Friday, January 30, 2015

The Delicate Art of Was

Passivity at its best worst
Let me tell you a story:

Once there was a little boy named Bobby. He was eight years old, and he was going to a school for boys his age. Some of the boys there were mean. Especially Jim. Jim was a bully. One day Jim was beating up Tom, one of Bobby’s friends. Bobby had been on the swings, but then he decided to stand up to Jim. He was brave, but Jim beat him up too.
The end.

All right, let’s all collectively admit that story deserves to be printed out and burned.
Several times.
It sounds like something a seven year old would write on a lined piece of paper and declare it their ‘novel’.
But let’s think about it for a minute.
Why does this story belong to the list of ‘bad tales told only to laugh at’? We could start rattling off things like “poor characterization”, “weak conflict”, “no theme”, “weak sentence structure”, “no emotion”, and so on. However, none of these things are the root problem. They’re all there, for sure, but they’re effects. To understand any effect, you need to find the cause.
The simple answer: Passive voice.
Passive voice is, simply put, using any form of the verb ‘to be’ (including but not limited to was, were, have, has, had, been, being, would, could, etc.). These verbs convey concepts, but nothing else. They tell us exactly what is going on, and leave nothing to the imagination. We don’t have to use our brains to process the story above. Out of the eight sentences above, only one has no passive verb, and even that one is just a fragment, without any verb at all.
Often times you’ll hear warnings like “avoid passive verbs” “don’t use passive voice”, and we’ve all heard the ‘show, don’t tell’ motto that sums up every writer.
A common solution is just to get into your word processor’s search engine, type in ‘was’ or ‘have’ and proceed to wipe all mentions of these words from your novel. That works. But what do you replace it with?
Often, it’s replaced with ‘could’ or ‘would’ or ‘I felt’ ‘He saw’ ‘They heard’.
Sadly, this is still a form of passivity. The reader doesn’t register any of these as a clear picture. It’s like painting without paints. Dipping your brush in water and spreading it all over a blank canvas doesn’t produce much. Wrinkles, blurred watermarks, and a few holes where you poked too hard in frustration. 

Words like Was

I’ve often seen the word ‘was’ treated like it’s illegal. Use ‘was’ and suddenly your manuscript is worth nothing.
While it is true that too much passive voice will kill your story, it’s not the devil himself. I have a feeling he’s a bit more scary than Was.
Look at Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. These books are some of the most popular novels in the history of fiction. They’re adored by fans and critics, loved by young and old. I suggest them highly if you haven’t read them.
But when you read it, what word pops up on every page, at least once. Multiple times, even.
Was, was, was.
*long pause as realization dawns*
Next example. Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance. Massive book (over on thousand pages), beautiful prose, excellent plot and characters. Also highly recommended (after you read the first book in that series, Words of Kings, of course). But what verb appears on almost every page?
Was, was, was.
C.S. Lewis?
J. K. Rowling?
Jules Verne?
Was, was, WAS.
Take a look at published authors. Read their stories. Look at the verbs. They use ‘was’ over and over and over.


A Balanced Solution

I’ll give you three reasons when and why to use the word ‘was’:
1. First drafts – why? The first draft is not about perfection. It’s not about perfect wording. In fact, very few first drafts look anything like the final cut. A lot of the time, first drafts are just getting the words out of your head and onto paper. It’s hard work, and passive voice is an easy way to get it done, especially when you have a deadline (NaNoWriMo anyone?).
2. Dialogue – sometime, go about your daily life and listen to people. Make note of what words they use to communicate. I’ll be every single person you speak to beyond a ‘good morning’ or ‘buenas dias’ or [insert other-lingual greeting] will use a passive verb in one form or another. Why? Because verb forms of ‘to be’ are the simplest ways to communicate a concept quickly. It’s a real word used by real people. And as a writer your job is to create believable dialogue. So when someone never says ‘was’ in dialogue, it can sound forced. Let Gordon the Mafia leader say “I saw ‘im walkin’ in the park, and ‘e was carryin’ a knife” if he needs to.
3. Emphasis – Some things just need to be said in fewer words. ‘Was’ can add that touch of artistic vagueness without making me want to pull my hair out.
I started to drift into unconsciousness. No. I clawed at the light, but it slipped through my fingers and was hurled off into the darkness.
There’s nothing wrong with using a few was-es when you need to.

