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I want to say: "Now I was on the plane with my best friend." But don't "Now" and "was" contradict each other? And I specifically want to phrase it this way because earlier on in my book I wrote: "I loved to travel....."

I have such a hard time with past tense writing and I realized it a few months ago. I had written a series all in past tense, but while reading through it, I realized it contained grammatical errors...specifically with past tense vs. present tense. I decided that I would write in present tense. So I went online trying to figure out why present tense was so scarce in writing. Was there an unspoken rule against it? Turns out present tense is super cliché. But I revised the first book in my series anyway, making sure it was completely in present tense. I'm working on the second one now, but I have this feeling that I want to go back into past tense. Only problem is, I can't write in past tense. I'm stuck and it's making me feel like my writing sucks and I should just stop altogether. Any tips?

  • Two tips: 1) learn how to write in past tense. Without it you're writing with one hand tied behind your back. 2) You can omit the adverb: "On the plane heading to (location) with my best friend, etc. – aparente001 Feb 20 '17 at 4:33
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    You're fine. "Now" in your example refers to the narrator's present moment, even if the story is told in past tense. – Ken Mohnkern Feb 20 '17 at 21:45
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    You are over thinking. The "now" in your example is from the perspective of the narrator narrating an event in the past. – ashleylee Mar 20 at 14:36
  • Are you misusing the word "cliché"? Present tense is if anything underused. – Andrey Mar 20 at 14:54
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You are confusing the grammatical tense of your narrative with your protagonist's perception of time.

Grammatical tense does not signify time. Past tense does not mean that something happened in the past. You can tell of the future in past tense: In the year 2354, a space ship was sent to Alpha Centauri. Past tense in fiction is a narrative convention that has no meaning. Or rather, past tense in fiction means that we have entered narrative time – past tense means: You are listening to a tale.

Past tense does not signify when events took place in relation to the time of the reading or writing of the narrative. Grammatical tense, in fiction, does not signify absolute time. Only when you use two tenses in the same narrative, do the tenses signify relative time, i.e., that one event happend before the other.

Let us look at an example. These two sentences mean exactly the same thing (in fiction):

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

In a hole in the ground there lives a hobbit.

Both sentences mean that in that story a hobbit lives in a hole in the ground. Neither sentence means that the hobbit lives there today or lived there in the past.

Now that we have established that grammatical tense has no (absolute) meaning in a narrative, we can understand that any explicit references to time are in relation to the present of the viewpoint character, usually the protagonist.

When the narrator says "now" or "yesterday", that is in relation to where the story is at that moment. Here is another example from Tolkien:

The Tookishness was wearing off, and he was not now quite so sure that he was going on any journey in the morning. As he lay in bed he could hear Thorin still ...

The "now" here means that while Bilbo had been enthusiastic to go on a journey with the dwarves during the preceding evening, at that moment in the narrative he doubts it is a good idea.

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'Now' can be used with the past tense to create a sense of immediacy or to refere to a point in a series of events, akin to 'then'. The sentence you provide sounds perfectly correct to me.

Check the 3rd and 4th meaning on the free dictionary

On an afterthought, why do you claim you can't write in the past? It's far easier than doing it in the present and much more intuitive, not to say it usually yields better results. Is it because you keep changing to the present? Simply being aware of that problem, studying verb tenses (in order to fully understand them) and practising should be enough for you to overcome the difficulty and, at the same time, improving your writing style.

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There are two uses for "now". One means the present moment, and it's hard to use in the past tense. I mean, you could write:

"You have to do it now," I told her.

And even

I told her now was the time to act.

But not

Now I was on the plane.

Instead, you can use phrases like

  • at that time (if you have already set up the time period)
  • once (or even once upon a time)
  • 5 years ago
  • in the spring of my 25th year
  • shortly after my father died
  • several years before this trip

and so on. If none of them fit, why do you want to start the sentence with "Now"? It's possible you want the second use for now, which is to start a sentence with it to get people's attention, or as part of some set phrases:

Now look here, young man, I expect you to obey me!

Now now, that's just too extreme.

Now and then I get lonely

Now what?

Now this is new!

You can just keep these uses without worrying.

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Here's how to fix your problem.

  1. Pick up your grammar books.
  2. Hold them over a fire.
  3. Let go.

You can't write out of a grammar book. You can only write out of a fluent grasp of usage in the language you are writing in. In the case you cite, your grasp of English usage is clearly far ahead of your knowledge of grammar, so let go of the grammar and get on with your writing.

Now I was on the plane with my best friend.

Is fluent English usage. People say things like this all the time. That is all that matters.

Grammar is an attempt to reduce usage to a set of rules. There are multiple grammars and none of them succeeds entirely in reducing received usage to a set of rules. Often their attempts to do so rely on deciding that a word simply has two meanings rather than that it can be used in two different grammatical positions. This sort of thing makes grammatical systems work, but it is all artifice. And it is a complicated artifice that is difficult to learn in full.

There is nothing wrong with using grammar to improve your usage, but this can only take you so far. True fluency requires an ear for the way the language is spoken and written. If you are reasonably fluent, but have a hazy grasp of grammar, trying to write grammatically is going to make you write less fluently, not more.

(Yes, I know, people are often told to make sure their grammar is perfect before they submit for publications. That is because editors see hundreds of manuscripts that are not written in fluent idiomatic English. That may be because the writer just has no ear for language, or it may be because their natural fluency has been crippled by a half-digested grammar book or an incompetent English teacher. But if you have a good ear and write fluently and confidently, the editor will not object to your work, even if they quibble with an item of agreement here or there. But if you are not fluent, no amount of grammar is ever going to make you so.)

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