Icons have their place – it just isn’t everywhere

When is a picture not worth a thousand words?

When it’s an icon.
I just had (another) negative icon experience in Microsoft Word. At such times, when my ire is at its height, I tend to go off into long rants to the effect that the present proliferation of icons is threatening to return our civilization to the Stone Age, or at least to a time in history before the invention of writing — which I consider to be one of humankind’s greatest achievements. On this particular occasion, however, I was brought around to a slightly more balanced position by a serious conversation with my Millennial-generation son.

My son pointed out that he had grown up with icons and more or less takes them for granted. Some of them are pretty widely recognized and are used across different platforms. He also observed that they are not likely to go away any time soon. As he said, they have their place.
Yes, they do. They save space on the small screens of many electronic devices where it would be totally impractical to spell everything out in writing. They are not tied to a specific language, and so can potentially be more “universal” than written labels. On the other hand, this potential is limited by the fact that images have cultural context too. In fact, it’s pretty hard to come up with a universally understood icon.

Some of the better icons are:
The arrow, used to denote direction. This one probably goes back to the Stone Age. It’s practically a dinosaur. Since bows and arrows are not commonplace anymore, however, its meaning has become culturally determined to a large extent.
The skull and cross-bones, used to indicate a poison or other potentially deadly threat. It’s pretty hard to argue with this one, although I once read about a tribe somewhere that keeps the bones of ancestors lying around their houses. Skulls might have a rather different meaning to them.
The no (whatever) allowed symbol, by which I mean the red circle with the slanting line across it, superimposed on an image of whatever is meant to be disallowed. The meaning here derives from the fairly universal destructive gesture of crossing something out. Of course, the full meaning is dependent on the iconic quality of the picture of whatever is behind it.
The scissors to stand for the word “cut.” This is by far the clearest icon image to have come out of the computer age. The trouble with it is, you still have to know what “cut” means in the digital context, so it is language-dependent.

Maybe you can think of more or better examples.

Here’s the thing about images and icons: Not every image makes a good icon. To be good for this, the image has to be, well, iconic. That is, it needs to be visually simple, memorable, and endowed with relatively unambiguous meaning.
I’ll say it again. A good icon must be:
1. visually simple
2. memorable
3. endowed with relatively unambiguous meaning

That’s a tall order. Not very many images can live up to it, and an awful lot of the icons that are strewn willy-nilly across our computer screens fall woefully short. My son and I concluded that icons work best when they are widely used over long periods of time so that they come to have general instant recognition. We agreed that the practice of concocting novel icons to represent specialized functions in specific software applications is just plain wrong-headed. They have no generally-accepted meaning, and users expend effort to memorize them only to frequently have them disappear in the next incarnation of the program. They’re particularly useless when they aren’t even good icons based on the three criteria stated above – and most of them aren’t.
So this is for whoever it was at Microsoft who decided to substitute a totally un-memorable and not very descriptive icon for the “new style” button in Microsoft Word: You know who you are and you blew it! You failed the useful new icon creation test. (Cue sound of rude, annoying buzzer.)
So what do you think? Are there any icons you have come to know and love? Any you think should be relegated to icon hell?
(Take heed, oh ye Microsoft designers and programmers.)



Lessons in Past Perfect 3: Filling in gaps

Time is an important dimension in any story, and verb tenses are a major tool by which writers assert control over the dimension of time in their storytelling. If you’re a writer, I believe you owe it to yourself to master the verb tenses, regardless of the approach you take to telling your story. It’s part of what it means to be skilled in the craft.

When I see problems with verb tense in the work of aspiring or self-published writers, by far the most frequent issues involve the past perfect tense, specifically the failure to use it when it’s called for. People try to make the simple past do the work of both past and past perfect. The result is a noticeable loss of temporal “depth” and sometimes a loss of clarity. It’s like looking at a photograph where some things are out of focus that aren’t meant to be, making it hard to distinguish the relationships between objects.

Most stories are told in the past tense. They use the simple past for ongoing action, so the past perfect is needed to set off events that occurred prior to the current action. Many people aren’t very comfortable with the past perfect, and if you know you’re one of them, this post is for you.

This time I’d like to explain one very common use for the past perfect in a past tense narrative: filling in gaps created by jumping from one scene to another.

When you’re telling a story—anything other than a very simple one—you can’t show everything that happens because there just isn’t room. You have to decide which actions and events to put into scenes and which to skip over, but skipping creates gaps that can be informational as well as temporal. How do you fill the reader in on events that matter for continuity but are too minor, too brief, too boring, or just too isolated in time to justify fleshing-out in a scene? The past perfect tense is perfect for this, especially if you like to make “clean” jumps between scenes instead of linking them through brief passages of narration.

An example:

Let’s say the last scene involved the hero’s escape from some adversaries while crossing a plain to reach a range of mountains he has to climb. The next scene skips to him being in the mountains, where there are no trees, and its climax will involve fighting off an attacker with the aid of a stick. Since he didn’t have the stick in the previous scene, I want to explain how he acquired it. Here goes:

Aron paused halfway across a steeply sloping field of scree to catch his breath and assess his progress. He judged he was a little more than halfway to the pass. These mountains were too arid to support trees at this elevation and he had a clear view of the plain he had left, spread out below him, and of the ravine-like valley where he had picked up the trail that led to his present location. He glanced at the sun and took a swallow of precious water from his bottle, then started forward again. As he went, he used a stout stick to steady himself on the slippery slope. The stick was about five feet long, light but strong. He had cut it from one of the trees that grew sparsely along the stream in the bottom the valley. He had thought it might prove useful and he was very glad of it now. The trail he was following was sketchy at best. Even when the path wasn’t covered with loose fragments of rock, as it was here, it was steep, rock-strewn, and uneven.

