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The passive voice: Is it always an error?

Today I was browsing books on Amazon, and I came across a likely-looking mystery. I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries lately, for reasons known only to my subconscious, I suppose. Anyway, I had never read anything by this particular author, so I clicked “Look Inside,” as I often do for books written by authors I know and always do for those written by authors I don’t.

The first sentence was a tortured attempt to avoid the use of the passive voice, in my opinion. I’ve changed the specifics, but the gist is as follows: Jack Smith had two forces in his life that drove him to excel.

Okay. I know, I know. Writing craft books, articles, and teachers have drummed into our head that we shouldn’t use the passive voice.  “Write active sentences!” Great. Sometimes, however, you might want a passive sentence. (The most important word in the preceding sentence is “Sometimes.”) Passive construction puts the emphasis on the object of the sentence, not the subject. “The accused man was found not guilty by the jury.” That sentence is passive. The emphasis is on the object (the accused man). The subject is soft-pedaled (the jury). You could even delete “by the jury” and still leave the meaning intact: The accused man was found not guilty.  What’s important in the sentence is that the accused man was found not guilty. What’s not important is that the jury did the finding. See? When you want to put the focus on the one being acted upon rather than the action or the person/persons doing the acting, you can use the passive voice to accomplish that.

So if the writer of the mystery I looked at wanted to focus on Jack Smith, she could have written, “Jack Smith was driven to excel  by two forces in his life.” Or she could have written, “Two forces drove Jack Smith to excel.” Which one is better? Tossup, in my opinion. It depends on where the focus is supposed to be. On Jack Smith? Or on the forces?

Now, having said that, let me add that most of the time, you will want your writing to be active, not passive.

The little dog darted into the yard and caught the ball.

The ball was caught by a little dog who darted into the yard.

In this case, the first sentence — while no masterpiece — is certainly livelier and easier to read than the second.

Use the passive voice when you need to. Be sure you really need to. And use it sparingly. old typewriter by menken at morgueFile.com

First Person POV

 

old typewriter by menken at morgueFile.com

 

I could write a whole book about first person point of view, but I won’t.  It’s a very common writing technique (hereafter abbreviated to POV). Some people hate to read it or write it. I love first person, though, and I’m going to write just a bit about it now.

First person POV in a nutshell is the one where the narration is “I” did this, “we did that.” It’s easy to spot. (Third person can be either close or distant, or omniscient. Those distinctions make knowing which sort of third person you’re reading more difficult than with first person. Also a few books and short stories have been written in second person: you did this or that.)

The strength of first person is that the reader is firmly in the heart and mind of one character. The weakness of first person is that the reader is firmly in the heart and mind of one character. That identification with one character is both the main strength and weakness of first person POV.

At first glance, first person seems to be easy to write. It isn’t. The character through whom the reader will experience the story must be worth spending time with.  That voice must be distinctive and interesting. Otherwise, the reader will check out.

When writing first person POV, you can show only what that character sees, hears, feels, knows. Therefore, a set of sentences like these will jar the reader. I followed Joey down the hall. His eyes were focused on the closed door, and he bit his lip nervously. If your narrator is following Joey, he has no idea what Joey is looking at or if he’s biting his lip. All your narrator can see is the back of Joey’s head. You’d think this sort of thing would be obvious, but I read these things all the time. As a writer, you must constantly think, “Can I really see this? Can I know this?” If the answer is no, you must rework the sentence until you can answer yes.

Or this. Bob sat at the bar, nursing a beer. I sat two stools down, pretending to drink a Bloody Mary. Bob sighed, worried about his job. Okay, granted that’s some less-than-stellar narration. The point is, the narrator couldn’t know what Bob was thinking, not unless he said something to her. I read these sentences even more often than the first example.

The strength of first person POV remains the ability to see things from one person’s perspective. To be inside that one person’s mind, heart, soul. The writer cannot scrimp on the emotional content. Just showing us what’s happening without letting us see what the POV character is thinking and feeling will leave us cold. If the writer does show us the POV character’s reactions and emotions, we will feel them, too. We will live the story right along with the POV character.

In the hands of a skillful writer, no other POV allows us such access to the depths of a single character’s mind.

“I’ve written a GREAT book!”

 

Really? You have? Well, don’t be the one to say so in your ads. One of the things that will totally turn me off a book is an ad/promo like this one WHEN POSTED TO A WRITER’S SOCIAL MEDIA AND WRITTEN BY THE WRITER HIM/HERSELF: This is a great book for horror readers! OR This is a wonderful book for children ages three to five.

