Friday, March 11, 2016

YA Guy... Begins at the Beginning!

As a writer, YA Guy pays careful attention to what I read. I'm also a writing teacher, so that makes me particularly alert to the strengths--and, sometimes, the weaknesses--in published works.

With that in mind, I've decided to launch an occasional series of posts in which I offer writing advice. The occasion will usually be when I notice a common stylistic feature in YA literature that I have a problem with. (Or, who knows, I might also call attention to a particularly effective feature I've encountered.) For today, I'm going to begin at the beginning: by focusing on the word "begin."

The verb "begin," along with its various forms ("began," "beginning," etc.), is totally overused in YA. (As is its cousin "start.") While I'm not averse to the word "begin" in and of itself, I typically find it problematic when it's used in conjunction with another verb, thereby transforming the second verb into an infinitive or a participle. For example:

"He began to feel woozy."

"She begins searching for clues."

I'm sure you've noticed this tendency in YA, where virtually every action (or at least far too many of them) is characterized as having "begun" or "started." So we'll have a paragraph like this:
The monsters begin to climb the cliff toward me. Their maws gape wickedly. I begin to back away, my pulse starting to race. When their enormous, fur-covered bodies clear the top of the cliff, I begin to panic. I turn and, not looking behind me to see how close they are, start running through the forest.
I'm exaggerating to make a point, of course, but you know you've seen this kind of stuff. And it's not good.

Actions always have a beginning (and an end). For that reason, it's not particularly pertinent to call attention to this. In fact, doing so defuses the action, making it secondary to the beginning. Wouldn't it be better to write the above paragraph as follows?
The monsters climb the cliff toward me. Their maws gape wickedly. I back away, my pulse racing. When their enormous, fur-covered bodies clear the top of the cliff, I panic. I turn and, not looking behind me to see how close they are, run through the forest.
Still not great prose, perhaps, but much better.

I said above that I don't have a problem with the word "begin" by itself--nor do I think it can NEVER be used in conjunction with another verb. But I believe YA writers often use it habitually when a better choice could have been made. Instead of "I began Moby-Dick three months ago," why not say, "I spent three months on Moby-Dick"? (Or "I wasted three months on," or "I devoted three months to," etc.) These are all much stronger verbs than the vague and tepid "began."

So let's begin to end beginning with "begin," shall we?

And let's start starting to start our sentences with more interesting, dynamic, in-the-moment verbs.

2 comments:

  1. I can't begin to understand what you're talking about.

    ReplyDelete