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Archive for February, 2010|Monthly archive page

Activating the Tenses (or, how to be more active when you tense)

In Don't Read This - It's Personal, Random Posts, Uncategorized, Writing - Understanding Style and Technique on February 28, 2010 at 7:56 am

Several years back I worked at a small office located on street level.  I did many things during the day, including accepting any deliveries from FedEx or UPS.  Delivery people rang the bell and I’d use the intercom to ask who was there then buzz the door for entry.

The bell rang one afternoon just after three o’clock.

“Yes?” I said pressing the Talk button on the intercom.

“Yes?” I said again, listening for a response.  It was unusual for a delivery person to wait that long to answer.  “Hello,” I tried once more but heard nothing.  Hmmm, strange.  It was enough to wrinkle my brow for a moment.

Any office has a certain rhythm.  Phone calls come in, printers creak out paper sheets, and keyboards tap in between sounds of an office chair wheeling back and forth over the plastic floor mat when one sits and stands over the course of the day.

I like the little sounds of the job.  When working I do several things at once that help create the rhythm of the day.  The doorbell rings, I type as many words as I can before the unknown caller thinks of leaving, I hit Print, grab another client folder, whirl my chair around and push the Talk button on the intercom while picking up my coffee cup.  I sip and say, “Yes?”

That’s when I hear “Delivery,” and I activate the door.

Remember my last post when I talked about minimizing the use of the verb To Be in various forms when writing?  And, yes, I know, I did go on a little about Bode Miller but it had to be said.  The reason I bring up that darn verb again is to emphasize the importance of delivery in a written piece.

Readers want to experience the rhythm of the office.  They pick up that post-it note in your story when it falls to the floor and they smell the strong coffee in a cup warm to the touch.  Then the bell rings.  They jump up to press Talk – and nothing.  Dead air.  The story stops.  They wait, wondering, impatient, until the story moves past the inactivity and resumes its rhythm.

The next time your readers hear that bell ring they want it followed up with the sound of “Delivery.”  Does it make you tense?  It should.  Using tense effectively opens the story to readers.  I listed some verb tenses in my last post.  You can go back and look if you don’t believe me.  One way to bring readers into the story is to choose the correct tense to form Active Voice.

I was confused over this for a long time.  The tense of the verb is the time it expresses.  Past tense of a verb indicates an action or situation in a preceding time.  So how do you activate a tense?  Through voice.

I should mention, there is no way to discuss verbs fully in a few paragraphs of a blog.  The verb is the most complex part of speech.  Its many forms of communication cannot be understood through meaning alone, but also through its transitive, intransitive, or linking -sometimes known as helping – forms, in person, number and tense, or voice and mood.

So, what is voice?  It’s the structure of sentences with the use of verb forms.  Voice can be either active or passive.  Each choice has its own merits.  Most fiction writers achieve the best results using a higher percentage of active voice over passive.

What’s the difference?  Examine the relationship between the subject and main verb.  In Active Voice sentences are structured with the subject of the sentence performing the verb’s action.  Active verbs move the story action along.  In Passive Voice the subject of the verb is being acted upon.  Passive structure emphasizes the receiver of the action.  Passive voice obscures who is acting and weakens the sentence, making it harder for readers to understand the meaning.  It uses more words and changes the normal action order of subject doing the action of the verb.  It’s not an incorrect usage.  When used rarely or deliberately it can be an effective technique to downplay the action or the subject actor.

And I’ll mention it again, the verb To Be links words and ideas.  When the action is represented by a ‘being’ verb the subject does nothing and the verb functions as an equal sign.  It describes a state of being and is neither passive nor active.  Again, it’s best to minimize use of the verb form To Be in fiction writing.

Review your writing and check your sentences.  Does the subject perform the action of the main verb? Good, that’s Active Voice, what you want in writing.  Or, does the subject do nothing while something else performs an action on the subject?   Not good, unless Passive Voice is used for effect and sometimes for sentence variety.  If the main verb is a linking verb, usually a form of To Be, then it functions like an equal sign and describes a state of being with no action involved.  Not the best way to keep readers involved in the story.

Now can you tell the difference between active and passive?

