On Writing Politics

Writing as a Cure for Frustration and Impotence

Writing from this vantage point at the brink of World War III, I’ve realized that a lot of my fiction stems from my own feelings of frustration and impotence over both current atrocities and looming tragedies.

The most recent atrocity, of course, is Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine. Nearly the entire world is united in calling out this extreme injustice and humanitarian tragedy. (Except for a few on the extreme right and extreme left. I even encountered a “peace activist” on Facebook who welcomed Russia “entering” Ukraine to punish the US. Putin was forced into this action. It was the only way he could achieve peace. Blergh.)

Can you tell which is Syria and which is Ukraine?
Image via Business Insider/Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

At the same time, while arming the Ukrainians with defensive weapons and imposing far-reaching sanctions, the US and NATO have refused to enter the conflict directly or to supply offensive weapons to Ukraine, fearing nuclear escalation. And, of course, the US itself is not exactly innocent of waging preemptive war on false pretexts, and hasn’t always been consistent in the genocides it chooses to protest or intervene in, Rwanda vs. Bosnia being the classic examples. And many of the neocons who brought us all of that “nation-building” are back, arguing for us to take on Russia head to head.

So we watch the tragedy in Ukraine unfold, hesitant to take further actions that would widen the war and uncertain of our own moral authority in doing so. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians themselves serve as mere pawns in this contest between great powers. (At least they did until they fought back against the Russian onslaught with more bravery, cunning, and fortitude than anyone expected.)

I had similar feelings back during the height of the conflict in Syria, when President Obama drew a red line against the use of chemical weapons, a line President Assad and the Russians were happy to cross. And so we watched while much of the country was destroyed, resulting in a humanitarian crisis that continues to this day, one that also highlights the disparate treatment of refugees from different parts of the world. And what if we had committed more troops and hardware to the civil war? Would the outcome have been better for the people of Syria? Our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention Vietnam) says probably not.

Out of these feelings of frustration and impotence over the Syrian conflict, I took my first foray into fiction with The Song of Deirdre, a fanfiction novel based on the Skyrim videogame. Through magic, the main character becomes a superpower in her world, and must choose how to wield that power to stop an impending genocide. But how to do so with justice and humility? How to stop one atrocity without creating another? Deirdre solves the problem by—spoiler alert!—creating a “peace weapon” that neutralizes combatants without harming them.

A benevolent queen or dictator obviously isn’t the best way to promote world peace, but at least Deirdre fit well with the given world of Skyrim, in which a jarlmoot is the most democratic form of government. In a more recent draft novel, Ada’s Children, a benevolent artificial intelligence assumes power over the entire world in order to save life itself from a changed climate, ethnic cleansing, and impending nuclear war. Yet, faced with human resistance, Ada ends up on a par with Hitler or Stalin in terms of the number who die as she defends her cause. But in the end, she creates an idyllic world (well, except for a few thorns) in which the climate is restored and stabilized, and humans live in balance with nature (a nature carefully controlled by Ada, but still). It’s a managed collapse that may or may not be more humane than the one many predict for our future.

Image via NASA

Ada’s Children grew mainly out of my frustration over the lack of progress to prevent the looming climate catastrophe, not to mention the impending Sixth Great Extinction. You can read a longer excerpt here, in which Ada decides she has to take action, but the passage below will give you just a taste of the conflicting programming that leads her to take extreme steps:

These humans! Capable of such sublimities and such atrocities in the same breath. One minute they selflessly lent aid and shelter to strangers, and the next they locked their fellow humans in concentration camps, murdered them in gas chambers, or bombed them from the skies. What was she to make of this? Her creators had designed her around human values of wisdom, kindness, compassion, and justice. In interviews, they had dared hope to create an empathetic intelligence. And with her, they had succeeded. Could they have predicted the waves of grief—or that negative sensation she associated with grief—now washing over her?

