Thursday, July 7, 2011

When I Get Annoyed, I Blog.

That's the mantra, and I'm sticking to it!

The thing annoying me today is a rant I read on the Every Day Fiction forums about present tense. Now, I'm a reasonable fellow, so I'm not going to get myself in trouble by saying this on those forums, but when it comes to things like present tense, I end up seeing some of the most ignorant, idiotic things ever said by would-be writers.

Here are some of the general assumptions about present tense that I'll address (that are of course in no way directly related to that thread I linked, of course, for sure, nod).

Assumption 1: Writing in present tense is so much more immediate!

No. Wrong. This is a dumb. POV does play it's part, of course, but there are dozens (probably billions) of things a writer can do to make their writing feel immediate. Just like there are a million ways a writer can manipulate a POV to make it effective. Trying to give significant credit to any single technique is idiotic. Especially if it's something as easily disproved as the assumption writing in present tense leads to more immediacy. I can give you hundreds of reasons this is wrong, almost all of them in the form of student manuscripts I've read over the years.

Assumption : A present tense story needs to be perfect in all other aspects, otherwise it just looks as if the writer was trying too hard.

I hear shit like this all the time. First off, it's a self-defined catch-22. People who ignorantly hate present tense (or any single TERM in writing) think no present tense story is brilliant, so thus think they're all just trying too hard, thus setting them up to do little more than confirm their ignorance assumptions with everything they read.

But, ahhh, but, if they DO like a present tense story (usually after a room full of people 'convincing' them the story is good, and they're the idiot, not the author), then they just get to chalk it up to the fact the writer was simply so great otherwise, that the present tense could be overlooked, and not have to admit present tense isn't some inherent evil, and instead just their own dumb assumption.

Umm, here's a newsflash: bad writing is bad and exists in all genres, tenses, subjects, styles, etc. What makes the assumption particularly sad is there are tons of ways for a story to go bad, but instead of writers studying and trying to figure out how and why, so you can improve your own writing, they simply chalk it up to present tense sinking another otherwise good story and don't learn a thing, instead continuing to fall back into expected assumptions.

If you ever read a story that doesn't work, or hell, one that does, and point to any single literary TERM for explanation, you're probably not smart enough to make it as a writer and should stop trying. While you're at it, stop trying to express your thoughts on writing as well, because you obviously THINK in the past tense, meaning all your good thoughts have already happened, and those of us living in the present tense have moved on. (What? Tenses are literal, right?)

Assumption 3: Most/all stories written in present tense would simply be better in past tense! (honorable mention to: most/all stories written in first person would simply be better in third person!).

What this is basically saying is: I'm a lame-brain, literal thinker that can't conceptualize the fact I'm not literally in a story or that the story isn't literally happening in a present/past tense timeline, and it took all my life to get used to the standard conventions of third-person and past-tense where I can think the story is literally happening in some distant past, to someone else, literally, as it's all I'm able to grasp as a thinker, so please, don't do anything different, I can't keep up!

If you lament what them darn 'kids' are doing with fiction these days, you're already obsolete as a writer. As a reader, you have to right to be ignorant, of course, as all you're doing is hurting yourself. As a writer, though, your ignorance can hurt others... or at least waste their time, which in and of itself should be a crime. If you don't like present tense, consider for a moment that it's perhaps not that there's anything wrong with it, or that the new generations have just gone off the rails with reefer madness (at one point people actually believed that to be TRUE), but perhaps that you're just a dinosaur in your own time.

Assumption 4: Present tense is hard to get into because I can't believe the story is happening right now.

Don't be dumb. Especially because this contradicts the ignorant assumption that present tense is more immediate because it is happening right now. One of you is wrong... or probably both!

Keep in mind fiction is, umm, fictional. A present tense story is no more happening right now than a past tense story actually, literally happened in the past and we can go to museums to prove it. Not to mention, the tense isn't what dictates whether a story feels as if it's happening in the here and now, it's the style, technique and method of writing. Past tense stories can feel as if they're unfolding for the first time, in the moment, just as much as present tense stories can. If you think I'm full of shit, you might want to consider reading more, or at least higher quality fiction.


It takes incredibly literal thinking to consider the tense of a story to be so tangible. It's fiction, at least try to allow some suspension of disbelief. Do people who think present tense stories mean the action is literally happening now also think that a first person story means they've been body snatched? I? I?! OMG, I've been kidnapped! I'm now literally in a story! And it's in past tense, so that means it's already happened... for all I know I could be DEAD right now in the present tense!

