Friday, September 12, 2014

It's Okay, You Can Perform These Two Grammatical Faux Pas

I'm starting this blog entry while listening to Tristi Pinkston, editor-extraordinaire, give a presentation on editing. There are two rules that every writer has been commanded to follow, or be forced into eternal mockery from the entire writing community. Those two rules are:

1) Never, ever use the word "was"
2) Never, ever use adverbs, i.e., words ending in "-ly"

I must admit, while I understand the need to follow these rules, I've never believed that they should be crossed out of every manuscript written. When she taught that exceptions can be made for both, I mentally cheered.

Two Even More Important Rules

I'm a big believer in two other rules, and both trump the two written above:

1) Never, ever bore your readers
2) Never, ever confuse your readers

Giving credit where it is due, Hugo-nominated Larry Correia originally bestowed these two cardinal rules upon me.

If you have to choose between using "was" or making what you wrote confusing or long-winded, then don't hesitate to throw a "was" into your story.

Is Using "Was" or "-ly" Truly Evil?

It's like donuts. I love donuts! However, health nuts will equate donuts to poison the same way grammar nuts will equate "was" and "-ly" to literary poison. Despite this, many physically fit individuals will enjoy the occasional donut--or other treat/poison of choice. Likewise, I doubt you could find a best seller that eradicates all uses of the word "was" or an adverb.

The key is balance and moderation. A couple of donuts will not destroy your physique, but a lot of donuts can. Using "was" in a sentence will not destroy your book, but a lot of them can.

The truth is, "was" and "-ly" are not evil by themselves, but are symptoms of larger problems. "Was" is a symptom of passive writing, while adverbs are symptoms of lazy writing. If you look over your writing and see an overuse of either or both of these infractions, banishing the symptoms alone may only mask the larger issues.

It would be like a doctor saying, "Cut donuts from your diet, and you'll be looking like Captain America by Monday." No, no, no... it takes more than that. Cutting donuts is a start, but there is also the need for physical exercise accompanied with a well-balanced diet. The problem may also be that you are living a passive or lazy lifestyle.

(See what I did there?)

When to Use "Was"

Tristi gave a wonderful example of when it's okay to throw in the evil W-word: when describing something in its existing state. Analyze these two sentences:

Amy stood as Mary walked into the room.
Amy was standing as Mary walked into the room.

The first showed the action of Amy standing up when Mary walked in, but the second shows that Amy was already standing as Mary walked in the room. The sentence can be rewritten without the word "was", but it doesn't afford any benefits and you may end up breaking the two Correian rules from above. (Correian rules! Haha, I crack myself up!)

Consider the context, and decide if rewriting it makes the story better or not.

Another exception is dialogue. People often and naturally speak in the passive voice, even writers who don't get the opportunity to edit their words before they fly out of their mouths. Dialogue should be short and sweet, and if "was" accomplishes that, then go for it, especially if it matches the character's voice.

The dialogue of, "When I left the room, Julie stood in the middle of this circle with a mischievous smile on her face," sounds a lot more stilted and forced than the same person pointing and saying, "She was right here!"

Fixing "Was"

As stated above, the word "was" is a symptom of passive writing. Sometimes you want to use the passive voice, but stories get more compelling when told in the active voice.

An example of passive writing:

I was taught to never bore or confuse my readers.

What's wrong here? Simple: nobody is actively doing anything. I didn't do anything but sit and listen, which doesn't require any activity. Somebody else is doing the action. One trick is to mention the noun performing the action first. Here is the same sentence, tweaked only slightly to produce an active sentence:

Larry Correia taught me to never bore or confuse my readers.

There, now the sentence is less boring and more descriptive, thus fulfilling the wisdom shared by Larry Correia.

When to Use Adverbs

Use adverbs when doing otherwise will make the sentence structure awkward, drawn out, or confusing. If there is nothing more to include in the sentence than what the adverb gives you, go with the adverb. Just remember: Moderation. Balance. Donuts!

As an example, if you're writing an action scene, you don't want to overdo description. Action scenes use short sentences, and nothing gets drawn out because it will only slow down the story. It might be better if a bank robber greedily grabs some cash, instead of waxing eloquently for three paragraphs describing the madness in his eyes and the smile of satisfaction in holding a wad a cash. Consider the context of your story, and use whatever word works best, even if it ends in an L and a Y.

Fixing "-ly"

If you overuse adverbs, you can fix it. Writers are admonished to show their story, not just tell it. Adverbs make some writers feel like they are showing, but it only describe a verb and doesn't show anything. An example:

Josh barely caught the basketball, dribbled, and speedily faked left. He quickly reversed direction, cleverly faking out number 27. He suddenly noticed the clear shot to the basket, and behind it the clock ominously stated that only two seconds remained in the game. Josh instantly came to a stop, briefly took a second to square up, and quickly released the shot. As the ball quietly flew through the air, the time clock menacingly blared to obviously mark the end of the game. Swish! Josh laughingly cheered as the scoreboard slowly added the three points, giving his team a badly needed one point lead so they could deservedly win the state championship.

