Beat Changes

Those who knew me back in high school or college know that, while I did do creative writing groups back then, I was really more of a drama kid. Fall semester always meant the school play, and Spring the musical. While acting and writing are certainly different art forms, I do thank that experience for helping with one very important part of creative writing: Dialogue. You might be speaking someone else’s words when reciting a script, but you certainly develop an ear for how conversations flow.

The other very important lesson I picked up was beat changes.

You see, unlike a novel or short story, plays tend to give very little direction. You might see something like:

John: (sarcastic) No. Really?

Which would tell the actor how the line is meant to be read, but, for the most part, the script allows the actors to make roles their own without any sort of narration that says how each line is meant to be delivered.

Because of this lack of direction, it also is up to the actor to figure out where there are natural pauses, emotional changes, or just separate thoughts all crammed into one line. These breaks are–as my college drama professor was always prone to yelling at us–beat changes. And they are very important to acting. By picking out where there are natural shifts, it is possible to add complexity to a scene rather than just speaking the words.

In writing fiction, there is something similar. While our characters might not be picking out all of the emotional shifts in a scene, breaking up the beat changes for the reader will make for more powerful scenes.

So, how do you do that? The easiest way is to give the readers a natural pause. This gives the same effect as an actor physically giving the audience a beat change. Pauses can be done a number of ways, but the simplest to use dialogue tags/narration properly.

For example, say your character has a beat change between two sentences in dialogue. Just the line might be something like:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore. Are you listening to me?”

There is naturally a beat change between those two sentences. Without any sort of break between the sentences, however, they end up mushing into each other. There is no “beat” for the reader to switch tones in their head. The emotion you have for “I just don’t know what to do anymore” carries straight over to “Are you listening to me?” By instead writing:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore,” she said. “Are you listening to me?”

You have a natural break between the lines. It can be stretched out a little longer using “She paused” depending on what suits your scene.

These beat changes can become even more powerful by using the tag to “show” the emotions/stretch out the beat (rather than just using the word “paused”). For example:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore.” She sighed, looked up again. “Are you listening to me?”

Now there’s action “on stage” that is showing the switch in thoughts, along with a sizable break between the two sentences that gives the illusion of the character pausing–all using body language, like an actor would.

To really stretch out a beat change, you can even separate the dialogue all together. For example:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore.” She sighed.

John stared at his hands.

Jane frowned. “Are you listening to me?”

Even though John doesn’t say anything in the scene, throwing him in there with his own action stretches the silence in the reader’s head, leaving no mistake that these are two separate thoughts.

While what is said is always important to a story, it is also sometimes important to remember the silences for a more natural feel–and emotional effect–to scenes. You want your characters to “act” in your readers’ heads. Not just give them the lines and leave them to figure out the emotion.

There are no actual actors to bring stories to life in prose like you have in plays.

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 Live in the DC area and want to see some great emerging playwrights? The DC Fringe Festival runs through July 27th with wonderful plays (like TAME by Jonelle Walker). Check it out.

Writing Through Writer’s Block

As my twitter followers will know, this July I was convinced to take part in Camp NaNoWriMo (perhaps against my better judgment). An offshoot of the original National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), Camp NaNoWriMo aims to keep people writing through the summer by having two “sessions” (one in April, one in July) where “campers” can set word count goals they want to complete by the end of the month (unlike the 50,000 word goal of NaNoWriMo, campers can set goals anywhere from a few hundred words to over 100,000 for the month of April or July).

Having hit a snag on the third book of a trilogy I’ve been writing, I was convinced to join Camp this year–after all, that’s what NaNoWriMo is about, giving a hard deadline as motivation to actually get some writing done. Figuring I could at least do 1,000 words a day, I set my word count goal at 31,000 for the month and started away.

