Wednesday, March 09, 2011

What WAS That?

What I'm reading: Borrowed Time, by CJ Lyons

Thanks to Maris for her post. Remember, you can comment on her post until Friday to be eligible for her drawing. But you have to check back Saturday, or include a contact email in your comment.

Read an e-book week continues. You can find mine at Smashwords, The Kindle Store, (click on the Kindle books link) and All Romance eBooks

As I worked my way through my manuscript, culling crutch words and looking for weak (I refuse to say passive) writing, I couldn't help but consider books I've read.

I remember signing with my first agent, and her policy was to do a fairly rigorous edit on her client's first manuscripts before submitting them. When she sent mine back, she'd circled every occurrence of "was" in the first three chapters, with a note that said although she knew you couldn't write a manuscript without using that word, or other forms of "to be", I should try to eliminate as many as possible.

I wonder what she (and many other agents, editors, contest judges, reviewers—anyone who goes by the "using was means passive writing" dictum) would have done if she'd received the following submissions. All the below are opening lines/paragraphs. For fun, if you'd like, consider it a quiz of sorts. Can you identify the source? No rules; answers at the end of the post.

1. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

2. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

All right, you say. Those are "old" books and times have changed. So let's look at some more contemporary examples.

3. It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him. Yossarian was in the hospital with a pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice.

4. Eldridge Taylor was driving a long straight two-lane road in Nebraska when his cell phone rang. It was very late in the afternoon. He was taking his granddaughter home after buying her shoes. His truck was a crew-cab Silverado the color of a day-old newspaper and the kid was flat on her back on the small rear seat.

5. It wasn't a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance. Mrs. Baird's was like a thousand other Highland bed-and-breakfast establishments in 1945...

6. I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs , and nearly stepped on him. In my defence, I must say it was an engrossing book, and it was very rare for me to come across another person in that particular part of the world in that war year of 1915.

7. It was the car they had been looking for. The license plate was gone but Harry Bosch could tell. A 1987 Honda Accord, its maroon paint long faded by the sun. It had been updated in '92 with the green Clinton bumper sticker and now even that was faded.

The lesson here: make your writing shine, but don't ruin things trying to follow arbitrary rules. Again, take things in context. "Ran" may be stronger than "was running" but sometimes the so-called 'weak' construction is what your story needs. I'm sure the authors of the samples above are laughing all the way to the bank. (Oh—and avoid clich├ęs!)


1. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
2. 1984, George Orwell
3. Catch 22, Joseph Heller
4. Worth Dying For, Lee Child
5. Outlander, Diana Gabaldon
6. The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Laurie R. King
7. Echo Park, Michael Connelly


Viviane Brentanos said...

Thank you for this. Sometimes this unbending rule drives me crazy. Sometimes passive is needed as, as yoyr examples show, can make for wonderful writing.

Unknown said...

I love these examples. Last week, I went through my ms looking for "was." While I changed a few, there were times "was" was necessary. :)

Terry Odell said...

Viviane - I tried not to make this a rant, but unbending rules bug me!

Kristi - yes, as I mentioned, you have to look at all those words on a case by case basis. It's hard, but nobody said writing was easy!

Wynter said...

In Angela James' "Before You Hit Send" workshop (self-editing for writers), she notes that she read a manuscript that had avoided almost all uses of 'to be.' The prose was stiff and unnatural. True that overusing certain weaker verbs waters down writing, but there's a reason we have such words.

Kim Bowman Author said...

I would have been frustrated, too, if an agent had highlighted every instance of was. I must admit, though, as an editor, I do it. Not because I want every instance of was removed, but to draw the author's attention to the fact that, for example, in a 12,000 word novella they've used was 250 times. That is excessive and takes away from the story, but as stated earlier, "to be" verbs are there for a reason and should be used in writing to add some variety.

Terry Odell said...

Kim - I'm still all for the case by case edit (although I have no objection to calling attention to frequently used words--that's definitely a starting point.) Curious--how would you edit Lee Child? :-)

Rachel Lynne said...