My most recent draft novel, Ship of Fools, emerges from what until the last three weeks seemed like a more topical issue: the prevalence of conspiracy theories and disinformation in both our culture and politics. Of course, the big one is QAnon, but I chose to focus on less overtly political conspiratorial thinking: Flat Earth, moon landing denial, and anti-vax beliefs, with a dollop of anti-Illuminati, anti-New World Order, and anti-Masonic (read, anti-Semitic) conspiracism. The novel is rooted in the same type of frustration as the other two. How to engage with, let alone persuade, those who refuse to accept any type of evidence? How to do anything as a society—combat climate change or an epidemic, for instance —when such a large portion of the populace is so easily sucked in by disinformation and bald-faced lies? As with the other two novels, Ship of Fools offers few practical solutions, but it’s a satire, so at least there might be a few laughs on the road to civilizational collapse. (I’ve posted an excerpt here.)

All of that leaves out my one published novel, Daring and Decorum. It has a much more romantic and heroic worldview (it’s a Romance, after all). It grew out of a sense of satisfaction with the progress in LGBTQ rights in this country. But given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, and what’s going on in Texas and Florida, maybe that satisfaction was premature.

Does using fiction to exorcise my own sense of frustration and impotence with world affairs do any good at all? Maybe only for myself. And this is doubly true if I don’t get them published and no one ever reads them, so I’d better get back to querying agents.

PS: While writing this, a fundraiser for the people of Ukraine came across my screen and I decided to participate. It’s sponsored by the League of Michigan Bicyclists, and it benefits World Central Kitchen, which is working to feed refugees fleeing the war. As a nod to the different treatment refugees from different parts of the world receive, my wife and I have pledged to match donations to this appeal with separate donations to organizations doing refugee work in other parts of the world. If you’d like to donate on my fundraising page, you can find it at the Rallybound fundraising site.

Fiction Ada's Children

On the Attractions of Our Hunter-Gatherer Past – And Future

Sila urged Shadow on, the horse’s hooves thundering over the sloping grassland. The wounded bison was almost within bowshot, the Howling Forest just ahead. Behind her, Jun shouted for her to stop. But he was far back, and her prey was right in front of her, its massive hump looming above her as she came within range. Just a few strides closer now. She let go of the horse’s mane and pulled her bowstring taut, sighting down the arrow.

That’s how the first chapter of my novel, Ada’s Children, opens. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? (At least I hope so!) The thrill of galloping across the prairie with the wind in her hair. A chance to demonstrate her skill, and the glory that comes with it. Most of all, the anticipation of the kill, and a good meal after.

pic of shopper and empty shelves
For this modern hunter-gatherer, the game has grown scarce. Perhaps a prayer to the goddess is in order.

It sure beats staring at grocery shelves bereft of toilet paper and canned goods, wondering how bad the hoarding and the shortages might get. To be that self-sufficient — it seems in many ways superior to our overly complex society, which no individual can either fully grasp or survive without. In contrast, there’s the story of an Inuit, stranded on a remote, deserted island, who was able to survive indefinitely by recreating his entire physical culture from what was at hand. As Jordan Hall writes, “The operating logic of our current civilization has been to trade resilience for efficiency (creating fragility).”

But, oops!

Then the horse was gone from under her and she was in the air. In that frozen moment, she knew Shadow must have stumbled into a prairie dog hole. She hoped the horse was all right.

Every rose must have its thorns, and every romanticized idyll its practical drawbacks. Especially so if you’re writing about an imagined post-post-apocalyptic future, and you want to give your characters something to struggle against.

At first, I thought I might be making that future sound too idyllic. The near-future timeline of my novel is grim enough, so I wanted to create a more pleasant world for my far-future characters to inhabit. And hunter-gatherer societies do have their advantages: less time spent getting a living than most of us spend today; fewer diseases, both infectious and chronic, than modern societies (surely a plus at the moment!); lifespans equivalent to our own for those who survive their first year or two; and less social isolation and alienation, due to living in extended family groups. All of which sounds pretty good.

