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!

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.

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]

Why Lie?

everybody lies seth stephens davidowitz
Actually, that’s a dumb question. People (and characters) lie when they want to make others believe something that isn’t true. Behind that generalization there can be all sorts of motives, both benign and malicious.

 

seven little white lies jabari osaze
Benign lies are often called white lies, or little white lies. These are presumably innocuous lies, perhaps to ease a social situation, e.g., “Don’t worry, Marcie, that dress makes you look ten pounds thinner.”

 

liane moriarty big little lies
For writers, benign lies are useful as character notes but also—and perhaps more interestingly—because they often go awry.

 

black lies alessandra torre
If you go by the book titles, lies come in two sizes and two colors: big or little, black or white. But as writers, we all know that lies are much more complex.
 
truths half truths little white lies nick frost
Consider the multiple ways that people can be led to believe something that isn’t true.
 
big fat enormous lie
First, there are lies of commission: the flat-out statement of an untruth. A character directly and intentionally says something that the reader knows or subsequently learns is untrue. “I already walked the dog.” “Jack ate the last cookie.” “I saw Mary with the gun still in her hand.”
kept secret half truth nonfiction
Then there are lies of omission: concealing all or part of the facts. In courtroom parlance, this is known as withholding evidence. The character reveals only as much truth as circumstances compel.
half truth is often a whole lie
One of the most useful ways for creating a wrong belief is what I call lies by false conclusions. These often begin with such phrases as I heard, I read somewhere, everyone’s saying, etc. Then the speaker says something like, “I don’t know if it’s true or not” and then ends by asserting the opening statement as fact. For example, “I was down at the Town Tavern last night and I overheard a guy saying he saw Mary Beth Jones and Joe Smith going into the Cadillac Motel. I don’t know if it’s true or not. But poor Bob Jones has no idea his wife is two-timing him.”
little book big lies tina lifford
Then there are lies by false labeling. An example of this would be referring to a 39-year-old as a “young man” or “my little sister” to create an image of someone more innocent or naive than his or her behavior suggests. Other examples would be calling a drunken soiree a cocktail party, labeling a fender-bender a car crash, etc. In short, it’s choosing language that either minimizes or enhancesan incident or person in order to mislead.

 

katie woo big lie
As a writer, it would serve you well to perfect the art of the lie!
 

Treasure Trash

treasure trash writing problems
We’ve all been there. I’d bet nearly everyone who’s written a book has edited out not just words, but paragraphs, scenes, or entire chapters. Don’t delete chunks of text. Something made you write that in the first place. It might be a neat characterization of someone who disappears from the plot. Maybe an atmospheric scene setting. Maybe a tangent that is entertaining but doesn’t move the plot forward. Maybe an interesting fact that isn’t necessary or even helpful here. Instead of deleting, move those chunks to a new file named something like “Out-takes from (name of work).”
 
There are two advantages to this. 1) It makes it easier to cut the flab (anything that doesn’t fit this piece of work), sometimes known as killing your darlings. 2) Those chunks may come in handy in the future, either as additions to as sparks for something totally new.

 

treasure trash
Save abandoned writing. Most of us have early works that were crap. (I considered titling this blog Keep the Crap.) These could be papers written as far back as high school or college, or maybe stories started but never finished well—i.e., put aside for whatever reason.  My story “Closet Bio” (which will be published in Adanna Literary Journal  in September) is such a resurrected piece. Taking a fresh look at old stuff sometimes sparks a fresh twist, or revisions to make the language zing. I’m currently submitting “Friends of the Heart”—which started as half of a piece about weird hobbies.
 
treasure trash
 
At the least, periodically rereading old writing is gratifying. You can either pat yourself on the back and say, “Damn! That’s pretty good,” or “Damn! I’ve come a long way.”

 

treasure trash

Creativity Cross-Pollinates

yves saint laurent vmfa
From now through August 27, 2017, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is featuring an exhibition of the work of Yves Saint Laurent, a trend-setting couturier who built a body of work unique in creativity and originality.

 

A whole section of the exhibit pays homage to Saint Laurent’s artistic influences, including Piet Mondrian (far right in photo above), ancient Greek vases, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Tom Wessellmann (far left in photo).

 

Artistic cross-pollination is everywhere. A prime example of art to music is Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann. Viktor Hartmann was an artist, architect, and designer.
Using photos as story starters for writers is a classic technique. Whole books have been based on that premise.

