About Writers, book promotion, humor, Uncategorized, world-building, Writers Co-op, Writers Co-op Anthology, writing technique

Live in the present. Write there too.

–  by Barry K. Rosen (aka Mellow Curmudgeon)

The ancient advice is still good. Live mostly in the present, with enough dwelling on the past to serve specific purposes like learning from mistakes. Also good is the much more recent advice to write fiction in the present tense, unless there is a specific reason to use the past tense.

Zen lore includes some stories with endings of the form

At that moment, __________ attained enlightenment.

Fill in the blank with the name of somebody who studied Zen for some time and finally saw the light when his teacher said or did something outrageously weird.

While my story Satori from a Consulting Gig does not presuppose any knowledge of Zen lore, it does have a surprise ending (partly inspired by those Zen stories) with my own way to fill in the blank. Using the past tense in my story’s last sentence helps make the allusion to Zen lore clear to those who might care about it.

Did I choose to write my story in the past tense because I planned to end it that way? Not consciously. I just set out to write a short story. I’ll write some fiction. I’ll use the customary past tense. Doesn’t everybody?

Not quite. I got over 16 million hits when I googled

present tense vs past tense fiction

much later, in preparation for writing this post. Before discussing some pros and cons that are out there (and some that may be new), there is a little more to be said about my story’s tense situation.

My story was written for an anthology whose editors asked the contributors to supply blurbs. I wrote a blurb in the same tense as the story, then noticed that other contributors wrote blurbs in the present tense for stories in the past tense. Why? I found the inconsistency troubling.

Another contributor (Sue Ranscht) kindly remarked that the present tense “creates a punchier tease” in blurbs than the past tense does. Indeed. Why not make the actual story (not just the blurb) be as vivid and engrossing as it can possibly be? Unless there is a specific reason to use the past tense, why not write in the present tense?

§1: Perilous Present
Written in the present tense, my newer story Entanglements begins with

Squatting over the airport, a thunderstorm supercell demolishes …

Yes, the word demolishes might be misread as (a typo for) demolished. Yes, the reader might be a little disoriented at first. Worse, the reader might suspect that gimmicky writing is camouflage for weak content. Such concerns loom large in a thoughtful page that recommends using the past tense by default and the present in some special cases. We can agree on the bedrock principle that one size does not fit all, even as we disagree amicably on where to draw some lines and how strongly to weight some concerns. That’s a respite from the train wreck of contemporary politics.

Dunno how 16 million hits in my Google search compares with how often the present tense has actually been used in good stuff. As good uses accumulate, the prudential reasons for defaulting to the past tense will gradually weaken. Of course, there will always be people who believe that the earth is flat, the moon landings were faked, and

Thou shalt write fiction in the past tense.

came down from Mount Sinai with Moses.

§2: Perilous Past
Readers (and writers!) may not be native speakers of English. As with many other aspects of language, English is exuberantly irregular in how it forms the past tense. People learn the past tense of a verb later (and less thoroughly?) than they learn the present tense. Can U hear the rumble of an approaching storm?

When offline (or distrustful of Google Translate), Pierre consults his French/English dictionary. How can he say prendre in English? No problem. Just say take. But Pierre is writing in the customary past tense. Neglecting to look up take in the other half of the dictionary, he says taked where he should say took.

Consider 3 common ways that verbs ending in -it can form their past tenses: hit/hit, pit/pitted, and sit/sat. Quick now: knit/knit or knit/knitted? Shit/shit or shit/shat?

There are a few verbs with 2 ways to form the past: an irregular usual way and a regular way for a special usage:

Starting a road trip, the team flew out to Chicago.
Swinging at the first pitch, the batter flied out to left field.
The picture was hung in a prominent place.
Nathan Hale was hanged as a spy on 1776-09-22.
This last nuance is subtle enough to trip up some native speakers.

§3: Perilous Past Perfect
Pierre is back. The draft of his story has a short paragraph about some taking that happened at an earlier time. Not fond of flashbacks, he has a good reason to put this paragraph as late as it is, not earlier in the narrative.

Sadder but wiser after being corrected by a ten-year old whose first language is English, Pierre refrains from writing had took for the past perfect for the verb take. He looks up the actual past participle and writes had taken.

Pierre’s pluperfect paragraph is grammatical but clunky. What to do? Rewrite the main narrative in the present tense and the clunky paragraph in the past. That will be a chore, but such a clear and distinct idea deserves the effort. Descartes would approve.

