THE JOY OF STORY
John M. Daniel’s Blog
March 5, 2016
Greetings, and welcome to the blustery month of March. This month my blog will present a fine and fun collection of 99-word stories on the theme “It Hit Me Like a Tornado.” That will appear March 12 and the week following. Then, on March 19 and for the week following, we’ll have a guest post by mystery writer (and cat lover) Elaine Faber.
This week, my essay concerns the complexities of time and tense in stories. March happens to be a good month for thinking about time. For example, this year we’ll be setting our clocks forward on Sunday, March 13. Two days later, March 15, we remember that Julius Caesar met his date with destiny, right on time. Two days later, March 17, we celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. What did St. Pat have to do with time? Or tense? Nothing, right? Well, maybe.
Coincidentally, or not, this month’s book promotion is for my novel Behind the Redwood Door, in which time and timing play a key role: back story (a multi-generational feud) drives the present plot (revenge and murder). We never outlive the past. As Faulkner told us, the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.
Also this week I introduce the prompt for April’s 99-words story feature: “Spring can really hang you up the most.” Details below.
Lately I find myself tripping out on the subject of time. I don’t mean to say I’ve been taking time trips, nor do I wish to revisit the past in my writing; but as my days dwindle down to a precious few, this seems like a good time to discuss the concept of time and how time is used, and misused, in fiction. Hang on. This discussion could get tense. (For example, I should rewrite the first sentence of this essay, because the adverb “lately” can’t properly modify the present-tense verb “find.”)
I’ll start this essay by warning you about the Dreaded Ing. By this I’m not referring to the gerund noun suffix (writing stories can be addictive), but to the present participle suffix (when I’m writing stories I get lost in the time zone). It’s sometimes a trap, so beware. I’ll demonstrate with a 55-word story set in San Francisco, a city that treasures its past.
Bad Luck of the Irish
I didn’t realize it was Saint Patrick’s Day until I stepped into O’Malley’s and ordered Bushmill’s. The others in the pub, all dressed in green, were drinking Jameson.
They made it clear I was not welcome.
Hurrying across town to my apartment, I tore off my orange shirt and pants and drew a hot bath.
Okay, so the story needs work. But it illustrates the infamous Ing Trap. This poor misguided Northern Irishman made a number of mistakes that day, but the worst may have been taking off all his clothes as he was running across town. The present participle, that ing-word, indicates simultaneity. He was undressing out in public while he was hurrying, which is just a little more dangerous in San Francisco than wearing orange into an Irish pub on St. Paddy’s day.
It is a common error to use the present participle to imply a sequence of events. It just doesn’t work.
Onward. Another common error in the time zone is tense-jumping. This hidden trap occurs most often in stories written in the present tense:
That’s a Bunch of Blarney
After work, I stop by O’Malleys for a Bushmill’s. For reasons I don’t understand, I get bounced around the bar by a bunch of Irish bruisers.
I hurry home. I have to walk, because yesterday I had loaned my car to my daughter.
They say if you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough.
The mistake here is in the words “had loaned.” Since this story is in the present tense, we need only take one step back, to past tense, to tell what happened “yesterday.” “Had loaned” slips us back too far, into the past perfect tense. This common error is one reason writing fiction in the present tense is tricky.
Let’s rewrite the story in the past tense and see what we get:
That’s a Bunch of Blarney, take two
After work, I stopped by O’Malleys for a Bushmill’s. For reasons I didn’t understand, I got bounced around the bar by a bunch of Irish bruisers.
I hurried home. I had to walk, because yesterday I had loaned my car to my daughter.
They say if you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough.
Well, in this version, the past perfect “had loaned” works. But the word “yesterday” doesn’t. Another common error: using “yesterday,” “tomorrow,” and their cousins when writing about an incident in the distant past or the near future. By the way, look at the last sentence in this past-tense version of the story: it’s in present tense, but that’s okay. They said such a thing on that St. Paddy’s day, but they still say it, and it will always be true (or not).
If, however, I were to write the story this way, I’d be in trouble:
Uphill Both Ways
After the brawl in the bar, I rushed home. Having loaned my car to my daughter the day before, I had to walk home, and it wasn’t an easy walk, because San Francisco had steep hills.
All the way home I thought to myself: “I was never going to drink in O’Malley’s again.”
Although it’s technically true that the San Francisco hills were steep on that unlucky day our hapless schnook hurried home, it’s also true that those hills are still steep. So I would have preferred “San Francisco has steep hills.”
Now take a look at that sentence in quotes, the interior thought that closes the story. As interior thought, it should have been written in the present tense, even though the story’s written in the past tense. It should be treated like dialogue: “I’m never going to drink in O’Malley’s Bar and Grill again.”
Are you getting tense yet?
I’ll wrap this up with a riff on the word “since.” “Since” has two meanings. It can mean “subsequent to that point in time” or “as a result of which.” Sometimes “since” can mean both at the same time. “Since when?,” “since why?,” and “since when and why.” The word “since” doesn’t have to be in every story, of course, but the concepts of “since” do need to be in every story. Sequence of events is essential to plot. And consequence of events is equally essential.
To understand what I’m talking about, return with me now to the City of San Francisco, home of O’Malley’s Bar and Grill:
Since When, and Since Why
O’Malley’s has been a favorite pub since 1957. [since when] Since it’s next to my job, I’d often drop in for a drink. [since why]
I haven’t been back since St. Patrick’s Day, when I got beaten for wearing orange. [since when and since why]
Since I’m color blind, I don’t know the difference between green and orange. [since why] I wish everyone were color blind.
Thank you for sticking with me through all that. Your reward, whether you want it or not, is one last 55-word story, not set in a bar or on the hills of San Francisco, but set in two time zones and told in two tenses.
Lost in Paradise
Once when I was a kid I got lost at Disneyland. After searching frantically all day, my dad found me with Mickey Mouse, grinning like Goofy.
Nowadays, when I take my kids to Disneyland, I sometimes catch a glimpse of that same lost boy, soaring through the sky on Dumbo’s back, still grinning like Goofy.
Calling all authors—
I feature a guest author the third Saturday (and week following) of each month. If you’re interested in posting an essay on my blog—it’s also a chance to promote a published book—email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Call for submissions: Your 99-Word Stories
The deadline for April’s 99-word story submissions is April 1 (no foolin’). The stories will appear on my blog post for April 9, and the week following.
note: this 99-word story feature is a game, not a contest. Obey the rules and I’ll include your story. I may edit the story to make it stronger, and it’s understood that you will submit to my editing willingly. That’s an unwritten rule.
Rules for the 99-word story feature are as follows:
1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot (something or somebody has to change), characters, and conflict.
4. The story must be inspired by the prompt I assign.
5. The deadline: the first of the month. Stories will appear on this blog the second Saturday of the month.
6. I will copy edit the story. The author of the story retains all rights.
7. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to: email@example.com
THIS MONTH’S PROMPT FOR NEXT MONTH’S 99-WORD STORY: “Spring can really hang you up the most.”
And now a word from our sponsor:
Behind the Redwood Door
A Guy Mallon Mystery
Trade paperback, $14.95
Buy or order Behind the Redwood Door from your local bookstore, from one of the online booksellers,
or direct from the publisher:
Oak Tree Press or 217-825-4489
To order an autographed copy from the author,
send a check for $15.00 to:
John M. Daniel
PO Box 2790,
McKinleyville, CA 95519
or call 800-662-8351 to place a credit card order
Who knows what secrets lurk… BEHIND THE REDWOOD DOOR?
Guy and Carol Mallon own a used bookstore on the north coast of California, a land of rocky shores and redwood forests, with a rich history of gold, lumber, Native Americans, and hardy entrepreneurs. They are content with their small-town life until Pete Thayer, their friend and the publisher of the local alternative newspaper, is stabbed to death behind their favorite tavern.
Urged on by Pete’s girlfriend, River Webster, Guy begins to poke around, uncovering a past festering with power politics, a newspaper war, a multigenerational family feud, marijuana traffic—and murder. Guy’s investigation takes him from the town square to the harbor to the forests and into the mountains, where he must confront evil in the form of a bully nearly twice his size.
“This novel, rich with history and small-town secrets, is peopled by swindlers and fishermen, Rotarians and dope-growers, prim Presbyterians and floozies, and a small but feisty, curious bookseller addicted to getting into trouble and other people’s business. Author John M. Daniel’s style is by turns witty and elegant, serving up fear and laughter in generous helpings. Behind the Redwood Door is a complex mystery with a colorful rustic background. The exciting story line will keep readers on the edge of their seats with wonder as they try to figure out who is the evil serpent is who is destroying paradise and why. John M. Daniel writes an enthralling whodunit within a vivid setting.”
—Genre Go Round Reviews
Read more reviews of this book:
As always, thanks for stopping by. You’re welcome to make a habit of it. And meanwhile, continue to find pleasure in the joy of story.