The UPS delivery person rang the doorbell at the office.

The doorbell at the office was rung by the UPS delivery person.

The delivery person is here.

Well, it certainly wasn’t a delivery person at the door a few years back when I worked at that small office.  Two days after that first episode, again, around three in the afternoon, the doorbell rang.  I jumped out of my chair and said Yes? as I pressed Talk.  No answer.  I’d forgotten about the unusual silence days before but the second time in two days annoyed me.  What was going on?  I sat in my chair.  I wasn’t going to bother asking again who was there.  I turned to the computer and started typing up an email.  The doorbell rang again, this time four or five times in long buzzes.  I hit Talk.  Yes?  nothing.  Yes? I said again.  silence.  Not happy, I walked out of the office to the metal gate of the main entrance.  No one waited.  I went outside and looked up and down the sidewalk.  Pedestrians passed by going either direction.  I watched them, to the right then the left, for several minutes.  No one.  Only a lone school kid, couldn’t have been more than nine-years-old, already halfway up the block, turned to look.  I went back inside, no closer to knowing who it was.

Whoever it was came back.  Every day.  Always around three o’clock but never exactly at the same time.  I couldn’t catch the person in the act.  I tried, but soon gave up.  It was a waste of time and energy.  It went on for weeks.  Even my co-worker tried to find the culprit.  He’d rush outside the minute no one responded.  Always came back as puzzled as before.  We stopped chasing that bell ringer but I never stopped being annoyed.

Then, one day, when I said “Yes?” to the ring of the bell I waited with my hand on Talk.  A young voice, barely audible, said “I love you,” over the intercom.  Did I hear correctly?  I knew I had.  I didn’t move, surprised.  Touched.

“Who is it?” my co-worker said.

“I think it’s a kid,” I told him.

He ran out the door.

I knew then it was the little nine-year-old I’d seen that day, weeks away, on the sidewalk.  Dark blue hooded jacket, baby face peeking out as he’d looked back.  I hadn’t suspected him.  He’d walked at a regular pace, not fast like someone trying to get away.  I’d seen him several times before.  Always alone.  Now my co-worker was after him.  Like he was a criminal.  And he was only a little boy who rang the doorbell every day just to one day say “I love you.”

Who knows why?  But ever since, the sound of a doorbell always makes me smile.

NEXT TIME: No clue, but I’ll think of something.

To Be or Not To Be When Writing and a little bit about Bode

In Random Posts, Uncategorized, Writing - Understanding Style and Technique on February 22, 2010 at 12:46 am

Last time I discussed how verbs show without telling.  It ties in a little with these ongoing 2010 Olympic Games.  Athletes can tell the world how great they are in their sport, how they’re going to win, but emotion and support of fans isn’t generated from what they say, but what they do.  And the best place to show the world their sport and ranking is at the Olympic Games.

I love the Olympics.  When they’re on I don’t sleep much so I won’t miss much.  I watch the skating but as other sports play out I can’t look away.  There’s a lot to learn watching an unfamiliar sport.  Especially getting to know the players.

Before the 2006 Torino Winter Games I’d never heard of Bode Miller.  Leading up to the games I couldn’t turn on a television without seeing a commercial hyping this guy.  Including an in-your-face campaign to follow Miller online at joinbrody.com.  I was sick of him before he strapped on skis for the practice run.  That was a mild reaction compared to the complete revulsion I felt for him as the Games progressed.  Unbecoming conduct, lack of respect for the game, a complete disconnect from athletic spirit – he was a Jerry Springer episode on skis.

For the first time I willed an Olympic athlete to fail.  I wanted that arrogant fool to fall.  And fall he did.  Spilling over like foam of a Miller Lite.  I clapped with glee.  It seemed appropriate the great mountain of Turin shook him off its back like an oxen flexes at a fly.  Bode Miller’s wild and reckless run ended with a slide on his backside to the soft snow of the sidelines.

When I saw that he qualified for the 2010 Vancouver Games I “ugh”ed displeasure.  I’ll say it again.  ugh.  But the buzz was he’d been skiing a good season with podium results.  Commentators said he’d changed.  yeah, right.  There’s that hype again.  No thank you.

