Round Robin: POV and Tense

A Very Round Robin

Most of us write in the past tense and we use the first or third person for POV. What are some of your thoughts and decisions about choosing POV, and why? And what about tense?

Janet Dawson: I can’t abide books written in the present tense. It grates on me like fingernails on a blackboard. Same with books or stories written in the second person. If I inadvertently check a book out of the library and it’s in the present tense, I return the book. It’s difficult to pull it off and most of the books I’ve encountered that use present tense don’t do it very well. Why get in the way of the story you are telling?

As for POV, I chose first person for my Jeri Howard books. It seems that a lot of private eye books are in first person, and that seems natural and logical for the Jeri books. With my forthcoming book, What You Wish For, I chose third person, mostly from the POV of the protagonist, Lindsey Page. But there are chapters in the POV of three other important characters, because it’s necessary for the reader to find out what going on inside their heads. My work in progress, Death Rides The Zephyr, is third person, strictly limited to my protagonist, because I want the reader to discover the story as she encounters it.

Kathy Lynn Emerson:  Choosing POV has always been one of the first decisions I make when I start a new project. I’ve never been able to imagine writing in present tense. I even have a hard time reading it, although there have been a few cases where the writing was so good that I barely noticed what tense the book was written in after the first few pages. Second person also seems strange to me. So, my basic choice is between first person and third person. Most of the time I decide based on how many point of view characters I think I’m going to need. If the story can be told by my protagonist alone, then first person seems most natural to me. If I’m going to need to peek inside other people’s thoughts, then I go with third person POV.

When I was writing my Face Down series (the last three published by Perseverance Press), I almost always used five characters to tell the story. Who they were varied from book to book but one was always my protagonist, Susanna Appleton (Elizabethan era gentlewoman, herbalist, and sleuth). Another was usually her servant, friend, and companion, Jennet, who was also there to provide comic relief. The rest of the POV characters could be continuing characters or newcomers to the series. A few times, I even used a “secret villain” as a POV character. You know the one I mean, where the reader is taken into the mind of someone whose identity, even down to gender, is not revealed. It’s a literary device that’s fun to play around with, but easy to overdo.

Nancy Means Wright: I wrote my first novel in past tense and it came naturally. After all, most of the great books I read as a college English major (War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, et al.) were written that way. But then in my twenties I won a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and it seemed that most of my conferees were reading aloud stories written in the present. And when I read my manuscript aloud, the workshop leader smiled pityingly at me and said: “You might put that in present tense. It adds depth, you know, authenticity, immediacy.”

But too late, my agent had already submitted the novel and it was accepted. So I used present tense for my next novel, a YA–but, in truth, the book didn’t sell all that well. Too precious-sounding, too bland as one reviewer wrote. After that I did 15 more books in past tense. But when I decided to write in the persona of real-life Mary Wollstonecraft, I thought: No. I’ll use present tense. I want the novel to sound, well, literary.

When editor Meredith Phillips read the manuscript, she uttered a cry that surely echoed from California to rural Vermont ( I exaggerate, but she does eschew present tense). So I rewrote, retyped the manuscript in past tense, and she not only accepted it-—but she was right. I realized just how right when I wrote the second in the series, using several points of view, all in the past and in third person—I love the “distance” the he/she gives, the way one character can comment on another.

I admit I once tried second person “you,” but found it exceedingly artificial. I’ve tried first person, too, but the constant use of “I” seemed claustrophobic.  So the right way for me, I’ve learned, is to write in third person, past tense–and I’m sticking to it.

Camille Minichino:  If a book is done well, I’m hardly aware of the person or the tense. Joyce Carol Oates, for example, can write in any person, any tense, and still be my book-of-the-month. Or of-the-week, since she’s so prolific.  I’m currently reading The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler, written in present tense, multiple points of view. Granted, it’s a translation (my Swedish is rusty) so who knows what the original was like, but this version is smooth and wonderfully written.

Here’s a sample:  Two uniformed cops are standing outside the door of Ward N18; Erik senses a certain unease flit across their faces as he approaches. Maybe they’re just tired, he thinks, as he stops in front of them and identifies himself. They glance at his ID, press a button, and the door swings open with a hum.

Daniella Richards is making notes on a chart when Erik walks in. As he greets her, he notices the tense lines around her mouth, the muted stress in her movements.

“I’ve got the bleed in the liver under control,” she says.  

