4 Ways Not to F*** Up Your Novel’s Tenses

I’m in the home stretch, for both my books, the glorious finish line is in sight… like the marathon runner entering the stadium I am high, the lactic acid burn is intense but like an addict, I love it. Things are going well…and then I realise…I’ve messed up, BIG time. Ballsed up like a big pile of chunky vomit, covered in word poops and a distinct time distorted tense cock up.

Now, I am tense. Tense, because I fudged up my fuckling manuscript. I’m trying not to throw my toys out the pram, because this is supposed to be the last edit, and it is, kinda. It’s just a chuff ton bigger than I thought it was going to be.

Here’s what happened: I gave my manuscript to beta readers they provided some delightful and useful feedback, I processed said feedback and then I put it down whilst I finished off 13 Steps to Evil my non-fiction writing craft book that teaches writers how to craft better villains. Three months elapsed and when I came to do the final edit of Keepers. I started writing, and could not for the life of me understand why I couldn’t get it right.

Something was off, something intangible, a murky jelly-like substance that was just out of reach. I knew the problem was there I just didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t until I shared the paragraph with a friend who asked me why I’d switched tense that I realised the ALMIGHTY cock up.

Because of such a significant time  gap, I’d started editing in a completely different tense. It wouldn’t have been a problem, except I preferred the new tense to the old one, which means a total rewrite.

CUNDYFUNKINGBALLSACKS

*Takes deep breath*

“Do I really need to do a full tense rewrite for my whole manuscript?”

“Yes, Sacha, yes you do.”

&)@£%$*$7″$£$^””%$

Be smart, don’t do me and balls up your whole manuscript 2 meters from the finish line here is how…ONE – CHECK, CHECK, CHECK

There’s no better method of knowing your market and knowing what your audience want them checking what all the big names do in your own genre.

  • What tense do other authors in your genre use?
  • What’s the most popular tense in your genre?
  • Is there a common one?
  • Or is there such a huge variety you couldn’t really pin it down?

For my genre, there seems to be an overall trend towards first person past tense but there is also a group of super popular books written in the first person present tense for example the Hunger Games, Divergent, Delirium and Matched.

TWO – KNOW WHAT YOU LIKE

I’m an idiot because I didn’t pay attention to what my own personal preferences were. To my surprise, they are all in the same tense and NOT THE BLOODY TENSE I WROTE MY NOVEL IN FFS.

WHY DIDN’T I CHECK?

THREE – DO A FREAKING TEST

But the thing is,  even if you did check, how are you supposed to know which one is the right one? And there’s no right or wrong answer because you can write your book in any tense you like. But with any story, while you can write it in any tense you want, theres always a tense that just seems to make it pop.

How you get round this?

You do a test.

  1. Take a couple of your paragraphs and rewrite them in different tenses.
  2. Put them away for a while and then go back and re-read them.
  3. Does one of them read better than the other?  Does one of them flow better?Do you get more visual from one and the other?

FOUR – GET A SECOND OPINION DOC

I like to think these things are generally obvious on gut reaction. I’ve included the two versions of my intro that I used in my test below. To me it’s blindingly obvious there’s a clear winner. What do you think? Is one version clearly better than the other? Let me know in the comments.

I showed it to several others and they agreed.  We don’t always need other people’s opinions, but with writing, it’s often important. Sometimes just getting a couple of people to read over your test paragraphs confirms what you already know, or it surprises you entirely.

Here are my two test versions. In no particular order, one is the old start of Keepers and the other is the new and final version of Keepers.

Please note they have not yet been professionally edited.

VERSION 1 

            Father always said not to trust a Fallon if they can’t Keep the Balance. Victor, my potential, can’t.

***NEW PAGE***

ONE

“Where there is Balance, there is Imbalance.”

First Law – The Book of Balance

Seventeen years I’ve waited. Now, only one exam stands between me, and the Binding that will enable me to Keep instead of being stuck in school practicing in simulators. The sims are useless; everyone knows they’re nothing like Earth. But the Council won’t allow anyone in the field until they’ve been Bound and passed their finals. And especially not the Fallons. We’re too precious, our blood too royal to risk injury or death before we’re properly qualified.

My parents, perched on the front row of the lecture hall’s steep tiered seating, are fidgeting, just like everyone else’s parents. Someone must have opened a door because a ripple of air drifts through the auditorium. I close my eyes, let it wash over my skin and take a deep breath. It doesn’t help. The wind is carrying everyone’s anxiety, and my Elemental power seeks out the anomaly and feeds it into my system. My heart races so I open my eyes and focus on Father instead.

He sits up a little higher, and for the briefest of moments, we share a knowing look. Then it’s gone. Replaced with a perfectly poised expression and a smile befitting any Fallon. I give the faintest of grins back, grateful for the years he spent breaking the rules and smuggling me through the barrier into Earth to practice. Under normal circumstances, I’d have an unfair advantage, but today, Victor is on my team. And while we both get scored individually during the sim, after it’s over, we are scored again as a team. Victor’s performance will impact my final grade, and that is exactly why Father smuggled me out to practice.