§4: John and Jane Get Tense
John has been writing screenplays that often use flashbacks. Now he wants to write a novel and still likes flashbacks. He realizes that readers would be confused if nothing but a paragraph break separates what the characters do and experience “now” (from their viewpoint) from the start or end of a flashback. There is a lot of sensible advice out there about things like narrative transitions to and from flashbacks, but John wants to stay closer to his cinematic roots. He uses the present tense for the main content and the past tense for the flashbacks. If he also switches to a noticeably different font for the flashbacks, that might be enough in most places (after narrative transitions for the first few flashbacks).

Jane has been writing historical fiction and using the past tense to make it look like history. Now she wants to write fiction with a first-person narrator and package it as a rather one-sided conversation with an implicit listener. She plans to keep the past tense for the main content and add some present-tense remarks, often in response to what the listener has presumably just said. The present-tense remarks will be frequent and incongruous. The narrator will tell a self-serving version of a sequence of events in the past tense while accidentally revealing the darker and/or funnier truth in the present tense.

I warned Jane that readers (especially impatient thick-headed guys like me) may just take the narrator to be ditzy and bail out early. But Jane is game to try. If she does make it work, I know a good place to submit her story.

§5: Recurring Rabbit
Rabbit
The Rabbit Hole is a series of anthologies of weird stories, with a troika of editors. Volume 1 came out in 2018, Volume 2 is scheduled to come out on 2019-10-01, and the editors hope to continue annually. Maybe Jane can contribute to Volume 3.

My story Satori from a Consulting Gig in Volume 1 is just 2 pages long, so even those who dislike it may still be glad they bought the book for $2.99 as an e-book or $12.50 as an ink-on-paper book.

While every extended narrative in Volume 1 uses the customary past tense, Volume 2 will have at least one story told in the present tense. No, the editors’ fondness for weird stories does not extend to a fondness for weird writing. As originally submitted for Volume 2, my story Entanglements did have some weird writing at the end that seemed unavoidable to me. Editor Curtis Bausse suggested a strategy for avoiding the unwanted weirdness, and the strategy worked. There was no fuss at all about my use of the present tense. That is as it should be.

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About Writers, inspiration, Magic and Science, mythology, Uncategorized, world-building, Writers Co-op

Non-Epic Fantasy

 – by Peter Thomson

I have been reading fantasy for over fifty years (and writing it for two), and I still do not know what  defines the genre. After all, there’s the magical realism (it has magic!) pioneered by Miguel Asturias (Nobel Prize winner) and made a best seller by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (also Nobel Prize winner), epic fantasy, Gothic fantasy (Mervyn Peake), urban fantasy, fantasy whodunnits (Glen Cook’s Garret PI series) … I could go on, and on. My own effort currently ranks something like #115,751 in the fantasy category at Amazon, so it’s obviously enormously popular to write as well as read.

Browsing through the on-line slush piles (did I mention I’m a fast reader?), the great bulk of fantasy  seems to fall towards the ‘epic’ end of the spectrum. The fate of the world, or at the very least a substantial kingdom, hinges on our hero’s or heroine’s efforts. The advice to writers is that the creation of dramatic tension is essential and most writers seem to have decided that nothing beats tense like the possibility of an an unending reign of darkness.

But do readers really read the Lord of the Rings to find out if Sauron is defeated? If the derivative art (pictures and music as well as imitations) Tolkien has spawned are an indication, probably not. They read to walk the streets of Minas Tirith, talk with ents, linger in Lothlorien as elvish harps play through the night. Or, as it might be, fight tyrannosaurs and dark magics. In  a word, escape.

One way to give the reader this escape – to show them a world they would like to visit, is to lower the stakes. This has several advantages. It allows for a slower pace if desired, gives more scope to explore the scenery and for whimsy, grace-notes and interesting diversions. After all, a world with dragons surely has a lot of other interesting things. The mission is still there, still central, but not so dominant. It more easily allows sequels that are not just re-hashes (hello Belgariad follow-ons) and generates side-stories and spin-offs. If you save the world in book 1, what’s left to do?

Examples might be Jack Vance’s stories of the Dying Earth and Lawrence Watt-Evans’  Ethshar series. Vance evokes a world of melancholy, caprice, the accumulation at the end of time of all sorts of oddities. The stakes are there, but are not of enormous consequence. Will Cugel the Clever obtain his revenge? Will Liane the Wayfarer evade Chun the Unavoidable? (Spoiler: no in both cases). In Ethshar, will Valder find a way to rid himself of a misenchanted sword? Will Emmis have a better future as native guide to the Vondish ambassador?

