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 two stories 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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haiku, humor, language, oversimplify, photography

Red-y or Not …

Some short color words are spread thin in common usage.  Words like “red” are pinned on many things that are slightly reddish.  If plant breeders ever develop a cabbage that is actually red, they will find that the name “red cabbage” has been usurped.  Chaos in the produce aisle!  Hope spinach stays green.
BTW, the [Menu] button atop the vertical black bar reveals the widgets.

Red ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #187

salad_obrem_y-10_669x208

Salad Paradox
|Red peppers are red.
|Red cabbage is purple but
|is said to be red.
haiku, humor, language

Innocence Lost & Mischief Found

The [Menu] button (atop the vertical black bar) reveals widgets like the Search box.  Typing just the [Enter] key into the Search box is a way to browse WordPress blogs.

Tweaking a wistful response to an earlier challenge in a different series yields a response to

that defers to Canada’s retention of British spelling.  (One of the tweaks was to replace color by colour.)  Being deferential does not suit me, so I revert to US spelling in some new mischief at the end.

When colour computer displays came in, I was jolted to see that a yellowish green and an orangish red were now “primary” for RGB coordinates of coloured pixels.  I also had to use CMYK coordinates for coloured inks and pray to the graphics gods that printing software would translate from RGB to CMYK in a way that respected how something looked.  My prayers were seldom answered.  Eventually, I learned to put away childish things (like hard copy).

Before Colours Went RGB
|Red, yellow, and blue
|were “primary” when kids
|smeared paint on paper.

RYB-triangle_700x619

I am all too aware of several ways that Canada is more sensible than the USA.  I used one of the less important ones to balance a little mischief about one small way the USA is more sensible:

Color in 6 Letters
|Some folks spell it with a U.
|On my honor, they sure do.
|Hour and sour I can buy;
|misspelled humor makes me cry.
|You stayed loyal to the Crown?
|Gotta press that U key down!
|I’m a proud Yank but confess
|that our anthem is a mess,
|sung as if we never heard:
|yeh-et really ain’t a word.

humor, language, philosophy, photography

Don’t Sweat the Meaning of Life

Your life and mine are not arbitrary symbols used by a third party to communicate with a fourth party.  Don’t let sweating “the meaning of life” interfere with living.
BTW, the [Menu] button atop the vertical black bar reveals the widgets.

While pondering “the meaning of food” is rare, pondering “the meaning of life” is common.  Deservedly?  Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

§1: Colors

Meanings are tricky.  Colors provide a simpler way to explore some of the relevant ideas.

§1.1: What Color is the Number Six?

The question heading this subsection is nonsense.  Many different kinds of thing have colors, but numbers don’t.  Making sense is harder than just having sensible-looking syntax.

One of the ways that philosophy made substantial progress in the past century was the realization that some “deep” questions could be as nonsensical as the one heading of this subsection.  Determining which ones are really deep will take a while.  Nonsensical questions may sometimes be failed attempts to pose serious questions that would be more tractable with better wording, so some nonsense may deserve more sympathy than the heading of this subsection.

§1.2: What Color is the US Flag?

Flags do have colors, but the question heading this subsection is still nonsense.  The US flag is red, white, and blue.  While mostly red, the Chinese flag also has some yellow.  How many nations have flags of just one color?

Nobody is silly enough to speak of “the” color of a nation’s flag, but people often do fall into the trap of speaking of “the” thingamajig when there are in fact several relevant thingamajigs.  I posted 4 varied examples (and there are many more).

It does make sense to say that white is the color of the stars in the US flag, that green is the color of the fake foliage in my Xmas wreath, and so on.  But look at the ribbon on my wreath:

closer_crop_840x485

The color I see at any place on the ribbon is intricately context-dependent.  Where is the light coming from?  Where am I standing?  While the solid red ribbons on other wreaths are easier to describe, my iridescent ribbon is prettier to see.

