Tense Issues

I try not to bitch too much on here. I would rather keep things positive, but I do want this blog to be helpful. I don’t write a lot about politics, religion or deeply controversial issues, because I don’t really care to argue with walls. I read a great deal of indie work. I only put books on my blog that I feel I can recommend. I’m fairly liberal about what I enjoy. There have been many books in this past year of having been introduced to indie writers that have impressed me greatly.

Sometimes I have been impressed with the stories, but technicalities have resulted in me feeling that I could not recommend the books to others. I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy them, but the errors were so severe that I did not feel comfortable passing it along to you as example of something that I would encourage you to read. There are issues, usually with the writing, that have caused me to hesitate or put them aside without recommendation. Remember, word-of-mouth is your greatest marketing tool.

Excessive typos, misspellings, and the obvious misuse of words; like they’re, their, and there, and your and you’re, could of, and would of drive me nuts, but I can tolerate some of that. There are other things that are more subtle, yet most annoying.

Tense issues: These seem to be the most difficult for writers to wrap their heads around. Primarily, books are written in past or present tense. If you start in past, you should stay in past. If you start in present, you should stay in present. It spins my mind around to keep switching between the two.

Examples:

A)

Dusk on the bay is a most beautiful time. Boats are bringing in the catch of a long day at sea. The village lights come on one by one. There is movement in the water, but the air is still. The soft murmur of marine motors and the call of the gulls waiting for fish scraps are the only sounds. Our sleepy little fishing village has roughly three dozen homes and one store. There is a diner and bar at one end and a church at the other.

Captain John’s dog, Frisk, leapt from the boat as the captain idled to the dock. Frisk ran up the pier to greet me. He knew I would be waiting with a bowl of fresh water and a dog treat. I waited for him every evening. The captain was getting old and his wife had died five years earlier. He walked like he was dragging the weight of the world behind him. When the captain was finished with his chores he always met me in the diner for dinner. We shared a meal and a few stories and then he walked me home.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

B)

Dusk on the bay was a most beautiful time. Boats brought in the catch of a long day at sea. The village lights came on one by one. There was movement in the water, but the air was still. The soft murmur of marine motors and the call of the gulls waiting for fish scraps were the only sounds. Our sleepy little fishing village had roughly three dozen homes and one store. There was a diner and bar at one end and a church at the other.

Captain John’s dog, Frisk, leaps from the boat as the captain idles to the dock. Frisk runs up the pier to greet me. He knows I will be waiting with a bowl of fresh water and a dog treat. I wait for him every evening. The captain is getting old and his wife died five years ago. He walks like he’s dragging the weight of the world behind him. When the captain finishes with his chores he always meets me in the diner for dinner. We share a meal and a few stories and then he walks me home.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

C)

Dusk on the bay is a most beautiful time. Boats are bringing in the catch of a long day at sea. The village lights come on one by one. There is movement in the water, but the air is still. The soft murmur of marine motors and the call of the gulls waiting for fish scraps are the only sounds. Our sleepy little fishing village has roughly three dozen homes and one store. There is a diner and bar at one end and a church at the other.

Captain John’s dog, Frisk, leaps from the boat as the captain idles to the dock. Frisk runs up the pier to greet me. He knows I will be waiting with a bowl of fresh water and a dog treat. I wait for him every evening. The captain is getting old and his wife died five years ago. He walks like he’s dragging the weight of the world behind him. When the captain finishes with his chores he always meets me in the diner for dinner. We share a meal and a few stories and then he walks me home.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

D)

Dusk on the bay was a most beautiful time. Boats brought in the catch of a long day at sea. The village lights came on one by one. There was movement in the water, but the air was still. The soft murmur of marine motors and the call of the gulls waiting for fish scraps were the only sounds. Our sleepy little fishing village had roughly three dozen homes and one store. There was a diner and bar at one end and a church at the other.

