18 March 2013

no, No, NO!

Here's a picture of my reaction to being told, "No."

Color that child's hair red and it could be a photo of a young Fran. My mom used to say she was glad I was an easy-going baby who didn't often need correction because I didn't like being told what to do. Now my hair is platinum blonde (okay, it's white), and I still don't especially like being bossed around.

Leigh's "Professional Tips: To Be or Not" on March 3, 2013, set me to thinking about writing rules, violations, and lots of other aspects of writing and teaching it. Does anyone remember e e cummings? That poet who refused to use capitalization or punctuation was my first encounter with writers who intentionally break the rules.

About the Letter "E"

In 1939, Ernest Vincent Wright published Gadsby: Champion of Youth, a 50,110-word novel without a single "e" (apparently his name was exempt). In 1969, Georges Peree produced La Disparition, which omitted all "e's" in both the original French and the English translation, A Void.

That intrigued me so much that I thought about trying it with something I'd written. Being too lazy to seek something to translate to Non-E-Lish, I tried it with the opening of this blog:

Original Line: Here's a picture of my reaction to being told , "No."

Same Thought, Written Without 'E's: This photo shows how I look if I'm told, "No."

Original Paragraph: Color that child's hair red and it could be a photo of a young Fran. My mom used to say she was glad I was an easy-going baby who didn't often need correction because I didn't like being told what to do. Now my hair is platinum blonde (okay, it's white) and I still don't especially like being bossed around.

Same Thoughts, No E's: Color that child's hair titian and that photo could stand for a young Fran. My mom always said, "I'm glad my child was a good kid who didn't command lots of modification, as Fran couldn't stand disapproving words." Now my hair is so light that it's platinum (okay, it's bright as snow) and I still don't allow anybody to boss this old gal around.

That wasn't so difficult. Try it yourself, but please don't cheat and write the original with the conversion in mind or change any words in the original to make it easier.
I'm going to move on now because all the E's gathered around my keyboard are beginning to threaten me. One has even vowed to set my computer on fire if I don't let them back in.

About Verbs

In 2004, Michel Thaler wrote Le Train de Nulle Part (The Train from Nowhere.) This 233-page novel has plot, character, and action, but not a single verb! Thaler says, "The verb is like a weed in a field of flowers. You have to get rid of it to allow the flowers to grow and flourish. Take away the verbs and the language speaks for itself." I would have preferred to read that statement minus the verbs and see if the same message was delivered.

Leigh told us about those who want to abandon the verb "to be." Thaler took that to the extreme, but let's take a look at that nasty old verb. First, I've dealt with adults in writers' groups who weren't quite sure exactly which words are forms of the verb "to be."

So here's a reminder though I'm sure none of us need it:


Grammatical conjugation of a verb requires making a systematic list of all forms of the verb for each person, number, and tense. The verb "to be" is the most irregular verb in English. The simple conjugation of the verb to be is as follows:

• Infinitive: be
• Present Participle: being
• Past participle: been
• Future: will (or shall) be
Present Past
• 1st, singularIamwas
• 2nd, singularyouarewere
• 3rd, singularhe/she/itiswas
• 1st, pluralwearewere
• 2nd, pluralyouarewere
• 3rd, pluraltheyarewere

If you narrow those red words down by deleting repetitions, there are only eight of them: be, being, been, am, are, is, was, and were. Twice I've been in writers' groups with PASSIVE VOICE FREAKS. PVF's are people who go through other authors' sample manuscript pages and circle every one of those eight words and write PASSIVE VOICE and an ugly frowny face over them. The PVF's then look up with an expression that's uglier than the frowny face and makes me want to slap them, which I don't do because, as I've told you before, I am a sweet old southern lady.

Leigh wrote, "In particular, most advocates of removing most or all forms of the verb 'to be' point out it virtually eliminates passive voice."

Personally, I'd prefer the PVF's learn to correctly identify as passive only the structures where the verb "to be" is used as an auxiliary (known as "helping" until third grade) verb making the subject of the predicate the receiver of the action opposed to the giver of the action.

• The gun was fired by Fran who was ticked off by the PVF.
"Was fired" is passive as is "was ticked off" which makes this doubly less effective than the active:
• Fran fired the gun at the PVF who had pi _ _ ed her off.

Uh-oh! My samples are politically incorrect with the current gun issues in America. Please change "gun was fired" to "knife was thrown" and change "fired the gun" to "threw the knife."

Most of the time forms of "to be" are used as linking verbs showing condition or existence of the subject. If they were good enough for Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Jeffrey Deaver, and Harlan Coben, they're good enough for me.

My apologies if this turned into an elementary school English lesson. I started out aiming to tell you how I feel about some of the rules for writers, so I'll finish up this way:

Rules for Writers and How I Use Them

Even if lightning strikes the protatonist in the first chapter, I NEVER OPEN A BOOK WITH THE WEATHER--unless it's really important!

I NEVER write PROLOGUES--unless they're necessary!

