Literary Fiction, Genre Fiction and Why the Difference Matters.

As an English teacher, I have experienced the groans and complaints of students when you announce with enthusiasm that the novel they will study for term will be one of the classics such as Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Frankenstein, or, even better, the great William Shakespeare himself. Not fair! they cry. They want Rowling over Orwell, Riordan over Melville, Taylor Swift over Keats or Byron. One of the first questions out of their collective mouths when you announce the title of the text is, “Have they made a movie of it?”

I’ve heard all the comments. “It’s boring.” “I don’t understand it.” “Nothing happens for page after page.” “Why doesn’t she just tell the story instead of all this description?” There are many other similar observations. Students today find it hard to see the relevance of these works. They live in a world of immediate satisfaction, of CGI movies, of plot over characterisation, of story over theme or form.

Schools have students study the classics–also termed literary fiction or literature–for a very good reason. They’re hard. Teachers want their students to use their minds, to analyse, to question, to be exposed to great writing, to begin to question the world and seek truth. You have to work at literary fiction. You have to think about it. Your mind must be engaged and functioning on all cylinders in order to appreciate it fully. That’s why it’s taught.

There are basically two types of fiction (a term which includes drama, film, art and music as well, but I’ll stick to novels for the purposes of this essay to make it easier). Literary fiction is more than simple narrative or polemic. It presents complex ideas about life, the universe and everything (thanks Doug!). Its form and content influence each other. It explores critical perspectives, the individual’s relationship to society and emotional manipulation. Most importantly, it is not reducible to any one correct interpretation. Genre fiction is more popular, does not normally explore theme or allow for deep critical analysis. It declares that form and content are separate entities which do not influence each other. It is usually only capable of one interpretation and does not invite resistant readings.

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“texture” by honeycut07 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The terms form and content, so important to both of these, require further explanation. Form is exactly that: the form of the work, the structure and style. Genre fiction follows a particular form. The standard romantic comedy has boy meet girl, they hit it off initially, have a falling out, re-unite at the 5/6 point and, after the clearing up of misunderstandings, live happily ever after. A romance author who deviates from this tried and true formula risks readers’ disapproval. Science fiction creates expectations of science-based ideas, aliens and spaceships. Horror is usually expected to explore supernatural themes, and so forth . I know I’m generalising here but it’s to make a point.

The generally accepted structure of genre fiction follows that tried-and-true formula of exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, denoument and resolution. This structure is taught in creative writing classes. It’s spouted as the way to write a story, and woe betide the author who strays from it. The style must follow the style of books of a similar genre.

Literary fiction does not necessarily do any of this. In it, form and content influence each other. Rules are broken for structure and style because the depth of theme, the examination of character, the complication of the story demand that they be free to follow whatever course they need to in order to put across the message. In Moby-Dick  Herman Melville stops the plot and lectures on such esoteric topics as chowder, harpoons, try-pots and the taste of whale meat because that information helps the reader to fully appreciate the word of whaling, so that the last hundred pages, in which the pursuit of the white whale becomes some of the greatest hunting-themed prose ever written, can be appreciated on a deeper, more visceral level, than might otherwise have been possible if the reader plunged in without all this “knowledge of the trade”. Melville even has an entire chapter is which is “proves” that the whale is not a mammal but a fish, simply because this misinformation better serves the story.

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“Yup, whale.” by ScottDonald is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Literary fiction is given to students to study because they have to work at it. The themes–for there can be more than one–must be hunted for. The reader can draw from it their own individual reaction and understanding. Genre fiction is produced for the mass market. It nestles in the safe world of the tried and true. The author is confident that readers will want to read it because they, too, like the comfort of a known structure and style. While the content of genre fiction is infinitely variable, its predictable form carries reassurance.

I’m not saying that genre fiction is less worthwhile than literary fiction. I love genre fiction. I write genre fiction. It’s great to read a book in which I can turn off the brain and the critical analysis and happily plunge into the world of the story. Nothing wrong with that at all. But there is equally a place for literary fiction, and a need for it to be taught in schools.

If you want to write literary fiction, go for it. Experiment. Do your own thing. But be careful: what the reader takes from it might not be what you intended. Your baby is open to multiple interpretations. Critics will see things you never anticipated. You might even be told you’re wrong!

There is a place for both types of fiction. Make sure you know which type you’re reading or writing. And enjoy both. That’s what good writing  and reading is all about.

