Somehow, I associate writing in the first person with writing in the present tense. They both seem like tools of young writers, though I am sure plenty of older ones use them, too. First person makes the center of attention the inside of the author’s skull, and what could possibly be more interesting than me? For its part, present tense lends a piece a racy, breathless immediacy that can sweep the reader quickly past a multitude of writing sins.
Both the first person and present tense are powerful drugs. They can be useful, even lifesaving. But they can also be addictive. And a present-tense addict is just as tedious as any other type of addict.
So before you lapse into either, ask yourself: Is this necessary to the telling of the story I’m telling? Why am I using present tense instead of plain old past tense? You may have a good reason. You may want drop a reader straight into a scene of a teenager feverishly defusing a ticking nuclear weapon, and putting it in the present tense might lend a sense that the reader is right there in the tower with her. But it is something about which it is worth thinking hard. An entire article in present tense — let alone a book — can be exhausting to read. Most of the time, we speak in past tense. “I went to the hardware store and bought a hammer,” though moments arise — when we want to add an ethnic flavor, perhaps, or we something truly extraordinary happened, when it sounds better in present tense. “I go to the hardware store and buy a hammer,” which sets up a punchline. “And I drop the thing on my toe before I’m half a block away.” That adds all kind of irony and woe-is-me to a sentence that might have simply said, “I went to the hardware store and bought a hammer. And I dropped it on my toe before I was a block away.” Hear the difference?
Point is, think hard about your choice. Past tense is the default. You might have a good reason for using present tense, but you should be ready to explain it.
I just spent all day today, in fact — April 25, 2018 — writing in the present tense. One time you should use it is in describing in a proposal the book you want to write. That’s what I’m doing now. Even if you’re summarizing a story, putting it in present tense signals you’re describing a book, not expecting the editor reading it to get engaged in the story. As in, “Frank plays a particular song — ‘Is That All There Is’ — on his stereo and has an epiphany: he should run for Orleans Parish Coroner.” Try that in past tense and you’ll see it’s no longer descriptive of an important plot moment, but just a scene from the book. Sample chapters should be in past tense — unless you have a very good reason for using present, but the barstool-to-barstool description of your book should be in present tense. See this file for tips on how to write a book proposal.