Astride the Fulcrum of Time, a Writer’s Conundrum

     We live in the present and enjoy books whose stories unfold before us as though we’re standing there witnessing the action happen. Why then do the majority of books appear in past tense form? Why does my first novel, Adventures Above the Aether, receive a raised eyebrow at its unconventional approach?

     “It reads like a movie script,” one reader offered.

     Here’s an excerpt:

      Paris dusk dims into night.  As the sun sets the busy bustling city does not retire tired.  She dons glistening gas lit jewelry and the black velvet dress of night hides her weary bones.  Tonight she dances in dazzling beauty, daring to forget the day’s work and woes.  The cape of shadows drapes over her squalor, drawing attention to her more attractive features.

      Solomon ‘Hap’ Hanson approaches the glittering theatre.  Julian Turleau is expected to attend tonight.  Hap’s recently acquired evening wear manages to look out of place, underwhelming, amongst the finery of those present.  He struggles amongst a sea of tuxedos and fine dresses.  Beneath an evening mist set aglow by gaslight conversations clutter the air as the handsome herd shuffles into the gilded building.  Hap cuts a course through the crowd, scanning for Julian.  The colorfully dressed women contrast with a checkerboard of men.  Penguins and parrots.  Hap laughs aloud, unheard amidst the clamor of the crowd.

      Is there something I’m missing or does this come off oddly? Originally I chose present tense as a cheat; a way to see passive voice more easily, and while that didn’t totally work out I still came away pretty happy with the result. An added benefit arose as I wrote flashback scenes and used past tense to offer a subtle differentiation and again I rejoiced at my decision. I think the action scenes read more ‘actiony’ too.

     Not until my first convention, my first encounter with a reader with a keen eye, did the unpopularity of my choice arise. But unpopular doesn’t mean wrong or bad, just not the beaten path. I wonder though if the present tense story in a past tense industry acts as a barrier to greater readership. Writers eager to tell their tale must make the obstacles few and the journey pleasant for readers to enjoy and appreciate the story before them.

     So I wonder anew, should I revise this first novel to match what most of the world’s readers expect? I’ve already written Aether Legion, the sequel, in past tense; halfway into the manuscript’s completion my writer friends recommended the alteration unanimously. This concession seems to answer my question for me; make the first match the second. Or could it be the opposite; stick with present tense and venture to be different?

     Here’s the excerpt above rewritten for those who prefer past tense:

     Paris dusk dimmed into night.  As the sun set the busy bustling city didn’t retire tired.  She donned glistening gas lit jewelry and the black velvet dress of night hid her weary bones.  Tonight she danced in dazzling beauty, daring to forget the day’s work and woes.  The cape of shadows draped over her squalor, drawing attention to her more attractive features.  

     Solomon ‘Hap’ Hanson approached the glittering theatre.  Julian Turleau is expected to attend tonight.  Hap’s recently acquired evening wore managed to look out of place, underwhelming, amongst the finery of those present.  He struggled amongst a sea of tuxedos and fine dresses.  Beneath an evening mist set aglow by gaslight conversations cluttered the air as the handsome herd shuffled into the gilded building.  Hap cut a course through the crowd, scanning for Julian.  The colorfully dressed women contrasted with a checkerboard of men.  Penguins and parrots.  Hap laughed aloud, unheard amidst the clamor of the crowd. 

    I need help unraveling the mystery that seem so obvious to others; should I revise towards the standard, away from it, or leave both novels astride the fulcrum of past and present?

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2 thoughts on “Astride the Fulcrum of Time, a Writer’s Conundrum

  1. More and more novels are being told using present tense. Some are even being written without punctuation.

    The first present tense book I read was Smilla’s Sense of Snow. I wasn’t sure about it but after five pages, I didn’t notice it.

    The punctuation thing…I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that. It’s too hard to tell when someone’s talking!

    So no, don’t go back and revise. Wait for everyone else to catch up to you.

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