Buddhism, fiction, humor, language

Live in the present.  Write there too.

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.

Rope fraying

© S. Silver | 123RF Stock Photo

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 camoflage 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-Hole_Worried-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.  One of the editors (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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fiction, humor

Weird Works Wanted in 2019

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If the following excerpt from a call for submissions sounds interesting, please read the whole thing and consider submitting a story or some poetry.  (Previously published work is OK if the author retained the rights.)  This post ends with a few visual hints about ways to be weirdly funny.

The Writers’ Co-op invites submissions of short stories (and poems) for the second edition of our yearly anthology, The Rabbit HoleVolume one was released in November last year, volume two is scheduled for September 2019.

This year, we are looking for weird stories dealing with the following themes: entertainment, weather or science.  (If you want to combine all three, we’re very open to stories about a group of scientists on their way to the theatre when they’re caught in a freak snowstorm.)  However, there will also be a section Weird At Large for stories that don’t fit the specific themes suggested.

• • •

The deadline is 31st March 2019.  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.

The call for submissions describes the many kinds of weirdness suitable for the anthology.  While definitely not required, humor is encouraged.  For visual hints about ways to be weirdly funny (and sometimes thought-provoking), those whose memories of works like the classic Far Side cartoons by Gary Larson have faded can look at some of the Bizarro cartoons by Dan Piraro.  The following images are also links to the pages where they appear and are discussed:

Bizarro_girm-reaper-gondolier

Bizarro_road-sign -tropies

fiction, humor, photography

Wondrous Weirdness — Why Am I Here?

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The subtitle is a rhetorical question, not an ancient conundrum.  Nearly all of the prose I read or write is nonfiction.  Why am I posting (for the third and final time) about a book of weird stories rather than about something in the endlessly fascinating Real World?

The tweetable answer begs the question.  Sure, I wrote one of the 35 stories.  (Click here to see blurbs for some of them.)  But why did I get involved in a substantial fiction project?  The answer is some nonfiction weirdness.

The call for submissions grabbed me in 2 ways:

  • Contributors could opt (as many indeed would) to have their shares of any royalties donated to the Against Malaria Foundation.
  • While weird things are often disturbing (when not merely weird), the call was emphatic about the possibility of being weird and funny (or even weird and funny and disturbing, all at once).

Hmmm.  Could some of the stories in this anthology be simultaneously weird and funny and thought-provoking?  Could they be a little like some of the best surrealist paintings?  The following photo doubles down on the idea behind a great painting by René Magritte:

gecko-not_840x1212

Seduced by the call for submissions, I took up the challenge of revising a fragment of weird fiction from a discussion of several poems (and comments) that involved various people, so as make a standalone short story that would be broader and even weirder.  After another revision in light of helpful comments from one of the editors (Atthys Gage), I believe that my story is good as well as weird.  It is also just 2 pages long, so even those who dislike it may still be glad they bought The Rabbit Hole for $2.99 as an e-book or $12.50 as an ink-on-paper book.

Do U have 0.5% of your Amazon purchases donated to a charity by Amazon Smile?  Thru 2018-11-02, the percentage will be 5% instead.

BTW, gecko lizards really can climb straight up hard, smooth walls.  Weird.  But they don’t speak with an Australian accent or tout insurance.  Not in this universe, anyway.

Providing a brief writer’s bio for the anthology prompted me to revise this blog’s grossly outdated About page.  The revised page has a new joke, a few links, and a nice photo.  A nice photo of me would be really weird, so the photo is of something else appropriate.

My other short forays into fiction are also weird.  Both are about an ancient Greek (but written in modern English): Plato watches baseball and copes with a hangover.

fiction, humor

Wondrous Weirdness — Worried Wabbit

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Rabbit-Hole_Worried-Rabbit
Our little friend is worried.  Mistaken for Bugs Bunny by Elmer Fudd’s hired hit man, (s)he was on the run for a while.  There was no chance to pause for rational thought about whether to get the prerelease discount on The Rabbit Hole by ordering the e-book before 2018-11-01.  Yes, being big on rationality is weird for a rabbit.  Some weirdness rubbed off when (s)he posed for the cover of the book, but there is still plenty inside.

