Thursday, May 5, 2011

Guest Post: To “Was” or Not to “Was” by Laura Kaye

I want to thank the Five Scribes for having me over today, and boy do I have a treat for you! Prepare to bask in my sexiness and charisma! ‘Cause I’m here to talk about “to be” verbs! LOL

Okay, maybe grammar discussions aren’t so very sexy, but they are really important to our writing. We’ve all heard that agents and editors dislike “to be” verbs.  The general wisdom states that is/are (in the present tense) and was/were (in the past tense) should be avoided in favor of more unique, intriguing, and evocative verb choices—and I agree.  For example:

      He was running so fast through the forest, branches scratched his arms and face.
      Is grammatically correct, but better like this:
      He ran so fast through the forest, branches scratched his arms and face.

      And even better like this:
      He crashed through the forest, his accelerated breathing loud in his ears and branches  whipping against his arms and face.

But there’s more to understand about “to be” verbs than meets the eye.  I’ve had contest judges circle instances of “was” in my writing and label it “passive voice”—they’re often wrong.  Passive voice has a very specific meaning that people often misunderstand.  Passive voice occurs in the very specific instance when the subject appears after the verb in a sentence, and the object appears before the verb and subject.

      Normal sentence structure:  Subject – Verb – Object
      Passive sentence structure:  Object – Verb – Subject

Passive voice is usually problematic because it obscures who/what is acting and also leads to wordiness. For example:

The ball was kicked. This is passive. The ball is the object. The subject is not in the  sentence at all, but is implied after the verb “was kicked”--i.e. The ball was kicked by the  girl (7 words).  The active phrasing of this would be: The girl kicked the ball (5 words).  Subject appears before verb, thereby avoiding passive voice.

It’s worth noting that passive voice is not grammatically incorrect, but it’s also usually not the best choice in your writing because it tends to obscure meaning and slow pacing, neither of which you want.  It’s also worth noting that you should try to learn what passive voice is and how to avoid it—while grammar checkers in word processing programs will flag some of it, they usually only catch a small percentage of it.

Not all uses of the “to be” verb result in passive voice, however, and this is where those contest judges got it wrong.  People often confuse true passive voice with the Progressive Verb Tense, made by combining was/were with a verb ending in -ing (Past Progressive; Present progressive would be is/are with an -ing verb). For example:
The girl was kicking the ball when the dog bit her. -- This is grammatically correct and  NOT passive (note that the subject (the girl) appears before the verb (was kicking);  progressive verb tense is used to describe an action progressing now or an action  occurring when another action occurs.  So Progressive Verb Tense establishes an action’s  place in time relative to other actions.

Now, that’s not to say there aren’t more compelling ways to express the same idea.  For example, you could enliven that last sentence by saying:  Just as the girl kicked the ball, the dog lunged for her, his teeth sinking deep into her calf.  But while the latter is more interesting (to me, at least), neither is grammatically incorrect or passive.

True passive voice should be eliminated most of the time in my opinion because it tends to create unclear, wordy constructions. Progressive verb tense is correct, though writers should still try to use it sparingly because it’s usually not the most compelling phrasing you can create and agents and editors generally dislike “to be” and -ing verbs in general.

So, got a passive sentence you can’t figure out how to make active? Hit me! Paste examples of passive voice from your works in progress or even other authors’ published books (you don’t have to identify the title, if you don’t want), and I’ll take a whack at making them active!

So, go forth and be active! *grins* And, thanks for having me here today!
Find Laura on the interwebz at her website, blog, FaceBook, Twitter (@laurakayeauthor), The Wild Rose Press site, and Goodreads. And don't forget to check out the trailer for her new book Forever Freed, available May 20 from The Wild Rose Press:

My heart may not beat, but that doesn’t mean it’s not broken.
After an isolated century mourning the murder of my long-ago family, I crave the irresistible scents of joy and love that radiate from my new neighbors, a single mother and her young daughter. I’m starved for their blood, and for the healing respite from my ancient grief that will accompany drinking down their life-giving emotions. Now to lure them in.

But they surprise me. Little Olivia accepts me without fear or reservation—talking, smiling, offering innocent affection that tugs at my long-lost humanity. Her mother, Samantha, seeks me out when she should stay away, offering sweet friendship, and calling to the forgotten man in me. They lure me in.
Aw, Dio, Lucien, run and spare them while you can…
Lucien Demarco, vampire hero of Forever Freed--to make up for all the grammar talk!


Donnell said...

Laura, thank you for the grammar lesson and I so forgive you for Lucien's picture. Wow! You gave great examples, and your rewrite verbs were powerful and active.

I'm still rubbing my leg from where that dog lunged and sunk his teeth in to that girl!

Great job! Thanks for being here.

Laura Kaye said...

LOL Thanks, Donnell! Glad you found it useful! And thanks for stopping by!

Hit me with your worst passive voice, people!!! :)

Michele Jensen said...

Nice post, Laura. As you say, these types of constructions aren't grammatically incorrect, but in many cases they don't make for compelling reads.

When reading a story in its entirety, it is oftentimes difficult to spot the slow downs, which is why, as an editor, I try to read through stories twice before passing judgement. The first pass, I look for potential. Is the plot so compelling I'm carried forward despite mechanical issues? The second pass, I determine just how much fine tuning is needed before a story would be ready for publication. This determination is made by reading each sentence on its own.

So, my advice to writers is first read the story through for continuity. Then read the story backwards for mechanics. It's amazing what comes to light.

arialburnz said...

AWESOME POST, Laura!! I'm still waiting for someone to drop their sheet! Ahem! ;)

Yer puttin' me on the spot here! I can't come up with a passive voice I'm having problems with. I'm going through my manuscript today and if I find one, I'll come back here. Not that I don't have them, mind you! Goodness knows it was something I struggled with quite a bit.

Hittin' the next blog!

That's my two pence...
Arial ;)

Laura Kaye said...

@Michele--interesting take on your way of evaluating, and gives authors a way of organizing their own editing too!

@Arial--boy do I love your persistance. I promise Eric Northman WILL drop that sheet, but what fun would it be if he just DID it??? The anticipation's key! ;)

Michele Jensen said...

Yes, well we all have our own processes. I didn't mention sometimes it's impossible to do a complete read through because the mechanics are so bad. Didn't want to be too discouraging.

Laura Kaye said...

Thanks for having me over to the 5 Scribes! Enjoyed! :)