Writing Wednesday: First Person Present Tense

Welcome back to another Writing Wednesday! This week I’m talking about writing in first person present tense because several people on Twitter (as well as almost all of my betas) have said some iteration of the following to me:

I hate reading first person present, but I kept forgetting that’s what your book was written in. How did you pull that off?

The short answer is “I have no idea.” I don’t know exactly why people’s brains have been tuning out the tense The Orchid and the Lion is written in; I’m a writer, not an expert in how our noggins work. In fact, if only one or two people had mentioned it, I wouldn’t have even thought about it. But now that almost a dozen people have made note of it, I knew that I had to explore just how I managed to do it so skillfully.

So strap in for the long answer.

1) Voice

I already did a whole post about voice, so I’m not going to rehash that again. Instead, I want to focus specifically on voice in first person present (which I’ll be referring to from here on out as FPP).

When I first sat down to write this book, I had no idea it was going to be in FPP. I’m normally not a fan of reading it, and I’d NEVER written it before. But from the first line I wrote, that’s what came out. “Reginald Greer is the most boring man I’ve ever met.” That’s been the first sentence of chapter one from the beginning. From there, Dorian’s voice began to take shape. He was catty and smart and funny and sophisticated. He was observant and a terrible listener and a bit of a dick. And he demanded your attention now. Immediately. In the present. So, I didn’t fight him on it. I decided to write the first draft in FPP, knowing I could change it at any time if I hated it. But with each scene I wrote, it grew on me. There was no other way to tell Dorian’s story.

Part of why FPP works so well in my novel is because Dorian’s voice is so uniquely him. You’re in his head, hearing his thoughts, seeing the world through his eyes. If this is how you want to write your own book, FPP is great for that. There are no other points of view to distract your readers, so the focus HAS to be on your main character. But in order to pull it off, the character’s voice needs to be strong. It needs to be one that readers WANT to listen to. Which brings me to my next point.

2) Dorian is likable

I recently witnessed two Twitter friends of mine jokingly “fighting” with each other over who gets to claim Dorian. As a writer, that made my entire day. It proved to me that people liked my characters; they were engaged with them. And while some of my readers have told me they prefer Laith or Kenny or, even, Frank, the character that most people have raved to me about is Dorian.

For one thing, he’s sexy. He’s a beautiful femme man who oozes confidence and sex appeal. For another, he’s bitingly funny in the way everyone’s dream gay best friend is. Readers can imagine themselves drinking cocktails with him and gossiping about people while they get their nails done. But add to this the fact that he’s a complicated and often contradictory character, and you have a recipe for success.

Readers want to be in his head. They enjoy diving into his world and experiencing it with him. But if this book were written in third person or, even, first person past, readers wouldn’t be as immersed regardless of how much they like him. By writing his narration in FPP, you get the immediacy of everything that’s happening from a character people are drawn to from the first page.

Now, this isn’t to say that your character needs to be likable in order to write in FPP. They can be downright detestable. What matters is that their personality is strong enough to carry the story. In Dorian’s case, he’s a combination of funny disaster queer, spotlight-stealing diva, and genuinely caring person that’s able to keep readers turning pages. Your monstrous serial killer can do the same thing if you’re able to nail down what will make readers want to root for (or against) them.

3) Pacing

My critique partner likes to joke about the “throat-clearing” I do in my first drafts. Since I’m a pantser, I often waffle a bit before I really figure out what a scene is and where it’s going. But by the time y’all read this book, all that stuff’s been taken out and reworked and tightened up. The pace of this book is such that readers have started out thinking they’re going to read a chapter or two and then realize they’ve been reading for hours.

If this book were slow and plodding, first of all, readers would put it down and never pick it back up again. And I wouldn’t blame them. But also, FPP wouldn’t work. No one wants to read someone’s personal narration if they’re talking about brushing their teeth or wandering through a forest or whatever. But when a book is snappy and the action keeps moving, it’s nice to have someone like Dorian as your own personal docent, so to speak. He keeps readers grounded and tied to the narrative. Not every book needs to move as fast, but if you’re going to write a slower-paced book, FPP probably isn’t your best bet.

4) Sex (and other activities)

When I first started talking to people about this book–way, way back when it was in the early stages of the first draft–they were curious why I chose to write in FPP. At that point, most of the other things I’m talking about today weren’t at the forefront of my mind. But the sex sure as hell was.

There’s a LOT of fucking in this book. From masturbation all the way up to a foursome, people are getting it on with Dorian all over the place. And the reader is watching it all happen as it happens through Dorian’s eyes. When I came to terms with the fact that this was how I was going to write this book, I loved the idea that readers would be experiencing Dorian’s sex life in his own words while it was happening. And the first sex scene is scene three of the first chapter, so readers know early on that that’s what they’re getting into. Writing in FPP gives readers a ringside seat to all that sweet, sweet nookie. It makes it more real, more visceral. And much, much hotter.

“But Gabe,” I hear you saying, “I don’t write graphic, five-alarm porn.” So how does this help you as a writer? Every book has action. Or, at least, it’s supposed to. That could be sex, hand-to-hand combat, epic battles, heists, or even just arguments between friends or lovers. Whatever your book is about, if you’re writing FPP, you need to use it to put your readers into the action. Let them feel like they’re the ones fighting (or fucking). Let them see, hear, smell, taste, and feel what’s going on. Let them be both the reader and the character. You can still do that, of course, with other points of view and tenses; it really all depends on how much distance you want between your reader and your characters.

