Monday, June 22, 2009

BE Verbs Be Gone

When I'm penning a first draft, I often don't care about verbs. Since I just wanna get my ideas down, BE verbs tend to fall into the mix. But for me, they stand as mere placeholders.
BE verbs certainly seem innocent enough. Am, is, are, was, were, been, being and be are efficient, unobtrusive, neat and tiny. They don't create snags. No one has to look them up in a dictionary. They are standards in the English language, but those little buggers possess dangerous power.

They proclaim laziness, an abundance of weak and/or passive sentences, as well as amateur status. But mostly, they lack sparkle and smother your narrative voice. I know many published writers use BE verbs, and often, but if they'd stretch a little, then narration, exposition and First Person drones with lackluster personalities would come alive in new and unexpected ways. Because I am so conscious of them, I find them very distracting in published novels, especially was and were, especially when used 90% of the time. You shouldn't cave to that bad habit just because others get away with it. Choose to take pride in your craft and make your sentences shine.

It's amazing what a bit of tweaking can do for your voice. You want your work to possess freshness and zing, not banality. So when you're at the editing stage, work on nixing as many BE verbs as you can. I don't trim them all out. I usually let about 20% remain, where they work/flow/fit well. Works without any can feel too heavy and clunky, but go for the much prettier cousins when you can. Use BE verbs where it would cause a trip-up if you didn't, kind of like when you twist your sentences all around to avoid ending with a preposition and end up transporting your readers back to the 1800's with your very perfect grammar. If it sounds more natural and easier to read with a BE verb—or a sentence-ending preposition—then choose readability over greatness. You want your story to be told in the clearest, best possible way.

Here are some examples of sentences from which I extracted wases:

He was curious to know what they’d do if real guns aligned with their chests, heads and dicks.

He smoldered with curiosity to know what they’d do if real guns aligned with their chests, heads and dicks. ("smoldered with curiosity" reflects the POV character's darker state of mind. "was" dies on the page)
* * *
Getting to gloat to the Wasps’ athletic director about today’s victory was a definite managerial perk.

Getting to gloat to the Wasps’ athletic director about today’s victory thrilled as a definite managerial perk. ("thrilled" brings in some emotion and characterization)
* * *
Small American flags and seasonal banners, suspended for the St. Patty’s Day Parade, were on utility poles.

Small American flags and seasonal banners, suspended for the St. Patty’s Day Parade, still garnished utility poles. ("still garnished" sets up my next sentence which explains how long those embellishments stay up.)
* * *
Not all words were clear, but what she did gather sent tremors down her spine.

Not all words came out clear, but what she did gather sent tremors down her spine. (not too much different, but "came out" reflects reception and stimulus now.)
* * *
Do you see how using stronger, punchier verbs, infuses the prose with some pizazz and life? The content is the same, but they sound better, read better and make the sentences overall more interesting.

Sometimes Be verbs ARE the perfect verbs for a sentence. Weigh each one you come across. If stretching gives you nothing better, let it stand. Here are some wases I kept because they held strength as they were and conveyed exactly what I wanted:

The seventeen-year-old shuddered at the skeletal hand, pointing. Someone was going to die, but who would even believe her?
* * *
It was the touching, her slender hand slipping willingly into his large mitt, caressing it with waving fingers, that caught Crystal's eye and triggered an eruption of sneezes.
* * *
In the same vein, 90% of the time, the combos of There was/were, That was/were are unneeded. Just write in what's there. (There was a biting chill in the air that I could feel in my bones. v. The biting chill in the air slithered into my bones. Go for straightforward, active sentences, which are always more engaging.) You can use such a combo for effect on occasion, if you want to create a sense of eeriness for instance, but keeping a sentence passive when it could be active is just poor writing.)
Regarding BE verbs, with a little mental acrobatics, you can often come up with a much stronger way to say the same thing. Stretch yourself. Making the extra effort will enhance your prose enormously. Go ahead and use BE verbs as placeholders, but consider many of them to BE on the chopping block, and when the time comes, hack them off without mercy.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Novels Aren't Like Coffee, Pools & Cigarettes

One of the best ways to engage your readers is to make your POV characters identifiable, feared or intriguing. And you do that by making motivations and desires clear, including various types of sensory impressions and giving your characters multiple facets like quirky interests or occupations, different proclivities or issues that can affect how he or she reacts like phobias, skeletons buried deep in the closet, job tension or fatigue from insomnia. Okay. Check. You've done that. Good.

