It Only Happens Once

Brett Battles

The stench of rotting food and diesel fuel hung over the dock like it had been there forever. Even inside the small warehouse, the foulness overpowered everything. That was until the man in the light gray coveralls opened the door of the shipping container.

Suddenly death was all Jonathan Quinn could smell.

Unflinching, he scanned the interior of the container. With the exception of a bloated body crumpled against the wall to the right, it was empty.

“Shut the door,” Quinn said.

“But Mr. Albina wanted you to see what was–”

“I’ve seen it. Shut the door.”

That’s the first 100 words – actually 96 – of my next novel THE DECEIVED. I’ve posted it here because Rob Browne and I have been involved with a fun project over at Backspace concerning the first 100 words of a manuscript.

Many of you are probably familiar with Backspace, but for those who aren’t it’s a great resource for both the aspiring author and the published. Headed up by the wonderful Karen Dionne, it has articles and columns and workshops and a fantastic discussion board where members can share their experiences and their writing. From the website:

Backspace is predicated on the idea of writers helping writers, which we accomplish by means of discussion forums, an online guest speaker program in which agents, acquisitions editors, and best-selling authors regularly conduct question and answer sessions with the group, advice and how-to articles from publishing experts on this website, as well as our real-world conferences and events.

Wish I’d known about the site earlier, though I’m not sure it was around when I was still hunting for that first sale. Still, what a great resource.

Anyway, I was talking about the project Rob and I are doing over there. We’ve had a section in the discussion area where we answer questions the other members have about writing and publishing. Recently we’ve added a sub discussion group called the FIRST 100. There, like I did above, members post the first 100 words of their novels for feedback. Rob or I will chime in on each one, as do some others members, which is great.

I love seeing the diversity of talent out there.

Some of the entries are great the way they are, some just need a little tweak to reach that goal of grabbing the reader right away.

Because that’s what the first 100 words of a novel are all about. Grabbing the reader. I think this is true no matter which genre you write. Readers pick up books off the shelves (after, no doubt, being wow’d by a cover the author has no control over), then they most often flip to the first page and begin reading. If the author doesn’t grab them in that first paragraph, 99% of the time the book goes back on the shelf. The other 1% of the time the reader is related to the author.

One of the biggest issues Rob and I are seeing is people trying to cram too much information into those first 100 words. Explaining who’s who, what’s what. But the reader doesn’t need to know all that right up front. There’s a certain amount of time they will grant the author to just carry them along without giving away the farm. Again, I think that’s a genre neutral rule. The cool thing is, once we point this out, almost universally the response is positive.

Another interesting issue that’s created a bit of a debate is the use of present tense. Out of the 50+ submissions we’ve reviewed so far, somewhere between 5 to 10 of them were writing in present tense. I’m not a big fan of using present tense, though am not completely opposed to it. Some of the best books I’ve read in the past couple of years have been present tense (the Bangkok books by John Burdett, and The Archivist Story by Travis Holland). Rob can chime in with his opinion, but to suffice it to say his is a little stronger than mine.

I think what surprised me the most about the use of the present tense is that so many were using it. I think if a story needs to be told that way then fine, but I find it curious that people who are still unpublished would still choose to use it, and here’s why…Unless I’m missing something, so few books are published this way. And because publishers aren’t as interested in these kind of books, my sense is agents won’t be either. So the question I’ve posed to many of theses writers is why hinder your chances of making your first sale by writing in a method many publishing professionals will dismiss after the first sentence? Again, if they felt strongly that this is the only way their story could be written, so be it. But they need to know going in that that uphill climb just turned into Mt. Everest with limited supplies.

So I’m curious…what do you think about using present tense by someone trying to sell their first novel? Maybe I’m wrong. Also feel free to pass along any other hints on the first 100 words you might have. I’ll post them over at our discussion group and credit you. Trust me, it will be appreciated!

21 thoughts on “It Only Happens Once

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    I’m a big proponent of grabbing the reader in the first 100 words, before they put the book back on the shelf and move on down the aisle. I think I may have previously mentioned what I call the “WTF” effect…the first few sentences make you wonder “WTF is going on here”?

    Examples: “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

    “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect.”

    Now as to present tense…I don’t know why it’s not more widely used. Certainly it gives a sense of immediacy. But it’s strangely hard to do, maybe becuase people aren’t more used to reading it, so it’s harder to write.

  2. Will Bereswill

    Whether it’s the first 100 words, the first sentence, or the first 5 pages, I think you have to grab the reader quick. At least in genre fiction. I get the sense that some literary guys don’t share that same idea.