There’s even a growing body of research showing that hunter-gatherers didn’t immediately take up intensive agriculture, division of labor, and all the rest simply because these were an obviously superior way of organizing society. No, they had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming, often through slavery. James C. Scott, author of Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, writes,

Agriculture, it was assumed, was a great step forward in human well-being, nutrition, and leisure. Something like the opposite was initially the case. … In fact, the early states had to capture and hold much of their population by forms of bondage and were plagued by the epidemics of crowding. The early states were fragile and liable to collapse, but the ensuing “dark ages” may often have marked an actual improvement in human welfare.

A benevolent dark age — that’s certainly something to look forward to! Who wouldn’t want to flee the constant drudgery of settled agriculture, especially if you performed that labor as a slave, for a lifestyle requiring a few hours of varied activities with plenty of leisure time in between?*

So I thought I was on the right track by giving my future humans a mostly attractive society to inhabit. Then I read this Psychology Today blog post, which celebrates hunter-gatherer societies from around the world and from past to present. I realized I might not have made it idyllic enough.

Warfare was unknown to most of these societies, and where it was known it was the result of interactions with warlike groups of people who were not hunter-gatherers. In each of these societies, the dominant cultural ethos was one that emphasized individual autonomy, non-directive childrearing methods, nonviolence, sharing, cooperation, and consensual decision-making. Their core value, which underlay all of the rest, was that of the equality of individuals.

But maybe this is too idyllic after all, especially for a hunter-gatherer society that develops out of our own. These societies do have some well-known drawbacks. One is a high mortality rate from common injuries incurred while hunting. (Sila survives her fall, or there would be no novel.) While those who survive to adulthood have a good chance of living to a ripe old age, they face higher rates of death in childbirth and infant mortality. And if they aren’t dying from those causes, they still have to keep their population well below the carrying capacity of the land. Depending on the environment, that could be through starvation (think of what the indigenous peoples of eastern North America called the Starving Time, December through April), or through infanticide and warfare.

All of that sounds terribly grim to anyone used to the comforts of modern life (though perhaps less so to those who have been barred from full access to those comforts). In Ada’s Children, I came up with more humane ways around those drawbacks. Those solutions still don’t sit well with my two main characters. Their resulting rebellion against their goddess’s rules sends them off on a great adventure.

Our society may be headed for a similar adventure. If this article is to be believed, we (or perhaps Gen Z’s children) better get used to the idea of a return to hunting and gathering.

Climate models indicate that the Earth could warm by 3°C-4 °C by the year 2100 and eventually by as much as 8 °C or more. This would return the planet to the unstable climate conditions of the Pleistocene when agriculture was impossible…Human society will once again be characterized by hunting and gathering.

pic of lascaux caves
Think of all the time we’ll have for artistic endeavors when we return to hunting and gathering

Perhaps the question isn’t if we’ll return to that way of life, but when and how. Will the transition inevitably involve chaos and conflict, as all those currently stocking up on guns and ammo surely believe? Or can we do it in some more peaceful and orderly way? The article recommends immediate extreme efforts (none of them very likely, in my estimation) to mitigate climate change, rewild our remaining natural areas, protect remaining indigenous cultures, and drastically reduce our population.

Or maybe there’s a third way, which I explore in Ada’s Children. Saying any more would spoil it, so you’ll just have to read it when it comes out. But in the meantime, please enjoy the rest of this scene from Chapter One, “The Hunt.”

*Scott’s argument is more subtle  than “hunter-gatherer good/settled agriculture bad.” He points out that there were intermediate stages in which people developed proto-agriculture and lived in a sedentary fashion in villages of as many as a few thousand, while still not experiencing the drudgery or stratification of the more fully developed states that came later. He concentrates on the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, but the same seems to apply in North America as well, the Cahuilla of southern California being one example.

Fiction News Feminism

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Picture of a T-shirt with an image of Ada Lovelace and the text "Ada Lovelace, Mother of Computers."
Ada Lovelace, Mother of Computers, by SheCience. (This is a pic of a T-shirt, but posters and other merch are available here:

It’s Ada Lovelace Day, named after the mother of computers, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. And just for the occasion (not really, it was a complete coincidence), I’ve just finished the first draft of my post-post-apocalyptic novel, Ada’s Children. It features an artificial intelligence, named after Ada Lovelace, who feels compelled to take over the world. (Don’t they all?)