After all this great character building, does your work contain some unwanted distance? Are critters saying your work is pretty good but not engaging? Does your prose feel a bit clumsy? Filtering may be the cause.

Filtering is good for coffee, pools and cigarettes, but not novels. Yet it's something writers do too frequently because they don't know they shouldn't. But it's something you should watch for and avoid in your work. When you use combos like she saw, she felt, she heard etc., instead of just naming the stimulus, and sometimes the reaction, it zaps a reader's connection with the scene character. Saying what’s observed or detected with a filter creates distance and makes readers feel like they’ve been ushered outside the POV just a little bit instead of right there with it. Plus, it mucks up work with superfluous words.

Whether you’re using First, Subjective Third or Omniscience, filtering should be kept at a minimum. Here are some examples that show the difference:

She smelled burgers and bacon from Yesterday’s, which incited hunger pangs. (filtered)
The aroma of burgers and bacon from Yesterday’s incited hunger pangs. (direct)

She noticed the dogwood blossoms that settled on his black Corvette sail off and flutter to the pavement. (filtered)

Dogwood blossoms that settled on his black Corvette sailed off and fluttered to the pavement. (direct)

When she heard a window pane shatter and clink on the wood floor like crystal rainfall, she scampered for a place to hide. (filtered)

When a window pane shattered and clinked on the wood floor like crystal rainfall, she scampered for a place to hide. (direct)

To find the filtering in your work, look for noun-verb combinations like: she felt, she knew, she saw, she smelled, she heard, she tasted, etc. and could-forms like: she could feel, she could sense, etc. and rewrite them so they're non-filtered.

In some instances, it’s effective to use a filter like this:

By the time she caught wind of his black cherry-leather cologne, her neck was in the stranglehold of a muscular arm.

She heard somewhere that filters can kill an otherwise good novel.
You can also use a filter to help set up POV. In Omniscience, filters tend to be used more often, but once POV is established, they can be omitted. If your chosen narrator remains at a distance from all POV characters, not quite as far-removed as Objective/Dramatic nor as close as Subjective, then filtering can be used to maintain this distance throughout.

Filtering is a beginner's mistake so it comes off as amateurish and that's not the kind of impression you want to make. Rock on. Write on. Be direct.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Presenting Your Best Stuff

If you've completed your first manuscript, congratulations to you on your accomplishment. You rock! Although you may be tempted to find an agent pronto, don't do this. Some writers are so anxious to find representation when, or even before, they type THE END, that they send out queries before the work is truly finished. Definitely don't do this. A blog post on Authonomy from a published author with multiple works on bookstore shelves recommended you do this. That is grossly bad advice. Bad. Don't listen to her or your inner impatient beast. Wait. You need to edit your work first, many times over before you do anything with it.

In the competitive world of publishing, especially during this economic crunch where less books will roll out in ink, you want to present your best stuff, not your first draft, not your half-written draft. And because you can't be objective about your own work, you will need to find some reviewers who can give you deep critiques, not just looking for grammatical booboos but also for solid beginnings to each chapter, hooky endings, a good amount of conflict, inconsistencies, plot holes, overused crutch words or turns of phrase, pertinent dialogue, good flow and rhythm, etc. Your editing phase should not be just an effort to find your missing commas, it should be about examining the whole structure and individual parts, then polishing your work and bringing it to a plane of excellence so that it can stand out like a glorious, cut jewel in a land full of rocks.

