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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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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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My First Draft Is Done! What’s Next? A Manuscript Guide for Indie Authors

When you finish the first draft of your book, you might feel lost. What are the next steps? How long it will be before you can publish it? Here is a handy guide to getting your book polished and ready for publication.*

    1. Let it rest. Really. Put the manuscript away for a while. Maybe you can start a new project or work on a different one. Get some distance so that when you come back to it, you won’t be blind to your own mistakes. Six or eight weeks should do the trick.
    2. Self-edit. Now you can start self-editing and rewriting. The self-editing process varies for everyone. As great guides to this process, I recommend the books Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Manuscript Makeover.
    3. Breathe. When you’re done, take a few days to breathe. Make sure you’re really finished with the second draft. It’s easy to get impatient and throw your manuscript at people the second it’s done. Your patience will pay off in the end.
      first draft, breathe, manuscript, indie author, editor, writer, writing, editing
    4. Send it to beta readers. Send your manuscript to several beta readers. Beta readers can be friends and family. However, the best ones are people who read regularly in your genre and who like to talk about it. Get more beta readers than you need. Reading and commenting on a whole book is a big commitment. Some readers will never finish. You can find free beta readers through critique groups or social media groups. You can also pay for professional beta readers. Paid readers have a good incentive to complete the job! Self-editing and using beta readers will also save you money at editing time. Editors charge on the basis of how much work is needed on your manuscript. (For more details, see my blog series on Saving Money on Editing.) If you are thorough and willing to learn as you go, you may be able to skip structural editing and lower your copyediting costs. In any case, your book will be better off for it! Don’t skip these steps! beta reader; first draft
    5. Revise again. Take your beta readers’ suggestions into careful consideration, but feel free to ignore some of them. Pay special attention to issues that have been flagged by multiple readers! If most of your readers are telling you the same thing, it would be unwise to ignore it. Repeat steps 2 through 5 as needed until you feel that you can’t do anything more with your manuscript on your own.
    6. Consult a professional editor. Many editors offer a free sample edit. During this time, the editor will go through a sample of your manuscript and make a recommendation about what kind of editing it needs. Feel free to get several sample edits. Go with the editor who is the right combination of fit and affordability for you. You will often pay more for a better editor, but get that sample edit to be sure that your editor is worth her price. (See my post on vetting editors.)
    7. Get developmental editing/make revisions. At this stage, you will be working with your editor on big-picture issues such as plot, theme, character, and structure. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or punctuation just yet. Don’t need developmental editing? Hurray! Skip ahead to step 8!
    8. Get copyediting/make revisions. Time to fix all the grammar and spelling mistakes and inconsistencies. Time to improve the flow of your sentences. Just as with beta readers, you can and should choose which edits you keep and which edits you toss. Just be thoughtful. Ask questions. Your editor should want your book to shine as much as you do, and it will make you a better writer.
      red pencil, editing, first draft, editor, editing, writer, writing, indie author, author
    9. Lay out your book. Hire a book formatter or design and lay out your book yourself if you know how. Don’t forget to add front matter and a table of contents (a linked one for ebooks)!
    10. Get a cover designed. You can start this step earlier if you’d like. However, if you are self-publishing a paperback or hardcover version of your book, your cover designer will need to know the final page count to determine the spine width for the design. Yes, you can design your cover yourself. However, I only recommend this if you have graphic design experience and really know what you are doing. The cover is the first thing that a potential reader sees. Investing in a good cover designer will boost those original sales before reviews start to come in.
    11. Write your back cover copy and get publicity blurbs. While your cover is being designed, write and edit your back cover copy and use your formatted manuscript to solicit blurbs (good quotes!) for your back cover. If you’re not selling hard copies of your book, you still need good descriptive copy for your book’s sales page, so don’t skip this step.
    12. Get proofreading. You can complete this stage during cover design. Once your pages are laid out, have a proofreader check them to catch typos that might have slipped through or been introduced during corrections (yes, this happens). This is not the time for big changes or rewrites. They will only cause you to have to redo or fix the formatting. Get each format (ebook and hardcopy) proofread because there can be minor differences.
      proofreading, first draft
    13. Publish. Upload your files and publish at the vendor of your choice! There are many more choices and steps during this stage, but I’ll leave that for another post!

This post is a slightly more detailed update to an infographic I posted earlier.

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Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children series)
Seanan McGuire
Tom Doherty Associates, LLC., 2016
176 pages. Available in hardcover, Kindle, and Audible audio formats.

Category: Fiction, Portal Fantasy, Urban Fantasy

I came across this book while checking to see whether my local library had the latest Toby Daye novel. Our small and famously underfunded system did not. However, they did have this single book by prolific writer and author of the Toby Daye series, Seanan McGuire. I was curious about the book and was met with several stellar reviews, so I decided to check it out.

The most important thing I will say about it is that this book defies traditional categorization. I am not saying that this is a bad thing, only that you should be warned.

I started to notice this when I picked it the book from the library. I actually went to Amazon and to McGuire’s website because I thought surely such a small book was a children’s or maybe even YA book. I didn’t mind if it was. I just like to know what I’m getting into. Despite its size, it is categorized on the author’s page as portal/urban fantasy with no notes on it being intended for children of any sort. Used to Robert Jordan’s epic and sizable yarns, I was a little surprised to see Tor publishing anything that it categorized as fantasy that was so small that I could stick it in my purse and still have room to spare. I could go into a whole diatribe over how writers worry about making their books just the right length to fit certain genres and audiences, but I find myself glad when expectations are booted in favor of just allowing writers to tell a good story. So, onward we go!

