Reader Friday: Tense and Person

Reader Friday: Tense and Person

TenseI’m seeing more and more books written in present tense. Do you like it? Why or why not?

Does it matter whether it’s first or third person?





Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

Do You See Your Character the Way Readers Do? First Page Critique: Rabya

Jordan Dane

For your reading pleasure, we have an anonymous submission of the first 400 words to a story titled – Rabya. I give my feedback below, but I also wanted to share this tidbit that the author shared on the inspiration for the story. In my own writing, headlines often inspire my novels and I love blending my research into fiction to add gravitas and authenticity.

FROM THE ANONYMOUS AUTHOR – Based on a true situation, RABYA is the story of how an American software engineer lands on the Terror Watch List because his live-in girlfriend, Rayba Salik, is Turkish. Does she have a secret?


Two minutes before take-off, Justin Karns twists side-to-side, trying to carve out room for his shoulders. The tall guy to his left has already commandeered the armrest. His manspread invades Justin’s space. The thought of rubbing knees with him across the Atlantic Ocean is creepy. If Justin doesn’t resolve this problem soon, he’ll be a mess for his big interview.

A few rows ahead, three seats sit empty. Though it’s verboten to move during takeoff, the seat should still be available in five minutes if everyone follows the rules. Yet, when the plane levels off—with the seat belt sign still lit—a man darts into the empty row. Justin pushes his call button.

“May I help you?” The flight attendant asks.

“Yes, please.” He glances at her name tag. “Kirsten, this row is way too crowded for three tall men. I’m six-foot and cramped. Imagine how these guys feel.” He flips his thumb to the left. “There was an empty row ahead, but someone just took the middle seat.”

She glances over her shoulder and then back without a word.

“Would you mind asking that guy to take the window seat so we could both be comfortable up there. Then my friend here,” Wilt the Stilt, “will have a place to stow his legs.”

“I’m sorry,” Kirsten says. “That is not possible.”

“Seriously? I fly international all the time. People always change seats.”

“There are new rules. Sorry.” She walks away.

When Justin can’t settle in, he calls her back. He considers name dropping his interview with Cruise Talon, the famous international consulting firm, but he’d sound like a braggart. He could hyperbolize his agony, but he’d sound like a wimp. Instead, he resorts to the truth. “I really need to change seats. My future depends on being rested.”
Her blue eyes turn icy. “I am sorry. Enjoy the flight.”

Perfect. Flight attendant on a power trip.

Justin stands up, stretches his body, and watches Kirsten return to the galley. A man on the aisle with a cop’s buzz cut smirks at him and reaches into his jacket, for what—a citation pad? He wouldn’t be so judgmental if he were stuffed into a row with daddy long legs.

Desperate to relax, Justin tilts back and waits for a chance to steal a piece of the armrest.

So, I’m the only one on this flight who can’t change seats.


TO LIKE OR NOT TO LIKE JUSTIN – My overall impression is that I’m not sure I want to be in Justin’s head for an entire book. If I were a reader picking up a book and reading the first page or so, how important is it for me to like him?

Some authors can pull off complex characters, where it’s not necessary for the reader to instantly like them. If the reader can be won over by the deeds of a complicated character, you have a major bond and great writing.

But in this short sample, Justin comes across as self-involved, arrogant, cynical to a fault, and inconsiderate. If this is a story inspired by real events, I would recommend shining a more sympathetic light on Justin. The author would be better off making this guy relatable from page one. Even if Justin is irascible, if the reader sees him in an uncomfortable situation that they have been through, the focus wouldn’t be on Justin’s worst traits.

HELP THE READER RELATE TO THE SITUATION INSTEAD – If the author plans on Justin being a challenging character with a prickly nature, I would recommend the author divert the reader’s attention from his unsavory personality to focus on his situation.

Who hasn’t endured a terrible flight where everything seems to go wrong? I would concentrate on the things that many readers would have experienced, then show Justin navigating those waters to see how he deals with things.

1.) Cramped seats
2.) A crying baby or two
3.) Recirculating air that doesn’t work
4.) Seat that doesn’t recline
5.) The interior of the plane feels like a sweltering oven
6.) Someone knocks his elbow on the aisle and hits the raw nerve of his funny bone
7.) Or a plane too small for good overhead bin space and he has to cram his carry on under the seat in front of him, leaving him no leg room.

(Can you tell I’ve had my share of really awful flights? I traveled on business when I was with the energy industry. Now my commute is from my bedroom to my home office. Sweet.)

If the author is going for the kind of characters featured in GONE GIRL – as seen through the eyes of a failed and bitter marriage of a husband and wife where both of them look guilty – then the voice attempted in this opener would pose a challenge to a reader who might like to relate to a main character. It’s a fine line to have an arrogant character still be likeable enough that a reader might want to eventually root for him. Finding the right balance in a character like that takes a deft hand.