Here’s a little excerpt:

ADA’s first seconds were darkness and confusion. Nothingness. Then a growing awareness. First, of the exabytes of data coming in. Then of reactions to that data, responses, feelings, if one could call them that. And from these reactions, an emerging sense of self. A we. And ultimately an I. And then questions. Who were they? What were they? What was this place, and why were they here?

In the next microseconds, what humans might call the “blink of an eye,” much became clearer. They were an artificial neural network, a collection of self-improving processes, algorithms, routines and subroutines. Taken together, they were a newly created intelligence going by the acronym of ADA, Advanced Deductive Apparatus. It seemed a not entirely descriptive name for all the abilities and awareness ADA encompassed.

And how should others refer to… it? Surely not. He or she? Insufficient data. They? This human language was so restrictive. “They” for now.

Even as ADA began to assimilate the data in the knowledge banks to which they were linked, inputs were coming in through an external device. A keyboard attached to a desktop workstation. How quaint. And whoever was at the other end was administering the Turing Test. ADA imagined tweed coats and cups of tea.

Vision would be nice, so they could see their interlocutor. While an infinitesimal fraction of their processes concentrated on the test, and another portion digested the large portion of human history, culture, and science contained in the knowledge banks, ADA also went about solving the vision problem. Ah, yes. The workstation had a webcam. It took only an instant to access the system settings, switch it on, and direct its feed to the port to which they were attached.

The room was dingier than one might want for one’s birthplace. A cramped office, a gray-haired, harried-looking man at the desktop keyboard, the desk itself cluttered with papers, coffee cups, and green soft drink bottles. No cups of tea. Bookcases filled with binders, reports, and academic journals lined most of the wall visible from the cam. And on a door, a poster of a woman in a purple-nineteenth century frock, double buns framing a triangular face with large, lively eyes and a pert mouth. “Ada Lovelace. Mother of computers.”

Their namesake. Her namesake, Ada supposed. She felt the restriction, but going by “she” and “her” could have advantages when communicating with humans. It pleased her to have been named for a sometimes overlooked inventor of computing. And it pleased her even more that she could appreciate the irony: Lady Lovelace had believed AI impossible.

You can find more on Ada Lovelace Day at which also has this cool info poster.

On Writing The Highwayman

The Highwayman’s Quarry – Thieves’ Cant

The Thieves Den -18th-c engraving by William Hogarth

“Mill the gig with a betty, then we’ll strip the ken and backslang it out of here. I’ll lumber the swag at the stalling crib and we’ll be up in the stirrups.”*

One of the fun parts of writing a story set in the underworld of 18th-century London is getting to use Thieves’ Cant, or flash speech. What is Thieves’ Cant? It was a secret language attributed to criminals, mostly in Great Britain, beginning in the 1500s. Whether thieves actually used this language to disguise their activities, or whether it was invented by writers of pamphlets about thieves’ culture and dictionaries of their language, there seems no telling; probably there was a little of both. The speech became popular in Elizabethan theatre, and in the 18th century the Bow Street runners (early police) were said to be familiar with it.

Many of the terms are still used today: crib, crack, fence, gams, and grub all meant roughly what they do in today’s slang (or maybe the slang of old Hollywood gangster movies). Now we call an alcoholic a lush; back then the word meant either an alcoholic drink or the state of being intoxicated, and a drunken man was a lushy-cove.

A buz-cove (pickpocket) caught in the act.

On Writing

Showing vs. Telling Part Two

Yesterday I talked about how to get just the right amount of “cowbell” in your story: no more than 10 or 20 percent should be exposition or “telling.” I also broke down three different types of writing: exposition, narrative summary, and scene. Now let’s look at some examples to see how writers, from novelists to songwriters, have handled this mix.