In my early writing days, I tried to write in present tense. Those pieces would have set Janet Dawson’s teeth on edge, and I quickly realized my talent lay elsewhere. No matter how I tried, I lost any sense of connection with the story and the reader when I wrote in present tense. It sounded pretentious and aloof. Now and then, I make an attempt again, but in general, I’m happy with my straight first or third person, past tense.

Sara Hoskinson Frommer:  When I wrote stories for adult new readers, I wrote in the present tense (the verbs are often easier to read) and the third person.  “Tom cuts hair.  Tom cuts hair in his shop.  Tom’s feet hurt.”  That’s the beginning of the shortest mystery story I ever wrote. In my “regular” mystery series, I write in the past tense and third person, and I write from two different points of view, those of my two main characters, viola player Joan Spencer, who manages a senior center, and small town police lieutenant Fred Lundquist, who’s now her husband. I don’t bop back and forth–it bothers me to read fiction that does. Instead, I stay in one POV for at least a big chunk of a chapter, usually a chapter or several. Not randomly, but depending on what’s going on in those heads.

Sometimes it’s more on the surface–whose eyes see what the reader sees? Other times, we’re farther inside the emotional POV and why those eyes are stinging or smiling or struggling to focus. In two of my books, Witness in Bishop Hill and the one coming out next year, Her Brother’s Keeper, Fred’s mother, Helga, is a main character. I never go into Helga’s head, but we see and hear her Alzheimer’s in what she does and says, and we feel for her and for the people close to her (and a particularly obnoxious one who isn’t) through Fred’s and Joan’s POV.

I know that POV, both as my mother’s daughter and now as a sister. And so it comes naturally to me to write about someone with this illness as a person with lovable characteristics and foibles, like everyone else, not as a patient. But from the outside–so far, at least. Could I do it if I were the person on the inside? Hard to imagine.

But that’s just what Alice La Plante gives us in her brilliant mystery, Turn of Mind. Her main character descends into dementia bit by unpredictable bit, and we live it too, in her first person POV. As her mind garbles what she experiences, we too struggle to decipher what’s happening. It’s a powerful, painful tour de force.


5 Responses

  1. I’m glad to be in such good company: I truly dislike anything written in present tense–and like Janet Dawson, I simply don’t read books that are.

    As for POV, I find myself moving from person to person very easily even when not prompted by chapter headings.

    Very interesting topic!

  2. Nancy has described my reaction to present-tense writing perfectly. I liked her first M. Wollstonecraft ms immediately, but couldn’t get past the first few pp when it was written in the present, esp since it was set long ago. I guess it bothers me more in historicals. She did a heroic job of retyping every verb in the book!

    I usually notice it right away in books I’m reading, and don’t like it, but if the book’s good otherwise I keep going. It’s kind of a subliminal thing (like the clanging/screeching on the Oscars broadcast’s sound system that apparently a lot of live bloggers noticed, not just me).

    I’m surprised that writers were doing it (pres. tense) when Nancy was in her 20s (tho that’s not so long ago, right?) I thought it was just one more quite recent development designed to set our teeth on edge, like lack of quotation marks (in my recent book-group book) or using dashes instead (in one Booker Prize book). I think some authors seize on anything to set them apart from the herd; maybe they’ll stop if it gets too common!

  3. Great blog, but as to tense, I think any writer should be careful before dismissing out of hand the use of any tools available. Tense and pov are tools to serve the narrative and present tense is sometimes the right one for the job. I’ve loved lots of books written in present tense, and many of them aren’t what we’d call “literary”. Sophie Kinsella’s The Undomestic Goddess comes to mind–imo, one of the funniest novels I’ve read in years. (For that matter, much of what some call Chick-Lit is written in present tense.) To me, pov and tense are inextricably bound into the “voice” of a story, and finding that voice is the joy and burden of being a writer.

    • Well said, Susan! A good reminder to us not to be too hasty. Voice comes first, and in some cases, must determine the tense. I, too, have read some superb books in present tense–but realize now that it’s not for me.

  4. I remember now my specific objection to Nancy’s book when it was in present tense, and I think it goes for the majority of these. It read like a précis, the kind of summary used for promotional purposes; these are always in the present, and I write them that way too. It does lend immediacy–but is that what you want spread out over a novel?

    BTW, I was the only person in my book group to notice that book mentioned above, Caribou Island, lacks quotation marks for dialogue. They didn’t seem to mind, either. Maybe it’s an editor’s occupational hazard.

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