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All posts for the month September, 2019

On passive and active voice, and a problem I didn’t know I had.

Published September 25, 2019 by mandileighbean

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Finally! A timely blog post for Writer Wednesdays! I know this isn’t impressive since I skipped posting last week, but last week was my 31st birthday, and I think that’s a good reason to alter a schedule.

I was successful in my search for beta readers, and I am pleased to announce I’ve already received useful feedback! What’s interesting is that both a beta reader AND a potential publisher mentioned I use the passive voice too much. At first, I was shocked. How did that happen? When did that start happening? Is it because I’ve been reading a lot of European fiction? What’s going on? So I decided to do some research.

According to a potential publisher (who rejected my manuscript because it was written in “7.6%” passive voice), American audiences have been more inclined to purchase books in active as opposed to passive voice. The publisher in question didn’t attach an article or a summary about where exactly the numbers came from, nor did the publisher explain its computations for arriving at the figure 7.6%. But that’s my pride whimpering because one of my beta readers mentioned that the passive voice I used at the beginning of a short story made it confusing. The good news is that the publisher said it would consider the manuscript if I rewrote it in more of an active voice. Deciding my next move, and facilitating my next stage of evolution as a writer, led me to investigate the debate (not that there necessarily is one … but I digress) between passive and active voice.

In active voice, the sentence of the subject performs the action. According to Purdue OWL’s Writing lab, “Using active voice for the majority of your sentences makes your meaning clear for readers, and keeps the sentences from becoming too complicated or wordy” (read more here). In such sentences, “The action is performed upon the sentence subject, meaning this sentence is passive (indirect)”. So sentences written in passive voice are less clear and less concise than those written in active voice because they need more words to express the action. Purdue OWL elaborates on this problem with passive voice:

Sometimes the use of passive voice can create awkward sentences…. Also, overuse of passive voice throughout an essay can cause your prose to seem flat and uninteresting.

And I feel like that is a major problem with my prose! I was re-reading (and revising and editing) my new project, and I was thoroughly unimpressed by my opening. It was coldand impersonal to a fault. Oh no! I have lost my writer’s voice!

Then again, choosing passive voice is sometimes an option. “While active voice helps to create clear and direct sentences, sometimes writers find using an indirect expression is rhetorically effective in a given situation, so they choose passive voice.” But this should only happen in certain writing situations. “The passive voice makes sense when the agent is relatively unimportant compared to the action itself and what is acted upon.” Passive voice is okay when emphasizing action, but after doing my bit of research, it seems like it’s more trouble than its worth to use passive voice.

1. Avoid starting a sentence in active voice and then shifting to passive.

Unnecessary shift in voice:
Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but it was still ordered frequently.
Revised:
Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but they still ordered it frequently.
Unnecessary shift in voice:
He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but he was still laughed at by the other students.
Revised:
He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but the other students still laughed at him.

2. Avoid dangling modifiers caused by the use of passive voice. A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence.

Dangling modifier with passive voice:
To save time, the paper was written on a computer. (Who was saving time? The paper?)
Revised:
To save time, Kristin wrote the paper on a computer.
Dangling modifier with passive voice:
Seeking to lay off workers without taking the blame, consultants were hired to break the bad news. (Who was seeking to lay off workers? The consultants?)
Revised:
Seeking to lay off workers without taking the blame, the CEO hired consultants to break the bad news.

3. Don’t trust the grammar-checking programs in word-processing software. Many grammar checkers flag all passive constructions, but you may want to keep some that are flagged. Trust your judgment, or ask another human being for their opinion about which sentence sounds best.

So the question now becomes: how do I fix my problem with passive voice? I realize that using it makes my sentences longer, makes my voice cold and impersonal, and makes my meaning unclear. I think this problem with passive voice started with my second manuscript because I wanted to talk about things that happened before the story technically started, so I wanted to use some kind of past past tense. I got into a bad habit of using passive voice to play with tense, but now it’s time to break the habit.

What writing rules/concepts do you still struggle with? Comment below and let me know, and I can feature a mini-clinic on this blog!

 

On the difference between critics and beta readers.

Published September 12, 2019 by mandileighbean

I know I announced last week that my blog would be updated every Wednesday, but in light of what yesterday was – the eighteenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001 – it seemed in really poor taste to try and peddle my poetry and blog post when minds and hearts should really be focused on the anniversary of the day that changed everything. I’m humbled and completely knocked off my axis when I think about the enormity of that day, from the tragedy to the heroics to its function as a clear and distinct demarcation between a world that was and a world that is.

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So this week, I update on Thursday.