Analysis: Okay, there are four past perfect verbs in the above passage. The first, “had left,” refers to the plain in the previous scene and comes midway through the third sentence after some introductory current action that is in simple past tense. This first use helps link the action to the previous scene as well as filling in an action that was skipped. “Had picked up the trail” places another detail in the gap. Finally, “had cut,” and “had thought” refer directly to the stick. (“Grew,” referring to the trees, doesn’t need to be past perfect because the trees are still growing in the valley. Past perfect is used for events that were completed in the past or conditions that no longer exist, not for ongoing conditions.) “He was very glad” is simple past tense that returns you to the current action. The passage also illustrates how switching back and forth between ongoing action and description of past action can avoid the repetitiousness of too many “hads” in close proximity.

In this particular case, substituting past tense in the first three instances feels “flat” and I know it’s ungrammatical, but I would have little difficulty deducing the meaning. He must have left the plain at some time in the past since he was there in the last scene and isn’t any longer; since he is currently following the trail, he must have picked it up in the past; and since he currently has the stick, he must have cut it in the past. In the last instance, however, “he thought it might prove useful” implies that he is anticipating a possible future use for the stick as he is crossing the slippery scree, rather than having anticipated the present kind of use at the time he cut the stick. The rest of the sentence and the subsequent details might cause one to question this interpretation, but do not clearly resolve the issue.

Another example:

The preceding scene in this case could have been one that established a need to build the “device” mentioned, and the current scene skips to the building of it, leaving a day-long “shopping” expedition undescribed. I could have made a scene out of the shopping, and might have gotten some good mileage out of it, but let’s just say that the need to move the story along more rapidly has left it on the cutting room floor. There are never-the-less some aspects of that trip that are relevant to the plot, specifically the need for secrecy…

Simon waited until the last sounds of movement in the rooms below him ceased before emptying the contents of his pack onto the table in his loft room and sitting down to attempt to assemble the device. The process was going to take some time and he couldn’t afford any interruptions. The assortment of wires, switches, chips, and circuit boards didn’t look like much, but it had taken him the better part of a day in the tech bazaar in Sol City to purchase them. The task could have been accomplished much more quickly if there hadn’t been the need for total secrecy. He had crisscrossed the bazaar repeatedly, putting plenty of both time and distance between each pair of purchases so as not to draw attention to himself, and he was quite sure that he had not been followed home. He smiled with grim satisfaction as he plugged in his soldering iron.

Analysis: I’ll let you hunt down the past perfect verbs. I count four of them. In this case, the repetition of “had” verbs is diluted by a couple of infinitives (“to purchase,” “to draw), a “could have been,” and an “ing” verb (“putting”)—in addition to a simple past tense verb. To my ear, this passage would sound really bad with past tense substituted for past perfect—except for the reference to the need for secrecy. In that one case I think I could have used simple past because the need for secrecy is, in a sense, ongoing. The situation isn’t quite analogous to that of the growing trees in the first example. I come across such ambiguous situations from time to time where something, such as a character’s reaction, could be viewed as both in the past and ongoing. In such cases the writer has latitude. You can decide which aspect of the action you want to emphasize—or which verb just sounds better.

This post has gotten plenty long enough. I would love to hear from you if it was helpful, of course, but also if you have any related suggestions to offer to aspiring writers who are working to improve their craft.

In Defense of Fantasy

fantasy landscape

fantasy landscape (Photo credit: sekundo)

As writers go, fantasy writers don’t get a lot of respect in this world. Genre fiction in general doesn’t get a lot of respect outside the circles of those who read it or write it—unless of course someone manages to write a bestseller and make a lot of money. That always seems to be okay with people.

I think fantasy in particular just seems frivolous to many people. There’s also the sense that it’s a form of escapism, which some people see as a weakness. I could defend the escapist aspect of fantasy on the grounds that it exercises the imagination. You may or may not think imagination is an important thing to exercise, but that’s not actually where I want to go with this post. (I already explained in a previous post that I believe storytelling developed in humans because it’s useful, and that exercising the imagination is part of that.)

I have a more fundamental point to make here: There’s an element of fantasy in all fiction. Otherwise, it would be nonfiction. In order to create a work of fiction, a writer has to reach beyond what exists or has existed in terms of characters and events. What fantasy writers—and also science fiction writers—do that sets them apart most from other fiction writers is they also venture beyond the known in terms of setting. Characters and events can also be fantastic, of course, but for writers in the fantasy and sci-fi genres setting is fair game and often a large part of the fun. (Fantasy and science fiction tend to grade into each other and are often lumped together, so I don’t particularly try to separate them here.)

Now, I’m sure a lot of the fantasy and sci-fi fans out there are saying, wait a minute! Just because our writers make up a lot of stuff doesn’t mean they don’t have to worry about making things be true to life. Characters still have to be believable in their reactions to those fantastic events. Outside the boundaries of any magic involved, the laws of physics still have to apply. And of course this is the other half of my point. There has to be something in the story that is congruent with the reader’s experience. Otherwise, there will be nothing for him or her to relate to and no reason to be interested in the story.

So, my point is: All types of fiction must contain both elements that are novel (that’s why it’s called a “novel”) and elements that are familiar. Fantasy is just one end of a continuum, one that allows the mind a particularly free rein—at least potentially. Fantasy, like any genre or class of fiction, has its own conventions and tropes. There are in fact sub-genres within fantasy, and within science fiction, each with its own conventions which may be unfamiliar or even distracting or annoying to other readers. But the best of fantasy, like the best of any type of fiction, is not blandly conventional. Rather, it stretches that envelope. It gives us visions either strange or wonderful, because it is fantasy, but it also provides us a glimpse of uncompromising truth.