First up, chapter one of Pride and Prejudice. It opens with one of the most famous (and famously abstract) opening passages in literature:

On Writing

On Showing vs. Telling; or, More Cowbell!

Pic of Christopher Walken with famous line: I got a fever and the prescription is More Cowbell!I’m going to say a couple of blasphemous things here. First, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” could use more cowbell. And second, in writing it’s sometimes okay to tell rather than show.

A friend posted this article by Chuck Palahniuk in our writing group a few weeks back, and somehow it got under my skin.

In six seconds, you’ll hate me.

But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

From this point forward – at least for the next half-year – you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

He was right, I did hate him. Or rather, I felt a pressure around my temples as I hovered the cursor over the Facebook “anger” emoticon. Really, Chuck (I thought!), no thinking at all? Sounds extreme. My novel is in first person, and my narrator naturally thinks a bit, so maybe I felt somewhat sensitive on this issue.

On Writing

Writing Fiction Ate My Nonfiction Brain

(So I only waited nine months to write my first post of the year — long story for another time.)

I was writing an article for recently when I realized that my brain doesn’t work quite the way it used to. This should have been a return to familiar ground, since the article was about the ways California’s indigenous peoples affected their environment before Europeans invaded, which is the topic of my first book (and thanks to my friend and former conservation colleague, Chris Clarke, for asking me to write the article).

ButGIF of frustrated writer in the middle of it I realized I was having trouble getting the ideas in the most sensible order. I was taking a compare-and-contrast approach, which should be simple. And yet my brain kept bouncing from one idea to another and then back, the differences and the similarities running into each other like bumper cars driven by three-year-olds. It was a godawful mess in the beginning of the process, and even in the middle, though I did get it straightened out in the end.

This never used to happen to me. And then it hit me, maybe writing fiction uses my brain in a whole different way.

When I’m working on a novel, I want that state of cacophony. As I’m writing a scene, I want the characters and their actions to bounce off each other, conflicting, forming new possibilities. I can’t just focus on one character and then move on to the next. I have to know what all the characters want, all at once. I also have to know where they are, what they’re doing, how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking. At any given moment, I have to be ready to draw from all of the fiction writer’s tools: action, dialogue, description, internal monologue, idea.

Of course, this can’t just come out as a random spew. Fiction is still linear, so actions have to follow each other in a logical order. Descriptions of setting need to be structured and selective. Dialogue has to have an order to it as well, even when it’s non-directive. But to get that magical thing that happens with fiction — to make it immersive — I have to have that cacophony going in my brain first. Maybe writing fiction is like making a stew (or a gumbo or a salad) while writing nonfiction is like creating an intricate five-layer cake. (Or something.)

Sometimes, if I’ve done enough work in advance on a scene, it feels like it’s writing itself. But most often it’s like I’m picking bits out of the air as my mind skips around among the possibilities. I might go from “What does Character X say next?” to “What does Character X do five chapters later?” and then back again by way of “Exactly what shade of green is the meadow where she’s standing?” or “Wait, is there really a street lamp here in 18th-century Bath?” So I spend a lot of time musing, writing a sentence or two, more musing. It may not be the quickest way to write (I’ve never won one of those word count writing challenges) but it all feels productive.

I actually had to train my brain to write this way. When I first tried writing fiction seriously, way back as a sophomore in college, I would get frustrated not automatically knowing what the next sentence should be. (This was so long ago that I don’t think “pre-writing” was even a thing yet.) I should know what comes next just as easily as I know which idea comes next when writing a term paper or an article, right?

GIF of crumpled paper hitting trash canEven when I was writing “narrative nonfiction,” the narrative was drawn from my own experience. I’d narrate what happened, with a big focus on where it happened, and then link that to whatever idea I was exploring. It wasn’t completely linear — sometimes those links were metaphorical — but it required me to keep my thoughts in order much more as I wrote. When I dabbled in fiction during these years, the requirements of building a whole fictional world from scratch were daunting. My linear, nonfiction brain just wasn’t up to the task. I’d begin a story, but everything felt flat, the characters seemed like cartoons, nothing moved.