When I promote other writers’ books, I might very well say the same things, but when a writer says that about his/her own book, it sounds desperate or self-aggrandising. I mean, what writer doesn’t think his/her own book is great and wonderful? Still, let others toot your horn; don’t do it yourself.

Let your readers say how wonderful, amazing, insightful, awe-inspiring, great, moving, and hilarious (all words I’ve seen just in the last few months applied by writers to their own work) your book is.

Photo credit: Patrick_Denker at EveryStockPhoto.com

Look inside the book–and close the cover

The other day I was searching on Amazon for a good book to read. I like zombie fiction, and that’s the specific genre I zeroed in on on  this particular day. I found one that looked interesting. Nifty, though a bit crude, cover. Good reviews. An editor listed in the description.

Because I didn’t know the writer’s other work, I followed my usual procedure and clicked “look inside.” I was a bit annoyed by the way the e-book was laid out – reviews, copyright information, table of contents, and so on all at the front, thus cutting down on the amount of actual book text I’d be able to read in my “look inside.”

Then I got down to the text.

I found a grammatical error in the second sentence. I found weak writing (to put it kindly) in the second paragraph, followed by several more examples of poor grammar, bad punctuation, and weak writing in the two or three pages I slogged through.

Did I pick up this book? No. No, I didn’t. Not even at the low-low-low price of free was this book worth it. The story sounded interesting. The writing turned me right off.

Now I have to add that a perfectly grammatical story peopled with cardboard characters and weighted down with a blah or confusing plot will also turn me off. I just can’t detect those flaws in the first two or three pages of the book.

Do you need an editor? Yes. Do you need an editor who’s not afraid to tell you what’s wrong? Also yes. Do you need an editor who knows his/her stuff? So much yes.  Sometimes an editor has to be the Bad Guy and tell her client that a section isn’t working, that a word doesn’t mean what the client thinks it does, that the client is relying on the same word or phrase too much. When we do that, it’s not because enjoy crushing a client’s creativity or voice. It’s because that’s what the client is paying us for: finding those errors before they turn off the readers.

All that said, it’s also true that a lot of readers don’t know the nuances of grammar. That doesn’t mean they won’t know when the meaning of a sentence is unclear. They might not know why they’re uncomfortable, but they’ll know they are. After all, a person doesn’t have to understand music theory or be able to read music to know when someone’s singing off-key.

Indie writers have to be especially careful, I think. Readers are, unfortunately, a lot harder on indie writers than those published by Big New York Publishers. It’s like that old saying, “You have to be twice as good to get half the respect.” Is it fair? No. Will this perception change? Probably. Does that probable change matter now? Nope.

 

photo credit: gregparis at morgueFile.com

But They’ll Steal My Ideas!

 

No. No they won’t. And if they do, chances are you won’t even recognise your idea after it’s worked its way through that other writer’s psyche.

I have heard several (inevitably new and/or unpublished) writers say things like, “I don’t want to join a critique group or give my work to a beta reader or an editor because they might steal my ideas.” I shake my head when I hear this sort of comment.

I have been in workshops where a dozen writers were given the same writing prompt (in other words, the same story idea) and produced a dozen entirely different stories. I’ve never been in a workshop where two writers wrote the same – or even a similar – story from the same prompt. Never.

The other day I was talking with a writer friend, J.M.Cornwell, and she began discussing an idea she had. Her idea sparked an idea in me which took off in a different direction entirely from my friend’s idea. I sketched out a story, and then became a bit concerned that J.M. might think I had appropriated her idea. When I mentioned it to her, she said, “For crying out loud, write the story! Your story won’t be at all like mine, and you know it. Go for it.”

So I did. The story’s still in the notes and planning stage, but when I write it, I know two things: It’ll be my story, not my friend’s; and J.M. Cornwell will be okay with my taking off on her idea.

I have never worried that my critique group, beta readers, or editors would steal my ideas. After all, how many variations on “boy meets girl, boy woos girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again” have you read? Or variations on “guy murders other guy and detective brings the murderer to justice”? Or maybe “the zombie apocalypse erupts and only a few people survive”? Honestly, you could write variations on variations on variations of those basic ideas from now till twenty minutes past forever.

Idea-theft should be the least of your concerns. Write the doggoned story. Get it critiqued, beta-read, edited. Rewrite it as needed. Make it the best, most polished bit of writing you can. And there you have it. A finished piece worth reading.

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