Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, May 27, 2017

To Be or Not to Be

Cassidy trying out band instruments for her new school next fall. No decision yet, but, alas, her arms weren't long enough for the trombone, her chin (?) not suited to the oboe. She is considering the trumpet, like Daddy; the French horn, like Mommy; or the baritone, like sister Riley.

This is not my kitten, but it was just too adorable not to share from a friend's post to Facebook.


To be.  A highly irregular verb
Is.  Present tense singular
Are.  Present tense plural
Was.  Past tense singular
Were.  Past tense plural
Been.  Past Perfect

 What would we do without the verb "to be"? From "Let there be light" to "Bless, O Lord, this ring to be a sign of the vows . . .," the verb "to be" is one of the most essential tools in our language. And, alas, like adverbs, so-called "rule-makers" have cast it as a villain.

I've no doubt those who need rules for everything meant well. They were attempting to keep authors from "telling" their stories, like an ancient storyteller, instead of "showing" the story by getting inside the protagonists' heads and letting us see what they see, hear what they hear, feel what they feel. When rule-makers told authors to avoid the past tenses of "to be" (was and were), they were offering a way to avoid passive prose. Giving authors a boost toward writing in a more active mode that would make readers sit up and take notice.

The trouble was, of course (please note the use of "was"), that too many authors took the advice literally, interpreting avoiding "was" and "were" as a goal in itself, something that would miraculously transform their early efforts into deathless prose.

It just ain't so.

Yes, if you look over your work and it's jam-packed with "was" and "were," it's likely you are "telling" instead of "showing"; i.e., writing passively instead of actively. (For more on this, see my blog posts of 7/21 & 7/28, 2013.) But basically, just like adverbs, "was" and "were" are important aids to our language, and there is no reason to shun them, as long as you don't overdo it.

Hmmm. I can't help but wonder if a fear of "was" and "were" is at the heart of some authors switching their writing style to present tense instead of the traditional past tense. Pretty hard to be accused of being passive when you're using present tense!

Seriously, do not be so terrified of "was" and "were" that you stand on your head to avoid them (or garble your prose by simply leaving them out, as I once saw in a contest entry I judged). If you don't overdo it, they are perfectly legitimate ways to say what you need to say.


Below are the opening sentences of my about-to-be published The Lady Takes a Risk. By pure coincidence this excerpt, written several months ago, incorporates three forms of the verb "to be."

   It is not easy to be the daughter of a despot duke. For that matter, Lady Amelie Sherbrooke was forced to concede, there were likely earls, barons, tavern-keepers, farmers, soldiers, sailors, tinkers, and tailors whose daughters considered them quite as despotic as the Duke of Wentworth. 

From Nora Roberts's Carnal Innocence - a small portion of the seven-paragraph characterization I have quoted previously as one of the finest ever written. (So outstanding it was read aloud at a national conference awards ceremony of the Romance Writers of America.)

   For Tucker, life was a long, lazy road. He didn't mind walking it as long as he could do so at his own pace. He was affable about detours, providing he could negotiate back to his chosen destination. . . . He was easy-going and well-liked by most. . . . Of course, there would always be some who muttered that it was easy for a man to lend money when he had more than enough.

 From Tami Hoag's Dark Paradise:

   The world suddenly seemed a vast, empty wilderness, and she pulled into the yard of the small ranch, questioning for the first time the wisdom of a surprise arrival. There were no lights glowing a welcome in the windows of the handsome new log house. The garage doors were closed.

Opening lines of the Prologue to Running Hot by Jane Ann Krentz:

   Martin was going to kill her.
   She stepped off the gangway and onto the sleek, twin-engine cabin cruiser, wondering why the cold despair was hitting her so hard. If there was one thing you learned fast when you were raised by the state, it was that ultimately you could depend only on yourself. The foster home system and the streets were the ultimate universities, awarding harsh degrees in the most basic kind of entrepreneurship. When you were on your own in the world, the laws of survival were simple. She had learned them well. 

From A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin:

   One Eye ripped through the undergrowth, spraying snow. His packmates followed. Up a hill and down the slope beyond the wood opened before them and the men were there. One was female. The fur-wrapped bundle she clutched was her pup. Leave her for last, the voice whispered, the males are the danger. They were roaring at each other as men did, but the warg could smell their terror. One had a wooden tooth as tall as he was. He flung it, but his hand was shaking and the tooth sailed high.
   Then the pack was on them. 