Then began the 2010 Winter Games and Bode Miller slid his way to Bronze.  I was ready to scoff at his victory speech.  But he didn’t boast.  He explained.

“I sort of feel like I relaxed a bunch of my animosity toward the commercialism of the Olympics from last time.”

huh.  I understood what he meant and sympathized with it.  Next thing you know we’ll been seeing fast food chain McDonald’s as a sponsor promoting their food as a healthy option for Olympians.  Oh, wait.  That did happen.

And my dislike for him thawed.  He was only a guy trying to stay true to the heart of skiing.  And McDonald’s was not his first hearth-healthy choice.

In that interview, and several following, Body Miller talked of transition.  What had changed?  Of course he discussed the obvious, that he’d matured and how becoming a father had altered his focus.

Also, he said, that throughout his career he’d been flying downhill fueled on feeling.  Man against mountain.  That he hadn’t skied for himself in Torino.  Instead he felt he’d been forced to ski for the big money sponsors and the experience left him cold, which is exactly where he ended up in the medal runs, out in the cold.

So, in the aftermath, Bode had to dig deep and decide what to do.  Give up or regain passion for the sport?  His answer was to go back the heart of his skiing and do it on his terms, for himself.  But skiing by emotion only is, at best, a pure adrenaline rush.  A total on-the-seat-of-your-pants ride.  He knew it was a reckless, unreliable method with uncontrolled results.  And to be recognized in the sport, especially in an Olympic year, he had to find a way to tame the wildness of the ride by working out the mechanics of it.  He had to incorporate technique into the purity of his ski run.

So, that brings me back to the question of this piece, To Be or Not To Be?

Bode had to find a way To Be in a way that accomplished his Olympic dream, even if it meant mixing passion with the drudgery of technique or else it was Not To Be.

It’s the same in writing.  We can speed down that hill in an adrenaline rush and write on pure emotion.  But the ride is not our own.  Readers are on that hill with us.  To make a successful writing run we can’t shut them out of the experience.

To do that successfully, we need to go the Bode way and mix our passion for writing with technique.  But, unlike Bode, we don’t want To Be when writing.  Verbs, I mean.  We don’t want To Be verbs in our writing.  They are like obstacles on the hill, stopping readers in their tracks.

Let’s talk time for a minute.

To create the reality of time in writing we use three basic verb tenses.  Present (exists now), Past (started and finished in the past), Future (action or situation that will occur in the future).

There are elements to these tenses used to indicate when the action or event occurs in relation to other events.  One is Simple (the time of focus) as in Simple Present, Simple Past, and Simple Future.

I sit on my couch every day.

I watched the Olympics last night.

I will walk to the refrigerator as soon as a commercial airs.

Another is Progressive (ongoing action) as in Present Progressive, Past Progressive and Future Progressive.  Be + -ing (present participle) forms the Progressive Tense.  It’s used to indicate an action is in progress during a particular time.  The elements of the tense portray when an action ‘begins before’, is ‘in progress during’ and ‘continues after’ another time or action.

Bode is skiing right now.

He was dropping to seventh when I turned on the television.

He will be kicking himself later.

And the final one is Perfect (completed action) as in Present Perfect, Past Perfect and Future Perfect.  Have + -ed form the Perfect Tense.  It’s used to portray an action ‘completed in the past before another action’, that ‘one thing happens before another time or event’.

I have already seen the results.

I had already seen the results online before I turned on the television.

I will already have seen the results when my friends arrive.

Head spinning yet?  There’s also Perfect Progressive (ongoing action that will be completed at some definite time) but I will write more about it next time and how verb forms are used to create tenses.

What you need to know right now are the basic To Be verb forms.  These are the ones to watch out for when writing.  Train yourself to avoid them whenever possible:

Simple Present:

I am

You are

He, she, it is

We, you , they are

Simple Past:

I was

You were

He, she, it was

We, you , they were

Present Perfect:

I have been

You have been

He, she, it has been

We, you, they have been

The base form of the verb is be, the past participle is been and the –ing form is being.

I’ll be here next weekend.

I have been happy.

I am being productive today.

So, you ask, why is this seemingly simple verb to be avoided?

