Which works better--past or present tense? Or both?
Excellent question. When I get the right viewpoint for my fiction or for memoir, it's like finding one's seat on a horse. It feels as if you and the horse are moving as one. I've found the same goes for writing, not just riding:) For example, in my historical novel, Counting on Grace, I tried everything else first and finally landed on first person, present tense because I'd forced myself to write a diary for my main character. That brought her close to me and in the end, to the reader.
Oh my goodness, Ramona. Thank you for the question! In truth, because I am such a newbie, I don’t know if I have even considered what tense I may be writing in… L O L. In these few months since I started a blog and am now exploring Substack, my practice has been simply to sit and let what I call a “download “ occur. Then from there I go back and edit, edit, edit.
I worked with a lawyer in the corporate world for a number of years and he was what I considered a master wordsmith. He taught me much and I felt I had acquired a certain skill set. But, now, you have prompted me to stop and take a closer look. So thank you so much!
I often prefer first person present tense when writing my memoir-style pieces. I like that it brings the reader into my inner life and thoughts as they unfold in real-time. But, this also depends on the topic I’m writing about!
I don't make the choice consciously, I just start writing. In my post today I went with second person present. It felt natural because it was like I was telling myself a story I wouldn't otherwise be able to believe. It's fun: https://open.substack.com/pub/agowani/p/how-to-survive-the-us-healthcare
Coming from more of a fiction perspective but I think it has applied to the times that I've written memoir/CNF as well...
In my early drafts I tend to be drawn to first person, present tense, because it's easiest for me to get to know my characters that way and their storylines (A to B to C, etc.). Sometimes the story will stay that way, but other times over several drafts I'll end up switching to, say, third person, past tense -- in that way, it's almost like I have to spend enough time with the person/story to know how to open the world up?
Because to me third person, past tense, is the trickiest of them all to nail down... the scope of it can be enormous. You can jump that thing all over time and space.
So if you have complete freedom with the camera (and not in the POV of an individual), where do you point it, and why? And who is the narrator, then? How is it that the fit into the story? Or, will readers be willing to accept that they aren't in the story and are instead godlike & omniscient?
I think mixing tenses is fine when you can make it obvious. A journal or a flashback can work really well. I don't particularly writing in the first person simply because it is like a journal. I have a detective series I've been working on that's third person mainly because everyone seems to write detectives in the first person and it just gets tiresome for me. I guess like anything else, it takes practice to make the words work. Sooner or later, we can probably make any tense/perspective sound good :)
I almost always write my books in present tense and my essays in past tense. My memoir is told from my POV from about age 4 on, so the urgency lent by using first person, present tense felt necessary.
My novels - third person present makes it easier to go back to past and (very rarely) past participle for flashbacks without having to go from past to past participle, which can get cumbersome. But truthfully that’s not why I *started* writing in present. It just felt natural to me for the story, having the reader read it as if the action was happening right there in front of them. I think my brain overindexes on present tense. When I reflect back on a book I really enjoyed, I pretty much always assume it was written in present tense. Usually I’m wrong. 😂