Talk about Tense!

It’s my very great pleasure to welcome author, Nathan Luff to my blog to celebrate the launch of his new novel, Bad Grammar. (Age group: 9-12. Pub. Walker Books 2013)

Nathan Luff

Marcus is a warrior in the game world – a legend. He is a shy nobody in the real world – a loser.
But he’s just been mistakenly enrolled in Bad Grammar, an outback boarding school for bad kids. This place is not a resort. It’s a last resort.

I can’t wait to read Nathan’s book knowing what a great sense of humour he has and how this translates into his stories. Check out these reviews:  “Four out of five stars. A funny fast-paced book, full of outlandish characters and incidents, and frequent asides from The Warrior’s Guide to Everything, this is a recommended read for young adventurers.” Australian Booksellers and Publishers Magazine. “It’s not all fun and games because, as with any good adventure, there is danger and mystery galore.” Deb Abela, author.

 In this post, Nathan’s going to tell us who he sorted out what tense to write his novel, which we all know can be tricky to decide sometimes. Take it away, Nathan!

With my new novel, Bad Grammar, I decided to write it using present tense. This was a challenge, as I’d never written in this style before.

I actually first wrote the opening chapters of Bad Grammar in past tense but I just couldn’t get into the story, not until I went back to the start and rewrote the first line:

I dump my schoolbag, fly up the stairs and burrow into my messy cave of a bedroom, ready to deal with the dragon.

From there, everything seemed to flow. Still, I was nervous, as writers often are, that I was doing everything wrong.

I wondered if there were any tips for how to write present tense prose, and a Google search exposed me to the passionate debate people have about the efficacy of this style of writing. Some people HATE it. They find books written in present tense to be very jarring on the reading experience. They can’t enjoy the story without being aware of the writing. Then there are a lot of people who don’t even notice it.

 Where do you sit on the debate?

 If you have a look around you’ll see there are a heap of contemporary books, particularly for young audiences, being written using present tense. The Hunger Games and the Chaos Walking trilogy are great examples. It is becoming common enough that I think young readers have adapted to it and no longer find it a self-conscious style of writing.

So what are the benefits? Why bother writing in this style if it divides people?

Well, as anyone will tell you, it adds a sense of immediacy to the story. As I also wrote Bad Grammar as a first person narrative, the reader is experiencing everything at the same time the main character, Marcus, is. It’s such a great way to connect reader and character – it’s a literary umbilical cord between minds. That sounds a bit freakier than it is! I think it’s a very useful tool. Marcus doesn’t have a chance to think about what is happening, to analyse it, or to form any judgement. You are getting his immediate reaction to things, and that is very exciting from both a writer’s and a reader’s perspective, especially because sometimes people’s immediate reactions surprise even themselves.

For books that are heavy with action, as Bad Grammar is, present tense is especially effective. Anything could happen and there is no pre-empting of the action, so it can catch us unawares. At the end of the story, the character could die because we know they don’t have to survive to narrate the story back to us.

 Another question often asked is, ‘Is it easy to write?’

The answer is both yes and no. My training is in screenwriting, and scripts are always written in present tense, so I think this definitely helped me embrace this style of writing.

You get used to it but the biggest problem is dealing with gaps in time. With past tense, it is much easier to skip periods in the story where nothing exciting is happening, however, when you are experiencing the story in present tense, it is harder to cheat time. Essentially, you are writing in real time. I found I ended up with fewer scenes and some carefully chosen chapter breaks.

I found I also ended up with a lot of shorter sentences. Think about the way you think. We don’t always think in long elaborate sentences, especially if something exciting is happening. We don’t have time for that. Rather than tapping into someone dialogue rhythm, you are trying to tap into his or her thought rhythms, and this is both a challenge and a fun exercise.

Things can get tricky when a character is talking or thinking about an event that happened in the past. You have to be careful of tense in these instances. Another thing I found tricky was when I was editing Bad Grammar, whilst also writing another manuscript (in past tense)– my brain got a little addled here. It can also be hard reading in past tense and writing in present. This is why I binge write, so I emerge myself in a story and style with little distraction.

 It’s my belief that the story you decide to tell that will dictate what tense you need to write it but my advice is not to be scared of present tense. It certainly has its benefits.

Bad Grammar is out now and available at all good bookshops (if your local bookshop doesn’t have it, it is a bad bookshop. Get them to order it in, so they can be good again).

 Thank you, Nathan! Check out links to the rest of Nathan’s blog tour here. Nathan was one of the fabulous authors who stepped forward to help out by being a Roving Reporter for the SCBWI Conference Blog last year (which I really appreciated!) 🙂

Nathan and the rest of the Roving Reporters at the SCBWI Conference 2012
Nathan and the rest of the Roving Reporters

5 thoughts on “Talk about Tense!

  1. Great to see so many people are trying it. I’ve adjudicated a lot of children’s writing competitions and it’s interesting to note that a lot of children are now naturally writing in this style. Behold the new generation!!


  2. This is a very interesting subject. I faced the same decisions when writing my book. I decided to go with present tense too. My story is in third person. It is easy to slip out of time if you’re not careful but I think it brings the reader and the characters closer together when they are experiencing the action at the same time.


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