Let’s Talk about WAS

“Was” is a nasty, dirty, filthy word, am I right? “Was” means, oh my God, you are writing in the passive voice, and all passive voice must be eradicated from your Work in Progress, or you are going to fall into the fiery depths of writing hell when you die.

fire-298105_1920

Indies are told it’s bad, that you need to take it out of your writing. Even when I edit for others, I will find it, give the authors the bad news that yep, they used it 4,000 times in a 70,000 word WIP.

But just how bad is it?

I’m reading The Snowman by Jo Nesbø right now. I love it. I saw the trailer for the movie, and I wanted to read the book before I watched the movie. (Chances are after I finish the book I won’t want to watch the movie anymore, but that’s a different blog post.) But you know what I saw when I opened up the book? Well, yeah, I saw the front matter, the title page. But what was the first sentence of the first paragraph?

It was the day the snow came.

A book by an acclaimed author whose book was turned into a movie started his book with passive voice. He could have written, Snow came that day or It happened the day it snowed. Something. But he didn’t. Why didn’t he? Why didn’t his editor catch it? Ask him to fix it? I wonder how many “was” words he uses in his book.

When should you write out “was?” Here’s what I think.

wite out

When it’s an indicator of tell, not show.
This is another no-no in the indie world. Always, always show, not tell. And for the most part, I agree. Description is always a lot better than telling your reader something.
When I was editing Don’t Run Away one of my little triumphs was:
Dane was livid.
I turned it into:
Dane trembled with rage.
You can see right away that’s a better way to go. I didn’t do it so much as to get rid of the “was” word, but I wanted my readers to picture what Dane’s anger looked like.

When the sentence simply sounds better without it.
This is tricky because how do you know? You can try to rewrite your sentence, but if you can’t get it to make sense without “was,” leave it alone.  Writers use “was” because it’s easy. It’s a lot easier to say, The sky was blue, rather than, The blue sky shone; not one cloud masked its brilliance. But not every sentence needs to be written that way–it’s up to you as the author to pick and choose, to decide where you want to put your energy.

When you freaking use it too many times. 
It always sucks when you do a search to see how many times you’ve used a crutch word. Just, 500, that, 1,000. Nodded, smiled, rolled eyes, shrugged.  “Was” is no different. If you have a ton of them, it could mean you are doing more telling than showing, that you’ve gotten a bit lazy, and you need to examine your WIP to see what you can fix. A paragraph describing a room like this:

The bedroom was small. A bed was pushed against the wall to make room for a desk that was filled with papers. A dog was sleeping at the foot of the bed, and a picture was hung crookedly on the wall. The rug was dirty, and the closet door was open, revealing clothes hanging haphazardly on their hangers.

Can be turned into this:

A dog lay on an unmade bed that had been pushed against the wall to make room in the small space. A desk filled with paper sat under an open window.  A rug that had seen better days lay in front of a closet that hadn’t been closed properly, and Janet wrinkled her nose in distaste at the mess inside. She straightened the crooked picture on the wall before leaving. Jack wasn’t there. She’d have to look for him somewhere else. 

Not only are you getting rid of “was” words, you are getting rid of repetition. I’ve edited for a few people whose paragraphs sound the same. Subject + verb + the rest of the sentence. If you want to get words down and move on, that’s fine. Some writers like to worry about the editing later. But please do go back and mix up your sentence structure. Sometimes this includes getting rid of “was”, sometimes it means starting a sentence with a prepositional phrase.

When you can fix the verb.
Don’t say, He was standing say He stood. She was watching turns into She watched. This is an easy fix and will save you some words too, if your WIP is bloated and you need to cut it down.

Rewriting some sentences that have “was” in them can make a sentence or paragraph stronger, can show your reader something instead of telling them what is going on.

