Every now and then I run across, or am asked about, the admonition that new writers learn, to limit the use of “to be” verbs in their writing. Instead of writing, “he is/was,” or “they are/were,” instructors say, “Try something else.” It’s good advice, as having a bunch of “was” or “were” in one paragraph or even one sentence can be trying to the reader. Many beginning writers, myself included, have fallen into the trap of using “to be” verbs too much without realizing it. But replacing “was” or “were” (let’s assume here for the sake of simplicity, that you write, like so many of us do, in the past tense) can be tricky. Generally, you can’t simply substitute another verb for the “to be” verb, and keep the sentence logical and meaningful. How does one get out of the trap of overusing “to be?” Here’s one approach to this problem that has worked for me.
To be brutally honest, in most cases you’ll have to recast the sentence. That sounds time-consuming, but the advantage of recasting the sentence is that it can lead to room to add more detail than with the “to be” verb in it. It can even lead to a sentence that will have more detail in it than two sentences, but without ending up with a run-on sentence where two sentences are joined with “and” or some such conjunction.
Take the sentence, “He was six-feet tall with a physique like a linebacker.” That’s okay, but it can be improved by removing the weak verb “was” and rewriting the sentence and adding detail. “His physique, like that of a linebacker, gave him a youthful look well below his actual age of ninety-seven.” Not two sentences, and not a run-on sentence.
Another example: Instead of “The town was situated on a hill overlooking the bay.” write: “The town, situated on a hill overlooking the bay, served as a beacon for mariners trying the find the narrow inlet.” Again, more detail, yet the same emphasis is still there.
Remember this: “It was a dark and stormy night”? This can be improved by eliminating the “was” and adding more detail. “The storm came up quickly during the night, lashing the shore with seventy-mile-an-hour winds that blew the shutters on the old house onto the beach.” Detail, detail.
This advice certainly isn’t meant to be all-consuming. A few “was/were” verbs aren’t going to consign your writing to the trash bin, but too many can make it difficult to read. Sometimes a few simple sentences with “was/were” are appropriate. But constantly being told “he was . . .” “she was . . .” and so on, gets tiring and it indicates a serious lack of imagination as well as laziness and even sloppiness on the part of the writer. Take the time to do it not just “right”, but well.
Lately I’ve been watching reruns of the TV crime drama “Major Crimes.” I like the action as the detectives of the Major Crimes unit solve the case. The show is well written and the cases deliciously complicated, which keeps me guessing as to the identity of the perpetrator. But the one major drawback of the show is the subplot involving the character of Rusty, a teenage boy who spent several years alone on the streets of Los Angeles, and his attempts to find his mother. He’s been adopted by the Captain of the Major Crimes unit, though I still keep wondering why a teen-age boy is allowed to wander around the Major Crimes area while the team is trying to solve the case. But more to the point, the subplot interrupts the flow of the main story, which is to solve the damn crime. The subplot annoying and disruptive. We’re taken out of the main story and forced to watch something that has little to do, in most cases, with solving the crime. I, as a viewer of the show, have gotten absorbed in the main story line of each episode, and I don’t want to watch something that has little or nothing to do with the story. I want to see whodunit. The complicated plots make me want to know. Yet, repeatedly, we have to put up with a rather vague, nebulous subplot for several minutes, several times during each one-hour show. Yesterday evening I grew so frustrated that I turned the show off rather than sit through this unnecessary diversion.
Moral of the story, don’t interrupt the action. Keep it going to the end.
A good example of a TV series which kept the action going throughout each hour-long drama is the “Law and Order” series. Most of the episodes I’ve seen didn’t waste time on subplots. Sure, the characters have private lives, and occasionally these were brought into the main story, but the individual episodes invariably stuck to the main story, i.e., solve the damn crime.
Another example of a show that kept the action going and didn’t waste time on personal problems was the old “Mission Impossible” series. Here, the characters (the “good guys”) simply carried out their orders (usually having to do with espionage or some related process) and got the job done. No unnecessary subplots involving human interest that took away from the main story.