Of course, my example at the top proves constant passive voice is not only detrimental to the story, but makes your reader hate your story with a burning passion*. I’ll give you three times when not to use passive voice:
1. Describing emotions – saying ‘he was angry’ or ‘she was frustrated’ is about as helpful in describing what someone feels as saying ‘he felt like a goat was ramming the inside of his brain into a mush that had a similar consistency to the oatmeal he ate that morning… probably the same color, too’.
What emotion did you get from that sentence? None. Except maybe a queasy desire to know what color his oatmeal was that morning.
‘He was angry’ doesn’t produce quite the same effect as ‘Johnny clenched his chubby little fists and ground his teeth together. His face turned red as the man continued to ridicule him.’ Never, for any reason, describe an emotion with passive voice. Emotion is not passive, except the actual emotion passivity.
2. Describing cities and landscapes – I don’t include describing people because sometimes there’s no other way to get across the important fact that ‘her eyes were purple and light green’. However, don’t use it to describe objects and places. Find a better way to say ‘the city was majestic’. This leads into point three that you shouldn’t use it as
3. A transition – the sentence above describing the majestic city will often be found just before launching into what makes the city majestic; the swooping bridges, the narrow spires and domes of the palaces, etc., etc. The passive sentence is simply used to get us thinking about the city instead of whatever we were discussing before (say, the hero’s love interest).
Don’t use passive voice to get us thinking about something else. Find a better transition sentence.

‘Was’ is not evil, but it is not good. It’s like any other word, it’s the way we use it, delicately or otherwise, that makes it powerful.

*I’m itching to print that example out and burn it, myself.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Writing when it’s the last thing you want to do.

We all have those moments; the hero(ine) is walking through what I like to call the FoTAT – Forest of Trees And Things. All the conflict seems far away, and our villain is somewhere on the other side of this massive forest of dull description and fabulous foliage.
In other words, you’re bored out of your skull and want to skip to chapter seven, where the villain appears out of the cliché ‘thin air’, and kills the ally.
Great stuff.

But instead you’re stuck here in the forest, wandering around wondering why in the world you ever put the forest in the story world in the first place. (Feel free to change this analogy by genre, as dystopians usually don’t have large forests and things.)

What now?
You still have to write the journey through the FoTAT, even if you skip ahead for a while and write the fun stuff. Somehow you need to pull through it, grit your teeth, tighten your grip, and all the usual descriptions of perseverance and struggle.
It’s a difficult spot, one I identify with. A lot. Currently, the heroine of my novel(la) The Elenivir is practicing being a worrywart while stuck at school. Yay. It’s right about now where I’m wishing I’d never started writing this story so I could focus on this other idea I’m really excited about.

However, I’m intent on finishing this idea (I mean who wouldn’t want to write about stopping the genocide of a race of cute little dragons, right?). So I’ve come up with ways to push through the boring parts so I can banish the mentor from the known lands and start killing little dragons*.
Cut the Distractions.
This is pretty simple; if something stops you from writing, banish it from existence. Common distractions (and their solutions):

  • Internet

Solution: turn it off. Stopping every fifteen minutes to browse your social networks can relieve stress, but it also racks up minutes you’re not writing. Turn it off for half an hour, and force yourself to only take ten minutes after to check Pinterest or whatever.

  •   Other Stories

Solution: if you’re like me, you keep your ideas organized on a document, notebooks, or some other way (Scrivener, OneNote, etc.). The simplest way is to leave this closed while you’re writing. But if they’re still bugging you in the back of your head, try thinking of the good things of this story instead.

  • Inner Editor

Solution: We’ve all got one of these guys, a little voice pointing out all the imperfections (mine is a deceased villain of mine who likes to glory in all my mistakes). Tell him/her to shut up, and ignore them. It’s hard, but they do have a volume control. Somewhere.

  •  Noise

Solution: find a place where you don’t have to listen to things that distract you – siblings, children, parents, the television, soothing lullabies, etc. If you like listening to music while you write, find something intense but quiet to listen to.

  • Too many Trees

Solution: every FoTAT has too many trees. Cut down a few of the trees, make it take less time to travel to the other side. After all, the villain somehow got there way before the hero. And if you want to keep all your beautiful birches and marvelous maples, then throw something dangerous into the forest. Giant serpents, spiders with only four legs, wolverines, octopi, rangers, witches, small children,  anything that can make the journey a bit more… exciting.

The FoTAT is intimidating. Your trees and undergrowth and gnarled paths await.
Turn off the Wi-Fi, plug in the earphones, turn off the Editor, and toss in a Troll. Prepare to make the best FoTAT we’ve ever read.

*Man this makes me sound like a bloodthirsty maniac.

