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New Ghost Stories III

Many of the manuscripts that cross my desk are written in the present tense, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. The present has a lot of pitfalls, especially for new writers. It’s a bit tricky and unnatural, so while it can be used to good effect in a brief passage, over the course of an entire novel it can be tiring. It’s also hard to get the grammar right, especially when you start bringing in things like the past perfect. Finally, it’s often seen as an early danger sign of amateurish prose.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I find myself advising the writers to drop the story back into the past tense.

It was interesting, then, to read Blackmoor, published last month. It’s the debut novel from young British author and UEA graduate Edward Hogan, and substantial pasages are written in the present tense.

Blackmoor, by Edward HoganBlackmoor is the story of a family tragedy, set against the destruction of a mining town. It’s primarily divided between two periods: the present day, in which George and his son Vincent struggle to deal with life ten years after the death of wife and mother Beth; and the events leading up to that death. The present day is narrated in the present tense, while the past, naturally, takes the more usual form of the simple past.

The present tense is even more vulnerable to bloat than the past; the present has a snappy, percussive feel to it—this is happening now—and it’s very easy to derail it with excess information. Long, unwieldy sentences can’t help but give an impression of time passing, simply as you progress from the first capital letter to the last full stop.

If Hogan manages to get away with using the present tense in parts of the book, he does so for two reasons: first, because its use distinguishes those sections of the book in a logical way, in that they are happening now (in contrast to the sections set in the past); second, because he writes the present in a concise and economical way, which suits its nature. Take this example of description from the first chapter:

George and Vincent have lived in Church Eaton for a long time now, in a house built into a hill. It seems like a bungalow from the front, the bottom floor revealing itself as the land drops away behind. George bought the house because of this unusual design. Most of the windows, even on the top floor, open on to the ground. That is how he likes it. The place is furnished with a magpie mix of cut-price flat-packed chairs and expensive pine wardrobes, an ugly leather sofa in the living room; everything bought as required, for convenience.

And a later exchange:

That night George declares war on the slugs by pouring flat Pedigree bitter into old vases. Vincent watches him kneel on the doorstep like a fanatic. He watches the streetlight bend through the syrupy dregs and cut glass to make thistles on his father’s face. Vincent stares at the trap. ‘They’re living beings,’ he says.

‘Not in the morning they aren’t.’

(The full first chapter of the book is available to read online here.)

Hogan only really slips when he occasionally asks the reader to look at whatever he’s talking about: Take a look at Beth through the eyes of her neighbours. Later: Soar over the empty miner’s welfare club… and Look, for example, at Sarah… There’s even a sentence that starts with Behold… All of these exhortations to the reader to look must prompt them to wonder, what was I supposed to be doing before? If you’re writing well, readers will always be “looking” at what you’re describing, whether you tell them to or not. If you aren’t writing well, just telling them to engage probably won’t do the trick. (One chapter actually employs the second person for Beth’s point of view, which makes it hard to shake the impression that the entire novel is addressed to the late Beth—especially when “you” start to soar and drift above the action, not unlike a ghost).

Another problem is that the characters, while convincing, don’t quite feel fully explored. Vincent’s bird-watching (a hobby borrowed from his creator), is mentioned several times in the beginning of the book, and then seems to be forgotten. George feels like several character ideas rolled into one, and we never quite get the full picture of Beth; we see elements in detail, but not quite enough to build a full picture of her. The story is based around the search for understanding and reconciliation, but it doesn’t feel as though this is ever quite reached—at least, not by the reader. They were all good, believable characters, but I didn’t get to know them as well as I’d expected to.

But these are minor issues: overall, the varied tenses and voices employed by the story represent the sketchbook of a writer trying out techniques and approaches, tackling a story from different character perspectives and narrative angles, and that’s natural enough for a debut.

Hogan also seems to have a wonderful eye for detail and a great and convincing imagination; as his narrative style develops and settles down, these should come to the fore. He is definitely, as the cliché has it, “one to watch”. And if you’re thinking of writing in the present tense, Blackmoor should be on your reading list.

Blackmoor was published by Simon and Schuster in May of this year. You can read (and listen to) and interview with Hogan on the BBC Nottingham site here. There are more reviews of his book here and here, and another interview here. (According to that last, the original draft was almost twice as long. Hogan claims it was terrible, but I wonder whether the characters might not have been more fully realised in this longer version…)

11 Comments on “Blackmoor by Edward Hogan”

  1. Darren Says:

    That’s interesting; I hadn’t thought of the present tense like that before. An early danger sign of amateurish prose… Yikes!

  2. Rob Says:

    Not always, I should stress (and not in this case; Hogan uses it well). But it’s true that a lot of the time, when I start reading a manuscript in the present tense, any number of other problems are likely to appear.