This works best if the background is evoked rather than described, and if it fits together. Avoiding a data dump is standard good advice. Fitting together – having a reasonably coherent picture that the reader can build up in her mind over the course of the plot from a series of passing remarks – is harder. Maybe this is why so many writers go for the epic – it’s easier to charge straight over the holes and inconsistencies. If the world is to be truly interesting, the characters shouldn’t think like modern westerners nor like medieval stereotypes. They should reflect the world they live in. Magic (or active gods or dragons or whatever) surely alters a lot of things.

In my case I could draw on a few decades of role-playing with inventive, over-argumentative people and a lifetime of reading history. Historians tend to assume that people had a good (to them) reason for whatever they did and the job is to explain that. Believe me, it helps to have a lot of case studies of the reasonable (to them) but totally weird (to us) to draw on.

In Tales of the Wild magic is a universal force, used for cooking and lighting and keeping the bank secure, drawn on by humans, animals, plants and the land itself. People go about their business, take a gap year, connive, plot, seek to evade taxes. Some themes I want to explore fit naturally: the land rejects – forcefully – exploitation; equality between men and women is easy to envisage and portray, the bad guys can be more nuanced and their motivations more comprehensible. Above all, I can take the time to entertain. Non-epic fantasy is an under-rated sub-genre and writing it a good way to stand out from the crowd of worlds that need saving on a daily basis.

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About Writers, blogging, book promotion, Uncategorized, world-building, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Stayin’ Busy

– by Mimi Speike

I’ve been busy this week. I’ve written two pieces on Medium.com. I’ve just about decided to create a personal publication there that will display my non-Sly work and also present opinion pieces, most (but not all) writing-related. I wrote a guest-piece for The Story Reading Ape. It’s up as of Sunday. I’m doing a final read-though on my entry for Booksie’s First Chapter contest (deadline June 15). You’ll find the notice on Facebook.

I’ve gone through my files, found very old art, scanned it, and am going to take it into Illustrator to add to/manipulate. I see one image as the anchor for a cover illustration.

I’ll do one more edit on Sly, then I will let go of book one. I have finished reading Dear Dark Head, a history of Ireland, Palmerston, a bio of Lord Palmerston, Prime Minister of England in the mid-nineteenth century, and I’m well along on The French, Portrait of A People  (the nit-pick information in here, fabulous, and, a riot.) I am so enjoying this. The relationship of the French to food, I can certainly use some of that. My Archbishop has a French chef who he adores.

I’m doing my usual highlighting of great usage, starring the really super bits. A few items will be hilarious inserted into my baptism scene. (Already a screwball delight, if I do say so myself.) My cat is loving it. He never knew a baptism would be so much fun. (Nor did I.) I have haunted certain sites, like Catholic Answers, for a few years now. So much so that I’ve gotten pop-up messages: We notice that you visit us often. Would you care to donate? I’ll blow their minds, credit them in my footnotes.

This week: back to the art. The art is what’s holding me up.The apps have changed so much since my stone-age versions, the simplest tasks, I can’t get them done, not easily. I have to get my ass down to Barnes and Nobel and buy the books.

My firm belief is, we can’t wait for the world to come to us. We have to push, and push, and push for attention. But I’m not shoving my book in people’s faces, I’m writing humorous pieces with bouncy headlines that I hope many will want to investigate.

Where will it get me? I’ll keep you posted.

____________________________________________________

Well, my post was displayed on the front page of Story Reading Ape for all of nine hours. There are so many members there, apparently writing their hearts out, that I am already pushed off the front page (into previous posts) by nine other pieces posted today. Lots of participation there, you can get lost in the shuffle.

 

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The Hero’s Journey

As you probably know, many writers use Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey as the route along which to write their own story. Here are some of the more famous examples.

A good yarn often starts with The Ordinary World.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…This particular hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected…”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Unexpectedly, there is the Call To Adventure.
“Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”
– Princess Leia (hologram), “Star Wars: Episode IV”

Followed, of course, by The Refusal Of The Call.
“We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t see what anybody sees in them…Good morning!…we don’t want any adventures here, thank you! You might try over The Hill or across The Water.”
– Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

No adventurer ventures without The Helper.
“I can guide you but you must do exactly as I say.”
– Morpheus, “The Matrix”

And off they go to The Threshold Of Adventure.
“The Mos Eisley Spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
– Obi Wan Kenobi “Star Wars: A New Hope”

But wait, they must face down The Threshold Guardian.
“Who would cross the Bridge of Death must first answer me these questions three, ‘ere the other side they see.”
– Bridge-keeper, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”