It describes existence only, a static state.  It just ‘is’, nothing happens when you To Be in writing, the story stands still and readers wait as nothing happens, they wait for the story to continue so they can get moving again down the mountain.

It’s like writing, ‘Bode is unhappy today’.  What does it tell readers?  That he is unhappy.   Instead of writing that he is unhappy, a state of existence, why not write about the specific behavior that reveals he’s unhappy and hint at what action is to come.

‘Bode clipped the flag with the edge of ski on the fourth turn, forcing him off course and out of medal contention.  At the bottom of the hill he slammed his ski against the barrier and swore he’d return.’

And before I leave, I’m sure you are wondering, did I cheer for Bode this time as I watched the U.S. team’s Olympic runs?  Yes, I cheered him on.  I think we both grew up a little during these Olympic Games.

NEXT TIME: Activating the Tenses

A-well a Verb, Verb, V-Verb’s the Word

In Random Posts, Uncategorized, Writing - Understanding Style and Technique on February 14, 2010 at 4:10 am

Sing that to the tune The Surfin’ Bird by The Trashman.

That was fun, wasn’t it?  Now, back to business.

Just a quick review.  In my last post, I’ll Tell You Mine If You Tell Me Yours, I explained how I was introduced to a phrase repeated to every novice writer, Show Not Tell.  It refers to a writing technique used to transport readers into a story through the use of character actions, dialogue, feelings and senses instead of narrating, or telling, readers what’s happening in the story.

I was confused at first.  Why couldn’t I just tell a story?  After all, isn’t that why it’s called story-telling?  Then I saw an example of the technique and began to understand how to use it.

If I wrote ‘Clare liked Billy’s laugh.  It made her feel happy.’ then I’m telling readers what Clare liked.  But to show Clare liked Billy’s laugh I could write:

‘Billy leaned closer, pressing against her arm as if to keep from falling, while he laughed outright.  Clare smiled and closed her eyes, her insides bubbling like the soft foam that rises to the top of a root-beer float.’

I know, not the best example but I’m learning as I go.

Although it takes more words to Show, when used correctly it’s an effective way for readers to experience the story’s emotion and action through their own reactions.  They get to figure it out by seeing the smiles and feeling emotion as it builds.  A very different experience than when an author tells them what to think.

But you know that already if you read my last post.  You also know my sample of Show in my previous post did not go well.  Yes, it showed everything but my choice of words slowed the story to a crawl.  I described things with so many adjectives and adverbs that I buried the story somewhere underneath them.

I sought out a solution on writing sites and found that word Show again.  This time relating to verbs.  You remember those things from school, the word in a sentence that makes a statement or tells what happened.  Billy laughed.  Clare smiled.  The bell rings.  They are late.

In a simple sentence, the ‘who’ or ‘what’ in front of the verb is the subject.  Oh yeah, that.  I knew you’d remember.

So how does this trip to grade school grammar help me now?  By knowing I need to go back to basics and search for the verbs in my sentences.  I’m looking for the weak ones, tame and colorless, that can be replaced with stronger verbs, more direct and concise.  Verbs that Show (there’s that word again) something happening.

‘Clare walked quickly in the direction of the school.’

The verb in this sentence, walked, requires an adverb, quickly, to describe Clare’s haste.  Is there a stronger, more concise way to say the same thing?

‘Clare hurried in the direction of the school.’

Or, ‘Clare rushed to school.’

It says the same thing with fewer words and stronger impact.  Why?  Because it Shows readers that Clare’s in a hurry to get to school without flat-out telling readers Clare’s in a hurry to get to school.

As Clare runs off into the distance I’ll sit back with a cup of coffee, watch the 2010 Olympics and enjoy the rest of the day.  Could I use a stronger verb for that?  Maybe.  What about chillin’?  Now that’s a word.  The word is a verb that’s not only strong but goes well with a good cup of coffee.

NEXT TIME: To Be (When Writing) or Not To Be

In my last post I said Activating The Tenses was going to be the next post.  We’ll have to chill on that a while longer.  It’s coming, I promise.  Had to slow down to push a few lazy verbs out of the way.