THANK YOU! These 'rules' drive me crazy! The other 'rule' that bugs the fire (Oh, I mean fawrr -- should use my accent here:) out of me is the one that says start a paragraph where the heroine/hero is remembering something in the past using past tense verbs but then shift to present tense verbs as if it is happening currently. I don't know what they call that but I call it Da*N annoying when I read it! A very famous writer with the (pen name) last initial "Q" does this and until I started writing I assumed it was a typo and mentally corrected the verb tense. I've had crit partners and published authors tell me it is weak writing if you don't do this, how is incorrect grammar strong writing?

Kim Bowman Author said...

LOL! I knew that was coming, Terry:) I would do the same thing, just highlight them and see what happens. In the end, it's still the author's choice. Plus, we all know you go through 2 sometimes 3 rounds of edits so I'm sure he used was a lot more times than what we see in the final product. The idea is to "add a little variety" without completely rewriting/changing the MS. The novella I mentioned earlier, she removed maybe 40 or 50 instances and she was happy with that. Her choice and fine by me.

I use was a lot myself when I write. But when a crit partner points it out, I re-evaluate some of the uses.

As a side note: there's no way I would have touched Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. That is POWERFUL!! (Incidentally, just had another author do something similar with was and I totally left it)

You're right - it's a case by case analysis.

Terry Odell said...

Rachel-I don't have a name for handling tense, but I've also been told that you don't have to include the "had" all the way through something that happened in the past. But it was never stated as a "rule". It's a matter of clarity, and smooth transitions in and out of memories.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great examples! Know the rules, then feel free to break them. :)

Terry Odell said...

Kim - maybe for Lee's first book, but he's established his voice, and it works. Likewise, I think, for Connelly. I would hate to think my editors are editing via programs like autocritter.

Elizabeth- the more you know, the better you can handle developing your unique voice.

Maryannwrites said...

This ongoing debate about using "was" always makes me laugh. I imagine it got started at some obscure writers' conference filled with new writers who were so afraid to question the big bad editor that they took every word as gospel. Elizabeth is right, there are rules in writing that we all need to know. But we also need to know when the rule can go by the wayside. The story should dictate the style more than some arbitrary set of guidelines.

Anonymous said...

Weak verbs negatively affect pacing in a novel as well. While it's a hassle, and while "was" is acceptable in limited situations, active voice reflects more of how we think and read nowadays. Not bashing the classics. They were pop fiction in their day and mirrored contemporary rules and thought. Times have changed but a good story line never goes out of style.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right - writing is all about being able to choose and use the right words for your story.

I know I use 'was' too much in first drafts, but by the time I've edited it, I've hopefully cut enough to pick up the pace but left enough to make sense!

Paty Jager said...

I agree you can't take all the passive phrasing or the word was out- the clue is knowing what it is and knowing you want to use it and why. It's newbie writers who just don't realize what they are doing who need to stop and take a look at their work sentence by sentences and see if they can make it stronger.

#4 Lee Child may be a great author but I would not have continued to read the book. All the was annoyed the heck out of me.

Connie Chastain said...

What's worse is when was is replaced with some artificial construct -- a cure worse than the problem.. Was is a perfectly good, grammatically correct word, readers understand it instantly, the don't have to stop and process it as they sometimes have to do with whatever unnatural substitute is concocted to replace it. The main problem with was is when overuse creates a cadence that the reader notices.

Laura Kaye said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laura Kaye said...

Oops, sorry, deleted the above because it is again:

One of my issues with the "was" rule is that labeling it passive is not grammatically accurate in every case. "Passive voice" has a very specific meaning--passive voice occurs when the subject appears after the verb in a sentence, problematic because it often obscures who/what is acting and also leads to wordiness. For example:

The ball was kicked.
--This is passive. The ball is the object. The subject is not in the sentence at all, but is implied after the verb "was kicked"--i.e. The ball was kicked by the girl (7 words).
--The active phrasing of this would be: The girl kicked the ball (5 words). Subject appears before verb, thereby avoiding passive voice.

People often confuse true passive voice with the Progressive Verb Tense, made by combining was/were with a verb ending in -ing (Past Progressive; Present progressive would be is/are with an -ing verb).

