Poets in Prose

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

Category: Writing Rules

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.

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. 🙂