Not to Be

During the course of a line edit, one of the most common suggestions I make is changing a variant of the word “is” into an active verb. While “there is” and “it is” are obvious culprits in passive sentence construction, I’d like to point out the other most common words associated with this static verb.

The first word is “now.” I won’t bother bemoaning the fallacy of using this word in prose written in the past tense, as most novels are. I will merely point out that “is now” usually is a shortcut for describing how a character got from there to here. Here’s an example: “I was now at an altitude of over thirteen thousand feet.” 

Think about that: could a person’s heroic efforts to climb so high possibly be written in a more boring fashion? How about the scratching of rock, the grunting, and the like? At the very least, the verb could become active: “I had vaulted to an altitude of over thirteen thousand feet.”

A second flag is the use of “it is” related to personal effort. The “it” in this case is the author’s comment on a character. Let’s take: “It had been an enormous struggle filled with doubt.” This is an inert lump of a sentence. In so many of these cases you can merely change the “it” to “I” and substitute an active verb: “I had endured an enormous struggle filled with doubt.”

A third marker is the use of the “to be” verb twice in a sentence. This often occurs when an author thinks of one quality a character possesses and then tacks on another, e.g.: “With reddish blonde hair, her name was Barbara, and she was an intensive care unit nurse.” Right away I’m thinking: reduce one of the clauses to a phrase; get rid of that second “was.” A good way to do that is invert the order of the sentence: “Barbara was an intensive care unit nurse with reddish blonde hair.”  

One primary benefit of stopping to examine passive construction is giving yourself the opportunity to think more deeply about what you want to accomplish in that sentence. How many interesting verbs could be linked with “an enormous struggle filled with doubt”? You start probing, you add richness. Do it 100 times, and guess what? The reader is a big winner.

Exercise: I should clarify that a form of “to be” can be used as a helper verb in a progressive sentence. That means that the action in the sentence is ongoing. “She was helping me lower the fire-escape stairs.” That’s not passive. “Was” is not the main verb. When you’re trying to trim “to be,” the sign to look for here is the “-ing” at the end of the verb following it.

“I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.” —Stephen King

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Oh, the Places You’ll See

Going on vacation would seem like an ideal time to write. You’ll have all those free days. Plus, you’re probably sick to death of the same old routine, in the same room, anchored to that cluttered desk. Travel represents a chance to have new experiences, widen your horizons, provide fresh ideas. Yet when you wake up the first morning in a hotel room, you find you have no intention of writing, none. You want to map out what you’re going to do that day, or you perform some familiar routines, such as checking out sports scores. The hopes you had for new invigoration have vanished in the sultry breeze.

What is the problem? Most likely it stems from trying to write in a strange place. No matter what writing habits you have—in a study or at Starbuck’s—you’re a world away from such touchstones for creativity. Oddly enough, inventing wild and crazy ideas often originates from a mundane, trusted locale.

You may be better off not trying to make progress on your present project. You want new ideas? They’re all around you. Why are you sitting in a hotel room rather than going out to find them? Not everything you write must funnel into useful activity. You know full well how many useless days you have sat at home not coming up with a blessed thing. Abandon the laptop for the phone, or for more old-fashioned types, the legal pad for the pocket notebook. You can stay engaged with the live wire of your writing. Just don’t expect it to be productive.

When you are merely recording impressions, you’ll find that exotic details recorded at the time may be transmuted into a modulated version once back home. You may write a detail about a tropical flower after a brief morning shower, but flowers do tend to be alike in terms of droplets and petals. More to the point, an exotic detail may lead your mind to wander onto a surrogate that would fit better in your homeland.

One good idea is to take some books that you had meant to read but never got around to. If you’re thinking of using a con man as a character, maybe you should bring Herman Melville’s Confidence Man or Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull. Spend a few weeks seeing how they did it without worrying about the mechanics of how you can. When you return home, you may find you’re filled with ideas sparked by your impressions.

Exercise: A profitable practice can be to challenge your foreign jottings when you return to your hotel room. Rather than merely one impression of gloomy light on the Thames, stop to think of the exact opposite: in full sunshine. Rather than rave review ad nauseam about the next sight you see, take a cynical view of it too. You may find the opposite version is the one that proves more useful later.

