To “Was” or Not To “Was”

Her husband was deathly pale. His eyes started and bulged from their sockets. The car keys were in one hand. He was still using the other to shake her, although her eyes were open. It was as if he hadn’t been able to register the fact that she was awake.

Ah, the word “was.” Evil. Awful. Passive. The mark of the tyro. “Highlight each instance in your manuscript, and then delete them!” Verbal genocide! Death to them all! At least, that’s what we’re taught, right?

Before we declare a literary jihad against the third person singular past indicative of “be,” let’s look at that opening paragraph again, shall we?

Her husband was deathly pale. His eyes started and bulged from their sockets. The car keys were in one hand. He was still using the other to shake her, although her eyes were open. It was as if he hadn’t been able to register the fact that she was awake.

Six uses of “was/were” in five sentences. Had I presented such a paragraph to my critique group, I would have been metaphorically gelded for having perpetuated such a crime against literary humanity.

Except I didn’t write it.

So, what kind of hack does write like that? It’s is one of the opening paragraphs of a book called The Stand, by Stephen King. Maybe you’ve heard of him.

Anyway, let’s recast that paragraph, shall we?

The man hovered over his wife, deathly pale, his eyes bulging from their sockets. Clutching his car keys in one hand, he shook her with the other, although her eyes were open—as if he couldn’t register the fact she was awake.

There. The wuzzes are mostly gone, and I killed of a “that” for no extra charge. (And what was with the phrase “His eyes started and bulged”? Do eyes “start”? Maybe it was a typo and King’s editor was too intimidated to correct it.)

This must mean I’m a better writer than King.

Yeah, right.

What? Do I hear yowls of protest? Oh, good point. King could get away with it because he was a proven writer, a “name” who has already established his storytelling street cred. We who dwell among the literary hoi polloi could never get away with it!

Okay, let’s see how that theory holds up in the face of empirical evidence.

The primroses were over. Toward the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog’s mercury and oak-tree roots. On the other side of the fence, the upper part of the field was full of rabbit holes. In places the grass was gone altogether and everywhere there were clusters of dry droppings, through which nothing but the ragwort would grow.

That opening passage is from one of my all-time favorite books, Watership Down, Richard Adams’s first novel. At least, it was one of my favorites, before umpteen writing lessons, articles, and seminars forever poisoned my brain to writers’ use of “was.” (The same applies to point-of-view jumps, awkward transitions, over-exposition, and nearly every other lesson drilled into my author’s psyche. I’m guessing that most best-selling authors start out by spending their time actually writing, rather than “learning” how they’re supposed to write.)

Now it’s true, several agencies rejected Adams before his manuscript found a home, but that’s not really the moral of that story, is it?

Ah, another protest? Adams wrote Watership Down way back during the Nixon Administration, when cell phones didn’t exist, the Internet hadn’t been invented, and presidents had to resign over their scandals. In our enlightened, 21st-century awareness such writing would never see the light of print!

Oh, wait . . . what’s this in my daughter’s library?

My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirtsleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka.

Seriously? (Side note: Which airport, exactly, had its windows rolled down?)

This is not a passage by a well-established author who knows “when to break the rules,” or whose editor quakes in fear at suggesting she clean up her prose. Nor was it published in the literary dark ages, before we all “knew better.” No, that passage is from another first novel, published in 2005, called Twilight, by Stephanie Meyers. Maybe you’ve heard of that, too.

Were I to suffer some sort of stroke and decide to write teen paranormal fantasy, I might cast the above like this:

We roared down Interstate 10 toward the brown smudge that hovered, year-round, over Phoenix. My mom clutched the steering wheel in both hands, eyes straight ahead, tears occasionally pooling along her lids. Gusts from the rolled-down windows sent my hair dancing as I stared up at the perfect, cloudless sky. I wore my favorite shirtsleeveless, white eyelet lace. A farewell gesture, I guess. In my lap, I clutched my single carry-on item: a parka.

But really, why bother? Why labor over each sentence, expunging passive voice and empowering the language with active verbs, when clumsy, stream-of-consciousness writing, but writing that tells a good story (or at least a popular one) can land you a seven-figure book deal?