There’s nothing wrong with “telling” – or with adverbs

When it comes to good writing, there’s only one rule that counts: Whatever you do, don’t do it badly.

It’s true but it doesn’t offer much help to the novice writer, and that has a lot to do with the current proliferation of “rules” for writing. People who feel they can distinguish between good and bad writing try to figure out what makes the difference. When they spot something they can put a finger on, they put out a “tip” or a “pointer” – only to have all the desperate would-be writers pounce on it and put it on a pedestal.

Example: It is true that some cases of bad writing are “bad” because they use adverbs badly. This has been turned into a “rule” that one should avoid adverbs like the plague. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with adverbs. Adverbs are useful. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have them. Like everything else, though, they have to be used well. You have to think when you use adverbs… or adjectives… or verbs… or pronouns…

Consider this: “To boldly go where no one has gone before,” is not at all the same without the adverb (setting aside the question of the split infinitive). Some would argue that the writer should have used a more colorful verb than “go” so that “boldly” would not have been necessary. Maybe: “to venture where no one has ventured before?” Or, “to stride where no one has stridden before?” Honestly, I don’t see the improvement.

Then there’s “show, don’t tell.”

There is a literary style of story-telling in which the writer tries to avoid explicitly “telling” the reader what the characters are thinking or feeling – or what is significant in ongoing events – or even what is actually happening. Instead, he or she tries to “show” us these things by providing the clues, the bits of evidence. From these, we are supposed to figure it out. The character’s exact choice of words, his facial expression or body language, is supposed to “show” us what he is thinking or feeling. When well done, it can undeniably be an impressive feat.

This approach is best suited to stories that are small in scope and take place in contexts that are familiar to the reader. That way the writer can focus his energy – and expend his words – on detailing all those clues and bits of evidence.

The approach is not well suited to sweeping sagas, or futuristic or historical epics, or any story that requires large amounts of back-story or “world-building.” When there’s just plain a lot of story to tell, showing everything takes too long.

This is not to say that showing isn’t important. You may not need or want to show everything, but you should show the important stuff. The principle is the same as in writing an essay: If you want your story to be convincing, you must illustrate your points. In fiction, the important things include critical attributes of character, significant features of the setting, crucial events, etc. These things need to be illustrated. If your character is supposed to be a brilliant military strategist, you had better show him strategizing brilliantly. If it’s important to your story that the nobles are oppressing the peasants, there should be some visible acts of oppression. If the temperature dropped dramatically to twenty below overnight, you’d better show the steaming breaths, the blue lips and fingers, the ice in the fountain…  Or, if a scene hinges on what a particular character is feeling, you should do everything you can to show us that feeling in all its power and glory.  What you don’t need to do is to take every single opportunity that arises to “show” rather than “tell.” It isn’t necessary or practical (or even desirable) to “show” every detail of your story.

In fact, “telling” has two advantages over “showing:” It’s efficient, and it’s clear.

It almost always takes more words to show than to tell. Consider whether it’s worth it. Sometimes it’s better to just get on with the story. And attempts to completely avoid “telling” can cause confusion. Trying to show what your character is feeling through facial expressions, gestures, and body language alone, can fail if your reader doesn’t interpret those clues as you intend. Interpretation can be cultural – or individual. One person may express extreme anger with nothing more than a clenched jaw, another by screaming and throwing things. A description of twitching facial muscles and vibrating limbs might suggest to some readers that the character is frightened rather than angry – or is having a seizure…  (It’s entirely possible to “show” things badly.) If you tell us the character is “furious,” your meaning won’t be misconstrued as long as the word is in the reader’s vocabulary. If it isn’t, the problem is solved by a dictionary.

Sometimes the best approach to the “show” versus “tell” dilemma is to do a little of both. Tell for clarity and show a bit for illustration. “He was plainly furious. His lips twitched. His fingers clenched on the handle of his cane.” Or, more simply: “He was shaking with rage.” That last one is a “show” and a “tell” all in one. It may not be literary, but if it serves the required purpose for the story you’re trying to tell, what’s wrong with it?

Opinions? Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear your take on this burning issue.

Clarity and the ambiguous pronoun

Caterpillar using a hookah. An illustration fr...

Caterpillar using a hookah. An illustration from Alice in Wonderland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I read people’s fiction manuscripts I’m often surprised at how frequently I encounter things that just aren’t clear. (I probably shouldn’t be. As a writer you always know what you meant to say, and it can be hard to tell in the heat of the moment that you haven’t said it.) This is a much rarer flaw in published works of fiction – although I have had the same experience recently with published books or ebooks. It never used to happen, or almost never.  I suspect the proliferation of self-published books and books from small indy publishers is at least partly to blame. The author may or may not have hired an editor, or may have used an inexperienced one. A small publisher may run the ms past one editor, whereas I’m told the major houses used to run them past several. More eyes are better. It’s that simple.

When I say things aren’t clear, I’m not talking about places where the writer was obviously trying to imply things, rather than explicitly state them, or deliberately trying to be ambiguous. I’m talking about ambiguity that’s obviously not intended.

One of the most frequent causes of unintended lack of clarity comes from ambiguous pronoun reference, something like this:

As Jim peddled down the street, his friend Bob was sitting at the bus stop. He smiled and waved.  “Where are you going?” he called.