“Not all those who wander are lost.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Rings True

When an author tries to write about a subject that is unfamiliar, research is called for. Within the body of what is read lies two types of knowledge: not only what happened or would happen, but also the exact terminology used. The more general level is essential not to make mistakes that critics will cite with contempt. Yet words matter too, and you can gain belief from the reader because they sound so right.

Compare this laborious approach with the natural authenticity that, say, a former Amazon warehouse worker turned writer possesses. They know from experience what procedures are mechanized and what happens during the Christmas rush. Yet they can grab the reader at every step by the recall of what the workers would say and how they would say it.  

How can hazy notions be converted into exact prose? Let's say you're writing about a change of scenery in between the acts of a Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar. You write it out and realize the language is flabby. It's time to do some research.

Say you decided that a portion of the scenery walls—most people know they are called “flats”—painted to represent a temple in the Roman Forum, would be mounted on a “rolling platform.” Yet that’s not the correct term. It is a “stage wagon” or “scenery wagon.” Maybe you know that the wheels underneath the rolling platform can be stabilized temporarily by sticking wooden triangles next to them. Research discovers that they are called “carpenter wedges.” Further, you watch a video of three techs on the National Theatre stage moving a platform by pushing on horizontal bars sticking out from the back of the flats. But they aren’t called “bars”: they are “push poles.”

How much space did the scenery change take up in the manuscript? Probably a paragraph. All that scouting for a few sentences. Yet you can see how much authenticity is added by getting the terms right. You just had to read about people who make a living in the theater. Now that character moving the scenery sounds like the real deal.

Exercise: The key to this hunting and pecking is the willingness to stop. Read through a text to get the general sweep. Then read a second time looking for exact phraseology. When you see something interesting, write it down in a list. When you turn to writing, you may use only a third of what you have, but every one of them will strike the note you want.

“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” ― Neil Gaiman

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Hither and Yon

One of the problems with writing commercial fiction is that you can start to feel like you’re writing the same old crap. Good detective character, trail of clues, quirky companion  . . . yawn. You decide you can do better. Book readers are educated, and they want more than TV slop. As one of those readers, I am fully in agreement—depending on which new developments you choose to pursue.

Given that writing in-depth characters is the hardest job in fiction writing, it is not surprising that an author will pick from the range of other alternatives. One choice is to educate readers about each plot development. If an investigation is to lead the detective team on a chase around New York City, for example, a clue that leads them to Mott Haven in the South Bronx might be expanded by research into Robert Moses and the federal highway that split off a slice of the neighborhood in the 1950s. From there research (oh, I mean the detectives) might follow the highway south to the Triborough Bridge and what it replaced on Randall’s Island. Across the next river into Queens, hopefully to take in a Mets game, means investigating how Astoria was riven by several highways . . . 

I’m not disinterested in research about the city, particularly the more obscure corners, but the novel can start to take on the feel of a travelogue. Be it New York, Chicago, or the Wild West, if you dig enough, you can turn up interesting tidbits about any locale. If you are clever, you can assemble pieces of an entire history about it. Wherever the “detectives” go, there is gold in them thar hills.

The sticking point? If I wanted to know that stuff, I would read a nonfiction book. Skip the novel altogether. You are outsmarting yourself. Every time I have to pause for a page of research, I’m losing out on the two main reasons I read a mystery. One is the tension of the chase for the perpetrator, and the other is the immersion in the characters. 

Locale can be a terrific tool if you concentrate on looking through the eyes of the characters. If a detective’s Aunt Louise lived in Mott Haven and when her house was demolished to make way for the highway, she went batshit crazy, I am interested in Robert Moses and city planning. But not so much Moses and a lot more Aunt Louise, in proportion.

Exercise: In amassing locale research, try to assign the place in a progressive fashion: to a more featured character each time. That’s because readers will become bored if you keep traipsing off, using somebody as an excuse each time. If you’re really clever, Mott Haven contains a vital clue, buried for generations, that solves the mystery.

“If you wish to travel far and fast, travel light. Take off all your envies, jealousies, unforgiveness, selfishness and fears.”  —Cesare Pavese

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.