Poets in Prose

“Always be a poet, even in prose.” ~ Charles Baudelaire

Month: January, 2013

Rules for Writers #1: “To Be” or The Kiss of Death

So, back in the day, I was an English Major at Brigham Young University in Provo. Truth be told, I’m still an English Major . . . but more on that later. Right now, I’ve got a rant on the brain, and I’m gonna share some of it.

Back in early July, I read Edenbrooke, by Julianne Donaldson. A fantastic debut for those of us who love a good romance (where bodices stay intact), it stands as the first book I read, without duress, multiple times. Three times in about five days, I think. That kicked off a huge reading surge over the intervening days and weeks and months. Reading that much provided me with some interesting perspectives, and showed me some trends. It also allowed me to keep my mind (somewhat) off the fact that Julianne Donaldson is still months and months away from her next release. (Anybody else remember that old Mervyn’s commercial . . . “Open Open Open . . . “? Yeah. I’m so there.)

But, back to what I was saying . . . writing.  Yeah.

I love working with writers. I love writing my own stuff, but just as thrilling to me (or maybe more) is working with someone else to really dig deep and bring out the hidden images in their language, coming closer to really good writing . . . writing that pulls you in and weaves a spell you can’t explain. Stuff like Wendell Berry’s “You All Right?” from Fidelity. I’ll never forget the magic of the evening, the still, flooded forest, the flowers and stars in that story. And yet, when I went to read Vern the lines that caught me in that spell, I couldn’t find them. Berry’s writing slips past like a gentle breeze, all the while bringing you into a world of his making without you noticing. He’s a man I hope to meet someday.

But I digress. Again. Without further ado, here’s what I’d like to say to writers (especially of regency romance ebooks with low ratings):

In nearly all cases in storytelling, versions of the verb “to be” obscure meaning. “To be” hides the real action of the sentence elsewhere, pushing it into the background. It stultifies and distances, formalizes and diminishes. And it inflates word count. Elmore Leonard comes to mind: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” (I only wish I could skip this kind of stuff, instead of mentally rewriting it as I go.)  Truly rare are the sentences in which using “to be” cannot be avoided. Like that one. No, wait . . . let me think. Here: Only rarely will you find sentences truly requiring “to be”. I like the first one better, but it just goes to show you. The trick lies in skipping “to be” as much as possible, while avoiding stilted, stuffy writing. If your sentence can’t be restructured smoothly without “to be”, go back to your concept and rework it entirely. Here’s an example from one book* I read a couple months ago. I had to highlight these lines, so egregious did I find them:

“All was noise and confusion. Private carriages were coming and going, some of them being driven by coachmen and some being driven by dandified young gentlemen.”

My version:“Noise and confusion reigned. Private carriages came and went in a tumultuous stream, driven by coachmen or dandified young gentlemen.”

Now, I would really rather take the concept and tell it in a completely different way, but that stands as a good example of how easy one might evict that paralyzing verb. There are plenty of other examples. [Ahem] Examples abound. Maybe I should post some here, with reworked versions, just for kicks. (Writers = word geeks. ;o)

Now, that said, “to be” is, after all, a verb. Witness: I just used it. Again. Truly declarative writing suffers without it. It lays claim to a proper place in writing, but should NOT be strewn about, or used as the primary verb to declare past tense. Er . . . writers should not strew it about. (See what I mean, about hiding things? That time it hid the subject entirely, which was writers.) The book quoted above did so–the author used “to be” every chance she got possible chance. (“Got” is another sore spot with me, but I’ll save it for another post.) Not sure what her editor was thinking. Do ebook publishers even have editors or proofreaders that go over books before publication? They should. I should be one. ;o)

So, tune in next time for Rules for Writers #2: “That” or Crumbs in My Sheets.

*The book had a great story, and really likeable characters.  I just had a really hard time with the writing. It needed another round or two of reworking with a good writing coach.

** This post is a reworked version of something originally posted at my personal blog.

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Not “to be”.

Over the weekend, I read a really cute, really fun, really uplifting romance novel.  (Review to come later, at GoodReads.  I’m Annalea over there, too. Never finding my name on a pencil or fake license plate for my bike has paid off in adulthood.)  I’m glad I wasn’t in a really picky, editorial mood, though.  The first four (eensy-weensy iphone 100-word) pages would have killed any desire to read further.

