“My life,” she said. Says. Said.

May 28th, 2010

When you sit down to write your sixth novel (more like 12th if you count the unpublished ones), you start wanting . . . I don’t know . . . to change things up a little bit.   Alter the pattern.  Do something new.  Go places you’ve never been before.

Which is exactly what your agent and editor DON’T want you to do.

I mean, obviously you’re going to find a new story to tell and everyone wants that.  No one wants you to recycle an old plot. But no one wants a drastic change in tone and style, either.  If, after writing three light and humorous romances, I suddenly turned in a morbid alienated piece of existentialism . . .  that would be a problem.  And for good reason: you build up a base of support as a writer and you don’t want the readers who’ve loved your previous books to run out to buy a new one and be all, “Huh?  Wait.  Why am I reading about death and despair on the BEACH?  It doesn’t go with my pina colada at all!”

One solution some writers have found is to change their names when they decide to try a new genre or mood.  I think you have to be pretty confident and well established with your primary career to start doing that, although I do think it would be a LOT of fun to come up with a whole new name.  Candy Dalloway?   Fluffy Collins?   J.K. Rowline?  (I feel like that last one would sell well.)

Anyway, I’m still building the Claire LaZebnik franchise (Ha, LaZebnik!  That’s a good one!  Oh, wait, that’s real) so I don’t really want a new identity.  I just want to shake things up a little, keep myself entertained.

So here’s what I’m trying: the present tense.

You all just cried out  in astonishment, didn’t you?  I know, I know: it’s a radical thought.  Earth-shattering.

I’ve written five novels in the past tense but not a single one in the present–until NOW.  I have, admittedly, switched back and forth between the first and the third person with never a pause in the middle, but I figure I’m saving the second person voice for some time in the future when I’m REALLY bored and jaded.  I mean that goes beyond crazy and experimental, don’t you think?

But the present tense–that’s kind of a nice gentle little change.

In all seriousness, I’ve written 35 pages or so of the new novel in the present tense and I’m not sure how I feel about it yet.  Books written in the present tense always have a different feel to me than books set in the past–they feel a little dreamier, maybe a little darker, maybe a little more serious.  But maybe that’s just me.

It’s most likely a moot discussion anyway.  By the time this book is published–probably well over a year from now–it might be in the past tense.  And the whole story may be different.  And it won’t really be this book at all.  Things have a way of changing when you’re writing.  Which was kind of my goal to begin with, come to think of it.

What do you all think?  Do you like books either way?  Or do you prefer present or past tense?

Oh, and here’s a photo taken at the Book Expo of America of the poster for my next novel!  It’s real! It’s real!

  • When it’s Fluffy Collins at our house it’s time for me to go to the barber.

    I enjoy the present tense. Sometimes I slide into it writing a blog post, and then it’s a mess when I re-read and very hit-or-miss getting it back to past tense to read correctly. That never used to happen. It’s like my tense-transmission has a stripped gear. Had. Will have.

    • Claire says:

      It’s hard to maintain the present tense. Sometimes the narrator will talk about something that happened in the past and then I’ll forget to shift back into present tense when she’s done with it.

      The “Collins” part of Fluffy Collins was a tribute to the street I grew up on . . . Don’t know where the Fluffy came from except our cat is. Fluffy. Not by name. By genetics.

  • Claudia says:

    I remember RABBIT, RUN and how when I first read it, it seemed like a screenplay as it was in the present tense. What other novels are in the present tense? Is that book THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT in the present?

    • Claire says:

      coincidentally, the book I just read is in the present tense–Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. I can’t remember if the other book of hers I read was. I don’t think so but I’m not sure.

  • milkfever says:

    I love the present tense, there’s something so up-close-and-personal about it. You feel like you’re seeing the world through the character’s eyes.
    Also love the idea of changing names. Fluffy Collins gets my vote!

  • Julie Winn says:

    I don’t like the present tense, because it feels faddish to me– like all the new stuff in literary magazines and pretentious writing from creative writing classes. When I’m reading a book in the present tense, it distracts me all the way through the book. But that’s just because fiction has always been written in the past tense. If everyone writes in present tense (it seems to be changing for no discernible reason but fashion) then it will stop being noticeable and fade into the background, I suppose.

    My idea is that when you tell a story to someone about things that happen, you usually use the past tense. But for jokes or to recount something that you’re excited about, you use the present tense.

    In Chinese everything is written in the present tense and so what? There isn’t really a past tense in Chinese.

    I say experiment! It will be more fun.

  • Claire says:

    It IS fun to experiment. That change really makes me feel like I’m doing something different this time. And even if I go back through and change it to the past tense one day, I think something of my own excitement will come through. I hope so!

  • annie says:

    I love the idea of the present tense having read all the RABBIT novels back to back last fall.

  • rachelhamm says:

    This is great Claire! I love seeing the beginning of a new novel formed. I think it’s a wonderful idea to change things up. Start with tense, then maybe work your way into dark and depressing with strawberry margaritas (I’m not a huge fan of pina coladas).

    I can’t wait to hear more about this project!

    • Claire says:

      actually, I don’t like pina coladas either. But a margarita made with fresh lime juice is a wondrous thing.

  • I’ve never been comfortable with present tense literature, I don’t know why. Maybe past tense gives me the comfortable feeling that the author is in control of the book. Come to think of it, I’ve never liked conversational story-telling in the present tense. It always sounds declasse to me. Except for jokes.

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