Who smiled and waved? Was it Jim or Bob? Is Jim asking where Bob is going on the bus, or is Bob asking where Jim is going on his bicycle?

Other things being equal, pronouns tend to attach themselves to the nearest preceding noun. “His” therefore refers to Jim. There’s really no other possibility. Both instances of “he” are most likely to refer to Bob, making Bob the one smiling and waving and also the one calling. If you as the writer meant otherwise, you had better say so, like this:

As Jim peddled down the street, his friend Bob was sitting at the bus stop. Jim smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Now the remaining “he” feels like it refers to Jim because Jim is closer, so Jim is doing the calling as well as the smiling and waving. Again, if you didn’t mean that, you had better say so:

As Jim peddled down the street, his friend Bob was sitting at the bus stop. Jim smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” Bob called.

But remember, I said “other things being equal.” Consider this rewriting of the original sentence:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. He smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Now Jim and Bob no longer have equal weight because “Jim” is being used grammatically as a subject whereas “Bob” is being used as an object. I’m not certain, but I feel as if all three instances of “he” more likely refer to Jim. Jim was the subject of the first sentence, so I tend to assume it’s Jim whose actions are being described as the narrative proceeds. If I intend otherwise, I must say so:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. Bob smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

And again, I’ve now got Bob doing the calling because his is the closest name and it was used as a subject.  If I meant to switch back to Jim, I should have written, “where are you going?” Jim called.

All right, now consider this variant:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. His face broke into a smile and he waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Now, I tend to feel as if the “his” in “his face” could quite possibly refer to Bob. I think this is because “Bob” was used as an object and “his” is an object pronoun. It could still be Jim, but the connection is weakened and the sentence has really become ambiguous. Also, the last “he” now feels like it ought to have the same referent as the one in “he waved.” So again, I have to check to be sure that’s what I intended.

What’s the upshot here?

When you are describing action involving multiple characters of the same gender, the pronoun is not your friend. This doesn’t mean you should avoid all pronouns. You obviously need them sometimes. Repeating names over and over can sound repetitious and clunky. It just means that you have to regard all pronouns as suspect, potentially ambiguous until their possible referents have been checked and cleared. And if there’s any chance of confusion, out they go.

It’s a good idea to have alternative identifiers for your characters to help you avoid repeating the same name over and over. Alternative identifiers are things like: “the boy,” “the old man,” “the dark-haired girl,” “the fat woman,” “the farmer,” “the merchant,” “the Italian” – or even things like “his friend,” “the other man,” or “the speaker.”

I know you’re thoroughly tired of this sentence by now, but just to illustrate:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. His friend’s face broke into a smile, and he waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Then, of course, there are the people who don’t like to use dialog tags, who want to just write, “where are you going?” Well, here’s one alternative fix for that approach:

              “Where are you going, Jim?”

It’s remarkable how easy it is to end up with ambiguous pronouns. I know I find them all the time when reviewing my own writing. How about you? Have you noticed this problem in your own writing or in other people’s? Do you have your own tricks for dealing with it?

On Winners and Losers


Failure (Photo credit: StormKatt)

Every time I hear someone call another human being a “loser,” I feel it like the lick of a lash across my soul.


There are no Winners or Losers, only people – people who sometimes win and sometimes lose, who sometimes succeed and sometimes fail, at different things, and at different times, and under different circumstances. This is the only realistic and rational position on the subject. It’s also the one that is most kind and most humane.


When you label someone else a loser, you are doing him a cruelty and an injustice.


When you label yourself a loser -  because of some specific failure or perceived pattern of failures, or because someone told you that you were – you’re doing yourself an injustice. You’re discounting every success you’ve ever had or will ever have, and sabotaging your very hope for success. This is pretty obvious.


What’s less obvious is that trying to fend off the “loser” label through so-called “positive thinking” by telling yourself you’re a “winner” is also a potentially self-destructive strategy. The odds are that sooner or later you’ll have a failure that will cause you to doubt the truth of that “winner” label.


The problem, you see, is with the labels – with the whole concept that “winners” and “losers” are things that really exist, and therefore things that people can actually be.


There are no Winners or Losers, only people.


Don’t label yourself.


And, please, don’t label anyone else, either.


Thank you.


The preceding has been a public service announcement (personal rant), courtesy of one who’s had her share of both successes and failures so far in this life and fully expects the pattern to continue.




How to use the Past Perfect, Lesson 2: avoiding the need for it

non perfect wall

non perfect wall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people advocate avoiding long passages in the past perfect because the repetition of “had” sounds clunky or becomes distracting. Well, it can. The skilled writer is always aware of how the writing “sounds,” of distracting repetitions, poor rhythm, awkward phrasing. So there is a legitimate reason to know how to avoid the need for too much use of the past perfect.

Avoiding the need for the past perfect is not, however, the same thing as just blithely substituting the past tense for it in places where the past perfect is grammatically required.

Consider this: What would you think if someone suggested that when handling a long passage referring to previous events in an otherwise present-tense narrative, the writer should switch to the present after 2-3 past-tense verbs and then switch back to the past for the last 2-3 verbs at the end of the passage? Completely ridiculous, right? Yet some people are apparently suggesting that writers switch from the past perfect to the past, and back to the past perfect, like this to avoid too much use of the past perfect.

This is not a skilled writer’s approach to the problem.

There are plenty of perfectly legitimate ways to avoid the need for the past perfect.

1. The most direct approach is to tell the events in your story in the order in which they occur. In theory this would work, but it conflicts with the principle that events should be dealt with at the point in the story where their presentation is most effective. You might consider it, but unless your story is naturally totally linear, sooner or later you will need the past perfect.

