To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
It’s a bit of twisted irony that the most well-known phrase in all of ‘high’ literature involves the use of “to-be”.
What’s this “to-be” nonsense, you ask?
be, am, is, are, was, were, been, has, have, had, do, did, does, can, could, shall, should, will, would, may, might, must
Oh, my fellow writers, don’t feign ignorance. You damn..well…know…what “to-be” verbs are. They’re the scourge of writing society, a guilty pleasure for those ignorant of the rules and soul-crushing for those of us who aren’t. Using them is like drinking Miller Light from the tap or playing Maroon 5 with the volume on. They threaten to suck life and siphon ambition one am, one will, one could at a time.
They’re literary marijuana. Alphabetical Mary Jane. And yes, we all, from time to time, partake.
I will write the type of superhero stories I want to read, not the type corporations think I want.
The hilarious ebook has been on sale a while, with nary a sales. *nudge, nudge* *wink, wink*
And wouldn’t you know it, some folks over at Kboards want to legalize them, to change the game, to completely ignore the rules handed down through history, from Shakespeare to Hemingway to Dan Brown…and even God!
Those sandal-wearing, guava sipping bastards.
I mean, what’s next? Homonymic unions? Actually paying writers a fair wage for their work? Wrigga, please. If these people had their way, we’d all use “to-be” verbs freely, creating a society of “will-fare” queens, popping out little “to-be” babies that threaten to leech on the system on which us hard-working, rule following, proudly boring writers hold dear.
Okay, I’ll admit, there’s a part of me that used to believe every single word of that. There’s a prevailing mentality that’s ingrained into us early, from english class, through writing groups, writing books, and everywhere in between: “to-be” verbs are a sign of weakness responsible writers must search, find, and scrub like dirty little uncorked sphincters.
A few years ago I submitted a piece, The Cleansing, for review at a well-known writing site (it might be on this blog too…who knows at this point?). I thought it was a great story: well told, exciting, sexy, and a big perverse in all the right ways. Never mind the protagonist was never an active participant in the story, or that the entire plot bordered on misogyny in all the wrong ways…I thought I’d struck gold.
Until one particular review. From a graduate English major.
Have you ever gashed your foot on glass, looked for the right medicine, but accidentally found and used bleach, acid, and sandpaper on the wound instead? Because you were blind from jaundice and pink-eye, and picking your nostrils had spread the infection to your nose so your sense of smell was shot? That’s what getting reviewed by an English grad is like if you’ve used too many “to-be” verbs.
And like a good little prawn, I edited and re-edited the piece, until it was done and I realized the piece was fine the way it was because of the passivity of the protagonist.
I’d made a subconscious stylistic choice, and it fit my narrative. But I because I was so new, so raw and self-conscious, so ready to please any and every reader, I ignored my instincts.
And that, writers of this new, blog, ebook, self-publishing age, is the last thing you want to do when it comes to your voice, the words you convey.
There’s an adage that states “to break the rules, you must know the rules”. That’s absolutely true. But most rules are mutable, and we’re in an age where we can take risks, be experimental, and still find an audience and avoid the publishing blacklist.
So brethren, be brave! Believe in your words, because, I’m here to tell you, words are a hell of a lot stronger than you give them credit. “To be” verbs aren’t inherently weak. Maybe they shouldn’t be used in EVERY sentence…but maybe they should if your WIP dictates it.
Not every sentence should be ‘strong’ or full of action verbs, or else you risk repetitiveness. Think of WIPs as organisms. They can’t go full blast all the time without risk of wearing itself (or the reader) out. They also can’t be so weak as to barely respond to stimuli (or the reader to it). Spice things up with strong and weak verbs, long and short sentences, formal and familiar language, etc. Whatever sounds cool.
Feel free to partake! Even Shakespeare did a little dope every once in a while.