Reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake for my book club, I realized that my manuscript needs the narrative present.
Narrative present (or historical present), is basically what it sounds like: instead of telling a story in the past tense, you write it in the present.
Heathcliff felt discouraged as he walked to the store.
Heathcliff feels discouraged as he walks to the store.
(No, my manuscript does not contain a character named Heathcliff.)
There are important pros and cons to the narrative present, and some have complained that it has been overused in recent years. But it hadn’t even occurred to me to use it until reading Atwood.
My manuscript is done. (Or, er, it was done.) And it is not as if I hadn’t read a novel in the narrative present before: Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy is written in the narrative present, for example.
Oryx and Crake, however, is the first book (in a long time, at least) that I’ve read in third-person narrative present. This opened me to the possibility of using it in my manuscript, which is also third-person with a single point of view.
There are likely several reasons Atwood uses the narrative present, not all of which apply to my manuscript.
The first I can think of, and one that does not apply to my work in progress, is that her book contains a ton of flashbacks. So while her main character Snowman’s present is narrated in the present tense, much of the book is his memory of the past, which is told in the past tense.
The second reason I can see that she uses the narrative present, however, is that it brings a needed sense of immersion and immediacy to the narrative. In the present of Oryx and Crake, Snowman is (or at least seems to be) the last human on Earth. He’s mostly by himself (though there are mysterious “children” of some kind who ask him about his beard). Alone on a post-apocalyptic Earth, he goes about the basics of a regular day, constantly telling himself guru-like clichés to get by. He tries to remember words of special meaning, knowing that when he forgets a word it is gone from the world forever. There’s a palpable loneliness to that realization that the reader needs to experience with Snowman. Thus the narrative present.
The narrative present brings us into this uncertain place and time of unknown hope. My manuscript is not post-apocalyptic, but the problem of hope and struggle for meaning are driving themes. By shifting the narrative to the present, it brings the reader (I hope) a little closer to the anxiety-ridden question that drives my main character’s development and, thus, her story: What can be meaningful now?
So I’ve put further querying on hold for the moment until this revision is finished. All I need to do now is change every verb in my entire manuscript. But reading the little I’ve revised so far gets me excited, and that excitement gives me hope.
Note for anyone tempted to do this to their own manuscript: remember that narrative present is not as easy as converting simple past to simple present. It also often means shifting past perfect to simple past and adjusting other levels of tenses accordingly. As such, I’ve had to go over the same text two or three times before being confident that all the tenses had been properly shifted.
Also: I’m saving all this as a separate document. No need to throw away an otherwise good draft! I might still hear back from a query where the first pages I included were past tense, and I could still send that full manuscript if an agent was interested.
As for where I’m currently at in the querying process, I had planned to wait another week before sending more queries anyway. I sent my first 17 about five or six weeks ago, so I figure I should give one more week for responses.
As an update to my previous post on form rejections, I am up to eight form rejections now. I still consider this a good thing: my query may have flaws, but it is not so fundamentally flawed that agents haven’t felt the need to respond at all.
As I mentioned in that post, most if not all the agencies where I queried agents specifically mentioned on their submission guidelines that if an author doesn’t hear back after six weeks, he/she should consider that a pass. No agent owes me anything, including form rejections, so I’m thankful that about half of my queries have elicited any response.
That said, now is the time to revise!