I once scanned an entire short story I wrote looking for every instance of "was" to remove. Out of five-thousand words, not one "was". I did this because of some advice about passivity I read in a copy of Writer's Digest.
Now, the advice itself wasn't altogether incorrect. But the acrobatics I went through to achieve this feat were ridiculous. In many cases, they hardly changed the sentence. "She was standing in the doorway" became "I saw her standing in the doorway." (That's not exact, but it conveys the idea.)
I was young.
Too much focus on words is bad. I hear writers deliver a list of words to avoid all the time, giving little pet names even. The words aren't bad.
And "was" isn't about passiveness.
"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times."
Passive? Or is it about contrast, reversal, repetition and maybe a dash irony?
"It felt like the best of times; it felt like the worst of times."
Any better now?
These are the kinds of tricks writers play on their manuscript when they focus too much on words and blacklists. There's wisdom behind the rules, if you dig for it.
Here's the thing: if someone states a rule and you can think of a few exceptions, to which that someone says, "Well, it can work if done well," there's a problem. If the rule requires a list of exceptions and a fluffy "when done well" modifier, the rule is flat-out broken and wrong. It's too easy to discuss strictures and dismiss exceptions. If there is a "when done well" exception, then talk about how to do it well. What makes it work? Find that, and you've found the wisdom behind the rule.
And so it was with "was". My favorite authors—big names—kept using it. For a long time, I kept thinking they were screwing up.
"Was" is an ongoing, continuous state of being (past tense of be). Use it when that is your intent. It does a great job of conveying an ongoing, continuous state. (Sure, it denotes a passive mood, so don't use it when you want action.)
In a recent fantasy short story, I opened with this line.
Johan and Generys were sitting on the fence that bordered their families' cattle fields....
Passive? You bet. Nothing happening? Yep. Ongoing, continuous state of being? Exactly. Exactly what I wanted in the opening. Why? Because of the abruptness of what came next.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.