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Little Fellow

Imagine, if you will, a nine year old boy. His blond hair sticks straight up in the back and it won’t lie straight no matter his mother’s attempts to get it to behave. It matches his personality almost exactly – spastic and loud and slightly crazy. Of course, you’d never know it if you weren’t around him at him; he’s a very shy little boy on the outside.
This little boy spends his days playing knights and dragons, protecting his sisters from the evil overlords and slaying his minions (because plastic swords are obviously the best way to kill the embodiment of evil).
Furthermore, imagine this little boy, lying in bed, trying to fall asleep. He’s tired as one can get, but he can’t fall asleep. He spends hours and hours, staring up at the ceiling, or at the glow-in-the-dark planets hanging above his dresser. The CD in the radio (that supposedly helps him fall asleep faster) has long since finished, and he can’t stir himself to go play it again.
He’s got all the songs memorized, after all, why play them on the radio when you can hear them perfectly in your mind?
And then he sparks on an idea.
All those times he slayed the dragon, beat the evil knight, killed the minions, stayed the mighty foes, all the time he spent constructing a massive castle out of cardboard and duct tape, only to watch as the massively outnumbered defenders lost to the conquerors.
What if those were real?
What if…
Now imagine this little boy the next night. His younger brother is in his bed across the room, snoring (his younger brother is the king of all snorers).
“Once upon a time,” the little boy whispers to his glow-in-the-dark planets, “there was a castle on the shores of the sea, a castle which was never defeated.”
And then, in his mind, this little boy unfolded a story of simple honor, renowned kings, dragons and wizards, dastardly villains and fighting for what is right.
This little boy read his little story in his mind every night, until he fell asleep.

Fast forward five months.
The great saga of the mighty castle (called Argoncoth, for your information) is complete in his mind, a tale worthy of the greatest bards to be sung at every feast in every palace in the universe.
And it’s fading from memory.
So this little boy – almost ten now – has another spectacular idea.
What if the story was a book?
What if…
He began to write. The little boy worked frantically, whenever he wasn’t saving his sisters from the newest threat, he sat at a little green and flaking white desk, scribbling in a college-ruled notebook. He captured all the details of his story in four of these notebooks, finishing after about eight months.
As he finished, the little boy realized he didn’t want to stop there.
He wanted to keep writing. More ideas flooded into his mind. He didn’t use them to fall asleep anymore – he had conquered that problem – instead he used them to fill up notebook after notebook.
Three years. Five novellas and two novels.
Almost a hundred thousand words.

Now flash forward four years.
Now the little boy is a gangly teenager, almost as tall as his dad and taller than his mother by a good eight inches. He towers over all of his friends, too, even the ones who have since graduated from school and gone off to college. His hair doesn’t stick up anymore (at least not as much), instead it curls when it gets longer than an inch or two.
He still writes, writes more than ever before, actually. In fact, he has completed four novels since and has plans for dozens more.
Looking back, this young man realizes his first stories aren’t as good as he once imagined. In fact, he knows they’re really just combinations of other stories he loved – simple plots of games and books and characters with names only a little different than those he admired.
He doesn’t like to talk about those novels, now. They’re a stack of notebooks in his closet, to be smiled at whenever he grabs nice shirt for church on Sundays.
But they were a start.
If he hadn’t been able to fall asleep that night, all those years ago, he might not have ever written for fun.
He might not be considering sending a novel to publishers or thinking about going to college to major in Creative Writing with a focus on Journalism.
He might not be what I’ve become.

(And so concludes a simple story of how I became a writer. It’s rather anti-climactic, don’t you think? What about you? What story makes yours with telling?)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Fanning the Flames

Oh hello.
Welcome to this place.
It's not much of thing to see, yet, but someday it might become something more... useful.
Until then we'll have to patiently wait.

I suppose I should introduce myself; I'm Aidan, but you can just call me Supreme Overlord or something similar. I like writing, reading, acting, programming, and being a nerd.
I like pocketwatches, knives, birds of prey, and dressing formally for no particular reason.
For you BMTI people, I'm an INTJ, which means I will take over the world some day.
After I finish solving the meaning of life and inventing time travel using basic math.

Writing is kind of my thing, you might say. I've been writing for seven-odd years now, and have completed four novels, seven novellas, and countless drabbles and short stories. Currently, I'm juggling two WIPs, two rough drafts that need editing, and an idea for a series that I'm seriously excited about.
Someday in the future (meaning this year, hopefully) I'll be sending applications to a few publishers for one of my novels, Asher's Song.

I like history and math, the weird and the logical. I contemplate things no one really cares about or will ever know the answer to. My ideas of what government should look like are rather... unusual. Esoteric is my favorite word.
Blue is fantastic, blue like the TARDIS, but so is grey, grey like Sherlock's coat, grey like the ashclouds over Mount Doom.

Welcome to my little corner of the world, where I blow on this little flame I call my Life, write more than I care to admit, and dance when you're not watching (seriously, don't watch me dance... it will probably scare you).