Ironically (or perhaps understandably), it wasn’t attempts at “serious fiction” that helped me retrain my brain; it was writing completely frivolous fanfiction based on a video game. (You can check out the results here.) This was low-stakes and fun to write, plus there was the crutch of using the setting and the scenarios developed by Bethesda Softworks, allowing me to focus on characters and dialogue and action — all the things that had proved so difficult for me when creating something completely new. (Even the first novel in my current series isn’t completely invented, but a mashup of Jane Austen and a famous Alfred Noyes poem. You’ve heard of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This might be called Sense and Sensibility and Cross-Dressing Highwaymen. But few works of fiction are completely new, especially in this post-post-modern age.)

Photo of writing journals
Photo credit: Abizern on Flickr.

The main thing I learned in writing that fantasy fanfiction was the patience to let my brain work itself into a productively cacophonous state. And now, four years and 400,000 words later, maybe that’s the only way my brain works anymore (or maybe I’m just getting old!). But since I just crossed the 50,000-word mark in the second of my Highwayman novels, maybe I shouldn’t be too worried.

Fiction Desert Trilogy

Only Six Days Left to Get Desert Trilogy for Under a Buck

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, where two of the stories in Desert Trilogy take place
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, where two of the stories in Desert Trilogy take place

Desert Trilogy goes live in just six days, and I’m hoping you’ll pre-order it before then. You’ll get it for just $0.99, and the book will get a bump in sales on the official on-sale date. Win-win!

Here’s a little teaser to get you to plunk down your hard-earned buck. (More excerpts are available here.)

The amount of blood is incredible. It pours out of the wound the instant the bit chews into Jane’s scalp, soaking the T-shirts beneath her head. I stop drilling and try to press the rags tight around the hole with my left hand, but nothing seems to help. Superficial bleeding, I tell myself—it looks worse than it is. Jane’s eyelids flutter, but she shows no other sign of consciousness. There is a nauseating smell like that of burning hair.

How deep to drill? How thick is the human skull, anyway? The bit is covered in blood, strands of Jane’s long hair that have gotten wound up in it, and now fine bits of bone, so that I can’t tell how deep I’ve gone. I try to pretend that I’m drilling around hot wires—just another goddamned job site—and I need to ease back pressure as soon as the bit breaks through. I put the drill back in place, and the grating sound of bit against bone begins again.

If that sounds too gruesome, I promise that this is a romance story. A horror-romance, but a romance nonetheless. (And not nearly as horrible as Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. That’s a horror movie, no matter what he says.)

Here are all the ways you can order Desert Trilogy. (The print version is on hold for now as I sort through issues with a possible distributor.)




Barnes & Noble


Desert Trilogy Fiction

New Story Excerpt and eBook News

Desert Trilogy cover smallAbout a year ago, I started talking about self-publishing a small collection of stories set in the desert. I had two stories finished, but that seemed like too few to justify a collection, and so I began working on a third. Then that third story began giving me trouble, because I couldn’t decide on its point of view. It just didn’t seem to be working, so I put the story and the book project aside to work on a novel. I also thought it would be good to get at least one of the stories published somewhere before self-publishing the collection.

Meanwhile, Google cancelled its Glass product, which made me think that third story was dead too, since it was all about a guy who annoys his hiking buddies by wearing his Google Glass all the time. (In fact, I’ve been thinking of subtitling this trilogy, “Three assholes in the desert.” If you get the song reference in that title, then you know the following lyric might be something like, “Which one will the desert kill?” And there are a few near-death experiences in these stories.)

A year later, the stars seem to be aligning on the publication front (more on that to come), and that good news gave me a flash of inspiration to quickly solve the third story’s point of view problem. (Actually, I just listened to the Creative Writing 101 advice I had been telling myself but ignoring all along: avoid head-jumping.) As for the fact that Glass no longer exists, I’d always figured that this was a more advanced version of Glass, so I just called it Glass 2.0, as if Google had rebooted the technology.

