Tactical Tuesday: Advice for Self-Editing

Some authors believe all passive sentences are bad. They’ve heard the rule that all forms of to be are to be cut from their manuscripts.

Let’s explain and debunk that myth.

Passive sentences are those in which the subject of the sentence does not perform the action described in the sentence. Instead, the action is done to the subject. Here’s an example: The balloon was popped by the demon child. The balloon is our subject, and the action done to it was the popping of it by the demon child. A hint that the sentence is passive is the word by, which denotes who did what to the subject.

A more precise and active sentence structure would be: The demon child popped the balloon. In this example, the demon child is our subject. Popped is our verb and the balloon is our direct object.

Eliminating passive sentences in our manuscript tightens the prose, but it does something much more important. Passive sentences tend to keep a reader on the outside looking in. When the subject is constantly being “done to” it is a form of telling. The writer is telling the reader what happened rather than allowing the reader to experience it closely. Active sentences bring the reader deeper into the story.

Think of words as a picture. When we say, “The balloon was popped by the demon child,” our brain sees it as already done. Past tense. The author is just telling us that it occurred.

A more precise picture is painted when we write, “The demon child popped the balloon.” Yes, popped is past tense, but the sentence structure: subject/verb/direct object brings the picture immediacy.

A common mistake made by critique partners is to label every sentence with a to be form of verb as passive. Often that is the case, but the true test is the one mentioned above. The subject must be done to and not doing. Therefore, just because a sentence has an is, are, was, were, etc., doesn’t make it passive. Though, most of those forms can be substituted for a more vibrant word that paints a better word picture.

And one more thought: while passive sentences should be few and far between, there’s a reason we have the construction. One good reason is an intent by the author to be vague about casting blame on the one who might be doing the action. Another reason is the fact that the passive form is the only right one for that sentence.

Let’s take this sentence: “The balloon was popped by the demon child.”

What if this is a deduction by a caped hero who is tracking this demon child, super villain? Our super hero taps his finger to his chin. “The balloon was popped by the demon child,” he deduces. “But who gave the demon child the balloon?”

The popping of the balloon had occurred sometime in the past, not immediate to the scene. This passive form works here as our caped crime fighter realizes there is someone giving orders to the demon child.

Myth debunked.

Happy editing.

Make-A-Story™ Monday - This Week's Writing Prompt

Writing to spec – you’ve heard the term. It means writing what the publisher wants. Can you do it? In our new feature - Make-A-Story™, we ask you to create a story with these elements. The story can be set in any time frame, any length, must adhere to our guidelines and have our standard Christian world view.

A kitchen towel
A playful kitten
A swimming pool

Tactical Tuesday: Advice for Self-Editing

I mentioned recently, that I’ve been pondering why some writers couldn’t care less about the ins and outs of grammar and punctuation. In fact, some authors tend to view grammar and punctuation as a rudimentary part of the art of storytelling.

I disagree.

When an artist learns to paint, there are details he must study. I’m not an artist, but light and shadow seem important. Also, a painter must have knowledge of the primary colors and which colors to blend for a different shade. What about perspective? An artist must decide what is best to bring into the painting. Only then can he bring his vision to life on the canvas.

Likewise, a musician who does not start with the fundamentals will never be able to truly capture the music and make it his own.

Grammar and punctuation are similar to light and shadow for the artist and scales and chords to the musician. They are the basis for the art of storytelling. Knowing the far from rudimentary portion of storytelling is the first step toward mastery.

From an editor’s standpoint, an author who presents a knowledge of grammar and punctuation is an author who cares about his craft. He gets an edge up over the competition.

Editors will also be more understanding when an author breaks the rules of grammar and punctuation if the author first shows a clear understanding of the rule. After all, to break a rule effectively, one must truly understand it.

Authors who don’t under the rules are often misled. For example, there are authors who take out ever that in their manuscript. Why? Because they were told it’s a weasel word. However, some sentences require that for clarity of the sentence. This and similar misunderstandings are a sign to an editor that the author isn’t serious about the basics of his craft. How does it expose the writer? He didn’t care enough to learn the rule himself. He simply mimicked the misunderstanding of another.

In my pondering on this subject, I reached a conclusion: an author who does not study the basics of his craft must believe that he is a pupil in a lesser art.

Happy editing.

Make-A-Story™ Monday - This Week's Writing Prompt

Writing to spec – you’ve heard the term. It means writing what the publisher wants. Can you do it? In our new feature - Make-A-Story™, we ask you to create a story with these elements. The story can be set in any time frame, any length, must adhere to our guidelines and have our standard Christian world view.
An old family recipe
An old family story
An old family item passed down (such as a Bible, wedding dress, flag, etc.)

Tactical Tuesday: Advice for Self-Editing

My husband and I have experienced an event that was sitcom worthy. Often we sit around and laugh about the mass exodus from Florida that occurred with the near hit of the monster hurricane, Floyd. We left town with three cars, two in-laws, two sons, and five animals in tow. We had characters. We had mishaps. We had adventure. We had hilarity. However, when we stop laughing, we always end with the same sentence: “No one would ever believe us.” 

This last week I was involved in a discussion with a writer who was told that his characters and his scenes were not realistic. This author declared, “But the characters are based on real events and real people.”

Thus we learn that truth can be stranger than fiction.

Authors walk a thin line when it comes to plausibility of character.

On one hand, fiction is truth on steroids. Readers will buy the fact that one man can be a spy one moment and a loving father another (True Lies). That a man can go deep into the jungle and rescue a reporter, return to the states, and be sent on a mission to stop chemical warfare from killing millions (Deadly Additive by Donn Taylor), but then you put a character in a normal situation and the reader has problems with the story.

Why is that?

I call it lack of credibility.

If a novels main backdrop is a hospital and the main characters are doctors and nurses, there are protocols and medical jargon, there is a certain way a doctor will behave, how they will address a patient versus a colleague or a nurse. Place a doctor in an emergency room and have him speak and behave like a store owner, and credibility is lacking.
Likewise, portraying a bait shop owner as if he’s a medical doctor isn’t very credible either unless the fact that the bait shop owner is a retired physician is layered into the story. And what an interesting story—and character—that could be.

That’s the key. A doctor can act contrary to the way a reader believes a doctor should act, but only if the correct foundation is laid. For example, the doctor is a jokester. On the job, he treats everyone like his best friend. He jokes with his patients. He addresses medical issues without medical jargon. Something, though, has led the doctor to this type of behavior. What could it be? Perhaps when the doctor goes home, he has to live with the demons of regret and remorse. Maybe the life of a doctor is too much for him to handle. He grieves over each patient he loses. He can’t forgive himself even when the fault is not his. At home, the walls close in on him. On the job, he has to cope. He does so with laughter. After all, wasn’t it Mark Twain who said, after the death of his beloved brother, “The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in Heaven.” While I only agree with the first part of Mr. Twain’s quote, it does lend itself to some thought, and that thought can lend itself to great characterization.

When examining your novel for credibility of character, make sure that the reader understands why the character behaves the way he/she behaves. This doesn’t mean burying the reader under pounds of back story. It doesn’t mean the reader has to know everything at once. What it does mean is allowing the reader to meet the character a little at a time. If you have a character like our fictional doctor above, drop hints that he isn’t quite right in the eyes of others or that there is a Mr. Hyde to his Dr. Jekyll.

Happy editing.