***

VERSION TWO

            Father always said not to trust a Fallon if they can’t Keep the Balance. Victor, my potential, can’t.

***NEW PAGE***

ONE

“Where there is Balance, there is Imbalance.”

First Law – The Book of Balance

Seventeen years I’d waited. Finally, only one exam stood between me, and the Binding that would enable me to Keep instead of being stuck in school practicing in simulators. The sims were useless; everyone knew they were nothing like Earth. But the Council wouldn’t allow anyone in the field until they’d been Bound and passed their finals. Especially not the Fallons. We’re too precious, our blood too royal to risk injury or death before properly qualified.

My parents, perched on the front row of the lecture hall’s steep tiered seating, were fidgeting, just like everyone else’s. Someone must have opened a door because a ripple of air drifted through the auditorium. I closed my eyes, let it wash over my skin and took a deep breath. It didn’t help. The wind carried everyone’s anxiety, and my Elemental power sought out the anomaly and fed it into my system. My heart raced, so I opened my eyes and focused on Father instead.

He sat up a little higher, and for the briefest of moments, we shared a knowing look. Then it was gone. Replaced with a perfectly poised expression and a smile befitting any Fallon. I gave the faintest of grins back, grateful for the years he spent breaking the rules and smuggling me through the barrier into Earth, to practice. Under normal circumstances, I’d have an unfair advantage, but today, Victor is on my team. And while we both get scored individually during the sim, after it’s over we’re scored again as a team. Victor’s performance will impact my final grade, and that is exactly why Father smuggled me out to practice.

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81 comments

          1. I just reread them both. The first makes me feel like I’m there in the thick of it.
            The second, to me, reads as I like to read a book…
            But both are good! Oh the confusion lol!!!!!!

          2. Are u feeling the pressure to get it right? 😂😂 I’m not precious, don’t worry! 😜 but u identified the difference between them perfectly. There isn’t really a right answer, I just think a) this particular story works better in one tense than another and b) I seem to write one tense better than the other. BUT that doesn’t mean everyone will agree, I’m okay with that, you can’t please everyone.

  1. Ah, Sacha, I feel for you. I’ve been there myself, sometimes with a single chapter but for my latest book I decided (after the first draft) that it was better with a different tense and point of view. Wheeee! The good news is, at least you spotted this pre-publication.
    One trick I found was to make sure when editing to only read books with the same POV and tense to my own. That way, you immediately spot when something isn’t right.
    Good luck with the editing!

    1. Ahhh do you? I am not great with tenses tbf – well, clearly I’m not! I started writing the new version in a different tense. I have to say though, the tense I’m in now feels more comfortable 🙂

  2. I long ago settled on straight past tense with as few passive verbs as possible. I only change it when the story requires a different perspective. It frustrates editors I hire, but makes it easier for me to keep straight. And I think it moves stories better. For instance, I would write, “my parents, in fact, all the parents fidgeted in their seats.” I’m not saying you should, but if I keep this rule as a constant, I’m not rewriting as much.

    Okay, I lied. I write four or five drafts, but always to trim my books to the slimmest possible version, and, even then, I always think, “What if I wrote it this way?” two years later.

    1. Lol, I think we all think that no matter how many drafts we write 🙂 it’s hard to 100% accept and move on :).

      Interesting way of working 😂, but you got to do what works for you. I took advice from my editor too, and we both agreed on which version was the best for my style and for the genre. So I’m hoping it turns out okay 😩😂

  3. You knew how much pain I endured with my tense issue – pulling Xmas crackers, wearing a silly festive hat, Botox’d smile on my face whilst trying to change present tense back to past tense AND wishing everyone a happy Xmas!

        1. okay, to reply to all the comments. Yes, both tenses are correct and you can’t use more than one tense in a book, unless say, you write in present and then talk about a memory from the past (then you flip to past tense). I am sure someone could name a dozen books that do use more than one tense, but for the sake of generalising, most don’t!

          I think memoirs are hard because they’re about our own lives, therefore we’re biased?? Not sure. Bet you Debby could answer that one better than me, she’s a fab memoirist.

  4. As you say there is no right or wrong here. I think you have to go with whichever you feel happier about and feel works better for your story. The present tense is more immediate. I think if you are going with the present tense, though, you need to change the first sentence to ‘Seventeen years I’ve waited.’
    Having the same tense – very tense – problem with the memoir about dad’s dementia I’m working on.

    1. Lol! Neither version have been edited professionally (or gone through grammarly) 😂😂 I’m sure there will be plenty of changes to whichever tense I go through but excellent spot I’m going to change that now in the post!

      Which tense will you go for in your memoir?

  5. I have the attention space of a tadpole who’s watched too much Made in Chelsea so I change tenses, POVs, active-passives all the time – I just accept that editing is to find the hit in amongst the shite. Personally present is fabulous when done right whereas past is super piss-easy but often dull as a result. I’ve done both but reserve present for comedy. Not saying which I prefer btw.