Why?

In those first pages, I encountered 29 instances of “was”.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen.  Twenty-nine of that verb in those first ~400 words.

And, added to those mind-numbing, soul-stealing, action-killing verbs, I tripped over 31 instances of “that”. (Yet another of my writerly pet peeves.)

I’ll write more, soon, on those two words. But in the meantime, please, puhlllllleeeeeeeasssssse, when you read over what you’ve written, whenever you see any form of “to be” or the word “that”, mark it in red, smack yourself upside the head, and look for the next one. When you’re done, go back to the beginning and rework the sentences so the verbs hidden by “was” or “is” step into the spotlight, and you slap every extraneous “that” right off the page.*

And as you do so, remember George Orwell’s Rule #6: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

Thank you.  You may now return to your regularly-scheduled whatever.

*Even I have to watch myself carefully.  The end of that sentence first appeared as “and every extraneous “that” can be slapped right off the page”.  Do you see it?  “Be” steals the spotlight there, even though slapped still makes a pretty good bid for it.  It only took a little rearranging to exile that little passive bit and tighten things up.

The White Rhino

I’ve heard the blank page called that.  It stares you down, daring you to try something . . . and makes your efforts laughable once scribed on its hide, now black stripes on white.  Maybe writing is like that–transforming something belligerent and intimidating into something different entirely.  Rhino to Zebra . . . impression to image.

I often wonder if the rule of thousands holds in writing, too.  An artist once told me you have to paint a thousand bad paintings before you get one good one, as she finished a little watercolor of the marina and breakwater across from the sandy strip where our children played.  If the rule does apply, I’m awfully glad my materials are infinitely reusable.

As for my friend’s work, I wanted to beg her for that little picture . . . good or not, I thought it beautiful.  Obviously, my standard of success with paintings varies widely from hers.

What do you do to tackle the rhino?

How do you subdue him?

How successful are you?

How often do you write?

How often do you feel successful?

What are your measures of success?

The Novel as Seer

“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” ― G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

This, my friends . . . this is what scares the h-e-double-hockey-sticks out of most authors.  This is what stopped me from writing stories long, long ago. I saw too much of my own inexperience staring back at me.

So, what you gonna do about it?

Orwell’s List

Nearly every writer has a set of rules, personal or otherwise, they write by. While I can’t say I’ve really loved any of Orwell’s books, this list resonates with me.

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

-George Orwell

Here’s to an end of barbaric writing. 🙂

A glint on broken glass.

Way, waaaaaay back in the day, I was an English major.  Not just any English major, though.  A Creative Writing English major.  I loved poetry.  And I learned to write it . . . not bad, either.  Stories intimidated me, and everything I turned out along those lines were . . . ahem . . . bad. Trite. Simplistic. Shallow.  I just didn’t have the life experience to make a good story.  So, I loved painting images with poetry.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining;

show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

~Anton Checkhov

Since those days in the JKHB (Jesse Knight Humanities Building, for the uninitiated), I slid into editing/writing coaching/proofreading.  I’ve helped floormates turn C papers into A papers. I’ve typed, formatted and submitted for private publishing a collection of poetry for an employer (it was a family history thing–a collection of his grandmother’s poems).  I’ve spent countless (and I do mean countless) hours writing in online discussions, informal teaching, and emails. I eventually slid into actual paid editing/proofreading work.  (Not a lot . . . there’s not much time for that kind of work when you’ve got a young horde to care for.)

During that stretch, I started reading.  I’ve always read . . . sometime more, sometimes less.  But about July of 2012, I began devouring books.  I’ve scoured the Kindle store and iBooks for inexpensive novels, and sometimes I get a great one.  More often I’ve found books with really great stories, but execution leaves something (or LOTS of somethings) to be desired.  Some authors have responded well to offers of help.  Some haven’t responded at all.  But through it all, I’ve wanted to put down some of the things I’ve learned about writing in a format that’s widely accessible.  One I won’t lose on my desk.  Yes, it happens.  And no, I’m not going to post a photo.

I want to blog often . . . and often, these posts will be very, very short.  Many of these writing tidbits don’t take a lot of discussion–it’s the execution that gets sticky and long.  Sometimes with a quotation, sometimes not.  Sometimes with a photo or artwork, but mostly not.  Whatever this ends up being, I’m starting.

Let’s see where this goes . . .