I’ll Tell You Mine If You Tell Me Yours

In Writing - Understanding Style and Technique on February 6, 2010 at 8:28 pm

I should have called this space Bang Head Here (Once In Awhile) or maybe even Pressed for Words.  I planned to make online courtesy visits to my own blog at least once a week.  Three weeks and zero posts later I’m trying to decide on the direction of this cyber thoughtlessness.  For now, I’ll continue with the topic of continued frustration and head banging: Writing.

There are times I question why I started this process.  Why, oh, why did I think I could simply tap a keyboard and words and images, in all of their glory, would dance from my head onto lighted screen?

What shows up on my monitor screen is not pretty.  Like a scrambled secret code.  I know what I want to say but how the heck do I put words together that effectively communicate the thoughts I want to share?

The day I decided to try cracking the writing code was the day I became a dreaded online Lurker.  I sought out writing sites big and small, sites with thousands of participants all the way to unknown writing forums tucked into the lining of  internet pockets.  I stayed on the sidelines and read everything, posts, comments, how-to’s and followed so many links my index finger lost all feeling at times.  There’s a lot of writing out there just like mine.  Bad.  Bad.  Bad.  My face turns red reading it as I cringe knowing I’ve written much the same.  And all of the good writers suggest the same thing every time in critiques, Show Not Tell.

What a saying.  Show Not Tell.  I’d never heard it before seeking out ‘the code’ yet those words are typed onto writing sites a dozen times every 3 seconds.  Okay, I thought, that’s my solution.  I haven’t been including all of the colors and scenery and knee creaks the reader needs to see the story as I see it.  No problem.  I pulled the Thesaurus closer, adjusted the height of my chair and tapped out the code.

I chose an existing paragraph for the transformation:

****‘Billy and Sidney were in the yard tossing a football back and forth.  I settled down on the grass to watch at a comfortable distance from the girls sitting at the picnic table.  I was still shy around Lindsey and Billy, the new neighbors.’****

And began to incorporate the code:

****‘Using his palm Billy bopped the ball into the air, forcing it upward the moment it dropped down with a heavy sounding impact each time it thudded his open-palmed hand.  It was not a real football, only half the size and constructed of thick rubber molded to form its distinctive shape.  Thick painted bands of white crossed-stitching raised slightly from the surface on one side of the ball in an attempt to authenticate its look, with patches of tiny, raised bumps densely covering its remaining surface.  The ball itself did not matter, it was more what it represented.  The boys seemed to transform at the touch of it.  They no longer walked; they strode.  They did not tag; they tackled.  They puffed out their little boy chests and, for a moment, thought of themselves as men.  I was observing this as Billy bounced the football against his palm.  Sidney, my lanky, scrawny brother, was standing without the usual hunch to his shoulders in an attempt to push out his chest bones, waiting for Billy to throw the ball his way.

I was perched idly on the lawn, my skinny spindly legs crossed, having positioned myself between the white, child-sized picnic table and the engraved column of white ceramic topped with the smooth rounded bowl of a birdbath.  A sweet scent of freshly mown grass lingered in the air.  Linsey had positioned herself on top of the picnic table, the white soles of her tenner shoes propped flat on the bench below.  Next to her Marilyn was sitting, swinging her legs, dangling them from the side edge of the small picnic table, as she watched the boys throwing the football.  Marilyn was big for her age and her sizable sneakers were grazing the tips of the cut grass as her legs swung back and forth.  None of us, among the girls, made a move to join the two boys playing football.’****

huh.  easy.

That’ll show ‘em, I thought, and sat back in my chair to read the next New York Times best seller.

My shoulders dropped.  Ugh.  Loaded with code my sentences were like boulders in the road that had to be moved aside to get to the story.  Maybe I didn’t execute the code properly.  Or, maybe there was another link to the code that I hadn’t connected yet.  I was beginning to understand the concept of Show Not Tell, but there were more secrets out there to uncover.  This was not going to a quick trip to the park.  This was going to be a journey.  I packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into a paper bag and headed back into cyber space.  I’m turning Lurking into Learning.  I’ll return to Tell you all about it.  The Show must go on!

NEXT TIME:

Activating the Tenses

How to be more active when you tense.