But I also think that “was” is a lot like “said” in that it is invisible to a reader. The room was dark, and Stacy stumbled. We know what that means. We can picture that just as clearly as Stacy couldn’t see two inches in front of her face. She didn’t know what lurked in the shadows of the bedroom, and she tripped over God knew what when she gingerly took a step inside. Did the second example sound better? Maybe it did, but it’s also exhausting to read that all the time. It’s also exhausting to write that way. If every author tried to eradicate “was” from their writing, every book would be as thick as a Stephen King novel.

There is room for “was,” and I’m not as hardcore to get rid of it as I used to be. As long as you’re conscious of how many you have, if some of them can be replaced with something stronger and you do, then you’ll be okay.

Sometimes we can get too caught up in following every single rule out there. And it’s disheartening to be trying your best when you read trad-pubbed books doing things you’re trying not to do. Give yourself a little break. Keep on eye on the numbers, take your beta-readers’ opinions to heart. Listen to your editor.

Avoiding “was” hell won’t matter too much if you’ve trapped yourself in editing hell. Find a happy medium. Your sanity, and your readers, will thank you.

How Do You Feel When You Get Your Work Back From Your Editor?

As a writer, putting your work out there is difficult. It’s probably the number one reason writers don’t publish: they are afraid of people seeing their work. And not only seeing their work, but judging it. I’m editing Summer Secrets right now. My editor (I feel like such a professional writer when I say that!) sent me back my novellas, and over the past week, I’ve slowly been putting in the revisions she suggested and fixing the mistakes she found.

You would think that I would be ecstatic that my novellas are so much closer to publication, and don’t get me wrong, I am. But you know how I really feel when I go through all her comments and suggestions?  Shame. Embarrassment. Sadness. Fear.

Shame

The definition of shame from Merriam-Webster is:

shame definition

When I go through my editor’s comments (and let me be clear, these are all my feelings, not caused by my editor. My editor is a professional, in that she is kind, supportive, and in no way hurtful or disrespectful in regards to me and my work) I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed I made the mistakes I made. I’m a writer, aren’t I? I can’t see for myself I used the same word five times in two sentences? I can’t see for myself my two main characters have names that are similar and therefore yes, a reader may mix them up, and why couldn’t I choose different names, for crying out loud?  In the definition above, 1a mentions shortcomings.  Uh. Yeah. Nothing makes you feel like you are less than a writer than when all your mistakes are highlighted and accentuated with a comment. Definition 3a mentions regret. Yep. I have a ton of regret in that, why didn’t I find all these mistakes before I passed on my work to someone?

Embarrassment

Embarrassment goes hand in hand with shame. I’m embarrassed I sent her my work with so much wrong with it. I’m embarrassed I didn’t try harder.  Never mind how many times I read through them, never mind that I used Grammarly, then read them again. Never mind I spent money on printing them out to edit a paper copy. I didn’t try hard enough to make them mistake-free. That’s my inner critic talking, my irrational, unrealistic inner critic. Because any writer knows how impossible it is to catch all your own mistakes.

embarrassed

But it’s how I feel when my eyes slide away from a highlighted paragraph and the comments telling me what’s wrong with it and possible ways to fix it.  My cheeks heat up, I have to swallow hard, and I have to force myself to just get on with it.

Sadness

Sadness is probably the weakest feeling I have when I edit, but it’s still there. I get sad that my editor had to work so hard, I get sad when I feel like I could have tried harder. I get sad when I think there are better writers out there than me. Sadness waltzes with self-doubt in my heart when I see how many comments she made in my document. But you know what else I get sad about? Thinking about not writing anymore. That makes me sad, too.

Fear

fear of writing

When I searched “fear in writing” I found this lovely drawing on Lynette Noni’s blog post. I have a lot of fears about my writing, and yes, they come out when I’m editing. I fear I’m not a good writer. I fear I’ll never sell any books. I fear I’ll never be able to make a career out of my writing. After all, I can’t be a good writer if my editor finds all these things wrong with my book, right? And I want to be a good writer so I can sell books, so people can say, “Wow, that was probably one of the most emotional, heart-wrenching books I have ever read.”  We all want to be writers who touch someone in some way with our work.