Not all books I read these days are written in such a clumsy style. (Only about 95% of them.) Here’s a novelist that actually appears to rework her sentences into stronger form.

Moonlight washed over the hillside, casting heavy shadows around a thick wall of thornbushes. The bushes surrounded a hollow with rocky sides that sloped down steeply to a pool in the shape of a full moon. Halfway up the side of the hollow, a trickle of water bubbled up between two moss-covered stones, glimmering like starshine as it fell into the pool below.

The branches rustled and parted as cats emerged at the top of the hollow and began to pick their way down to the water’s edge. Their pelts shone with a soft, pale light, and their pawsteps left a frosty glitter on the moss behind them.

Those are the opening paragraphs of the YA novel, Starlight—one of Erin Hunter’s series of Warrior Cat books. Maybe you’ve heard of her (but maybe you haven’t). But honestly, I suspect Hunter would have succeeded had she written it like this:

Moonlight was washing over the hillside, casting heavy shadows around a thick wall of thornbushes. The bushes were surrounding a hollow with rocky sides that sloped down steeply to a pool that was in the shape of a full moon. Halfway up the side of the hollow, a trickle of water was bubbling up between two stones that were covered in moss, and was glimmering like starshine as it fell into the pool that was below.

But thank God she didn’t. Even my middle-schooler would gag a little on that, if I’ve done my job as a responsible parent. But the books would still sell.

Even that Bible for writers everywhere, The Elements of Style, is guilty of perpetuating this nonsense. In the section on “Active voice,” the authors use the example: “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” as a passive structure and thus to be avoided like a bubonic-carrying rat. I’ll admit it’s not a great construction: “Dead leaves covered the ground” is much stronger. But it’s not passive! Passive voice would say, “The ground was covered by a great number of dead leaves.” Seems like the authors should have understood that distinction.

Furthermore, the above example is exactly the kind of sentence structure littering modern best-sellers. Same with two more of their examples: “The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired” and “It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had.” Neither of these is in passive voice; they are just examples of terrible writing. Sadly, S&W tend to corrupt their text with strawman sentences so awful that even writers of teen paranormal or adult bondage romance wouldn’t use. At least not regularly.

(In fairness, I don’t have the original book, by Strunk only. He may be innocent of some of this rubbish and has worn ruts in his coffin from spinning in his grave at White’s doing. Or vice versa.)

My point is, we shouldn’t fear the dreaded “was.” Even though it’s rarely a sign of passive writing, the word should be viewed with suspicion, like a tattooed, nose-ringed boy hanging around your teenage daughter: it’s still a good idea to watch them carefully. “Kirk was stirred by the slave girl’s dancing” isn’t passive, and is a perfectly acceptable structure. But, “Kirk’s loins burned with lust for the dancing slave girl” is much more dramatic—and better at describing the man’s wanton nature.

So fear not if the occasional “was” dots your manuscript, just don’t let them creep into sentences they needn’t inhabit. Strengthen your writing at every opportunity, avoid passive voice when possible, and always, always, always strive to tell a good story!

“Highly Recommended”

My second editorial review came in a while back, this one from Linking Ring Magazine, the magazine of the International Brotherhood of Magicians (the original IBM!):

As the inside cover notes, the book is about ‘a beautiful con woman, a corrupt P.I., ten million dollars–and bankrupt magician Jacob Reese caught in the middle. However, there is more, much more. . . . Miss Illusions is a good read full of magical happenings. It is hard to put down. I hope that Mr. Abbot writes another book or a sequel to this one. Highly Recommended.”

Linking Ring is not just a magazine that specializes in great magic; they have proved themselves a trusted source for literary recommendations!

"Highly Recommended"

“Highly Recommended”

How It’s Done!

After bitching about the techniques (or lack of) used by rich and famous writers whose paychecks have far more digits than mine, I’m going to give a nod, a tip of the derby, a laurel and hardy handshake to a guy that wrote with terrific voice, who could strengthen character and maintain viewpoint without setting off a blazing neon sign in my mind saying, “Warning! Authorial intrusion!”

