Wednesday 28 August 2019

Writers’ Questions: What is Passive Voice (and is it a sin)?

I’ve been blogging about historical fiction for the last six years, but, in 2020, my own historical novel, Brontë’s Mistress, will debut from Atria Books (more on this here). In this Writers’ Questions series, I’m sharing some thoughts and advice about the writing and publication process to help other writers. Last time, I wrote about the much-maligned adverb. And in this post we’re covering another grammatical choice that’s sure to see your writing group submissions covered in red ink—the passive voice.

What is the passive voice?
Passive voice is the opposite of the more common active voice.

In active voice, the basic structure of an English sentence is NOUN (SUBJECT) – ACTIVE VERB or NOUN (SUBJECT) – ACTIVE VERB – NOUN (OBJECT). Confused? Let’s look at some examples.

In the first instance, you might write ‘the rain falls (or fell or is falling or will fall)’ or ‘the girl sneezes/sneezed/is sneezing/will sneeze’. In the second, you could write ‘the boy kicks/kicked/is kicking/will kick the ball’ or ‘the monster devours/devoured/is devouring/will devour the maiden’. All of these examples are written in the active voice, regardless of their tense (whether they happen in the past, present or future).

In the passive voice, however, the structure of the sentence is reversed—the noun that would act as the object in an active sentence becomes the subject of a passive verb. Let’s read some examples, all in the past tense for simplicity: ‘the ball was kicked’, ‘my homework was finished’, ‘the maiden was devoured’.

Often you’ll be able to spot passive voice by the tell-tale preposition ‘by’. This tells the reader who is doing the action described by the passive verb (i.e. which noun would be the subject in the active voice). Here are some examples of this: ‘the ball was kicked by the boy’, ‘the maiden was devoured by the monster’.

But what if there is no ‘by’? ‘My homework was finished’ is a complete sentence, as is ‘my shoes were ruined’. If you want to know for sure if a sentence is in the passive voice, one fun rule of thumb is mentally adding the phrase ‘by zombies’ to the end of your sentence. ‘My homework was finished by zombies’ or ‘my shoes were ruined by zombies’ might sound funny in terms of content, but both sentences are grammatically correct.

Why is passive voice hated? (Hint: try adding ‘by zombies’ here!)
So now we know how to spot passive voice, why might you try to avoid it in your writing?

There are two big reasons. First, active voice is cleaner and clearer. The human brain processes ‘the boy kicked the ball’ much faster than ‘the ball was kicked by the boy’. Don’t make your readers work hard to enjoy your novel! Embrace clarity.

Second, active voice is more exciting and gives your characters more agency. ‘The monster devoured the maiden’ feels more dramatic than ‘the maiden was devoured by the monster’. If you use the passive too much your characters will start to feel passive themselves—a big problem when readers respond well to energetic protagonists.

However, there are occasions when using the passive is acceptable, or even preferable.

When SHOULD I use passive voice?
All writing rules are subjective but I’m going to suggest four occasions when the passive could be your best friend, or at least a valid choice. Do with these what you will.

1. When you’re talking about inanimate objects
When the subject of your sentence is a thing, not a person, the passive voice can be a good choice. ‘A sheet draped the table’ works, but so does ‘a sheet was draped over the table’. Consider context. Are the subjects of surrounding sentences also things? Having too many active inanimate objects starts to read weirdly and make readers feel like they’re in a scene from Beauty and the Beast.

2. When you don’t know who did the verb
Sometimes the subject of a certain action is unknown, or at least unknown to your characters. If you’re working up to a big reveal about who burned your protagonist’s house down, for example, it could be a good idea to have her say ‘my house was burned to the ground’. In dialogue, this also provides other characters with an opportunity to ask who did the thing, heightening a sense of mystery.

3. When you’re making a point about a character’s passivity
Sometimes the thematic and emotional focus of your sentence is more on its object, than its subject, especially when it comes to depicting suffering. ‘Jesus was flogged and crucified’ has an impact distinct from ‘the soldiers flogged and crucified Jesus’. It’s important to understand this and to make a choice accordingly. If your character is being ‘buffeted by a crowd’ or ‘ignored by everyone’, you may WANT them to come across as passive.

4. When using a phrase that’s usually in the passive
Our wonderful language is replete with expressions, idioms, and quotes. Shockingly, some of these are in the passive. There’s no need to rephrase these because you’ve developed a sudden allergy to the passive voice. How silly would James Bond sound if he started asking bartenders to stir, not shake, his martinis, rather than asking for a martini, shaken, not stirred?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the passive voice. Do you love it or hate/is it loved or hated by you? And let me know if there are other topics you’d like to see me cover as part of my Writers’ Questions series—here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Friday 9 August 2019

Writers’ Questions: Why do (some) people really hate adverbs?

I’ve been blogging about Victorian literature and historical fiction for the last six years, but, in 2020, my own novel, Brontë’s Mistress, will be published by Atria Books (more on this here). Writing a novel can be a lonely process, so, in my new series, Writers’ Questions, I’m sharing some thoughts and advice about writing and the publication process.

This week, we’re talking adverbs, which, among the writing community, have been much debated, defended and maligned. [Note: all adverbs in this blog are in red so they’re easy to spot!]

When I first started writing more seriously, I was working on another (unsold) novel, also set in the Victorian period. I had just completed a Master’s in nineteenth-century literature, and, while I was reading newer fiction too, Dickens, Brontë, Collins, Eliot et al. were my biggest influences. The first time I submitted chapters to a writing group, I was shocked to see my beautiful adverbs returned ringed in red. That’s how Victorians spoke, I thought. Didn’t my fellow writers understand that this was pastiche? And how could using a common part of speech be so objectionable?

