It’s been a month since my weekend at Borderlands Press Writer’s Bootcamp. I’ve just now had the time to look at the critiques from my fellow grunts. Sixteen of us submitted 35 pages of a manuscript to be ripped apart by our peers and three instructors.
Every critique had the same message scrawled in the margins:
Passive voice. Point of View. Passive voice.
I used “was” 385 times in 35 pages.
I should give up on this writing thing.
I was a writer until. . .
You know about the “Be” verbs?
They ARE boring!
They sit idle with nothing going on. You know them:
am, are, is, was, were, been, being, and be.
I am therefore I am.
You are what?
I am a bear. I am fuzzy.
To Be or Not to Be? Unless you’re Shakespeare, don’t bother.
The story sludges. It takes too long to get anywhere.
The reader moves on to something more rousing.
Michael Bailey is a counter of words. He informed us of the frequency we used a single word in our submissions.
“I recognize patterns,” he told us.
I pray my pattern is not passive. But there it was. In plain view.
In the right hand corner of Microsoft Word on the Home tool bar, you’ll see a set of binoculars next to the word “Find.”
I typed in “was” and hit the “Highlight All” button.
All writers want to paint a picture with words, but a florescent pink highlight mosaic on the page is not what I had in mind.
Here is a paragraph I submitted from my working novel “The Family Tree.”
There are 10 “wassies” in one small blurb!
I climbed the stairs into the attic. It was filled with steamer trunks, a sofa and a small bed. It was musty and I found it hard to breathe. I opened a window and looked for the door to the widow’s walk.
The bathroom was small with a claw foot tub, a toilet and a sink.
Underneath the ladder to the widow’s walk there was a tiny door. I tried to open it. The door was jammed and I looked around to find something to pry it open.
I listened to Margaret shuffling around down stairs.
A piece of flooring was busted and I lifted the board.
Something caught my eye. It was a tin box covered with dust. I turned it over in my hands. I had one of these when I was little. The book was there as I expected it would be.
Not to mention the other weak verbs for which I’m embarrassed to reprint. It’s terrible.
Boring. Tedious. Wearisome. Dull.
Like cobwebs that sit in the corner.
So I reworked it hoping to eliminate all the was-es.
This is what I came up with. From 10 to 0 in one fall swoop of a bat’s wing (to get you in the mood).
Hannah climbed the attic stairs. A door, with locks and double bolts on both sides, hung across the threshold, wrenched from its hinges.
Steamer trunks lined the walls. A small bed sat isolated beneath the rafters casting an eerie silhouette across the floor.
A claw foot tub, a toilet and a sink hid behind a moth-worn curtain in the corner.
The heaviness of the air and the reek of decay tightened Hannah’s chest.
She pried open the lone window.
The floor creaked, the attic moaned with relief, able to breathe again.
Hannah found a tiny door underneath a ladder and jiggled the handle. The door wouldn’t budge, the wood swollen with years of stifling humidity. Dust motes swarmed in a beam of sunlight.
What ghosts lurk beneath these rafters? Who slept in this bed? Old houses have secrets to reveal. What dark mysteries hide within its haunted mind?
As if the attic heard her questions, a glint of light shone through a niche in the wall by the window seat. She shook a panel from the wall and pulled out a tin box. She turned it over in her hands, brushed off the dust and released the latch. The cracked leather proved its antiquity, its tiny lock broken.
Hannah glanced at the door. She thought she heard Margaret shuffling around on the floor below.
She drew in a deep breath, and with hammering guilt, opened the book.
I also changed from the first person to third because if the narrator is telling the story about something that happened to her, the reader knows it couldn’t have been that bad because she lived to tell her story. Not much tension there. Not as creepy.
What if we don’t know what’s going to happen to Hannah in that attic; what secrets she might unearth; whose diary did she find and what will it reveal about its author?
It’s still not perfect, but certainly better than it was!
Which paragraph would entice you to turn the page?