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, Stories, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Playing the Field with Syd

Sydney Alvin Field (1935-2013), acclaimed as “the guru of all screenwriters,” was a leading American screenwriter and author who wrote several influential books on screenwriting.

by Linda Myro Judd

Have you ever been the recipient of helpful comments and critiques that come dribbling in one at a time? And do you have a muse who lives with you? I have to admit that I sometimes write things backwards, chronologically, and sometimes inside out. I’ve become better over the years at catching these pieces of writing before they get too far out of hand. But when I’m all excited about what I’m writing these habits creep in. My writing partner, who still wants to be careful of my toes during these exciting times, will dribble his edits to me. We’ve edited each other’s writing over three anthologies. His writing is powerful and less wordy than mine. He doesn’t like to beat around the bush. But I have a knack for tackling word flow. I love the pattern and rhythm of words. So we’ve learned from each other.

 Lately, I’ve been using writing contests as a source for writing deadlines. Since I work best under deadline, I figured that if I could actually finish my short story before a deadline arrived then I would submit my work. With that personal stipulation in mind, I sailed past three deadlines before I got to the one that brought my work up to speed.

During the past year, I wanted editorial feedback to coalesce and so I asked several more writing friends to help. And I still got a little here and a little there. It was time for some professional help.

Over the past couple of years I’d been reading Syd Field’s book, Screenplay, The Foundations of Screenwriting, for my bed time reading when I could read for an hour. If I’m too tired when I start to read, I’ll fall asleep too fast and don’t remember what I’ve read. So I played the field with Syd, I loved his writing style, and friendly banter. He conveyed his experience and wisdom in a folksy, yet concise way.

Even though Syd focused his book on the screenplay, his ideas are great for book writers too. I’m a short story writer, so I was curious if he could help me. Short stories are an American invention, a slice of time, usually one scene, with few characters and mostly about one incident, one plot point. So I read Syd’s book with this filter in mind.

Chapter 5, Story and Character, helped me the most with my short story. “There are really only two ways to approach writing a screenplay. One is to get an idea, then create your characters to fit that idea. Another way to approach a screenplay is by creating a character, then letting a need, an action, and, ultimately, a story emerge out of that character.”

In this chapter, Syd walked through how he and his students created a character and then proceeded to create a story based on that character. This was one of his favorite classes to teach. Can you imagine the energy created by having such participation in class? This second approach appealed to me, where character development dovetailed into story development.

 As I read more of Screenplay, I found it didn’t matter what I was writing. Syd’s style of imparting his experience is so inclusive, and entertaining, about storytelling that any writer can use his wisdom. He gives examples left and right. He emphasized knowing the ending of your story before you start writing. He talked about Chinatown, and the three screenplay rewrites that took place. Each had a different ending that affected the start of the film.

I finally read enough to know that I needed to be specific about what I wanted for feedback from my live-in muse. I also had a pending deadline, only two weeks left! So I got on his case for dribbling his feedback and that I wanted it all at once. He warned me that I wouldn’t like it. But I said go for it. Well he was right. I frowned, but I pulled up my big girl panties, and got to work. I had a lot to do.

Over the last six months I had expanded my original short story. The new stuff had my famous out of order writing handicap. With Syd’s help, I looked at how to formulate the order of the action. I moved major pieces around, and found that little blips were cleaned up from the reordering. My knack of sentence flow expanded to a bigger scale. I was excited.

I’ll keep reading Screenplay for more insights. Syd’s a good teacher. Everyone who offered feedback helped me see the pieces of my story that needed help. Syd gave me the grand picture of how to rewrite my story.

My hope to write a book has been rekindled. I see a glimmer of rewriting a couple of my longer stories into novels. It’s just a matter of time to gain speed on story development. My muse doesn’t like to read about writing, doing is his style. I tend to eat up books on writing, but I’ve been choosy about who I’ll use as a reference. There is one other writer who has great tools for digging out important events for writing memoirs. Keep doing research and putting pen to paper, or, fingers to keyboard!

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publishing, Stories, Writers Co-op

Call for Submissions

The Writers’ Co-op invites submissions of short stories (and poems) for an anthology to be released later this year. No theme is set, but stories should broadly fall into the category of ‘weird’ (see below).

