Of all the posts I wrote last year on my TEV guest blog, the one on present-tense stories garnered the most response. I'm still getting questions about it nearly a year later, evidence that there are a lot of writers and aspiring writers reading TEV. What I wrote, in essence, was that despite the fact that present tense seems to lend a piece of fiction greater immediacy, I've often found (when reading graduate applications, say) that the present-tense stories are among the least immediate-feeling. I offered some possible reasons for this, most notably that writers who don't have any actual narrative action/forward movement in their stories use present tense to give an artificial sense of immediacy--to give the illusion that something is happening when in fact it isn't. In that regard, I talked about the use of the habitual present tense. "She goes to the store" can mean she goes to the store on Tuesday or it can mean she is an habitual store-goer. One thing I was arguing is that a lot of present-tense writers overuse the habitual present tense such that their stories don't end up taking place in real time, and in scene. Another thing that I'm not sure I mentioned but that I've noticed among my students who regularly write in present tense (particularly those who write in first-person present tense) is that, when they do write in scene, they have trouble making the narrative leaps of time necessary in fiction. Because everythiing is happening right here, right now, the writer tends to indulge in a kind of blow-by-blow description. There's not enough of an editorial sensibility, and so we get aboslutely everything the character does, as if she's moving through sludge. Lorrie Moore once said that the hardest thing about writing fiction is getting her characters into their cars, and to my mind this is particularly true when you're writing in present tense.
None of which is to say that one should never write in present tense. I certainly can't make that argument, since the novel I'm writing now, tentatively titled THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU, is written in the present tense. But I've done various things to avoid the traps I've been talking about. My novel is written in third-person, from the alternating points of view of different members of an etended family, so this affords me a measure of narrative distance to compensate for the lack of temporal distance that comes with present tense. Also, the novel takes place over a single weekend. C. Michael Curtis, the fiction editor at the Atlantic (back when the Atlantic actually published fiction), who was as good as they got at encouraging young fiction writers , myself included, said that present tense works better for narratives that take place over a shorter period of time. I agree. There's something artificial about the immediacy present tense evokes if your novel is taking place over fifty years (fifty years' time can't always be present without things seeming contrived).
For me, it wasn't as if I decided that I wanted to write this novel in present tense; it's simply how the voice came to me. But if novels are like relationships (and that analogy seems true to me, even if overused), then one novel is often a rebound relationship from the previous one. MATRIMONY took place over twenty years, and THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU takes place over three days. Each mode of telling poses different (in fact, opposing) challenges. With MATRIMONY, I faced the challenge of distillation. How do you write about twenty years without turning the novel into a boring chronology--this happened, then that happened, then that happened? You need to figure out when to pause and when to make leaps in time. As I struggled with MATRIMONY, I re-read Richard Russo's EMPIRE FALLS and things started to fall into place for me. EMPIRE FALLS is a very different book from MATRIMONY, but it helped me immensely in thinking about time (specifically the skipping of time) and the relationship between the here and now and back story.
The challenge of THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU, of any book that takes place over three days, is the opposite one; it's not distillation but expansion. You have to make the three days significant enough that they can acccommodate the narrative action you aim to dramatize (one of the potential pitfalls of condensed time is that it can seem that too many big/important things happen in too short order, in a way that makes the narrative seem artificial; this is what John Updike was arguing in his largely negative review of Ann Patchett's RUN in the New Yorker.), and you often need to rely on back story to a greater degree than you would in a novel that covers a longer time period. In other words, you're faced with what every novelist is faced with, but even more so: how to make the novel go forward and backward at the same time, how to prevent the flashback from overtaking the here and now and thereby disrupting the forward drive of the narrative.