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 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…)