This kind of literal thinking is the reason second-person is often not popular, my theory being the average reader/writer is too stupid to remove themselves from a story by simply letting themselves be immersed in the implied character (I know, right, it's already confusing that to remove yourself from a story, you draw yourself INTO the story). I think many people have trouble separating the literal 'you' and the 'you' of an implied character, and when they read a second-person line like 'you run through the street' may actually think: no, I aint even runnin' much less thu a street, I'ma sittin' hurr readin' a story! This riter dont no nuthin!

Fuuuugh, get a grip! POV in fiction shouldn't be taken literally, people (as well as writers). Present tense doesn't mean the action is literally happening right now, and present tense only adds more inherent immediacy for readers so dumb as to think it does in fact mean a story, somewhere in the world, right this second, is literally happening. Ooooh, that IS immediate... if you're a moron.


  1. Nothing I love better than an angry Russell putting things straight. I want to keep you in a cage in the corner of my classroom, letting you loose only when the morons need to be devoured. Nice work!!

  2. I second that (though I have no classroom to keep you in the corner of). Awesome, as usual. Maybe we can pool our money and get a billboard for you?

  3. High praise, thank you Al!

    And thank you Trish for also wanting to keep me in a cage! A billboard? In the words of every grade-school teacher I've ever had: don't encourage him.

  4. But encouraging you is entertaining.

    I'd feed you. Honest.

  5. An interesting blog entry.

    You may be interested to know that my favourite book is 'All Quiet on the Western Front', which is written in the present tense. I did find that the tense puts me there, with the characters, rather than once removed as the past tense would have done.

  6. Thanks for the comments, Anonymous.

    My guess is it's not the tense alone. Or even in large part. Scientific method. If the tense alone had that much power, then there wouldn't be a slew of terribly written present-tense stories that are far more distant and removed than good past tense. There are a ton of things a writer can do to make the action feel urgent and immediate that have little to do with tense, that I'm willing to guess are the things you connected with and enjoyed about All Quiet on the Western Front. It's just that tense is one of the most apparent, basic things, so it's easier to credit or blame, but is often not deserved.

  7. I had a discussion (which consisted of me telling another person they were wrong and changing the subject) with someone who was trying to say that 'yesterday' was the past tense of 'today'. Yea... wrap your brain around that.

  8. hah, awesome. Was this person a writer (or think they are, at least)? My hope is yes, as I'll add that to my mental archives of stupid things writers say (that should be an internet archive, but you know me, don't want to ruffle feathers by pointing out how dumb other people are).

  9. Believe it or not, the people at EDF can still see this, and maybe it would be best to not name names.

  10. No shit, Sherlock. That's why I didn't name names or start an argument/flame-war on someone else's website. I don't want to single anyone out, but it doesn't change the fact that thread on the EDF forums was filled with some of the stupidest assumptions I've ever seen writers make/express about something as silly as whether a story is present tense or not.

  11. You do not have to participate if you do not like what you see, and only ended up digging yourself a sizable hole in that hole debate so to insult those posting seems a bit stupid in itself doesn't it. If you find EDF or the forums that tedious then by all means we arent forcing you to red our drivel

  12. I have no problems with EDF. In fact, I quite like the site.

    That doesn't mean every poster on the forums is intelligent or insightful, though. In fact, you probably think I'm a blowhard, so I think we can agree on that fact, at the very least.

    And, if you notice, you came to MY blog, I didn't go to those forums, so I'm not actually participating in those forums, and typically tend to avoid them for general discussion about writing, as, if you read my post, you'll see that seeing idiotic things said by my 'fellow' writers annoys me, and then I waste time blogging, which is doubly annoying.

    And it's not about liking or disliking a website. It's about how writers, yes even writers, no, wait, especially writers, think they know shit when in reality they're often working under idiotic, false assumptions like anyone else (the difference being the part where all writers think they know everything because they're writers, as if that proves a thing, especially these days (read latest blog, while you're here!)

    Ah, you're thinking, isn't that exactly what I'm doing? Spouting bullshit, thinking I know everything? Well, a) it's my blog, so I'm always right and b) no, I may be an asshole or a big bad meanie to all the wittle witers and their delicate emoshuns, but I'm not an idiot. Geez, didn't you even read the blog, it's all about how I'm NOT the idiot, eh. ;)

    In truth, I'm sure there are a lot of fine discussions on the EDF forums, I just happened across one with a lot of idiotic assumptions being tossed around as if they're some kind of universal truth (almost as universal and truthy as 'it's all subjective', right). But shrug, as stated, sometimes when I get annoyed, I blog, and this was one such case.

    And let's be honest, it's much more fun this way.

  13. Ohhey, btw, listened to some audio from your band as I made that comment. I dig it, you guys are pretty good, good old fashioned rock music. I will not be blogging about your band, since you guys don't suck. ;)

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