Is your WIP in need of some manscaping? Pluck out those to-be verbs (From the Archives)

I published this post originally back in the fall of 2011 and as I sit here completely blank on what to post today, I thought I’d pull up this fun post. So here’s the old post, with some small changes:

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Is your WIP in need of some manscaping? Pluck out those to-be verbs. Or at least eliminate enough of the suckers so they’re not populating your manuscript like the wiry hairs on a hirsute male.

Argh! As my fingers poise over my keyboard, I hesitate. Recently, I’ve become loathe to point out style advice like this when critiquing because this might be someone’s style. In fact, my fingers hesitated so much, I just returned to writing this after taking a 2 hour procrastinating tour around twitter and klout. Sigh. Okay, getting over it. Onward.

So, what do I mean by to-be verbs? These are any time we use is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been in constructing our sentences. These verbs indicate a state of being, which is important to remember when applying this guideline because sometimes what we really want to illustrate is movement, not a persistent state. But! There are times when we DO want to indicate a state of being and using a to-be verb is entirely appropriate rocks (like the to-be I used in the second sentence of this paragraph).

Like any writing tip, this is a guideline only. Not a rule. You should only write what resonates with you.

In case you do want to see how it might improve your story, here are some structures to look out for in your WIP. I like to see them as flags of possible weak areas. I find them, analyze, and either leave them as is, or change them:

  • was + -ing. Just convert the -ing into the action verb. These are the easiest to fix. He was riding > He rode. Sometimes we can go even further, because it’s still not specific enough. For instance, he was speaking before a large group could be changed to he spoke before a large group, but that’s still pretty blah. What kind of mood is he in? What’s happened leading up to this? Can we use this to illustrate the character? Possibly! Maybe something like: he hunched over the microphone, eyes downcast. He swallowed and… you get the idea…
  • was + adjective. They can indicate we’re telling and not showing. Consider something as simple as this: He was gorgeous. That’s telling. How was he gorgeous? Describe what makes him gorgeous to the narrator. As often is the case when showing and not telling, we will use more words to show his hunkiness to the reader. Just using shortcuts like this, or the house was elegant, the food was tasty are like placeholder cards (cardboard cutouts!) scream ‘cardboard cutout!’ in your manuscript telling the reader how they should feel about a character or envision the scene. Better to take the time to describe it in a way that empowers them to feel and see it on their own without tacking on such a nonspecific descriptor. The reader will be pulled into the story in a much more visceral way. Plus, everyone’s tastes are different differ, so what’s tasty or beautiful to one person might not be that way for another, so we’re missing a chance for character development here.
  • was + verb + infinitive verb. Here are two examples from my WIP: she was tempted to say became she itched to say and they were due to leave  became they planned to leave.
  • was + adjective + noun. Again from my WIP: She longed to tell him, but really that was a stupid idea became She longed to tell him, but that would top the list of stupid things to do.
  • was + noun forms of verbs. Just convert it to its original verb. For instance, she was the inventor of… can be she invented
  • was + any kind of word expressing emotion. For example: He was scared about the monster under his bed. Don’t label the emotion, show it instead. A five-headed beast with poisonous drool lurked under his bed, without a doubt. Just his luck, too, today of all days. He sidled across the wall, one eye peeled

There are probably other structures where this pesky guy shows up, but these should get you started. The point is to be aware of it and really scrutinize whether it’s the best way to describe it captures your character or scene. Sometimes it is does! Or it would be very strange to convert it. Or that’s the voice of your character. Or it fits the rhythm. But if you’re getting feedback that your prose is lackluster, consider going on a fishing expedition through your WIP with a pair of tweezers in hand. Sometimes it will be really hard to find another way to say it (at least it is for me!) but when I finally do, it pops! And generally characterizes my heroine or hero in a much better way. I’m offering this tip precisely because it is something I still struggle with it and didn’t find a heck of a lot of practical advice out there, other than don’t use it. I liked Shirley Jump’s example (tip #2) in her article Show Not Tell: What the Heck is that Anyway?

