as opposed to trying to understand the conventions, traditions, and unique challenges of multiple genres. Second, skipping from genre to genre takes away from your ability to build a solid fan base in one genre. You split your efforts, and you may end up with a weakly formed fan base in two genres, rather than a strong fan base in one. For more on genre hopping, read this blog entry from agent Nathan Bransford.

And finally, part 4.

Writing Career Advice from a Neuroscientist Part 2: Know the Literature

This is part 2 of a 4 part series about career advice my graduate adviser gave to his graduate students and postdocs. His advice is for people pursuing an academic science career, but I'm sharing the ones that also apply to writers.

Part 1: Choose your projects carefully
Part 2: Know the Literature
When designing a new experiment, you need to be caught up on the field. There's no point in conducting an experiment to show something we already know, and there's no point in testing a hypothesis that can't possibly be true.

While it may be easier to write a novel than do neuroscience in a vacuum, you'd have a much better chance of publishing it if you research the market and know what is currently selling. This doesn't mean that we should all be writing teen-vampire-wizard-catholic-church-conspiracy stories, but it does mean that we need to have a good sense of general market trends.

Don't take my word for it though. Here are some interesting blog entries from people who actually know what they're talking about.

1. Agent Jessica Faust on representing books that are different.

2. Agent Rachelle Gardner on whether you should write what's hot.

3. Eric at Pimp My Novel had an excellent series on genre specific book sales.

Stay tuned for Part 3...

Wedding Haikus

Greetings! Just wanted to report that we survived the wedding and our one week honeymoon in Banff National Park!

Since this is a writing blog, I'll share this little tidbit from our wedding. Jeff and I decided that the usual "clinking glasses to kiss" tradition was cute, but kind of boring. So we proposed the following modification: before clinking their glasses, the guests had to take the microphone and either 1) compliment Livia or 2) make fun of Jeff -- bonus points if they did both in haiku form.

People came up with some hilarious and rather well written haikus. For some reason, I found this one particularly amusing:

Jeffrey is funny--
looking. Ha ha ha ha ha.
Ha ha ha ha ha!

What do you think? Total copout, or stroke of genius?