    I’ve yet to read a book done in present tense, but it sounds intriguing. For a first novel? It seems like it would be much harder to pull off, so, I would think a first-time author may not want to start out that way.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, this is a screenwriting trick, but if you’ll notice, almost every great movie opens with an image that in some way encapsulates the theme of the story. I wouldn’t dream of writing a script without a great opening image, and I just translated that technique to my novels. THE HARROWING opens on a memorial bench in the heart of an oak grove on campus that is like a tombstone for five students. It figures prominently as a clue, later, too.

    THE PRICE opens vertiginously above the hospital, “like a frozen spider buried in the snow.” Menacing and also not a human perspective. Also, it’s present tense, because again, I wanted a non-human POV.

    I suspect people worry too much about the WORDS on their first page and aren’t concentrating enough on the IMAGE they want to project.

    This is a great, great topic, damn you, Battles – I have work to do today and now will be checking in every five minutes.

  4. R.J. Mangahas

    I have to agree with J.D. Present tense certainly adds to the immediacy, particularly if told in the first person. “What happens?” “Does the narrator survive?” This can tend to pull the reader in. If told in the first person past, it’s assumed that narrator survived, unless they’re already dead like in “The Lovely Bones.” But yeah, writing in the present can be a little more challenging.

  5. Stacey Cochran

    Great topic, Brett. I love Dusty’s and Alex’s answers so far.

    It’s interesting, my first pro short story sale was written in present tense. It was a literary fiction short story, though. I suspect there are more uses of present tense in literary fiction than in genre fiction, but I agree with you, Dusty, it does give a story an immediacy that it might not have otherwise.

    The trick with writing in present tense involves using active verbs, where the subject does the action. Rather than passive verbs, where the action is done to the subject.

    E.g., Dusty writes damn good fiction. (active)

    Some damn good fiction is written by Dusty. (passive)

  6. pari noskin taichert

    Great topic, Brett.

    I think you’ve got to grab ’em by the end of the first paragraph; readers have to care.

    X,What a great way to describe it — focus on image rather than the words. That’s so true.

    Present tense?I’ve only read one book (I’ll try to remember the name of it) written in present tense that worked. This is because with the others . . . I’ve been too aware of the tense; it’s become too much of a device and when I read, I don’t want to be thinking about how clever the writer is —– I want to become immersed in the story.

    I think that a sense of immediacy can be just as strong, or stronger, in the past tense when in the right hands . . .

    It’s a question of effective writing rather than temporal choices, IMHO.

  7. Bill Cameron

    I wrote my second novel in first person past, single narrator, but in my third, that narrator is joined by a number of other characters presented in third person storylines. I found myself writing his first person chapters in present tense and it really worked for me, particularly in contrast with the various third-person past narratives. So then I went back to book two and took a second look, and decided to do a version in present.

    I liked it. Or perhaps that should be “I like it.” The present tense narrative added an urgency that effectively (I believe) illuminates the theme of the novel.

    All that said, I’m not married to it. As I’ve made tweaks while I wait to see what my agent can do with it, I’ve made a point of updating both the past and present versions. If the editor who finally takes it wants past tense, there’ll be no argument from me. But it was a good exercise, gave me a lot to think about in terms of how story and character are affected by tense.

  8. JT Ellison

    Great topic, Brett.

    I’m not a big fan of present tense, only because I’m hyper-aware of it and am waiting for the writer to slip instead of getting into the story. It’s a preference thing, no doubt, and I’ve read present that is done very well. But for the most part, it pulls me away from the story, despite the immediacy of the technique.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I’ve lately read several books that I didn’t even notice were written in present tense until many chapters into them. Of course I can’t recall offhand which books they were! But IMO it really, absolutely depends on the skill of the author.

  10. Louise Ure

    Writing in the present tense usually takes me out of a story for the first few pages, then I forget about it as I settle in for the read.

    In my own work, I seem to use the opening as an HIBK (Had I But Known) line, with a twist. (The opening to my next book, Liars Anonymous, is: “I got away with murder once, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen again. Damn.This time I didn’t do it. Well,not much of it anyway.”)

    I’m sure that won’t hold true for all my books. Hell, I might even try present tense.

  11. Naomi

    I’m firmly in the camp of do whatever is appropriate for your story. If it works, it works. I see present tense a lot in literary fiction–makes sense as the way a story is told is sometimes more important than the story itself. In our genre the story is at least as vital as form. If the form makes us stumble over the story, then it might not be the appropriate choice.

    I love deconstructing the first person. My upcoming book for readers 10-14 is written in the first person, present tense. The present tense indeed helped the story be more immediate as well as kept me in the head of a 12-year-old. Whenever I write in first person, I wonder–does my narrator have the benefit of hindsight? Does she look back with more interpretation/experience or is she recounting events just as it happens?

  12. Tamar Bihari

    I have no comment on present tense vs. past tense, but I do have some thoughts about why it’s become more prevalent.

    — Screenplays do it. More people study scripts, read scripts, are aware of scripts. I’ve heard agents complain about other script idiosyncrasies making their way into fiction narratives too.

