Wednesday, February 13, 2008


It bugs me sometimes when I feel like a hypocrit.

Had one of those moments this morning. I'm reading a best-selling book from a best-selling series by a best-selling author. Love the book, love the author, love the series - but it's FULL of passive verbs. Everything is was and were. Telling, telling, telling.

When I edit, I spend a lot of time on passive verbs. Okay, wait a minute - Ursula does. She tends to highlight the was/weres and was/ings in manuscripts and suggest authors get rid of as many as possible. She redlines passive usage with a vengeance.

And then she picks up a book that is lauded by critics and finds all the things she just spent two weeks trying to weed out of someone else's ms.

Should the authors be miffed about this?

Well, I couldn't blame them if they were. It's hard to deal with the - If she can do it, why can't I? syndrome. But we've all been told this time and time again.

Just because Nora Roberts head pops doesn't mean we can get away with it. Just because e. e. cummings didn't use capital letters blah blah blah.

Is it fair?

No. But it's the way it is. Ursula feels bad about it, but she's going to continue highlighting those passive verbs and changing 'he was watching' to 'he watched' wherever she finds it. She's going to continue her battle against ever-shifting POV, telling vs. showing and when someday an author she'd edited gets to the NY Times Bestseller List and looks back and says, 'Damn that Ursula, she wouldn't let me do all the things I wanted to do!' She will sit back and sigh, 'My work here is done.'


Traci Flowers said...

God, I still love that cover! Thanks for the reminder on watching the passive verbs, it is something I struggle with!

Bernadette Gardner and Jennifer Colgan said...

Hi Traci! Passives are a universal problem - and I think it's because being avid readers, we've been bonked on the head with passive verbs in published work. We think it's okay until we start submitting then get bonked on the head to STOP using them and it's confusing.

L.K. Campbell said...

I've taken at least three workshops, and I still get told that I do too much telling instead of showing. Well, hey, I'm a storyteller—not a storyshower, so I give up.

Toni Sue said...

Yeah, I think sometimes when a person gets a few books under them, they kind of get a creative license and do as they please. Miffs me too :)

Bernadette Gardner and Jennifer Colgan said...

And here's the big question - ultimately does it make a difference to the readers or just to the editors?

I didn't know what head popping was until I became a writer. It never occured to me to be confused by it when I was just a reader, same with passive verbs. Is the double standard really making better writers out of the newbies or just frustrating people who othewise have good stories, but get discouraged because they can't follow all the 'rules?'

gwen hayes said...

I still get upset about the pov thing too. I love Nora Roberts. I don't get confused, I don't get a heahache...I settle into the story and get lost. So, shouldn't we be emulating her style rather than lauding her as the exception to the rule? I mean, she is the most read romance novelist ever, right? Her readers are the same readers I'm trying to why would I try to use a different method than the one clearly working?

It is like saying: Bob is the most world reknowned fisherman ever. Bob fishes at the sunny part of the lake and catches the best, biggest fish over and over all day long. But all you other fisherman can't fish there because everyone knows that fishing at the shady part of the lake is better. Everyone but Bob anyway.