Tag Archives: the passive voice

#amwriting: the author’s voice

The sense of style steven pinkerAnyone who is a member of a writing group is regularly beaten over the head with certain basically good, but occasionally clichéd, rules. Improperly applied, this mindless interpretation of proper grammatic style can inhibit an author’s growth.

These rules are fundamentally sound, but cannot be rigidly applied across the board to every sentence, just “because it says so in Strunk and White.” I rely on the Chicago Manual of Style, but I also understand common sense.

English is a living language. As such it is in a continual state of evolution and phrasing that made sense one-hundred years ago may not work well in today’s English.

We may be writing a period piece, but we are writing it for modern readers.

You can split an infinitive: it is acceptable to boldly go where you will.

You can begin a sentence with a conjunction if you so choose. And no one will die if you do.

Stephen Pinker discusses many rules in his controversial book, The Sense of Style, and finds that some of them no longer make sense.

For example, Pinker points out that “The prohibition against clause-final prepositions is considered a superstition even by the language mavens, and it persists only among know-it-alls who have never opened a dictionary or style manual to check.” 

He notes that rigidly following “the rules” would have you doing silly things like turning “What are you looking at?” into “At what are you looking?”  I don’t know about you, but for me the first example is preferable.

In the example, the word at is a preposition, and placing it after looking makes it a clause-final preposition.  Such a construct is technically a no-no, but I suggest you break that rule.

Stardust, Neil GaimanWe are constantly told that we need to make our verbs active, rather than relying on passive constructions, and for the most part, this is true. But Pinker reminds us that “The passive is a voice and not a tense.” There are times when the use of passive phrasing is appropriate.

Consider the difference between ‘the cat scratched the child’ and ‘the child was scratched by the cat.’  The second sentence is written in the passive voice, and in this context the active voice is the one I would choose because it is simpler and less fluffy.

Pinker agrees with me that there are contexts in which the passive is preferable. Quote from The Sense of Style: “Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory.”

And in writing, context is everything. 

For most genre work, editors push for active voice, but truthfully, mainstream fiction and literary fiction can use the passive voice and still sell boatloads of books. Some of the most beautiful prose out there in genre fantasy mixes passive voice in with the active, and when done right  it is immersive.

name of the wind -patrick rothfussPatrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind is one example, and Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is another.

These books are best sellers because both Rothfuss and Gaiman understand how to craft prose that mingles passive and active phrasings, drawing us into their work. They choose when to use passive phrasing, and apply it appropriately so the narrative is a seamless blend of properly constructed sentences chosen to reflect their distinct voices.

The modern prohibition against passive phrasing exists for a reason: improperly and excessively used, the passive voice can weaken your narrative.

Knowledge of grammar and sentence construction is critical if you are an author: Sloppy grammar habits show that your work is badly crafted.

Your voice is the way you habitually phrase things despite your vast knowledge of how grammar is correctly used. Take a look at the great authors: Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, F.Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce: these authors each had such a distinctive voice that when you read a passage of their work, you knew immediately who you were reading.

They ALL broke the rules in their work and were famous for doing so.

Raymond chandler quote split infinitivesHowever, they understood the rules they were breaking and broke them deliberately and selectively in the crafting of their narrative.

Imagine a story set in an expensive restaurant. This story revolves around a marriage that is disintegrating. The couple, Jack and Diane, dine in silence. The food is important, but only because of what it represents. How do you convey this?

The steak was well-prepared and melted in Jack’s mouth. Nevertheless, Diane wielded her knife like a surgeon, cutting her meat into tiny, uniform chunks, chewing each bite slowly before swallowing. Jack imagined her carving his heart similarly, chewing it carefully and then spitting it out.

800px-Night_Sky_Stars_Trees_Quote“The steak was well-prepared and melted in Jack’s mouth” is written with a passive voice, and that is okay. The important thing is Jack’s observation of Diane and her mad knife skills. You don’t need to say “The chef had prepared the steak perfectly.” Unless he is having an affair with Jack or Diane, the chef who prepared the tender steak is not important and doesn’t need to be mentioned.

