Ink-Stained Scribe

First-Person Present Tense in YA

Not even all of them.
Last week I declared a no-writing week, and set to work on the massive pile of books on my bedside table. Some of these are from StellarCon, and some of them are my first-paycheck treat.

I've taken to carrying books around with me, which has helped in the effort to read more. I always carry at least one general fantasy novel, and one YA novel. Recently, I've noticed that I finish three or four YA books per regular fantasy book, which is why I like reading young adult fiction -- I can finish a book in two or three evenings, and the prose isn't as thick as that of Tad Williams or Jaqueline Carey.

I've zoomed through several YA books in the past two or three weeks, including The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins, Matched by Ally Condi, and White Cat by Holly Black.

I wasn't shocked to find that The Hunger Games was in first-person present-tense, because the immediacy of the plot really lends itself to that narrative mode. After obsessively devouring the trilogy, I picked up Matched because the premise was fascinating. I wasn't disappointed, but I was struck by the fact that this author had also chosen first-person present-tense. I thought about it, and decided that in a world where the future is decided, and all reminders of the past are removed, present-tense was the only option. By the time I got to Holly Black's White Cat, I wasn't even surprised. First-person. Present-tense.

 I'm sure by now we're all used to first-person, especially in YA, where the immediate sympathy of the reader demands a close perspective from the word go, but reading present-tense in genre fiction was a bit of a surprise for me. I see it in literary fiction sometimes, but where I first noticed the trend was in fan-fiction, especially short works. Now, I fell off the fan-fiction bandwagon somewhere around 2006, when I decided it was time to focus my writing on original work. But last year, while waiting for season 3 of Merlin, I skimmed through livejournal to see what was there. I clearly remember Skyping with Adryn one evening, and reading Merlin fanfic whilst waiting for her responses.

Scribe: Shouting to Corwin for cover, Zieke lunges forward and hacks through the foot-soldier's waxed leather armor...*blahblahblah*
Adryn: Are you reading fanfiction?
Scribe: @_@ How did you know that?
Adryn: Because you keep writing in present-tense.
Scribe: ...
Adryn: Don't you hate writing in present-tense?
Scribe: ...

It was pretty embarrassing. I'm the most grammar-conscious of my friends, and to have made a tense-shift error of that magnitude mid-scene was uncharacteristic. The funniest thing was realizing that Adryn had spotted the trend well enough to identify exactly why I had staggered over to the "dark side". (Since that mortifying slip, I have written one thing that includes present-tense: Goodbye Girl, the first half of which is f-p/p-t.)

I have to wonder why that's becoming such a common narrative mode. I find it to be spare, and almost too immediate in most cases. While the subject-matter of The Hunger Games and Matched were both well-suited to present-tense, I feel like White Cat would have been exactly the same book in past-tense. There was no clear reason why the book needed to be in present-tense. Black's faerie series is in past-tense, so it isn't just that she's a present-tense author--it was a clear authorial choice for this set of books. Maybe it was simply because she wanted to experiment writing in present-tense, or because that's just the way the character spoke to her--I get that. As the author, her choice is valid, even if it's not the choice I would have made. Admittedly, I would never make the choice unless the story would be improved by it (and you'd have a hard time convincing me it would), so my biased self is probably off the mark concerning her motivations. My point, however, is not why she made that choice, but the question of whether Holly Black or any author would have made that choice fifteen years ago.

Personally, I don't think so. I know there were f-p/p-t novels back then--there had to have been. I just don't think they made up such a large percentage of the YA section. I certainly don't remember reading any, and I read even more fifteen years ago than I do now. I think the recent trend probably has to do with the idea that immediacy lends itself to faster reader sympathy. Things beyond authorial (and even agent and editor) control are causing writers to need that immediate sympathy any way we can get it. The length of books is being cut, prose is being dumbed-down, and Tolkein-esque jaunts into the land of useless description are halted in their tracks. We simply don't have time for it...or so we tell ourselves.

Oh, what was the line? "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." But who is "they"? It's useless to try blaming anyone--authors, agents, editors, publishers, readers, Hitler--because the narrative mode of fiction is beginning to reflect our current culture, which demands short, fast, and now.

"Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees. Please."

Have you recently read a book in present-tense? What did you think? Do you think the recent trend of present-tense will last?

GO READ Raven's response post on this topic - it's not only hysterical, but provides another layer of analysis on the subject, and the three novels.