Ouch! Did you cringe as much as I did? The problem isn't the overuse of adverb, it's the lost opportunity to show something to the reader so they identify with Josh. This lacked feeling and emotion. In the end, I wouldn't care if he made the shot or a runaway bus crashed through the wall like the Cool-Aid Man and ran him over.

To fix this, get into Josh's head. Show the reader the basketball game in ways that adverbs never can.

Josh backed up, hoping to pull number 27 from his other four teammates. If 27 followed, it could give Kevin a more open court to work his way in and tie the game. Only ten seconds remained on the clock, this was going to be a close one. The referee's whistle pierced the shouts from the crowd as he handed the ball to Mark to throw into the game.

Number 27 had followed Josh a little out of the box, but decided to leave Josh alone to double press Kevin. Great, if Mark gets called on a delay of game, that would be the end of it. If Josh could get near Kevin, set up a screen, and let him--

"Josh!"

Josh turned to see who called his name. He startled, as the basketball sped to smacked him in the face. Josh raised his hands, more out of protective reflex than a desire to catch the ball. As the ball stopped in his hands, Josh's felt every eye in the auditorium watching him. Judging. Expecting. Most likely, like Josh, doubting. Oh, no, why me? Was nobody else open? Who in their right mind would pass to me?

Number 27 rushed him, trying to bat the ball out of his hands like a cat pawing at a ball of yarn. Josh closed his eyes, afraid of the backlash that would come when the ball flew out of his arms and the Vikings would lose this game.

"I believe in you." Josh still didn't know why Kathy said this. Sure, he could act as decoy or set up a screen, but Josh could not shoot under pressure. All his life, he did nothing but freeze when put in the spotlight. Why could Kathy believe in more than that.

The shot clock. Ten seconds.

He hadn't lost the ball yet, so he turned his back to number 27 and dribbled left, like Dad had shown him. Number 27 stayed with him, aggressive enough to keep Josh worried, but not aggressive enough to pull the fowl.

Josh spun, while number 27 had kept going. A glance at the basket confirmed the open shot available to him. The shouts of "Shoot!" from the stage only made him more nervous. No, Josh couldn't shoot, he'd never make it, but neither Mark or Kevin had shook their guards. A glance at the game clock confirmed the lack of time. Two second left, there was no time to pass the ball and give the attention to somebody else. Better to run the clock out than embarrass himself more with the most awkward airball in basketball history.

"Shoot!"

"I believe in you."

Josh squared up with the basket, jumped, and released the ball. The game clock buzzed, signifying the end of the game. Josh watched the ball, wondering how far off it would miss its mark. Wondering how much the kids in school would tease him for the rest of his life.

All sound stopped. The cries of the audience disappeared and only the buzzer rang in his ears. That buzz seemed to last forever, like the person in charge of buzz duty fell asleep on it.

The basketball flew through the air, headed in the right general direction. With luck, it might hit he rim. He could live with that, more than if he had just let the clock run out.

Swish!

Did he just see that right? No, the swishing sound meant he went under the rim instead of hitting it. The crowd went wild, Josh imagined the Tiger fans elated that Josh had taken the shot. 

Josh glanced at the score board. Under the Vikings score, it remained the same, 68 points. The Tiger's score of 70 confirmed that Josh had lost the game and everybody from school witnessed it.

69.

What?

The numbers shuffled for the Viking, and turned to 70.

WHAT??

The zero disappeared, and a one appeared in its place. The Vikings defeated the Tigers, 71 to 70.

WHAAAT??!!? 

As a sea of blue-wearing fans crashed into him like a tidal wave, he felt himself hoisted into the air, like a crowd surfer at a heavy metal concert. Josh laughed. Was this a dream? Would he wake up, having slept through the game?

The crowd lowered him, and a blur of blue clothing with wild, red hair slammed into him hard enough to knock his breath out. 

"Oof!"

Not a dream.

He looked down, and Kathy looked up with the most beautiful smile he had ever seen in his entire life. The only sight more incredible than watching the score turn from 70 to 71.

"I told you I believed in you!"

Okay, I was only going to start this little story and let you finish, but after getting into it I wanted to see and experience how Josh won the game. Unlike the adverb-riddled edition, I like Josh in this one. I mentally cheered for him. I identified with the stage fright that accompanies a large audience of your peers holding on to lofty expectations. Most of all, I actually enjoyed writing this.