The towel covering her hair made the rest of her seem more exposed, white and kind of puffy, more to her, like she had gained a good twenty pounds since taking off the housedress that hung on her. He saw now that it was that wild hair that had made her face appear drawn. He noticed bruises on her pale skin, on her arms and legs, that made her appear soiled, and, oh man, her behind filled out those shorts—Raylan watching her carrying their drinks to the table where she had shot her husband.”

The story is “Fire in the Hole,” the basis for the terrific television series, Justified. The writer, of course, is Elmore Leonard.

Leonard is universally acclaimed, and rightfully so, for his mastery of dialog. But he was also a master of voice and viewpoint, glazing each paragraph so richly that even when we weren’t in a character’s viewpoint, we were.

Here’s an excerpt from “Hurrah for Capt. Early.” A black veteran of the Spanish-American war is confronted by a pair of cowboys who challenge him about his service during the Battle of San Juan Hill—why he (Catlett) had returned from the war while one of their brothers, who had served with the Rough Riders, had not:

Catlett took all this in as he paused again, getting the words straight in his mind to tell how they left the road, some companies of the Tenth and the First, all regular army, went up the slope laying down fire and run off the dons before the Rough Riders got cut to pieces, the Rough Riders volunteers and not experienced in all kind of situations—the reason they didn’t know shit about advancing through hostile country or, get right down to it, what they were doing in Cuba, these people that come looking for glory and got served sharpshooters with Mousers and mosquitoes carrying yellow fever. Tell these cowboys the true story. General Wheeler, “Fightin’ Joe” from the Confederate side in the Civil War now thirty-three years later an old man with a white beard; sees the Spanish pulling back at Las Guasimas and says, “Boys, we got the Yankees on the run.” Man like that directing a battle . . .

Narrative, not dialog, but so firmly in the voice and viewpoint of Bo Catlett that I felt as though the old man were sitting on a rocker, telling me the story in person.

And one more, from “The Tonto Woman,” because I hope that in transcribing Leonard’s words a bit of his genius might get lost in my brain where I can someday use it myself.

She bathed at the pump that stood in the yard of the adobe, the woman pumping and then stooping to scoop the water from the basin of the irrigation ditch that led off to a vegetable patch of corn and beans. Her dark hair was pinned up in a swirl, piled on top of her head. She was bare to her gray skirt, her upper body pale white, glistening wet in the late afternoon sunlight. Her arms were very thin, her breasts small, but there they were with the rosy blossoms on the tips and Ruben Vega watched them as she bathed, as she raised one arm and her hand rubbed soap under the arm and down over her ribs. Ruben Vega could almost feel those ribs, she was so thin. He felt sorry for her, for all the women like her, stick women drying up in the desert, waiting for a husband to ride in smelling of horse and sweat and leather, lice living in his hair.

There was a stock tank and rickety windmill off in the pasture, but it was empty graze, all dust and scrub. So the man of the house had moved his cows to grass somewhere and would be coming home soon, maybe with his sons. The woman appeared old enough to have young sons. Maybe there was a little girl in the house. The chimney appeared cold. Animals stood in a mesquite-pole corral off to one side of the house, a cow and a calf and a dun-colored horse, that was all. There were a few chickens. No buckboard or wagon. No clothes drying on the line. A lone woman here at day’s end.

“Ruben Vega could almost feel those ribs, she was so thin.” “There was a stock tank and rickety windmill off in the pasture, but it was empty graze.” “The woman appeared old enough to have young sons. Maybe there was a little girl in the house.” Sure, those sentences are replete with “was,” a cardinal sin according to legions of writing instructors, but so what? The details, the sentence structure, the masterful way Leonard shares information about the setting and the woman through the voice and viewpoint of Ruben Vega far, far outweighs any nit-picking about using the “third person singular past indicative of be.”

I’d like to say this little series concludes my posts complaining about famous writers, but it probably doesn’t. And maybe that’s a good thing. We struggling writers can learn as much from the mistakes or weaknesses of good writers (or simply things we’d do differently) as by the craftsmanship of great ones. So until I’m too busy cashing checks to do otherwise, I’ll keep reading, keep complaining (no doubt), and keep looking for more writers like Elmore Leonard.

Point Without a View

Or is it, “View Without a Point”?