And in case you thought my opening sentence was just for shock value I wrote the opening sentence for shock value, I really did have a purpose. Some people really like overly hairy men, who am I to judge? Same with writing guidelines like this. If it works for you, do it, otherwise don’t; leave the hairs in, or pluck ‘em.

How about you? Do you struggle like me trying to convert to-be verbs? Do you have other tips for helping to eliminate them where advisable?

Tweetables:

  • Is your WIP in need of some manscaping? Pluck out those to-be verbs @AngelaQuarles  <–click to tweet
  • If your prose is lackluster, consider going on a fishing expedition through your WIP for to-be verbs @AngelaQuarles <– click to tweet

Dealing with Critiques and Reviews – the 40-20-40 Rule

One of my earliest blog posts was about dealing with critiques and I shared what I called the 30-40-30 rule that I learned from my uncle. Well I just had a short vacation with said uncle and found out I had the percentage wrong! He said it’s 40-20-40! So here’s my old post, revised a tad with that calculation.

As a writer, at some point you will reach the stage where you will need to have others critique your work. There are many reasons to do so that others have covered before, but as a former computer programmer, one way I like to look at it is: you cannot test your own code. You think you’ve written the program to do exactly what you want, you test it and hand it off to the Beta tester. And they find mistakes. The reason is because they didn’t build it and so don’t know your thinking behind it and do what comes natural to them. Consequently, they take paths you never dreamed of and hadn’t tested for. Yikes!

How does this relate to writing? You think you’ve sufficiently explained motives behind character actions, or have shown the emotional reaction sufficiently because YOU know the character so well and know EXACTLY why they’re doing it and fail to see that it didn’t quite come across the way you pictured it. Oops! A good critiquer or beta reader will find these ‘thin spots’ for you.

Okay, so you’re ready to get critiques? Are you sure? I’d like to tout again this great advice from Writer Musings: How To Get The Most Out Of A Critique, Part Three: if you don’t know the heart of your story, you are not ready for feedback. This is so true because you are going to get a wide array of feedback. And by wide array, I mean some folks will hate a particular line and others will like that same one. Soon, you’ll be wanting to pull out your hair. Or, worse, you’ll take every single suggestion as gospel and water down your story, your voice, to such a state that it will be milquetoast.

The problem is, if you’re doing things right, I think, you’ll have some people not like it. Crazy I know. But I think I’m right. Here’s why. If you have a unique voice or your characters’ voices are interesting and unique, that means some people are not going to like it. It’s just not their thang. And that’s okay. Make it bland, though? No one will find it objectionable, but are any of them excited? Probably not.

So what’s a writer to do? I like to invoke my uncle’s 40-20-40 rule. He got this advice when he became dean of a department — 40% of the people are going to like you no matter what, 40% will not like you no matter what, it’s the 20% in the middle you need to worry about. This rule is so handy and applicable that I’ve quoted it many times for different scenarios. It’s why politicians are really in trouble if they drop below 40% in the approval ratings, because they’re losing folks that would normally support them no matter what.

When writing, use this rule, too, during your critique period and also when it’s published. Make sure you show your draft to people outside of your 40%-guaranteed likes (i.e. your family and friends). One excellent place to get a wide sampling and great advice is my favorite critique forum: Critique Circle. It runs by a credit system — the more you crit others, the more credits you earn and so the more you can post for review. The other part I like is that it is broken up by genre and there are only a certain number of slots for each, so you’re guaranteed to get crits, unlike other sites where you join a huge long list and folks have to wade through. The more crits given in a particular genre for that week’s cycle, the more slots available for that genre for the next week. Check it out.