Opening lines of Gallows Thief by Bernard Cornwell:

   Sir Henry Forrest, Banker and Alderman of the City of London almost gagged when he entered the Press Yard, for the smell was terrible, worse than the reek of the sewer outflows where the Fleet Ditch oozed into the Thames. It was a stink from the cesspits of hell, an eye-watering stench that took a man's breath away and made Sir Henry take an involuntary step backward, clap a handkerchief to his nose, and hold his breath for fear that he was about to vomit.

 From a first-person novel - To the Nines by Janet Evanovich:
 His hair was dark and his eyes were dark and he looked like he frequently traveled through places where men's hearts were dark. 

Clyde was right about the first Susan. She was very nice. But she only knew Singh from a distance. And the same was true for the other four Susans. 


Traditionally, most fiction is written in the past tense. Therefore, writing in the past tense without using the past tenses of the most frequently used verb in the English language is patently absurd. The supposed rule against "was" and "were" was not laid down to get rid of every instance of those words. It is merely a warning flag that if you find you're using a lot of "was" and "were," your writing is likely too passive. Too standing on the sidelines and narrating the action, rather than having your characters get right in there and live it, bringing readers along with them. 

As with adverbs, "was" and "were" are immensely useful. And correct. Just don't overdo it. If you are, you need to do your homework on the subject of "Show, don't Tell," one the most basic rules of writing fiction. One that cannot be ignored. Modern writing does not "tell" a story from the outside, from the viewpoint of a storyteller looking at the action from afar. Today's fiction is up close and personal, "shown" from the viewpoint of whichever person is the main character in a scene. "Show, don't Tell" is not a rule you break. (Please note my blog posts on Show vs. Tell cited above. And I'm sure there are oodles of articles on the Net as well.)

So . . . don't be terrified of "was" and were." Just make an effort to use them wisely.

~ * ~

Thanks for stopping by,

For Grace's website, listing all books as Blair Bancroft, click here.

For a brochure for Grace's editing service, Best Foot Forward, click here.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Tale of Squeak

Happy Mother's Day!
 (One more drink selfie for our collection, which extends from the Caribbean to Istanbul)

Florida Wildfire Update: 2,600+ fires this season have burned over 700,000 acres. A number of years ago I used this annual Florida problem (tho' worse this year) in my Romantic Suspense, Paradise Burning. Oddly enough, I wrote the book about three years before the area (east of Venice, Florida) suffered a severe burn similar to the one in my book. 

~ * ~
An Admittedly Political Moment - Mea Culpa

Whether in writing or in speech, the repetitive use of the simplest adverbs, such as "very," is a sign of a sparse vocabulary, lack of imagination, and disregard for those who must listen to this paucity of creativity. At least that's how I see it. Yet there seem to be people out there gullible enough to believe the person who keeps repeating how "very, very good," or "very, very great," something is, no matter its dubious merit. Does the believability of an "alternative fact" increase with each "very" used?  Does calling the truth a lie ad nauseum make it a lie? If so, God help us all. 

~ * ~

Except for Mother's Day, this could be called Disaster Week. The following photo was taken at the jetties in Venice, Florida, where I lived for 25 years. The jetties mark the only access between the Gulf of Mexico and the Intracoastal Waterway for 20 miles in either direction. I've sat there, eating lunch at one of the many picnic tables and enjoying the view countless times over the years. Last week a man and his daughter somehow drove off the jetty parking lot into the swift-moving current. All efforts to save them failed.

~ * ~

Grace note: After a traumatic experience with my cat, I have postponed my comments on the verb "to be" until next week, so I could share with you . . .

The Tale of Squeak  
A Story for Animal Lovers Everywhere

Once upon a time there was a small, dark calico kitten. It was winter (2016) and she needed warmth. Or possibly she was just seeking shelter. You see, she was a feisty little kitty, her mommy most likely a tame housecat, but daddy . . . ? Well, from the kitten's subsequent behavior, one can only assume daddy was a big, tough, feral cat with an aggressive streak a mile wide.

"Kitten" may have been given into a loving new home for Christmas and disgraced herself by biting and scratching (which sweet little kittens aren't supposed to do, particularly around children). Whether she was tossed out or ran off remains unknown, but somehow she found her way inside the hood of a car. (From the way she remains terrified of the sound of a car engine to this day, she may have actually been transported "under the hood" from her original location.)