Steven Pinker has some words of wisdom for would-be editors: “It’s very easy to overstate rules. And if you don’t explain what the basis is behind the rule, you’re going to botch the statement of the rule—and give bad advice.”

Knowing what the rule is and why it exists allows you to choose to break it if that is your desire.

Writing style is a combination of so many things. It is how you speak through your pen or keyboard. Craft your prose with an eye to what is important to your story, and say it with your voice. With that said, your voice should not be so distinct and loud that it makes your prose obnoxious. A good editor will understand the difference and guide you away from bad writing, helping you find your voice in such a way that your work will be a joy to read.

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My Writing Toolbox

xcg65LacAApparently, I think visually. Actually, I come from a family who, while we are quite verbal, all tend to think visually.

We are musicians, artists, engineers and authors. These are occupations where we create images and think in terms of a whole picture.

I recently read an article, written by Gerald Grow of the School of Journalism at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. I was intrigued by his theory on how the type of thinker we are influences the way we write. He says, “Visual thinking produces whole, patterned expressions such as maps, symbols, and pictures. Verbal activity leads to sequences such as narratives and explanations.”  He goes on to say that visual thinkers tend to write briefly-evoked scenes about one another with little connective explanation. I don’t necessarily agree with him, but it’s a good topic to ponder.

AGameOfThronesIndeed, a lot of what I read in genre fiction is written in 30-second sound-bytes, and it is because 3 generations of our society have become dependent on visual entertainment delivered in short segments–small pictures if you will. Reading is not as popular as it was, since many people think it’s much less work to watch A Game of Thrones than it is to read it.

I disagree–getting lost in a great book is not work at all! That reminds me, I should probably read that book. I own it, I started reading it in 1996, but had a hard time following the way it jumped around. I put it aside and never got back to it. But now I’m curious as to why folks are so crazy for it.

Anyway—

Gerald Grow also writes, “Since everything tends to happens at once and in present time to visual thinkers, they tend to choose static verbs, the passive voice, and heavily depend on forms of the verb ‘to be.’” 

When we first start out in this craft  we tend to write weak sentences. This is because we are approaching it from the point of view of the story-teller. We sit down and tell the story, and that is quite verbal when you think about it. I think it has more to do with lack of experience than how a brain visualizes, because we all seem to start out that way.

Weak narrative happens when, as story-tellers, we are separated from the moment by words that block our intimacy with the action:

wak vs strong table

Many of us do not have an education in journalism, and yet we choose to write. As we grow in the craft, if we want our work to be enjoyed by many people, we train ourselves to craft stronger sentences.

We write short stories, and send them off. Sometimes they are rejected, and sometimes not. We write longer short stories, novellas. We write novels, sometimes with WAY too many words. Our writing groups give us support and good, honest critiques. We know they will not tell us our work is awesome, if it stinks like Bubba’s socks.

They may tear it apart. But we grow from this experience. We learn that opinions are subjective, and writers are opinionated prima donnas–and we will do anything to never have that experience again.

Learning the craft of writing  is like learning the craft of carpentry–if you want to craft beautiful work, you must choose to learn what the proper tools for the job are and how to use them. My toolbox contains:

  1. MS Word
  2. The Chicago Manual of Style
  3. The Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation
  4. The Olympia Writers Co-Op
  5. NaNoWriMo Write-Ins
  6. Trusted, knowledgeable beta-readers
  7. Good, well recommended editors
  8. online writing classes
  9. regularly attending seminars
  10. reading in my genre

nano_12_new_Come_Write_In_Logo1What is in your toolbox? You might be surprised at just what you have acquired in the line of tools for advancing in this craft. Whether you are a visual thinker or a verbal thinker, you have the ability to express your ideas.

It takes a lot of work to rise from apprentice to journeyman to master in any craft. I don’t know if I will ever achieve that status as an author, but I will keep working and learning. and above all, I will keep reading.

 

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