I ALWAYS use "SAID" to carry dialogue--unless scream, moan, or whisper works better!

I ABSOLUTELY, REALLY, HARDLY ever use adverbs!

I'd run away like a greased pig at the county fair before I'd write regionally!

I avoid detailed descriptions of my characters, but my readers WANT TO KNOW about Callie's underwear!!!.

I NEVER use exclamation points because the rule says, "sparingly, no more than two or three per 100,000 words," and my books average 85,000 words, so I never get to use one.


Write it DOWN, then clean it UP!

What about you? Do you have any rules you obey or any you ignore? What bothers you about rules for writers?

Until we meet again, take care of… YOU!


  1. This reminded me of one of my favorite novels, RIDDLEY WALKER by Russelll Hoban. Set thousands of years after a nuclear war it is written in an English that has been simplified and conflated. One critic tried translating the opening page into standard English and realized he had lost so much of the meaning that it was impossible. Here is the first para in the original http://mrriddleywalker.blogspot.com/2012/03/on-my-naming-day-when-i-come-12.html

  2. Walter Brooks, who wrote the Mr. Ed short-stories as well as the novels about Freddy The Pig had some odd ideas about punctuation and capitalization: He usually didn't use quote marks or capitalize his "I's." I think about that when i screw up and refer to myself online as "i."

  3. Wow. To Robert Lopresti: I had never read Riddley Walker. Now I have to. Phenomenal. Thank you for sharing that paragraph!

  4. Fran, you missed one. For "boss the old gal around," you should say, "boss this old gal around."

  5. Fran, I continually strive to find what works, usually by trying what doesn't work first. I have to look up Riddley Walker.

    I think e e cummings would be overwhelmed with so much self-published stuff these days: it's difficult to tell what's intended versus what's poorly understood.

    One mystery novelist, Jonathan Gash, writes in such an offbeat (to me) prose style that it takes me a goodly fraction of the book until I slip into the author's cadence. (Gash is the pen name of John Grant who writes the Lovejoy series.)

  6. "Shize? I should shee! Macool, Macool, orra whyi deed ye diie? of a trying thirstay mournin? Sobs they sighdid at Fillagain’s chrissormiss wake, all the hoolivans of the nation, prostrated in their consternation and their duodisimally profusive plethora of ululation."
    Finnegan's Wake.
    (It helps with Joyce to read it, either aloud or mentally, with a thick Irish accent. I have a Caedmon tape of him reading from the Anna Livia Plurabell section - in which he sounds just like my husband's Aunt Maggie - and it's easy as pie to understand.)

  7. Since a couple of people expressed interest in RIDDLEY I will indulge myself a bit. One of the themes of the book is fission - both nuclear and personal. This is expressed as "the 1 becomes 2." Do you see why Riddley gives his age in the first sentence as 12 rather than twelve? I understand it took Hoban 8 years to write the thing.

  8. Thanks for the comments.

    Rob and Anon, I, too, shall look into RIDDLEY WALKER.

    Jeff and Leigh, you make me think about what punctuation rules I would like do discard. I believe the ones I'd change are those involving double quotes and single quotes.

    Eve, I can read and speak in Gullah accent, but there's no way I can read that with the proper accent though I do understand what he means.

    Liz, I saved you for last because I need a favor: Will you proofread my next book? Just kidding, I know you're too busy writing your own. I can't believe I read that thing over and over looking for an "E" and missed it. Thanks. (I like your version better even if mine hadn't had an "E" in "the." Right after I wrote this blog, I found myself checking out "E's" in everything I read.

  9. I don't know the modern rules, but French allows for an alternative set of quotation marks, ‹› and «».

    «Sacre Bleu!» «Bof!»

    P.S: I took the liberty of fixing the word Elizabeth's sharp eye caught.

  10. In the romance world some prada-wearing (pr)editor decided first person was passe and all lit must be third person. Then all the faddish wannabees agreed that no one of substance writes first person and now its become a foolish, foolish rule. Can you imagine? The most intimate genre can't use the most intimate mode of writing.

  11. Thanks, Leigh

    Anonymous - I didn't know that about romance. I don't write it and seldom read it, but I bounce back and forth in all of my work except the Callie Parrish Mysteries. They are always first person, Callie's voice, because she won't let me write them.

  12. Fran, I stoutly applaud your refusal to be hamstrung by – or to follow, lemming-like – orders passed down without thought to literary contingencies, passionate needs, or a poetic ear. Huzzah! (Can’t tell I hauled the family to the AZ Renaissance Festival yesterday, can you? lol)

    And, should you ever tire of knifing people, dear lady, my wife could probably teach you to throw a Battle Axe strait and sure – as I, and several other stout fellows discovered, to our chagrin, at yesterday’s festivities. (M’lady doth heave a mean axe, and whipped our manly asses by near always lodging its blade in her target’s heart, whilst ours – while striking wood -- fell most always short of the mark.)



Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>