Use and Abuse of Passive Voice

elements of style william strunk eb white
[Source: Pearson]
Basically, passive voice is when the noun or noun phrase that could be the object of an action becomes the subject. Passive voice permits permits subjects to have something done to them by someone or something. For example, an active sentence would be “Our team won the trophy.” A passive one would be “The trophy was won by our team.”

 

In general, authorities urging good writing advise writers to use the active voice as often as possible. Among other things, in order to convey the same amount of information in the passive voice requires more words. In the example above, the passive voice required 7 words rather than 5. Using the passive voice is often labeled as flabbier, less direct, and wordier writing.
[Source: Andertoons]
But there are several reasons to use the passive voice. As writers, we should use all the tools at hand to achieve our ends.

 

[Source: Amazon]
Bryan A. Garner identifies six ways in which the passive voice is acceptable or even preferred.

 

—When the actor is unimportant or not worth mentioning (in the context). Cheering crowds were barricaded all along the race route.
—When the actor is unknown. Overnight, Thanksgiving food baskets were left on 205 doorsteps in low-income neighborhoods.

 

[Source: Almeida Theatre]
—When you want to hide the actor’s identify. This is the classic: Mistakes were made. When no agent is unidentified, no responsibility is claimed or allotted—passive voice can erase who or what performs an action.  On October 11, Anthony Ekundayo Lennon posted a powerful comment illustrating this aspect of the psychology of language. In part, he said, “We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather than how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.”
 
—When you need to put the punch word or drama at the end of the sentence. In this instance, the agent is identified using a by-phrase. “Can you believe it? Earl was beaten up by his own son!”
 
 
—When the focus of the sentence is on the thing being acted on. The abused child was starved nearly to death.

 

Passive voice is not necessarily limp. For example, “. . .all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” (U.S. Declaration of Independence, italics added)
 
—When the passive simply sounds better—often because of the modifiers creating long phrasesThe wedding was planned by Heavenly Options, event planners who specialize in weddings, birthdays, funerals, and anniversary dinners with a strong Christian theme.
 
use abuse passive voice
[Source: The Writing Rag]
Bottom line: If you want your words to seem impersonal, indirect, and noncommittal, passive is the choice!

Discover Richmond

discover richmond connect
 
Grab it. Read it! When this RTD insert came with your paper a few days ago, you might have been tempted to pitch it. It’s very heavy on ads, especially in the first half. But take a closer look.
discover richmond amy black tattoo
I found several people, places, and things I can already connect to. For example, Amy Black. When I decided to redecorate rather than repair after breast cancer surgery, my oncologist recommended Amy. You may have read my In My Shoes essay about it in October of last year. I can’t praise Amy too highly. She is tough but gentle, accepting, and truly believes every body is beautiful. We both grew up in Ohio, so there is that cultural connection as well.

 

Amy is best known, perhaps, for her work with breast cancer patients, but she is an artist beyond that.
discover richmond back tattoo
I can’t appropriately show you what she did with my scars. I can only say that it was so appealing, I decided to have a “wrap-around” including both breasts and my back. And imagine my surprise when I discovered that during the year my youngest daughter (the only one with tattoos) lived in Richmond, on the recommendation of a Colorado tattoo artist, she sought Amy to create the tattoo honoring her daughter’s birth.

 

Amy is just one of 22 local people highlighted in this issue.

 

discover richmond hollywood cemetery
A place I particularly connect to is Hollywood Cemetery. I love cemeteries and graveyards. Hollywood is the third oldest garden cemetery in the country, inspired by the first, Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

 

vivian lawry virginia is for mysteries
I am so taken with Hollywood Cemetery that I set my first short story mystery there (“Death Comes to Hollywood Cemetery”).  Brief as it is, the Discover Richmond article manages to mention half a dozen interesting features of Hollywood.

 

Among the 31 destinations described, some of my favorites are Library of Virginia, the VMFA, and Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. Some of the destination I’d like to visit include Unsung Sites of Black History and Meadow Farm Museum. Numerous neighborhoods are mentioned, including Short Pump and Ashland (The Center of the Universe).

