A Simple Way to Detect Passive Voice

A good grammar book will tell you what ‘passive voice’ is much better than I, but I’ll give it a go.  Briefly, it’s when the subject is having something done to it (passive), rather than doing something (active).  So what?  I hear you ask.  Well, in order to gain maximum reader engagement, you need maximum reader involvement.  The more action, the more your reader is ‘living’ your story, making it irresistable.

Passive voice describes things in a way that leaves the reader standing outside the story looking in, aware they are watching a scene unfold before them rather than losing themselves in it.  At first, I didn’t think this would make that much difference to me as a reader, but in reading through my own work after I’d put it away for a while, I really noticed the shift in my reading consciousness and level of engagement with the story.

So when I’m rewriting, passive construction is one of the first things I look out for.  I don’t look at every sentence and ask myself if there’s an active subject in it.  While I might have been OK at English at school, I mostly do things by feel.  If it feels right, then it is right.  I’m lucky enough not to have too much of a problem with grammar – cheers to my primary school education, despite moving schools mid way through my primary years!

I look out for any form of the word ‘be’, including ‘was’ and ‘is’.  If it’s with the past participle of a verb, it’s passive voice, but I don’t spend time trying to work that out.  When I spot the ‘be’ words, I just try and find another way of writing the sentence.  And do you know, I get the most amazing work at the end of it?  More action, more excitement, more plot.

Which is kind of ironic, considering all those self-help books I read tell me to stop ‘doing’ and start ‘being’.

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Learn Your Craft, But Apply It In Moderation

About ten years ago, I announced to some friends that I wanted to do a writing course.  One person responded ‘but you can’t learn how to write – you either can or you can’t’.

WRONG!  All writers learn their craft, even if they don’t do formal study.  They learn it by reading books about writing, talking to other writers, going to their local writing centre or doing short courses.  Some learn it solely by reading, but they’re very clever people who can analyse a book’s structure and elements while they’re reading it.  Me, I chose a more formal route, because I needed class time and assignment deadlines to instill a writing discipline.

That’s not to say we should apply everything we learn as we write.  While I read about writing all the time, I have to ‘forget’ this while I’m doing my own crafting my first draft.  If I consciously try to write well, it jams me up and I stall.  For example, the other day I noticed I was baulking every time I wanted to write an adverb (-ly word) and I was stopping in my tracks while I was searching for another way of saying what I was trying to say.  These stoppages break my flow of thought and often result in my getting up from my desk.  This is dangerous, as it can lead to some serious procrastination.

So while I encourage all writers to learn their craft, there’s a time and place for everything.  The first draft is not the place for craft.  Nor is the second, if you have to do major revision and restructuring.  Leave it to the third draft, to be done right before you send it off to your critical reader.

Slashing with the Two Edged Sword

After much thought and plotting, I think that I’ll be able to merge my newly developed storyline with the already existing storyline by slashing some largely unimportant chapters.  I like this solution, as it is focused and driven and will result in a much stronger book.  I was concerned about the middle of my book anyway, because it seemed to move all over the place in a choppy manner without pulling things together. 

So it just goes to show – never despair, things will all fall into place in the end anyway.  Sometimes.

The Difference Between Revising and Rewriting

OK, not sure how this will pan out, but here goes. 

The difference between revising and rewriting is the same as the difference between dreaming and doing.  In other words, revising is where you think about how your first draft fits with what you saw/felt/heard in your head.   You make notes to yourself on where your draft leaves you flat, or your characters aren’t sounding right, or where you see a redirection is needed.  It involves big plans and aiming high.

Rewriting is putting your money where your mouth is, so to speak.  It’s when you have to sit down and wrestle with your characters and plot until hopefully you bring things together better than they were before.   It’s getting down and dirty in the detail, up to your elbows in scenes and sentences.  You come up for air, blinking and gasping, and then plunge back in again.

What I don’t know yet, is how much of the revising makes it into the rewriting.  Stay tuned!

I’m struggling with voice!

A couple of posts back, I blogged about voice, and now I’m struggling with the voice of my own work!  Don’t you just hate that?

I’m not exactly sure what the problem is, except that despite point of view changes, the narration all sounds the same.  It’s also choppy and lacks depth. 

Until yesterday, I had no idea what to do about it, but while drifting off to sleep last night I had an ‘a ha!’.  I’ve decided that when writing the second draft, I’m going to work with one point of view first from the beginning of their narration to the end before moving on to another point of view.  Now that I’ve got the story down, I don’t need to keep things like timelines in mind and I don’t have to write in order. 

Working on one point of view will help me to develop that character’s voice and to deepen the narration until it flows.  How do I know it’ll work?  I don’t, but when I thought of it I got that buzz in your belly that tells you you’re on the right track. 

Fingers crossed!

First Writing Milestone for 2010

Only one more day to go for my first writing milestone of this year’s Writing Action Plan, and alas, I won’t meet it.  It’ll take the rest of the week, I think.  This is because I started out revising by trying to fix things up as I went along, and have now learnt this is not the way to go.  Once I started writing myself notes instead, things went much faster.

There’s a fair bit to do, more than I would have liked.  However, I’m happy that I’ve found where the low points are and have an idea of how to pick them up.  I’m at the point of the manuscript where I will need to find the parts where things just hurtle along and I need to build in rest points for the reader.  I remember I was utterly exhausted after finishing the first draft last year, and I suspect it was because I was writing so many high energy scenes. 

And this is the thought I’m going to sleep on tonight – what makes a good rest scene?  If I ask myself that right before I go to sleep, maybe I’ll have some answers in the morning.  Wish me luck!

The Difference Between Revising and Editing

I had a bit of a light bulb go off today.  I realised that while I had been thinking that revising and editing are the same thing, this is not the case!  They are two separate steps in the writing process.

Revising is when you’ve finished the draft and you’re reading through it for the feel of the story, which might involve dealing with the structure, logic or flow.  You’re testing to see if the characters are strongly enough developed for the storyline you’ve chosen, if the story is grounded enough in setting to feel real and if the plot accelarates at the right pace.  These are all big picture things, like playing with the large shapes of a painting making sure you’re getting the composition right.  You’re looking at the big blobs to see if they balance each other and make you feel easy.  It’s not about detail.

Editing is where you’ve done the big picture work, you feel comfortable the story is balanced right and you’re looking at the finer detail of language and sentence structure, as well as picking up those stray typos we all miss.  This is where you’re getting down to the nitty gritty of ‘is that the right word there?’ or ‘would that character really say that?’, and it can only really be done when the revising has finished.

Now that I’ve figured it out, it seems so obvious!

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