Posted in Reading, Writing

Which Do You Prefer for Reading and Writing – Past or Present Tense?

(Drawing attention to my latest post on the Alliance of Independent Authors’ self-publishing advice blog)

Cover of Quck Change flash fiction collection
My butterfly sits on the fence, with 10 stories written in the past tense, 10 in the present

While writing a novel during NaNoWriMo, as mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been considering an important question for authors and readers alike: which tense works best in fiction?

Modern authors often choose the present tense to add edginess and immediacy to a story, but the more traditional use of past tense is generally better loved by big publishing companies, who are increasingly risk averse for financial reasons.Tales abound of authors instructed by commercial publishers to rewrite an entire book to change the tense from present to past, before thy’ll consider publishing it.

The Influence of Self-Publishing

Self-publishing liberates authors from unwanted intervention from conservative publishing companies, making readers the ultimate arbiters of whether a book works in the present tense. Unfortunately some readers reject books written in the present tense, considering this style pretentious, irritating or exhausting to read. Their attitude irritates authors who have usually selected the tense that they feel works best for their story.

Sometimes this might not even be a conscious decision on the part of the author – it’s just how the story wants and needs to be told. When I wrote Quick Change, my collection of 20 very short stories (aka flash fiction), I happened to produce 10 stories in the present tense, 10 in the past. Although that seems suspiciously neat, hinting at the author’s indecision, I just wrote what felt right for each story.

To be honest, I hadn’t even noticed the 50:50 split until I flicked through Quick Change while researching an article for the Alliance of Independent Authors’ self-publishing advice blog, in which I address the issue in more detail from the author’s viewpoint. Here’s the link if you’d like to read that article: Writing: Past or Present Tense?

I should make it clear that I’m not being snobbish about readers who reject the present tense. I have my own equally irrational foibles as a reader: While I’m open-minded about tense, I am childishly averse to books that feature characters with peculiar names. No surprises that I’m not a big reader (or author) of the fantasy genre, no matter how much others rave about it.

Sorry, Gollum. It’s not you, it’s me.

Useful Information

  • Quick Change is currently available as an ebook for Kindle for just £1.99. I hope its average rating on Amazon UK of 4.6* out of 5* will encourage you to give it a try! If you don’t read ebooks, bear with me – I’ll be self-publishing a paperback later this month.
  • The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) is a fabulous not-for-profit organisation uniting the best self-publishing authors around the world to share best practice, advice and moral support. I’ve been a member for two years, have edited its blog for a year and a half, and strongly recommend membership to anyone interested in self-publishing. You don’t haveto be already self-published to join – aspiring self-publishers will also be welcomed to the fold. 
    Cover of "Opening Up To Indie Authors"
    This invaluable reference book is now available in paperback
  • ALLi membership offers many benefits, including free digital copies of its excellent guidebooks, one of them co-authored by me. ( I’m currently working on another.) Opening Up To Indie Authors, which helps self-published authors gain greater recognition and respect from bookshops, libraries, festival organisers and other influential parties, is also now available as a paperback, and is an excellent investment in your writing career, whether or not you choose to join ALLi.
  • If you are interested in joining ALLi, I’d be very grateful if you do so via my affiliate link, which earns me a small reward every time I recruit a new member – a further benefit of membership. If you’re smart, you can cover the entire cost of annual membership simply by persuading four author friends to join. You’ll be given your own affiliate link when on joining. 

 

Author:

Optimistic author, blogger, journalist, book reviewer and public speaker whose life revolves around books. Her first love is writing fiction, including the new Sophie Sayers Village Mystery novels (out 2017), short stories and essays inspired by her life in an English village. She also writes how-to books for authors and books about living with Type 1 diabetes. She is Author Advice Centre Editor and and UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) Advice Centre blog, an ambassador for the children's reading charity Readathon, and an official speaker for the diabetes research charity JDRF.

5 thoughts on “Which Do You Prefer for Reading and Writing – Past or Present Tense?

  1. I’ve heard that about YA books too. Personally I like to read past tense – I find present tense quite irritating, although without taking out time (which I don’t have spare right now) to think about it, I can’t give you a good reason.

  2. If I have flashbacks in my books (I’m writing one like this at the moment) I like to use past tense in the flashbacks and present tense with the actual ‘present’ story. Umm, does that make sense?

  3. I tend to prefer past tense. I’ve also heard that present tense is more suitable for YA, but who knows if that’s true (that was stated by a panelist and multi-published author at NW Bookfest). But that doesn’t mean I won’t play around in present tense, too, if it feels right for the story!

    1. That’s interesting, Laura, I hadn’t heard that present tense is more suitable for YA, but I can see why someone might say that. I’ll go grab a few books from my daughter’s bookshelves now and do my own survey! Ultimately, it’s all about what feels right, as you suggest, which may not always be the obvious choice.

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