Should you avoid using the verb ‘to be’ in your fiction?
Rules for writing…how many can there possibly be? You want to appear as professional as possible for that agent or editor who is going to be looking for any reason to toss your hard-written manuscript on the trash heap, so you keep every rule that you’ve ever heard or been taught in mind as you write. And if you’re an aspiring novelist, you’ve at least heard some of them and gotten bogged down trying to follow them as you work.
Show, don’t tell.
Don’t change Point of View (POV).
Never, ever, ever…ever, use adverbs. They are Satanic and will doom your soul to the fires of eternal damnation. No less an icon than Stephen King says so, and he should know.
But as bad as those may be, and if you stick around long enough you’ll have it drilled into your skull that all adverbs are BAD, there is one thing you must never do. It’s even worse than using an adverb. If an adverb creeps into your work, Satan himself might notice. Using Passive Voice, however, guarantees that not only will he notice, he will have God’s permission to do terrible things to you.
Like filling your inbox with countless rejection emails, because agents and editors hate passive voice more than anything else. And the most common form this mortal sin takes is the use of the verb ‘to be’, in all of its conjugations. Am, are, were, was…these will absolutely, 100% assure that an agent or editor will see your manuscript as that of an amateur, thereby making it rejection bait, and gleefully cackle as they hit ‘delete’ on your query.
You’ve heard this, right? If you’re a serious writer, you’ve had it happen to you.
But is it true? Does this rule actually apply to anybody, or is it an initiation prank they play on new writers? Because a cursory glance at some favorite authors during a trip to the local bookstore yesterday makes me wonder.
‘Was’ is usually the word that brings editors and agents swooping down on your manuscript like hungry raptors pouncing on the hapless writer. So I took a quick survey to see if this holds true in real life. Let me clue you in to the results ahead of time: it does not.
Keep in mind, these are mostly authors I read, enjoy and follow. In short, I want them to be great. I am NOT criticizing them, I want to read these books. More to the point, all of these people get paid serious cash for their work.
In his new book, Make Me, Lee Child’s first sentence is ‘Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn’t easy.”
Michael Connelly’s 4th word in The Crossing is ‘were’.
Mark Greaney uses ‘was’ on the first page of Back Blast.
Jeffrey Deaver and Ace Atkins both use ‘was’ on the first page of recent novels.
In Sacred Time, Ursula Hegi uses ‘was’ in the first sentence, as Cynthia Harrod Eagles does in Hard Going.
Lois McMaster Bujold starts The Sharing Knife with “Dag was riding.”
Michael Parker began All I Have In This World writing “The town was small.”
The first ‘was’ shows up in sentence two of John Ringo’s Emerald Sea and in sentence three of Simon Brett’s The Strangling On The Stage.
Joe R. Lansdale kicks off Devil Red with “We were parked.”
Harlan Coben puts it in the first paragraph of Fool Me Once with “…she wasn’t listening.”
The second sentence of James W. Huston’s The Blood Flag is “There was no moon.”
And finally, Harper Lee uses ‘was’ on the first page of Go Set A Watchman.
Does this mean that all of the editors involved in these books, and all of the agents selling them and all of the publishing houses spending all of that money to print them, do so to promote inferior works? No, of course not.
Clearly, sometimes using ‘to be’ or one of its forms is fine. However, the point of this quick survey seems to indicate that ‘was’ might be okay for some writers, but not for others. Can this be true? And if it is, is it because they’re bestsellers? I can’t believe that, because wouldn’t their books get more attention? Are big bucks authors allowed to be sloppy or lazy? I don’t think so, even if they were so inclined, which I also doubt.
So what’s the point? I’m not sure, really, but certainly I’m going to be a little kinder to my first drafts in the future. If ‘was’ shows up, not shooting the computer screen anymore seems like a good start.
Now, about those adverbs…