As always, the month started out well. Freshly motivated, I had a number of productive days that put me a good week ahead of schedule. Newly confident, I even upped my goal to the standard 50,000. I churned out a few more scenes, full steam ahead…and then hit a writer’s block. Hard. I had some vague idea of where I wanted the story to go from where I was, but how to keep going came up at a blank. A couple of days staring at a blinking cursor, and all of a sudden I was dropping behind rather drastically. Either I’d have to write or drop out all together.

And so I set out to vanquish what my twitter follower and fellow Camper, Leigh (@spionchen), cleverly referred to as the Block-ness monster–which, as any writer will probably know, is easier said than done.

As with everything in writing, different things work for different people when it comes to how we get words down on the page. Some people even find it better to wait out a writer’s block until they’re inspired again. For those looking to blast their way through, however, here are a few tips:

1. Set a hard deadline. Some people thrive under pressure, some people don’t. If you’re the type who was never able to get a paper done in school until that due date was looming up ahead, think about setting a hard deadline. The lucky out there might have a publisher breathing down their necks for a manuscript (“We contracted you for a series! Where’s book three??”) but even you who don’t have a contract forcing you to write, you can still motivate yourself with deadlines. You can take part in a program like NaNoWriMo, can join a writing group/have a writing partner to whom you feel accountable, or even just set a goal yourself (assuming you’re able to keep yourself motivated with just that circle on the calendar). Would I have gotten through my writer’s block without Camp NaNoWriMo? At some point, yes. Would it have been this week? Probably not.

2. Avoid distractions. Some people write best with music playing, some in a coffee shop, some in complete silence. Finding what works best for you really comes down to trial and error. The important thing is to figure out what does and doesn’t allow you to write. Can you have a TV on in the background? Or do you start watching that instead of writing? Does having a wifi connection help with your research? Or does it mean you’re spending your “writing time” on Facebook or blogging (Man, if I could count the 600 words so far for Camp…) There are programs, such as Scrivener or Dark Room that provide “full screen” word processing (so you don’t see all the other tabs and applications you might rather be playing with) if you find yourself distracted on a computer, or it might just be as simple as putting on noise-cancelling headphones with some Vivaldi if that is what helps you focus. The main thing is to be aware and figure out what is distracting you from actually writing.

3. Bribe yourself. I’ve heard it said, “It works for kids, why wouldn’t it work for you?” Just like getting a child to sit still with the promise of a toy later on, rewards work really well when you’re in a slump and can’t seem to reach a goal (especially when you’re working on self-imposed deadlines). Some writers do this with the basics (Once I hit 20,000 I can eat/sleep/perform some other basic function required to stay alive), some writers bribe with food (500 more words and I get that piece of chocolate cake in the fridge), some writers bribe with things (If I finish this chapter tonight, I’ll buy myself that new pen I really wanted…) Whatever works for you, setting a reward can help give you that last little nudge you need to keep going.

4. Jump around. Whether or not this one works really varies from person to person. Some people need to write chronologically for their stories to make sense. Others, however, might find it helpful to write the scenes that excite them and then go back to fill in all the middle parts. As long as you can force yourself to go back and do the middle parts later, jumping around to the scenes you like can at least get you back into the flow of writing. Just make sure you keep track of the scenes you have already written so you can fit them together later. Some writing programs such as previously mentioned Scrivener and yWriter offer platforms which allow writers to write scenes in separate chunks and then rearrange them once all the scene are written (the more advanced version of index cards and a bulletin board) but it is also possible to do so with just a word processor if you don’t want to buy/download a special program (personally, I open two documents, one the actual manuscript, one for scenes, and then title each scene I will put in later in the second document [KYLE MEETS JOHN, JOHN AND MARY FIGHT ABOUT KYLE, etc.] As long as they are all clearly titled, it’s possible to fit them together into the first document with just a little more effort).