There is a maximum word count of 5000. But this is more a guideline than a strict limit – quality is the main criterion, not length. So a great story will be accepted, whether it’s 6000 words or 200 (flash fiction is welcome). But we’re looking for short stories, not novellas or extracts from novels – the story should be complete in itself. Though the anthology will be comprised mostly of stories, there will also be room for some poems or pieces of an experimental nature.

The deadline is 31st March 2018. Submissions should be sent in an attached file to curtis.bausse(at)outlook.com with the subject ‘Co-op submission’. They may have been previously published on personal websites (or elsewhere) but authors must have full rights to them when submitting. Authors will retain said rights after the story or poem is published in the Writers’ Co-op anthology.

All proceeds will go to the Against Malaria Foundation. Why? Because the (hopefully not meagre but probably far from spectacular) royalties can make a big difference: $3 buys a long-lasting insecticide-treated mosquito net which protects two people for up to three years.

That’s for the practicalities (if you have further questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch via the contact page). But what is meant by ‘weird’?

The question is addressed in the previous post, but since I’m here I get the chance to add my two cents’ worth (or grain of salt as they say in French). Like many categories, it’s fuzzy, because it stands in distinction to ‘normal’, and there’s no common acceptance of what is normal. Not all writers will approach it the same way, and so much the better – we hope for plenty of variety. At the core of weirdness, though, is the upsetting of expectations: normality, in the sense of what we’re accustomed to, doesn’t follow the course that led to us form those expectations. Where it goes – somewhere disturbing or hilarious – is entirely the writer’s choice. Or why not hilariously disturbing? Indeed, one advantage of ‘weird’ is that it allows for humour as much as for horror, so go for it!

How weird does it have to be? Anything from full on, over-the-top freaky to subtly odd and unsettling. So no worries if weird isn’t your usual style – a few deft touches can suffice. Those little moments of strangeness that don’t fit into what we know of the world or the people around us, those hints of a deeper mystery that defies explanation. Give us writing that shifts our perceptions, leads us to experience, bubbling up through the regularity and routine, the fundamental weirdness of life. To quote the Count of Lautréamont, author of the Chant de Maldoror, if your piece is ‘beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella,’ there’s every chance that we’ll love it.

We look forward to reading you.

Agne-s-Varda-beau-comme-la-rencontre-fortuite-1

Agnès Varda: La rencontre fortuite
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About Writers, reading, writing technique

Firsts: Fists, Flirtations and Befuddlement

This could, I hope, become an ongoing series, but not all written by me. Anyone can take a turn, and it will be more interesting for the variety. It springs from Mimi’s recent suggestion that someone should post  some first paragraphs from novels or short stories.  Discussion, consideration, ratings and arguments could follow after in the comments section. It sounded like fun to me.  As an extra-added attraction, I’m not going to name the author or the book. Of course, some you (or some of you) will know instantly. Others may puzzle. They all come from books I enjoy or admire. Some are rather plain, others audaciously unconventional.

The title of the post is just me goofing around.  After all, a good first paragraphs can knock us on our ass.  It can seduce into opening an unknown door.  It can dazzle and baffle in a way that makes going forward our only choice.

Those are, of course, only three possibilities.

 

1:

to wound the autumnal city.

So howled out the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.

All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you’ve held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.

(break)

I begin with an unbeginning. Or maybe with an unfinished ending. The confusion of the first three lines could seem to some as mere artsiness for its own sake, just fancy word-flinging, but that’s too easy a dismissal. This massive books creeps in from the mist and the smoke, entering our consciousness like some misshapen beast. During its 800 pages, it will find and lose solid footing in reality a dozen times.  The “All I know, you know” paragraph lays out themes and images that echo throughout the rest of the text. The semantic twists of this obscure list knock us off stride before we even begin, but that is only too appropriate for a novel that will never stop lurching and turning (careening and grinding) all the way through to the

2:

First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.

HERE IS A SMALL FACT.  You are going to die.

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.

(break)

Another appealingly unconventional beginning. This was actually a very popular novel a few years ago, which only goes to show that you can begin a novel any way at all and still succeed in engaging the reader’s attention, as long as you know and trust your craft.

