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Month: June 2017

Past or Present? Using Tense Effectively in Fiction

For the main narrative voice of your story, you need to choose a verb tense. Once you do, consistency within the narrative is essential. I stopped reading one self-published book after less than a chapter because the author couldn’t make up her mind about verb tense. The constant switching between past and present was confusing and made it impossible for me to become engrossed in the story.

There are exceptions, such as dialogue and flashback, when you can switch tenses, but for the most part, you need to pick a tense and stick to it.

Which Tense Should You Use?

The most common tenses for narrating a story are past and present. Historically, the past tense seems to have the upper hand, but the use of the present tense has recently become more common, especially with the rise of young adult fiction.

The present tense lets an author tell the story as it is happening.

Jill stares down at the bed with its mussed sheets. The faint scent of perfume tickles her nose. It’s not her perfume. Her stomach twists into a tight knot.

The past tense tells a story as if in reflection. The narrator can be speaking of something that happened five minutes ago or five hundred years ago.

Jill stared down at the bed with its mussed sheets. The faint scent of perfume tickled her nose. It was not her perfume. Her stomach twisted into a tight knot.

tense, verb tense, fiction, writing fictionSome argue that present tense lends a sense of immediacy to the story and to the action. I’ve read too many novels, however, written in the past tense with plenty of action and immediacy to accept this argument at face value. Nonetheless, the present tense has its place, especially in modern literature, and I have no problem with it when it’s used well.

In the end, the choice is stylistic. Choose whichever tense feels best for you and your story. In any case, be deliberate in your choice, and consider your audience. Many readers have a preference for one over the other.

In a sense, your choice of tense is like your choice of point of view.

How do you want the story to feel? How close and intimate do you want it to be? Do you want your narrator to be immersed only in the immediacy of events, for which the present tense would work well, or do you want him to be able to reflect on the choices that he has made as the reader is learning about them (e.g., “That ended up being the worst mistake I’d made since I’d started working the case.”)?

You may choose the present because popular writers in your genre are writing in the present tense and you feel that is the tense that readers expect.

You may choose the past tense because it is the one that you are used to and the tense in which you are most comfortable writing.

If you’re unsure about which to use, try writing the same scene in each tense and comparing them in terms of both your comfort level and their overall readability. Maybe even have someone else read them as well. Which one prompts the emotional response from the reader that you are looking for?

When Is It Okay to Switch Tenses?

Whether you use past or present tense, there will be times when you can switch tenses. You shouldn’t change tense on a whim, but under specific circumstances, it is okay and even expected. Here are a few common examples.


Of course, characters may speak in whatever tense is appropriate.

“What is Jane doing?” (present)

“I was just trying to fix the faucet!” (past progressive)

“She told me about the murder.” (simple past)

“They will blow up the state capitol!” (simple future)


If your main narrative is in the present tense, flashbacks can be written in the simple past tense. For example, the previous story about Jill might continue like this, with the past tense making the flashback clear and the present tense bringing the reader back to the immediate situation:

Her stomach twists into a tight knot.

This morning, Jack kissed her in this very bed. He touched her skin with his gentle hands. He said she was the only woman for him.

Her rage boils up like fire in her belly. She is going to kill him.

tense, verb tense, flashback, fiction, writing fictionIf your main narrative is in the past tense, however, short flashbacks can be written in the past perfect tense:

Her stomach twisted into a tight knot.

That morning, Jack had kissed her in this very bed. He had touched her skin with his gentle hands. He had said she was the only woman for him.

Her rage boiled up like fire in her belly. She was going to kill him.

If your narrative flashback is longer, you can frame your flashback with several verbs in the past perfect tense before switching to simple past. Then, use at least one past perfect verb to signal the end of the flashback before coming back to the present. For example

Her stomach twisted into a tight knot.

That morning, Jack had kissed her in this very bed. He had touched her skin with his gentle hands. They laid in bed long past the alarm and talked about their wedding plans. She wanted a three-tiered vanilla cake with white icing, and he said that was perfect. Whatever made her happy. The only thing he cared about was that she would be the one walking down the aisle. He had said she was the only woman for him.

Her rage boiled up like fire in her belly. She was going to kill him.

Note how the paragraph breaks in these examples also serve to separate the flashbacks from the immediate story.

Adverbs and Tense

Some folks flag words such as such as now or phrases such as “This morning” as being in the present tense. However, these are not verbs and, therefore, don’t have a tense.

In fact, now has several meanings, all of which indicate the immediacy of the present moment but cover its use in both the past and present tenses. According to Merriam-Webster Online, now means both “at the present time or moment” and “at the time referred to.”

Phrases such as “last night” and “this morning” are relative terms and can be used in both past and present tense narrations:

Jill thought about last night. Where had Jack been until 11 p.m.?