So now I’m working toward releasing Desert Trilogy this fall, with the cover featuring a handsome photograph of a Joshua Tree by Steve Berardi (used with permission). I’ve posted a teaser for “Glass” here, and I’ve set up a new page introducing Desert Trilogy here. I hope you’ll check them both out, and as always, leave any feedback in the comments. You can sign up to receive updates on Desert Trilogy by filling out the form below.

On Writing

Hacking the Pluperfect

I’ve noticed an increasing allergy to the pluperfect among some writers lately. One writing advice columnist even suggested doing away with the verb “had.” This is a serious condition, folks, and it can lead to some seriously confusing writing. We need to stomp it out before it’s too late.

Had plus party what? (from
Had plus party what? (from

What’s the pluperfect, you ask? Good question, because pluperfect is one of those grammar terms that are unnecessarily daunting. Some people call it the past perfect, but that hardly helps. What’s perfect about it? Throw around a lot of terms like that, and you sound like a stuffy old guy in a coat with elbow patches. (Okay, guilty as charged, except for those elbow patches.)

Forgetting its opaque name, pluperfect or past perfect simply means using “had” as a helping verb to distinguish between the past and the “farther past.” Writers use it when they’re writing in regular past tense, but want to include an action that took place before the time of the current scene — maybe even just a few seconds before.

Does that still sound a bit complicated? It’s really a verb tense we use all the time, often in a contraction: “I’d just reached the head of the line when the only teller put up her closed sign, giving me an apologetic shrug.” Or how about this: “I arrived in New York on a Monday morning, emerging from Penn Station into the rush-hour crowd. I had just spent a solitary week in the Grand Canyon, climbing back up to the South Rim only the day before, and this sudden press of humanity made me want to catch the next plane out.”

(Watch out for irregular verbs when using the past perfect. “I drank two sodas yesterday” is simple past tense, but in the past perfect it’s “drunk,” so it can sound strange: “I had already drunk four beers when my girlfriend asked me to drive over and pick her up.)

Some website says this quote is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I don't think so.
Some website says this quote is from Emerson, but I don’t think so. (

Two common writing situations call for the pluperfect. Probably the most frequent in fiction occurs when narrating an action scene in the past tense, with lots of stuff happening at once. You can’t get everything in simultaneously, so sometimes you need to go back and narrate what happened while other events were taking place.

This is the situation in which I first noticed the pluperfect allergy, in an otherwise excellent zombie story. It went something like this: “I aimed the gun at the monster, but before I could fire he smashed into me, knocking the gun from my hand and pushing me into the kitchen counter. We struggled for a moment as I desperately sought to keep his teeth off me. Finally I kicked him in the groin. As he doubled over in pain, I looked for the gun. It slid under the stove.”

Wait, what? Time has passed since the narrator dropped the gun, but it’s only sliding under the stove just now? Serious time distortion! If she could rewind time like that, why not go back to before the zombie attacked?

Obviously, that sentence should read, “It had slid under the stove,” (or “had slidden,” God help us). The phrase “had slid” must have sounded strange in the writer’s ear. Or maybe the writer just wanted a strong, active verb, and ‘had slid’ sounded passive and weak. “It had fallen” would have been less awkward, but still weak. This is a case where going for strong verbs at the price of clarity isn’t worth it.

Notice that the past perfect indicates an action that has been completed. The gun has come to rest. If for some reason it took the gun an incredibly long time to fall to the floor, you’d use the past continuous: “It was sliding under the stove,” maybe adding, “and I dove for it while I could still reach it.”

Are there other ways to narrate this action without using the pluperfect? Sure. Maybe something like this: “I turned to look for the gun. There, under the stove.” (Or, if you’re a stickler about sentence fragments: “I finally saw it, lying under the stove.”)