Now, together our adventurers face Tests.
“We’ll never survive.”
“Nonsense, you’re only saying that because no one ever has.”
– Wesley and Buttercup (when preparing to enter the Fire Swamp), “The Princess Bride”

At some point, they endure a Supreme Ordeal.
“Only after disaster can you be resurrected. It is only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything.”
– Tyler Durden, “Fight Club”

At the climax, our heroes reach the enemy’s lair and prevail. But now comes Flight.
“Come on buddy, we’re not out of this yet.”
– Han Solo, “Star Wars: A New Hope”

Finally, our heroes take The Road Back. They return home.
“We thought you were… dead.”
“I was. Now I’m better.”
– Captain Sheridan in response to the Drazi ambassador, Babylon 5 ep. “The Summoning”

Come to think of it, just reading about Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey can get a writer excited.

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About Writers, blogging, book promotion, book reviews, book sales, editing, Flash Fiction, Google Ads, humor, inspiration, Legal, Literary Agents, Literary critique, Magic and Science, mythology, publishing, reading, Research, Satire, scams, self-publishing, Stories, Uncategorized, Welcome, world-building, Writers Co-op, Writers Co-op Anthology, writing technique

An Invitation to Blog

The Writers Co-op is looking for a few good bloggers. Anyone in the writing life is welcome to submit a blog. If you have something to say about writing, editing, publishing, marketing or just want to share news of your latest effort, we’re interested. Submit a new blog, or, a link to your current blog page.

Members should post their blog in the draft section. Others should submit their their blog or link to GD <at> Deckard <dot> com. Blogs are posted every Monday or Thursday morning on a first-come basis.

Remember that readers are likely to be people in the writing life interested in learning from one another. Sharing our successes, failures, insights, knowledge and humor is a big part of the life we lead.

I look forward to hearing from you.

– GD Deckard, Founding Member

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blogging, editing, Literary critique, Stories, Uncategorized, world-building, Writers Co-op, Writers Co-op Anthology, writing technique

An Interesting Thing about Writing

Show, Don’t Tell?
Show, is writing that allows the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings. This is generally more interesting than telling a story through exposition, summarization, and description. The best explanation I know is from Anton Chekhov who wrote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Obviously, we must consider Chekhov’s advice. There is a crater on the planet Mercury named after him. But, what does it mean? To me, it means the end of lazy writing. The writer should take that extra step into the story. Don’t just say, Auggie Anderson is blind. Step into Auggie’s world and see him feeling for a bench with a white cane.

That said, I’m currently reading through 71 short stories that have been submitted for the Writer’s Co-op 2019 Anthology, The Rabbit Hole, Vol. 2. And, the best story so far is tell! Not show. Yup. The author is telling a story. But so well written, that the action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings are all there! It held my interest all the way through because the story is interesting.

So, what’s a writer to do? When I think of the stories I really like, they stand out because they are interesting. I may or may not remember that the story is original or well written. But I know a story that is memorable to me and to many others is always an interesting one.

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Being There

Seeing something helps a writer to describe it. Actually being in a setting lets the words choose themselves. Take the inside of the International Space Station, for example, one of the most advanced miracles of modern technology to have ever been built by mankind. It’s a mess. The room I’m in now is maybe 20 feet wide by 20 feet high by, maybe, a little longer. The white and grey walls are totally covered with color-coded cables, cases, boxes and storage packs. And there are wall panels that slide out like file cabinet drawers to allow access to the experiments being conducted inside. Not a spec of space is wasted on the four walls. You can’t walk on any of them. No floors needed here. Just float between the walls. I guess that explains the four laptop computers fixed at impossible angles. No up or down. Just float over and use one. The panel sections lining the walls are marked by metal strips to which, as astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, of the European Space Agency, showed me, she can attach shower safety hand bars (OKAY, she called them something else.) She uses the bars to hold onto when she’s working. She can also slip her stocking feet (no shoes needed here) under the bar to hold herself in place while she completes an appointed task. Or, attach a camera like the one giving me this inside view.

Yes. It’s virtual reality. But how else am I getting aboard the ISS to see what kind of socks astronauts wear? Or watch the sun rise over the rooftops of London, from a rooftop in London, and turn to see the The Shard sticking up a thousand feet into the sky? Or stand among Parisians in a little park and be the only one rubbernecking the Eiffel Tower towering above me? All without leaving my writing desk.

The little tripper lets you describe settings by putting you inside them. It’s cheap. A $20 viewer will let you use your cell phone to watch YouTube 360 videos of just about any place people can get to today. I recommend virtual reality to any writer without a twenty million dollar travel budget for a ticket to the space station.

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