Some writers prefer to use phrases such as “the previous night” to prevent confusion, but both are correct.

Which tense is your favorite, past or present? Why do you prefer it?


Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner

“Present Tense Books,” Mignon Fogarty,

“The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in Present Tense,” David Jauss, Writers Digest, excerpted from On Writing Fiction

Writing: Past or Present Tense?,” Debbie Young, Self Publishing Advice Center

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Saving Money on Editing & The Launch of a New Book Series

Post updated August 29, 2017. Updates are marked with an asterisk.

On July 1, my first Indie Author Guide, Saving Money on Editing & Choosing the Best Editor, will be published on Amazon in ebook format.

This book was inspired by and adapted from several earlier posts on this blog and is now available in paperback and on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Scribd, and other formats.* It is not simply a compilation of the blog posts. It has been completely edited and integrated. I’ve added updated information.

It’s a handy little resource to have around during the revision phase of writing your book, and it’s a great guide to help you get your manuscript in the best shape possible before you send it to your editor.

It will also help you find the right editor for you and your book.

Saving Money on Editing Availability

I had hoped to offer it on Kindle Unlimited. However, a different version of it, called An Author’s Guide to Saving Money on Editing, is being copublished by the Editorial Freelancers Association later this year. Amazon’s KDP Select program demands exclusivity, so Kindle Unlimited won’t be possible for this book.

The good news is that this means I can publish it more widely later.  I can use services such as Ingram Spark, Kobo Writing Life, and Smashwords to distribute my little book to a wider audience at a later date. *The book has now been distributed through Draft2Digital and is also available in paperback.

A paperback version of Saving Money on Editing will also be available soon. I just need to check the proof, which is on its way to me as we speak.

This Is Just the Beginning

Saving Money on Editing is the first in a series of Indie Author Guides aimed at helping indie authors improve their craft and learn the business of self-publishing. I am learning everyday, and as I learn, I want to share that knowledge with you, to make the process of writing and preparing your book for publication as smooth and achievable as possible.

I may very well use this blog in the process of creation. I’d love to hear what you want to learn about. How can I, as an editor, help you solve your writing problems? What questions do you have about writing and self-publishing?

What issues or challenges do you deal with every day that interrupt writing or make the process more difficult? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter. Let’s start a discussion on how we can help each other as authors. Also, how can editors such as myself help authors achieve their goals?


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The Art of Taking Feedback on Your Writing

I often encourage my clients and other writers to get feedback from alpha readers, beta readers, and/or critique partners or groups to improve their writing.

Unfortunately, this is not a perfect science, and even editors can disagree on whether this feedback is useful or not. Like reading “news” on the internet, as writers, we have to learn what feedback is useful and what is garbage.

If you can learn to wade through the good, the bad, and the ugly, getting feedback from readers and critique partners can be invaluable.

In this post, I give you some tips on how to deal with feedback in a way that will not only improve your current writing project but also help you to grow as a writer.

Tips for All Feedback

Having multiple readers can be especially useful for learning whether a certain piece of feedback will really help improve your work in progress. All readers are subjective, but how can we determine which comments and critiques are worth our attention?

A rule of thumb is to always pay attention when several readers give you the same feedback. For example, if three different readers tell you that a certain paragraph or scene is awkward, make sure to go over it until you can pinpoint the problem and smooth it out. If possible, ask those readers for specifics to find out where they stumbled over the text.

You can also use this rule for positive feedback. Mark sections to “leave alone” if several readers have lauded a certain sentence or paragraph.

When only one reader points out a problem, however, as the writer, you must be the judge. Look at the text carefully and see if you agree with the reader.

If it’s something as simple as a typo or misspelling, that’s an easy call.

If it’s something more broad like “I think you should kill off this character,” then you have a judgment call to make. Is it something that works for you? Do you think following this advice would improve the story as a whole or just cause other problems?

Never make a change just because one reader said so. On the other hand, never avoid making changes just because they are inconvenient. Really evaluate the feedback and then decide whether your reader’s suggestion would make your story better.

Tips for Conflicting Feedback

Conflicting feedback can be especially confusing, especially to a new writer. If half of your readers tell you one thing and half tell you exactly the opposite, what are you supposed to do?

First, try to distill exactly what element of writing your readers are having issues with. Take some time to either learn about or clarify that issue and see whether there are any resources you can find that the deal with it. Talk with a trusted writing mentor. The point here is to make the most educated decision that you can. If there is no “right” way to deal with it, then use your own personal preference. These preferences and writing styles make your writing unique and give it flavor.

In the end, it’s another judgment call.

Tips for Positive Feedback

As writers, we all love good feedback. When other writers or potential readers laud our work, we can’t help but glow. However, that big grin on your face isn’t really improving your writing.

