Thursday, 31 October 2013

Historical Headaches 3 – Present tense or past?


I recently read an interesting forum discussion, which started in 2005, on the pros and cons of writing in the present tense.

A wide range of opinions, often contradictory, was aired about the virtues and vices of using the present tense as the main narrative tense in fiction writing. One viewpoint in particular made me wince, from Emma D, as I recognised that I was guilty of having used the present tense as a superficial device to provide more ‘immediacy’ in a novel about a siege during the English Civil War. My editing and re-writing had not examined fully enough the effects of the change of tense (I had originally written it in the past) and I realise that it would have been preferable to have worked harder on sharpening the style of the original draft. I cringe when I think of how I simply converted the text. If I felt it was dull I should have found ways of enlivening it!

The general advice seems to be as follows:

· Readers of genre fiction are less keen on a present tense narrative

· The use of the present tense has to be a justifiable and deliberate literary choice integrated with the writer’s voice

· The present tense appears superficially easier to use, but in fact requires more skill than the more ‘traditional’ past tense narrative style

· The tense often isn’t noticed if the novel is engaging enough for the reader

Evidence of the complex ways in which successful writers use the present and other tenses can be found in three examples of historical novels. As always, the more you examine writing strategies, the more complicated they reveal themselves to be!

Sarah Bower, in The Needle in the Blood provides an accomplished model of the use of the present a a consistent narrative tense, with such seamless fluency that the reader is almost unaware of this deliberate choice of tense. The dialogue is particularly well handled and avoids the awkward repetitious ‘she says’, ‘he says’ which somehow seem more glaring in present tense narratives.

Julian Barnes in Arthur and George weaves present and past tenses with great subtlety. The switching seems to reinforce various aspects of the narrative and the characterisation. For example, the narrative dealing with George’s childhood and youthful experiences are conveyed in the present and seem to indicate his inability to recall and reflect upon his early experiences, the limitations of his imagination and his simplicity and naivety. The parallel narrative from the young Arthur’s point of view, provides an interesting contrast, reflecting his intelligence and insight and is notably told in the past tense. Later in the novel, switches in tenses mark changes of events and pace and produce greater or lesser degrees of intensity and immediacy in the characters’ experiences. In the hands of a less skilful writer, these techniques would be very risky!

In Burial Rites Hannah Kent often conveys the condemned woman Agnes Magnusdottir’s thoughts and reflections in the present, which seems to provide a deepening presentation of her character, strengthening the reader’s sympathy for her. Past tense and present tense are sometimes interwoven, for example in Chapter 2, where Agnes’s awareness of her physical state is integrated with her narrative of her removal from prison to the farm where she is to be held until her execution.

They have taken me from the room and put me in irons again. This time they sent an officer of the court, a young man with pocked skin and a nervous smile. He’s a servant from Hvammur, I recognised his face. When his lips broke apart I could see that his teeth were rotting in his mouth. His breath was awful, but no worse than my own: I know I am rank. I am scabbed with dirt and the accumulated weeping of my body:blood, sweat, oil. I cannot think of when I last washed. My hair feels like a greased rope: I have tried to keep it plaited, but they have not allowed me ribbons, and I imagine that to the officer I looked like a monstrous creature. Perhaps that is why he smiled.

It could all have been related in the past, but the intensity of Agnes’s suffering might in this case have become more distanced. Her telling of the events allows her narrative to slide naturally into the recent past with the perfect tense, have taken, have tried, have not allowed and into the simple past, sent, recognised, broke and, later in the novel, into the more distant past, using past perfect and simple past as she recalls events and recounts them to other characters. Agnes’s point of view is thus presented in a stylistically complex way, which is reflective of the complexity of her character. The points of view of the other major characters are presented as more straightforward past tense narratives.


Sunday, 6 October 2013

WivWords 12/13 October 2013

Writing can open up new doors for many of us. This summer both Sue Dawes and I have become involved with the WivWords festival, having been co-opted onto the committee by our mutual friend Petra McQueen. This is what Petra has said about the event:-

 'Wiv Words' is Wivenhoe's own literary festival that will take place on October 12th and 13th. It will be an unstuffy celebration of local talent. There are talks, walks, workshops, theatre, comedy and poetry events. There are events for children, teenagers and adults. The weekend will culminate on Sunday night with a show by John Cooper Clarke and Martin Newell.

As well as being a writer and active member of the committee, Sue describes herself as a jewellery-crafter and lover of all things hand-made. You will be able to see some of her work at the Paperformance exhibition in William Loveless Hall during the weekend, and also at Cutting Corners Picture Framing, situated in Wivenhoe Business Centre, Brook Street, Wivenhoe. Here there will be a small exhibition of jewellery created using book pages, paper and other materials.
 I have been asked to speak at the Voice of Wivenhoe Women event to be held on Saturday evening at Open Space, also in the Business Centre, Brook Street, Wivenhoe. This will give an opportunity revisit some of the women interviewed by Charmaine McKissock over the four series of Wivenhoe Women, broadcast on Radio Wivenhoe since 2012. I believe Sue Dawes has now been interviewed too. The recordings, which are fascinating to hear, are still available on a play-back facility. I was one of the earlier interviewees and found the whole experience very revealing. Charmaine brought something out in each of us with her charming and clever interview techniques. The spoken word rather than the written word gave added insight.
I have been delighted to contribute to the on-going Writing Relay organised by Broomgrove Infant School in Wivenhoe. Alexander McCall Smith kindly provided a starter paragraph which has been added to in turn by various school groups, businesses and local townspeople. My page was written on behalf of The Wivenhoe Surgery. It was a challenge to read a story developed by others and then continue it, providing continuity as well as giving somewhere for the plot to go - a very different experience from creating ones own plot and I can’t wait to read the end of the story. I do hope it will be available for us all to read in due course.
The Shed writers group, based at the Wivenhoe Bookshop have organised a 60 word writing competition. Now here’s another challenge, open to all, to write a 60 word piece (prose or poetry) containing the word ‘shed’. Why not give it a go? The entry form will be available at the bookshop throughout the weekend of the festival and four winners chosen by November 4th. I hope we might be allowed to publish their words on this blog shortly after.
So writing and word related projects are springing up all over the place, raising money for the Mayor's charities, and many published writers will be giving talks and workshops over the two days of the festival. Anyone seeking ideas and inspiration for their writing should have a look at the full programme on the Mayor’s website; or pick up a printed version from Wivenhoe Bookshop, 23 High Street, Wivenhoe CO7 9BE.