Late last January, my daughter's neighbor was about to start her car when she heard a noise. It couldn't have been more than a distressed "squeak" because that was the best this little kitten could do. Fortunately, the kitten was rescued, but the woman had dogs and could not keep her. She turned to my daughter whose elderly and settled cats wanted no part of a kitten. So I was asked to kitty-sit until someone was found to adopt this feisty little scrap of fur (who is sitting in my lap as I type and just tried to nip me because she thought I was going to move her!) 

Yes, you guessed it. "Squeak" and I bonded, even though she was clearly traumatized and the most aggressive, unfriendly cat I had ever seen - and I've had cats all my life. Squeak became my rescue project. Fortunately, it was obvious she'd had a proper upbringing. She was perfectly sandbox trained and flealess, though a bit on the scrawny side since she'd obviously spent several days on her own. So off to the vet for whatever a poor lost kitten needed . . . and that's when I discovered she was a shameless flirt. Bite or scratch the male vet? No way. You would have thought she was the poster child for meek and mild kitten of the week.

Squeak, Winter 2016

In reality Squeak bit, scratched, and generally fought her way through the world for most of the next year. I had to have a squirt bottle of water handy for the grandgirls and myself for the times her biting got out of hand. We also had to enclose her with a pet gate to keep her from jumping into the middle of both cooking and sewing projects with disastrous results. It's only in the last two or three months that she's begun to settle into a more tranquil animal. (Though I still have bites and scratches here and there to prove she's not totally reformed.)

Squeak, growing
It wasn't as if she didn't recognize that I had rescued her. For weeks she followed me from room to room, never letting me out of her sight. And over the months she's become a real cuddle cat, sweet as pie until you tried to move her! Or didn't open her cat can fast enough. Or tried to stop her using the sofa as a scratching post. (Of course she won't go near the fancy scratching post I bought her, even when I doused it in catnip.)

Alas, she soon outgrew the bowl.

Another favorite spot - & ladder to her favorite hidey hole behind the clothes - while directly below . . .

Look, Mommy, I got those bad old towels.

Enjoying Christmas 2016 - fortunately she only climbed the tree once after it was decorated.

I installed a cat door to the screen porch because Squeak obviously loved the outdoors, zipping by me to get outside any time she could. But every time she got away, she was back within 15-20 minutes. I got in the habit of propping the outside screen door open so she could find her way in on her own. At night, when she'd stay out longer, she'd pop back in every 20 minutes or so, checking in, her version of "Hi, Mommy, I'm fine."

Which leads up to last week's trauma . . .

The phone repairman was here, and we left the kitchen door open as we moved from house to garage. I didn't see Squeak run out, but it was inevitable as she races through any open door. While in the garage, I heard her cry out, the loudest, most alarmed noises I'd ever heard from her. I rushed out but saw nothing. I decided it must have been one of the screechier birds in the neighborhood and thought nothing more about it. Until an hour later when the phone man left and I realized Squeak hadn't been parading up and down in front of him, doing the "flirt" routine she does with all repairmen who come to the house.

I started searching, calling, looking in all her favorite hiding places. No Squeak. I remembered there had been a strange white car parked in front of my neighbor's house. I'd assumed it belonged to one of the workmen at the house across the street. But when I asked, I was told no. Then I remembered comments on our neighborhood e-mail loop about a mysterious white car that had been seen parked in various places where it didn't belong. I asked for more information about the car, describing it on the loop, and received several replies confirming that this late-model car, perhaps a Lexus, had been seen several times in different places.

The hours went by. I was devastated. There was no doubt in my mind Squeak had been cat-napped. But why? She's about as far from an expensive purebred as one can get. A Mother's Day present? Well, they were in for shock if they wanted a sweet, friendly little kitty. But would they just toss her out someplace where she couldn't find her way home? Or had she been catnapped by someone sadistic? That thought really hurt. I remembered the alarm in her cries that morning and was sick. My only hope was that it was a prank, and after dark she would be returned. 

I was heartbroken. I could not believe how much that scrappy bit of fur had come to mean to me. Come nightfall, I propped open the outside screen door. I watched television. I waited. Nothing. At 10:20 I went into my bedroom and began to read. At 10:30 - nearly 12 hours after her disappearance - I heard the distinctive flop of the cat door between the screen porch and the living room. And there she was. Totally spooked. She wouldn't let me touch her. She ran from one end of the house to the other several times before finally going into her favorite hidey-hole, a shelf in my closet where she is totally hidden behind my hanging clothes. Except for coming out to eat, she stayed there for two days. When she finally emerged, she either cuddled next to me or squeaked anxiously at my feet for a whole week before finally, within the last couple of days, returning to her independent self.