But What Else . . .

But you know what else I feel when I edit? I feel joy. I feel happy when my editor says she enjoyed a setting description or how I nailed how a character feels with show and not tell.  I get excited when she tells me she loved an intimate moment between two characters, and a “More please!” in the comment section. I get excited when she congratulates me on proper grammar.

I’ll feel pride when I hold my published books in my hands, when my friends, family, and co-workers congratulate me on being tenacious, of having a dream and working toward it.

The act of writing and publishing is no doubt an emotional roller coaster ride. There are ups and downs, you’re thrown sideways and completely head over heels. But the trick, and oh my, is it a trick, is to keep fighting. To not let those negative feelings overwhelm you, to let them win. Surround yourself with friends who know what you’re going through, who will support you, and not let you give up.

If I have any advice from going through the editing process, it’s to keep your mind open and learn. Learn from what your editor is telling you. S/he’s on your side. Your editor wants to you to put out your best work, and that undoubtedly is your goal too, which is why you hired one. Don’t take their advice and suggestions as hurtful criticism, (unless it is, then you need a new editor) take their feedback and turn it into a positive learning moment. I’ve learned a lot going through my editor’s feedback.

I took a break from editing to quickly write up this post. I’d come to a paragraph where her advice was hard to swallow. I see it, I understand it, I agree with it, but there again, those feelings come up. Why didn’t I see this? Why did I send my work to her this way? What is so wrong with me I couldn’t fix this on my own?

Nothing is wrong with me. Nothing is wrong with you, either. We’re all human, and doing the best we can.

For more articles about fear in writing, look here:

http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/10-ways-to-harness-fear-and-fuel-your-writing

http://www.prolificliving.com/overcome-fear-of-writing/

Bad Writing Mistakes

I’ve written a lot in the past two years; I’ve read a lot too. I’m trying to get better, and every time I delete the words “s/he thought” out of my manuscript and just write it like the plain old monologue it’s supposed to be it’s a big deal. I used to make my characters “think” everything. Their minds were probably smoking.

When Joshua Edward Smith (you can find his amazing books here) took a chance on me and read my NaNoWriMo project from 2015, he did me an enormous favor. He told me to get rid of the “prettys” and the “justs” and the “reallys” and all the “thats.” (I did and deleted half my manuscript, haha.) He told me I was head-hopping. He told me the reason for my “major conflict” was unbelievable (I write contemporary romance, so there’s always a “big fight”). He pointed out things I should have known as a life-long reader and holder of a Bachelor’s in English degree. But writing is a different thing, and writing a full-length novel in a month did not help. I didn’t know how to write then, so maybe the time frame didn’t matter. Anyway, his feedback was priceless and though I’ve beta-read for him twice now, I still may never pay him back. He reminded me how to write, and I will be forever grateful.

Jewel E. Leonard (you can find her wonderful books here) edited On the Corner of 1700 Hamilton. It’s funny because with all the writing I had done up to that point, I still hadn’t found my voice. I can reread that book now, and I can tell you the minute I fell into the rhythm of my own writing. Paired with actually finding my own voice and her fabulous editing, 1700 turned out okay. I say okay because, well, I’ve come a long way since then, and I wrote it the best I could with what skill I had at the time.

Fast-forward 200,000 words and several self-editing books later, and I think I’m a pretty good writer. I wish I had more time to write because at times I feel like I’m floundering, but I’ve come a long way in the past two years.

But I still make mistakes, and I’ll probably never be able to get avoid hiring an editor. I’m being responsible, though, and doing my best to become the best writer I can be, so their job is a lot easier.