§2: Words

Mole

© tunedin123 | 123RF Stock Photo
(Image has been cropped.)

The word mole has utterly different meanings in chemistry, dermatology, and espionage.  Even if we suppose it makes sense to attribute a meaning to life, pondering “the” meaning of life may still be like pondering “the” color of the US flag, “the” color of an iridescent ribbon, or “the” meaning of mole.

Like mathematical notations (and many hand gestures), words are arbitrary symbols with enough consensus about what they mean to support use in communication.  Who uses life to say what to whom?

I posted 4 imagined responses by an old Yankee to a novice philosopher’s bloviations; one of the responses is

Wehrds need meanings; life don’t.

§3: How to Live

Your life and mine are not arbitrary symbols used by a third party to communicate with a fourth party.  Maybe some concerns about “the meaning of life” are poorly worded concerns about how to live.  Preferring the workable to the grandiose, I go with a simple short list:

  • Try to have some fun.
  • Try to do more good than harm.
  • Don’t sweat “the meaning” of it all.
food, humor, language, photography

Lime Time

The [Menu] button (atop the vertical black bar) reveals widgets like the Search box.  Typing just the [Enter] key into the Search box is a way to browse WordPress blogs.
The color word lime is used for many light or yellowish kinds of green.


Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge: Lime or Light Green

New leaves often display a version of lime.

lime-leaves_fix_840x1214

 
Actual limes display several versions of lime on the outside and …

lime-light_840x630

 
… yet another version on the inside.

lime-face_840x840

Got tequila?

Dry Margarita

A bottle of premixed margaritas is convenient, but the contents are too sweet for me.  To get a drier margarita with minimal mixological effort, I use roughly equal amounts of premixed margarita and dry white wine.  Tho admittedly not a world-class margarita, the result is a good no-fuss drink.

haiku, language, philosophy, photography

AKA Blue-Green (or Cyan or …)

This pretty color is also a visual metaphor: relationships mean more than intrinsic properties.  What to call it?  There’s a reason to prefer “blue-green” over other names, most of the time.
(BTW, the [Menu] button atop the vertical black bar reveals the widgets.)


Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge: Teal, Aqua, Seafoam or Turquoise

blue-green_840x666

What would I say is “the” color of the cloth in my image?  Even more than with other colors, how it looks depends on lighting and surroundings.  This pretty color is a visual metaphor: relationships mean more than intrinsic properties.

Colorful Plain English
|Inkjets squirt cyan;
|some poets sing of turquoise.
|I just see blue-green.

For most purposes, I prefer blue-green (and 2 variations on it) over the other names.  Anybody who knows what blue and green mean can guess what blue-green means.  Those who need more choices for naming colors like this can put blue-green between bluish green (AKA aqua) and greenish blue (AKA turquoise).  The 3 names I prefer are all clearer than names like aqua about where they lie on the range from just plain blue to just plain green.

Nerdy 😉 Note

Need still more choices?  Use Red|Green|Blue coordinates.  The 256x256x256 possible values for the RGB coordinates of a color can make more distinctions than U will ever need.

For example, the image below is a detail from the image above, with little yellow circles around 2 spots on the cloth, one relatively bright and another relatively dark.  Most spots on the cloth have [R|G|B] between the bright spot’s [45|223|226] and the dark spot’s [0|48|86].

blue-green_crop_upsize_mark_crop_840x131

If U like one of those colors enough to want it as a text or background color, U can use the corresponding hexadecimal code (#2DDFE2 or #003056) in an HTML style sheet.  Explicit hex codes avoid the bother of remembering the sometimes flaky conventional names for web colors.

Hex codes also provide flexibility.  Colors rarely look the way one expects when picking a color by pointing to it in another context, as I noticed when I used colors from an image to add a haiku to the image and then to write text referring to parts of the haiku.  Bumping coordinates up or down can adjust colors to look good in actual use.