The premise of the book is based on a home for “wayward” children led by another former wayward child herself, Eleanor “Ely” West. It opens with a young woman by the name of Nancy coming to the home for the first time. She is met by a sign:

ELEANOR WEST’S HOME FOR WAYWARD CHILDREN: No Solicitation, No Visitors, No Quests.”

The children (teens really) that occupy Ely West’s boarding school are of a special sort. Each has been through a magical door and back again at least once. When they return to their place of origin after adventures beyond the doorway—to worlds classified here with categories like high Logic and high Nonsense—they can no longer cope with this world because each saw the place that they had visited as Home. (There is a completely different school for children who were terrified by their adventures and are just trying to forget.) The parents of these homesick teens think they are lying or crazy and send them off to be cured, while the children themselves are just looking for a way back through their doors.

Nancy’s parents, tired of her drab clothing and her refusal to eat, send her to Ely with hope for a cure. Nancy, however, knows that she was sent back through her doorway “just to be sure” that her world, the Halls of the Dead, is where she really wants to be. She continues to behave in a manner appropriate to someone of that world with hopes that if she doesn’t get caught up in the harried pace of this world, she will be allowed to go back.

At the school, Nancy, still accustomed to the ways of the Underworld, finds a menagerie of teens who have been to a vast array of worlds, from her new roommate, the highly energetic Sumi, who has been to a world of cakes and candy floss, to Jack and Jill, a set of teen girls who have been to the Moors, where Jill served a Master Vampire and Jack was apprenticed to a man reminiscent of Doctor Frankenstein.

As a reader, at this point, I expected to follow along to find out whether Nancy finds her way back to her beloved Lord of the Dead or instead finds a way to cope with the frantic and overly colorful world into which she has been born. This is definitely an aim of the story, but it is quickly matched by another worry when students start being murdered violently. Thus, this portal fantasy is a bit of a murder mystery as well.

I will leave the rest of the plotline to avoid spoilers and get into the meat of things that I was pleased with and those I was not so pleased with (in reverse order).

As an editor and a perpetual student of story, one thing that bothered me about the book was the way point of view (POV) was handled. At first, the story seems to shift from one third-person limited POV to another, Nancy’s to Ely’s. This was easy enough to follow, and it kept me as a reader engaged with the stakes of each character. I admit, I was looking for a tether to hold onto to guide me along the events of the story, even if it was from an unreliable narrator. However, later, as tensions rise, McGuire dips in and out of the heads of different characters in a more omniscient fashion. This took me out of the story as I tried to find my anchor, my point of consistency. I wish I could have told her, as I’ve told many an author, that she had chosen a POV and stuck to it. An omniscient POV needs to be balanced throughout the book, while a third-person limited POV needs to shift characters only at designated scene or chapter breaks. Otherwise, the shifts and head hopping cause confusion and pull the reader out of the story. I started to wonder for a while whether there was a main character after all.

Not all readers might find my second note of criticism applicable, but I found myself sympathizing much more with one of the side characters than with I did with Nancy. I won’t tell you which one, since it is possible to do this with more than one of the secondary characters. The author might have intended this, to make the reader wonder who done it? Could it have been our narrator, Nancy? She is, after all, beholden to the Lord of the Dead, and she is the first suspect that many of the students look to. However, I felt distanced from Nancy and liked this secondary character enough that I began to wonder who the story was really about.

On a positive note, McGuire deals with this small variety of teens and their differences with a deft hand. The story feels real and engaging. She doesn’t shy away from issues such as gender preference or even asexuality, a topic left out so often in literature that it may as well not exist for a vast majority of readers. Without making the whole story about these issues, she presents it in a genuine light, with some students accepting the differences without batting an eyelash and some using them as points of attack. She covers a lot in such a small book without overshadowing the story or being preachy.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read, a nice step out of my own little world of reading books about wizards, vampires, and fae changelings and into a world of teens struggling to find a place where they belong. Yes, there is a lot of metaphor here, but there is a good story as well.

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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Give Readers Engaging Fiction — The Editor’s Blog

How can writers make sure that their readers read their stories all the way through to the end? What makes a story engaging enough that your audience will keep turning those pages? Why do readers stop reading 10 pages or 10 chapters into a novel? In today’s reblog, Beth Hill of The Editor’s Blog gives writers tips on why some writing does not engage readers, what readers want, and how to make your fiction more enticing. Join her and find out how to “treat readers well and feed them tasty fiction.”

Some element in every story should pop for the reader, whether it’s the puzzle in a mystery, the threat in suspense, the story world in science fiction, or the relationship in a romance.

Readers have to have reasons to continue to read a book past the first page or two, and you’re the one who has to give them those reasons.

One big advantage for writers is that readers come to books intending to enjoy them, intending to get lost in characters and the events overtaking them. You don’t have to do anything to prime the pump.

Yet you do need to deliver. You’ve got to give readers something more captivating than their real-world distractions.

The reader brings an appetite, but you’ve got to serve up the meal. And it should be tasty. Not too skimpy, not bland, and not overly spiced.

Readers come to your books hungry, wanting to enjoy what you serve up, but that doesn’t mean that you can slack off and serve slop.

Readers want a story that tastes good, that looks good.

Sometimes they may want a light meal, sometimes a full seven-course dinner. But they definitely want more than stale crackers and tepid water.

It’s your job to serve an appetizing meal.…

Continued at Give Readers Engaging Fiction | The Editor’s Blog

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