Trying something... in the Present Tense! (975 words, forgive me)

Dan Jones

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After the chats over @Flaviosky's crit piece in present tense, I thought I'd post up my own, as using the present tense seems to be (in some instances) contentious, or at least off-putting to some readers. @Stuart Suffel posted a link to a nice article outlining the problems with present tense, but one of the points (that it puts the focus on the omniscient "narrator" rather than the events) made me think. I am trying to do just that in (part of) my WIP, but I don't want to do this to the detriment of the actual comings-and-goings of the plotlines. This section is an opening, of sorts. Not all of the WIP is in present tense - some is in close 3rd past.

~


London fog is like a nightshift worker – it goes to bed in the morning. It fashions pillows from itself before settling upon the miasmic growths of stone, soot, and sweat that accompanies the rising of the Sun. The fog is thick and lazy, like a lung filled with the black clouds that emanate from the tobacco products being unloaded by Caribbean tars in the web of spinnakers at St. Katherine’s Docks. The fog settles over these swarthy men, their muscles already slick with sweat at this early March hour. With rolling creole brogues they josh and banter with their rough white-skinned counterparts, the worshipful watermen and lightermen of London, who swear and grunt unintelligible communicados even as they balance crooked black cigarillos between partially-tothed smiles. Bill Rogers, all six feet and three inches of him, stands upon his barge resting his hamlike forearms upon his punt. With eyes keened to the quick he watches over his domain like an ancient sentinel warrior, preserved in aspic from the days of Odysseus. Later this day, after depositing the tobacco to the rollers in Deptford Creek to be manufactured into cigarettes, he’ll return home to open his Limehouse pub, The Bricklayers Arms, to receive the lunchtime trade. This evening he may engage in a bareknuckle boxing match to raise funds for the local destitute and dispossessed, and will even hand out soup to those same souls as dusk descends. Rogers’s routine of brawn and heart will define not just today but tomorrow and most other days hence.


The March sun bears sufficient sinew to gently burn away the chilly fog as we creep northwards a few hundred yards to Cable Street, where Victor Brychta, the poorly-compensated correspondent for the se’nnightly socialist newspaper Worker! is taking breakfast at one of the coffee houses. He views his surroundings of the common man with a mixture of romantic admiration and deeply-felt disgust. Atrociously rancid butter sits on slices of toast (which the waitress calls gravestones), and his fellow diners - dockers, carmen, navvies, cleaners and the like - sit with unwashed sleeves rolled up the grimy elbow. However, he has to concede, the tea is irrefutably good. He wonders with a degree of profundity at the constitution of the poor that they can not only subsist on such worrisome fare, but oftimes thrive. It passes through his mind that despite their inevitable distaste, the wealthy would be able to subsist on such fare as well - and that maybe they ought to. At the dilatory pace in which Brychta consumes his appalling breakfast it will not do for us to linger, and so we should relent to the keen pull of the City. A quick swoop away from the rising sun and we can sneak unseen into the tightly-woven courtyards behind Fleet Street’s northern strip. Tucked away with inconspicuous diffidence in an overgrown corner of Johnson Court we can see the jumbled-up bookshop Strange Books. Through the window is Leviathan Strangeways, the gnomic owner of that emporium with its assortment of literary curios and artefacts. Even at this hour Leviathan is busy, tying up a collection of pamphlets in brown paper and string with anxious fastidiousness, occasionally glancing though cataract windows lest anyone should see him. He does not know whether his paranoia is founded on solid reason or not; he has not been caught yet, but the folks with which he consorts are becoming ever more brazen, and their use of his basement more frequent. Moreover, some of the books he currently handles are not for general consumption; these are for the special projects for the eyes of very select folks, when the time is right. His face may be partially obscured by his aggressively tumescent Nietzschean moustache and jam-jar spectacles, but we can still detect the beads of sweat collecting on his forehead!


