We’re Moving!

After three years camping out for free at WordPress.com, I’ve moved both my blog and my business website to a new self-hosted WordPress site at kbhyde.com. The new site is called God-Haunted Fiction. It includes pages for my books and my editing/design business in addition to the blog.

It’s been great communicating with you here at The Wayfaring Writer. I hope you’ll come on over to God-Haunted Fiction and join the community there. We’re moving on to bigger and better things!

Those Pesky “To Be” Verbs

Once upon a time, a writing teacher, editor, or other pundit taught a writer to avoid the passive voice—sentences in which the apparent subject is being acted on rather than acting. (For example, “The dog was walked by me.”) Passive voice, the pundit said, weakens your writing and makes it sound clunky and pedantic. Go for strong, active verbs.

This, in itself, is good advice.

However, perhaps because the student was slow to understand, the pundit then proposed a shortcut to rooting out passive sentences: Look for “was” and “were” and get rid of them. The writer then shared this advice with every other writer she knew, until a whole generation of writers (especially, it seems, in CBA) grabbed hold of the firm belief that “was” and “were” are to be avoided at all costs.

This is throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

In fact, the verb “to be,” even in its past tense forms of “was” and “were,” has many legitimate uses. For one thing, passive voice itself is not always the worst way to frame a sentence. Take, for example, the last part of the sentence above: “‘Was’ and ‘were’ are to be avoided at all costs.” Here, the verb “to avoid” has no clear implied performer. One could write, “one must avoid ‘was’ and ‘were’ at all costs,” but Americans tend to find the use of “one” stuffy. Or one could write, “writers must avoid . . . ,” but in my opinion, the passive construction here puts the emphasis where it belongs: on the words themselves which ought to be avoided.

(A handy way to tell when passive voice may be okay: If your passive sentence makes perfect sense without a “by _____” phrase to indicate who is performing the action, it may be okay. If it needs a “by _____” phrase, turn that sentence around and make ______ the subject.)

I will say, however, that in fiction—which is my primary subject here—the passive voice is rarely the best choice.

But even if you have a zero-tolerance policy toward the passive voice, the verb “to be” performs any number of other useful functions in our language. In this post you may find many instances where I use it as a linking verb—linking a subject to a predicate that explains it. (For example: “This is good advice.”) Expository writing and description would be lost without this usage.

(Parenthetically, I have heard this usage of “to be” referred to as “telling rather than showing.” That is a gross oversimplification. The distinction between telling and showing cannot be reduced to the use of certain words. Admittedly, even in description, stronger verbs are better where possible; but let us not demonize “to be” as a “telling” verb.)

Another helpful use is that of helping verb. The past imperfect tense, in which an action is ongoing in the past, requires the use of “was” or “were.” For example, “I was running down the road when I tripped over a dog.” Overzealous eradicators of “was” will frequently advise writers to get rid of the past imperfect in their writing. But if you write, “I ran down the road when I tripped over the dog,” not only does it not convey the original sense, it could be taken to mean the order of events was reversed: I ran down the road after tripping over the dog.

The past imperfect is a fine and useful tense. It conveys more immediacy than the simple past and is necessary to describe, as above, one action interrupting another. Please, oh please, do not throw it out!

“Was” and “were” are also required with the past participle, as in “the order of events was reversed” above. That phrase looks like a passive tense, but in fact it isn’t, because there is no conceivable performer of the action “to reverse.” In French or Russian, you would say the equivalent of “it reversed itself.”

To sum up the more common uses of “to be”:

  1. Nasty, evil passive voice: “The dog was walked by me.”
  2. Acceptable passive voice: “The walking of dogs is not permitted here.”
  3. Linking verb: “The dog was a mutt.”
  4. Past imperfect: “I was walking the dog when I saw the ‘No dogs’ sign.”
  5. Past participle: “I was embarrassed that I had broken the law.”

Questions? Bring ‘em on!

Artists in a Market Economy

This post is a slightly belated response to a discussion that originated with Seth Godin (discussed here) and continued with a post and comments on Rachelle Gardner’s blog. The basic idea being debated is whether writers have a right to make a living from their writing. Godin says no.

I would agree that in one sense, no one has the “right” to make a living. We all have to work hard and well at our chosen occupations. But if we do that, I personally contend we should be able to make a living at them.

Michael Hyatt commented on Rachelle’s blog that writing is a commodity, and what the writer gets paid depends on how popular his writing is. Simple market economics.