2. Shift references to past events into dialog. Your characters will naturally talk about ongoing events in present tense and about earlier events in past tense. End of problem.

3. Monolog works too. Your character can talk to himself about his past experience and this will follow the same pattern of verb tense use as normal dialog.

4. Bring the past into the present. This is the best way to handle a lengthy passage that would require past perfect if dialog is not appropriate and your character isn’t given to soliloquy. This is a true “flashback,” the vivid re-experiencing of a past event in the present. But, you have to set it up so it’s clear to your reader what is happening and use of the past tense feels natural, and you have to be just as clear about bringing your character back to reality at the flashback’s end.


She stared at the object lying at the bottom of the trunk. She had seen it before. Her mind flew back to that moment, three years ago, and she was there again. She saw her father drop the new casting into the cooling bath. The water hissed and steamed at contact with the hot metal. Her father fanned the steam away, and she could see the small crescent of silver gleaming under the water’s surface. He fished it out with the tongs and held it up, turning it this way and that so it reflected the firelight. It seemed at that moment to be made of gold rather than silver. “Tonight I will clean and polish it,” he said. “And tomorrow I will set the stone.”

She blinked, banishing memory’s vision. She felt a lump in her throat as she reached into the trunk. Her father had made the silver and opal pendant for the Lord of Eastwing’s daughter. He had finished it just two days before his death.

For this example, I start with a precipitating event: She stared at the object lying in the bottom of the trunk. This is in past tense because it’s part of the ongoing action. Then I switch to past perfect for a single short sentence – She had seen it before – to tell the reader I’m referring to an earlier event. This is followed by the set-up for the flashback: Her mind flew back to that moment, three years ago, and she was there again. The sentence brings the past into the present and is in past tense because it’s part of the ongoing action.

The flashback follows. This is her memory from the past, re-experienced as if it were present (ongoing action) and therefore told in the past tense. It goes on for several sentences and contains a line of dialog.

Finally, I end the flashback, starting a new paragraph and bringing her mind back to the present: She blinked, banishing memory’s vision. The next sentence – She felt a lump in her throat as she reached into the trunk – is in simple past tense and should be clearly understood to be part of the present ongoing action because I’ve told you the flashback is over. Since I’m not quite through referring to past events, however, the next two sentences are in the past perfect. They’re outside the flashback and describe additional events relating to her father that took place in the past.

A flashback doesn’t have to be set up exactly as I did it in this example. How you do it depends on how it fits into the story. There could be more past perfect before the flashback begins. There could be more or less after it ends. The flashback could be longer, even a lot longer, but if you do that you had better be sure your character is sitting down – or otherwise in circumstances that will support a long period of reflection. A flashback interrupts the flow of the ongoing action. Really long ones therefore should be set in action that isn’t too pressing.

Moving back and forth between ongoing action and reference to past events, and therefore between the past tense and the past perfect – as I did in several places in the example – can also legitimately dilute the frequency of “had.” If you do it for grammatically valid reasons, the result should be crystal clear. If you switch back and forth between the two tenses ungrammatically, howerver – just to get rid of the “had” – you risk losing clarity and making your reader backtrack to figure out what you meant.

This seems like rather an advanced topic for Lesson 2, but I was responding to comments on Lesson 1 from some of my highly sophisticated readers.

So how did I do this time? Useful? Not? All stuff you already knew or that you’ve heard before? Do you have any other approaches that you use in your writing to address this issue?

Using the Past Perfect tense: Lesson 1



Present perfect and past deformed

Present perfect and past deformed (Photo credit: _Lev_)


Who ever would have thought I’d become an advocate for a verb tense?

But then, who ever would have thought a verb tense would need advocacy  – especially one as basic as the past perfect? (I mean, it’s not as if we’re talking about the subjunctive.)

My earlier post titled Had been there, had done that explains the basics of how the past perfect tense is used and how it’s constructed (“had” plus past participle).

Some people don’t seem to use the past perfect. Typically, they substitute the simple past tense for it. I’ve come to the conclusion that at least some of these people really don’t have a “feel” for how and when to use the past perfect. So I thought I might try offering some guidance to these folks.

So here’s Lesson 1 on how to use the Past Perfect tense:

The past perfect really comes into its own in fiction writing, where it’s necessary whenever the narration (typically in simple past tense) refers to something that happened earlier in time. For example:

He stepped outside into a downpour and realized that he had left his umbrella eight flights up, in his office, and the elevator wasn’t working.

Most people don’t get a lot of practice with the past perfect in their everyday lives, especially if they don’t read a lot of narrative fiction. When we talk about ongoing action in our lives, we use the present tense:

“I have a meeting with my boss at 9:00.” “I like chai tea.” “I need to buy a new cell phone.”

Or possibly the present progressive:

“I am finishing the report.” “I am waiting for the repair man.”

For things we are intending to do, we use the future tense:

“I will stop at the store for some milk on the way home.”

And when we refer to something that happened earlier, we naturally use the past tense:

“I’m going to have to reschedule because I missed the meeting.”

“Don’t talk to me! I’m in a terrible mood. The repairman was two hours late.”

Basically, this is the rule of thumb for using the past perfect:

If you would transition from the present to the past tense at a particular point in everyday conversation, then you should transition from the past to the past perfect at the equivalent point in a past tense narration. Or, to put it more simply: Present is to past as past is to past perfect.

Here are three pairs of examples to illustrate this (present tense narration first, then past tense narration.)


I remember last Friday.  I was in a terrible mood because the repairman arrived two hours late, and I snapped at my wife.  I’m not going to make the same mistake this time. I’m in a terrible mood, but I’m not going to take it out on her.