I find myself wondering if this isn’t one of the reasons we find commercials so annoying: they take us away from the story while someone yells at us to buy a certain product or service we usually don’t want and don’t need. Sort of a plottus interruptus. This may also be why Alfred Hitchcock always denigrated commercials on his TV series. He knew they interrupted the flow of the story. Not good if you have a detective looking for a murderer.
Now, subplots can work, don’t get me wrong. I’m not against subplots, but they have to be handled well. The important thing to remember is that a subplot must be integral to the story. It must come at a reasonable time in the narrative, and must advance the plot. Not simply interrupt and throw in a different story. A possible good example of this is the movie, “Rocky.” (The first of the series.) The main story line revolves around Rocky Balboa as he trains for his big boxing match with the world champion, having been plucked out of obscurity by the champ and given a chance to become a big-time fighter. Okay. The subplot involves his relationship with his girl friend. The reason this subplot works is that it appears at logical times in the story. Rocky trains during the day, and sees his girl in the evening. Sure, the action slows, but it still involves Rocky. It comes at a reasonable point in the plot, and it doesn’t occur as a sudden interruption in the story line. It’s a smooth transition, not abrupt.
If you are writing a novel or screenplay or short story or even a memoir, keep in mind that whenever you abruptly stop the action and go to something else, especially something quieter in the story, you run the risk of losing your viewer or reader. Keep the action going, even if it slows somewhat. As Aesop said once, “He who hesitates is lost.”
I’m not by any means a school administrator or teacher or school superintendent or member of a school board, though I do have a high school diploma and college and postgraduate degrees, and I have taught a few science courses in college and postgraduate education. But as an outside observer, I’ve been watching high school through the last sixty or so years, and I’ve heard of how high school prepares students for adulthood, both good and bad. Generally speaking, high school hasn’t changed much from when I attended, all those years ago. It’s time for high school to enter the modern world and I would like to offer a very general plan that would bring high school into the new century.
I suggest that high school (I’m including grades 9-12 as “high school”) go on a quarter system, to be held year round. Four quarters a year, fall, winter, spring and summer, with the school to remain open all year, and courses available all four quarters. Each student would have to accumulate enough points for graduation, with one point given for each course completed. Since this is on a quarter system rather than semester system or the six 6-week periods prevalent when I was in high school, the amount of education represented by each point would, of course, change. Those points would be distributed over a variety of courses to result in a student prepared for his/her next step, whether that be college, trade school, or just getting a job. Courses would include English (including grammar, reading for comprehension, writing) math, social studies, science, arts, physical education, participation courses such as athletics (football, baseball, etc.), or band, drama, choir and so forth. This isn’t much different from the curriculum most high schools offer now. But what I suggest is that each student be free—after the age of 16—to attend courses at her/his own pace. Up to age 16, students would be required to attend high school and take a certain number of courses on a year round basis. After 16, students would be allowed to take courses as they see fit, and obtain a diploma when they have accumulated the proper number of points. I foresee graduation exercises at the end of every quarter.
I’m sure that the summer quarter would be lightly attended if this schedule were put into effect now, but after a while, I suspect students would appreciate the ability to take courses year round to graduate as soon as their own abilities allow. Some students will jump at the chance to graduate earlier than they would by the current system. Others, such as students who have an outside job, might graduate later. But giving students a little more freedom to pursue education at their own pace might reduce the stress on students to graduate under the rigid and time-intensive system we have now. No more closing the schools in the summer.
The practice of closing schools in the summer is a hold-over from when students had to help the family during the summer. That’s not true so much any more, though if a student wanted to work in the summer under this system, he/she is free to do so. Even when I was in high school, that wasn’t true.
Additionally, students would be allowed to take courses above the level necessary for graduation. A student might take a second year of algebra to prepare for college, if she/he wanted. A student could also come back later and pick up a course in order to be better prepared to get a job. I would like to have taken a course in woodworking in high school, but could never fit it into my schedule.
