I hope I’m not too late with my question, but what I am very interested to know is your thoughts on present versus past tense for a story. Basically when I first started writing a few years ago I confused the aspect of “active voice” with present tense (oops). So from bad habit ingrained in me since then means I typically write in the present tense thinking I am making the story more immediate, intimate, etc. Buuut I don’t seem do it very well AND I have received comments that maybe past tense would be a better way for me to write even for stories that are happening “now” as opposed to recounting past/historical events.
Excellent question and one I was unclear about until scarily recently.
Past tense is the default storytelling tense. I’ve heard lots of people say they can’t stand reading stories in present tense. They find it pretentious and annoying. I suspect that’s because it’s associated with Modernism, with writers like Gertrude Stein, and thus with capital-L Literachure.
Samuel R. Delany argues that it’s because the natural present tense in spoken English is not present tense, but present progressive. No one says, “I sit there, minding my own business”. They say, “I’m sitting there, minding my own business”. Which is probably the major contributing factor to present tense feeling so very literary. People really don’t talk like that. On the other hand, Damon Runyon deployed present progressive and he’s never been accused of directly replicating everyday speech. (I adore Runyon.)
Scott says that what he likes best about present tense is that you don’t have to use the pluperfect when you do flashbacks, you can use the simple past. Sure some people hate it, but some people hate books written in first person or omniscient point of view. They’re clearly crazy.
I like present tense fine. As with any other writing technique when done well it’s a marvel; when done badly it’s a nightmare. It sounds like you’re worried that you’re not doing it well. This could be as much because of you inexperience with writing, as because of present tense. That said, it’s a really good idea to try changing the tense of stories that aren’t working. I’ve switched from past to present and found a story suddenly has legs, and vice versa. My first novel, Magic or Madness didn’t work for me until I switched from third person for the main protag to first person.
Though sometimes no amount of changes will make a broken story work. But no worries there are plenty of other stories to write and experiment with. When you’re not on a deadline you’ve got all the time in the world.
You’re right, present tense can be much more immediate and intimate. I use it for parts of my next novel for precisely that reason. It makes it seem like my extremely unreliable narrator is talking to you right this very minute. She’s up close and personal how could you possibly believe she’s lying to you? She’s said she’s stopped that stuff. You believe her, right? How could you not? She’s right here! Right now!
Hope that helps and I hesitate to say it cause I’ve thrashed it to death this month, but, well, good luck.
NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.