5. Just start writing. And when all else fails, there’s always just writing until it starts to make sense. Perhaps more a pantser thing than a plotter, this is finally what got me past my two-day writer’s block for Camp NaNoWriMo. Not finding anywhere to jump to, not able to bribe myself, as un-distracted as I was likely to get, the NaNo deadline at least motivated me to try putting words to paper–any words. While the first few hundred words were still like pulling teeth, and I’ll likely cut most of what turned into a rambling monologue by the main character about all the bad things that had happened to her, it at least got me into the flow of writing. I topped out the day at 2,000 words (400 more than needed to stay on par with a 50,000 word goal daily) and even losing those words later, I at least ended up writing a scene that not only actually could fit with the plot, but one that got me back on track for the scene after that, and the next after that. First drafts are meant to be sloppy (it’s why you don’t write something and go straight to publishing). Even if you end up writing drivel, at least you have written something, and that’s the first step to get past your writer’s block. As us tweeting campers will say #fixitlater.

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You can’t write that!

News Alert: The Bleeding Crowd is coming out August 27th, for those interested, from Melange Books. In the mean time, you can find my short story, In a Handbasket, available for free here through Boxfire Press. Please enjoy!

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A common theme I have been seeing on my favorite haunt, the NaNoWriMo forums, lately, are questions about what you are and are not allowed to write. The first time I saw this question, I was a little surprised, but now that I’ve seen it more than once, I figured I would take the chance to cover it here.

While the NaNoWriMo site came down for repairs before I could find the original thread (literally asking what you are and are not allowed to write), but today’s post which sparked this post includes this line:

But since a character in my novel is a rapist (and yes, this is essential to the plot and the ending) there are some rape scenes…I heard that you can’t actually show the act happening (I think that’s a bit weird, considering how other acts of violence are considered totally fine) but whatever, it’s not that important.”

Ok, rape is a touchy subject, I don’t think anyone is going to argue it isn’t (especially not after all of the news stories out in the past couple of days). There are many, many people who have experienced some form of sexual assault in their lives (men and women) and there are several more who don’t care to read about things such as rape in their novels/short stories/etc. But does that mean you can’t write about it.

Honestly, my first reaction when reading that post was, “Where did you hear that you can’t write/show a rape happening in your story?” Part of me just really wanted to know if it was a passing comment the poster had picked up and internalized, or if someone in a creative writing class was teaching there are certain things that you can and can’t write about. Because honestly, when it comes to creative writing, there is very little you can’t write about.

This advice might be a little different in countries that are known to censor writing (there are a few out there where less-than-complementary writing about the government can end up with the writer in prison, I believe) but at least in the United States (and any other country with no state-sponsored censorship), the list of what you can’t write is pretty short:

1. You can’t plagiarise. That is, if someone has written something before you, you can’t take it word-for-word and call it your own. At least not without getting sued (same goes for things under copyright you haven’t gotten permission to use, even with proper credit given).

2. Libel. You can’t present something detrimental to someone’s character/life as true that is not. (This is more relevant in journalistic writing, but basically don’t write that your neighbor likes to kill people in his spare time and act like it’s true when it’s not [if it is true, you can write it, but please, call the police first]).

3. Child Pornography (if you’re in Australia or Canada). Both countries have laws banning cartoon, manga, or written child pornography. Outside of those countries, it isn’t illegal (though it is still rather icky, just saying).

And, well, that’s about it. There are a couple more things that aren’t protected under freedom of speech/the press that the Supreme Court has ruled on, but if you’re writing fiction, it more than likely doesn’t apply to you.

The long and the short of it is, there is no morality police who is going to swoop down on you for writing something that could be offensive. We don’t live in a police state. There is no Hays Code that prohibits, rape, drug use, swearing, graphic sex, blasphemy, or any other topic from being put into print. If you are ok writing it, you’re more than allowed to put it down on paper.

This does not mean, however, that people are required to give you a platform to distribute it. While you are allowed to write about something many people might find offensive/disgusting/reprehensible, publishers/distributors are more than allowed to not publish/distribute it on their site.