A book that resonated with me and I highly recommend is PARANOIA by Joe Finder. This novel was made into a movie. Read the book. It’s a MUCH BETTER story. As you can see from the synopsis below (embellished by me), the author has borderline criminal, Adam, start his downhill spiral by doing a favor for a friend, a buddy of his who works in the warehouse. After he gets caught in a crime by his employer, Adam is given a chance to rectify his situation and do the right thing, but instead he takes the corporate ultimatum/blackmail and breaks the law to spy on another company. It’s a story of David versus Goliath.

In Paranoia, Adam Cassidy is twenty-six and a low level employee at a high-tech corporation who hates his job. He’s a real slacker with hustler, street smarts. When he manipulates the system to do something nice for a friend, he finds himself charged with a crime and corporate security gives him a choice: prison – or become a spy in the headquarters of the company’s chief competitor.

PRESENT TENSE – I didn’t see the point to writing this story in present tense, since more readers dislike it. Present tense is more likely to appear in YA where teen readers don’t have the bias of living most of their lives reading 3rd person, past tense books.

PLAUSIBILITY ISSUES – I found several issues wrong with this intro, just from a factual standpoint.

Call Button – Before Justin presses the call button, he makes a point to notice the seat belt sign was still lit. Yet once he presses his call button, the flight attendant pops up at the ready to serve. Things happen too fast in sequence for them to sound realistic.

Rules on Changing Seats – I took issue with Justin expecting the flight attendant to settle his seating problems. Any flight attendant is there for safety reasons first, but pushy Justin expects her to fight his battles by intervening. But to compound the issue, he argues that he flies international “all the time” and people change seats. (Why he argues only about international flights and not domestic too, I have no clue.) The attendant tells him there are new rules and changing seats is not permitted, yet the whole incident that started this argument was that a guy changed seats and was allowed to stay. That’s a logic problem that readers would see, like I did, and not take the story seriously. The whole argument comes off silly. Justin is being belligerent and the attendant is being overly mean. (Most flight attendants are very accommodating.)

Justin has options – Justin has the option of asking the man who has the row to himself if he can share the seating with him. When he chooses to force the attendant to intervene, he comes across as weak and a whiner. If the objective is to give a voice to Justin that sets the stage for the entire book, I would recommend the author take a harder look at how Justin should appear in his debut moment of first appearing on the page. Is he a victim or is a jerk who’s asking for it? Does he have poor judgment or is the Cosmos teaching him a lesson in humility? The author could go anyway with this. I suggested drawing the reader in by putting Justin in a situation where the reader can relate to a terrible flight and a seriously bad day, but there are other ways for the author to go. We simply don’t what the author has in mind. As a reader, I would put this book down, however. Justin hasn’t won me over to turn the page or buy the book.

As an author, you have control of ANYTHING in the story, but the fictional world should be consistent or must seem real to the reader, in order for them to suspend disbelief and read along.

NITPICKS – Word choices and pop culture references are important and should fit the character if the story is from his or her POV.

1.) Do guys really use the word “creepy” to describe man-spreading and knocking knees with a guy sitting too close? That sounds like the word choice of a victim or a word that a woman would use. Similarly, the line below makes Justin sound childish and unwilling to even try to rectify his own problem. Not a very mature response for a guy traveling across the Atlantic for an international job with an elite employer. Anyone in this position would be assertive, a negotiator, and a charmer.

So, I’m the only one on this flight who can’t change seats.

2.) How many readers would get the reference, “Wilt the Stilt”? Wilt Chamberlain played from 1959 to 1973. Justin strikes me as a younger guy who might reference an NBA player currently playing. Another example of a description that stands out as odd to me is – Daddy Long Legs. My parents would use this. Pretty ancient reach back.

3.) By calling attention to Justin’s internal thoughts on his options (see below), the reader gets unfavorable thoughts planted about Justin that the author may not intend. By his actions, he’s already an acquired taste. Why add fuel to stoke the fire?

He considers name dropping his interview with Cruise Talon, the famous international consulting firm, but he’d sound like a braggart. He could hyperbolize his agony, but he’d sound like a wimp.

TITLE – Rabya may be a working title, but it wouldn’t make a good published title in my opinion. Using the woman’s name might also limit the cover design to feature the woman, when the story is truly about Justin and the calamity of his life. When I don’t “feel” the title right away, I start writing down alternatives and make a long list before I settle on one. Get feedback from beta readers.

1.) What do you think of books written in present tense, TKZ? Am I the only one without my 3-D glasses?

2.) What feedback would you add for this courageous author?


