Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Writers read: the plus and minus of writing in the present tense

The Score is a delightful novel about a smashed grand piano and its people. 
As a reader I was happy to be whisked along by the story of Stefan the desperate piano restorer and his unlikely helpers. Attractions include a vivid bunch of characters in various predicaments; an interesting setting in the community housing in Newtown, Wellington, only a short bus ride from my place; and a friendly, confident style.
As a writer, I started pondering the problems of writing an entire novel in the present tense.

  • You can only dive into the past by making a character speak or think about it. You can't take us there.
  • The emphasis is likely be on constant activity. It's difficult to step back for a breather, to reflect on events.
  • If you are telling events as they happen, it's hard to keep the timeline realistic.
  • Your voice must be very engaging to maintain the reader's commitment. A "Hey, look at this!" tone can be tiring.
Adrienne Jansen handles the challenge expertly. The present tense suits the helter-skelter plot and conveys the minute-by-minute confusion of her characters' lives, which are certainly messy. Altogether this is a charming novel, warm and human.
Many a  brilliant novel has been written in the present tense, but it's a heck of a lot harder than it looks. So before deciding to use the present tense in fiction, take a deep breath. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Writers read: for non-fiction, be your reader

When writing fiction, I've been told very firmly by publishers and agents to picture precisely where my novel would be shelved in a bookstore. In other words, to know my audience.

Fortunately, I write novels for fun and only fun, so I ignore this advice. I don't care who reads them. That's extreme, but many a fabulous novel has broken the mould and found its own surprising audience.

Here comes the ominous "However."

However, for non-fiction, this would be foolish: you certainly need to know who you want to read your book. Otherwise you might patronise them or bore your readers.

Lauren Earl has no problem knowing her audience. She is her audience, or was a year or two ago.

Her audience: young people leaving the family home for the first time to share a flat. But what flat? Where? When? How? Who with? These huge questions can lead to chaos, drama, fear and malnutrition — but that won't stop flatting from being a great adventure.

Lauren Earl's marvellous Flatter's Survival Guide hits exactly the right note for her target audience, because she's been there, done that. It's funny and silly and the advice is spot on.

"Look for any notes posted around, as they can be a sign of passive-aggressive flatmates."
"Everyone seems normal until you get to know them."
"There will be squabbles, you wait and see."

Give this book to — you know who. They'll love it. They'll still make lots of bad decisions, but hey, that's OK.