3:

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.

First, picture a forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

(break)

Such juicy writing!  They say don’t begin with description. This book rarely stops describing things. There’s very little dialogue. The story is told from multiple points of view, but the main character is the one seen here at the beginning—the forest itself. The last sentence could be a motto for the whole novel.

 

4:

See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are know for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him. 

(break)

So quiet. So simple. So ominous.  In very few lines, two characters have already been given weight, contour, and personality.  I particularly like the language, which is at once idiosyncratic, arcane and lovely.

 

5:

I had been sick for a long time. When the day came for me to leave the hospital, I barely knew how to walk anymore, could barely remember who I was supposed to be. Make an effort, the doctor said, and in three of four months you’ll be back in the swing of things. I didn’t believe him, but I followed his advice anyway. They had given me up for dead, and now that I had confounded their predictions and mysteriously failed to die, what choice did I have but to live as though a future life were waiting for me?

(break)

I particularly like the notion of failing to die, almost as if something monstrous had happened.  This was a quirky and troubling little novel. I think the opening does a nice job of setting the reader ill at ease.  (Question: Why “were waiting for me” instead of “was waiting for me”? Some foreshadowing that his future life is somehow plural?)

6:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff–and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky,
And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!

(break)

Yes, this a novel—a novel that happens to begin with 99 lines worth of heroic couplets.  The rest of the novel is several hundred pages of commentary by one of the least reliable narrators you will ever meet. The poem itself is marvelous, playful, and heart rending. The commentary is a whacky tale of political intrigue by a madman who uses an academic exercise as an excuse to tell his own (perhaps) delusional tale.

All right. Enough from me.  Can anyone identify the openings? More to the point, how do these work for you? What thoughts do they inspire?

 

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writing technique

On Writing: authors Stanley Fish & Roger Rosenblatt

Take a deep breath: we’re going fathoms down, down . . .

The craft of fiction requires imagination and discipline in equal measure. It is both art and science; its demands on the practitioner gestaltic and quotidian. Gestaltic in that the production of text comprising a unified whole of divers elements such as plot, theme, dialogue, characterization, symbols, motifs, etc. from oneiric visions, fleeting hypnagogic insights, ephemeral reveries, and focused bouts of cogitation requires one distinct set of skills. Quotidian in that the fashioning—sentence after cunningly wrought sentence—of the most apt, evocative, and concretizing of words that will resonate with the reader and allow him or her to enter (insofar as possible) the fictional dream of story requires quite another talent.

It is this latter part of the craft—the quotidian art of the sentence—that authors Stanley Fish and Roger Rosenblatt teach so well. Their reverence, awe, and delight in the sentence qua sentence gladden and uplift this aging author’s heart. I believe you will be charmed as well as you listen to these wizened masters speak.

Note: You may have some difficulty (depending on your computer’s internet service speeds and feeds) with the following link. I assure you any irritation caused by video stutter is well worth fighting through. Two points: (1) Pause the presentation occasionally to allow your system to catch up, and (2) know that the issue—on my computer, anyway—cleared up about halfway through.

Onward!

CLICK HERE: https://charlierose.com/videos/16610

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About Writers

And Now, Ursula K. Le Guin

It looks like my time to blog post has come ’round again. Are Curtis, GD, Mimi, Atthys, Sue and I the only writers in regular rotation here? I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say: We’d love to hear from others! (Perry, Tom, Amber, et. al.) You’ve got a ready-made soapbox and a built-in audience here on Writers Co-op; let us know what’s on your mind these fear-fraught dystopian days, eh?

Truth is, however, that I have nothing urgent to communicate at present. Therefore, I’d like to step aside and let Ursula K. Le Guin take the stage. Here is the speech she gave when accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters a couple of years ago. (After clicking on the url, scroll down and click on the embedded video link three-quarters of the way down the landing page to watch this 85-year-old dynamo in action.) Her speech is a marvel of concision, eloquence, truth and power.

:::applause-applause:::

http://www.oregonlive.com/books/index.ssf/2014/11/ursula_k_le_guin_on_reaction_t.html

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