The upside of ordering early is that (s)he could save $1; the downside is that (s)he would be trusting promotions like my previous post.  Should (s)he wait for a chance to use something like [Look Inside] on Amazon?  After release, the e-price would still be low at $2.99, and the ink-on-paper version would be an option at $12.50.  Decisions, decisions.

Maybe our little friend will feel better after reading blurbs for some of the 35 stories, ordered as in the book:

  • Foggy
    A father and daughter’s boating trip is ambushed by a mysterious, underwater tormentor.
  • I Should’ve Known Better
    There’s just one thing wrong with his beautiful luxury apartment: it’s a transdimensional portal.  Will the Flying Demon Things get him before he gets one of the centaur Babes?
  • The Scroll and the Silver Kazoo
    You never know who (or what) will show up at an open mic event.
  • Quicksilver Falls
    A mysterious phenomenon puts the future of the world in the hands of a simple Tennessee farmer and sparks the world’s strangest writing competition.
  • Satori from a Consulting Gig
    Management consultant Frank Dow has a new client: God.
  • The Adventures of Conqueror Cat
    Herr Trinket (a sharp-eyed and even sharper-tongued shelter cat) traverses an interdimensional rabbit hole into poochlandia to explore the enduring timey-wimey dog-cat dichotomy.
  • Eggs On End
    Claudia had a secret: she was ordinary – agonizingly, mind numbingly ordinary.  But all that was about to change.  And it would all begin with eggs.
  • Life Changing
    Lawrence decides to exercise his brain to avoid his Alzheimer-stricken mother’s fate, but when his life twists beyond recognition, he can’t escape the possibility that lost minds must be somewhere.
  • Carolina Brimstone
    The passion of the zealot is proportional to the power of the demon inside.  Constance Hennfield’s fervor knows no bounds.

 

fiction, humor

Wondrous Weirdness — Prerelease Discount

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The first volume in a new Writers’ Co-op anthology series will be released on 2018-11-01:

Rabbit-Hole_840x1267

An e-book version can be preordered now by clicking on the image and then clicking on the button for your platform.  On the release date, the e-price will rise from $1.99 to $2.99.  There will be good news then also: oldsters like me will be able to buy the physical ink-on-paper version from Amazon.

For 3 of the 4 platforms reached from the link to The Rabbit Hole, the platform’s page has a nice summary of the contents and spirit of the anthology:

How do you like your weirdness?  A subtle nudge towards the untoward?  A quick zap of zany?  Or a full-on assault of aberration?  Whatever your taste, you’ll find it here, and many more strains of strange that you didn’t suspect existed.  From magic rain to a talking (severed) head, extraordinary eggs to belligerent birds, the stories in this collection enter the rabbit hole to explore its hidden corners and winding ways.  Through all the variety, what they have in common is originality, creativity and fine writing.

While I will wait for hard copy before reading the whole thing, I really have read several of the stories (not just the one I contributed).  I solemnly swear (or affirm) that the following paragraph is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The Rabbit Hole‘s first edition has 35 diverse selections by 35 authors.  Anybody with a taste for weirdness has a good chance of finding some things they like.  Moods are as varied as lengths, which run from 1 to 17 pages (with 7.6 as the average).  There is humanity and humor as well as some darkness and much weirdness.

haiku, humor, math, philosophy, photography, science

They Are Beyond Space & Time

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Taught myself a crash course in digital photo manipulation to respond to

Numbers ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #106

by posting how Plato bounced back from an encounter with intellectual ancestors of Karl Popper.  Hope I did not flunk.

Plato woke up with a nasty hangover after a symposium that had gone badly for him.  Some new sophists who called themselves “natural philosophers” had come to Athens, and the kind of philosophizing they advocated was anything but natural to Plato.

The new sophists spoke about “observations” and “conjectures” and “predictions” rather than abstract reasoning about perfect ideal forms.  Plato could tolerate his student Aristotle’s interest in easy casual observations and simple inferences from them, but the new sophists were different.  They wanted to measure minute details of how the shadows on the walls of Plato’s metaphorical cave flickered.  They would consider anything imaginable as a candidate for “explaining” their observations, even things so fanciful that Homer would never have dared to sing of Odysseus encountering them on his way back to Ithaca.

