Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Dreaded “had had” Construction

I have heard that some agents/editors will immediately reject a manuscript either written in present tense (due to their personal preferences) or with inconsistent use of tense (based on the assumption of poor editing).

The latter (inconsistency of tense) may be attributable to the fact that, when writing in past tense, you are fairly restricted to four basic past tense forms. But when writing in the present tense, you have eight — the four basic present tense forms plus the original four past tense forms — because narrating in present tense does not remove the need to reference something that happened in the past. This leaves you with a lot of grammatical forms to mix and match, but it can potentially lead to confusion regarding what tense is being used for the primary narration.

When narrating in past tense, you have the following options:

(The majority of the narration will be in these two forms.)

1) Simple past: “He had a good time.”

2) Past progressive: “He was having a good time.”

Then you have your references to the “past within the past,” aka the dreaded “had had” construction.

3) Past perfect: “He had had a good time.”

4) Past perfect progressive: “He had been having a good time.”

Narration uses the last two forms when talking about the story’s past, ie something that happened in the story prior to the point in time currently being narrated.

Please note that this is different than going into a full-on flashback. For a true flashback, the reader travels with the narrator back to that moment, and the tense can either be kept the same as the regular narration (requiring a very clear delineation of when the flashback starts and ends) or else changed (eg primary narration in past tense, flashback in present tense, or vice versa) for effect, in order to emphasize the change. This is very different than a reference to the past, which I like to call a “thought-back.”

When using present tense narration, you have the following four options in addition to the four already listed above:

(These are now the primary forms being used by the narrator.)

1) Simple present: He has a good time.

2) Present progressive: He is having a good time.

So then one might assume that the following forms are now being used to refer to the “past of the present,” ie anything that happened prior to the present point in time being narrated.

3) Present perfect: He has had a good time.

4) Present perfect progressive: He has been having a good time.

One might also assume that converting a piece written in past tense to make it present tense is a simple matter of exchanging all past forms to their present equivalent.

In my next blog, I will take a short paragraph from my current WIP and demonstrate why the above assumption is inaccurate, why some agents/editors might assume the author is being inconsistent with tense when they really aren’t, and suggest some solutions for how to edit a piece currently written in past tense into a true present tense form.

For more information on use of different tenses, “Grammar Girl’s” blog was particularly helpful.

Did you learn anything helpful from this post? As always, feel free to comment.

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Posted by on April 12, 2013 in Writing


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The Tense Problem of Present Tense

A lively debate currently rages in the fiction-writing world, pitting past-tense narrative against present-tense.  Assuming that a (presumably older) writer is interested in learning more about writing in present tense, one quandary they face is that, while present tense has exploded onto the fiction scene and would tend to suggest that the writing world is moving toward it as the desired contemporary mode, the majority of reading materials available are in past tense.

I think this important to note because we learn to speak the language we hear growing up; composers tend to write in the genre they predominantly listen to; writers write based on the works they have read.

The point being that learning another language as an adult requires some effort and—as a good teacher will tell you—immersion.  So how then are we, as writers who have predominantly been exposed to past tense fiction, supposed to suddenly pull off present tense that is readable and engaging?

I believe this may be part of the difficulty with those readers, including myself, who have picked up a book in first person present tense only to feel a little repulsed by it. Although I enjoyed the storyline of the book in question, I continue to have mixed feelings about it even now, over a year later.

The first time I heard an oboe played (by a high-schooler), I hated it. It sounded terrible—the kind of music where you stop up your ears in misery.  Later, I heard an oboe played by a professional, and suddenly I loved it.  The point being that those who hate present tense may not truly dislike the tense itself but rather the imperfect manner of its application, primarily by writers like me who have never been immersed in it.

With that in mind, I recently decided to give present tense another chance and purposefully picked up a book I knew to be written in it.  What a difference!  It was well-crafted, and I easily connected with the main character within the first couple of sentences—the same amount that it had taken to repulse me from the other book.

So to those writers like me who have difficulty with consistent application—go forth and read (present tense)! A basic internet search will pull up several available lists.

To those who have had difficulty with accepting this new-fangled thing—go forth and give it a second chance.  You may be surprised.

What about you — are you a writer or a reader who can relate?  Do you love/hate/don’t care about what tense a book is written it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Posted by on April 4, 2013 in Writing


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