The biggest problem with rushing out of the gate too fast, is if you query agents with sub-par work, polishing as you go, and garner enough rejections to wallpaper your bathroom, then you will have no one to query but the dregs in the bottom of your barrel when your work is pristine. Once you query an agent with a particular work and get a NO, that's it; you can score him or her off you list. Even worse, if you've been rejected, some agencies don't even like you to query other agents in their employ, so not only have you missed out on one agent but potentially many.

I know one overly eager writer who has queried many agents but is still tweaking her first chapters, and by tweaking I mean writing completely different scenes, and trying to adapt her book to YA. I have no clue why anyone would query when they haven't even deemed their work done but she has. One of her problems was she had too many reviewers commenting on her work and she got frazzled by the conflicting advice.

* * *

With critique, you must take everything with a grain of salt. If many people are saying the same thing, it's time to listen and consider a change. But if one person is saying this and another saying that, go with your gut, go with what works best for the story and trust in your vision.

* * *

So, this writer, who has a wicked fab concept and a stellar writing ability to weave good characters with intriguing complexity BUT holds a slightly frayed piece at present, has burned bridges to success. Who will she query when her book finally extends beyond being potentially good to just plain good? Anyone? Anyone? Crickets are chirping.

Don't make that mistake. Make sure your work is complete, good, polished and gripping. Don't take another step until it is. Just don't.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Shocked by the King

Since I've been running along at a good clip on penning my sequel and editing Kings & Queens, I've resurged my leisurely book reading. Last Monday I checked out five novels and I've already read three: Wicked Lovely, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and The Devil's Labyrinth. I read all of those books with the eye of a critter rather than a random reader. Why? Because I can learn from things that are done well and things that fall short. All of them were pretty well-written. I especially wanted to read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King because it featured a young girl who got lost in the woods and I wanted to read a book on a realistic circumstance to see how he ratcheted up suspense in that case. Plus, I knew it would have some tidbits about the Red Sox, and since I'm a Sox fan, double whoot!

It was a good book overall, but if I'm being honest, the first third of it ran off kind of rather clumsy and rough. It seemed as though a new student had written it rather than the King of Terror. I even said so to my husband while I was reading it. "I can't believe Stephen king wrote this. It doesn't sound like him." Each chapter was marked with a different inning, which was cool. The first chapter opens by telling readers the girl is already lost and then feeds us all sorts of backstory about the character's life and circumstances. This chapter seemed like it was more like brainstorming notes for character and premise building rather than an actual chapter. If he had just let the story unfold in real time instead of telling she was lost, then jumping back and giving a landslide of backstory right there, it would have been a much stronger beginning. It also needed to be gleaned and cleaned up, like Varitek's misspelled name.

I've read a few works written by him, and he seems to prefer omniscience. That's fine, but sometimes his jumps to a different perspective can be jarring rather than smooth and in this book he had some of those bumps. Another thing that gives it an amateurish feel is the superfluous there wases and she felts throughout the work. Though short, this book could have used a bit of a trim and a stronger editing eye.

But following the rough start, he did a really good job of describing the young girl's plight as she tries to trudge through and find escape from the dense, bug-infested woods and bogs filled with terrors and grossness at every corner. She finds some comfort in listening to Red Sox games picked up by her walkman courtesy of WEEI and also by fantasizing of her crush and hero Tom "Flash" Gordon. King describes actions and the setting very well so eventually you get over the distance created by the omniscient voice and feel as though you're right there with her. And of course, he added in an ominous threat, which adds to the suspense.

If a newbie tried to shop work with an intro like this, it would never fly. Because he's the King, he can do pretty much anything he wants. Generally, he can tell a good tale. If you're expecting his regular brand of terror, you'll be disappointed. I wanted to read something with this particular shade of conflict, so it worked for me. It was a good book, just not stellar.

If you're a newbie writer, kick off your novel with good guts and hook readers in chapter 1. Write away and rock on!

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.