He remembered last Friday. He had been in a terrible mood because the repairman had arrived two hours late, and he had snapped at his wife. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake this time. He was in a terrible mood, but he wasn’t going to take it out on her.


I’m standing in front of the gate, hesitating. I meant to go charging in there and give that man a piece of my mind, but now all I can do is think about how that strategy might backfire.

She was standing in front of the gate, hesitating. She had meant to go charging in there and give that man a piece of her mind, but now all she could do was think about how that strategy might backfire.


When I walk down the street these days, I’m not looking at my surroundings. It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when I noticed the trees and flower gardens, the picket fences, even the cracks in the sidewalk.

When he walked down the street these days, he wasn’t looking at his surroundings. It hadn’t always been that way. There had been a time when he had noticed the trees and flower gardens, the picket fences, even the cracks in the sidewalk.

So this might be an approach you could try if you have trouble knowing when to use the past perfect when writing past tense narrative. Try recasting the piece of narrative in the present tense and see where you feel the need to use the past tense. It might not always work well. I had a little trouble with the above examples, finding ones that worked in present tense. It helps to switch to first person, and think of it as a present tense “reflection.” Also it helps to use the present progressive instead of the simple present. Sometimes that feels more natural.

What do you think? Useful or possibly useful? Heard it before? Let me know.

On editing and self-editing

Edit Ruthlessly

Edit Ruthlessly (Photo credit: Dan Patterson)

My husband and I are redoing our front yard to convert from high to low water use. Being situated in the alluvial zone at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, our little property is “blessed” with an abundance of rocks – in all sizes. Hence our brilliant idea: Do a rock garden.

So I’ve been spending a little time out there several days a week placing rocks to hold and frame the dirt for planting succulents. I place those rocks very carefully. The effect I’m looking for is not exactly a natural arrangement, but a visually interesting and attractive one. Sometimes I go out in the morning and rearrange some of the rocks I placed the day before – or the ones I placed several days ago. Sometimes I find myself sitting inside looking out the front window and thinking, no… that one would be better a little bit to the right, or, yes… but I’m going to need a bigger one right about there to balance that other little grouping…

Eventually it dawned on me: I’m editing the rocks.

Then there’s the Christmas tree. We have a string of little white lights and an eclectic assortment of ornaments. Every year it takes me a couple of hours to decorate the tree to something approaching visual perfection  – and then I spend the rest of the holiday season tweaking the lights and rearranging the ornaments to better balance the sizes and the colors, and to fill those annoying little “holes” that somehow weren’t apparent when I finished the original arrangement. Sometimes I’m sure I move ornaments to fill holes that were created by moving ornaments to fill other holes…

Yes, you got it. I edit the Christmas tree.

I think I’m a natural born editor.

Given that I’ve been writing things of one kind or another for most of my life, it’s hardly surprising that I edit my own writing. In fact, I do so constantly. Sometimes it feels like I can’t leave any two previously written words together. It also probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that I have become, here in my middle years, a professional editor – for scientific texts. I do scientific texts because I have a background in science that gives me added credibility for that task, but I could easily edit other things. The only thing remotely remarkable about my being an editor, really, is that it took me so long to come around to it.

After giving the matter some thought, I’ve concluded there are three basic requirements for being a good editor (of the text variety).

  1. An outstanding command of the language.
  2. The kind of patient and meticulous nature that makes giving “attention to detail” a foregone conclusion.
  3. A clear concept of what the final product ought to look like.

Obviously I wasn’t born with the first. I must have acquired it, although I do think a certain amount of talent must have been involved because it certainly required very little effort on my part. The second, I was apparently born with – in spades.  The third has always seemed pretty obvious to me and not particularly difficult to achieve. My method of achieving it can be summed up in three words:  Read good examples. (Of course, if your client has a manual or style sheet he or she wants you to use, it goes without saying that you use the manual or style sheet.)

It is a little bit surprising that it has taken me until fairly recently to really appreciate the need to have someone else edit my writing.  Well, maybe it’s not that surprising. When I started writing scientific papers, after all, I always edited myself – over and over – both before and after my thesis advisor had put in his two cents’ worth.  And when the proofs came back from the journal, I never noticed that any changes had been made to what I’d sent. There might have been some that I didn’t notice of course, but basically I think I wrote (and self-edited) well enough that my work didn’t need a whole lot of editing.

In other words, being that I’m a natural born editor, I think I might be forgiven for getting the impression that it was the writer’s job to get it right in the first place.

The trouble with this concept is, you can’t.

I mean, you can’t reliably get it completely right in the first place.  Not when you’re writing the tens of thousands of words – the dozens or hundreds of pages – that go into something the length of a book. The average essay or scientific paper is only a few pages or a few thousand words.  A writer who happens to be a pretty good editor has a fighting chance of catching all the errors in something that length, but not in a book.

Many people have noticed that we all tend to have trouble seeing our own mistakes on the page (or the screen.) You know what you wrote, after all. The fact that you didn’t actually write what you know you wrote can be really quite shocking when someone finally points it out to you. It can be positively mortifying – especially if you’re an editor, believe me.

Even when it comes to other people’s writing, there are certain kinds of errors that we have trouble seeing. The absence of small common words where a line is broken, for example, or the same word repeated at the end of one line and the beginning of the next.

Why are we error prone in this particular way?