The girl was kicking the ball when the dog bit her. -- This is grammatically correct and NOT passive; progressive verb tense is used to describe an action progressing now or occurring when another action occurs.

True passive voice should be eliminated most of the time in my opinion because it tends to create unclear, wordy constructions. Progressive verb tense is correct, though I try to use it sparingly because I know agents/eds dislike "to be" and -ing verbs in general. But they're not passive.

And now I step down off my soapbox. LOL Good topic!

Terry Odell said...

Wynter - yes, write-arounds can sound artificial

Maryann - I totally agree. Learning how to use the advice one gets is part of the process of becoming a writer.

writerwellness - I think that's why declaring things "rules" only serves to confuse. What works, works. We all have our own specific reading tastes.

Paty - yep. Make each word work the way you want it to. I might not have picked up a Lee Child had I not heard him speak, and after reading his first book, I was hooked on the character. I only noticed the 'was' usage for the reasons I've stated in this post -- we're told they're "wrong".

Connie - reading aloud can help emphasize that 'cadence' and lead to rewording, which is probably going to be stronger prose. And those "obscure" words jump out if you use them even two or three times in a manuscript, which is the flip side of this issue.

Laura - which is why I refuse to use the term "passive" when I'm discussing this topic. Too many people call it passive voice, which it totally incorrect. Good examples.

Terry Odell said...

Sophie - getting that first draft done, and then going back to fix it means you can cull those words that aren't pulling their weight

Elspeth Futcher said...

FIrst drafts I just write and don't worry too much about word choice, at that point it's getting the thing finished that counts. It's when I start editing that I start fussing over words and asking questions like; is it the right one, is it the strongest one, or does that particular word fit in with the rhythm. No rule works all the time.

Terry Odell said...

Elspeth - you've hit it - no rule works all the time.

Rebecca Zanetti said...

Great blog post - this was a lot of fun. I haven't looked at several of those works for quite a while...some of those first paragraphs still give me chills. Have a fantastic weekend!

Suzie Quint said...

Sounds like your agent has bought into the BS about to be verbs. There's a good article that clarifies the to-be verb issue at:

Terry Odell said...

Rebecca, thanks for stopping by - and you have a great weekend as well.

Suzie - thanks for the link.

Kathy said...

Terry, I fought with Word over this very thing once. I have the mom explaining "she was supposed to be home sleeping by now snuggled in her bed" this is when she is talking about her kidnapped 18 month old daughter. I think I rewrote and fixed it but I went nuts trying to change it from "passive"

Stephanie Bisby said...

Great post! I hate 'rules' - at least when they're used so unbendingly. Thanks to Laura for pointing out a common confusion and explaining it so clearly.

My pet peeve is the use of 'was sat' instead of 'was sitting'. And granted, this would go away if all instances of 'to be' were removed, but sometimes 'was sitting' is perfectly correct. 'Was sat' is just wrong. Always. (Or not? Anyone want to prove me wrong on that?)

Sherry Gloag said...

Thanks for the great post Terry. And Laura thanks for your indepth response.
I subbed a wip through a great crit group who asked me to eliminate most of thw was/be type wording. A couple of years, ans several edits/revisions later I subbed it to a publisher who accepted it.
Their editor promtly re-instated most of the 'was' (even adding three to one sentence!) It 'was' a salutory lesson!! LOL
So what to do?
Like all rules, each publishing house submits their own preferences to their authors, and few of those preferences coincide across the board :-)

Darlene Shortridge said...

Terry, first time on your blog. Really enjoyed it! Loved the topic and the examples you posted. Being a new author, I have heard so much about this topic and the "no-no's" of using passive voice. Of course, that was after I wrote my first book as I wrote it before ever joining a writer's group or going to a conference. We live and learn :) Thanks again!

Terry Odell said...

Kathy - I'd probably just have moved the 'by now' to the end of the sentence. It didn't bother me.

Stephanie - I've never seen "was sat" -- at least not in something published. My pet peeved is the regional convention of leaving out the verb 'to be', as in "The dishes need washed."

Sherry - so true. The only "rules" that matter are the ones your publisher follows.

Darlene: Welcome. Hope to see more of you here!