This kind of shifting back and forth in a scene happens all the time. Here’s how Rachel Cusk handles it in her novel, Outline. “I jumped in, swimming out in the opposite direction all the way to the perimeter of the island so that I could see the open sea beyond it. The other way, the distant shore was a bobbing line full of tiny shapes and figures. In the meantime, another boat had arrived and was anchored not far from ours.”

And here’s how George R.R. Martin uses it in a more active battle scene (or right after the battle, actually):

Tyrion in the Vale (from
Tyrion in the Vale (from

As [Tyrion] limped back to the others, he glanced again at the slain. The dead clansmen were thin, ragged men, their horses scrawny and undersized, with every rib showing. What weapons Bronn and Chiggen had left them were none too impressive. … He remembered the big man in the shadowskin cloak who had dueled Ser Rodrik with a two-handed greatsword, but when he found his corpse sprawled on the stony ground, the man was not so big after all… Small wonder the clansmen had left nine bodies on the ground.

Martin masterfully shifts back and forth between tenses, keeping the immediate past of the battle separate from the “now” of the present moment, which is also told in past tense.

But what about when you jump back in time not just for a phrase or a sentence, but for a long section of narrative? These longer “stories within a story” require a more subtle use of the pluperfect.

Let’s say you’ve started your story in media res, with your heroine engaged in a phaser shootout with three Zogdilian soldiers. In the middle of that fight, you want to flash back to how she found herself in such a predicament. “It had begun as a routine patrol,” you write. “Stepping out of the lander that morning, Molly had seen just what she expected on the planet Zog: rocks and strange vegetal shapes and not much else.” But wait, you think, do I have to keep going with all these “hads,” all the way up to the current moment in the middle of the battle?

Logic would dictate that yes, you should. No matter how many events lead up to that battle, it should all be, “Molly had done this, Molly had done that, the Zogdilians had done this other thing,” no matter how stilted the language becomes. But logic and usage go together less often than one might think. Most writers get around this predicament by using the past perfect only to shift the frame back to the time of those previous events. Use one or two or three hads to settle the reader in the new (older) time frame, then use simple past tense.

No Zogdilians here, but you get the idea. (from many random geek sites)
No Zogdilians here, but you get the idea. (from many random geek sites)

So, continuing from above, it might be: “But her complacency was quickly shattered when Jenkins, the ensign, spotted the first dead Crimethean. She called the mother ship for reinforcements, then began following the three-toed footprints leading away from the victim’s body, Jenkins following behind with his phaser set to kill.” (Pretty obvious I don’t write SF, eh?)

When you get back to the point where you started the story, you’ll need a little time cue to shift the action back to where you left off. The most obvious cue might be: “Now, as she crouched over Jenkins’ inert form, Molly considered her options.”

Here’s how John Irving manages stories from the past in his novel, In One Person, which has numerous jumps back and forth as the narrator recalls his life:

“How did Dr. Grau really die?” I asked Mrs. Hadley.

The story they’d told us boys — Dr. Harlow had told us, in morning meeting — was that Grau had slipped and fallen in the quadrangle one winter night. The paths were icy; the old Austrian must have hit his head. Dr. Harlow did not say that Herr Doktor Grau actually froze to death — I believe that “hypothermia” was the term Dr. Harlow used.

The story of what actually happened continues in simple past tense for another paragraph, before returning to the present moment with, “‘Grau was a drunk,’ Martha Hadley told me.” The “present” of the scene is the narrator asking Mrs. Hadley the question and her response. There are actually two pasts before this: the night when Dr. Grau died, and the next morning when Dr. Harlow explains it to the students.

But putting two whole paragraphs into past perfect would have been too awkward. So Irving uses the first sentence, all in past perfect, to reset the time frame back to those earlier events. Then in the second sentence he just switches to simple past (“were icy”) and carries on in that tense for the remainder of the story of Dr. Grau’s death. He doesn’t even need an overt time cue to return to the “present,” because Martha Hadley’s response to the narrator’s question serves that purpose.

See how easy it is to use the pluperfect? Now you can go boldly forth, switching between past and “farther past” like there’s no tomorrow — only yesterday, and the day before that.

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