Well, it obviously has something to do with expectations.  But I think it also has something to do with how our brains work. The brain is famous for filling in gaps in our perceptions to create the impression of a seamless and coherent world. Studies have shown that our visual systems only take samples of what’s out there. The fact that our eyes are constantly moving and taking samples, together with the vast amount of experience our brains have with interpreting those samples, combine to give us the impression that our minds simply look out through the windows of our eyes and see the world as it is.

Did you know that the design of the eye is such that the image cast by the lens on the retina is inverted, top to bottom, and left to right? As far as the eye is concerned, objects appear to fall up. Why doesn’t it look as if objects fall up?  Because, at a very early age, your brain learned to turn the images around.  It’s an amazing thing, the brain – quite miraculous. Right up to the point where that miracle prevents us from being able to see our own mistakes.

So, even though I’m an editor, I know that I still need an editor. When it comes time to get my manuscript ready for publication, I know I’m going to have to hire one. (And that’s not just me trying to promote my own profession.)

Talent: How to tell if you have it

Creative Monkey Pencil Drawing is Super Cute

Creative Monkey Pencil Drawing is Super Cute (Photo credit: epSos.de)

(Warning: This is a long post, and not for the faint of heart. No sugar-coating, here.)

The first thing I want to say is that talent is a gift, not an accomplishment. Accomplishments are achieved through effort. No effort: no credit. Using one’s talent to achieve something impressive usually requires some effort, maybe even quite a lot of effort, but a person with little or no talent may deserve far more credit for achieving far less simply because of the amount of effort involved.

The second thing I want to say is that there are different degrees and types of talent -  as some astute readers of my previous post pointed out. Talent isn’t all-or-nothing, and even in a given field, it comes in different flavors.  Within the field of fantasy fiction, the talent of J.R.R. Tolkien differs from that of, say, Ray Bradbury, whose talent is different from that of Louis Carroll.  A.A Milne and Dr. Seuss both wrote wonderful fanciful works for children, but those works are very different in just so many ways. Each of these writers produced something unique and special in its own way, and I don’t think any one of them could have done as well at what any of the others did.

What qualifies me to write on the subject of talent, you may ask. Well, how about half a century of trying to do things – of succeeding and failing – and of watching other people try to do things and succeed and fail…

Let me give you some examples.

There was always a piano in the house when I was growing up, and I tried three times in my childhood and youth to learn to play, at least twice through paid lessons. I remember best the last and most prolonged effort. It was marked by a discouraging rate of progress that stalled completely when I began learning to add simple chords to the melody. I simply could not get through The Irish Washerwoman (played at half-speed) without making a mistake (usually several). It seemed the need to play multiple notes simultaneously with both hands was more than my nervous system could handle.  My general lack of talent for things requiring manual dexterity was confirmed when I later tried playing the recorder (baroque flute) – on which you play one note at a time but using more than one finger for each note – and touch-typing, which uses only one finger at a time to produce each letter.  The bottom line: When it comes to rapid-finger-movement manual skills, I’m slow, I make a lot of mistakes, my rate of improvement is glacial, and my skill plateaus at dismally low levels.

Now contrast my experience with drawing: When I was in elementary school people started saying, “That’s really good, Carol; I wish I could draw like that.” Those early drawings weren’t that good, actually, but I guess they were better than what other kids could do, and I kept getting better at such a rate that the compliments kept coming. People would also ask how I’d gotten so good. I couldn’t tell them. I’d drawn spontaneously from an early age and I spent quite a lot of hours doing it, certainly, but I did so because I liked it. It wasn’t effort, for me. I was generally pleased with what I produced, but kept trying to do a little better because I just wanted to.

I had no art lessons as a child. While I took art classes in junior high and high school, those classes were largely just opportunities for students to show what they could do and experiment with different media. There was very little taught of a how-to nature. I did learn a few things in art classes at the college level, but I wouldn’t have been taking college art classes if I hadn’t already been pretty good at it.

Now, one could hypothesize that there’s something fundamentally different about playing a musical instrument than about drawing – that if I’d spent enough time at the piano, I could have ended up with a scholarship to a music conservatory. I don’t buy it. Take my father in law (not literally). He grew up in rented rooms above a blues bar in Pittsburgh before WWII. The family didn’t have much, but they did have an old piano. (I think maybe his mom gave lessons on it.) Well, he taught himself to play that thing by sitting down and trying to play the things he heard wafting up from downstairs. He had no lessons, and he couldn’t read a note of music. He played entirely by ear, and in a horrendous key that was all sharps, but he was good enough that when he enlisted in the army at the age of eighteen, everyone in his unit knew him as the piano player. He played the accordion too. Basically, if it had a keyboard, he could play it. But if you ever said, “Gee, I wish I could play like that,” he’d tell you to just sit down and try to play something.  Sure, you had to work at it some, but basically that was all there was to it as far as he was concerned.

My father in law always kept a drawing on the wall that I’d done of my husband about the time we were married. It seemed I couldn’t visit without having him go on about how good that drawing was and how he didn’t know how I could do that. Finally I told him that for me drawing the picture was like him playing the piano. It wasn’t that hard for me because I had talent for drawing, just like playing the piano wasn’t that hard for him because he had talent for playing the piano. He finally seemed to get it.

Okay. So I define “talent” as an innate ability to do something that a lot of other people can’t do. It may also manifest as an ability to do something better, or with less effort.

We generally apply the term to the ability to do complex and impressive things – not to trivial traits like tongue-rolling, or obvious physical attributes like being tall enough to reach the top shelf. I assume that talents are written in our genes, if we knew where to look – but I would also bet that they are multi-gene traits that would be pretty hard to sort out completely.