You may think that positive feedback is worthless, but it can help you mark your progress as a writer and tell you when you’re moving in the right direction.

If you give your book to six carefully selected beta readers and they all have mostly positive things to say, then you are probably ready to move forward to the next stage. (See My First Draft Is Done! What’s Next? for an indie author guide to the stages leading up to publishing.)

feedbackTips for Negative Feedback

On the other hand, taking negative feedback—or outright criticism—of your writing can be a real challenge. How do you keep a badly worded or insensitive review from making you want to stop writing altogether?

The first thing you need to do is step back and process the feedback.

Natural human reactions to negativity make it hard for us to deal with this kind of criticism, especially when it’s targeted at our creations. It can take some time to be objective enough about it that you can evaluate whether the feedback is helpful and determine what you should do about it.

Depending on how harsh the criticism is, this can take anywhere from a couple of seconds to several days or even longer.

Once you feel like you can face the feedback without screaming, you need to distill it to find out if it will be useful for you.

The Troll

You may find that for whatever reason, the feedback isn’t feedback at all but rather needless trolling with no other point than to be negative. Anyone who is on the internet has run across the kind of people who leave spiteful comments and reviews just to stir up trouble.

How can you tell if your reader is a troll? Look for insulting language or comments directed at you as a writer or person instead of the writing itself. For example, take “I’ve never seen such dribble” versus “I’m having trouble connecting to the characters.” The first is insulting, but the second gives you specific, constructive feedback.

If you think that you are the victim of a troll, just move on, and make a note never to use that reader again. This is one of the biggest reasons for getting to know your readers and/or critique group well before handing over your writing.

The Amateur

You may find that the person giving you feedback doesn’t understand your genre. Be careful that you aren’t just saying this because you want to argue with your readers. See how their feedback compares to that of others before discarding it.

How can you tell if your reader is an amateur? Look for signs that he or she isn’t familiar with the genre. Readers new to a genre are often overly enthusiastic or extremely negative about tropes that are very common to it. For example, if your reader is “not into all this new agey stuff” and your book is visionary fiction, there is your evidence.

The Honest Brute

Here is the one you really want to pay attention to. The person who honestly (and without insult) points out the flaws and strengths of your writing is the one who can help you the most. Take the time to really evaluate what this person has to say as it will likely help you improve not only the book but also your skills as a writer.

Lessons Learned

When receiving feedback on your manuscript, always remember that this is your book. Own it, and own the responsibility for revising it in a way that you feel makes it better. Don’t let strongly opinionated readers turn it into something that you don’t even want to claim anymore.

In any case, whether the feedback you receive is positive or negative, considerate it practice for when your book or story is live and people start leaving reviews.

Reviews bring attention to your work, so although they lay you bare for comments and criticism, they are an essential part of the published writer’s life.


A lack of criticism can lead you to believe that you are flawless as a writer. Unfortunately, that in itself can lead to a degradation in the quality of your writing. Writers need to be open to new ways of learning, new techniques, and of course, criticism to keep improving.

How do you deal with feedback from readers on your own writing? How about feedback from editors?


From Wordy Speculations

“11 Rules for Your Critique Group”

“An Indie Author Guide to Saving Money on Editing—Part 3: Using Readers”

“What Is a Beta Reader?”

Other Resources

“The Importance and Limitations of Beta Readers,” Jen Anderson, Clearing Blocks

“Writing Feedback: The Ultimate Guide to Working with Beta Readers,” Amanda Shofner, The Write Life

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Book Review: Self-Publishing for Profit: How to Get Your Book Out of Your Head and into the Stores by Chris Kennedy

Self-Publishing for Profit: How to Get Your Book Out of Your Head and Into The Stores by Chris Kennedy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lots of Good Information Here

This is a good intro for someone without much knowledge about self-publishing. It covers a lot of ground, though, so you’ll need other resources if you want to dig deeper on any specific topic.

Also, keep in mind that this industry is changing every day, so some specific information might become outdated pretty quickly.

This is a great place to start your journey, but be sure to do your own research and keep yourself educated on the topics that are relevant to you.

View all my Goodreads reviews

Please note: This post contains affiliate links. This means that I receive a small percentage of sales through these links but at no extra cost to you. My editing, design and consulting services are paid for by clients, but affiliate links help me to provide free blog content, videos, and writing and self-publishing resources for all of my readers.

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Congratulations to J. Y. Olmos!

Congratulations to J. Y. Olmos on the publication of The Matriarch Saved (The Hive: Book 1)!

This is the first book in a fun science fiction romance trilogy. I worked with Olmos over the last several months to get the entire trilogy copyedited. It’s so exciting to see it ready for others to enjoy!

What happens when a woman is abducted by aliens only to be taken to a planet populated by large, well-muscled, adoring men? If you like science fiction romance, go check it out!

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