 

discover richmond local neighborhoods
There is a guide to craft breweries, regional wineries and distilleries, and restaurants, and 15 pages of resources, from museums and historic homes to art galleries, music groups, theater and dance groups, hobby and special interest groups (including James River Writers, Sisters in Crime/Central Virginia, Virginia Romance Writers, Virginia Screenwriters Forum, and Virginia Writers Club).

 

This compilation does a good job on things I know well, so I trust the info when  learning about the things I don’t know so well. It entices me to explore and to revisit past pleasures. My point here is that you should read—and keep—Discover Richmond

Do You Need a Gossip?

do you need gossip
In discussing toxic gossips, Lillian Glass says, “They are good at letting the cat out of the bag. They pick up more dirt with the telephone than they do with a vacuum cleaner. They have a keen sense of rumor.” Consider how such a character could advance your plot.
 
S/he could overhear something and pass it along because that’s what gossips do. Depending on your needs, what was overheard could be true or false. Depending on your plot, either could increase tension, and true gossip could provide a vital clue. Enough said.

 

A gossip often makes the hearer feel like a special confidante, getting privileged information—until and unless the hearer discovers s/he is only one of many.

 

Consider how the gossip disseminates the information: word of mouth, in person or by phone; email or text; Facebook or other social media. The spoken word is, of course, the most deniable—also the most vulnerable to alteration or exaggeration in the retelling.

 

do you need gossip
Consider the character of the gossip. The one basic truth about the character of the habitual gossip is that s/he needs to feel important. In addition, the gossip does not truly disclose information about him/herself. But beyond that, what typifies him/her? Some possibilities include insecure, belittling, competitive, hurtful, self-righteous, sneaky, mean-spirited, angry, lonely—and the list goes on. Depending on what you choose, the gossip could be an object of humor, pity, or dislike to your reader.

 

Consider the gossip’s relationship to your protagonist. The likelihood is that a gossip would be a secondary character in your story. Is s/he a friend, neighbor, coworker, family member, employee? Is s/he a one-off or a recurring character in a series?

 

Last but not least, remember that s/he who brings, carries. The gossip could be a great channel for passing information or misinformation among characters by telling A about B and then telling B about A.
do you need gossip
These are only some of the ways a gossip could enrich your cast of characters. Can you think of others?

Books into Movies

books into movies raymond chnadler
[Source: Amazon]
Monday night TCM showed the 1946 movie The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. That led me to recall that fifteen Chandler books became movies, including Murder My Sweet, The Blue Dahlia, Strangers on a Train, Lady in the Lake, and Time To Kill. 
 
So, consider other books that have been famously made into movies.
 
Add in books that have given rise to TV series.
Which of these book/film pairs are you familiar with? What is your opinion of each? And what can you add to the list?

The Best Soap Opera Ever!

winston graham book series
And you don’t have to take my word for it. Winston Graham’s first four books in the Poldark series were the basis of the BBC series broadcast during 1975 and 1976. The next three books were the basis of a 1977 series. These seven books became a 29-episode drama that was all the rage in Britain and the U.S.

 

I read the books and followed the series with rapt attention, and for a time took to drinking port on Sunday evenings while watching each episode.

 

In 2015, I watched the original series again, wiling away the morning hours while encased in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber five days per week, for six weeks. This series was (and no doubt still is) available from the library. (I also watched two versions of Pride and Prejudice during those treatments, but that’s neither here nor there.) Somehow I remained oblivious to the fact that the BBC launched a remake in March of that year.

 

So, when PBS started airing the new series, I didn’t realize it was new. Having just watched all 29 episodes, I ignored these broadcasts until last Sunday. I immediately realized that the cast, while true to the original characters, was different. Fortunately, I was able to pick up the story line with ease and now I am hooked again.

 

I decided to reread the books, only to discover that they were jettisoned during our 2013 move, so I went to Amazon and discovered not seven but twelve books! I had been oblivious to the publication of five more books in the series! So now I have a treat in store.

 

best soap opera ever winston graham book series

What makes the Poldark saga so great? 

