Painting With Shotguns #54


In Defense Of The Present Tense (Part Two)

So, blah blah blah, some cranky old shrivs — the dueling Philips of Pullman and Hensher – have come out “against” the present tense, as if it’s a thing worth being against, like bear-baiting or cashmere sweaters.

My message to these two old crotchety crankmeisters: gentlemen, chill the fuck out.

Pullman says:

“I want all the young present-tense storytellers (the old ones have won prizes and are incorrigible) to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.”

Uhhh. He does realize that, in a story told in the present tense the narrative is still capable of talking about both (gasp) the past and (double-gasp) the future, right? The so-called temporal perspective is as wide as the author would like it to be regardless if the dominant mode of the text is present tense.

Then, he says:

“It’s an abdication of narrative responsibility, in my view. The storyteller, in film or novel, should take charge of the story and not feel shifty about it. Put the camera in the place from which it can see the action most clearly. Make a decision about where that place is. Put it on something steady to stop that incessant jiggling about. Say what happened, and let the reader know when it happened and what caused it and what the consequences were, and tell me where the characters were and who else was present – and while you’re at it, I’d like to know what they looked like and whether it was raining.

“But taking charge of the story is the one thing that some sensitive and artistic storytellers don’t want to do. They’ve come to feel a timorous uncertainty about the right-on-ness of something so politically dodgy as telling a story in the first place. Who are we to say this happened and then that happened? Maybe it didn’t, perhaps we’re wrong, there are other points of view, truth is always provisional, knowledge is always partial, the narrator is always unreliable, and so on.”

Oh, do shut up. While I recognize that Pullman’s reference to film specifically speaks to the use of the documentary-style “shaky-cam,” doesn’t he recognize that film is effectively a present-tense medium? It is happening as we watch it. (And screenplays are all written in the present tense, too. Are screenwriters inferior? Have they abdicated their, ahem, narrative responsibility?) If he doesn’t like the style that present tense affords (or offends), fine. So be it. But I call shenanigans on pointing to the authors themselves as if they’re weaker somehow than the author who writes in the past tense. Be advised: present tense is just as clear (and in many ways offers greater clarity) regarding what is happening.

Present tense can be plenty assertive, sir.

He’s no longer attacking the style. He’s attacking the writers.

Which, for the record, is a dick move.

Here’s the deal. Present tense is, as Chris Holm pointed out, another tool for the ol’ toolbox. Won’t always be the right tool. Sometimes might be the perfect tool.

When it’s done right, it’ll be great, and when it’s done wrong, it’ll suck.

By the way, this is true of all techniques. Present tense is neither awesome nor awful by itself: it is only made as such by the execution of authors who are gifted or garbage-fed, respectively.

(My original In Defense Of Present Tense post, if you care.)

Food Porn For Your Hot Sexy Mouth

Two quickies for your taste buds.

First, a sauce that goes on anything. I put it on cauliflower-and-cheese and it was awesome. Then I put it on my baked potato. Then on my chicken. I’d eat this shit on an asbestos shingle. I got some on my thumb and you know what? I bit that fucking thumb off. And loved every crunchy bite.

The sauce? Lemon Butter Roasted Garlic Something Or Other.

Roast a bulb of garlic. (Chop its head off, drizzle olive oil on it, wrap in foil, half an hour at 400 degrees.) Then, while that’s doing that, bisect a lemon, squeeze its citrusy life-blood into a dish. Also into the dish goes three or four TBsps of salted butter. When the garlic is done, squeeze it out (like popping a zit) into the dish. Microwave until butter melts. Stir around. Mash up the garlic real good. Now, put on shoe and eat it.


Second, you like okra? I didn’t either. Slimy, weird. Just roast it. Seriously. Take them. Clean them, but leave them whole. Throw them in a roasting pan and mix ‘em with a liberal greasing of olive oil (or any oil you like). Then, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and roast. Again, 30 minutes, 400 degrees.


“Vacation Hell:” Flash Fiction Reminder

Got a handful of entries already into the flash fiction contest. In case you forgot those details

1.) Write a 1000 words or less piece of flash horror fiction set in and around vacation or travel.

2.) Get me those 1000 words by Monday, October 11th. You can email me the story at chuckwendig [at] terribleminds [dot] com. Please ensure that I know who you are and what this is for, yeah?

3.) I’d like at least 14 total entries, but if more arise, hey, no problem there. The more the merrier.

4.) I do not own the stories, so you are free to cross-post on your blogs. My preference would be that you wait until the day of posting here, however, but that’s entirely on you. Again, I don’t own the stories.

