Present Tense and Your First Sale

I've come to see that writing in present tense has become acceptable in publishing. It's been embraced by Young Adult, New Adult, Literary, and General Fiction. It's been around awhile and you'll find examples all over. Perhaps it's your favorite way of writing.

However, it's not my personal favorite to read and I avoid such books. They make this editor's teeth itch. Soon as I see it when browsing in a bookstore, it goes right back on the shelf and I look for something else to buy.

Not fair? Meh, it's personal taste and we're all allowed to have that. As someone once put it: "If we all liked the same things, think of the haggis shortage."

For all that, I'm tough about it in critiques, and the main reason is that present tense is hard to sell. I got that from my agent and a number of other editors. They shake their heads, not wanting to deal with it. Agents have a hard time selling it to editors, editors have a harder time selling it to the Suits upstairs.

If you don't know the difference between present tense and past tense, YOU'RE NOT READY FOR ONE OF MY CRITIQUES

* 1st person past: I opened the door and looked out.
* 1st person present tense: I open the door and look out.
* 3rd person past tense: She opened the door and looked out.
* 3rd person present tense: She opens the door and looks out.

That sort of thing jumps out at editors and other writers, certainly English teachers might wince and grit their teeth, but a large number of readers simply don't notice it, and they're happy to buy the books. That's good news for present tense fans who plan on indie publishing. I've seen several indie writers with this style doing just fine, and props to them.

But to sell a first novel in the professional market to a commercial is not easy. If you're striking out with submissions to editors and agents, that might well be a reason why. This is less of a problem in the short story market. Some venues welcome the variety, but the longer form will he a harder sell.

Last year, after 100s of critiques I found a really good submission. (ONE out of 100s, remember.) It had a fresh idea, a strong voice, and the writer knew how to put a sentence together. It was good enough that I sent it--without the writer's knowledge--to my agent. It was in first person present tense, but so well done that it overcame my dislike for that style.

My agent agreed with me about the submission, she liked it, but passed because present tense is nearly impossible to sell, especially for novels. Doesn't matter if your favorite book in the multi-verse is present tense, you're a debut writer and have to show you know the rules before you can break them. My agent said she'd look at it again if the writer made changes, and gave permission to send her direct email address.

I took a great deal of pleasure in sending that message to the writer, knowing that she'd be over the moon at such news. Indeed, she was thrilled to bits knowing how close she'd come and instantly set about making changes. The voice of the main character would be the same, but in a form more acceptable to acquisition editors. Rewrite the whole novel? No problem. When you're after professional publication you do what it takes to get the job done.

I don't know how it turned out, but dang--she was close, knew she was close, and was ready to make changes if it meant a sale to a commercial publisher. I hope it happened for her.

Back to the tense issue: I'll mention that few writers know how to do it well. She was one of them, but she still got a rejection and a request for changes.

If present tense is your voice, great, learn how to do it well. You have to be twice as good at it in order to sell something. Them's the breaks.

I won't discount the possibility that I might try writing present tense someday. I've done it already in small scenes in my books--usually to indicate the viewpoint character is impaired in some way, such as getting a crack on the head--but not a whole book. That seems like too much work for now. But my tastes can and have changed. I used to dislike old movie musicals with tap dancers, now I can't get enough of them. Go figure.