This type of schedule is more like college, but I think students, at 16 and above, would be better served by allowing them to go at their own pace. Granted, some students may stretch their coursework out over more than four years, but that should be up to them. A high school diploma indicates that the student has met the requirements for graduation, and those requirements are designed to give the student a well-rounded education, regardless of how long it takes. A high school diploma is still a high school diploma.
This isn’t a big change in high school education. The content of courses wouldn’t change much other than to switch to a quarter system. This system is based more on the idea that students have better control over their education, in both pace and content, which is a more realistic situation here in the Twenty-first Century.
Any other suggestions?
I’m currently working on a story of about 23,000 words (that makes it a “novella” or “novelette,” depending on your definition) that has to do with humans from Earth who come in contact with beings on another planet who communicate almost entirely by mental telepathy. Their brains are so big—maybe 50 to 100 times the size and mass of an adult human brain—that they have developed the physical power to send signals to others of their species in the their immediate vicinity. They’re all on the same wavelength, so to speak. These signals are received as communication. Literally. The signals are received as a string of words, in the same way we communicate with a string of words using the vibrations of our vocal cords to send vibrations through a gaseous medium, air. These creatures have no specific organs of communication as we do at all.
All of that got me to thinking. How does one species communicate by mental telepathy to another species if they speak different languages? Is mental telepathy even possible in that situation? A string of words just won’t work because the recipient still won’t understand the meaning of the transmission. But in my story, one of the two main characters is capable of understanding the foreign species. In fact, that’s the whole basis of the story, that humans may be able to contact beings on another world. But, the devil is in the details: how would that work? Science fiction writers might want to take note of this; it could be useful in stories about first contact(s).
I did a little looking around at the concept of “mental telepathy,” and it’s usually defined as the ability to communicate through means not involving talking, reading, or any other standard method. It’s basically a sort of transmission from one mind to another. But that’s as far as it goes. I haven’t found anyone who has actually wondered how it takes place. What is it that’s being transmitted? If someone says she/he can read another person’s mind, what is it they are reading? In my humble, and perhaps somewhat flippant opinion, here’s three possible ways that mental telepathy might actually take place, in order of simplest to most complex.
1. By concepts only. In this method, only broad concepts are actually being transmitted from one to another. The concept of rocket propulsion, for example. Or weightlessness in the vacuum of outer space. The necessity of an atmosphere for life to exist. No actual images are sent, and no details at all.
2. Mind visualization. In this method, actual images are sent. That could transmit a vast amount of information. The image of an Apollo space capsule, inside and out, for example, would tell the recipient—assuming he’s sophisticated in space travel—just what it was like for our species to travel to another heavenly body in the early stages of our space program. The information transmitted would be only in the image itself. Any other information, say, what it was like to live in one of those cramped capsules, would have to be inferred by the recipient. But an Apollo space capsule in one language would be an Apollo space capsule in any other.
3. Transmission of a string of words. This I expect would be the most complicated form of transmission, but would convey the greatest amount of information. That is, of course, what words are designed to do. An image of the Apollo space capsule might give a visitor from another planet a lot of information, but many details he/she (it?) might not understand. Words, description, these would be the most detailed. But the recipient of the mental transmission of a string of words would have to understand the language of the sender to be able to interpret it. and so this method, while highly accurate, might be seriously limited.
I’m not an expert in ESP or mental telepathy, certainly, and I’ve never heard if any of these methods are currently being tested. I’m not sure if mental telepathy really exists outside of science fiction. It’s a controversial subject in real life, but in science fiction the sky’s the limit. If you need mental telepathy in your writing, have a go at one of these types. They seem, to me, to be the most likely modes of transmission of information.
The Pikes Peak Writers Conference for 2019, held yearly in Colorado Springs, was last weekend, May 3-5, 2019. Here’s a few impressions and takeaways I gleaned from the conference. Not comprehensive by any means.