Mistakes I still make, and mistakes I’ve seen others make, as I’ve paid forward Joshua’s kindness and beta read for other writers, are:

Using the Word “Had”

Had. Had had. It’s a third person past writer’s nightmare. When do you use the damn thing, and when do you don’t? I’ve tried to look up the rules, and the rules are about as clear as a mud puddle.

when to use had

This is probably the clearest explanation I’ve ever found on the subject. When I write, and when I edit for others, I use my woman’s intuition and hope for the best.

Being Lazy

Get, Got, Had, Has, Put. These are the laziest verbs I’ve ever seen and can be easily substituted for a real action. I’m guilty of using these. Especially if I’m on a roll and cranking out words.

She got off her horse. Really. She didn’t jump, slide, or fall?

He put the paper away. He slid the paper into the file folder.

She put her coat on. She threw her coat over her shoulders and rushed out the door.

If I edit for you and I see these, I’ll tell you these are lazy and to do better. You always can.

Being Too Wordy

New writers keep an eye on their word count like a falcon on a mouse in a field. It hurts to take out words, but it will hurt your read more to read the useless ones you’ve kept in your novel.

When I edited Summer Secrets, (six novellas totaling 150,000+ words) I mean, really edited them, I took out, on average 1,000 words a novella. That’s 6,000 words in total. My editor very well may find more. My favorite editing book I’ve read so far on the topic is Rayne Hall’s The Word-Loss Diet. (You can find it here.)

Head-hopping

People defend head-hopping because authors still do it. I guess I shouldn’t say still. Ernest Hemingway was famous for letting you know every single thought of every single character, including animals. So, yeah. But he’s not being newly published today; you’re hoping you will be, and the general consensus is you don’t head-hop. It’s tough advice to dish out because I’m reading a book right now where the author head-hops between the two main characters, and it doesn’t matter who’s POV the scene starts with. It’s a contemporary romance, and I’ve been told that it’s more common in that genre, and maybe even more acceptable. But I would caution you doing it because it can quickly become out of control, and take it from a head-hopper–it’s hell to fix.

Person/student/mom/dad/author/parents = who, not that

This is probably my biggest pet peeve of all. People are who. Students are who. Parents are who. Humans are who. Authors who use “that” to refer to people drive me nuts. When you use “that” to refer to a person, you are turning them into an object. Please don’t do that. Companies . . . that. Maybe.  I do not use companies that hire people who are rude to their customers.

Naughty words

I have a list of naughty words that I find and delete after I complete my mauscript. Words I use on a regular basis that I don’t need like just, pretty, really, that. Those are just for starters.

When I’ve edited for people I’ll get snagged by a word, and out of curiosity I’ll search for it to see how many times it pops up. When Joshua told me to look up some of these words, I was appalled to realize I used “just” over 500 times. Pretty and really about the same as well.

You can go crazy with actions too. How many times does your character nod or lean? Shake their head? Furrow their eyebrows. Frown. Sigh. Shrug. Does your herione’s heart skip a beat so many times she needs heart medication? If you can get a good editor or beta reader or critique partner who (do you see what I did there?) can read your work for you, you can make up your own list, but for now, here’s mine:

Starts, started, start

Turns, turned, turning

Looked, peered, glanced, stared, studied, gazed

Frowned

Could

Sighing, sigh, sighed

Breathed, breathing, breaths

Smiled, smiling (use other ways to describe their happiness)

Wondered, thought, understood, realized

Nodding, nodded, nods

Shook (the ‘no’ gesture)

Felt

Relaxed

Just

Really

Only

Pretty

Very

 

Obviously, I could go on and on, because many books have been written on this subject, and I encourage you to read them. I love Ashley Forge’s Self Editing for a Penny. She taught me a lot, and I recommend her book over and over again.

There’s no way you’ll ever avoid not ever needing an editor, but you can teach yourself to write a cleaner manuscript. Being self-aware of common mistakes, and understanding why these are mistakes, can take time, but one day you’ll be able to crank out a fairly decent rough draft. Read, read, read, and write, write, write.

It all starts there.

Thanks for reading!