And, based on my vast (ha ha) experience, I’ve identified a few basic characteristics of talented people.  And, if you still have the stomach for this, here goes:

1. Talent manifests early – not necessarily early in a person’s life, but early in a person’s efforts to do a thing. In a group of students trying something for the first time, the ones with talent will stand out, if not in their very first effort then within the first few efforts. If there is any delay it will be because someone or something is holding them back – there is some misconception, they’re being told to do things wrong, (the judges are taking bribes), or they’re hampered by some identifiable handicap.

The bottom line: Talented people don’t work and struggle through years of mediocrity and then suddenly discover – wow! I’ve got talent! Barring some conspiracy of fate or humankind, if you’ve been working on a thing for quite a while and the talent hasn’t come shining through, it’s not going to.

2. For talented people, effort yields progress that is relatively rapid and continuous. This applies to activities that require acquisition of skill or knowledge. (The word relatively is important here.) If progress could be plotted on a graph, the more talented person’s curve would rise more rapidly and top out at a higher level than that of the less talented person. Talented people can, of course, hit temporary snags or plateaus, but they tend to reach higher levels than less-talented people before this happens – and, it’s temporary. They can also, of course, be adversely affected by those external circumstances or handicaps mentioned above, but an observant person should be able to figure out what these are.

So, if you’re trying to learn to do something – and trying, and trying -­ and you just don’t seem to be making progress, it’s time to worry. If there’s nothing obvious getting in your way, and you’re not at the level you want to be at or need to be at to achieve success in your field, it’s probably time to find a new field.

3. Talent is self-rewarding. Talented people often work quite hard at what they do, but they tend to do so voluntarily. They may say that they “love the work” or that it “isn’t work” for them. This is because talent leads directly to success, and success is rewarding. (It helps that they also get lots of praise.) If their lives permit, talented people tend naturally to pursue their talents once they find them – assuming they have any interest – because they’ve found something that works for them. The more diligent and driven will pour in effort and will soar, the more indolent may persistently dabble. Talented artists “struggling for their art” are generally struggling against external circumstances, or perhaps against a conflicting personal handicap (Beethoven with his hearing loss). Perhaps their work isn’t appreciated by the society of their time, or they are being pushed to perform at extravagant levels to satisfy the demands of their patrons or the public. Those who choose professions that depend upon their talent may struggle because of the need to support themselves financially.  Their art may not pay enough. In other words, art is relatively easy for the talented artist.  Being an artist may not be.

So if the pursuit of your dream seems to be all work and no reward – on any level – that’s another bad sign.

4. Talented people know what they are trying to do, and just do it. I think it’s said of Michelangelo that he could see his intended creation within the block of marble and all he had to do was remove the bits that didn’t belong. What I’m getting at here includes this concept but goes beyond it. Talented people tend to evolve within themselves a “vision” of what they want to create or achieve. They can see it, hear it, feel it. Even if they don’t have the vocabulary to describe it, they know what they’re trying to do. And, because they are talented, doing it is a relatively straightforward matter of putting in the time and effort. Relatively straightforward, I say. Some skills may have to be learned. Michelangelo wasn’t born knowing how to use a chisel. Once he’d acquired that basic skill, however, I doubt he had to think much about it. Learning one’s way around a piano is probably a bit more involved than mastering a chisel, but once you’ve gotten there, if you’re talented, basically all you have to do is play.

So, to put it bluntly, if you consistently feel like you’re floundering, odds are it’s time to get out of the water. The course ahead should be clearer than that, and the necessary steps should feel do-able.

A related point involves being able to distinguish quality from the lack of it. The ability to discern quality is not, however, a defining characteristic of the talented person. Obviously there are lots of people who know quality when they see it but have no ability to produce it themselves. These people may become patrons, aficionados, or critics. I can imagine, also, that a talented person might be able to naturally and effortlessly create wonderful things without himself being able to see what was so special about them. People can be blind to their own talent, and yet follow it because it’s what comes naturally. In general, though, knowing what you’re trying to do and knowing what quality is are pretty close to the same thing.

It’s a whole lot easier to write well if you at least know what good writing looks like.

And finally:

5. A word to the talented is sufficient. Talented people often don’t need a lot of instruction.  Depending on the activity involved, they might not need any. A person with musical ability could demonstrate their talent on a deserted island – with their voice, or improvised instruments. Someone with a talent for computer programming is going to need a more specialized environment.  Less-talented people will try to improve their performance by reading advice columns, following rules, or going to seminars on “ten ways to improve your… (whatever)  Talented people will find these same pointers either obvious, or unnecessary – and occasionally just plain wrong.  They either just know these things instinctively, or they figure them out for themselves. And if there is a trick of the trade they haven’t found on their own (yet), telling them once is sufficient (or showing them – semantics and technical jargon can get in the way). They get an instant aha!  and implementation for them is just a matter of doing it.

So, if you’re getting critiques on your work from knowledgeable people, and you can’t figure out what they’re telling you to do, you’re in trouble. Ditto if you keep on getting the same criticisms even after you think you’ve made the corrections.

Talented artists don’t paint by the numbers; they just paint.

Talented writers don’t write by the rules; they just write.

Sometimes life demands that we keep on struggling to do things we’re not very good at – like balancing the checkbook. I felt I needed to become a touch typist, and after thirty odd years (some of them really odd), I am a touch typist – just not a very impressive one, and I never will be. Generally, though, I don’t recommend beating your head against walls. Life is too short. If you find you don’t have talent for a thing, leave it to those who do – unless there’s some pressing reason why you must do it (or you just really want to), and you’re content with doing a less than stellar job of it. There is no shame in this.

Do the best you can, and then go find something that you are good at.


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