Several speakers at the sessions I attended used the acronym “GMC” in their talks. This stands for “Goal/Motivation/Conflict,” three factors totally and absolutely necessary in the construction of a novel. I’d heard of each of those before, of course. You don’t study writing fiction without running into them over and over. But I’d never heard them grouped together in that manner. A very concise way to remember them.
Carol Berg gave an interesting talk on building order from chaos. The foundation of the story, she says, is layered from paragraph, scene, and story arc. Each paragraph draws readers through one idea, one topic. Each has one speaker. The first line of a paragraph should not be a summary of the paragraph. It’s not meant to be a preview of what’s coming. Paragraphs are merged into one scene. Each scene must contribute to the rising tension of the story. Each scene has a starting point and an ending point, and each affects what happens from that point on. All are essential to building the story arc. She recommends reading everything out loud to get a feel for the rhythm of the narrative. Good idea.
Brenda Speer, a lawyer practicing intellectual property law in Colorado Springs, gave a talk on using facts in fiction and nonfiction. Interestingly, she recommends getting permission from the person or agency who holds the rights to song lyrics before quoting them in a literary work. I—and many others, I understand—had always assumed that quoting just a couple of words or a few lines from a song or poem or similar work, would be okay either without, or with minimal attribution. Her feeling was: always get permission even for the shortest of quotes. Good to know.
Stant Litore gave a good talk on creating an unforgettable civilization in your work. Valuable for us sci-fi writers. Build a world either from the bottom up, that is, create a whole new world completely, or use the world we live in as a basis for a modified world that may look familiar, but has one or more unusual aspects. Interesting. I even bought one of his books.
Jennifer Rose talked on creating strong female characters. Of course you want your female characters, especially if they are the leading character, to be strong and capable of carrying the story. That applies to females as much as males. Female lead characters should be developed from the “ground up” as much as any male character. They are as capable as a man, but they aren’t superhuman. They have vulnerabilities too. There should be more than one female character in a story. Give them someone to talk to. They can have friendships with men that are not sexual.
Jonathan Mayberry talked about the short story, though most of his talk was geared toward submitting to anthologies, a process he’s very familiar with. The most interesting comment he made was that, in submitting to literary journals or magazines, submit to only one at a time. I’ve submitted many short stories to literary magazines, and most of the time it has been as a set of submissions to several journals at one time. Apparently, journal editors don’t like this. They prefer an exclusive look at the story. I can understand them wanting that, but it can take one journal several months to reply about your story, so I (and many others I understand), still submit to several journals at a time. I’m not sure if I’ll change my submission habits or not. Oh, well.
I talked to Lesley Sabga, an agent from the Seymour Agency, at the meeting, and she requested a look at the full manuscript of the first volume of my sci-fi trilogy. I sent it and a short synopsis and literary resume a few days after getting back. She also requested a very short summary of the second and third in the trilogy. We’ll see what happens.
I have had, over the past 20 years or so that I’ve been trying to write science fiction, and on one or two occasions, to answer the question, “What is space opera?” It’s a fair question given that space opera is the type of science fiction I write, and that it is probably the most popular subgenre of the overall class of science fiction literature. The most common variation of the question has to do with the word “opera,” not so much the “space” part of it. Most people, even those who don’t read or write sci-fi, are aware, to one degree or another, that sci-fi takes place largely in outer space. That concept is so well ingrained in the popular consciousness it needs little further commentary.
To try and answer the question, let’s look at “space opera” itself. In his excellent introduction to the space opera anthology, “Infinite Stars,” Robert Silverberg reveals that the phrase was coined by Wilson (“Bob”) Tucker, an early science fiction writer, in 1941. He derived his term from the older term “soap opera” which arose in the 1930’s to refer to long-running dramatic radio shows (starting on radio and continuing into television) often sponsored by soap manufacturers, and from the similar term, “horse opera,” for low-budget westerns.