Captain John’s dog, Frisk, leapt from the boat as the captain idled to the dock. Frisk ran up the pier to greet me. He knew I would be waiting with a bowl of fresh water and a dog treat. I waited for him every evening. The captain was getting old and his wife had died five years earlier. He walked like he was dragging the weight of the world behind him. When the captain was finished with his chores he always met me in the diner for dinner. We shared a meal and a few stories and then he walked me home.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Past is fine. Present is fine. Mixing the two is not fine. This is why we have beta readers and editors.

This is NOT a style thing people, it is a grammar thing.

These examples are of different paragraphs, but I have seen writers mix the two tenses in the same paragraph or even the same sentence. You can be in present tense and have something happen in the past that the narrator tells about, but as a general writing rule, be careful with that. Yanking me around from past to present without a story about time travel is a sure fire way for me to put your book aside.

Most indie reads are wonderful, fresh, creative stories. But writing does have some basic rules.

Another issue I have is head-hopping from person to person, but that’s a subject for another day.

Do you understand tense differences?

Which reads more smoothly to you? A) and B), or C) and D)?

Does changing tense bother you when you read?

46 thoughts on “Tense Issues

  1. I’m surprised (and disheartened) you’ve encountered this out there. I would hope even the most basic editing would pick these tense changes out. It’s too bad, because with proper editing, the book might be enjoyable. But with missteps like inconsistent tense use and multiple head-hopping, it would be difficult for readers to stick with it.

    • Some of the stories, if I could stick with them, have been the most fascinating. There is so much beautiful writing, enthralling descriptions, and creativity…and then I am jolted repeatedly with the time switch. I would love to be able to review and encourage the writers to write, but I can’t commend a book that is that seriously flawed.

  2. So true. The ONLY reason to ever use present tense (besides dialogue) is when something still holds true. Example: I love that man. If you wrote “I loved that man” that would insinuate that you no longer love him or he’s dead. But I see what you mean in the examples above. Unfortunately that’s why some people shy away from self-published works. And it’s not fair. There are some superb writers who are Indie.

    • I have read entire books written in present tense that were wonderful, but switching back and forth is incorrect. Dialogue is totally different. Your characters are allowed to say just about anything, but your narrative should be consistent.

      • All I meant was there are exceptions to every rule. But not in the examples you gave. And yes, switching back and forth is a definite no-no. On a different note. I’ve never read a novel written in present tense. I bet it’s a great POV for crime thrillers if done properly.

        • Love is one of those exceptional timeless words.
          First person present tense puts the reader in the center of the action with a crime thriller. It was a bit difficult for me to adjust to when I first read one because I am very past tense oriented, but once I got into the flow it was great.

            • One good police procedural in first person present tense is
              J. Mark Bertrand’s latest novel Back on Murder, but it is slower than a crime thriller. Patricia Cornwell comes to mind, but I can’t recall a specific book, I’ve read so many.

          • I still remember the first present-tense story I read. At the time it seemed modern, experimental, and very strange. Like you, I had a hard time adjusting. That was a long time ago, though. I must be showing my age.

  3. I recently came across the incorrect use of were / where. Are you kidding me?
    An indie book everyone is raving about and which I promised to read because it comes up 5 starts constantly, almost made me crazy. I don’t believe it has seen an editor: typos, punctuation and grammar.
    Pressing his hand, “No, but I am sure you’re going to tell me.”
    Wrapping an arm around her, “Do you know why birds sing?”
    “Watching the sky steak pin and face to gray, “Yes.”

    What is wrong with me?

    • Nothing is wrong with you. People are to quick to push publish. The sad thing is that there is often so much creativity there, and a story teller that’s on the ball. But the read suffers when it hasn’t been at least proofed, much less content edited. I don’t claim to be an expert on writing matters, but I know what is readable.

  4. As a reformed head-hopper, that drives me crazy! Recently I read an Indie book that had great reviews, five stars, etc., the fact that the writer/editor didn’t know the difference between a dessert and a desert was mind boggling. It wasn’t a one time mistake…I was cringing and regretting the money I had spent.