From here our eyes can scuttle at haste towards the decadent grandiloquence of the Royal Parks, the pale dawn sun irrigating their stale odour of empyreal pageantry with lively colour. It is in this vicinity one can witness a near-catatonic Richard Essex being hauled with scant ceremony down the stairs of a crumbling St.James townhouse by two apes costumed in greatcoats. Upon their opening of the front door, he finds himself hurled into the gutter and narrowly avoided by a slaloming hamsom cab, whose driver elicits some finely chosen Saxon epithets to the fallen gentleman. It is doubtful Essex even acknowledges the curses, as his head swoons violently from the expensive liquor he has imbibed and the blows to the face he has received from the gammon-jowled enforcers who have evicted him. They utter something about paying debts, but Essex can only groan in response, and he momentarily experiences a vision of his father in the road, standing erect and impassive, berating him for his negligent spendthriftery. Essex will have retribution of more than one kind to deal with, but first he must nurse his faculties back to some semblance of clarity. For his part, Richard Essex’s father, Westleigh Lord Essex, is not standing in the middle of the road. Indeed, he is not standing at all but seated at a breakfast meeting at the Marylebone house of Ethel Thackeray, the UK manager of his spice business in India. It is a good job that he is seated as well, for his countenance is ravaged and ashen; Ethel has just informed him that his entire shipment of spicy drugs being transported from India is lost. The SS Maliri has been sunk in Hawke’s Bay, having barely made it out of Karachi harbour before thunderstorms arrived like cloud-borne djinns and sundered it into the brine. Two hundred souls lost, British and Indians alike, its goods sunk, his investments in tatters, and Essex can barely even look at his bacon and eggs without forcing down the need to blench.
 

HareBrain

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It's very you. And it works for me, apart from the first line, which raises a "Well, actually..." from my pedantic brain. This first line combined with the third-present narration is also very reminiscent of the opening to Bleak House. Is that intentional? (For what it's worth, I enjoyed it more than Dickens's opening.)

I like the over-rich pastiche language that doesn't take itself too seriously. Maybe it could be shortened a little, or maybe each section could be broken up into shorter paragraphs. I would at least break the paragraphs when you introduce new characters.

Even though I enjoyed it, I don't think I could take any more in exactly the same vein. In fact it was getting a bit much towards the end of this excerpt. You've introduced characters and setting and roused intrigue as to how it all will tie in together; I would now expect a more close-up story to start.
 

Christine Wheelwright

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I like this! Much more than your recent piece with the plum suits, for example. This is very well written and pulls me in. But in order to be useful, here is one minor quibble.

Some of the many descfriptions are a little hard to follow without an advanced vocabulary and even a pub-quiz-expert level of general knowledge. An example would be "preserved in aspic from the days of Odysseus". I quite like this because you are giving me, the reader, credit for some intelligence. But in other places - "inconspicuous diffidence" - a reader may have to stop for a moment to think about what that means in the context of a bookshop being tucked away. A minor issue, but it affects the accessibility of your writing.

Regarding the present tense; I think it is fine but not neccessarily for the whole novel. For example, the murder at the start of a crime novel might be described in present tense for impact, followed by past tense for the remainder. I'm trying to think of a novel that is written entirely in present tense but struggling.
 

Stuart Suffel

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@Dan Jones aha! So, a Baldrick in order to get a critique? LOL. Fair nuff.

Ok. It actually reminds me of something @Christine Wheelwright posted recently - that introduction to a story, the narrator offering an overview of the main 'players' and 'worlds'. It may be tricky to continue in the present tense (if that's your objective?) once you get into the 'meat' of the story, the character interactions, events etc. But certainly as an intro, it works well (almost a Dickensian feel, which is no small compliment) I'd suggest breaking up the paragraphs though, even here, to increase the likelihood of critique responses.
 
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Christine Wheelwright

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Reading it again, it has a Conradian feel to it (in subject as much as style). Or even Melville. Which is praise of course. But the accessibility would remain a concern (unless you don't care?). I don't see modern mass-market novel readers - consumers of Dan Brown, E L James etc etc - taking to this at all.
 