First of all, the excellent writing. Winston Graham takes the reader to Cornwall to see and hear the pounding surf. He lets the reader into the minds and hearts of the characters. And his characters are humanly complex—flawed but lovable, even the  villains are understandable. Then there is the action. For me, he has defined page-turner. Graham also taps all the drama available in love, lust, and sex; struggle for survival; competition and grudges; deceit and deception; lies and murder; birth and death.

 

winston graham book dates
By all means, watch the TV series. But also read the books!

#PubforPR

Due to the overwhelming need in Puerto Rico following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, the publishing community is coming together to raise money for relief efforts.

#PubforPR is an auction put together by hundreds of authors, editors, illustrators, and literary agents, who have donated time and goods for you to bid on in order to raise money for those affected by the hurricane. All funds raised will go directly to Unidos por Puerto Rico and ConPRmetidos, two carefully vetted local charity organizations.

Please consider bidding on some of these items, or simply donating to one of these charities (the link is below). After the tragedies in Texas, Nigeria, Florida, Mexico, and now Las Vegas, it’s time to help in whatever way we can.

Quirks for Your Characters

quirks characters
This isn’t common wisdom for writers.  It’s my personal bias. But I always appreciate characters who, on some dimension or other, are a bit unusual. In other words, give them some habits that are, if not unique, at least uncommon.

 

I recently wrote about verbal tics. But what I’m talking about here goes beyond repeated words or phrases. I’m talking about behaviors your character consciously engages in repeatedly or ritualistically. Here are some possibilities to get you started.

 

quirks characters toothbrush toothpaste
Standing on one foot and then the other while brushing her/his teeth as a means of improving balance

 

Every time s/he goes into the bathroom, doing push-ups against the vanity as a means of building upper body strength

 

quirks characters bird flying
Taking two handfuls of birdseed to the front of the apartment building morning and night to encourage the pigeons and any other miscellaneous birds—even though neighbors bemoan the droppings

 

Setting aside personal possessions to send for birthdays and holidays because it’s easier than going shopping

 

Eating French fries and green salad with his/her fingers

 

quirks characters french fries ketchup
Wearing sweatpants and t-shirts as pajamas so that s/he can be seen at the mailbox or picking up the newspaper and look dressed for the day

 

Filling the entire patio with pots of herbs (such as basil, dill, sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, mint, parsley, tarragon) to support cooking from scratch, having bought local

 

Choosing to drink scotch/bourbon/whatever from a measuring glass marked in both ounces and milliliters

 

A character quirk is NOT the same thing as OCD. An obsessive/compulsive disorder compels the person to do it or suffer extreme anxiety, distress, and/or disability. While compulsions can make for interesting characters, creating an OCD for your protagonist can also produce unintended complications of plot and/or action.

 

Bottom line: Use all the means at your disposal to create interesting, believable characters.

Better Late than Never!

During a recent phone conversation with my youngest daughter, she talked about her current reading, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

She said it is so good that she stays up late to read, even on work nights. She talked about the book so enthusiastically that I downloaded it to my Kindle even as we spoke and started reading it that evening. And she’s right: it’s as compelling as any novel!

 

This is not a new book. It was published in 2010 and quickly became a NYT bestseller. It won the Pulitzer Prize. It became a PBS documentary by Ken Burns.

 

emperor all maladies ken burns barak goodman
[Source: Nancy’s Point]
With all of that, still I passed it by. I don’t regularly scarf up bestsellers and prize winning books, choosing things more off-the-beaten-track. And though I am an avid watcher of PBS, somehow this documentary didn’t catch my eye. (I didn’t watch the one on baseball, either. Perhaps I should.) Apparently  I needed to hear a personal endorsement! If you need a personal endorsement to look at this book, here’s mine.
 
The writing is excellent—vivd and compelling. The information is fascinating: cancer can be tracked back at least five thousand years; tumors have been found in Egyptian mummies; for a period of time, tumors were removed with ever increasing amounts of surrounding body mass on the belief that more was better; and sometimes progress has been hampered by politics and infighting. The science and technical information is presented in understandable language. The historical bits are sandwiched with modern day efforts and current patients. As a “biography” of a disease, it is incredibly personal.