  6. Back when I wrote The Guns of Retribution, I started out in third person past tense. Then halfway through I decided I preferred first person present tense. And then I changed it again to first person past tense.

    Never doing that again!

  7. I prefer version one, purely because it felt like I was there in the moment and made it more of a draw, version two didn’t have the same effect on me. As has been previously mentioned everyone is different though. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the insight 🙂 🙂 I love this seeing what people prefer. I sooooo want to spill which one I’ve gone with but I guess I’ll keep quiet for a bit longer!🙈🙉

  8. Like ’em both, Sacha. Like the characters, like where it’s going. Like to think I’m going to read the whole story one day. I write the outline in the present tense, then decide which tense to use for the first draft. If the characters and The Big Idea (as writer or reader) don’t grab me, then the question of tense is moot. 🙂

  9. Well you already know what I think. Present tense works perfectly for this story, and works really well for YA in general. So trust your instinct and go for it. Only you can write this story.

  10. Oh no what a bugger! I am so sorry you got so close to the end and then had to rewrite it.
    I have read them both over and for me, the first one reads better. It is like we are in the thick of the action as it is happening, the tension is just that bit stronger.
    xx

  11. I always prefer past tense to present. I’m not really sure why. Maybe because it seems to open the doors for the story to have more gravitas.

    I notice your past tense version has more present that I would instinctively use. For example, you say “today, Victor is on my team” rather than “today, Victor was on my team”. I struggle with which is correct, but I think I prefer the sound of the latter.

    1. HA! Someone was paying attention – I’ve changed that now. It’s because I’m sticking in present tense for the book, and I wrote the past tense version after for the test – so I was correcting the present into past and obviously left an error in it.

      A lot of books are written in the past tense, but it’s becoming more and more popular in YA books, duno, guess for me, it just feels write, I feel like I flow better. Funny ol’ thing tenses, there isn’t really a right answer!

  12. Oh, Sacha. I loved getting a peek at your book. Woot, woot. You’ve been so secretive! I like it. Fabulous writing. I’m so excited for you. I hate to say it, but the tense is still a bit off, starting with “today.” That word tends to cause problems as it begs for present tense. I don’t have too much trouble with writing in a particular tense as long as I start that way. But editing from one to another? A nightmare. Good luck to you.

    1. Do you mean I need to insert ‘was’ on the past tense version?

      Neither have been edited nor gone through grammarly yet so a few issues have been picked up. I’ve completely re written the beginning so I guess this makes it a first draft all over again 😫.

      I know. I’m an idiot for re writing and I know not everyone will like my choice but I think it flows better in one tense than the other… difficult choice.

      Hehe I have been secretive. If you want to read the rest of the chapter I put it here… but SHHHHHHH!

      http://sachablackbooks.com/keepers-sneak-peek/

        1. ahhh that’s a lovely thing to say 😀 I am going to buck the trend and go with present. I feel like it pops more, and I’ve read a few YA in present recently that I really love. Who knows maybe I’ll swap back again! pahaha.

  13. Thank you for this post. I have a terrible time with tenses. I change and change becoming more and more frustrated. You are right, a certain tense will make a story pop and the second reading does that. I loved the teaser you shared with us and you’ve got a reader waiting to purchase the book.

    1. Ahh and that’s the beauty, I’m actually going with the first version as I think it feels better… to me anyway haha! But it is the more unusual tense, although it’s becoming a lot more popular in YA books. It’s soooo frustrating swapping tenses, so I do feel your pain. I didn’t even know I’d done it. GAAAH!

  14. I don’t seem to mind which tense I write in but I do have a habit of moving from past to present and vice versa (a bit like the problem I have with head hopping). Thank goodness for Editors who pick these things up.

    1. ahhh the ol’ head hopping. As a predominantly first person POV writer, I don’t suffer that, but I can just imagine the chore it is to correct it. And AMEN to the Editors *thank you karma for editors!*

  15. It’s not which one is “right” or “better”, really. In my opinion, the first one reads more like a YA novel. Which is not to say that all YA novels are first person present tense. Because they are not. And… I’m tired. Just saying.

  16. I’d never really given tense much thought in comparison to the larger market, choosing instead to use the tense that was easiest for me to write. But now I see I am going to need to experiment more now and then.

      1. No, I think the subtle details do make a difference. I’m just saying I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so it’s nice you’ve pointed out a way I can be a better writer.

  17. Comment: if you consider yourself a writer and you are under 30, I suggest you stick to a diary; a blog if you must. At 40, like Lee Child advises, you have something to say. At 60 – most definitely your words carry weight. Your best writing will always be posthumous.

    1. Who said that?

      Not sure I agree to be fair! There’s a lot of super successful young writers out there these days! But I understand the sentiment of having something to say the more you experience life.

  18. Read and like the second version best.Flows better.But hey just my humble opinion.Thanks for all your interesting and useful tips.Enjoy the book fair.

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