Present Tense Tension

"Jo Joe" cover for print galleysA bit over a month ago, I was just finishing up what I thought was the last edit of my novel Jo Joe. All my years of writing, rewriting, submitting for critiques, responding to muy editors’ edits/suggestions/critiques, followed by still more rewrites were finally coming to their logical conclusion. My baby would soon go off into the “real” world on her own, to sink or swim, depending on the currents: i.e. publishing vicissitudes and reader responses. The next step would be bound galleys (and ePub galleys) for reviewers. Yes, I would have a chance to make changes after that, but only small, critical ones.

In other words, it was nearly that time when I would have to let go. Parents who send their children off to college probably experience the same mix of dread and elation that an author has when sending their novel off to be published. While I found find it difficult to no longer eat, drink, sleep and dream Jo Joe, I was looking forward to closing the book (literally) and moving on. I have other projects waiting in the wings – another novel plus my ongoing American Hands narrative portrait project. And after all the wonderful feedback we’ve gotten from my editor and Beta Readers, I was very much looking forward to finding out how reviewers and readers would react to Jo Joe. (Hope springs eternal in an author’s breast.)

On the morning of the day that I fully believed I would be saying “so long,” to Jo Joe, not expecting to see her again until I receive my copies of the printed bound galley, Daniel made an apparent off-the-cuff comment over the breakfast table. “I wonder what it would be like if Jo Joe were in present tense.”

My first reaction was, “No!” Conventional wisdom says that present tense fiction can be difficult and most authors don’t have the skill to pull it off.

Daniel quickly dismissed my trepidation and insecurity. “It’s the right thing for this novel, and you aren’t ‘most authors.'”

“But,” I protested, even though he was already winning me over. “It’s due now. I don’t want to be late delivering Jo Joe.

Of course, he played on my sense of authorial integrity. “What good it is to deliver on time, if it isn’t the best you can make it?”

Soon lightbulbs were going off in my head. I jumped up from the table, leaving my breakfast half eaten, and the dishes to Daniel to wash. I went right to my computer to do another complete rewrite of the novel. And, yes, it took quite a bit of time.

Changing the novel from past to present involved much more than swapping out verb tenses. Quite a lot of the action and some of the descriptions that worked well when written in the past had to be resculpted or completely deleted. Rewriting Jo Joe in the present forced me to be more sparse and to choose my details more carefully.

For instance, written in the past, a character might open a door and walk through it to the outside. That just doesn’t work in the present. Instead, I focused on making all description related to intent, experience, emotions, etc. I’m told that the result is more visceral and intimate, pulling the reader forward and inward, making Judith’s struggles and confusion more dynamic and personal. 

Present tense forces the reader to experience Judith’s turmoil, nasty surprises and danger when she does, with the same level of uncertainty and fear. As a first-person narrative, when Jo Joe was set in the past, the reader could have a certain level of confidence that Judith would survive the story. (That is, unless I was using The Lovely Bones device of a dead person narrating from the grave.) Now, nothing is certain for Judith or for the reader. Beta Readers have also said that the rhythm of language, pacing the present tense with past tense flashbacks, adds to the flow of prose and energy of the book.

I will look forward to hearing what you think of Jo Joe in the present tense when it’s published this spring. In the meantime, if you are a reviewer, the galleys (printed and eBook) will be available in January. (Reviewers, please send an email to, to request a review copy, if you don’t want to wait until February, when it will be available on Net Galley.)

I’m curious, what first person/present tense books have you enjoyed? What would have been the difference in your reading experience if it had been written in the past and/or third person?

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