But then be prepared for diverse opinions! It can be very overwhelming and it’s tempting to take every single piece of advice. Make sure you evaluate each one, even if it’s contrary or hard to swallow. They may have an excellent point. Take a few days and let it sink in. If it will make your piece stronger, use it. If it resonates with you as the writer and fits with your vision, use it. But if it doesn’t, don’t. You’ll get ‘critters’ who don’t like your genre, so of course they’re probably not going to like your piece. Evaluate to see if the critter ‘gets’ what you’re trying to say/tell. You’ll soon get the hang of it. I had one critter in the beginning that was telling me to delete things that were what made my character different. She didn’t like the character and so was watering her down to what she liked. I didn’t take her advice because I knew this was how my character thought, and others were liking this exact aspect of her.

So, I’m going to risk that 40% will not like my character and my story and hoping the 20% in the middle do.

EDIT: A sharp commenter noted that this is a breakdown of the Pareto Principle, known as the 80/20 rule. The lesson is the same: concentrate on capturing that elusive 20% in the middle, and the 40 on either end are the ‘trivial 80%’ noted in Pareto’s Principle!

What has been your critique experience? Do you find this rule applicable as well? Do you think the percentage distribution is right? Or do you feel 30-40-30 is more accurate?

Photo by jared

Tweetables

  • Dealing with Critiques or Reviews – the 40-20-40 Rule click to tweet
  • When evaluating crits & reviews, aim for the 20% in the middle! The 40-20-40 rule click to tweet

Ready to Query? The Importance of Patience

I had a fellow writer friend ask my advice about the right time to submit to agents. She had everything mapped out admirably in her calendar, including sending it off to a freelance editor. She was doing everything right, except for one thing. She wanted to know if she could slot the query process into the same place in her timeline as when her book is with her editor. She’d heard how long agents could take and so thought she could telescope that part of the process.

This was back in May and I had done a short burst of querying at this point, enough to know this was a bad idea. I had an agent request a full in less than 24 hours. So I advised her not to do that. Sure, some agents can take up to four months to get to your query, but that’s not always the case, and don’t you want to be ready for those agents that are quick?

I started my full-press querying in the middle of last month (so almost three weeks ago) and again the experience bore out my advice and my own personal decision to wait until I had every little thing ready. Most agents are quick now, and from what I could tell on forums, if they’re interested they actually act faster. I had several ask for fulls within the same day!

It’s so hard to be patient but it really does pay off. The other part of patience I had to practice was during the polishing phase. I had all my Beta feedback returned in June and had incorporated all the changes and revisions before the RWA conference. It was so tempting to send off my conference partial requests then because I SO wanted to get this manuscript into the queue and move on. But fortunately (though I cursed it several times during the process) I saw a blog post around that time from Janice Hardy called The Spit Shine: Things to Check Before You Submit. I used it as a jumping off point, creating a two page list of “flag” words from her post and others. So for several months I entered into a Polishing Phase. I did a search for every word on that list and evaluated its usage. I probably trimmed 3000 words that way! Or sometimes the words helped me see I’d lapsed out of Deep POV, so I rewrote that bit. Then I did one final read through scrutinizing each word, each phrase to decide whether I really needed it. Was it redundant? Did it have any relevance to the story plot? If not, I deleted them. It was exhausting and numbing and several times I really wondered if this effort was worth it. It was like pulling teeth making myself do this, because this isn’t the fun stage of revisions.

I actually did get a little impatient at the end and began querying a few who didn’t need to see any sample pages on a Wednesday, which pushed me to finish the rest that weekend. So as I got through the first 30 then 50, I sent off my partials and began querying the rest on my list. I pushed through my reading and was ready to send out full requests by that Monday (and I had some already)!

Whew!

Was it worth the extra time and patience?

Oh, yeah! More on that next week :)

The important thing is: don’t rush. You spent so much time on your manuscript, why short change it at the end of the process? Agents are not your Beta readers. Are you querying right now? What are you finding in response times? Did you also have to fight your impatience during this phase?

Housekeeping note: I will be at Georgia RWA’s Moonlight & Magnolia Conference this weekend! If you’re going too, drop me a line. But this means there will be no regularly scheduled posts until next week.