That makes sense for ordinary nonfiction and for commercial fiction (although even there, I believe the writer deserves a bigger piece of the publishing pie, but that’s another post). But I would like to propose the radical idea that real literary art, like every other kind of art, is in a category all its own.

You don’t hear so much about “art” in the writing circles I travel in (primarily CBA). You hear an awful lot about “craft,” and people go on and on about how good writing doesn’t take talent, it just takes practice and persistence and following some basic rules. That may be true for writing that stops at the level of craft; I don’t believe it is true for writing that ascends to the status of art. (Another other post.)

The thing about art—the thing that makes it so difficult to fit into all these convenient formulas about the market economy—is that its ultimate value, its contribution to the sum of beauty and goodness in the world, is not proportional to the number of people who appreciate it within the artist’s lifetime. It may even be inversely proportional, although there are notable exceptions (such as Dickens, who was wildly popular in his lifetime).

The world has always had a hard time dealing with this reality. The problem of the starving artist is so old as to be a cliché. Various models have been tried throughout history—the gentleman artist, private patronage, government patronage, entrepreneurship, and the most prevalent contemporary model, agency (where an outside person or company takes responsibility for propagating the art and pays the artist a percentage).

Each of these models has its drawbacks, but they all (except the gentleman artist, who is probably gone for good) share one big, glaring flaw: Whoever pays the artist ultimately wants to control his output.

Whether it’s the Austrian emperor complaining that Mozart’s music had “too many notes,” the NEA refusing to fund an artist whose work isn’t politically correct, or Dickens’ readers demanding a happy ending to Great Expectations, outside control is inimical to art. An artist must be free to obey only his muse and the inherent laws of his art form if he is to do his best work. He must also have “world enough and time” to let his imagination run free, which means, guess what, no day job.

What’s the solution? Unfortunately, I have no idea. Unless someone can invent a specialized time machine that will bring the future profits from a work back into the present to feed the artist while he’s still alive, instead of enriching others after his death.

Or—here’s a radical thought—the profits of works that are selling now, whose creators and their immediate heirs are long dead, could be set aside in a foundation that would provide grants to living artists. Hey, I like that idea. I’m sure Jane Austen would be happy to support me, instead of just a bunch of publishers and filmmakers, with the posthumous profits of her work. (Jane paid for her own publishing and never made her money back while she was alive.)

But since the people who are living parasitically off the works of dead artists are not too likely to give up that self-appointed privilege voluntarily, I expect the majority of artists will have to go on starving, or else expending the best hours and years of their lives doing something that puts bread on the table so they can pursue their art in the wee hours of dawn or midnight while the rest of the world is asleep. Maybe this builds character. In my personal experience, it builds stress, exhaustion, and much less than one’s best work.

But what the hey—it’s Tradition!

Considering Contests

At the moment I am a contestant in four contests, three literary and one spiritual. Forgive me as I meander around considering the similarities and differences between them.

Contest #1 is a well-known annual contest in the Christian fiction world. It follows the pay-a-sizable-fee-and-get-a-critique model and offers no tangible prize—just a certain dubious amount of glory. I’ve entered this one before and been disappointed by the results—of the three judges who commented on my work, two didn’t seem to get it at all, and scored my entry low as a result. So why did I enter it again? Different novel, different genre, no expectations, just a vague hope of making finalist and thus getting my name on a list where it might be noticed by an editor. I entered my YA fantasy in this one.

Contest #2 is run by a secular publisher and follows the no-fee-no-critique model. This one offers a substantial prize: $5000 cash plus a critique by one of their editors. The odd thing is that they value the critique at $10,000 (which the winner will have to pay tax on). It’s hard to imagine a critique being worth that much. I certainly don’t know any editors who make that kind of hourly rate! I don’t have much hope of winning this contest, because it draws on a large field and may be weighted toward nonfiction (it lumps fiction and nonfiction together). But the risk/return ratio is favorable, and it certainly would be cool if I won. The novel my agent is currently submitting was my choice for this contest.

Contest #3 is run by a Christian publisher, another no-fee-no-critique, with the prize of a $15,000 publishing contract. That was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Here I’m hoping that even if I don’t win, my writing might catch the eye of an editor. Since entries in this contest cannot be under submission to other publishers, I chose the novel my agent hasn’t yet seen, my firstborn literary child which I revised yet again last fall.

