Two Tense


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Hmmm. . .this happened when I was writing Before the Storm, and it’s happening again. As I wrote Before the Storm, the story unveiled itself to me in present tense.  I ended up changing it all to past tense (with the exception of the final chapter, which demanded past tense). (note: it’s not fun changing a manuscript from one tense to another. Same as changing a character’s point of view from first person to third person or vice versa. Not fun at all!)

Anyway, I used to hate reading books written in the present tense. It irked me because it seemed. . . pretentious somehow. But it’s become so common that now I find I like it. I like the immediacy of feeling as though everything in the story is happening right now. So as I embark on the new Work-in-Progress, I need to decide if I want to write it in past or present tense, and I turn to you, my readers, to see how you feel about the subject. I’ll make up my own mind eventually, because the story itself will dictate the way it’s told, but I’d love to hear your feelings. Do you prefer past tense? Present? Or does it matter to you, as long as the story is a good one?





  1. Margo on October 9, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    Oh No! I’m always a very positive person but in this case I can’t help it…I have to tell you my true feelings Diane…I do not care for present tense! I’ve tried so many times to read a novel this way and always end up closing the book after the first few pages because in simple terms, I feel like I’m reading a play, not a novel…and I can’t seem to connect with the people, place or the feelings they have. I love past tense, many points of view and Diane, you are ‘perfect’ with 1st person…
    Of course you are the ‘artist’ and need to deliver the story to us the way your voice tells you…and being the optimist I am, maybe this will be THE novel that will speak to me in a very different way and I’ll love it.
    In all honesty tho, it’s hard for me to picture you writing a book this way…your so gifted with the way you deliver a story and I’m always sad to see them end. I’m just 1 person giving my opinion and I hope my words aren’t too painful to hear. In the end I will love whatever you write because it’s from you, but present tense…it kind of breaks my heart.

  2. Julie on October 9, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    It doesn’t really matter to me as long as it’s a great story.
    My current manuscript started out in present tense, and I changed it to past after I finished the first draft. And yeah, that was a beating. I’ve experimented with changing from 3rd to 1st POV, too, but generally find the point of view in which my stories reveal themselves first is usually the best. The story I’m mulling is first person, while the current one is third. I think it’s a lot harder to change POV than tense, although there are little tricky things in each. (Especially backstory, because then your tenses start getting all mixed up.)
    Present tense seems a little more abstract–or something–to me than past. Almost as though in third, you know the storyteller knows how it’s going to end, and you can just relax into the story, trust the narrator, while present seems more “on edge,” if that makes sense. As though you and the narrator are both walking into the unknown, regardless of POV.
    As a side note, I think I’m probably within a month of querying my manuscript, finally! Wheeeee. It’s been a long road, and boy, have I learned some lessons. 🙂 It’s out with an “expert” right now to vet my deaf characters’ worlds, and then I hope to make needed changes and send it out. I truly admire the ability of many authors, including you, to get a story out nearly every year–this one has taken me two. I think it must be a *little* bit easier after you’ve learned all the initial lessons–which seems to take at least three manuscripts. 🙂 There are those two under the bed that shall never see the light of day.

  3. Denise on October 9, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    I am okay with present or past tense, depending upon the story.
    Margo, did you read “Emma and Me”? I don’t think it could have worked had it not be written in present tense, first person!

  4. Diane Chamberlain on October 9, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    I hear you, Margo! Did you notice the switch in tense in the epilogue of Before the Storm? Or did you stop reading once you realized it was in present tense? lol. I appreciate your honesty, though. That’s why I asked the question.
    Julie, I’m excited for you! From reading your blog, I know what a super writer you are and I have the feeling this is going to be a good book. My fingers are crossed for you.
    Denise, I so enjoyed Emma and Me. I think Flock did a wonderful job with it.

  5. brenda on October 9, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    Well-Margo and I just have so much in common-I can’t stand present tense…as an English teacher, I often have to tell the students that few essays and stories can be written in first-must be fiction-because all else has already happened.
    I am like Margo-present tense-90 percent of the time-I close the book…
    However, any book by D. C. will get my full attention…depends upon the story I guess…
    By the way, I have ordered HERETIC’S STORY from library-for that Happy Bookers Club (Gina’s…) I can’t wait to get it–if it takes a long time-I will buy it…

  6. Denise on October 9, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    Julie, I totally agree with you regarding how present tense tends to be more “on edge” as if the narrator has no more idea of how it’s all going to end up than you (the reader) does. That’s why I think it works so well in certain novels. EMMA AND ME is a perfect example (Diane were you as surprised with that ending as I was?!).

  7. Diane Chamberlain on October 10, 2008 at 12:47 am

    Totally, Denise. She made it work, which was not easy.

  8. Margo on October 10, 2008 at 8:36 am

    Diane, I did notice the epilogue and you know what?…when the epilogue is in present tense it doesn’t bother me at all…seems to tie everything together…I read it as if ‘here is the novel and this is what happened’ and then we reach the epilogue and it’s ‘today’ and written in the present and I’m comfortable with it. Another thing, I’ve read a few books where the prologue is present tense but chapter 1 and so forth are all past and that doesn’t bother me either… Julie, you must be so excited! Keep us posted. Denise, I did not read EMMA AND ME (probably because it was written in present tense (lol)! Brenda, I didn’t know how you felt about present tense but something told me that we thought alike on this.

  9. Denise on October 10, 2008 at 9:46 am

    Margo, you probably would not like TETHERED because it’s written in present tense, too. It is another of those books, though, that would not have worked any other way.

