Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Today's guest editor is author and freelance editor, elis vidler. 

    q: I’m a new writer.  I took my manuscript to my first critique group and I’m overwhelmed.  Some circled every was, others my adverbs, some my adjectives, and some even rewrote my pages.  When what I really wanted to know if they liked the story.  Now I’m not sure I do.  How do I keep from getting discouraged?  ~ Mona

A:    Mona, first, you may be in the wrong critique group. If the members aren’t helpful and constructive, leave it. But take heart. I never met anyone who got it all right the first time. We have to learn our craft, and it does take work.  
The thing to remember is All things in moderation. “Was” and other forms of the verb “to be” are often overused, but some are needed to create a smooth, readable flow to the writing. Using only jazzy or exotic verbs is even more distracting.
Was often means the writer is telling instead of showing. For example, Leigh was a sweet girl. That’s telling the reader what Leigh is and what to think. Instead, try to show that she’s sweet by creating a little picture or scene, such as Leigh cut through the parking lot. A bag of groceries scattered across the asphalt at her feet. She ran around the old station wagon and found an elderly man lying on his side. Then you can show the kind of person she is in a couple of sentences. Showing takes more words, but the pictures have a much stronger effect than merely telling.
However, if the idea isn’t important to the story—say if Leigh is the cashier in a restaurant and never appears in the story again—don’t spend time on her. It may be better to tell it rather than slow the progress of the story with an unnecessary scene.
Was may also mean the sentence is in passive voice, where the subject does not perform the action. The ball was thrown by Karen. If you can add by someone other than the subject, it’s passive. To make this active, rephrase to Karen threw the ball. Use passive rarely. It depends on what in the sentence is important. The meeting was rescheduled (by the secretary) for Tuesday. This is passive, but it doesn’t matter who did the rescheduling.
Another use of was is the progressive form of the verb. He was running when the man attacked him is quite different in meaning from He ran when the man attacked him. Consider the meaning before you change those.
Look at each use of was and see if it’s needed or if there’s a more interesting way to phrase it.
About those adverbs—the ones ending in ly are usually the culprits, and they often modify a weak verb or attribution, such as walked or said.
For example, you might change She walked quickly to she hurried. Or He said softly to He whispered/murmured or He breathed the words in her ear, barely ruffling her hair or She strained to hear him. Keep working at those things.
Adjectives can be overdone too. If most of the nouns in a paragraph are modified by one or more adjectives, there are probably too many. When fewer are used, they have a stronger effect.
I hope this answers your questions, Mona. If not, feel free to contact me.
Thanks for having me on Five Scribes. I appreciate the opportunity.


Ellis Vidler Bio

Ellis writes and edits in the South Carolina Piedmont. All her books are suspense with varying degrees of romance. Her newest is Time of Death: When artist Alex Jenrette draws, scenes of violence appear. Will anyone believe she’s psychic and never saw them happen?
You can also learn more about Ellis at http://theunpredictablemuse.blogspot.com/

ReaDERS, have a question you’d like to ask an editor? Send it to me at BELLSON@COMCAST.NET AND IT COULD BE USED IN AN UPCOMING COLUMN.


Donnell said...

Ellis, thanks for being with Five Scribes today and answering Mona's question! Grand advice.

Ellis Vidler said...

It's fun, Donnell. Thanks for having me. I like writing and language and am always interested in how words are used to create stories. Imagination is a wonderful thing. We should celebrate it!

Linda Lovely said...

Ellis always provides good editing advice. I agree completely with recommending moderation to Mona. If more than one critiquer complains about the same thing, look at it. But it's still your story. As Ellis points out, uncompromising rules (like eliminated every use of was) make no sense.

Ellis Vidler said...

Thanks, Linda. You're the best I know at tightening prose. I learned a lot from you. Your books set a good example too.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Mona might consider taking a creative writing course instead of working with a critique group. Having taught creative writing at both the university and high school, I can say that it's best to have a professional writer and/or teacher who guides the group.

Polly Iyer said...

Excellent advice, Ellis. I've learned a lot from you. I've always said you've forgotten more about writing than I'll ever know. Great post.

Ellis Vidler said...

Jacqueline, Excellent idea. I taught Elements of Fiction at a community college. It was enlightening for me too. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. It's important to recognize both.

Karin Huxman - Romance Author said...

This was a great explanation of the use or misuse of "was" and passive verbs. Thanks for posting.