In Part Two of my series criticizing far more successful authors than I, I will again discuss viewpoint. In my last installment I complained about my hero, Dave Barry, inserting his own voice into narrative description which kept bumping me from the story. Today, I’ll discuss the opposite problem: no viewpoint—and no voice—at all.

I picked up a copy of Miami Blues by Charles Willeford, a book I acquired by accident, thinking it was written by Elmore Leonard. (Leonard wrote the forward to the novel, but not the book itself.) The book is, according to the cover, a “Hoke Moseley Novel.” Right away, I’m rooting for Willeford, because “Hoke Moseley” is a truly outstanding name for a character, any character. “Hoke” could be a crime-fighting, cat psychologist by day, and a vampire male stripper with a heart of gold by night and I’d give it a try.

However, Willeford lost me a few chapters in—in this case not because his voice was overshadowing the characters’ points of view, but because often I could discern no viewpoint at all.

In scenes where the characters are alone, Willeford places us firmly in their viewpoint. (Of course, one might argue, how could he not?) But in scenes with multiple characters, Willeford tends to write entirely in dialog, with no viewpoint penetration whatsoever. Allow me to demonstrate.

In this scene, Detective Moseley is informing a young woman of her brother’s death-by-broken-finger. Her brother, a Hari Krishna, accosted a recent prison parolee at the Miami airport, who promptly broke the young man’s finger in such a horrific manner the kid went into shock and died after the killer left. By a coincidence so astonishingly bizarre that I give Willeford some credit for having the metaphorical testicles to write it, the killer unknowingly hires the dead kid’s prostitute sister later that same night.

In this scene, Hoke is informing the girl of her brother’s death while the killer (Freddy) is sitting with them at their table. He has just offered Freddy a cigarette, but Freddy declined.

“I’ve got some bad news for you, Miss Waggoner. That’s why I wanted you to be seated. Your brother, Martin, in a freaky accident at the airport, died today. And your father, when we called him in Okeechokbee, asked us to have you identify the body. We’ve got an ID already from the other man who was working with your bother at the airport, so there’s no mistake. It’s just that we need a relative for a positive identification. After the autopsy we can turn the body over to either you or your father. Your are eighteen, aren’t you?”

“Nineteen,” Susan said.

“Twenty,” Freddy amended.

“Just barely twenty. This is hard to believe. How did it happen?”

“An unidentified assailant broke your brother’s finger, and Martin went into immediate shock and died from this unexpected trauma to his middle digit.” Hoke pursed his lips. “It happens sometimes.”

“I’ve changed my mind, officer,” Freddy said. “Can I borrow one of your cigarettes?”

“Sure.” Hoke offered the pack, and held a match for Freddy to light the cigarette.

Besides the fact the characters express less emotion than a Wal-Mart mannequin, you couldn’t find a viewpoint with a Ronco Viewpoint Detector. I felt as though I were reading a screenplay, except without even any “camera view” hints as to what the characters might be thinking or feeling.

Given the emotional potential and dramatic irony of this scene—a young woman discovering her brother is dead, killed by the man seated next to her—I consider Willeford guilty of dereliction of duty as a writer. There was no, “Hoke noticed Freddy’s hand trembling as he reached for the cigarette,” nor even a “Hoke fixed Freddy with steady gaze and asked, . . .” Nothing. As devoid of emotional content and character insight as the Star Wars prequels.

Dave Barry, Charles Willeford—what’s going on? Can’t writers use their voice in a way that strengthens viewpoint and characterization, adding emotional content to a scene, and do so without blasting the reader out of the story in the process?

Of course. And next time, I’ll give an example of a guy who does it brilliantly.

Bounced by Barry

I’m about to commit blasphemy.

Dave Barry has probably influenced my “voice” more than any other single writer. I love Barry–as in man-crush love. (His writing, not his manly physique or cutting-edge hairstyle.) I can only dream of being as talented, or successful, as he. That said . . .

Recently, I picked up his recent novel, Insane City. I found it rather flat, something unthinkable when reading Dave Barry. The problem wasn’t so much the characters, the plot, or even the humor, but rather how Barry used humor in this story.