For example, for romance/erotica publishers, you will often find notices such as this on their submission page: “We  do not accept: scatological stories, incest/twincest, sexual content  involving anyone under the age of eighteen, snuff, rape or bestiality.

You are more that allowed to write something incestual, you may even be incredible popular with it in your story (I’m looking at you George R. R. Martin), but that doesn’t mean you can demand that someone publish your book just because you wrote it.

Far too often, I come across someone who has had a post removed from a forum online, and they start railing about how the site is violating their First Amendment rights. I’ve said it once I’ll say it again, A private company/person/other private entity cannot infringe on any of your constitutional rights. The Bill of Rights protects you from the government. The government isn’t allowed to take down your blog. Someone hosting it for you, however, can. It’s their site, they can choose what they’d like to put out there. (Note that I don’t just say publishers, but distributors. Many right remember some controversy over Amazon.com pulling books and banning authors from selling on their site. If you violate their content guidelines, even as a self-published author, they have the right to remove you. You can read more about that here.)

So, can you write about touchy subjects? Sure. Should you? That’s a little trickier. Like everything with writing, it’s about trade offs. Think about what your goals are. Do you want to market to a wide audience/be able to pitch it to every publisher in your genre? Maybe you should second guess how detailed you’re going to be about that scene. You know the one I’m talking about. Are you writing a gritty, adult novel that will most likely find a home in a niche market? Have at it. If you’re willing to write it, no one is going to stop you.

And so, write what your story needs. Most likely the only thing limiting your writing is you.

I am woman, hear me roar

Recently, an article (“The five most pathetic female film characters of all time” by Lindy West) popped up on my Facebook feed, outlining West’s choice of “most-standy-there female movie characters.”

West goes on to point out female characters in movies who are “boring, old-timey, textbook damsel[s]-in-distress” with entries like:

-Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) in Red Riding Hood (described as “nubility personified/human Keane painting/tube of lip gloss made flesh…[whose role is to] Stand there. Wait to be rescued. Weep. Stand there some more. Quiver under the male gaze. Reapply lip gloss.”)

-Buttercup (Robin Wright) in The Princess Bride (“could Buttercup maybe DO something once in a while besides brush her hair and contemplate suicide because she and her boyfriend broke up? The woman is a blue silk sausage casing stuffed with whines.”)

and, of course:

-Bella (Kristen Stewart) in the Twilight Series (“Limp bag of tears waits for marriage to have sex with her undead boyfriend; is paralysed by grief every time he goes in the other room.”)

Ok, now even I can’t support a character that falls apart as soon as their man leaves (“You’re just… lifeless, Bella.”) but does that mean that you can never have a “weak” female character?

Now, having previously gone to a very liberal, very politically active university (we were in DC after all…) I have known my share of feminists, from radical to lipstick. I’ve also known a couple of people on the “feminism is subjugating men” side of the equation. Likewise, I would define myself as a feminist, by the fact that I support “equal political, economic, and social rights for women” What I have a problem with, however, is the idea I have found circulated in some groups that the only way to be a feminist is to rebel against what society has decided are “traditional” female roles. While I do fully support equal rights for women (which I don’t believe should shock many people reading this) I also like makeup, am currently wearing a dress, like to cook, and plan on taking my fiance’s last name once we get married (for at least social situations). Does the fact that I genuinely enjoy “traditionally feminine” things mean that I can’t be a feminist? If anything, how is telling women they have to like “traditionally masculine” activities to be acceptable any different from telling them they have to like “traditionally feminine” activities?

Now, there are so many different arguments you can go off of from there (“traditional” roles are really fairly modern, men and women are different, but equal in their different ways, feminism is losing site of its original goal, what have you) but my point through all of that is: How is forcing a character to be strong just because she’s a woman any different from forcing a character to be weak?