Instead of trying to establish a conjecture by reasoning to it from first principles, the new sophists wanted to reason from it to a prediction about what they would observe.  Conjectures that led to many diverse predictions matching what was actually observed were to be accepted as true, but only until somebody came up with “better” conjectures that yielded more accurate predictions by more elegant reasoning.  As one of the brasher “natural philosophers” said,

All knowledge is provisional,
never more than the best we have at the moment.

Flummoxed by such craziness, Plato had been hitting the wine harder than usual.  He had passed out just as another “natural philosopher” began replying to the brash one:

Well, that is a little over the top.  For example, …

All that was last night, when stars had carpeted an inky black sky.  Now the sky was light blue, the sun was shining, and Plato’s head was aching.  He winced when he remembered a new sophist’s remark that each star might be something much like the sun but almost inconceivably farther away.  That example of a loony conjecture had prompted a nightmare with Athens (and its circling sun) lost in a humongous whirling vortex of innumerable stars (rather than stationary near the center of the universe, as Athens so obviously was).

The cash bar at the symposium had been pricey, and Plato wondered if he still had enough money to buy some willow bark to ease his headache.  He put his coins on the nearest flat surface and counted them.  Five should be plenty.  Then he noticed that three coins had the side with the face of a leader facing upwards, while two coins had the side with the leader’s mansion facing upwards.  Suddenly, Plato felt much better.  He even felt ready for another encounter with that brash sophist.

Athens_724x505

Plato’s Challenge
|Three plus two was five
|before any mind could know.
|Where do numbers live?

enlightenment, haiku, humor, miracle, philosophy

Miracle: Satori from an MBA

Sudden enlightenment has its own weird logic.  There’s no telling who will attain it, or how.
(BTW, the [Menu] button atop the vertical black bar reveals the widgets.)

It started so gaily.

A tongue-in-cheek post about writer’s block led to
 a tongue-in-cheek comment that led to
 a tongue-in-cheek post that led to
 a tongue-in-cheek comment that seemed to
merit a tongue-in-cheek reply.

But the volleyball hit the floor before I could whack it upward.

That last comment in the cascade included the question

What made you the lucky poet whom God speaks through?

While the comment’s “you” is me and my claim to prophecy was indeed tongue-in-cheek (and perceived as such by the commenter), I could not get past the fact that many people do claim (seriously and stridently) to speak for God.  Many of those who are serious and strident are also willing to coerce people they cannot convince.  Many of those who are willing to coerce are also willing to kill people they cannot coerce.

lesson-learnedNON SEQUITUR © 2014 Wiley Ink, Inc.. Dist. By ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

While I cannot just keep it tongue-in-cheek, I still see the wisdom in Oscar Wilde’s remark that life is too important to be taken seriously.  So I will continue semiseriously.

Sometimes it is hard to distinguish literature from either literal truth or bogus claims to tell it.  Now I will tweak the font as a gentle reminder that the rest of this post is just lit.  A much-revised version with the title Satori from a Consulting Gig appears in an anthology of weird stories.

Management consultants are often hired by executives who want an outsider with “MBA” after their name to bless what they have already decided to do.  While God could bless well enough on His own, He did want advice from a management consultant on how to get out of a procedural rut.

Aware that the complexity of the Real World (and how to thrive in it) was beyond immediate comprehension, He had endowed some otherwise unremarkable creatures with abilities to observe and learn, to imagine and reason, to build bridges and write poems.  He had tried repeatedly to nudge them in good directions by inspiring a few of them, with a little success and a lot of failure.

As He told the consultant:

I keep it simple and age-appropriate, but they oversimplify half of what I tell them and obfuscate the rest.  The Golden Rule gets thru as something to proclaim but not as something to practice.  Absurdly much of what they think has been revealed to them is just their own bigotry and bullshit.

The consultant read over the case histories and concluded that there was a personnel issue:

U have been inspiring people who mean well but score high on credulity and low on humor.  Maybe it would help to go outside the box.  For example, U could inspire a nerdy atheist who digs sacred music and pushes the envelope of haiku poetry.

God was skeptical:

Does anybody like that exist?

The consultant smiled the enigmatic Mona Lisa smile that sometimes appeared when he was moonlighting as a Zen master.  He leaned forward and spoke softly:

Does anybody like U exist?

At that moment, God attained enlightenment.