Changing Tense

I’m finally working on the fourth (and final) P.J. Benson Mystery (My Crows series). I actually had close to 5,000 words written the end of summer, but life got in the way, and the opening just didn’t feel right to me. I wasn’t connecting with P.J.

Here’s the original opening:
Why was it whenever I planned a family outing something went wrong? Sure the scene of Wade playing catch with his son was nice—a regular Norman Rockwell image, with a smattering of snow on the ground, and Baraka, my Rhodesian Ridgeback, wildly dashing between them, ready to snatch the ball if Wade or Jason should drop it—but if we were going to make it to Kalamazoo in time for my meeting, we needed to leave in fifteen minutes.

I tapped against the living room window, hoping to catch their attention. Baraka paused and looked my way, but neither Wade nor Jason did. I was about to go to the door and yell at them when I saw Wade stop and pull out his cell phone. The change in his expression immediately told me something was wrong. Within a minute he put the phone away, said something to Jason, and headed for the front door.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so many books lately written in first person present tense, but I decided to give it a try. Here’s how those first two paragraphs now read:

Why is it whenever I plan a family outing something goes wrong? Sure the scene of Wade playing catch with his son is nice—a regular Norman Rockwell image, with a smattering of snow on the ground, and Baraka, my Rhodesian Ridgeback, wildly dashing between them, ready to snatch the ball if one or the other should drop it—but if we are going to make it to Kalamazoo in time for my meeting, we need to leave in fifteen minutes.

I tap against the living room window, hoping to catch their attention. Baraka pauses and looks my way, but neither Wade nor Jason do. I’m about to go to the door and yell at them when I see Wade stop and pull out his cell phone. The change in his expression immediately tells me something is wrong. Within a minute he puts the phone away, says something to Jason, and heads for the front door.

So, what do you think?

Changing to present tense doesn’t make a big change, but I’m not sure how my fans of the P.J. Benson Mysteries will feel about the change. Nevertheless, as I said, I’m liking it. It’s making me feel closer to P.J., closer to the action, and I’m now moving forward with the story.

Also, I was always being scolded by my editor for using a present tense verb when it should have been past tense. (Now I’ll probably goof and write a past tense verb when it should be present tense.)

What are your feelings regarding present tense versus past tense stories?

Looking for feedback.

You can find the first three P.J. Benson books on Amazon:
The Crows
As the Crow Flies
Eat Crow and Die

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18 Responses to Changing Tense

  1. Zara West says:

    I understand exactly what you mean. Readers used to past tense might not go for present especially in a series. I find writing in present tense feels more immediate. I often change from writing in past to present tense when I get stuck expressing something in deep POV. But then I change it back to past and usually find it reads much better. Another thing I do is to keep it in present tense but make that section dialogue. You might try something like that here.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks for the suggestions, Zara. I’m not far enough into the story to know if I’ll change my mind on the first person present tense, but knowing I can always go back and change it to past tense is reassuring.

  2. Sue Myers says:

    Maris, I love all your P.J. stories. Why don’t you ask P.J.? Oh, I forgot, she’s a fictional character, but you make her seem so real. I read them both through several times. They both make great openings. Maybe a walk with Baraka will help. Either way, I’m looking forward to P.J.’s next adventure! Sue

    • Maris Soule says:

      Sue, comments like yours are what keep writers writing. Thanks so much. As for asking P.J….I think she is the one who pushed me to use the present tense. But I’ll see how this goes. And you’re right, she does need a walk with Baraka. (Boy, do I miss my Ridgeback.)

  3. Linda Long says:

    I like the revised the best!

  4. I like present tense. So immediate. Reminds me of ‘baseball present’ where a player describes a situation…’I’m on 3rd. He bunts I score. He flies, I tag. He strikes out, I curse the bum.’

    • Maris Soule says:

      Joe, I love your example. Back a few years, when I first came across stories written in present tense, it felt awkward. Now it doesn’t bother me at all. We’ll see how this works out.

  5. Diane Burton says:

    If it feels right, go with it. I agree about the immediacy of the 2nd example. I feel like I’m right there with P.J. I think if you fight it (by using 1st person past tense), you won’t get the story down. I’ll be glad to see P.J. again, no matter how she tells the story. 🙂

    • Maris Soule says:

      I have a long ways to go on this story, Diane, so I’ll have time to decide. (This is the one I started thinking about in your car on the ride back from Saranac.)

  6. Terry Odell says:

    I have strong aversions to present tense. It has to be done VERY well, because I find it distancing, not closer. Normally, if I can’t get caught up in 3 pages, I move on to another book.

    But yes, there are lots of readers who like it. When Patricia Cornwall shifted from past to present, I stopped reading.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Terry, I know a lot of readers who feel as you do. It’s taken me a while to feel comfortable reading stories written in the present tense, and as you said, it depends on how well it’s done.

  7. My YA novels are written in present tense. They’ve never been criticized for it, but they are also written in first person. Readers connect well when this happens. My mystery novels are all third person pt. of view and so I use past tense which works better here. What I don’t do is move back and forth which editors hate. But I admit I experimented in one novel THE THIRD EYE. I alternated chapters between two viewpoints, one third person, one first person and the tenses alternated with them. I suggest reading this particular mystery novel to see how it can work.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jacqueline. From what I’m hearing, YA readers are very open to the present tense, but older readers not so much. The first three P.J. Benson Mystery (Crow) books are all first person past tense. I’d have to be writing a multi-pov book to switch from present to past and back, but I know some writers do it. If I ever tried that, it wouldn’t be with an established series, so I have a feeling it’s going to be first person past for P.J.

  8. “Invisible” by James Patterson and David Ellis is written in the present tense. It is so smooth that I didn’t even notice that until I was several chapters into the book. It gives the story an immediacy and “in the moment” feel. If you want your readers to travel with your protagonist as the story unfolds, present tense is the way to go. I may even try it in my ninth book in the “Carlos McCrary, Private Investigator, Mystery Thriller” series. I have mixed first person and third-person in the first eight books, and they have all been well-received by readers and reviewers. I say, “Go for it!”

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks, Dallas. I do like the immediacy of present tense, but I’m being swayed to continue using the past tense, as I did with the first three books in the series. As for mixing first person with third person, Patterson started doing that a long time ago with his Dr. Cross books. I never had any problems with it. Sounds like your readers haven’t had any problems with the switches you’ve used in your books either.

  9. L.A. Sartor says:

    Maris, I think I must be old school, I’ve tried to like FPPT and I just don’t. I am thinking of writing FP with two POV’s which is something that was stopping me from writing in FP for my new mystery series. That being said, continue on and see how you feel, read it aloud? You’re a great writer and you’ll make the story shine.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks so much. I appreciate your response. Everyone’s comment has been interesting. If you read this week’s blog, you’ll see I did make up my mind. Now I need to get the book written.