I fully understand not wanting weeping, standy-there female characters. But I don’t think that, over all, is a problem with the characters being female. It’s a problem with the fact that standy-there characters, in general, are boring (and many times annoying). A protagonist that doesn’t make any decisions and lets the rest of the story carry them along isn’t much of a protagonist at all. Male or Female.  The “damsel in distress” (or her male equivalent) is not often cast as the main character of interesting books. Why? Because she doesn’t do anything. There isn’t much of a plot to be written when your main character is sitting up in a tower waiting to be rescued (at least not if you aren’t planning on doing some psychological drama about the effects of isolation, which I could actually see being pretty interesting).

Day 1: Sitting in tower. God I wish I weren’t in this tower.
Day 2: Still sitting here, you’d really think someone would come help me. Oh well, still hate it here.
Day 3: Sitting against the opposite wall now. I passingly considered trying to make a ladder out of sheets, but I think I’d rather keep sitting here and whining about being stuck in a tower with no one to save me.

Male or Female, I don’t care, I would get fed up with that character (and that book) very quickly.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting people rely on stereotypes for any of their characters. A female character shouldn’t be weak and emotional just because she’s a woman any more than a Latino character should eat nothing but tacos just because they’re Latino. But there are people in the world that can be weepy messes. As an author, you are perfectly allowed to have one in your story.

But I can also promise you, at least 99% of the time, being a weepy emotional mess is not all that real person is. Perhaps they’re battling depression. Perhaps they cry at the drop of a hat, but they are a genuinely good, happy person. Perhaps they used to be more balanced, but something happened to make them think that’s how they should act to be accepted. Don’t feel the need to make your character something they’re not just because it’s something that could be seen as a stereotype, but don’t make that trait their entire personality either. If you dig a little deeper, you will find so much more to them that will keep them who they are (weepy) but make them so much more than a one-note stereotype.

Some people fall into “traditional” stereotypes, there’s a reason they’re stereotypes after all, but people are complex. If you can capture that complexity in your character, you don’t have to make them something they’re not to not be “insulting” Let’s face it, making a character “un-stereotypical” but, again, just that one simple trait, it isn’t any better.

Wy I Hayt Fonetik Axsents

All right. Be honest, how long did it take you to figure out the title? Did you even bother? All right, if you did, what is easier for you to read, that title or “Why I hate phonetic accents”?

Ok, I’ll be the first to admit that the English language makes little sense. It’s a Germanic language that was morphed by Anglo-Saxons, too far away to remember original German, adapted by the French during the Norman Conquest, and then had a thousand years to go through a vowel shift, changes, and added words (it’s reported Shakespeare alone invented 1,700 now common English words). Standardized spellings weren’t common for long after the Elizabethans (after all, Noah Webster decided to standardize “American” spellings in 1780) and many grammatical rules have come and gone, made by people often referred to as “pedantic” (split infinitives were only classified as “wrong” in the 20th century by scholars who more than likely believed English should follow Latin grammatical rules [where it’s quite literally impossible to split infinitives]). So why isn’t “phonetic” spelt “fonetik”? Because it comes from a Greek root, transcribed from the Greek Alphabet as ‘ph’ in the Latin alphabet, and it’s been that way since.

So, all of it is made up. So why can’t we make sure our character’s accents come out properly by having one say “dahlin'” one “dahrling” and one “derlin'”? The same reason people standardized language in the first place. It’s harder to understand. 

Truly, language as a whole is made up, if you want to argue it. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s purpose is ultimately to have one person understand another. That vastly increases when you’re a writer. If you want to write something out phonetically as you understand it for your own notes, it doesn’t matter. If you’re expecting people to understand you in a novel/short story/article you’ve written, eet prabalee shudent b ritten liek dis.

Furthermore, how an accent sounds to you and how it sounds to someone else can be two very different things. Think of a British accent. How would someone with a British accent say “Really” to you? Reelee? Realeh? Rehleh?