The following except was particularly jarring. In this scene, Barry’s main character, Seth, is entering a Miami-area bar during the “Miss Hot Amateur Bod Competition.” Here is how Barry describes the scene:

Standing near the DJ were a dozen young women wearing garments that, if all of them were combined, might have provided enough fabric to make a sock.

“We should stop here,” said Kevin.

“No, we shouldn’t,” said Seth. “We should get to the Ritz.”

The “sock” line isn’t bad. Had it appeared in one of Barry’s non-fiction pieces I would have laughed, or at least chuckled. But in this case the line jarred me right out of the story. After a moment I realized why:

Because the line isn’t in Seth’s viewpoint—it’s in Barry’s.

I’ve read tomes describing the importance of viewpoint and all its myriad rules. (Rules that virtually every best-selling writer seems to break at will, but that’s another issue.) Nothing Seth has said, done, or observed to this point in the story led me to think he would use this kind of hyperbole. The line describes nothing of Seth’s reaction to his situation; it’s merely setting. But as soon as I read it, I thought, “Dave Barry.”

When Barry is writing non-fic, we are in his viewpoint. Exaggeration is how Barry views the world, not the characters in Insane City. Had Barry written something like, “Standing near the DJ were a dozen young, nearly naked, women. Seth calculated their square footage of clothing at just under one sock,” the narrative description would have provided setting while the subsequent viewpoint (and voice) would have belonged to Seth, instead of the author. We would have observed the scene the way Seth did, and gathered something about his character as well.

As a comparison, here is a line from my novel, Miss Illusions, where my protagonist, magician Jacob Reese, finds himself in a similar situation thanks to the mysterious con-woman (Nikki) who has whisked him into her world:

Nikki turned into the lighted room, and Jacob heard several squeals of delight. He stepped into the room behind her and froze.

A half-dozen women came rushing up to Nikki, women as beautiful as they were naked, and vice versa. Jacob felt his lower jaw drop somewhere around his top shirt button as he tried to look everywhere and nowhere at once.

By keeping this moment in Jacob’s viewpoint, I try to describe the setting (a roomful of naked strippers), Jacob’s reaction (fish-out-of-water astonishment), and by the juxtaposition of those elements something about Jacob’s character—the tension between his lust and chivalry.

Later in the scene, after Nikki, to Jacob’s horror, has introduced him as a famous porn star:

Sugar stepped closer, her nipples pointing at him like a pair of lethal weapons. “Looking for new talent?” she asked, running her fingertips over the inner curve of her breasts. “Maybe you could give me an audition. . . . I’m up for taking it to the next level, see what these puppies can do!” She gave her shoulders a little shake. Jacob’s pants tightened in such a way he wondered if he was supposed to pay her money.

In this scene, Jacob feels threatened (“lethal weapons”) by the stripper’s nudity and brazenness. He has a natural, healthy male reaction to her, but the final phrase (“he wondered if he was supposed to pay her”) illustrates his awkwardness and discomfiture. By staying in his viewpoint, I have simultaneously described the scene and further established Jacob’s character, hopefully by layering my authorial voice into Jacob’s personality rather than imposing it onto the narrative.

Perhaps this is a minor complaint. Perhaps it arises only because I’ve been conditioned to look for viewpoint issues from about a thousand books, articles, workshops, seminars, and panels I’ve endured over the years. But I found myself unwilling to finish Insane City because I wanted to feel like I was reading a story about real people, rather than fiction interspersed with authorial witticisms.

Even witticisms by one of my heroes.

My first book signing!

Well, that was weird.

I did a book signing for a local magic club. Most people didn’t know me from Adam Sandler, yet suddenly everyone was throwing money at me, asking me for dedications, buying them as gifts for friends, acting like I was a real writer or something.

Like I said, weird. But really cool.

That's me, in the back. (The handsome, dazed-looking one.)  Note copies of my book scattered about.

That’s me, in the back. (The handsome, dazed-looking one.)
Note copies of my book scattered about.

Irony, restored!

Okay, I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a fan of Captain Literally, the Studio C character that restores balance to the world when people misuse the word “literally.”

Now, the good Captain joins forces with Captain Irony, the Nuclear Ninja, and others to improve the accuracy of English-speaking souls everywhere! Check it out, it’s literally a YouTube video: