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Wimpy Verbs—the Weeds in Your Prose Garden

Like weeds that spoil your splendid garden, wimpy verbs sully your prose.

“Be verbs,” the various forms of “to be,” dominate the wimps list: be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being. Along with the linking verbs—appear, become, feel, grow, look, seem, remain, smell, sound, stay, taste, turn—they belong to a class known as “state-of-being” verbs.

Truth to tell, wimpy verbs litter my drafts, and sometimes even my revisions. If I’m not vigilant, I get called out by my writing friend Gaylon Greer.  Thank goodness.

Here are some examples of how choosing verbs other than “be” verbs strengthen sentences.

Ex: Brandon is fearful of giving his speech.

Fix: Brandon fears giving his speech.

Ex: Danielle grew uncomfortable when the interviewer asked inappropriate questions.

Fix: Danielle’s chest tightened when the interviewer asked inappropriate questions.

Ex: I am lonely.

Fix: Loneliness grips me.

Ex: Such a brazen crime seemed unimaginable to residents of the quiet neighborhood.

Fix: Residents couldn’t imagine such a brazen crime in their quiet neighborhood.

When you start messing with words, the fun begins. For example, as I think of Brandon,
certainly “fears” is better than “is fearful.” But I want to feel his angst viscerally. And that’s what I want for my reader. So, “The mere thought of giving his speech made Brandon’s knees quake and his mouth go dry.” Been there, done that.

And I can’t resist going beyond the “brazen crime” sentence. So, “Several neighbors bought guns. Two men took turn patrolling the streets at night. A widow put her house on the market.”

Search in a chapter of your WIP for these key culprits: am, be, was, and were. You don’t have to weed all of them out of your prose–sometimes you’ll just like the cadence of the sentence as is. But you’ll find many sentences can be improved.

Leave a comment or example of your own.


What could be more nostalgic than the smell of the library you grew up with? Or more likely to produce a lump in the throat than memories of riding bikes to the library with kids? Or more significant than thwarting the John Birch Society’s attempts to get certain books off library shelves?

–Leanna Englert, in “The Voice for America’s Libraries

(I meant to use this for Library Week, but April got away from me.)

This Glamorous Writing Life

As a fan of the late E. L., Doctorow–his Ragtime made me fall in love with the Progressive era–I felt validated when learning that he’d said this about novel writing: “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

That describes me. I don’t outline. I’m in the writing camp known as “pantsers,” as opposed to “plotters.” So after writing a first draft of Candlelight Confessions, my work-in-progress, I started revising, which in my case often means overhauling. I threw myself into it, massaging style, complicating character relationships and plot, and even toying with nitty-gritty stuff like changing “happy” to “glad” and back again.

It occurred to me I needed a bit of back story regarding Irina’s failed engagement. So I wrote a scene. And that inspired another and another and another. Magnificent scenes. Characters revealed new sides of themselves, and things happened that laid the groundwork for later events and character motivations. I was happily immersed in the anguished act of creating, which is essentially problem-solving, squirming with uncertainty and myriad possibilities, then knowing I’d found my way on this journey, as Doctorow suggests.

Then a forehead slap from my friends who critiqued these chapters at Austin Novel in Progress. I’d gotten seduced by a detour, that one new scene that called for more. Trouble was, these scenes did little or nothing to advance the story I intended.

Stunned, I listened to Tim who suggested I take a month off. That was about three weeks ago. The characters and story visit me now and then, but I swat them away. Hard to say what will ultimately happen with these pages. They just might end up in the landfill (or, to be PC, the recycle center) with the approximate 100,000 words cut from Compromise With Sin.

I’m occupying much of my free time working on piano technique and learning new songs. I’m not sure what will happen once I get back to the book. I just know I have a story to tell and characters I want to hang out with.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


The cave you fear holds the treasure you seek.

–Joseph Campbell

Authors, Grab This Low-hanging Fruit

Thought you’d want to know that a zoo in London is holding a Valentine’s Day fundraiser, charging the equivalent of two dollars to “name a cockroach after your ex.” Seems the day for lovers means different things to different people.

If you decide to brave a restaurant on that hallowed day, look around. Some couples seem to delight in celebrating new or enduring love. One woman’s eyes hold the expectation of a proposal. A man looks off in the distance, as though he wishes he were with someone else.

As writers of fiction, we strive to create characters who resonate with readers. To that end, we struggle with characters’ emotions, and we struggle to differentiate characters. If it all seems like a lot of hard work, it is.

But there’s something I call “one of these days is not like the other” or “low-hanging fruit.” We can reveal so much if we’ll tap the power of certain days to evoke meanings and emotions for our characters, reveal something about relationships, and sneak in back story. I’m talking about showing characters on holidays, birthdays, or anniversaries.

Here are a few examples:

Holidays can mean so many different things. Over Memorial Day, Morris goes on a three-day fishing trip with his buddies while his wife decorates the graves of forgotten veterans. Nathaniel Begay declines an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner and goes to a movie alone. Laurie joins a protest against wage inequity on Labor Day. Working on Christmas Eve means that Donna, who is Catholic, is missing important family time, and her mother has been nagging her to get a different job. Meanwhile Jacob, who is Jewish, thoughtfully trades shifts with a Christian co-worker every year. (And I haven’t even touched on being in prison on Mother’s Day.)

Birthdays aren’t just about celebrating or growing older. Glenn remembers his mother collapsing and dying on his seventh birthday. Claudia abandons her good-girl persona and gets wasted with her friends at a male strip show. Melody bakes her own birthday cake and eats it and a carton of Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked. For the second year in a row, Grady’s family has spent part of his birthday in their tornado shelter. Julie threw a lavish dinner party for her fortieth birthday during which her husband announced he was leaving her for her best friend. (That really happened.)

Anniversaries can be about the usual things or the very personal.  Married seven years, Anna has given up expecting Bill to remember their wedding anniversary. Alex grieves on the anniversary of his brother’s death. Shelly takes a mini-vacation every year to observe the day she quit the job that gave her migraine headaches. (See the opportunity for some backstory here?)

You have rich examples of your own. I suggest that you look at your work-in-progress for scenes in which meanings, emotions, or tension could be heightened if you’d set them on a day that holds some significance for your character(s).

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


If we wait for the moment when everything, absolutely everything, is ready, we shall never begin.

–Ivan Turgenev

Banished Words List 2019

“Ghosting” made the Banished Words List.

Another year, another Banished Words List from Lake Superior State University. I have to say I find their selections a bit lackluster compared to previous lists, e.g., 2018 . Creators of the list, which originated at a New Year’s Eve party in 1975, would ban words and phrases from the Queen’s English for “mis-use, over-use, and general uselessness.”

So here are some excerpts from 2018, along with comments submitted by nominators:

  • Wrap my head around–“Impossible to do and makes no sense.”
  • Yeet, as in to vigorously throw or toss–“If I hear one more freshman say “yeet,” I might just yeet myself out a window.”
  • Ghosting–“Somebody doesn’t want to talk to you. Get over it. No need to bring the paranormal into the equation.”
  • Optics–“The trendy way to say ‘appearance’.”

I have to say I find their selections a bit lackluster compared to previous lists, e.g., 2018 . I happen to like “ghosting,” and I think it will stick. I’d contribute “at the end of the day” to the list.

Your thoughts?


If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.

–Margaret Atwood

Crooked Path to Strong Dialogue

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

Too often, dialogue follows a straight, predictable path when it should veer off into the unexpected. In real life conversations, people often talk past one another. Putting this fact to work in your dialogue can enhance credibility and/or tension.

Imagine a writer creating dialogue between a therapist and a patient who’d tried to kill his own mother:


The therapist says, “Your mother was cited seventeen times for neglect and abuse. Do you hate her?”

The patient balls one hand into a fist. “My mother might not be perfect, but she’s a goddamn saint. Don’t you forget that.”

Instead of answering the therapist’s question directly, the patient reacts not to the question itself, but to what he perceives as the therapist impugning his mother’s integrity.

Another way one character responding to another rings true is when there’s apparent misunderstanding, which may or may not be deliberate. In this example, a couple has just finished setting up the crib and other furniture for the baby they’re expecting:

Eve imagines what it will be like to watch their baby sleeping on his back, his little chest rising and falling with each breath.  She takes Adam’s hand. “It seems almost too good to be true.”

He gives her hand a squeeze. “I know.  To think we got all this for under two hundred dollars.”

Here’s another example, this one from an oft-cited scene in Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist. Sarah and Macon are grieving parents whose relationship disintegrates as they drive in the rain:

There was a moment of watery blindness till the truck had dropped behind. Sarah gripped the dashboard with one hand.

“I don’t know how you can see to drive,” she said.

“Maybe you should put on your glasses.”

“Putting on my glasses would help you to see?”

“Not me; you,” Macon said. “You’re focused on the windshield instead of the road.”

Your thoughts? Examples of dialogue? Leave a comment.


A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That is why there are so few good conversations; due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet.

–Truman Capote