BT Jones

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I use present tense a lot in my WIP, but almost always 1st person - essentially the live (or recorded) thoughts of particular characters. Reading your piece, Dan, I have to say I couldn't see any advantage to it being present tense as opposed to past. Personally, I think I might have preferred to read it in the past tense. Some very vivid imagery though.
 

Dan Jones

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Thanks, chaps and chapettes.

This first line combined with the third-present narration is also very reminiscent of the opening to Bleak House. Is that intentional?
I've not read Bleak House, so that'd be a no. I am reading Wuthering Heights at present to help me get into the mindset to create those Victorian turns of phrase.
Even though I enjoyed it, I don't think I could take any more in exactly the same vein. In fact it was getting a bit much towards the end of this excerpt. You've introduced characters and setting and roused intrigue as to how it all will tie in together; I would now expect a more close-up story to start.
Happily there is only another 200 words or so of this omni-style writing, and then it does zoom in on one of the characters and stays there. I said in the OP that was an opening "of sorts" - this is actually the opening to chapter 2, not chapter 1. Chapter 1 is far more conventional, focusing on a domestic scene. I wanted to do it that way around as I thought this might be too daunting as an opening, especially after the prologue being in 2nd person present.

I like this! Much more than your recent piece with the plum suits, for example. This is very well written and pulls me in. But in order to be useful, here is one minor quibble.

Some of the many descfriptions are a little hard to follow without an advanced vocabulary and even a pub-quiz-expert level of general knowledge. An example would be "preserved in aspic from the days of Odysseus". I quite like this because you are giving me, the reader, credit for some intelligence. But in other places - "inconspicuous diffidence" - a reader may have to stop for a moment to think about what that means in the context of a bookshop being tucked away. A minor issue, but it affects the accessibility of your writing.

Regarding the present tense; I think it is fine but not neccessarily for the whole novel. For example, the murder at the start of a crime novel might be described in present tense for impact, followed by past tense for the remainder. I'm trying to think of a novel that is written entirely in present tense but struggling.
Thanks! As a multiple pub-quiz champion and eight-times winner of the Clare Avenue Quiz, this appeals to me. However, it's an interesting point. I do tend towards the more literary end of SFF, which is just my tastes, but I do try and push the boat out. I do try and assume the reader is intelligent and can make connections (even if they're not the same connections I'm making as the writer, such as HB's connection to Bleak House above), but I don't want it to be inaccessible. I'll probably have to get some proper, beta-level feedback to gauge this more fully, when the time comes.

@Dan Jones aha! So, a Baldrick in order to get a critique? LOL. Fair nuff.
Ah you caught me out, you naughty goose!

Ok, so I think I'll need to break those paragraphs up, but in general, I'm rather pleased with the responses. Thanks everyone!
 

Dan Jones

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Reading it again, it has a Conradian feel to it (in subject as much as style). Or even Melville. Which is praise of course.
Just saw this comment also. Bowled me over a bit as I believe Melville to be the greatest ever novelist in the English language (perhaps alongside George Eliot). His novels, Moby Dick in particular, are cathedrals made of words. I don't think I'm quite at that level... but I'll take the compliment (with large grains of salt). THANK YOU!

Reading your piece, Dan, I have to say I couldn't see any advantage to it being present tense as opposed to past. Personally, I think I might have preferred to read it in the past tense. Some very vivid imagery though.
It is present tense for a very specific reason. And the narrator uses florid language for a very specific reason. There is also another storyline (set in another time) which is written in the past.
 