    • You know, I am glad you mentioned editor. I was reading a traditionally published book a few months ago. There were so many misspelled and misused words, latter for ladder, simulate for stimulate, and so on, and a barrage of punctuation errors, especially with dialogue. At first I blamed the editor, because it was a traditionally published book, but the truth is, as writers we’ve all got to do better. First, a book like that was not ready for the editor. Second, we can’t whisk our work off to an editor and assume it is going to be made acceptable. I would certainly have it in my contract to review an edited work before it is published.

  5. I saw a 1-star review on Amazon once complaining that tense changed a few times in the Look Inside. When I looked inside, I saw that tense actually needed to change in that instance. An author can write about an event that is occurring now, then discuss an event that had occurred previously, and while describing that compare it to an event that had occurred prior to that. So as long as tense changes for good reason, it should change (in fact, in that case, it would be just as bad for it not to change). But those slips where it shouldn’t change, it would be likely changing your wardrobe repeatedly while holding a conversation. 🙂

    • I appreciate your comment, There are definitely instances where tense change is correct. I fully get the thing about being in the present and explaining about something that happened in the past, but a constant flip-flop, for example, having all of the descriptions in present tense and the story action in past tense is blatantly wrong. It may work for people who don’t know proper grammar, but it doesn’t for those that do.

  6. Changing tense partway through a story drives me NUTS, as well as all other grammar errors, and lack of flow. I’m probably less forgiving than you are when it comes to those things; I won’t overlook errors for very long at all before deciding not to waste anymore time on a read. And it’s too bad, because I have no doubt there are some very good stories out there waiting to be told in correct grammatical form.

    • That’s it. I stick with the books, and I often find a compelling story. But when I feel burdened by the reading, I don’t want to go back for more. There has only been one read that I have had to put down in two years. That was for an entirely different reason, the overuse of archaic speech. If I have to slog through the first book I have read by an author, traditional or indie, I won’t read a second.

    • Honestly Mike, I found a couple of typos in your book, and I have yet to read one that is completely free of any errors, indie or traditionally published…mine included. I did not know when I wrote this about tense issues that it was going to open Pandora’s box on other issues, but such is social media. (Oops, I used two tenses in one sentence.) I would not get paranoid, but continue writing as well as you have.

      • Yes I noticed the typos when I read the first printed copy but making changes was pretty costly. In hindsight I should have opened the wallet I think. Interestingly I used to host a Mystery Book Reading Club and I was quite surprised at the typos/missed words in some of the bigger author’s books as well.

        • Nothing in your book was the sort of thing that removes a reader from the story. My husband just finished a major author’s book and we laughed all the way through…worse, one minute he’s driving his truck and without ever leaving it he gets out of his car. There were some other things that didn’t quite work. My husband had more fun pointing out the errors than reading the story. In some ways it makes me feel like, okay…I’m not THAT bad, and in other ways it makes me sad.

  7. Hi S.K. I followed you over from Jill Weatherholt’s blog, and found you in the middle of this passionate discussion. I agree, it’s disheartening when a writer publishes a book prematurely, without adequate proofreading and editing. There’s no excuse for changing tense in mid-stream.

    I can see I’m going to enjoy your posts. I’ll be back.

    • Happy to meet new people! I see you’re a fiction writer also. That’s great! I don’t always write about the writing process, but sometimes I do. I read a lot and get my feathers ruffled. I can’t emphasize the importance of beta readers enough, even before the MS goes to the editor.

  8. I prefer what’s written in the past tense. It feels more active, strangely enough. Or maybe that’s just what I’m used to.
    But there are times when I write in the present tense — usually to infuse the piece with a meandering or dreamlike feeling. My editor catches those times when I change my mind about the tense, but then miss a few instances.

  9. I couldn’t agree more. When I first started writing my novel, I confused myself with the tense issue but soon found that I had to choose one or the other. Thankfully my good education in my early years was largely bases on our English language. Sentence structure and the differences between words like they’re, there, and their were drummed into me. Those things are my pet peeves now. Thanks for this blog.

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