Monday, December 5, 2011

I’ve Got a Bone to Pick… What About Was?


"I'm So Confused!"

I have multiple sources I could quote. Maybe you’ve heard it before:  A writer must write in an active voice, not passive. That leads us to little words like “was” and “were.”

I recently went to a popular bookstore and asked for copies of the top romance authors.  All covers touted that the authors were USA Today or New York Times bestsellers. The first thing I noticed was “was”.  Wases here, wases there, wases everywhere.

Here’s the stats on the top six authors:

AUTHOR
WAS IN FIRST SENTENCE
# OF WASES IN
FIRST 25 LINES
Author A
1
6
Author B
1
6
Author C
1
7
Author D
1
7
Author E
0
5
Author F
1
5

I’m shocked. What about you? Another rule from literary agents, publishers and expert authors has been not to open the book with the backstory. Many of these bestsellers did. Shocker! I have to admit, I’m a bit confused. What about the rules? What makes these authors top sellers? What’s your opinion? Tell me, tell me, tell me. (Can you hear the panting?)

Cindy A. Christiansen
Sweet Romance, Comedy, Suspense…and Dogs!
Fly into a good book at:  www.dragonflyromance.com

123RF Stock Photo

15 comments:

  1. Loved the post (and the picture). Writing rules are guidelines, pure and simple. We're always supposed to pick the strongest way to tell a story. Rule or no rule, sometimes the strongest way is a "was." Don't believe me? Check out the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I had an editor who hated the word "that," and at first insisted every usage of the word be removed or changed - not just from my work but from everyone's. But "that" has a purpose so to take out every one sometimes leaves holes in the sentence that can ONLY be patched with "that." So the blanket approach of never using "that," was not the way to approach it. However, on further questioning, what this editor really hated was the passive word combinations of "that were" and "that was." Most stories are told in past tense, which makes "was" and "were" a necessity. But searching for these words to see if you can build a stronger sentence is not a bad place to start so long as you don't do so with the assumption that ALL usages of these words must be removed.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great comments, Michal and Kay! I tried to write my first manuscript totally without "was" and "that". Made for some awkward sentence structures. ")
    There definitely has to be balance, because there is a backstory to tell. But the opening line? Aren't we supposed to open with action when the character's life changes?

    ReplyDelete
  4. One of my favorite, best selling authors once said, "When it comes to writing a good book, there are no rules." She's right. Sometimes you have to use "was" and sometimes you have to use "that". Consider those rules guidelines, but not written in blood!
    Tabs

    ReplyDelete
  5. Awe the rules are changing! I received over 100 rejections before a friend recommended that I write a prologue and add my backstory. My next query mail out was to 6 publishiers and 3 of them accepted.
    Words ending in "ing" help the story sound exciting; however, using was and were to create more ing words is a big no-no in American English. "He was sleeping" should be "He slept". The Brits don't have as much trouble using was and were, even when using it to add more "ing" words.
    J. D. Raisor, Author of Castles and Caverns: Zeld and the Invaders www.castlesandcaverns.com

    ReplyDelete
  6. It seems the rules only apply when you are a new author.
    Once you've made it, they look the other away.
    Still, the best is to provide a great book.
    How ever you do it.

    Thanks for the post.
    I've noticed the "was" too.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I opt for sounding natural. If that means adding a "was" or "were" or "that", I do it. Which doesn't mean I don't work at good sentence structure, I do. But readers don't care for stiff sentences, either. It's hard trying to find the happy medium, but since I'm now an Indie author, I pay no mind to editors. :)

    ReplyDelete
  8. There are rules? No wonder agents don't like me. I have been going on my merry (Mary) way without heading the rules.

    Joking aside, great post Cindy. I just can't keep track of what I'm not supposed to do, and what I'm supposed to do. I just do my best.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Sandy,
    I've believe you're right. I think agents/publishers are harder on new authors in those regards. I still think the rules make for good reading, especially for us readers who are writers.
    Every time James Patterson writes "he thought", I cringe. :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Tabitha,
    Rules are definitely made to be broken. My editor said that people today like fewer commas than in the past. We don't want to slow down for them. Honestly. She wasn't kidding.

    ReplyDelete
  11. True, J.D.,
    The rules do change, even from editor to editor, publisher to publisher. Thanks for the comment. Good to hear from you.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Miss Mae,
    Great comment! Sounding natural is the most important thing, especially with dialogue. Writing is very subjective. The owner of my publishing company did the final edits on my last book, yet a reviewer stated there were a number of grammar mistakes in the book. It's one of those "everybody's got an opinion" things. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Mary,
    You do your best, and you're awesome! I happen to like rules. I like knowing what they are so I can focus on the creativity of the story. Personally, I think there are a lot of writers who aren't on the bestseller list who are better writers. As with most things, I think it all comes down to promotion and marketing--something I struggle with.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Lol! I remember having a conversation with a friend years ago about "was." I was a new writer and was telling her that we should never use the word "was" in a sentence because it was passive. We went to the book store and did the same thing. Every single book we picked up had plenty of passive sentences. Heehee. But I will say it's good to learn the rules. I tend to over write, and tightening sentences is a good thing.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Oh dear. The 'rules of writing' strike again. They should be seen as 'guidelines'.

    Any word is fine as long as it doesn't end up hitting you in the eye as you read. (ie overuse - and a lot of people do it) I guess the thing about 'was' is that there is often a more powerful verb that would work harder for you. eg 'There was a picture on the wall' - A picture hung on the wall.

    ReplyDelete

I love hearing from you! Thanks for commenting.