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

Writing Tip: 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:

  • 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. 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?

I tried applying this tip to this blog post when I came back to revise it. Sometimes I was successful succeeded, sometimes not. For instance, what’s a better way to say these phrases?

  •  which is important to remember when applying this guideline
  •  The point is to be aware of it

Firefly Friday – Flip that Cliché, a writing tip

Last Friday I wrote a blog post on the spur of the moment – Writing Lessons from the TV Show Firefly - in which I talked about some of the common writing tips, especially in openings, that are well illustrated in the pilot of the cult TV Show Firefly.

I’m still getting my blog feet wet (ooh, dang, the water’s cold!) but one thing I know I won’t get tired of writing about, and that’s this show. That post has gotten the most traffic and comments so far, so I thought I’d try to do this weekly and call it Firefly Friday. I know there are other writers out there who are fans as well, so please feel free to view the comments section as your space too, to expound further!

Today, I thought I’d focus on cliché’s in writing, and how we can turn that cliché into something fresh, funny and/or unexpected. How to do that? Flip it! and flip it good! (okay, was I the only one that sang Devo’s Whip It there?)

What this means is to use a cliché and bring it right up to the point where the reader is expecting the typical ending, and then surprise them with a completely different outcome. The show’s creator, Joss Whedon, and his team of writers were very good at this.

Here’s a scene near the end of Train Job, which was the first show to air on TV, and so was the pilot, but was actually the second episode (Don’t get me started!). Mal, the captain, (in the brown duster) has turned against the person who hired them (for an excellent reason) and so is about to give the henchman (with the face tats) the money back:

Here we have the henchman giving a very melodramatic cliché speech (delivered very well), and I know when I first watched it I thought, okay, so this guy’s going to be the main guy’s nemesis for the rest of the series, and then wham!

Here’s another example, this time in Shindig, written by Jane Espenson. Mal has just won a sword duel against a superior (in skill) opponent. His supporters tell him he should finish off the opponent and why. Mal responds “Mercy is the mark of a great man,” but then watch what he says and does next:

Both scenes still get chuckles out of me. But they also illuminate character, so they don’t just serve as opportunities to get in a chuckle.

I’m sure there are more scenes in Firefly that illustrate this. What are your favorites? Have you taken a cliché in your own writing and flipped it? Share it below!

EDIT: For more on making clichés work for you, see Janice Hardy’s post You Spin Me Round: Making Clichés Work for You

Writing Newbie Tip: Adverbs can also indicate you’re telling

writing

Photo by Rae Grimm (bloodylery)

I’m a relatively new writer learning the craft and am painfully aware I have a long way to go. I learn new things every day. This post today is for new writers like me, because often I think more experienced writers forget what it’s like when you’re first learning. They already know so many tools and methods that a lot of it is now instinctual and so might not think to state things that are obvious to them.

One thing I’ve noticed as I write, edit and critique other work is that I can learn something conceptually, but until it clicks I haven’t really learned it. Case in point is the writer’s bugaboo: adverbs.

We’ve all read and heard that you should avoid adverbs when possible. This won’t be the usual admonition to scrutinize each one to make sure you’re not using a weak verb. I think that concept is easily grasped once a newbie reads about it.

Sometimes, though you’ll run across a little more in-depth tip that tells you adverbs may also indicate you’re telling. Okay, so I read that handy tip but it didn’t quite sink in as something I really understood until I finally saw a piece in my own writing earlier this summer that made me sit up and go “oh, dummy!” The passage was when my hero was picking the lock on a desk drawer. I had him pull out his nice leather pouch of picks (starting to show, good) but then I stopped the showing short by concluding that sentence with ‘and he went expertly to work’ — When I came across that I thought of how I could show that he was an expert and not just tell, so I did some quick research online and then rewrote it to show him picking out a certain tool and then closing his eyes as he listened to the tumblers, etc. I never said he was an expert, but, hopefully, I showed that he was by how he did the job.

BEFORE (From the second draft):

Taking out his set of lock picks enclosed in a soft leather pouch, he went expertly to work. Soon the lock and drawer opened with a satisfying click and rasp of wood against wood. A leather-bound journal was the sole occupant. Surely this would have the evidence he sought.

AFTER (From the third draft):

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