5.) I will do a contest at the end of it — people can come, vote on their favorites. This means I will post the stories as they are — word goblins, spelling goobers, and punctuation poo-poo included.

6.) Winner gets either a free roleplaying book of mine, signed if you care; a copy of Beauty Has Her Way, an anthology from Dark Quest Books that contains a story of mine, “The Moko-Jumbie Girl;” or a copy of Needle #2, the killer noir magazine with stories from the likes of Stephen Blackmoore, Julie Summerell, Frank Bill, and Chris F. Holm. (Which I didn’t write, but hey, if I can pimp great writers, I’ll pimp great writers.) For the record, Beauty Has Her Way isn’t out yet, and I don’t know the release date, but it’s all done and the cover’s out in the wild now, so I imagine it’s not on a slow boat or anything.

7.) The contest prize portion is only available to people who live in, say, the 48 “upper” states of these United States. International participants can still try out, but hey, you gotta pay the shipping. I’ll pay the shipping if you’re in America, but anywhere else, the bill’s on you nerds.

What I’m Working On

I got some projects in the ol’ pipeline. First, I have a little Werewolf: The Forsaken work under developer daimyo David Hill, a little something-something called a Chronicler’s Guide. Second, I’m doing up a Space Opera meets World of Darkness product for Eddy Webb, incorporating some of Stephen Herron’s work from World of Darkness: Mirrors. So, sci-fi WOD is knock-knock-knocking.

And you might be asking: “Hey, what about that that novel you’re working on?” Ehhh. Ehh. Well. I’ve written 60,000 words. Except. Except. The first 30,000 are for one novel, and the second 30,000 are for another novel. I know. I know! But I’m working on both. And they’re each totally different projects. So, we’ll see. Keep your grapes peeled.

And you might also be asking: “Hey, what about that book of writing advice you promised us?” Would you believe I’m working on it? In fact, Super Secret Agent Stacia Decker is in on that loop, so. Hang tight.

Film went through Draft 8.5 (just culled 6-7 pages the other day, back under 120 pages). Had a call with the producer last week, re: TV pilot, and we have a handful of options there, too.

I’ve got a short story to finish this week.

I’ve got another short story off to an editor waiting for notes back.

So, the game of inches continues. Wish me luck.

And, uhhh, as usual, if you know of work, I’ll love you forever if you tell me about it.

I’ll also pay my mortgage, which is awesome.


Matthew McBride gets apeshit with a chainsaw over at Plots With Guns.

Andrea Phillips would like to talk to you about conveying action in transmedia.

Jay Stringer wants to tell you why he wants to make love to Indiana Jones, why Last Crusade is weaker than you think, and why “Nuke The Fridge” ain’t so bad. Click on over to Matinee Idles.

A photo journey through the United States atomic bomb testing (whoa).

And that’s all she wrote, nerds.


  • Speaking of things I worked on…

    I should note that I believe COLLAPSUS is finally coming — the website is changed, and if I’m hearing correctly, it will show off to American audiences on Sept 27th…

    Of course, right now you need an access code:

    I wonder if there will be some cool way of getting access…


    – c.

  • “Oh, do shut up” just made me laugh so hard I nearly barfed.

    There seemed to be an abundance of pissy, attitudinal freaks clogging the Internets yesterday. That Pullman piece just made me shake my head.

    Crotchety bugger.

  • Good ol’ Pip is showing (yet again) a fundamental lack of understanding about narrative tools. I mean this is the man that spewed that CS Lewis was nothing but propaganda then proceeded to write a series that was nothing but brow beating anti-theist vitriol starring a little girl.

    Sure, using present tense has its limitations. But sometimes you need to foster a kinetic feel in the prose itself to bolster the action of the story. I imagine The Hunger Games wouldn’t have worked as well as it does if it were written in the past.

    Also, holy crap that sauce! BRB, buying some garlic bulbs.

  • Well said, man-friend. What stikes me more than anything about Pullman’s argument is how myopic it is; past-tense has its share of limitations as well, but we’ve become inured to them by virtue of its narrative ubiquity.

    And Kate, THE HUNGER GAMES is an excellent example of a story that requires present-tense. (No spoilers coming, so don’t worry.) Without a strong POV character narrating the tale in the first-person, the world would not be one you’d care to spend much time in, but the nature of the story is such that, if you don’t believe the narrator to be in mortal danger, it wouldn’t be nearly so thrilling. Present tense affords the sense that what’s happening is NOW, so the future is far from set. If Katniss were narrating in the past tense, would anyone believe she might die? (Which she totally does. Or does she?)

