Writing in the present tense

Writing no matter whatI’m back in draft mode, and living with that “love it/like it/yikes I hate it” feeling that comes with the territory. I was about 90 pages into my new novel when I decided to take a few months off so I wouldn’t go insane juggling too many gigantically stressful life-things at once. Now that’s over, and to make up for lost time I’m trying something I’ve never done before: writing 7 days a week. I know that’s not earth-shattering for most writers, and I’ve actually had an author look at me and ask, shocked, “What? You DON’T write every single day? What is WRONG with you?” I wish I knew. I just naturally need a break from the page after a few days. I need to let things gel in my head. Or I get distracted and lazy and suddenly it’s much more important for me to go to Kohl’s and use my 30% off coupon to buy new throw pillows. So writing every single day is a big freaking deal to me.

And now that I’m actually sort of doing it? It feels amazing.

By contrast, I worked on “The Beginning of After” in fits and starts, and it was only during very specific times, like when we had family visiting and lots of childcare to take advantage of, that I would write for several days in a row. But now the characters and their world pulse under my skin 24/7, and I’m living this story every day that I’m living my own. And I think it’s coming out in the writing itself.

Another big change with this book is that the main character, Justine, is narrating in the present tense. This was a half-conscious decision when I first started it; I was looking for ways to keep Justine from sounding like Laurel from TBOA, because after working on TBOA for so many years, I was afraid that Laurel was my default voice. But once Justine took on dimension and began “talking” to me, the present tense just felt organic. It makes the process of writing a first draft very different, because you’re looking at your story through a clear lens, one that’s not filtered by a character’s memory or gained perspective. It’s just very cool.

I’m thinking that the present tense is also a product of the story’s setting. “The Beginning of After” is unofficially set in Briarcliff, NY, the small Manhattan suburb in which I grew up. Laurel’s neighborhood is my old neighborhood. In fact, I could tell you which houses in that neighborhood are Laurel’s house (mine of course), David’s house, and Meg’s house, geographically (the houses themselves look different in my head). The high school is my old high school. I remember when I started the book, I was very aware of how the story was in part about the community I came from, and all the good and bad bundled with it. I was writing with a slightly nostalgic bent, from 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles where nothing had history or baggage for me.

Main Street New PaltzNow, by contrast, I’m writing about the place I occupy at this very moment. My new book (which is as yet untitled, of course, because I suck at titles) takes place in New Paltz, the Hudson Valley town we fell in love with and moved to just a year ago. The locations and scenery I’m describing are places I see every day. Last weekend, I was writing a scene set in a cafe while actually sitting in that cafe with my laptop. Who knows what daily events and sights will end up in the work.

So everything about this draft feels current, constant, CLOSE. Maybe too close, but whatever. I’m enjoying the experience of being completely entangled in something, and I can’t wait to see it after it’s all unraveled.