What's past is past (Secrets of Bestsellers #5)

Here's a 100% fact among all the books in my bestseller research chart - they are all written in the past tense. This is maybe no great surprise, though this 'secret' is spurred by a comment from Philip Pullman, part of a Guardian review of a new children's book by Paul Magrs. "He has made the common mistake of thinking that using a present-tense narration conveys immediacy. It doesn't; it conveys arty self-consciousness. It is a clanking, thumping, steaming cliche. There is far too much of it about, and it never works when presented as the voice of a child."

I've long been disappointed at authors' use of the present tense myself, tending to shy away from such books - the huge irony of whuch I'll point out shortly. I remember Timothy Mo being impressed by an interviewer's asking him about his own use of the present tense (in An Insular Possession I believe) - he was proud of that element which actually stopped me enjoying his book.

One novel I enjoyed recently was Greg Iles' The Quiet Game, a mass market thriller told in the present tense. In fact I think this simply confirms my point - the presentation of the book suggests the publishers believe in it as a bestseller, but the paperback blurb is devoid of any such bestselling claims. Present-tense narration doesn't hack it in sales terms - and didn't improve this book for me.

Even so, the venom in Philip Pullman's comment suggests some projection of personal failure - present-tense narration CAN succeed even if he doesn't know how to do it. I was surprised at Castaneda's encouragement to place I was Carlos Castaneda in the present tense - especially as Castaneda's own books are told in the past - but it really did waken the book. Past tense adds momentum to a narrative, since it immediately places all action into the past --- something is finished as soon as it is mentioned and we are hurtled on to what's next. Use of the present can encourage readers to dwell a little more, to participate as the action unfolds.

The novel I now have doing the rounds has existed in both present and past-tense drafts - ultimately for that one I chose and prefer the past. The current book, Cromozone, for all my research of bestsellers tells me not to do so, is told largely in the present tense. It's not being artily selfconsious - this is the demotic of the seventeen year-old narrator and that's simply the way it is. For one long section of the book he actually switches from first person present to third person past, needing that grammatical distance in order to understand his own narration. The use of tense can be a real creative tool - not to be recommended if your main intent is to write a bestseller, but not to be so airily dismissed in the way of Philip Pullman either.

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