Did she bite her catnapper and get tossed out, making her own way home?
Was it a prank by someone kindhearted enough to bring her home?
Was it the person in the mysterious white car?

I have no idea. I posted Squeak's return and my thanks on the neighborhood e-mail loop, wondering if the person involved had seen my original post and realized Squeak was a beloved pet, not a stray.  

A week after her trauma, the first time she finally settled, without hiding or clinging.
So that's the Tale of Squeak. I am truly grateful for this happy ending.

~ * ~

Thanks for stopping by,

For Grace's website, listing all books as Blair Bancroft, click here.

For a brochure for Grace's editing service, Best Foot Forward, click here.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Don't be a "Rule" Slave

Special Grace Note (5/13/17): 
I am taking the weekend off for Mothers' Day. 
See you next week.

Last weekend the grandgirls all had solo roles in local "Junior" productions of The Lion King and Grease. Hailey and Riley shared a role, performing on different nights. They also shared the same dress! Cassidy played the villain Scar in The Lion King.



Cassidy - a smiling villain (the show was over)

Don't Be a "Rule" Slave

A lengthy discussion on adverbs on the Regency authors' BeauMonde email loop is the spark behind this week's Mosaic Moments. I'll be holding forth on Adverbs this week, but I expect there will be a lot more about "rule busting" in the foreseeable future.

I'd like to begin with an adverb story from real life. Over the last few years I've been bothered by dentists and dental assistants telling me to "Open big." (In both East Orlando and Longwood.) I finally broke down and tried to explain it made me feel like a four-year-old with a minimal vocabulary.  Not that it was easy to explain to people in the medical field that "big" is an adjective and can only modify a noun, while  "open" is a verb and must be modified by an adverb. Therefore a dental patient should be told to "Open wide." 

For more uses of adverbs, please the definitions below.

From the Oxford English Dictionary (very academic, as one would expect):

Name of one of the Parts of Speech; a word used to express the attribute of an attribute; which expresses any relation of place, time, circumstance, causality, manner, or degree, or which modifies or limits an attribute, or predicate, or their modification; a word that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb.

From Random House Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (a little closer to clarity):

a member of a class of words functioning as modifiers of verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, or clauses, as quickly, well, here, now, and very, typically expressing some relation of place, time, manner, degree, means, cause, result, exception, etc., . . . often distinguished . . . in English by the ending -ly.

From The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation by Jane Straus*:

Adverbs are words that modify everything but nouns and pronouns. They modify adjectives, verbs, and other adverbs. A word is an adverb if it answers how, when, or where.  

*Grace note: You can see why I recommend Ms. Straus's book for authors who need to brush up on their grammar and punctuation! Whatever definition made sense to you, I think we can now agree on what kind of words we're talking about; i.e., a large portion of the English (or any other) language. 

To put the matter more dramatically (please note the use of an adverb) - without adverbs, your book just lost a good portion of its punch. Descriptions go blah, nuances fade to black. You lost lively, delightfully, sorrowfully, wickedly, absolutely positively, inside, outside, upstairs, downstairs, first, last, today, tomorrow, always, never, every—even happily ever after

So who's the idiot who decided authors should not use adverbs? You've got to be kidding! 

Which brings up the Big Question: Why do we have adverbs if we're told we can't use them? Not that my English teacher ever told me that, but I realize, looking back, he was never a slave to rules. His standard was quality. But evidently a great many budding authors have been hit with this problem—by teachers, by how-to- books, by critique groups. So . . .

This is my seventh year of Writing and Editing tips on Grace's Mosaic Moments, and I've bashed "rules" before, but until the recent discussion on BeauMonde I don't think I appreciated how badly damaged some authors' efforts have been by strict adherence to so-called "rules." Yes, I recall mentioning a manuscript I was judging that was almost incoherent because the author was afraid to use any form of "was" or "were." It was just plain sad, an excellent example of how to shoot yourself in the foot.

Grace's advice?

Don't be afraid to fly. 
"Wing it." 
Make your words sing. 

Like every aspect of life, don't overdo any one word or type of word*, but never be afraid to make your sentences shine with the words you feel need to be in that sentence. 