Does it change if they’re speaking with a Kightsbridge Accent? London Accent? RP Accent? Cockney Accent? So now, not only is the phonetic spelling subjective, it can also be insulting if you don’t actually speak with that accent. Personally, I’d think I [in DC] say “really” something like “reelee” but I don’t speak with British accent. How do I know what sounds correct to someone from [insert place character is from]? After all, I’ve never heard someone say “pip, pip, cheerio” even though that’s supposedly British from what TV tells me. If you suddenly try to make your Irish character sound like the Lucky Charms Leprechaun saying top o’ the mornin’ to ya everywhere, you risk people considering you ignorant and/or insulting.

So is there any reason to write out an accent? In my opinion, no. In a novel I recently edited, there was an Irish character speaking with the thickest phonetically spelled attempted-accent I have ever seen (even sounding it out it didn’t sound Irish to me). Eventually I gave up trying to read what that character was saying (reading shouldn’t be that difficult in my opinion), leaving a note along the lines of “please, please, please don’t do this” but I do still remember one perfect example of the confusion spelling things out phonetically can cause.

“Fairreh”

Any guesses on that one? Perhaps some context, unphoneticized:

“Look, a fairreh!”

What I heard saying it? Fairy. It was a fantasy novel, so I thought, all right, fairies are showing up.

Too bad the author meant “Fire”

Just a small difference in the tone of the scene there.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t throw in small changes like “gonna” or “haveta'” if you feel the need to (e.g. “Tommy! Why haven’t you taken the trash out?” “Ah….I was gonna.”) but I highly, highly suggest staying away from trying to show your character’s accent bi mayking ehveree wurd fonetik.

But then, how do you show someone’s accent if you don’t spell it out?

I’d suggest some less intrusive (easier to read) ways:

1.  “He said with an X accent.” It’s simple, but showing accents in writing might be best suited with simple mentions. There are many ways to get it across in the same way:

“Hi,” he said with an Irish accent.

“Hi.”
She smiled at his lilting accent. It made even “hi” sound magical.

“Hi,” he said.
“Oh, that’s an interesting accent. Where are you from?”
“Ireland.”

“Hi,” he said, noticing how much his accent seemed out-of-place in the new school.

They all let you say he has an accent without  obscuring the actual words and making it hard to read.

2. Use speech patterns to show differences, not phonetics. Again, this is another one you have to be careful about not being insulting, but people from different areas don’t only have different accents, they use different grammar. Where I say, “I was going to go…” My great-uncle in West Virginia says, “I was fixin’ to go…” Where most people I’ve met say, “Turn off the light.” My college roommate from Brooklyn used to say, “Shut the light.” Don’t overdo it with regional slang (especially when you aren’t familiar with the region) since you’ll be in danger of going back to that “insulting” thing, but it tends to be a better way to show accents than, “I whas goeing too goe…” and “I whus fixen ta goh…”

3. If necessary, use phonetic spellings tastefully. As I said above, if your character doesn’t say “going to” properly, it might be all right to put “gonna” It’s a generally well-known version, and “I was gonna go…” would more than likely make sense to the bulk of your readers. Same with fixin’. Putting “fixing” just wouldn’t sound right in my head for “I was fixin'” Without the ‘g’ though, it’s still possible to generally understand what is being said. “I was fixin'” isn’t quite the same as “I whus fixen” The average reader will be able to read small changes like that easily. It’s when you start making people sound out every word that it gets tiring.

Now, can people write out phonetic accents well? I’m sure they can. Should they? In my personal opinion, no. Of course, that’s my personal opinion. As with everything else on this blog, people can take or leave what I say. They are all just suggestions after all. But, as I see it, anything that makes your writing difficult to understand isn’t generally good for it. After all, we standardized the language to be understood. And, as writers, it is our job to use language well.

War on Was

This blog post actually comes from an in-person request to talk about the old “Showing vs. Telling” discussion.