    Then again, I am fairly traditional; any sign of overly mannered prose will have me wondering whether it’s designed to make up for some kind of deficiency in content.

    I read some good forum discussions recently about the pros and cons of the present tense. If I can find them I’ll post links here.

  3. John Self Says:

    Very interesting Rob. This book has been on my radar for some time: I think I saw some advance praise for it in the press a few months ago and now that it’s appeared in the bookshops, I keep picking it up every time I pass by (though so far, always set it down again). Certainly it passes the ‘random sample’ test, where when I choose a page at random, it usually seems striking and interesting – which is more than you can say of a lot of books when sampled out of context.

  4. Francesca Says:

    It’s a beautifully-written, original novel — very eerie and atmospheric — and Edward Hogan is an impressively talented writer. I wholeheartedly recommend it!

  5. Rob Says:

    Hi John, thanks for stopping by! Yes, it’s certainly atmospheric, and I’m not surprised it passed your “random sample” test; there are no wasted words, and it’s constantly engaging.

    Francesca—thanks for your post, too. You’re right, he is talented, and I’m looking forward to seeing whatever he produces next!

  6. christopher quantrill Says:

    One thing missing from the discussion in your warning about Hogan’s exhortations to the reader (‘Look’ and ‘See’)is that he aims, successfully, for the elegiac register. If anything deserves elegy and a little bit of epic grandeur it is a vanished village. Writing ‘the villagers just popped off somewhere’ would not help. ‘See’ alerts us to the epic life of the soon to vanish village, much like a conjuring trick: he’s going to make it disappear in front of her eyes

  7. Rob Says:

    Christopher,

    I don’t have the book in front of me, but writing from memory, I felt that these exhortations actually diminished the prose rather than gave it grandeur, were a little more self-conscious than epic. I think there are probably subtler ways to create the tone that you’re talking about, without having to address the reader directly in the way he has.

    That said, I think Hogan is fully capable of employing such techniques, and it will be interesting to see how his voice develops in his future work.

  8. Ed Says:

    Rob and all,
    I finished writing Blackmoor several years ago, and I found this informed critique and discussion helpful and interesting. As you mentioned, Rob, the present tense can be unwieldy. In early drafts I spent 10 pages getting characters across the kitchen, but I used it for this immediacy (hopefully not contrived). Vincent tends to focus on detail. Also, I wanted a pace contrast with the broader sweeps of story in the “past” narrative. I’m really interested in compressed stories. In Annie Proulx’s short stories, she does decades in a sentence, which is much less natural in the present.
    The instructions to ‘look’, ‘see’, and, ok, ‘behold’, had several functions. There was a certain amount of restrained imploring in this storytelling voice on behalf of the residents of areas which had (and continue to be) ignored. Secondly, I was trying to describe an entire village, so these ‘establishing shots’ helped. I read Under Milk Wood, etc, and tried to use the change in style to distance the voice from any of the characters, behind whom I had been closely focalised pages before. It does tend to split readers.
    It’s always great to hear what sharp readers think, and – although I had my reasons, and tried to make the best decisions at the time – I will certainly take the comments on board for Book Two. Thanks to all for comments.
    ed

  9. Rob Says:

    Hi Ed,

    Thanks very much for taking the time to comment. It’s certainly got my mind buzzing on your novel again; I may need to dig my copy out for a reread one of these days. I’ve always been curious about the early drafts of Blackmoor, because in some ways it feels like a much longer book, condensed. Unusual at a time when a lot of new books are feeling like flab-covered novellas.

    It’s interesting that you bring up Annie Proulx. I read one of hers a few years ago (‘That Old Ace in the Hole’), but I didn’t quite get on with it. From what I remember (which isn’t much), I think it felt a bit phony to me, in a way that Blackmoor didn’t. Is there another title by her that you’d recommend?

  10. Ed Says:

    Hi Rob,

    I have never done very well with Proulx’s novels, but I think ‘Close Range’ (short stories) is just amazing. I’d skip the first story, but ‘The Mud Below’, ‘The Bunchgrass Edge of the World’, and ‘Brokeback Mountain’ are really bob-on. She gets the balance between what you might call ‘summary’ and ‘scene’ perfectly. At the start of ‘People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water’ she compresses a whole family history into two pages. I continue to study it intensively.

    You’re right about Blackmoor. It used to be 500 pages long! Much of the slack was taken out of the early parts of the novel. We (me and Rochelle, my editor) just thought, ‘How late can we start this story?’ We just tried to be very strictly reader-centric.

  11. City of Strangers by Ian MacKenzie Says:

    […] written in the past about the strengths and weaknesses of using the present tense in fiction. At times it can be very […]

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