To Be or Not To Be

These days, it’s hard to be anywhere when you have no internet or phone connection.  Absence is one of the trials of traveling around the country like we are–you never know when you will be out of touch.  I’m writing this from the local Ignacio, New Mexico, library on the Ute Indian Reservation.  All you readers and writers out there, remember to support your local library!

“There are eight computers lined up against the south wall of the library.”

Hey writers, do you know what is wrong with that sentence?  It reeks of dullness.  When I read it, I think, “So what?”  Unless, of course, your point is:  “Here’s a list of the things I see, a rather uninteresting list and they don’t do much but sit there.”   Your reader doesn’t know why, but is disappointed and unexcited by your writing when you use a “to be” verb phrase, especially at the beginning of a sentence, paragraph, or chapter.  Like Hamlet, these items exist, but don’t contain any action.  Even Hamlet wasn’t all that interesting until he decided to act.

It is, there is, there are, etc.  When you are editing your work, look for these “to be” verb phrases and replace them with more interesting, active verbs.  Doing so might even lead you into a nice metaphor or simile.  As in:  “Eight computers strategically line the south wall of the library like little soldiers waiting for duty.”  Okay.  You may think the sentence is a little silly, but at least it’s interesting.

So, find these little devils and perk up your writing by replacing them.  You will be surprised by how much better your story or article will read.  I was.

I may be posting from the Sky Ute Casino next time.  They are supposed to have a pretty good buffet.  Oops, was that a “to be” beginning back there?

Show and Tell

Remember Show and Tell from Elementary School?  It wasn’t Show versus Tell, or Show instead of Tell, it was Show and Tell.

Show, don’t Tell, is what the writer is continually told, and this is good advice . . . usually.  Do not tell us your character is afraid; show us his fear.

As P. Bradley Robb says, every rule has an exception.   Knowing when to show and when to tell is the sign of a writer who has learned her craft, of a writer who has found his voice.

One instance telling makes sense is when showing will slow down the pace when it is appropriate to speed it along.  It always takes more time, more words to show a thing than to tell it.  Sometimes showing can get wrapped up in unnecessary detail, relating a writer’s knowledge, knowledge that is not necessary to the plot, the scene or the character.

Another would be filling in background information, description or events that are not as important as scenes that you want to stand out, those which you will show.

It is always a case of:  Is this scene, description, character trait important enough that it must be shown? How will showing affect the tension and pace of the story?  If important showing slows down the pace too much, perhaps it is misplaced.

Back to my own novel now — hope I have shown everything at the right time and place.

Writing and Bowling

First, my sincere apologies for not having updated this blog for so long.  Last week we found out my husband has melanoma, and it knocked us both sideways a bit.  Today is exploratory surgery, and we will learn more.  Enough of that.

I have begun editing my Civil War novel, after letting in hide away for a couple months.  How interesting.  I word-searched the phrase “There is” for starters and received over two hundred hits.  Good grief Charlie Brown!  If there is anyone out there who does not know, this phrase, or any other form of the verb “to be” is not a good way to begin a sentence.  “There is a lot of rain blowing against the window” is so flat compared to “Rain blows against the window in torrents.”

Writing reminds me of learning to bowl when I was in high school.  My father taught me.  From the moment you hold the ball and look down the lane at the pins, you must remember to relax, let your arm fall straight down in an arc, release your held breath, left foot first, bend a little at the knees, lift behind exactly straight, look right at where you want the ball to go, keep your hand straight, thumb next to you, fingers on the side, the ball must just kiss the board, point it where you want it to go, etc. etc.  I am sure I forgot something.  Do it and do it and do it until those little synapses in your brains and arms and fingers are built and do everything automatically.  Lots of time and lots of practice.  Same with tennis, soccer, horseback riding, football.  Writing.

The Second Draft

You are ready to edit into your second draft.  First, do the mundane stuff:

  • Run spellcheck, only do not depend on spellcheck to catch everything.
  • Check grammar and punctuation
  • Look for those extraneous adverbs, particularly those pesky ones ending in “ly.”  She does not speak softly, she murmurs.
  • Delete cliches with something original.  This includes overused words.
  • Turn passive to active.  The book was not dropped by him.  He dropped the book. This also includes words like was, is and have – be more descriptive.
  • Have you varied sentence length?
  • Check for words such as like or as.  A metaphor would be better.
  • Many editors do not like the word, There, to begin a sentence.
  • Points of view should be clear.
  • Fix pronouns without clear antecedents.

The not so mundane:

  • Does your beginning have a “hook?”  Are the first paragraphs interesting enough to make the reader want to keep reading?
  • Does the ending satisfy?  You have given your readers expectations.  Have you satisfied them?  Recall the books you have read where the ending either disappointed or was “just right.”  Why?
  • Does the end of each chapter make the reader want to continue to the next?
  • Be sure you are showing, not telling.
  • Timing/pace.  Do not include information all at once.  Build intensity, then give the reader a break.
  • Are your characters’ motivations clear?
  • Use figurative language and simile whenever possible.  (Again, be careful of cliches.)
  • Stephen King came up with an idea.  If you have not beforehand, when reading through your manuscript, look for symbolism and theme.  He cites the recurrence of blood at three crucial times in his novel Carrie.  He realized how its meaning for sacrifice, virgin blood and its emotional connotations would add to the meaning of the book.  Symbol “can serve as a focusing device for both you and your reader, helping to create a more unified and pleasing work.”  He also says beware of forcing it; it should come naturally.  If it does not, do not force it.
  • Theme relates to why you bothered writing the story.  What is it about?  In your second draft, you want to make this clearer.  Focus.  If there are paragraphs, scenes, even whole chapters of your manuscript that do not relate to this theme, delete them, or save them somewhere for another story.

I will have the detail about all this in future posts.  Stay tune.