(Featured image “Book Store Heaven” by C_Greengrass is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 )

http://www.russellproctor.com

 

 

The Journey of a Story – Getting the Idea

Today I am setting out on a journey. I’m going to write a new short story.

Because I am a teacher, and teach creative writing as well as English, I thought I’d do a series of blogs about the process of writing the, so anyone who wishes can see how I work and what it might take to produce a story.

Mind you, I’m not saying the story will turn out to be a good one. I’m not trying to blow my own trumpet here and suggest I am a great writer. But to go step-by-step through the process might help others who struggle with writing or are wondering where on Earth to start.

Nor am I promoting my writing method is the only proper one. There are as many ways to write as there are writers. So let’s just say this is one method by one writer. You can take from it what you will. I am what is called a “pantser” in writerly circles. That means I don’t normally plan a story out before I write — that’s what “plotters” or “planners” do. So I’m not going to do much planning before I kick off. Or I might make the exception and do that for this blog.  I don’t know what’s going to happen.

To me, that is part of the fun. Writing a story is like reading it for the first time.

 

Getting the idea.

At the time I’m writing this blog, I have little idea of characters and events. I went to buy a newspaper this morning and in the early light I thought I should write another story sometime. So naturally my thought was what it could be about. I am currently writing a series of novellas about the Greek god Dionysus running a music hall in Victorian-era London. I am almost finished the first draft. Dionysus has his maenad followers with him, and they are also the basis of a series of short stories I’m planning called Tales of the Maenads, a sort of companion volume to the book series.

My maenad stories can be set in any period of Earth’s history. I decided, for no particular reason, that this would be another maenad story involving Nicolas Copernicus. Why? well, I’m interested in astronomy, and he was one of the most influential thinkers in astronomical history. Also, I wanted to find out more about his character.

That meant doing research. I had a couple of books already with chapters on Copernicus. One is the excellent This Wild Abyss by Gale E. Christianson (The Free Press, 1978). This a detailed biography of the astronomer and his work which should prove an invaluable resource. I also have a copy of Copernicus’s book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), reproduced in its entirety in On the Shoulders of Giants edited by Stephen Hawking (Running Press, 2002). This contains, besides Copernicus’s almost unreadable tome, an excellent biography of Copernicus.

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So I read both of these but was still stuck for an actual idea. Copernicus led, it turns out, quite a boring life. He studied medicine and law, was appointed Canon of Frauenberg (Frombork) , wrote a book that revolutionised astronomy but which wasn’t published until the end of his life–literally. The first edition arrived at his bedside on the day he died. And that’s pretty much it. No juicy gossip about him, or questionable activities or notoriety (at least, not until after his death).

There didn’t seem to be anything on which to base story, especially one that would contain the worshipper of a pagan god. Then I realised Copernicus’s blandness could work in my favour. he was one of those helpful historical people whose life is not entirely known, or who was boring enough that incidents might be inserted in their life without upsetting too many historians. If little was known about him, I figured, I could invent “facts” as needed.

A few days later I was teaching and the students were working quietly (yes, in my class they do; I’m that sort of teacher). Bereft of ideas I took out my notebook and summarised what I knew of Copernicus. I jotted some ideas down, then crossed them out because they proved unworkable or just plain silly. I wanted the story to be about Copernicus’s book. I wanted my maenad character to be a servant of his. I wanted Copernicus himself to be a character in it, albeit perhaps a secondary one.

Then the thought struck me: what if someone wanted to steal the book or prevent it being published in some way. But who? The Catholic church at the time (the 1540’s) was actually quite happy for Copernicus to go against dogma and state the Earth orbited the Sun instead of the other way around. It was the Lutherans who were opposed to the idea. But having my bad guys Lutherans would not go down well with part of my potential audience. Besides, Copernicus had a Lutheran student, Georg Rheticus, who was instrumental in having the Revolutions published. My bad guy had to be someone else.

If the new Copernican system upset the old Aristotelian/Ptolemaic one, then it might be another pagan god who didn’t want the truth to be known about the universe.

Here was my idea. The followers of another god, upset that their hold on the minds of mankind would be even further eroded by the advancement of science, might seek to destroy Copernicus’s life-work. My maenad, although a pagan herself, and having doubts about the new system of her own, could realise that truth was better than lies and thwart the evil plan.

Now I had an idea, I continued my research about Copernicus, the city he lived in and other material that would help me flesh out the details. I decided on a name for my protagonist: Renata. Originally I settled on Katalin, but since Copernicus would be referred to as Father Kopernik, two characters with K-names might look odd.

So here I am. I have no idea about Renata’s character or precisely what part she will play in the story. I have little idea of the story itself other than a broad concept.

This is going to be fun.

 

Next part: Writing the first draft.

 

Russell Proctor – www.russellproctor.com

 

 

The Eyes Have It

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I’ve off-line for a while, at least as far as my blog is concerned. This is because of a number of reasons, the most memorable of which, for me, was the eye surgery I had back in April.

I have suffered from glaucoma for years now. I even have congenitally deformed eyeballs, which hasn’t helped. They aren’t quite spherical, which causes focus problems. I’ve worn glasses since I was 17. In March this year my ophthalmologist suggested I have cataract surgery and at the same time get drainage stents inserted to deal with the glaucoma.

Yes, that is my right eye in the picture above. And yes, it is scary. That’s how my eyes look, and have looked for years now. The bloodshot effect is caused by the glaucoma medication. I’m on three different eye drops for that. I use them three times a day and will do so for at least another month until it can be determined if my stents are working properly. I will then, hopefully, be able to go of the medication and my eyes should return to normal.

As for the cataracts, they are gone and artificial lenses have been inserted. That was fun an experience.

The surgery consisted of two operations (one for each eye) two weeks apart. The old lenses, the ones I was born with, were destroyed using a sonic lance rather similar, I guess, to Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver, except that it had to be actually inserted into my eye to break up the lens. The bits were then sucked out by a vacuum pump (I’m not kidding here) that was also inserted into my eye. The new lens was then put in place and the stents inserted in the bottom of each eye in a part called the trebecular mesh.

Naturally, I was under anaesthetic during these operations, which only took about twenty minutes each. The first one was fine. Although the anaesthetics were the “twilight” kind (which means I remained conscious during the operation, not that I fell in love with a sparkly non-vampire) I have no memory of the first operation. The anaesthetist introduced himself and said he would knock me out completely for about five minutes during which he would insert a needle under my eye to deliver the rest of the knock-out drops that would numb my head. That was fine by me, since I had no desire to witness (at the closest possible quarters) that part of the proceedings. He inserted a catheter into my arm and the next thing I remember was waking up in recovery. I have to this day no memory of the operation itself, or even being wheeled into or out of the theatre. My doctor said later that I was fully conscious, said hello the surgical team and followed instructions well. But the actual operation itself (mercifully) is a complete blank. Such is the nature of twilight anaesthetic.

Not so for the second time around, the operation on my left eye. I woke up during that one.

Strictly speaking, I was “awake” the whole time. But I have a memory of the last few minutes. The last thing I remembered the anaesthetist delivered the initial drug, while we talked about Canada for some reason. Then I became aware of being on the operating table. I couldn’t see anything: my right eye was closed and my left, the one being operated on, “saw” some weird things. It was like looking at a white sheet of paper over which someone had smeared orange marmalade. I know that sound bizarre, but that’s what I saw. I became aware of things “moving” behind the whiteness. I suppose those were the instruments inserted in my eye at the time. I could hear the surgeon talking. He asked me to move my head slightly to the left, which I did.

I wanted to let them know I was awake, so I emitted a groan. While I felt no pain  at all, there was a definite feeling of discomfort which made me afraid that I would start to feel pain. I wanted them to know I could sense something going on, in case they didn’t know that and it wasn’t supposed to happen. I groaned a second time.

There came more voices, I felt myself being moved and then a voice asked me to step down. I climbed off the gurney as my vision came back and sat in the recovery room where a kind nurse gave me a cup of tea and sandwiches.

I’m glad the “awake” episode occurred on the second operation. Had it happened the first time, going back for the second operation would have been much harder psychologically.

So here I am now, awaiting laser surgery next month. This is remove some “thickening” around the lenses and tweak the final touches to my eyes.

I now need glasses for reading, which I didn’t before. I used to wear glasses to correct my short-sightedness and now don’t have to, although I do wear some very weak corrective lenses when I drive because my long vision still isn’t quite perfect, and never will be.

So that’s been my health issues in the last few months. Recovering from such surgery doesn’t take long, but there is an extended period while the vision settles down and, as I said, I still need laser surgery in July.

Certainly not something I wish to do again.

Russell Proctor

 

 

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The Horror of Children’s Stories

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This is repost from an earlier one. It’s still relevant though.

Picture this: a little girl has just thrown a bucket water over a Witch. What happens next is quite disturbing.

With these words the Witch fell down in a brown, melted shapeless mass and began to spread over the clean boards of the kitchen floor. Seeing that she had really melted away to nothing, Dorothy drew another bucket of water and threw it over the mess. She then swept it all out the door. After picking out the silver shoe, which was all that was left of the old woman, she cleaned and dried it with a cloth, and put it on her foot again.”

Now let’s get this straight… a little girl calmly melts an old woman, sweeps the gooey slime she has become out of the door like so much swill, and then calmly cleans her shoe like this sort of thing happened every day.

You might think the extract is taken from the latest gore-filled treat from Permuted Press, but it’s actually from L. Frank Baum’s children’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. A children’s book. Of course, if you are only familiar with the 1939 Judy Garland film, you may remember the witch-melting scene was a little more wholesome. Certainly in the movie Dorothy didn’t have to clean up the disgusting sewage of what used to be a human being like she was doing a simple household chore. And in the movie version Dorothy felt pretty upset about the whole thing as well, even though the witch was evil and had tried to kill her.

Take another story: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Now there are no violent scenes in that timeless classic, surely? Admittedly the Queen of Hearts threatens everyone with having their heads chopped off, but no one is unfortunate to actually have it done. But most of the violence of the Alice books is more subtle. According to Hugh Haughton in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Carroll’s books (1998), there is an underlying theme of eating and being eaten in the book. The characters are in more danger of being consumed by other characters than anything the Queen of Hearts might threaten. Alice eats and drinks various substances and changes size; the baby oysters are consumed by the Walrus and the Carpenter; the Hatter is obsessed by tea and bread and butter. There is also, of course, more overt violence: the Duchess physically abuses her baby son, the March Hare and the Hatter try to drown the Dormouse in tea, and the terrifying Giant Crow threatens Alice in the forest.

It doesn’t end with those books. In Peter Pan by J.M Barrie, the fairy Tinker Bell is a right bitch. Her first act on seeing Wendy is to get Tootles to shoot her with an arrow in an attempt to kill her. He almost succeeds. Tootles is so distraught he asks Peter to kill him.

Now, the point is that these are probably not events most people recall when remembering these tales. But they are there in the original books.

There have, of course, been many criticisms of traditional fairy tales as being too violent. Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and so forth contain considerable murder and mayhem. The difference between them and the more modern stories I’ve referred to is that these stories are folk tales, handed down over many years and added to, extended and changed over generations before being recorded by people like the Brothers Grimm. They were not written specifically for children. The adventures of Alice, Dorothy and Peter Pan were.

So what do we make if this? Are these stories in their original forms just too violent? I say “in their original forms” because each of those I mentioned has been “toned down” when made into films. Disney and Warner Brothers made a point of changing things so the stories were more wholesome for tender readers (or, in their case, viewers). Dorothy melts the Wicked Witch, but feels bad about it at least. Admittedly, modern versions of Alice (I refer specifically to the recent Tim Burton CGI extravaganza) may take liberties with the plot in which they do present a more dangerous version of Wonderland than the Disney version. But this is a modern trend, I submit, and I’ll mention it again later.

My point is (and I’ve taken a while making it) is that there is a wealth of trauma available to writers in children’s tales. Quite often where you wouldn’t expect it. In The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Toad not only steals a motor vehicle, he is actually in involved in numerous car accidents and is thrown in prison as a result. And I’m sure most of us remember the Narnia series by C. S Lewis, which tells of children not only fighting in wars but killing their adversaries with barely a nod at any feelings of guilt afterwards.

Writers might well find ideas in these tales. And that’s a good thing. While I’m not condoning the exposure of children to violence, death and horror, it certainly can entertain the adult reader and inspire the adult writer.

Back when these stories were written, I submit the world was a more violent place. There was no such thing as being an adolescent. One went from the caterpillar stage of childhood to the butterfly stage of adulthood without any inconvenient chrysalis stage of adolescence in between. People grew up earlier. Children’s books were violent because life was violent. It still is these days, but we don’t like to admit it and try to protect our children from its excesses. An example of this is the scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where the Duchess throws her baby boy to Alice (who only just manages to catch him) after singing a song about how beating a child was a justifiable punishment for it sneezing. This would hardly have raised an eyebrow back in 1865. Children were beaten. The world was perhaps no better or worse than it is today, but violence was condoned more and seen as an acceptable solution to social and domestic problems. Carroll was using violence as nonsense, and perhaps as a comment on the philosophy of child-rearing at the time: the air in the Duchess’s house was full of pepper, the baby sneezed as a result, and so the Duchess beat him. Problem solved.