5) Interiority

One of the cornerstones of good writing is interiority. If you’re asking yourself what the hell that is, I’ll let this definition from KidLit.com explain:

Interiority is defined as a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the situation.

It’s all well and good for characters to do things and have things done to them, but a good author includes reactions to what’s going on. In the case of this book, FPP allowed me to really dig into how Dorian was thinking, feeling, and reacting to the world around him. Rather than telling the audience that he was nervous about his feelings for Laith, I could have him think about how he needs to be more careful about kissing. Instead of just describing Dorian’s facial expressions when he’s getting jealous, I could have him make some catty remark in his head about the person giving Laith attention.

Dorian’s constantly talking to the reader in real time. And because there are no other points of view in the book, Dorian’s interiority helps build his character, the other characters, and the world he lives in. Now, Dorian’s also an unreliable narrator, but only to himself. The other characters (and the reader) see through his bullshit, but he’s convinced they don’t. That dichotomy between the external reactions of the people around him and his internal reactions make for a really fun read. And it works so much better in FPP because the reader gets to watch Dorian finally come to the conclusions they’ve already reached.

If you’re considering writing in FPP, think about how you want your main character to react to what’s happening. Are they going to be stoic and steadfast? Lost and trying to keep up? Excited for the next part of their adventure or scared for what’s to come? Figure out ways to express that to the reader that aren’t just saying, “I’m scared” or “I feel good about this.” Dig in and pull out what your character would really say or think. And make sure to keep it in their unique voice. Your character doesn’t have to think the way they speak (for example, if they have an accent, their narrative voice doesn’t need to be written that way), but it should sound like them.

As an example, the sequel to The Orchid and the Lion is also in FPP and is told from Laith’s perspective. Those of you who’ve read the first book know that Laith is a man of few words who uses a lot of short sentences and fragments. His vocabulary isn’t as elaborate as Dorian’s is. But that’s how he talks. How he thinks is pretty similar except that he’s a little more eloquent. He likes similes. His vocab is a bit more robust. It’s not different enough that people won’t recognize it as his voice, but his interiority is able to carry the story in a way his speaking voice wouldn’t.

6) Good writing

Okay, let me preface this by saying I know this book isn’t perfect. I still have a lot to learn about the art of writing AND the art of storytelling. But for a debut novel in a genre I had until recently never considered writing, it’s a damn good book. When I say “good writing,” I don’t mean “perfect writing” or even “excellent writing.” But if the story isn’t compelling, the characters are two-dimensional, and the prose is boring or cliche, FPP is going to make it even worse. Not to mention if the book is also one big mess of typos and bad grammar.

Because FPP is often met with a negative reaction, you’ve already got one strike against you as readers dig in. I’ve had several people tell me that they had been hesitant to read my book because they hate FPP. But those who gave it a chance ended up really enjoying it because the other elements of the book were good. If readers are giving your book a go and they find lots of other faults, they’re not going to give you the benefit of the doubt in the future, regardless of what POV or tense you’re writing in. So before you attempt writing a novel in FPP, work on your craft using a less controversial point of view and tense. Make sure your story is solid and your characters are real. Make sure that you’ve edited it and had other people beta and edit it for you.

I was confident enough in this story and the characters and my skills as a writer to risk turning people off because it was written in FPP. From what my betas had already told me, I knew that they’d gotten hooked from the beginning and had been able to ignore their usual dislike and really enjoy the book as it was. If they had said to me, “Hey, Gabe, look, everything’s great, but this would work way better in third person past,” I would have listened to them.

And that brings me to my final point.

7) Critiquing

I’ve talked quite a lot about my critique partner. She’s a wonderful writer, critic, and friend. And she’s also brutally honest. While we were working through my first and second drafts, she gave me a LOT of feedback on what worked, what didn’t, and what was almost-but-not-quite-there. Before a single beta feasted their eyes on this book, she and I had spent countless hours shaping it into what it is today.

Without her help (and beta feedback), The Orchid and the Lion wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is. I know that self-published authors often feel the pressure to publish often and that some of you write a first draft, do a quick edit, and push that baby bird out of the nest. I can’t tell you NOT to do that (although I’m probably not going to read much of your stuff if you do), but I can tell you that taking the time to get constructive criticism about your work–and making changes because of it–before you hit publish makes a world of difference. And that’s not even about writing in FPP; that’s about writing in general.

But what helped this book work so well in FPP was that I’d had people reading it and letting me know what they liked and didn’t like. I was able to use their feedback to mold the story so that I could tell it the way I wanted to while still giving readers a book they’d love. It was absolutely invaluable to me, especially since this was the first time I’d ever tried writing FPP.

I’m sure there are other reasons why this novel works as well as it does in first person present, but those are the major ones I can think of and the ones that are widely applicable to other writers. Other than this trilogy (and the short stories I have planned for these characters), I don’t know that I’d ever write a book this way again. It’s definitely not easy, and a lot of the other ideas I have for novels wouldn’t work nearly as well.

The biggest piece of advice I can give you is to be honest with yourself. Does your book have to be in FPP? Would it would better written in a different way? Is there something about your main character that would benefit from first person present? For Dorian, one of the biggest selling points for me writing this way was how much he lies to himself. For Laith, it’s that the way he expresses himself verbally isn’t the whole story–he’s a brilliant man who just doesn’t speak as much as his gregarious, attention-seeking boyfriend. The last book in the trilogy is going to be dual POV first person present, and establishing each of their voices prior to that is going to make it work so much better.

Got questions, comments, or concerns? Have your own experiences writing in first person present? Leave me comments!

-Gabriel

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