But what about the “opera” part of the phrase? What does space opera, as I was once asked, have to do with opera? My feeling is, nothing, and it’s kind of misleading to label space stories “opera,” as though there was some connection to the musical genre. I don’t know why soap got connected with opera, and I can’t really imagine, since the two are so different. Possibly it refers to the fact that soap opera or space opera tell a story, as does opera. But space opera could just as easily be “space stories,” or “space novels.” I say forget opera; just look at the story.
The connection to opera also fails due to the fact that in opera, the most important element is the music, not the story. Operas are designed to present music. With a full orchestra and singers, and tenors and sopranos and altos and bassos, and usually a chorus to fill out other vocal characters, opera presents music in all its forms and styles. It’s the reason for the production’s existence. As a result, it has little in common with outer space stories. (I have no doubt, though, someone will eventually write a real “space opera,” set in outer space or on another planet. But still, the music will be the foremost aspect of the production.) Granted, opera does tell a story, but the music is the overriding factor, not the story. The music is everything. In fact, some stories in opera are rather thin, not much more than a vehicle for the “Bel Canto,” the “beautiful singing.” Some operas, such as Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, are magnificent in scope and production, (they can be five to six hours long) and tell a great story, but in the end, it’s the music, both vocal and instrumental, that make the opera. We don’t go to an opera to see a story; we go to hear the music. Conversely, we go to see Star Wars to experience the story, not simply to listen to the music.
So, what does music have to do with space opera? Nothing. Forget about it.
Do you remember “pica” and/or “elite” type on typewriters? Way back when we didn’t have personal computers, and everything we wrote was either by hand or on a typewriter, we had to choose between pica type, which resulted in 10 characters per inch, or elite, at 12 characters per inch. I’ve had several typewriters in my life, especially during college. My parents gave me a typewriter with pica type when I went away to college, but after it was stolen, I bought one of my own, but got the smaller elite type. (I’ve always preferred the smaller type.)
Now we’ve graduated to computers with their humongous selection of typefaces. We can have almost any typeface we want, at any size, in bold, light, italics, extended, condensed, color or the regular black, and so on and so forth. But some ideas about writing and about manuscripts are still rooted in the old typewriter years.
I just submitted a portion of my first science fiction novel to a contest which requested the first 6500 words of each submitter’s novel. This, they said, should result in approximately the first 27 pages. But they also requested that the manuscript be written in Times New Roman. (I’ll abbreviate this as “TNR.”) Well, my manuscript was written in TNR, so that was no problem. I always write in manuscript format: 1-inch margins, 12-point font, TNR, page numbers in the upper right-hand corner, and so forth. But in my case, the first 6500 words came to only 22 pages. Why the discrepancy?
This comes from the fact that the people running the contest are using the old pica relation between words and pages. Back when manuscripts were typed using pica type, (and this is especially true of manual typewriters) the maximum number of words per page came out to only around 250. Now, though, if you prepare a manuscript in TNR, the maximum number of words per page comes out at around 320. At least in my experience. In this situation, 6500 words will require 20 to 22 pages. Exactly what I had.
The difference comes from the fact that TNR is a very condensed font. The letters tend to be set very close together, much more so than a typewriter font. (It is possible to change the spacing of letters in TNR and most other fonts, but I strongly recommend leaving it at minimum, just for consistency’s sake.) TNR is also a proportional font, where each letter is given only the space needed to print it. For example, the lower case “i” takes up much less space than “m.” Typewriters, on the other hand, use non-proportional fonts, and all letters have the same spacing. All of this adds up to the fact that on any given page of a manuscript, TNR will allow you to put more words on a page.
If you want to see what your TNR manuscript looks like as though it were typed, change the font to Courier, which is a non-proportional font, and it will result in a page that looks very much like the old pica type. You will get only about 250 words per page, the old standard.
Ergo, if you are requesting manuscripts and want them in TNR, keep in mind that the resulting submissions will have about 300 to 320 words per page. I think it’s time we switched over to the new standard of TNR at 320 words/page.