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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?
I’m on my way to Borderlands Press Writer’s Bootcamp. This will be my third year attending. The first year I went, I was unsure of myself.
The worst thing about writing is having to show it to someone.
What if they don’t like it? What if their nose squinches up and they put on that smile and tell you it’s great?
What if they down right say it stinks?
Who would you remain friends with, the honest one or smiley face?
What’s worse than that, is I paid good money to get beat up by 16 fellow “grunts” and three accomplished authors.
Are all writers sado-masochists? We love the punishment and love to punish?
I met some great people that year. And the year afterward. We keep in touch and encourage one another in our writing, praise one another for our accomplishments.
I learned from Writer’s Bootcamp why Marines are so tight.
We did our share of mental push-ups, I assure you that!
On my way home from Towson, Maryland, I couldn’t contain myself. I had more creative energy than I’ve ever felt in my life.
To be in the constant company of like minds!
In the real world, few of my friends read books. Many of them don’t retain anything.
I had a friend tell me she read a book she took out of the library. She said she read it before but didn’t remember until she got to the end. I opened the back jacket.
She had checked that same book three times!
I want my books to be remembered. I want people to talk about them. I want my stories to change lives!
I want my characters to live!
We learn a lot in Bootcamp. We actually learn, that in reality, we shouldn’t use words like “actually” and “in reality.”
No body “thinks to themselves.”
I was just thinking hungrily to myself that maybe I’ll just get up and actually walk gingerly to the kitchen and then make myself a sandwich. In reality, I’m desperately aware that I haven’t been grocery shopping in weeks.
Tom Monteleone, F. Paul Wilson and Doug Winter would hate that.
So do I. But I wrote it. Just now.
We all do it. We read over our first drafts and look for knitting needles to put in our eyes.
At Bootcamp we learn about Point of View. One year, a grunt asked what that was. We all laughed and then listened intently as our drill sergeants grew red in the face and explained. Gimme a hundred, soldier!
What’s a participle?
Another twenty, you sorry maggot!
We learn about plot and pacing and strong character voice.
What’s more important, Plot or Character? Hmmmm.
We learn comaraderie and that writing, though a competitive field, is also an intimate environment.
We have to cheer each other on because we’re not sure anyone else will.
I came home from Maryland and turned my 35 page submission into 195 pages.
I was so pumped up, I wanted to sell the restaurant and buy a bottle of scotch.
Just kidding. But I was pumped. I decided that no matter what I do in life, I will pursue this dream. I still have to be responsible to my life, but as long as I’m writing, I can’t hurt anyone right?
It doesn’t matter if I ever get published, though it would be nice. I mean really nice. And I really shouldn’t care if nobody likes what I write. There’s nothing to fear.
I can always call my smiley face friends and my mother.
As long as I keep writing, I’m doing what I love and that’s what makes life worth living.
It helps to have people critique your work. It makes you a better writer. Like anything in life, you can’t learn unless you make mistakes.
My bags are packed and I have 16 manuscripts with red ink all over them.
Hahahaha she sneered with a sinister laugh.
I too can play that game!