Friday, March 18, 2011

Dancing the Manuscript Tango

The tango, historically speaking, is a dance of power and fire between two men. I know it has become a sexual, sensual writhing, but in its origins it is purely a combative and dominance-seeking display of peacocking.

I'm dancing the tango with my manuscript.

And it's a bloody fight.

I wrote this novel in May or something like that. Then I let it sit for a while. Then I edited my first round through. I got rid of a lot of the adverbs (thank GOD for that) and did some shimmying (and murdering) within my storyline.

Now I'm in the second round of edits - my lovely M. Baker is editing me for flow and other general crap I didn't notice and, thanks to her, I was directed to Frances Pauli’s passive verbs workshop. I am not ashamed to admit that a fair bit of this information is going to be paraphrased from that marvelous workshop. Also, if you’re super-nice to her she might even send you a copy…

Now I'm dancing the manuscript tango.

Manuscripts do, in general, none of the following:

They don't "ing"
They don't "ly"
They don't exist
They don't do
They don't have
They don't tell

Okay, I know that sounded completely illogical - hear me out.

They don't "ing" - It is in your best interest to get rid of present-tense participial phrases.

Example: I watched the smoldering fire.

This is not nearly as strong as it could be. By putting in the present participle “smoldering” to describe the fire you cut out a fair bit of emotion.

Strong Example: I watched the fire smolder down to charcoal.

By having the fire doing something while the character is doing something you increase the action in the scene, but it doesn’t necessarily seem action-packed.

They don't "ly" - Adverbs are the spawn of Satan more often than not. They lead to a mass abundance of weak verbs, weak adjectives, and all around weak writing. Adverbs are, when push comes to shove, the easy ticket away from effort.

Example: He walked lazily.

Now, this is a technically fine sentence – show it to any grammarian and they should have no problems with it. However, why should you modify the verb that way when you could say any of the following to achieve the same effect?

He galumphed.
He meandered.
He sashayed.
He loped.
Et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum.

They don't exist - this is when we get to the passive verbs of death. A story where things exist and do nothing else is boring (thank Keri for putting it that way.), so eliminating 99.98% of "was", "were", "be", "been", "being", "am", and "are" is not a bad thing at all.

Example: They were running away from the freakish monster.

Yes, I suppose that they could be doing that…but why? That “were” is completely extraneous and makes it all sound like some show that you’re watching. The idea of reading is to be fully immersed in the story and the world.

Strong Example: They ran away from the freakish monster.

It’s a simple change that will heal your writing’s wounds.

They don't do - The verb "to do" is very weak. People can run, walk, fly, glide, or scream - why should they have to be resigned to doing things?

This one tends to not be as simple a change as for the “to be” verbs.

Example: They did the dance.

Yes, I’m very certain that they did the dance. More likely than not that has already been established. How did the whole thing happen, though?

Strong example: Maria flung herself through tight twists and clutched her partner’s hands in a death grip. Their shoes clacked on the hardwood floor with every step.


They don't have - again, "to have" is not the strongest of verbs, but this refers more to the use of "had run" or "have received".

Example: He had run into the building.

Yes, eliminating “to have” verbs requires a lot of reworking – you often have to change the tense of an entire paragraph or, if you get really unlucky, an entire chapter that was written as a flashback or a story.

The important thing, though, is for the reader to be pulled in, so if that means changing everything in your book from “had killed” to “killed”, it should be worth it.

(As a side note, people and things shouldn't "go" very much either - verbs are all about specifying.).

They don't tell - Yes, you can use "to tell" in your writing still - calm down. I mean showing vs. telling. Why? Which of these is more powerful?

Example: Georgio ran through the halls, cursing his lateness.


The paint blurred into a solid, encroaching wall as Georgio cursed his lateness.

Admittedly, yes, there is telling in both of those sentences, but the point is that giving the visual of him running is far more powerful to the reader than just saying he ran.

Back to the tango.

The "find" function is my new best anti-hero. I love that it's there to find these hideous little words hiding from me, but I hate the fact that it shows me these errors (if that makes any sense).

Go on and pull up your manuscript in your favorite word processor – it’s okay, go on and do it now, I can wait. Now, type the word “was” into your “find” search box – I recommend you have a box of chocolates nearby when you hit enter – or some Prozac, either one is fine.

Hit enter.

Go ahead and scream now – you’re entitled to it. Throw the chocolate/Prozac into your mouth, take a deep breath, and laugh at yourself – trust me, if you can’t make a joke out of your passive verbs and whatnot you’ll turn into a moody drunk and you won’t write ever again. Eliminating all of those is your goal – and you will fail. It’s okay to fail on this, but if you set your sights on eliminating every passive word you will have a stronger novel/story/what have you, and that’s the goal of writing.

Okay, well, happy tangoing…

1 - and - 4
1 - and - 4
1 - and - 4
1 - and - 4



Frances Pauli said...

A standard recommendation on the had thing, if it is a flashback to a past, past tense, is to use the had before the verb in the first sentence of the paragraph and the rest of the verbs in that paragraph contain an implied had.
If its a long passage in that tense, or a chapter, you can use the had verb only in the first sentence of each para. and it cuts down on the had had had and keeps flow plus doesn't require you to change the tense of your flash back.

Ex: Once, he had liked spam. He had eaten it regularly and he had even argued in favor of the crap.

change to: Once, he had liked spam. He even ate it regularly and argued in favor of the crap.

you know that ate and argued are far past becasue of that first had liked, and you dont have to keep adding hads along the way or lose your tense.

Telling vs. showing is one of the hardest things for most of us to really understand. I still struggle with it, and if probably deserves its own post...wait, maybe I'll do that?

Susan Wells Bennett said...

I'm visiting via West of Mars, and I really enjoyed your post. Great summary of words to avoid!

Jaleta Clegg said...

I'm from West of Mars today. I liked the post. Great advice. It's hard and painful, but it strengthens your writing.

BTW, is there a schedule to these posts? Do each of us take one day a week or just post when we feel like it? I've got a great post on word stutters.

Frances Pauli said...

we're just making sure the post above us has a few hours on top at least before we bump it down...otherwise, post away!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

You know, the Edittorrent blog is one of the best out there that focuses on word choice and the hard mechanics of writing. The women who run it are professional editors and man, do they know their stuff.