I’m currently working on the corrections my horror/thriller short story, “Blue Lights,” which will appear in an anthology edited by John Hartness. I figured I would write a few posts about some of the things I’m working on during the editing process. (Be sure to check out my last post, “Working With Editors: Send in Your Best Work.“)
As I mentioned in that post, I worked up to the deadline to complete this story and only slept for a few hours during the final days of finishing the story. Unfortunately, I committed one of writing’s the cardinal sins: using forms of to be and have/has/had too often, and my exhaustion kept me from catching them. Editors hate the overuse of those two words, and John mentioned it to me in an email:
Go through and excise every use of the verb “to be” all is, was, had been words must go. Then put back in the ones that you must have, but nine times out of ten the story will be better suited with stronger verbs.
Here are some of the comments that he gave me in the manuscript itself.
Go through and carefully examine every usage of the verb “to be” and excise it wherever possible. “He was tall” is lazy. “He towered over the room” is interesting. Also take out “filter words” like “it appeared.” Don’t have something appear to happen, make it HAPPEN. Pick better verbs.
Too many “had”s in here – removes urgency – find a way to recast this sentence in a more active voice
That was page one. By page three, his gave me much more … colorful … comments. I don’t blame him. I used over one hundred forms of had/has/had in a twenty-seven page manuscript, and I didn’t bother counting the uses of to be.
A few of you might be wondering why editors hate have/has/had and to be verbs.
- Often, to be verbs indicate passive voice. I have blogged on passive voice here: Writing & Editing: Find and Eliminate Useless Verbs and On Writing: How to Break the “No Passive Voice Rule” & Get Away With It!. The best way to explain passive voice: when the subject of your sentence is not the action of the sentence. For instance: The ball was thrown by John. John is the one throwing, but the ball is the subject of the sentence. Flip it around and make John the subject. John threw the ball is more concise.
- To be and have/has/had are weak verbs. Stories and scenes are about action. We read stories to find out what happened. Your verb is the backbone of your sentences, which when put together make scenes. Make your verbs strong and vibrant. (I’ve blogged a bit on that here: Writing & Editing: Find & Eliminate Undescriptive, Empty Words.)
- Have/has/had is often unnecessary, and it slows down a story’s pacing. They become fall back words. They sound awkward when overused. And sometimes, had is used when a different verb should be in its place. I had a lot of of has/had verbs sounds much less polished than I used a lot of has/had verbs.
- To be verbs take up too many words. Word count is precious. Her hair was dark and disappeared into the night wind takes up more words than Her dark hair disappeared into the night wind.
Knowing editors hate to be verbs and have/has/had is one thing. Eliminating them is another thing entirely. A writer can’t just look up to be or had in a thesaurus and replace the words. Usually you have to reorganize the sentences–or even whole paragraphs.
Here are a few types of fixes you might need to employ:
I used quite more had’s than normal in this manuscript because so much of my characters’ actions in the present relate to their actions in the past. Technically my had’s were correctly used, but used to much, which hurt the rhythm and pacing of my story. That’s what I get for trying to write a complex story with a backstory that explains character. Urgh!
NOTE: Some forms of had are not only correct, but also necessary. If your character should have done something, you probably need to let that one stay. However, I have often found that you rewrite even technically correct usages of had into something better.
The simple fix: take it out.
Original: Seeing the captain brought back memories I had forced back into the recesses of my mind…
Technically, I correctly used had here as the action of forcing the memory into his mind happened in his past. As stated before, since I used the words so often throughout the manuscript, I took the word out. I will let my editor sort through whether a had is needed.
Edited:Seeing the captain brought back memories I forced back into the recesses of my mind…
The more complex fix: Reorganize.
Notice I used should have which, again, is technically correct, but I took it out and replaced it with better, more complex and mature wording, which gave the sentence a bit more punch.
Original: I wore my best midnight-blue, silk waistcoat and I decided to travel in a thinner jacket than I should have with an October cold spell threatening.
Edited: I wore my midnight-blue, silk waistcoat and my best jacket. I thought about wearing my warmer, second-hand jacket—especially considering the current October cold spell…
(Why does the jacket matter? The story takes place in Victorian England where clothing was expensive and often purchased second hand. My character’s preoccupation with his clothes and appearance are part of a character flaw that comes into play later.)
To be verbs
The simple fix: change it around.
Original: My warmer, second-hand jacket was slightly too big in the shoulders.
Notice that I also used slightly too big–an adverb and a modified adjective. Seriously, big? I left big in a finished manuscript? I moved the wording around in the paragraph, and added the phrase below to a previous sentence talking about the jacket.
Edited: …but it sagged in the shoulders.
Instead of saying it was slightly too big, I gave the audience a specific word picture: a jacket that sags in the shoulders, which also lets the audience know my character has a smaller frame.
The more complex fix: Reorganize
Original: He was missing a few teeth, and his clothes were probably on their fourth owner.
Both uses of was here take away a chance to plant a more specific picture in the reader’s imagination. I changed this sentence to read like this.
Edited: His chapped lips covered his five remaining teeth, and multiple patches dotted his jacket and trousers. He probably bought them fourth-hand, I surmised.
With a few words added in here an there, the reader now sees that my character has chapped lips and only five teeth. The reader understands that the jacket is old, not because I told him but because I showed him by mentioning the patches.
The Grenade Fix: just rewrite the entire thing.
When editing, you might encounter a paragraph chock full of to be’s and have/has/had’s. Sometimes, you just have to rewrite the whole thing. My advice is to concentrate on how the situation affects your character physically and mentally. Focus on your character’s reaction and what he/she senses. Make your prose character-based instead of using it to deliver basic information.
Original: What were the chances of Lord Castleton, Captain Wilson, and I each boarding the same carriage? My instincts insisted this was not a coincidence.
The coachman turned to me. “John Blackburn?”
I should have shaken my head and pretended I was someone else. Instead I nodded. Statistics be damned; I needed the job.
This paragraph took some time on my part.
Edited: Even in the cool weather, beads of sweat formed on my forehead. I wondered what strange chances caused Lord Castleton, Captain Wilson to board the same carriage, and a chilling thought entered my mind. What if the duke knew our secret?
The coachman turned to me. “John Blackburn?”
I paused, unable to breathe. Should I pass off this encounter as coincidence or turn back to the station? After a deep breath and a long exhale, I nodded and handed the coachman my bag. I needed the job, and I refused to allow coincidence to interfere.
Eliminating my to be’s and had’s not only allowed me to concentrate on my character’s emotions, but also to increase tension for the reader earlier on in the story by alluding to a secret.
You might be reading my original sentences wondering why and editor wouldn’t like them and why I would spend so much time fixing them. Generally, defaulting to sentences using to be as the main verb don’t describe your story as well as they could. The few changes I made with these sentences shortened word count and also gave the reader a more accurate visual image.
It took me a while, but the end product was worth it.
How about you? Have you ever struggled with rewriting to be or have/has/had words?