And this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about critics. I was fortunate to see “IT Chapter 2” the night it premiered with Dad and I LOVED the film (and this marks the second time a trip to the movies to see a film based on a work by Stephen King has brought Dad and I closer). It was brutal in its violence and in its tragedy, but it was also beautiful and refreshing in the way it honored the essence of King’s original story. That novel has always held a special place in my heart. Forgive me if I’ve shared this experience before, but I can vividly remember where I was when I read the last page of the novel: I was in my parents’ old van on my way to my twin sister’s softball game at our high school. It was uncomfortably crisp outside, so Mom and my little brother and me were all waiting in the van until my twin sister got up to bat. I was stretched out along the backseat and I was sobbing. I was crying hard enough to cause my mom to turn around and try and comfort me in her unique, no-nonsense way. She said to me, “Mandi, you know those aren’t real people.”

And I laughed, but what I really wanted to do was launch into an impassioned, breathless declaration about the heartbreaking genius of it. I wanted to tell her that it was all real and true in the sense that to be brave, loving, and selfless adults, people need to stay the faithful, simple, and vulnerable children they started out as. And that life is all about connecting deeply with others and staying true to those connections no matter the peril. And I wanted to tell her I was so moved because I belonged to no such club, not even one for Losers. I felt no cosmic kinship with anyone and were I to face a demonic, child-eating clown in a damp and filthy sewer, I’d have no one to call. I realize now that last bit is not entirely true – and never was – but it felt true at fifteen.

So when I read reviews by people who had seen the film and criticized it for not being scary or for being too long, it annoyed me because I wanted to assume they just “didn’t get it,” like I could degrade them into people less intelligent and less empathetic and less open-minded than me. I felt the same way after I saw “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” I was almost offended that people in the theater weren’t as enthralled as I was, that they weren’t blown away by the gorgeous cinematography and the originality in creating a modern fairy tale.

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I had to stop myself. I had to remind myself that art is for everyone, first and foremost, and that everyone is entitled to their opinion. And my enjoyment of a film (or album or novel or whatever) should not be diminished or lessened by someone else’s displeasure. I was turning into the very thing I hated: a critic. Sometimes it seems to me that critics purposely dislike what is popular just to preserve an elitist status and perpetuate the notion that critics knows something the rest of us don’t. And maybe that elitism works both ways, in the sense that those that rally against critics (myself included) do so in defense of the “general” viewer (or listener or reader or whatever). Separating the “casual” imbiber of art from the learned intellectual critic serves both sides because with sides, someone can always be right and someone can always be wrong.

But that’s not the purpose of art or entertainment, is it?

Do what you like with critics, but that doesn’t mean a writer shouldn’t get opinions about her work. Writers should have a couple of trusted, honest beta readers (like critics in a milder, more individualized form) that can help them hone their craft. I have two, but am looking for a third. I am looking for a passionate reader to read my works-in-progress and share their opinion on the work.

Anyone interested? Comment here.

Until next time, friends ❤

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On a September to remember (fingers crossed).

Published September 4, 2019 by mandileighbean

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I know I j u s t updated this blog less than a week ago, but I want to get into the habit of updating weekly. On Wednesdays. Because Wednesdays are for writing. Get it?

And I love starting fresh in September. I became a teacher- in part- because the schedule was so appealing to me. I love feeling like I can start again in the ninth month of the year. That makes me feel like anything is possible.

This September, I’ll be 31 years old. I’m S U P E R excited to say goodbye to 30 (I’ve had a horrible year), but I still have some misgivings about embarking on another trip around the sun. When I bring this up, everyone emphasizes how young I actually am to assuage my fears over getting older. But just how long has “your 30s are your new 20s” been a thing? I’ve been quick to conclude it is a fairly recent development, but now I realize that may only be because I wanted it to be fresh when I turned 30. With one year of my third decade about to be under my belt, I have to ask myself if there is any truth to the clever, little saying, or if it is just a way to help those of us without money or power or fame to feel better about our inescapable mortality.

I’d like to think there’s truth to it, not only because I’m now in my 30s but because as we live, we gain new experiences, which can make us wiser as long as we’re open to that possibility. I get upset because I’m nearly 31 and I’m not married (and not in a relationship, or even close to being in one) and I don’t have kids and I haven’t made it as a writer. And because I understand “Sex and the City” now. Or at least I think I do. It’s hard to tell when Candace Bushnell, the author of the essays that inspired the show, now regrets choosing her Carrie Bradshaw lifestyle over having kids (you can read the article here). And if the gorgeous elegance of Carrie Bradshaw proves to be empty and superficial, what am I doing? In my darkest, loneliest moments, I convince myself that it is too late, that I’ve been living a lie by clinging to an empty promise of grandeur sold to me by the mass media.

But that’s kind of bullshit too, isn’t it? I mean, I’m only 30. I have half a century to live. Have I really missed any shots at anything? Thus why I’m declaring this a SEPTEMBER TO REMEMBER! I will not fear turning 31, but I will embrace it by accomplishing a few goals:

  • lose five pounds
  • submit a polished entry to the Owl Canyon Press Hackathon
  • finish revising Moody Blue
  • hold a contest on this blog at the end of the month

What are your goals for September? Are you getting any writing done? What are your thoughts about aging? Comment below and let’s have a conversation.

 

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