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So I've come across this little (but very annoying) problem when writing my first novel in the present tense: I'm second guessing my choice of tenses all the time, very much afraid to end up being inconsistent but there comes a time I feel some actions need to be placed in the past:

See this extract:

Ken is not in the basement or the attic, or anywhere near the upper floors. The garden? It could be, but it certaintly didn’t feel like it. Fiona sits up on the cold floor and checks the watch on her wrist. It was nearing midday, it seems, and it suddenly dawns on her that she should be at work already. She wonders about Mark and his roundabouts. It was weird for him to just flee a party, alone. They very often took a taxi together then crashed some friend's apartment but she's sure that wasn't the case today, her sore back and the vomit by her side are hinting she passed out before getting to her house and nobody helped her.

(Just in case we're talking about a girl with "powers" here hence the 'feel' thing.)

So, you see I'm not very confident about those bits being left in simple past. Should I switch them? Or is it okay to leave it like this? I think the meaning is crystal clear but, nevertheless, I strive to achieve consistent writing so...

Any help/tips would be greatly appreciated!

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    It is nearing midday. There is no reason I can see for that to be was. Since you seem to have no feel for writing in present tense, why aren't you writing it in past tense? – Peter Shor Sep 18 '16 at 22:32
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    Second Peter Shor's comment. There's a reason not many novels are written in the present tense, just as there's a reason not many are written in 2nd person singular: both are hard to do well, and tend to tire the reader. Unless you have special needs and/or are exceptionally able, you might consider switching. – Glasseyed Sep 18 '16 at 22:51
  • @PeterShor Thank you both! It's just this novel works better with present tense verbs. No matter how many times I try to switch to the good ol' past tenses, in the end it sounds off. And I wanted to give it a try, too! It's proving to be quite a challenge though, I'll admit. – user196924 Sep 19 '16 at 0:36
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    Consider yourself as the narrator (and I'm pretty sure you mean omniscient, not omnipresent). If you want to write in the present tense, then you share the timelines of your characters. So if Fiona is now sitting on the cold floor and checking her around noon, then so are you, and for both of you it is nearing midday. If Fiona is looking back at Mark's weird behavior at last night's party, the so are you, and the party is over for both of you, so Mark's behavior was weird. You're right to worry: if you slip up, your readers will be adrift in time. – deadrat Sep 19 '16 at 0:47
  • @deadrat Thank you so much, I'll actively try to do that from now on. It's tricky, honing paragraphs through rewrites keeps getting even more interesting. Good thing I love writing and editing more or less equally. (Also, you're right about the title!) – user196924 Sep 19 '16 at 3:46
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Just get the first draft out. Don't mind the tenses for now( this'll be hard but just do it). Then wait a few months and reread it. I bet you'll be able to solve the problems more easily. As for the above text, there nothing wrong with going with the present tense. I've read many good books written in the present tense. Just remember to be consistent.

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Writing in the third person present tense, you want to depict "flashback" scenes or other past scenes in the past tense.

That's fine. In fact, it clearly separates what was in the past from what's in the present.

It's may actually be clearer than the standard format of using "all" past tense. both the "present" past, and the truly "past" past.

  • I think depicting a flashback would still be present tense, just a different present. relating memories or earlier events would use past tense. – JDługosz Dec 28 '16 at 6:14
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Ken is not in the basement or the attic, or anywhere near the upper floors. The garden? It could be, but it certainly doesn't feel like it.

How can she feel it? Has she looked for him in any of those places?

Fiona sits up on the cold floor and checks the watch on her wrist.

Where else would the watch be?

Fiona sits up on the cold floor and checks her watch.

It's almost noon, it seems, and it suddenly dawns on her that she should have been at work already. She wonders about Mark and his roundabouts.

Roundabouts? Traffic circles?

She wonders about Mark and his whereabouts. It was weird for him to just flee a party, alone.

You don't do anything to establish a justification for the strong word flee.

They very often took a taxi together then crashed some friend's apartment

You could do this in present tense to avoid the code-switching problem.

They usually share a taxi and crash in some friend's apartment

(I assume you mean they sleep on someone's floor -- that's crash at -- otherwise I'd expect to see "crash a party" meaning attend a party without an invitation.)

They usually share a taxi and end up in some friend's apartment, crashing on the sofa, but she's sure that's not the case today, her sore back and the vomit by her side are hinting she passed out before getting to her house and nobody helped her.

Yuck!

But hold on, the first sentence gave me the impression she was in a house she knows very well, such as... her own. But where is she lying with her sore back and vomit next to her? If she passed out before arriving home, then where the heck is she? In the gutter across the street from her house?

In short, your tenses are the least of your problems. Do me a favor. Map out exactly what's going on. Then your tenses will fall into place. The paragraph feels as though you have a series of colorful images and you have just thrown them together in a meaningless collage of colored scraps of paper.

If the text doesn't make sense, the tenses won't make sense either.

  • You're right this paragraph has its mistakes and problems but the tenses issue still stands. I can get rid of the former through proofreading but not the latter. I'm trying to, though. Thank you for taking the time to answer! – degausser Sep 20 '16 at 0:31
  • @degausser - Sorry, proofreading won't help -- you should really plan the writing properly before starting. And with regard to tenses -- please do strive for consistency. – aparente001 Dec 20 '16 at 3:18

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