  • You really should. Not a perfect book by any means, but a damned entertaining one, and mighty brave given it’s target audience.

    Oh, and in light of Pullman’s camera analogy, I’m feeling pretty smug for writing this five years ago:

    I think that the debate about the propriety of first-person present-tense is missing the point – it makes no more sense to say that first-person present-tense is always a bad choice than it does to say that never in film should you resort to a jittery hand-held shot when a smooth dolly shot would do. Present tense is a tool. Use it when it’s called for. Don’t blame it when it’s not.

  • “They’ve come to feel a timorous uncertainty about the right-on-ness of something so politically dodgy as telling a story in the first place. Who are we to say this happened and then that happened? Maybe it didn’t, perhaps we’re wrong, there are other points of view, truth is always provisional, knowledge is always partial, the narrator is always unreliable, and so on.” And, just as in politics, it’s bullshit, and mostly irrelevant bullshit.

    Pullman’s asserting an political motive for the use of present tense. I don’t recall what his particular politics are, but this follows the pattern of a pretty old argument. “Liberals,” it says, “are so precious about letting everyone have their own point of view and their own values and their own religions, that they don’t really believe in anything. They don’t have the courage to tell it how it really is. If they did, of course, they’d be forced to agree with me.”

    That’s bullshit, and, in this case, it borders on entirely irrelevant bullshit.

    I use the present tense mainly for one thing: a character telling a story about recent personal experience. When someone’s telling you about their day or that thing at the DMV or their tremendous drunken rampage, they’ll often wander between past and present tense.

    On a page, though, that drift becomes clunky. Given the choice, I often pick the present tense. It’s immediate, reflecting experience that a person isn’t willing to put in their past yet. When somebody’s ranting about the DMV, that’s usually the mode they’re in.

    The character, in this case, is usually speaking definitively: their experience, their feelings, their perspective are the true ones, and anybody else can go hang. As a writer, I might show that they got it wrong later, but I usually don’t. I’ve decided to believe this character, same as you believe your friend about that clerk who wouldn’t quit gnawing her pen and isn’t that just gross?

    I’m not shy about telling a story. Does anyone seriously think they’re sticking it to the man by writing novels, and they better watch out unless they stick it in too far? Even genre fiction writers… why should we be afraid? We rule the world. Seven out of the ten highest-grossing movies of all time are genre films. Why would anyone be afraid of telling a story?

    As to whether the present tense is a scream or a shaky-cam, that it’s essentially jarring… I can see where Pullman might think so. He’s used to people using the past tense, so the present tense stands out. Some books are different from others. What’s the problem?

    * Mpreg, all I’m saying.

  • That from a guy who likes to kill off secondary characters just so the main character can feel sad yet inspired. Perhaps if he were writing in present tense he would see how petty this is. But I digress.

  • Also, most will disagree with me, but I couldn’t read past chapter 3 of Hunger Games.

    [Minor, minor spoilers...that end at chapter 3.]

    So many bad things happened in such a short space of time it was like reading a penny dreadful or watching an episode of some TV show when they deep-fried this woman’s head. Sorry, I didn’t see that; someone told me about it and I burst out laughing and got yelled at for being inappropriately entertained.

    Really? The situation has to be over the top bad for someone to do something about it? Because everyone else is so stupid they’re like, “Oh, well, it’s acceptable” until Our Heroine comes along to save the day?

    Gasp! Whatever shall we do?!? Put on our suspension of disbelief hats, quick!

  • It either works or it doesn’t. You either like it or you don’t. But to criticize writers for their choice of tense is baffling.

    That’s like arguing against painting.

    “I really wish artists would man up and admit that charcoal sketches are the only true way to show off their vision.”

    Man, and I thought I was crotchety.

  • I was brought up to believe that the present tense is not proper for prose fiction. That was wrong. I quite dig the present tense, these days. I’m eating it with a spoon, like ice cream straight outta the carton.

    I also have a reaction to the idea that futuristic WoD things are happening, as well as more Chronicler’s Guides… both of which I got openly mocked for suggesting and encouraging back in my time. I have a reaction, but I’m not sure quite what it is, so I say no more about it here, except: go forth and conquer, all you brave souls. There is great fun to be had in those projects, I’ll bet.

    • @Nick –

      Sorry I missed the comment before! I thought I replied.

      Yes! Absolutely. No need to link it anywhere else — I just wanted to make clear, hey, it’s totally kosher if you do.

      – c.

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