  10. Diane Chamberlain on October 10, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    Denise, what is Tethered about? I finished The 19th Wife last night and felt completely satisfied. I’ll go see if Tethered is on audio. I’m now reading Blood Done Sign My Name for bookclub. Not an easy read.

  11. brenda on October 10, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    Am rereading Ann Packers two that I like–Clausen’s Pier and another one…Also Beach House by Jane Green and a new Tracie Peterson…I grade papers…I read…etc. Can’t wait for Diane’s new one.

  12. Denise on October 10, 2008 at 11:58 pm

    Diane, the main character in “Tethered” is sort of an antisocial female undertaker who does not believe in God; she has a complex past. The book involves a mystery. It is a bit on the dark side but is unique. The other characters are all interesting people, too. I really think you would like it because it contains a lot of the types of elements that you write.
    I am loving 19th Wife so much that I’m trying to figure out how long it would take to drive to Nauvoo from where I live!
    Brenda, I love Clausen’s Pier! Songs Without Words is pretty good, too, but Clausen’s was better.

  13. Tracy on October 11, 2008 at 9:50 am

    I used to hate present tense books. They bothered me, though I never took the time to wonder why. But a few years ago, I read a book by one of my favorite authors and she had switched from past to present. I loved it. I felt very involved in the action. Since then I’ve read and enjoyed many books written in present tense, and I’ve found that I enjoy writing in present tense too.

  14. brenda on October 11, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    Just finished-in the midst of my HOUSE crisis…today…Clausen’s… (I think I had read it this summer)…Kept changing tense-a lot of present…I hated that…liked the story…but can’t stand that…it was actually convuluted…I hope I am not getting the tense messed up with BEACH HOUSE by Jane Green…anyway…drove me bananas…trying to keep up and get over the past and present-often on same page…

  15. Gina on October 11, 2008 at 6:26 pm

    To me, it doesn’t matter one way or the other, present tense/past tense – as long as the story is good.
    Brenda, I loved Claussen’s but hated Songs Without Words.
    I’m reading Elizabeth Strout’s new one, Olive Kitteridge. Then, I’m gonna tackle World Without End, which is sequel to Pillars of the Earth, which I loved.
    And, just finished Edgar Sawtelle, LOVED IT.

  16. brenda on October 11, 2008 at 6:49 pm

    Margo-BEACH HOUSE (JANE GREEN) is set on Nantucket…loved the story…about a woman in her 60’s…about time someone wrote about those of us who are still alive and shaking in our 60’s…now I am only 61 but…
    I find myself enjoying fiction about mature women sometime…not that it really matters. I ventured over to Green’s website to learn more about her…she showed a picture of her “partner” and explained why she calls him “partner” or “Beloved”…she didn’t want to use boyfriend, etc…interesting…New terms for new generation…

  17. Denise on October 11, 2008 at 10:09 pm

    Gina, I was wondering if you liked Edgar Sawtelle. One of my first customes who read it said she liked all but the last 3-4 chapters. She said that she felt like throwing the book up against a wall after she read those chapters. Lol I have no idea why she felt this way!
    Song Without Words was not nearly as good as Clausen’s but I did like it. Maybe that’s just because I think she’s a good writer.
    Diane, I am so tickled to know that many of the ‘old’ characters in The 19th Wife were not fictional! I’ve been researching Ann Eliza and have found photos and interesting info about her. I love a novel that includes interesting old history.

  18. Diane Chamberlain on October 12, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    Denise, I’m going to check out Ann Eliza. I assume that the portions of her “book” were fictionalized, though, as well as the letters of the other historical characters? Just a fascinating book.
    Brenda, I’ve written numerous proposals that feature senior citizen characters, and they’ve been rejected on that basis. Really annoying. I’ve succeeded though in including those folks as secondary characters (such as Maria in The Bay at Midnight). I’m afraid the editors making the decisions are the young’uns.

  19. brenda on October 12, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    Diane-you are correct…too bad the editors do not realize that the generation reading is: Baby Boomers…including some in 50’s…fewer in 40’s and after that, even fewer. It is odd that my students finish a book…it has been that way since I started teaching in 1994…so that would be up to age early thirties…there is a great population of older women who love to read…sometimes I wish the editors would leave the writers alone-no offense intended…
    D-I still think a memoir about the agoraphobia would be helpful to many…

  20. Denise on October 12, 2008 at 5:34 pm

    Diane, I don’t know if the portions of Ann Eliza’s book were fictionalized in “The 19th Wife,” but she definitely wrote “Wife No. 19 or The Story of A Life in Bondage, Being a Complete Expose of Mormonism, and Revealing the Sorrows, Sacrifices and Sufferings of Women in Polygamy.”
    Here is a link to “Wife No. 19.” I don’t know if this is the same book as above or the second issue. You can read most of it here:
    Here is another link about her:

  21. Diane Chamberlain on October 12, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    Denise, this is fascinating to me. Since I didn’t “read” the book but listened to it, I didn’t get to see any author’s notes. Did Ebershoff say if he was using the actual prose from Ann Eliza Webb’s book? If not, imagine the challenge of creating something new from something that already existed.

  22. Denise on October 12, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    Diane, my bad…I borrowed the book from the store and had to return it this morning before I could read the author’s notes. I am going to read them the next time I work, though, when I have time! You can read more about the book and his research and hear some interviews with him at the book’s website:
    I am really fascinated by all of it and am so glad you recommended the book!

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