No, I’m not talking about Daleks, but verbs.
Last weekend I attended my first Romantic Novelists’ Association conference. What a fabulous event! Everyone is so friendly and welcoming, and the range of talks offered made it difficult to choose. I changed my mind several times and still regret switching out of the session on alternatives to MS Word.
I left more enthused than ever to finish my current writing projects. This means, however, I am editing novels rather than writing new stories. I am a member of the New Writer Scheme. This means I can have a manuscript assessed by an experienced romance writer, as long as I submit it by the end of August. Some organised people have got theirs in already.
I have a finished novella which has been rejected by Carina. I could send it in now, but…
I have improved areas of the story which I think lacked passion (this means emotional power, not more sex) and am now on the final proofreading. Or so I thought.
I am hopeless at proofreading my own work, so I have a paid-for electronic editor, ProWriting Aid, which picks up a lot (but not all) of the problems. One of the features it offers is overused words. This is a handy function but, to my chagrin, almost always lists the same problem verbs: was/were (or is/are if I’m writing in the present tense), have/had, knew/know, think/thought, could, feel/felt.
Why are these a problem? With the exception of ‘could’, they are all stative verbs, that is verbs which describe things. They tell the reader about something rather than show it in action. This is one of the reasons so many writing blogs advise chasing down and exterminating the verb ‘to be’.
Let me explain a little more about stative as opposed to active, or doing, verbs. Stative verbs indicate:
- properties or states of being/belonging: That was my ex-husband. Morally it was right. Damian was so angry that … Your colour is better. These things had no place in the field
- ownership: Probably she had friends who were lords. I’ve a croft about a mile from here.
- thoughts and opinions: You wouldn’t believe how many emails that generates. I know this is a fling. I didn’t recognize you. I woke up and saw sense.
- senses: She felt the kick of adrenaline… “Thank God,” Damian said when he saw them.
These are all examples from my novella, Digging up the Past. After working through the first 12 pages yesterday, ProWriting Aid still advises reducing was/were from 590 to 476. I have no idea how it comes up with this second figure, but it signifies that I’m probably telling more than I’m showing so some rewriting is necessary. The important point is how to go about it.
You will find plenty of advice online, but
I find a lot of this ends up simply substituting one verb for another or adding in a cliché. For example, instead of ‘The room was very silent,’ a suggested rewrite was ‘Silence filled the room’. Really? In my opinion, this is unimaginative writing of another kind: yes, you’ve eliminated a ‘was’ but not in a good way!
You can’t exterminate ‘to be’ or ‘to have’. Sometimes they form part of the progressive tense and that is correct for the situation: “I was taking a bath when the intruder broke in.” If you change this to ‘I took a bath when the intruder broke in.’ it means something completely different. Leave it in.
Sometimes it is right to tell: it moves the story on quickly.
Dialogue is another issue. The sort of writing I do — romance and women’s fiction — contains a high proportion of dialogue. People use the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to have’ a lot when speaking: writing these verbs out will result in some unwieldy utterances. For example, ‘That was my ex-husband.’ is spoken by my heroine to the hotel keeper who has just encountered the dastardly Jonathan. How else will Lauren convey this fact without sounding like a thesaurus? Ditto ‘I had no idea’ and ‘I’ve a croft about a mile from here’. There are alternative ways of phrasing these, but they aren’t necessarily better in context.
So, I am concentrating on the problem verbs occurring outside speech because that’s where the most gain will be made. ‘She … felt the kick of adrenaline that came with the start of a new dig.’ probably needs to go, especially as it’s in the first paragraph. How to do that without descending into purple prose will be a challenge. If you have any suggestions, please
let me know inform me leave a comment.
Nobody said writing well is easy.