Revision of Ending Complete, Or, be thankful for pushers

writing
Photo by Rae Grimm (bloodylery)

After much gnashing of teeth and hair pulling and Funyun consumption, I finally strapped myself down in a chair and got some emotions out people. Lord, was that hard.

As I blogged yesterday in Struggling with Revising the End, this was hard for me. I was resistant. It was like someone was trying to force vegetables down my throat.
 
I typed in some changes here and there over the weekend and yesterday moved a whole chunk around, but then I realized what I needed to do. Print the dang thing out. Sometimes I just can’t revise on a computer. So I took the printout to the little sunroom off my library and with paper and pen scribbled away. This accomplished something else: it kept me away from compulsively checking Twitter, etc.
 
Finished and had a long talk with my mom after, who’d read Why I’m Happy My Mom Hates the Ending… and felt reaaaaalllly bad and I told her NO, I want honest feedback. I have to have someone I can trust for that! Anyway, typed in my revisions and with the thankful help of my awesome critique partner Susan at critiquecircle.com I finally got it wrangled into shape. I sent her my new revision and thankfully she said nope, still not there, keep pushing, dig deep. So back I went, etc. until she gave me a big smiley face. Whew! Oh, and I got a “good job babe!!!!!” from my mom (who, thankfully, is a Tough Cookie and not your typical ‘good job, dear’ kind of Mom). Double whew!
 
This back and forth led my critique partner Susan to message me this morning wondering if we’d ever be able to learn to push ourselves, because we’ve both been good at pushing the other. I don’t know the answer, but I honestly hope I’m never at that point. I want to be pushed. I think there’s a danger in not allowing others to push you. What do you think? Do you have a pusher?

Dealing with Critiques – the 30-40-30 Rule

As a writer, at some point you will reach the stage where you will need to have others critique your work. There are many reasons to do so that others have covered before, but as a former computer programmer, one way I like to look at it is: you cannot test your own code. You think you’ve written the program to do exactly what you want, you test it and hand it off to the Beta tester. And they find mistakes. The reason is because they didn’t build it and so don’t know your thinking behind it and do what comes natural to them. Consequently, they take paths you never dreamed of and hadn’t tested for. Yikes!

How does this relate to writing? You think you’ve sufficiently explained motives behind character actions, or have shown the emotional reaction sufficiently because YOU know the character so well and know EXACTLY why they’re doing it and fail to see that it didn’t quite come across the way you pictured it. Oops! A good critiquer or beta reader will find these ‘thin spots’ for you.

Okay, so you’re ready to get critiques? Are you sure? I’d like to tout again this great advice from Writer Musings: How To Get The Most Out Of A Critique, Part Three: if you don’t know the heart of your story, you are not ready for feedback. This is so true because you are going to get a wide array of feedback. And by wide array, I mean some folks will hate a particular line and others will like that same one. Soon, you’ll be wanting to pull out your hair. Or, worse, you’ll take every single suggestion as gospel and water down your story, your voice, to such a state that it will be milquetoast.

The problem is, if you’re doing things right, I think, you’ll have some people not like it. Crazy I know. But I think I’m right. Here’s why. If you have a unique voice or your characters’ voices are interesting and unique, that means some people are not going to like it. It’s just not their thang. And that’s okay. Make it bland, though? No one will find it objectionable, but are any of them excited? Probably not.

So what’s a writer to do? I like to invoke my uncle’s 30-40-30 rule. He got this advice when he became dean of a department — 30% of the people are going to like you no matter what, 30% will not like you no matter what, it’s the 40% in the middle you need to worry about. This rule is so handy and applicable that I’ve quoted it many times for different scenarios. It’s why politicians are really in trouble if they drop below 30% in the approval ratings, because they’re losing folks that would normally support them no matter what.

When writing, use this rule, too, during your critique period and also when it’s published. Make sure you show your draft to people outside of your 30%-guaranteed likes (i.e. your family and friends). One excellent place to get a wide sampling and great advice is my favorite critique forum: Critique Circle. It runs by a credit system — the more you crit others, the more credits you earn and so the more you can post for review. The other part I like is that it is broken up by genre and there are only a certain number of slots for each, so you’re guaranteed to get crits, unlike other sites where you join a huge long list and folks have to wade through. The more crits given in a particular genre for that week’s cycle, the more slots available for that genre for the next week. Check it out.

