Special Guest Blogger, Sean M. Davis just got back from the Borderlands Press Writer’s Boot Camp and the Doktor is green with envy. Borderlands Press has published several Stoker Award winning books and runs an intensive retreat for writers every year. Sean is a fellow member of the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers and the author of the novel Clean Freak published by Black Bed Sheet Books.
This past weekend, I attended the Borderlands Press Writers’ Bootcamp. If you’re considering attending the Bootcamp or other retreat or seminar or six week course, I have two words for you:
If you think that you don’t need to because you’re already a good writer, you’re wrong. You can always get better.
Here’s a basic rundown of the weekend. Friday night, we met with the instructors, Tom Monteleone, F. Paul Wilson, and Doug Winter. They talked about the rules of writing for a few hours, then we did an exercise as a group. Then, the instructors gave us an assignment due on Sunday. On Saturday, each grunt met with each instructor and three other grunts on a rotating basis and critiqued each other’s work based on specific criteria for each session. Saturday night, we had a guest speaker, Richard Chizmar, who talked about how he started Cemetery Dance, what writing and publishing means to him, then answered our questions. Then we had a chance to ask the three instructors questions about the art, rules, or business of writing. Sunday morning, we turned in our assignments, which another guest read aloud, not naming the author so we could critique the stories anonymously. Then, there was another Q&A. Then, we all checked out of the hotel and hung out in the lobby until our taxis arrived.
A little later, I am going to tell you the most important lesson that I took away from this weekend. But first, a concrete example of how this 41-hour experience has made me a better writer already.
We all know the signs of bad writing. Among them is using the passive voice, constructing sentences backwards. For example:
Tom was shot by Paul.
“Tom” is the object of the verb “shot” and “Paul” is the subject. Sentences like these should be converted to active voice. For example:
Paul shot Tom.
It’s the same sentence, but simpler and stronger.
Yes, we know that’s passive voice. We all took sixth grade English. Well, let me give you a more complicated example from the piece that I took to the Bootcamp.
It was the smell of Siani-Grace Hospital that Jack Kensey hated the most.
Can you see it? Because I sure as hell didn’t. Well, here’s the active way of writing that sentence:
Jack Kensey hated the smell of Siani-Grace Hospital the most.
“Was” does nothing for a story other than take up space. The same goes for all conjugations and tenses of “to be” and all other linking verbs. Notice the other verb in that sentence? Know why it’s there? Because “was” isn’t enough substance to justify a sentence. It’s a verb of being. That’s an adjective. That’s passive voice. For example:
The teens were scared.
That’s not enough. Roll it into another sentence in which the teens do something. For example:
The scared teens ran away from the monster.
Then, you look at that sentence during the self-editing phase and decide that it’s pretty self-explanatory that the teens are scared. They’re running away from a monster. That renders “scared” superfluous. Cut it.
The teens ran away from the monster.
Not only have you eliminated the sentence in passive voice, you also showed a stronger image that involved your reader, forcing them to infer the teens’ emotional state by their action, thus eliminating the extraneous adjective and the entire reason that the passive sentence existed in the first place.
With this in mind, on a break from working on my assignment Saturday night, I decided to search my current WIP for “was.” Keep in mind, I only searched for that word, not any of the other conjugations or tenses. Out of a 1750 word story, I used “was” 21 times. You’re probably thinking that 21 times in a 1750 word, six page WIP isn’t bad.
But it is and I can prove it mathematically.
That’s 1.2%. The length doesn’t matter, because the law of averages dictates that when the story reaches the 3000 word mark, which is where I think I’ll land with this particular WIP, the percentage will likely stay the same. That means 1.2% of my story conveys no meaning, accomplishes nothing and exists only as an enemy to clarity.
That is unacceptable.
I won’t be able to cut them all. Several of them are in dialogue, which gets a pass on a lot of broken rules in the interest of verisimilitude. Others are in dependent clauses which can be either replaced by active verbs or cut completely, moving the predicate of “was” somewhere else.
Even if I still can’t get rid of all of them, here’s the rule which I live by:
Break the rule once, it’s art. Break it more than that, it’s ignorance.
Everybody wants the quick fix. This seems especially true for writing. People want to know how to write, how to find that elusive chimera, their voice, and they want to know now.
Well, I know the secret now. I suppose you want me to tell you.
First, write something.
Then, make the passive sentences active. Cut those that can’t be.
Cut the adverbs.
Cut the words that do nothing. For a list, go here.
In short, cut everything that’s bad writing.
What’s left is your voice.
Practice writing in your voice.
That’s the “lather, rinse, repeat” of writing. “Write, edit, write.”
—- Sean M. Davis blogs at http://seanmdavis.wordpress.com/