 

I’ve found the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts a fertile ground for launching stories. Several of my published stories began with VMFA exhibits: Buddha Remote, Not Mechanically Inclined, The Naked Truthand Love Me Tender.
 
Bottom line: Attend to non-written art and often inspiration strikes. Look at photos, art exhibits, paintings and pottery. Listen to the lyrics of songs and the emotions evoked by music. Think cross-pollination!

A Satisfying Writing Life

I recently read that two things will make or break a writing career. The first was passion that (among other things) wakes you in the night to jot down ideas, steals time to write, learns the craft, bounces back from rejection and criticism, and spurs investment (money implied).

 

The second was a strong submission strategy. By this, they meant, “…a streamlined, organized, efficient, highly functional, easy-to-execute…” strategy. Submitting should feel joyful rather than burdensome, and put the right work in front of the right eyes.

 

All of the above strike me as good, desirable things. And probably they are necessary for a brilliant writing career. But not all writers expect—or actually aspire to—a writing career in that sense. Surely everyone who published writing sometimes fantasizes about writing a best seller, but that is seldom a realistic goal. Perhaps writing is so inherently gratifying that it’s a necessary part of a satisfying life.

 

Satisfying Writing Life
Which brings me to important elements of a satisfying writing life. The first is enjoyment. Taking pleasure in crafting artful descriptions and effective dialogue is key. Then there is the gratification that comes from a job well-done. Every once in a while, I read something I wrote years ago and think, “Damn! That’s pretty good.” Then I smile, and return to writing with renewed energy.

 

The second in my list is writing that suits your purpose. Of course, that means you must figure out why you write. I started writing as therapy for my post-profession depression. As a former academic, I found that cooking and gardening just didn’t engage me intellectually. I did—and still do—enjoy both activities. But I need to keep my brain engaged. So, I enrolled in adult education writing classes and began learning the craft. (I’d never had a composition class, having tested out of freshman comp in college.) Today, one of the greatest joys of my writing life is doing the research to get the story line right, whether that involves the effects of ketamine on humans or the price of gasoline during the Great Depression.
Satisfying Writing Life
Writing as a source of self-esteem doesn’t require being a Steven King or a J.K. Rowling. Praise from fellow writers in classes and critique groups, and from readers, is great for my ego. And every time I have a short story or essay accepted for publication, even with no monetary reward, I feel like someone pasted a gold star of my forehead!

 

Perhaps one of the most common reasons to write, especially memoir, is to leave a legacy for family. This can be a way of letting them know who you are and how you came to be you, and/or leaving a record of their roots and the relatives who have gone before.

 

Many writers have more than one reason to write. In my opinion, why people write is less important than that it contributes to a gratifying life. Be clear in your own mind and heart about why you write, and then choose the path and activities that will achieve your goal.
Satisfying Writing Life

Choosing the Pronoun for Your Purpose

bedford handbook
I read a lot. And the more I read, the more often I’m irritated or distracted by writers who misuse pronouns. Pronouns can be subject (I/you/he/she/it), object (me/you/him/her/it), or show possession (my/your/his/her/its).

 

I came to see you. She gave it to him. The book is yours.

 

Of course, not all pronouns are singular. The plural pronouns serve all the same functionssubject (we/you/they), object (us/you/them), or possessive (our/your/their).
The most frequent offense to my readerly sensibility is confusing subjective and objective pronouns. For example, “Joe and me walked into town.” Or, “The Queen nodded to James and I.”

 

Writers seem most prone to these errors when a pronoun is in a series with proper nouns. In such cases, taking out the nouns makes the correct pronoun obvious. Few would intentionally write “Me walked into town” or “The Queen nodded to I.”

 

Another quick check is to replace the series with a plural pronoun: “Us walked into town” or “The queen nodded to we” glares like a spotlight.

 

Ultimately, correctness depends on intention. “I get a little jealous that Bill is more courteous to Susan than I.” What is correct depends on how that sentence would be completed to give the intended meaning. “I get a little jealous that Bill is more courteous to Susan than I (am)” indicates regretting poor manners. If it should be expanded as “I get a little jealous that Bill is more courteous to Susan than (he is to) I” the “I” should clearly be “me.” In either case, the meaning should be clarified.

 

The above having been said, there are times when a writer can legitimately use grammatically incorrect pronouns. Using the objective as subjective can indicate a lack of education or intellect; alternatively, it can signal a child speaker. For example, “Joe and me went fishing.”

 

Using the subjective as objective can indicate someone striving for elegance, to give the impression of refinement. “The countess was excessively kind to my sister and I.”