We would not condone such a practice today, even as nonsense, which is why this incident has not, my knowledge, been incorporated into any film adaptations of Alice so far ( I don’t include the Burton film there, as it is so far removed from the original story as to be a separate entity).

Burton’s film does, however, seek to make an adult vision of Wonderland (with a bit of Looking-Glass Land added into it). And that is how the horror of children’s stories can be used to good effect. Tales like Frank Beddor’s The Looking-Glass Wars is a classic use of a classic to create something new and insightful.

So horror is there in children’s stories. If you sit and read the originals and wonder why they all seem so different to what you thought they were about, or what you remembered when you read them as a kid, then I hope you can take a whole new delight in these children’s stories for grown-ups. And, as a writer, that they inspire you in your own tales of horror and fantasy.

Road Beasts

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I stand on the corner and watch the

Cars rush by.

 The drivers, in cocoons of metal and glass,

Windows up, the world shut out,

Air conditioning on, radio LOUD,

Listening to the drive-time DJ

Serve his daily dose of stereo bubble-gum.

 Where are they going, these car junkies?

What is so important

They risk their lives to bet there?

 See the drivers:

A man, his face set in anger,

Huddles over his steering-wheel

Like he has to hold it on,

Fumes the traffic is too slow,

Mouths his frustration:

“For God’s sake hurry up!”

To the other drivers, who cannot hear.

 A woman, her back-seat driving child

Swaddled in safety harness, safety seat,

Safety-nappy, dummy,

Thumbs a text message on her phone

As the car inches forward at the lights

Like her child’s life was merely incidental.

 A young man, out to impress,

His penis-exhaust throbbing,

One arm propped out the window,

The other reluctantly, insolently,

Resting lightly on the steering-wheel,

A cigarette set in the corner of his mouth

At just the right angle to make the girls notice.

 Road beasts, the cars, pass by,

Spewing, roaring, rushing, purring like cats,

Chugging, crawling,

Deep-chested booms and stutters,

Carrying cargoes of the helpless.

 What would we do without them?

No way to get from here to our next bit

Of mindless triviality.

 I stand on the corner and watch the cars rush by,

And I wonder to myself

Oh, why? Why? Why?

 

Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com

 

An Apology and a Warning

I almost caused a traffic accident yesterday.

My fault entirely. I did a lane change without checking or signalling and a man in a 4WD behind me had to slam on his brakes so much they squealed. I have no idea how close we came to colliding. He pulled up beside me at the next set of lights and quite rightly abused me for the total idiot I was.

To him, and to any other drivers in the vicinity who may have been alarmed or also had to take evasive action, I deeply apologise. It must have been very scary for the guy in the 4WD. Had we collided the total blame would have been mine. He saved both of us.

Why I did it was simply because I didn’t think. Through a single moment of impatience I put someone else’s life at risk.

I find lately that driving is becoming more and more stressful for me. Perhaps I should give it away, although that will have repercussions for work having to use public transport. It’s not just a “go to work and come home at the end of the day” thing for what I do.

But I get impatient when driving. I need to curb that, to consider others more. I must do that or cause a major accident sometime.

That was the apology. But there are some things, not related to driving, that I will not curb my impatience about, and certainly won’t apologise for.

There are things that make me mad about the way some people act. And if this sounds hypocritical, given my episode in the car yesterday, then that’s what it is. I don’t care. Being hypocritical does not make me wrong.

One of the major things about people that gets me mad is ignorance. Let’s face it, we have the capacity these days to find out more stuff about stuff than ever before. And some people choose not to. They blindly go on wallowing in ignorance for some reason, choosing to believe something simply because they want to, in the face of all facts to the contrary.

Another thing is pretension. I hate it. Some people spend all the time thinking the universe revolves around them, that they must be the centre of attention at all times, that they are one of “the beautiful people” and we must worship them. My cat does that. But then he’s a cat, he doesn’t know any better (and he’s cute as a button, which makes up for it). People should know better.

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Other things: The selfish rich. “Trickle-down economics”. Conspiracy theorists. Braggarts. People who are cruel to animals or children. People who insist their way is the only way. People who know you are behind them on the escalator wanting to get through and refuse to move aside.

All of these and more.

