Monday, April 19, 2010

Passively Blind?

I reread a few reviews of Songbird today and was struck by the confirmation that I write passively. Not all the time, but that I have more than the recommended dose within the confines of a chapter. I went back to spell/grammar check and did a run through of my document and came up with about 1%. What am I missing? This reviewer is amazingly thorough and has given me wonderful feedback. I don't doubt that I have passive voice in my writing and I don't really believe the grammar check with my surprising 1%. I just don't know how to go through on my own work and find the passive statements.  More than that there are some I just can't figure out how to reword into an active voice without entirely changing the meaning I was attempting to convey.

I wonder if part of the problem is the verb "to be". So often it's assumed that any form of this verb means passive voice - not true (yes, I checked)

So, my opening sentence: I was six when Jace died - is not passive. This sentence breaks down as noun verb adjective prepositional phrase. Even though there is a "to be" verb it's not passive, right? I feel like my head is spinning. It's a conversation I've had with myself and others that never seems to lead anywhere but to more confusion and frustration from me. Am I wrong about this sentence? If I am then I'm more screwed then ever!!

So where is it? How do I find it? This is what the grammar check pulled from my first chapter (an overall 2%passive voice)

His blue Chevy was parked crookedly, one of its front tires pushed up onto the grass.

His eyes were closed and his raspy breathing was barely there.

His words were stilted, coming through between his gasps.

I know why these sentences are passive and I know I could take this sentences and rewrite them, make them active, but to what end? So I don't have any passive voice in my chapter? So that the flow of the action and emotion is disrupted? When does passive become a problem? If 6% is the magic number that agents or editors go by how are they coming up with that? Grammar check?

I suppose what is bothering me the most is that until recently I never thought I wrote passively. I'm truly at a loss. I've taken syntax classing in university and made above average grades in the class. I remember dealing with active vs. passive, but I never had any problems with it. Until now. I would love to have thoughts on this and any pointers would be great!

 On my iPod:

Save this House by Spirit of the West


  1. Hmmm ... tough one. I think it also depends on the text that is bookending the sentence using passive voice. If you have a number of passive sentences in a row, it can really stand out.

    During undergrad, I had a history professor who deducted 1% off a total grade on a paper for every use of passive voice. It was one of the most important educational moments I experienced as a writer (although I readily admit I was highly annoyed at the time). Once you learn how NOT to use it at all, your use of passive voice becomes conscious and deliberate - allowing you to utilize it in the correct moments, and with more impact. My long way of saying it is a battle worth plowing through. Master your active and passive voice!

  2. I don't know if I can help, because I struggle with passivity, too. And repetition. And run-on sentences. And unnecessary words like "so," "that," and "just." The truth is that sometimes the way you write is the way you write. Others will try and give you rules and spout off the lessons their agent, editor, or friend down the street gave them, but in the end you have to decide if those rules work in your book and for your voice. I know I'm the pot calling the kettle black because I struggle SO much with what other people say about my work and how to improve it, I trust other people's judgments much better than my own, but I guess my point is- don't be like me! If you are struggling with readers/reviewers giving you crap about passive voice but aren't sure how to change it- then skip it. Let it marinate. Maybe you'll figure out how to fix it on the next round of edits a couple of months from now. Maybe you'll decide the readers were trying to help, but their advice really isn't right for you. And maybe you'll decide the idea of their advice is good, but you have a better way of implementing it.

    This probably isn't helpful at all, but I know how you feel. I really do, and it so totally sucks.

    Did you notice how many times I broke the very rules I know I break? That's just how I think and write. I could go back and edit those glaring instances out, or I could leave my voice intact...