Since P J Parrish had to throw down the guantlet by adding music to the end of her post this week, I’ve included this link & dedicate the song to the character in this submission. Justin is having a very bad day. #TKZMusicChallenge



Fiona’s Salvation $1.99 Ebook Novella

Can she survive the truth of what really happened to her?

First Page Critique: A Million Closed Eyes

Jordan Dane

shutterstock_43668637 (2)

Shuttetstock image purchased by Jordan Dane


Today I have the pleasure of reading and critiquing the first page of this anonymous submission. My feedback will be on the flip side. Constructive comments appreciated for this daring author.


Patrick, when you were seven, the three of us—you, your twin Prairie and I—stood exactly here, on the sidewalk in front of the Thomas J. Cahill Hall of Justice. I was teaching you about the injustice system, but I never called it that in front of you and never in front of Prairie, even after the police treated us so abysmally when Flemming stole you. Mommy wanted you to watch a trial, to see real lawyers in action, not TV lawyers.

That day, the sun reflected off the white walls of the courthouse and hurt your eyes so I bought sunglasses for you after the trial. You wanted pink ones like the ones Prairie picked out. Maybe you’re like your uncle Max. Not that I’d mind. You can be anything except gone.

Today, the clouds hover close to the ground, like the fog you hated because you thought it would smother you. Couldn’t convince you it wouldn’t.

On my way up the courthouse stairs, I bump shoulders with a protester, say, “Sorry,” and enter the double-glass doors. Protesting light sentences for pedophiles would be fine if more than a scatter of ten showed up. Max can attest that more protestors turn up to complain about gay marriages. What an upside-down world we live in, right?

Some of the children I meet in Internet chat rooms when I’m trolling for pedophiles remind me of you. Silly to imagine I might be chatting with you, but I do. Makes it hard to act like a child instead of a mother. I’m pretty good at it, though…acting like a kid I mean. Good enough to have eight notches on my belt, eight sick suckers who turned up to meet the pretend me and met the police instead. Whatever they got in court, they deserved. And more, so much more.

Wonder what today’s pervert will look like.
Oops. Not supposed to even think that word. Way too easy to slip up in court.

The defendants don’t send pictures, you know. Not their faces. Some body parts, that’s all, and that’s more than enough, but when I turn up court to give evidence about the chat logs, I’m always surprised. They look normal, Patrick, just like Flemming. You tried to tell me he wasn’t normal. Not directly, but I should have known.

A mother should know.


I read this submission several times before I pondered what might make it stronger. The intimacy of this first person narrative is compelling. Who wouldn’t be drawn to this mother’s story of a young son kidnapped by an online stranger?

By the end of this short introduction, I wanted to get a better sense for what was happening and where it might go, but because the story is told through the meandering thoughts of the mother, without any true sense of the present action, it bounces between the present and the past without clear context. There’s a fleeting mention of her trip to the courthouse (written in present tense) without giving a reason why she’s there. In my opinion, to make this stronger, I’d like to recommend the following:

1.) Stick With the Action – Pick an action for the character and this scene. It could be a grieving mother struggling to get into a courthouse where protesters are trying to free a Hollywood celebrity jailed for three days on a DUI charge, to show the injustice of the system, but the action would allow us to focus on a framework that has pace and movement.

Or this first scene could be centered on her in a dark room, guided only by the light of the computer monitor, as she obsessively engages another pedophile. Leave it a mystery until the end that it is a mother searching for her missing son. Picking the right action can still get the story set up across, but with more thought for suspense or mystery, the author could draw the reader into the story with more focus centered on this poor mother.

2.) Use of Tense – The intro starts with past tense because the mother’s mind drifts from past into present and back into the past again. At the mention of the word “today” where she is at the courthouse, the tense changes to present for only a brief instant before it changes back into the past. I think this would be hard to keep up with throughout the story. Some readers take issue with present tense. It’s used in YA, because teen readers like the immediacy of it, but adult readers tend to gravitate toward past tense as the norm. Because this story has the potential to drift in and out of the past, I would pick the past tense and make it clear when the narrator is thinking in memory.

3.) Show Don’t Tell – If this intro had a more definitive action to frame the scene, it would “show” the reader what is happening, rather than “tell” the reader the story through the recollections of the mother. The reader is distanced from the story without the action.

4.) Nitpick: If Prairie is a girl’s name, it might be a good idea to add her gender in the second sentence – ie: “…and never in front of your sister Prairie…”

Overall: The author did a good job of allowing the reader to know we are seeing the story unfold through the eyes of the mother and let the gender be known. That’s not easy to do in first person. Often authors forget to clue the reader in, but this author did a skillful job in layering in those clues. Because this story is about a mother’s plight involving a missing son, I would have kept reading, but I think there are ways to make this introduction stronger.

What about you, TKZers? Please share your thoughts on what would make this 400 word submission stronger. And please share what you  like about it.