But then be prepared for diverse opinions! It can be very overwhelming and it’s tempting to take every single piece of advice. Make sure you evaluate each one, even if it’s contrary or hard to swallow. They may have an excellent point. Take a few days and let it sink in. If it will make your piece stronger, use it. If it resonates with you as the writer and fits with your vision, use it. But if it doesn’t, don’t. You’ll get ‘critters’ who don’t like your genre, so of course they’re probably not going to like your piece. Evaluate to see if the critter ‘gets’ what you’re trying to say/tell. You’ll soon get the hang of it. I had one critter in the beginning that was telling me to delete things that were what made my character different. She didn’t like the character and so was watering her down to what she liked. I didn’t take her advice because I knew this was how my character thought, and others were liking this exact aspect of her.

So, I’m going to risk that 30% will not like my character and my story and hoping the 40% in the middle do.

What has been your critique experience? Do you find this rule applicable as well?

Photo by jared

Why I’m Happy My Mom Hates the Ending…

So, my mom is not your typical your-work-is-wonderful-dear kind of reader, which I’m happy about. I made the mistake of having her read a first draft, though, of an earlier work, and boy was that rough. It was good, but rough. Rough in the sense of seeing LOL written in the margins when it’s not supposed to be funny kind of rough. That manuscript is still sitting under the bed. But it means I always know where I stand, which I totally appreciate as not everyone is that honest.

So, with this new novel I waited until I was almost done with my third draft before I let her see it. And then I held my breath. Soon, I started getting text messages and emails keeping me apprised of where she was and how much she was enjoying it, and I’m thinking, is this my mom? Especially because she’s never read a Romance novel.

The positive feedback kept coming. Tuesday, 5:07 p.m.

getting ready to start chapter 18 tonight….and have to tell you that i just ran out and bought some dark chocolate….

(The dark chocolate is something that’s part of the story so it’s not the non sequitur it seems). Yesterday at 6:30 a.m.

hey, got up to chapter 25 last night! almost finished!

Until last night. Then I got bombarded with text messages and emails letting me have it. She’s mad at me, folks!  Here’s just some of what she sent:

Don’t have your correct email here so don’t know if u will get this. Finished the book and feel cheated.

Sent from my iPod

That was the entirety of the email. And then at the tail end of a follow up one, where she discusses what she didn’t like, was this:

i don’t know but but but

And here’s a text message:

what the hell! What about Phineas? What was all that stuff about?

So, I called her on the way into work to get more details, because this is like gold to me. She’s only the second person to read it all the way through in this form. She was so worked up about what I’d done to the poor hero and what I hadn’t covered, that at one point I actually had to say, “Mom, calm down.” She laughed and stated that, yes, her blood pressure was up. She was that incensed.

My ending sucks. I was worried it did and was also worried I’d rushed it, and not delved enough into the HEA moment. The first reader gave me that feedback. And now my mom with this reaction…

So, why am I happy? Well, because she’d had such an animated and emotional reaction to it, even though it was negative. She’s an artist, and she’d always told me growing up that a negative reaction was just as good as a positive one — that at least there was a reaction. In this case, at least she hadn’t shrugged her shoulders and gone, ‘meh.’

To me, it meant that she’d gotten so wrapped up in the characters and the story that she was pissed I didn’t end it in a satisfying way. Yes, it means my ending sucks and I need to rework it. And I will need to revise some earlier chapters. There’s a lot of work still ahead of me. But to my mind, her reaction meant I’d at least done one thing right that I didn’t need to scrap and rework, and that’s the connection she felt to my hero and that I’d pulled her enough into the story world for her to feel this strongly about a poorly executed ending.

At least, that’s my story and my interpretation of this morning’s call and I’m sticking to it. :)