My sociophobia doesn’t help. I hate being in a crowd. I’ve been known to choose not to do the shopping because there would be too many people in the supermarket. I hate waiting in a queue. I walk quickly, and have done so ever since I was a hurried (and harried) articled clerk for a law firm and had to move around the city in very quick time. I walk faster than most people. That makes walking along a crowded street a frustrating experience.

I know some of this is my fault. But here is the warning part of this post: those things that aren’t my fault I will continue to get mad about, continue to criticise, continue to harp on. They deserve my ire.

So I apologise for those things that are my fault. Even if I don’t know they are.

But the other stuff, not so.

 

Russell Proctor   www.russellproctor.com

 

 

The Past and the Present

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Ok, so here’s a revelation: unlike every other language in the world, the English language has only  two tense forms. Past and present.

An example of past tense: The girl walked to the shop.

An example of present tense: The girl walks to the shop.

Simple, no? But wait, you say, what about all those other tenses that put fine shades of meaning to our deathless prose? Future? Conditional? Surely they are there, I’ve used them myself!

Yes, they are, but they use the past and present forms. English expresses the other tenses by the use of auxiliary verbs. So the future tense is formed by adding the auxiliary verb will to the present tense.  She will walk to the shop.

There are arguably (and that’s one of the things I love about the English language, that people can actually argue about the grammar of it) eighteen English tenses:

  1. Present simple. She walks.
  2. Present continuous. She is walking.
  3. Past simple. She walked.
  4. Past continuous. She was walking.
  5. Present perfect simple. She has walked.
  6. Present perfect continuous. She has been walking.
  7. Past perfect simple. She had walked.
  8. Past perfect continuous. She had been walking.
  9. Future simple. She will walk.
  10. Future continuous. She will be walking.
  11. Future perfect simple. She will have walked.
  12. Future perfect continuous. She will have been walking.
  13. Conditional simple. She could/would  walk.
  14. Conditional continuous. She could/would be walking.
  15. Conditional perfect simple. She could/would have walked.
  16. Conditional perfect continuous. She could/would have been walking.
  17. Imperative. Walk!
  18. Infinitive. To walk is a pleasant activity.

Notice something? All of the tenses are based on just two forms of the verb. Walk and walked. With a host of auxiliary verbs such as has, have, been, will, be, could, etc these two forms create all the other tenses.

“Ah!” I hear you say, “but there is a third tense form in that list. The  -ing form.”

Well, yes, there is. But actually, no, there isn’t. Walked is the past tense, but walking is…well, what is it?

The  – ing form is the present participle. English has two tenses and two participles. With a regular verb, like walk, the past tense is formed by adding -ed. Walked. But with an irregular verb, like sing, things get more complicated.

Walk (Regular verb)

Present tense: Walk (I walk)

Past tense: Walked (Yesterday I walked)

Present participle: Walking (I am walking)

Past participle: Walked (I had walked)

Sing (Irregular verb)

Present tense: Sing (I sing)

Past tense: Sang (Yesterday I sang)

Present participle: Singing ( I am singing)

Past participle: Sung (I had sung)

So we use the auxiliary verbs with the participles. Of course, with regular verbs the past participle is the same as the past tense. But not with the irregular verbs. And there are many  irregular verbs in English.

So, you know all this. Or at least, you do because you get the tenses right every day, you just don’t know the grammatical mechanics behind it all. So what’s my point?

For some reason, some writers want to write in the present tense.

Why? This tendency seems particularly endemic to YA and teen writing. But it has crept (creeps/is creeping/has been creeping/will have crept…another beautifully irregular verb) into other demographics as well.

It’s actually harder to write in the present tense than in the past. So why do it? To make the action more immediate, I hear some writers say. How is it more immediate? I just don’t get it.

Call me old-fashioned if you will, but present tense writing smacks of pretension in my opinion, except when used for specific effect. For instance, I’ve used present tense to describe a dream sequence. It is also used in dialogue. A lot of dialogue is in present tense except during recount.

But it’s worse than just my opinion. As a teacher I’ve noticed that many students today think that you are supposed to write in the present tense. Or, even worse, they get confused and start writing in the past tense, switch to the present and then back again. Even the other tenses get mixed up because kids these days see present and past tense writing used so randomly.

So stop it guys! Use it for special effect, like a dream sequence, but not otherwise. I know, Charlotte Bronte slips into present tense occasionally in Jane Eyre, and then back to past, but she was Charlotte Bronte.

Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com