 

siddhartha mukherjee
[Source: Twitter]
Siddhartha Mukherjee is an oncologist, researcher, and science writer. He’s Indian-American, born in New Delhi, educated at Stanford (BS), Magdalen College, Oxford (DPhil), and Harvard (MD). He published this book at age 37! No doubt we can anticipate much more from him.

 

More than twenty years ago, Hiram College was at the the forefront of what became a national move toward health humanities programs. They now offer a major in biomedical humanities—but that’s a whole other topic. I mention it because Hiram is where I first recognized what fine writers healthcare professionals can be! So in that vein, I will just mention Cutting For Stone, published in 2009.
 
cutting for stone abraham verghese
[Source: Amazon]
This novel was written by Ethiopian-born medical doctor Abraham Verghesse. The story is told by the protagonist and until I finished the book, I thought it was memoir! That’s how real it seems. I couldn’t put it down. So here’s another old book to pick up.
 
BOTTOM LINE: Check out books written by physicians. And don’t limit yourself to the most recent. They go way beyond the Physician’s Desk Reference. You will be amazed.

Borrowing: Names, Characters, Ideas?

girl takes eye eye
My first thought upon seeing this ad was that I’ll check it out. I greatly enjoyed Stieg Larsson’s original series, despite the raw scenes—which in my opinion forwarded both the plot and the character development. When reading the trilogy, I often pondered how he could violate all the accepted no-nos of writing wisdom and still be a raging success. He started slow. He introduced seemingly unrelated people and events. Information known to the reader was frequently repeated almost verbatim as one character informed another of events, history, etc. Thus, we have a sterling example of success in spite of rule-breaking. Clearly, Larsson did something right!

 

My second thought was to suggest that my readers write something—scene, short story, whatever—based on an admired work. But before doing so, I wanted to determine whether I was suggesting something illegal—or at least unethical. But how could that be? What about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or any fan fiction published by the ton?

 

girl kicked hornets nest stieg larsson
[Source: Goodreads]
Here’s what I found. 1) Anyone can use a name for a character or a book. They can’t be copyrighted. However, as a general rule, you should ask yourself why you would want to name your character Scarlett O’Hara or Captain Blye. Why would you want to title your book Gone With the Wind when any online search would have you at the bottom of hundreds of links to the original?

 

2) No one can copyright a stock character. The moon-eyed teenager, the sadistic rapist, the strong but silent hero, beautiful and buxom arm candy, etc.

 

3) No one can copyright an idea. Anyone can safely write a book about a young boy who has magical powers that he uses to combat evil. Anyone can write a dapper super-sleuth enamored with a brainy, independent, vulnerable woman.

 

So when do we get into problems? When the characters are easily identifiable as Harry Potter, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Harriet Vane—or any sufficiently distinctive character created by a copyrighted author.

 

late scholar dorothy sayers
[Source: Amazon]
When the original author is no longer producing, sometimes others take up the mantle. Jill Patton for Dorothy L. Sayers, Felix Francis for his father, and (presumably) David Lagercrantz for Steig Larsson. These authors have the permission of the copyright holders (presumably the estate) to go forth and use the fully defined and described characters, acting in characteristic ways in new situation.

 

So consider whether you want to take another’s creation and make it your own!
 
girl spiders web david lagercrantz
[Source: Collider]

Read Again

[Source: Amazon]
I recently read a piece in The Flyleaf, a publication of the friends of the Hiram College Library. In it, Ugur Aker, a professor emeritus of economics and management, contributed the inaugural review of work from the past which is worthy of renewed consideration. In his essay, Aker described what he had taken from the book back then, and how different his current take-away is.

your money your life
[Source: FinancingLife]
This made me think of a book read while I was at Hiram. This book essentially encouraged readers to consider what their work produced in terms of money and less tangible benefits compared to how their lives might be enriched by putting less effort into paid employment and focusing more on spending money and time on things that truly bring happiness and satisfaction. Unlike Professor Aker, I find I get the same message from the book today.

My challenge to you is to reread something that really struck you a decade or more ago and consider what you think of it now.