Wednesday, October 3, 2012

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 writing on the brain, and I'm gonna share some of it.

A few months ago, 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 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, and here are some things I've learned from reading a whole slew of Kindle books, trying to keep my mind 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.  Ummmm . . . oh yeah.  Writing!  So, I love to work with writers.  I love writing my own stuff, but just as thrilling to me (or maybe more so) is working with someone else to really dig deep and bring out what's hidden in their language.  Really good writing . . . writing that pulls you in and weaves a spell you can't explain . . . stuff like Wendell Berry's story "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 so caught me in their 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 the transition.  He's a man I hope to meet someday.

But I digress.  (Again.)  Without further ado, here are the things I'd like to say to writers (especially of regency romance ebooks with low ratings:)

1) 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.  Truly rare are the sentences in which using "to be" cannot be avoided.  Like that one.  No, wait . . . let me think.  Here: Only seldom will you find an unavoidable need for "to be".  But only seldom.  (Yes, use fragments in order to avoid unnecessary "to be's". I'm a great fan of fragments.)  The trick lies in avoiding "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 recently read.  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's a good example of how easy one might evict that paralyzing verb.  There are plenty of other examples [ahem] I mean, examples abound.  Maybe I should start posting them here, with reworked versions, just for kicks.  (Writers = word geeks. ;o)

Now, that said, "to be" is, after all, a verb.  It lays claim to a proper place in writing, just as the previous sentence shows.  But it should NOT be strewn about, or used as the primary verb to declare past tense.  Er, I mean, 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.  Not sure what her editor was thinking.  (Do modern authors even have editors that approve their books before publication?  They should.  I should be one. ;o)

So, tune in next time.  Not sure when I'll write, or for whom, or concerning what.  My blog's like a box of chocolates . . .


Lexi said...

Surely you cringe as you read my writing... So--a dog! Ryah has begun the quest for one of her own. The subtle telling other people why we can't have one... Miss you! Love you.

Annalea said...

No worries, Lexi. My sleeping editor only wakes (grumpily, I might add) when I pick up something that I hope to lose myself in. Books, short stories, poetry. In blogland, she slumbers on. :o)

Kathleen Bosman said...

Hi Annalea. I'm peeping into your blog, but mostly to get hold of you as you commented on my blog, and I forgot to ask you to leave an email address. I wanted to let you know that you won a PDF copy of my book. Please email me on if you wish to receive a copy of my book. So sorry about that.