Thursday, April 14, 2011

Stupid Writing Rules: Discarding Was

By the ever opinionate E.C. Stacy

You caught me. The cartoon doesn’t really have anything to do with my posting, but I couldn’t think of anything. My lovey dovey came up with the idea for that one a while back.

Just for funzies, try to write a book without ever using the word “and”. Now throw down another 60 or 80 thousand words without using “also”. Wasn’t that fun? Now take that most recent novel you wrote and remove the usage of the word “was” entirely from it. Why, you ask? Well…because those are the rules. Surely, at least one writer—probably a newbie—has instructed you to do something as such.

The ol’ Crap Meter pegs.

Like the commercials say, “Save now! We’re going to pass the savings on to you! Shop Chiseled in Rock and save more!” And like I promised in the kick off posting of this series, I’m here to save you time and get you publishable faster. Don’t fall for the discarding “was” rule. It’s stupid.

When I first enlisted in the Jedi academy, some misguided dark mentors told me to strip my copy of “was” as if it were a snake ready to forever poison an agent from my beautiful story. An assiduous pupil, I followed the rules diligently. That was until my true master surfaced. Scott Brendel, a fine writer, asked me to critique a short story that he planned to submit for an anthology. He used “was” in the first sentence and four times on the first page. Not only did I point these shortcomings out, I also went on to damn near beat the life out of his prose. I’m very pleased to share that he didn’t change one thing. He sent it. The anthology accepted it. I learned. Thank you, oh master Jedi.

So where was the stupid rule born? Please allow me to take a stab at this. Typically, most writers become overwhelmed when they begin amassing, extrapolating, and applying all the best practices for writing a good novel. Plotting alone is incredibly daunting. So as the writer slays these dragons, I believe they forget one thing--the very thing that probably made them want to be writers. They forget their love of words. In a valiant effort to get that damn story finished, they plow through sentences. But if they’ll just take their time to explore the vast gardens of tasty, colorful words to harvest and lay across their otherwise blasé paragraphs, nobody will give a damn if they use “was.”

Examples: I could have written: “So where did the stupid rules come from…” which would have clipped “was” from what I chose. But I used “born” in the end of the sentence to give it action and a twist that you might not have expected.

I could have written: “When I was a young Jedi…” But instead, I stepped back in time by stating “first” and grabbed “enlisted” for a classy verb. In the third sentence, I used “was,” but I’d already spruced the place up so nicely that it’s okay to lean on that naughty was word that actually is one of the pillars of our language. It’s just plain silly to never use it.

We can sum it up like this: all houses are built with foundations, pillars, roofs, and walls. All sentences are built with nouns, verbs and words like was, and, it, also. But if you want a passerby to park and check out your property, it’s up to you to grab them somehow. And a writer’s love for words, if he or she is true to it, serves that purpose.


Brent Wescott said...

Sticking to a writing rule for no reason is usually pretty silly. The reason for this rule probably comes from the idea that the verb "to be" has no inherent action. So changing to be verbs to more active verbs is pretty good advice, but it's probably impossible to write never using "to be."

j. a. kazimer said...

Great post. In my first book, on the 'was' advice, I whittled my novel down to only using was 1,149 times. And it didn't hurt the book at all. The 'was' advice is actually good, if you take it to mean, try and find a stronger, better verb, not an absolute, don't use was EVER.

So I guess my point is, advice, like clichés, aren't always to be ignored. They have a place and reasons for them. Sort of like tiny grains of salt...

Chiseled in Rock said...

My goal is to get a manuscript published that uses 'was' as the first word in the title and and opening paragraph.


Janet Fogg said...

So it wasn't a dark and stormy night? Or was it?

j. a. kazimer said...

@Janet. Hilarious!