 

Technically, the pronoun after is, are, was, or were should be I, he, she, we, or they. “May I speak to Ms. Lawry?” “This is she.”  equals a grammatically correct exchange. If you want to convey formality—or perhaps superciliousness, stuffiness, or age—use this formal construction. However, if you intend a conversational exchange or a casual tone, rephrase.

 

TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS: Know the rules of grammar so you can use them or abuse them to suit your purposes!
 
writers harbrace handbook cheryl glenn loretta gray

Use Slang and Clichés Effectively

see you later alligator
In my opinion, the best use of slang is setting the time of the story. Using any of the above farewells screams the 1950s. “Gag me with a spoon” is soooo 1980s.

 

Slang has always been with us, evolving from docks, gutters, gambling dens, and society soirees. It changes with the times. That is its strength and its weakness. Used effectively, it lends authenticity to dialogue. But if writing about any time other than the present, tread carefully. Inappropriate slang can ruin the tone and undermine the credibility of the entire story.
dewdroppers waldos slackers rosemarie ostler
As with so many things, there are books for that! When writing “historical” fiction in any genre, books such as this should rest alongside a good dictionary and a convenient thesaurus.

 

A seldom recognized use for really old slang: when used judiciously, it can add freshness to writing.
The Vulgar Tongue Francis Grose
When the meaning is clear but the phrase isn’t current, it can sound creative. E.g., cow-handed to mean awkward, brazen faced to mean impudent or shameless, sugar stick to mean a penis.

 

When not to avoid clichés: when adding authenticity to dialogue. Some say you should avoid clichés like the plague, but at the end of the day, using them is as American as apple pie. Why reinvent the wheel when there are so many kick-ass expressions already out there? Don’t overdo it, but recognize that people really do say things like, “I’m wound tight as an eight-day clock” or “nutty as a fruitcake” or “Keep a stiff upper lip.” Sometimes a repeated cliché can be an effective speech tag for a specific character.

 

Last but not least, browsing a good book of clichés can be informative. Kick the bucket has meant to die since at least 1785!  And keep your shirt on, meaning to stay calm, predates 1854. On the other hand, kick up your heels, meaning show spirit or having a great time, is a far cry from 1500, when it meant to die. So, one more for the reference shelf!

 

use slang cliches effectively dictionary cliches james rogers

Characterizing Characters

characterizing characters building believable characters
This is a great book—especially for the the obsessive and/or anxious writer. It has a 14-page questionnaire intended to help you to really understand your character, so thoroughly that you just know how s/he would behave in any given scene. Then there are chapters on everything from Face and Body to names from around the world.

 

So why not just stop with an endorsement? What more is there to say? Just a few things about making characters vivid and memorable.

 

Actually, I can’t quite imagine eyes like butterflies. Nevertheless, this book highlights two methods of ramping up characterizations: similes and metaphors. Essentially, saying a character is like something, it’s a simile. E.g., “Her smile was like sunshine.” Saying a character is/was something is a metaphor. “He was a rock when Mother died.” As in all writing, avoid the clichés. “She is a diamond in the rough” is a tired example.
 
So where does one look for fresh ideas? Consciously visualizing a character in non-human terms might help. 
 
What animal would X be? Consider the differing implications of spider, rat, rabbit, toy poodle, wren, cow, mule, pig, chicken, etc., etc., etc. Various animals are associated with specific personalities and actions, and labeling a character that way can convey a lot of meaning. Think lap dog.

 

What is X’s astrological sign? Whether one believes in astrology or not, various signs carry lots of implications. The title Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus works on many levels: Mars is the god of war, Venus is the goddess of love, and the planets are millions of miles apart. The Chinese sign one was born under has similar implications. I was born in the year of the Cock, and apart from the personality implications, this should be a very good year for me!
characterizing characters book stones
What stone would X be? Again, some stones carry a lot of weight already. For example, diamonds are hard, bright, glittery, and expensive. What characteristics do you associate with pearls, emeralds, jasper, agate? What about abalone? Quartz? Cubic zirconia? And what about metals? Is X gold, silver, platinum, aluminum, iron, brass, bronze—or maybe mixed metals?

 

What plant would X be? What are the associations with oak tree vs. lily? Rose vs. dandelion? Wheat vs. redwood? I won’t belabor the point. You get the idea.

 

Bottom line: Characterize characters in unexpected ways. You could come up with this sort of writing.

 

attributing words characters