P.K.Acredon

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You have a great way of setting up a scene. The words you use to describe the physical backgrounds of the scenery and the backgrounds of the characters. Keyword: "Backgrounds" meaning describing things and people based on what happened in the past and what happened in the future. Not saying it's your fault. Such is the way for writing in present tense. The scene can't really move forward because its all technically one scene. Unless the main character moves to somewhere else or feels something else.
This may sound weird, but it had the filling of a "found footage" movie. What I mean by that is the difference between that movie and a normally shot movie is how the story is being presented.
A novel that felt like a normal movie may say: "I ran to the fields that were flat and shaded with new-spring-green. The last time I was in a field like this was when I was only a child who only cared about running around in soft plants. I would have be overwhelmed with a comfortable feeling of nostalgia that I could fell beside constant anxiety of mediaeval deaths, only to hear the horn of the enemy soldiers."
While a present tense novel may sound more like: "I'm running up a hill. I remembered when a younger version of me ran up hills only to role down them while pressing on soft grass with every rapid loop I rolled. I'm safe. Safe at la-...wait...those sounds...those loud sounds of drums and horns...Blast it! They're still near me!"
All I'm saying is Present tense is extremely rare and requires a lot of skill to write well. And that you are still bound to provide some background that needs present or future tense words. With that said, keep going. Whatever you're doing with a piece such as this, I would say you're on the right track. (y)
 

Rob Arnold

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I love your style of writing. I ve never read anything like it. It is a unique voice and you should never change it or compromise it for anything. It is like a movie, or a graphic novel by Allan Moore. It reads like the best stage or script directions I have ever heard.

I have often wanted to create a style of fictional writing with the immediacy and "now-ness" of a literary movie script and I really think you've done it.
 

Dan Jones

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I love your style of writing. I ve never read anything like it. It is a unique voice and you should never change it or compromise it for anything. It is like a movie, or a graphic novel by Allan Moore. It reads like the best stage or script directions I have ever heard.

I have often wanted to create a style of fictional writing with the immediacy and "now-ness" of a literary movie script and I really think you've done it.

Crikey. What lovely comments! Thank you, I shall crack on with it...
 

TheEndIsNigh

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Dan - forgive

A bit "Under Milk Wood" ish for me - no bad thing - just saying.

For me this was a bit tiring on the eyes. The wall of text promised no respite and by the end I was glad it was all over.

That isn't to say what you pack in there isn't well written, but for me there was too much all at once.

The descriptions are very vivid, but I found myself questioning if they were valid and some were confusing.

Was St Katherine's dock used for tobacco for instance - Tobacco dock was surely for that.

As an example:-


The fog is thick and lazy, like a lung filled with the black clouds that emanate from the tobacco products - processing was done later being unloaded by Caribbean tars in the web of spinnakers at St. Katherine’s Docks.

Fog, lungs, black clouds, tars and tobacco all mixed in the same sentence took a bit of unpicking to sort out what was actually being referenced. Not helped by the web of spinnakers (sails that wouldn't be in used when docked -webs of rigging would be more acurate). Does tobacco produce black clouds when unloaded?

Hope I helped

Tein
 

Dan Jones

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Dan - forgive

A bit "Under Milk Wood" ish for me - no bad thing - just saying.

For me this was a bit tiring on the eyes. The wall of text promised no respite and by the end I was glad it was all over.

That isn't to say what you pack in there isn't well written, but for me there was too much all at once.

The descriptions are very vivid, but I found myself questioning if they were valid and some were confusing.

Was St Katherine's dock used for tobacco for instance - Tobacco dock was surely for that.

As an example:-



Fog, lungs, black clouds, tars and tobacco all mixed in the same sentence took a bit of unpicking to sort out what was actually being referenced. Not helped by the web of spinnakers (sails that wouldn't be in used when docked -webs of rigging would be more acurate). Does tobacco produce black clouds when unloaded?

Hope I helped

Tein

Ta. Useful feedback in there. Bunny also suggested breaking the text into more paragraphs, so I think I'll do that next time around.

This is a first draft, so it will need a prune. I am cognizant of the fact that this sort of prose could overstep from hyperreal into purple, so it's a fine balance. As for the tobacco clouds, that was supposed to be coming from the dockers smoking fags! Ok, perhaps not clear. Also, thanks for the rigging vs spinnaker note - v. useful :)

For me it felt like too much information and not enough happening and I’m not sure the present Omno style helped with that :(
Oh dear!
 

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