For all these literary contests, I’m competing against other writers for the highly subjective approval of a panel of judges. I put my best effort into the writing before I sent it off, but once I’ve hit “send,” there’s nothing more I can do to influence the results. There’s not much in the way of middle ground; I either win or I don’t. If I win, someone else doesn’t. Knowing all this, I’m striving to be as detached as I can from the outcome. From here on out, it’s all in God’s hands.

Contest #4 is different from all the above in about as many ways as you can think of. It’s a spiritual contest, not a literary one. I’m not competing against others but against my own passions, my own gluttony and sloth and selfishness and pride. This contest—which is really just one phase of a larger contest that involves my whole life—won’t really have results that can be categorized as “winning” or “losing”; the results fall more along a continuum from “slipping backward” to “making good progress toward the ultimate goal.” And the results are within my control every step along the way, although it’s also true to say I can’t take a single step without the help of God. To be detached from the outcome of this contest would be insane, because the prize toward which I am ultimately working is the salvation of my soul.

If you’re a Christian of any traditional stripe, you’ve probably figured out by now that the contest I’m describing is Lent. For Orthodox Christians, it starts tomorrow and goes through April 6, when we enter into Holy Week in preparation for celebrating Easter/Pascha according to the Orthodox calendar on April 15. The tools of this contest are repentance, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, all of which challenge us to take those things that are most precious to us—our self-satisfaction, our creature comforts, our money, our time—and sacrifice them to the service of God.

The toughest writing contest pales by comparison. May God have mercy on my soul.

Poll: Theology in Fiction

Both as an editor and as a writer, I have to deal with the issue of theology in fiction. Even if a writer is not deliberately writing to espouse a particular theology, his or her own views do tend to percolate through. How much does it matter? What if the writer wants to speculate a little, especially about areas where theological thought is vague or divided, such as the afterlife or the world of spiritual beings? Must fiction be held to the same firm standard as nonfiction lest the weak be led astray?

Please note I’m not primarily talking here about the kind of fantasy that invents whole other worlds. I think people who enjoy fantasy understand that an invented world, even if it doesn’t play by exactly the same rules as the real one, can still communicate fundamental truths.

I’ve created a poll about our attitudes as readers. Please feel free to comment at greater length as well, since this is hardly a cut-and-dried issue. I’m really curious to hear what you think.

Ballad of the Christmas Knitter

(to the tune of “I Feel Pretty”)
by Knitter Beyond Hope (aka me)

I’ll be knitting
I’ll be knitting
I’ll be sitting and knitting all night
And I’m fretting
That my measurements won’t turn out right

It’s two colors
It’s two colors
My first sock and first colorwork too
And I’m thinking
That I’ve bitten more than I can chew.

(bridge)
Who is this dumb sock for anyhow?
It would fit a giant, you see
No time to rip out, got to get it done, got to get it under the tree!

I’m short-rowing
I’m short-rowing
I’m short-rowing and going insane
All this wrapping
And I’m dropping stitches like the rain.

Now it’s growing
Now it’s growing
And the pattern is really quite fine
And I’m wishing
That this sock was going to be mine.

(bridge)
Who is this dumb sock for anyhow?
It would fit a giant, you see
No time to rip out, got to get it done, got to get it under the tree!

Now I’m ribbing
Now I’m ribbing
And it’s giving me some hope at last
That this sock will one day be a thing of the past!

I “Might” Have Known

I haven’t done a grammar post since I started tweeting grammar tips. But here’s a subject that won’t fit into 140 characters.

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of misuse of may and might—in the opposite direction from the misuse I’ve been accustomed to. It’s common to see might used where may is correct, but now I’m seeing an overcorrection in the use of may where might is correct. (For similar overcorrections, see previous posts, “Whom shall I say is calling?” and “I Object to Objective ‘I.’”)

Here’s the deal: might is (big-grammar-word alert) the subjunctive. In other words, it’s used to denote an improbable, impossible, or hypothetical condition. For example, in the past tense:

She might have been a world-famous writer by now if she’d started younger.

May, on the other hand, denotes an unknown but possible or probable condition. For example:

She may have exhausted all her best ideas.

In the present or future tense, the distinction is a little less clear; it’s more of a continuum than an either/or. Use may if the situation is more probable and might if it’s less probable.

Present tense examples:

He may be at home writing.

He might be at the local bookstore signing 3000 copies of his latest book.

Future tense examples:

Her book may get published if she works hard at it.

Her book might earn her a million dollars.

Get the general idea?

Just to be clear, we’re not talking here about the homonym, may denoting permission. That’s a whole other blog post (which I may write someday).