Hands up, how many people rolled their eyes at the thought of hearing “show, don’t tell.” Congratulations, you have probably been part of a creative writing class (or at least an English class that did a section on creative writing). I admit I don’t remember a lot of my Senior English class in High School, but for the creative writing section towards the end, I do remember that being said over and over again. “Show, don’t tell.”

Eye rolling aside, as overused as that advice seems to be, it is a good piece of advice overall (I make it often as an editor). As a reader, it’s much more interesting to be shown what’s happening than being told. I mean, which one of these seems to be more interesting?

A: “It was raining. It made Tim angry.”

B: “The rain fell down the window. Tim watched, clenching his fists.”

Votes? I’m going to guess at least the majority say B. Why? Because A tells us what’s happening (It’s raining. Tim’s angry) B gives an image of the rain falling to picture and shows what’s happening to let us know Tim’s angry. It’s just not as interesting being told as it is to be able to picture things.

Obviously, this is a pretty common problem people have. As a writer, you have a picture in your head. It sometimes slips away that your reader isn’t seeing what you’re seeing. Also, it’s easier to just say what’s happening in your head than explain every movement. You can see your character’s angry, so why wouldn’t you put “He was angry”? The problem is well known enough that it’s even spoofed in the Futurama episode, “The Devil’s Hands are Idle Playthings“:

Your lyrics lack subtlety! You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel. That makes me feel angry!

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buzzfeed.com

Like getting past “Hey look! I’m a Writer!” Syndrome, I think learning to show rather than tell is something many writers simply start to grow out of as they read and write and edit more. After enough time, you get more comfortable and stop trying as hard, and that makes for better writing (in my opinion at least). The note I generally leave in manuscripts I’m editing is, “What is he/she doing? How would we know they’re sad/angry/happy/etc.

Of course there are suggestions to help weed out telling. Unfortunately, I think many suggestions are far too often abused. The one I hear most often is Don’t use To Be verbs.

Now, I completely understand that piece of advice, and I often point out places not to use them in manuscripts I’m editing. “To be” verbs (is, are, was, were, am, been…) are weak. They don’t have an image associated along with them. Picture “She ran.” You can see what’s happening, right? Now picture “She is.” The fact that “she” exists is all you get from the second. Not thrilling reading if something’s supposed to be happening. If any other verb is possible for an action, you probably shouldn’t use was, “It was raining”? “The rain fell.” “She was running”? “She ran.” Just by taking out the to be verb the sentences become stronger, and are showing, not telling.

This “to be” verb problem is well know (This site, for example, has an entire article about it) and generally easily correctable. The problem starts, however, when this tip is abused. “Don’t use to be verbs when you don’t have to” is good advice. “Don’t use to be verbs” isn’t.

Going back to that English class Senior Year of High School, the teacher actually gave us the task of writing the entire assignment (a 10-page short story) without using any “to be” verbs. Now, I can understand you try to make a point in English classes about things, and taking things to extremes help some people switch out of problem writing entirely, but what most people I know took away from that exercise was that “to be” verbs are evil and should be avoided at all cost. I admit, I spent a good portion of class trying to figure out how to switch out all my “was, weres, and be’s” and it took me a long time to feel all right using any sort of “to be” verb in any of my writing a while after that.

And that’s why I classify it. “Don’t use to be verbs when you don’t have to.” If there’s a better, stronger word you can use, use it. Don’t spend time, however, avoiding “to be” verbs at all costs. Some times you need them, and trying to take them out just makes the writing awkward.

Is Main Street a sleepy part of town? It’s ok to say “Main Street was never busy.” You don’t have to try to finesse the sentence to “Main Street sat in the center of town, never busy.” If you prefer the second, all right, but “to be” verbs are normal. People speak with “to be” verbs. Things can be described with “to be” verbs. It is important to not bore people with a lot of telling in your work, but it’s also important to keep your writing sounding natural.

So, as with everything, don’t take every rule as gospel, ask for help/critiques, and trust yourself.