    — Synopses do it. In a way, this gives it a patina of of respectability.

    — It’s very common in fanfic, and I think a lot more aspiring writers try their hand at fanfic than anyone realizes.

  13. Stephen Blackmoore

    Personally, I like writing in present tense. Like reading it, too, actually. Yeah, it’s maybe not as marketable, and I know that some people don’t like it. That’ll probably screw me at some point.

    But for me, it’s about voice. There’s an immediacy and an intimacy about present tense that always grabs me. It’s happening. Right then, right there. I like writing that slaps me in the face and present tense does it for me.

  14. toni

    I agree with Alex that image is critical, but tone is also something important to set in that first 100 words. It’s critical to me to set the flavor of the story there, to give the reader an indication of what kind of tale they’re going to read and if I’m confident in that voice.

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Toni’s absolutely right about how crucial it is to set tone on the first page. Not only that – you have to give a clear sense of what GENRE you’re working in in the first 100 words. If it’s a comedy, it better be funny. If it’s supernatural, you need to give a hint – a shiver – that something beyond the ordinary can happen. If it’s magical realism… let’s see some magic.

  16. billie

    Great comments on the first hundred words. I personally love present tense but one thing I discovered today is that I often misremember what tense old favorites are written in.

    I looked back to a few thinking “but so and so was written in present” only to find that, no, it wasn’t.

    Ultimately what I love about present tense is the feeling that I am right there with the characters, living the story. And of course, a good writer does that regardless of the tense, so when I read books in past that catch me up, I must absorb that part of the experience in my memory and transform it to what I know is my favorite.

    I suspect that no matter what POV or tense or genre we write in, the reader will, if pulled hard enough into the story, embrace its form and make it work.

  17. John Dishon

    Your question sounds elitist to me. Why are you concerned that unpublished writers are using present tense but not published writers? Just because a writer is unpublished does not mean the person is new to writing. There have been people who have been writing for decades and haven’t published anyhing, for whatever reason. Being unpublished doesn’t necessarily make you less experienced anymore than having one book published makes you an authority on what techniques unpublished writers should be using.

    If present tense is what works and is what the author wants to use, then use it. Will it hurt the author’s chances of getting published? Maybe, maybe not. I think the story is more important than making money off it, so I wouldn’t sacrifice the story just to sell it. But that’s just me.

    Then again, it doesn’t seem like much of an issue, given the data you provided. 5 to 10 out of more than 50 submissions? So 10-20% is a lot?

  18. Brett Battles

    Thanks everyone for your comments.

    John, if I came off elitist, my apologies. Not my intention at all. Part of what I was trying to do here was stir the discussion and hear what others thought. I struggled for years myself, I know it’s tough. And you’re right, if a book is best in present tense, then it should be written that way. My motives come from a place where I want help people reach their goal of being published, that’s all.

    Again, that’s why I was looking for comments, because I absolutely do not know all the answers. It was just a sense I had from talking to people in the past, and wanted to see what others thought.

  19. Rob Gregory Browne

    Actually 10-20% IS a lot. And I have a feeling some of the others were written in present tense until we made mention of it.

    I take particular offense to your calling Brett elitist. Brett and I are simply trying to help unpublished writers make their manuscripts more publishable. Now, whether you like present tense or not (I happen to borderline loath it, although Turow’s Presumed Innocent comes to mind as a successful use of it), I’m pretty certain that most agents and editors would prefer not to see it in a submission.

    And frankly, I think this attitude: “I think the story is more important than making money off of it” is the true elitist attitude. The “I’m an artist, let me paint” POV that nine times out of ten results in crap.

    Writing fiction is not only an art, it’s a CRAFT. In fact, I’d argue that it’s MORE craft than art — and part of that craft is tailoring your work toward the marketplace.

    It would be great to write anything we like, without restriction, and we’re all free to do that if we have no real desire to be published or paid. But some of us do this for a living and others would like to, and my best advice is to stick to the conventions of the craft and wow them with your content, with your ability to create wonderful characters who would be JUST as wonderful written in past tense.

  20. Zoe Sharp

    Very interesting topic, and something I feel that writers worry about a lot more than readers. I’ve mentioned books in present tense to friends, only to find that they didn’t realised they *were* in present tense until I’d pointed it out.

    For examples, though, I have to mention Don Winslow’s superb CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE. Not only present tense, but a kind of finger-clicking rhythm. Even the flashbacks are in present tense.

    As for publishers not liking it, I can’t answer that – I’ve never presented anything in present tense for a publisher’s opinion. But Theresa Schwegel’s OFFICER DOWN, which won the Edgar for Best First, and Patricia Cornwell’s BLOW FLY, which was *the* most borrowed book from the UK library system, are both in present tense, one first person, one third. And it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm …


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