For examples of adverbs, I looked through my current Work in Progress, The Lady Takes a Risk. Could I have avoided the adverbs I used? Possibly. But why should I? As long as I wasn't overdoing it, why not use a perfectly good adverb and save elaborate verbiage for a more important moment? I.e., if I use a lot of descriptive words to replace the adverb in a sentence of a transitional or not-so-important paragraph, I detract from the big moments I want to dramatize with more colorful language. 

Grace note: All examples below are taken from the first six pages of the various books.

From The Lady Takes a Risk by Blair Bancroft:

What more could you possibly wish?”

 So here she was, feet flying to three-quarter time, while Cedric, Earl of Penhurst, imparted a running commentary—frequently derogatory—on each of the dancers, and more than a few chaperons, ranging from imposing dowagers to wilting lilies.

No matter how waspish her suitor became, Lady Amelie kept her perfectly polished social smile firmly fixed in place.

Horrified by her vehemence, Amelie silently begged forgiveness.

 She twisted, squirmed, her fists pounding his back, her feet kicking frantically until she encountered solid flesh.  She had the satisfaction of hearing him grunt, before abruptly breaking off the attempts of his wet, slobbering tongue to force open her mouth. Revolting!

A heaviness in her heart told her she really shouldn’t ask, but inevitably the words tumbled out.

The awful thing was, Amelie almost laughed. The thought of Cedric being able to compromise anyone was simply beyond her imagination. Which didn’t bode well for what she could expect of her marriage.
~ * ~

After copying the above from the first six pages of my manuscript, I got the bright idea of checking the masters of the Regency (since the discussion that sparked this blog was confined to Regency authors). Here is what I found. (All examples are from the first six pages of each book.)

From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

He was quite young, wonderfully handsome, extremely agreeable, and to crown the whole, he meant to be at the next assembly with a large party.
~ * ~

From The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer:

Grace note: Since Ms. Heyer’s sentences tend to be long and involved, I confined myself to the clause with the adverb in it.

The butler, having tolerantly observed those transports . . .

. . . said his sister hastily.

. . . so rudely interrupted,

You see, what with the really dreadful expense . . .
~ * ~

From The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer:

A lady, soberly dressed in a drab-coloured pelisse . . .

She stepped up into it, her spirits insensibly rising . . .

. . . by performing menial tasks, generally allotted to a second housemaid.

Miss Rochdale’s astonished gaze alighted presently . . .
~ * ~

I tried to picture what convoluted passages might have prevailed if Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer felt they had to avoid those adverbs. Absurd! Both authors, masters of their art, are telling you a tale in the language that was appropriate for her voice. (Their magnificent voices.) Are there places you should ask yourself, "Is there a better way of saying this?" Of course there are! Every sentence cries out to be the best you can make it. But those sentences must come from your heart. Not from the dictates of some how-to book, what you heard in a workshop, what someone whispered in your ear at an authors' meeting, or what people of no talent - forced to regurgitate what they've read or heard because they have no original thoughts - tell you.

Finally, I decided I should add examples from other genres, just to show that Regency authors aren't the only ones using adverbs.

From Murder on the Serpentine by Anne Perry:

As Pitt vaguely recalled being here before, Sir Peter stopped abruptly and knocked on a large paneled door.

In short form, still from the first six pages:

. . . visibly struggling 
. . . drew in his breath sharply 
. . . almost as if they were equals.

From Rain on the Dead by Jack Higgins:

They were obviously on drugs, which exasperated Tod, though there was no point in mentioning it now.

They didn't reply, simply turned and swam away, and so did he.

 ~ * ~
The moral of ALL these examples: Adverbs are good. They give us a way to play with our verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, to subtly alter or nuance what we want to say. They provide us with words like forever and never, phrases like I walked upstairs, I'll see you tomorrow. Adverbs are an integral part of our language. And yes, they provide us with a simple way to say what we want to say. (And many times "simple" is best.)

No, you don't tack an adverb onto every verb in your paragraph, any more than you attach an adjective to every noun. But for heaven's sake, don't listen to the no-can-do's who throw up their hands and cry, "Oh, horrors, you used an adverb!" 

Hold your head high, fly in the face of ignorance, and if an adverb is the word that works for you in a sentence, USE IT!

~ * ~

Thanks for stopping by,

For Grace's website, listing all books as Blair Bancroft, click here.

For a brochure for Grace's editing service, Best Foot Forward, click here.