Several years later, while I haven’t sworn off adverbs completely, I’m firmly in the ‘fewer adverbs is better’ camp. In this post I detail my personal and unscientific system for determining which adverbs survive the cut and why.

Could you be using a stronger verb? Often, I use adverbs while drafting as a placeholder for a more specific verb. Every time I come across an –ly adverb while editing I ask myself whether another verb could make the adverb void. Do you have someone ‘walking quickly’, when they could be ‘jogging’ or ‘striding’? Is someone ‘moving stealthily’, when they could be ‘creeping’?

Are you telling vs. showing? Another place where adverbs sneak into your manuscript is when you’re being lazy as a writer and telling readers how someone is feeling vs. allowing them to work this out themselves. Is a character doing something ‘sleepily’ when you could mention that they yawned? Is someone ‘cooking happily’ when they could be ‘singing while chopping vegetables’?

Is the adverb having the opposite effect to the intended one? The biggest culprits here are ‘suddenly’ and ‘immediately’, but any adverb that’s meant to connote speed will slow your prose down. ‘The door flew open,’ is much more dramatic than ‘The door flew open suddenly’, for example.

Is the adverb in narration or dialogue? I give myself more leeway to use adverbs in dialogue vs. in narration, especially since I write historical fiction. Some characters may speak in a verbose way. Particular adverbs may give speech a period flavour. But, even in dialogue, I review and consider each adverb. It’s important that each character doesn’t sound the same and that every word is there for a reason.

Do you have an adverb density problem? As with repeated words, repeated parts of speech get tedious to a reader’s ear. So it’s important to look at your prose at a paragraph/scene/chapter, as well as sentence, level. I love using the Hemingway Editor to assess how I’m doing with this. This free online tool is great in two ways when it comes to adverbs. First, it flags which words are adverbs for you—brilliant if you struggle to identify parts of speech. Second, it gives you a maximum number of adverbs for the length of section you input. I don’t follow this guide blindly, but it does help me see where I may have too many adverbs in succession. In this blog post for example I have 13 adverbs, far more than the recommended four. But, given the nature of this topic, I think even Hemingway himself would forgive me.

In conclusion, as with any tool in a writer’s arsenal, adverbs should be deployed wisely. If you’re an aspiring writer, there’s no need to delete every word that ends with –ly but it could be useful to ask yourself the questions above if you’re an adverb addict like I was.

How do you approach adverbs? And do you have any requested topics for the Writers’ Questions series? I’d love you to tell me—below, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Thursday 1 August 2019

The Poor Clare (1856), A Novella by Elizabeth Gaskell

I don’t usually include spoilers in my reviews, but The Poor Clare is obscure enough that in today’s post I’ll be throwing caution to the wind.

The work is a long short story/short novella by Elizabeth Gaskell, who’s better known for novel-length works including North and South (1854) and Mary Barton (1848), and for her biography of Charlotte Brontë (1857), which inspired my own forthcoming novel, Brontë’s Mistress.

The Poor Clare first appeared in serialised form in Household Words, a publication edited by Charles Dickens. Perhaps as a result of this, it alternates between feeling rushed and sorely in need of editing. There are no paragraph breaks, for instance, except in dialogue, and the development of the plot is uneven.

The story is narrated by an unnamed lawyer, who finds himself involved in ‘extraordinary events’ of a decidedly uncanny flavour. Employed to track down the rightful heir to a sizeable estate, he tracks down a strange old Irish woman, Bridget Fitzgerald, whose fervour for Catholicism is matched with a proclivity for meddling with magic. Bridget’s beautiful daughter, Mary, has disappeared years before, leading to her mother’s unhappiness and isolation. But now her child—if she had one—is next in line for this windfall inheritance.

What starts out like a mystery soon turns to a ghost story. Our lawyer tracks down the child, Lucy, more through luck than strategy, and promptly falls in love with her. But there’s a hitch. Lucy is suffering under a peculiar curse. She has a demonic double, which is hell bent on dogging her steps, ruining her reputation and driving men from her life. What’s more, it transpires that it was her own grandmother, Bridget, who unwittingly cursed her.

Gaskell writes Gothic well. Examples:

‘I was sitting with my back to the window, but I felt a shadow pass between the sun’s warmth and me, and a strange shudder ran through my frame.’

‘In the great mirror opposite I saw myself, and right behind, another wicked, fearful self, so like me that my soul seemed to quiver within me, as though not knowing to which similitude of a body it belonged.’

The tone felt most similar to Behind a Mask, an 1866 story by Louisa May Alcott, writing as A.M. Barnard, which I reviewed back in 2013. And the doubling motif is suggestive of earlier (e.g. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)) and later (e.g. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)) Gothic, as well as sensation fiction tropes. Notably, Laura, the heroine of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, which appeared three years later, also suffers due to her near resemblance with another.

The Poor Clare takes an unexpected turn when our characters end up in war-torn Antwerp (only Bridget’s service to strict religious order, the Poor Clares, will be enough, it seems, to undo the curse). It’s tempting to imagine that Gaskell was inspired by the Brontës to depict a Belgian setting.

All in, although set earlier, Gaskell’s The Poor Clare is delightfully Victorian, with lots to recommend it despite its flaws. Short enough to read in one sitting, it could also serve as a great introduction for teens to Gothic fiction or as a quick-to-digest comparison text for students focusing on some of the more canonical novels in the genre.

Which lesser-known Victorian novels/novellas/stories would you like the Secret Victorianist to review next? Let me know—here or on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And keep up with every facet of my life (reading, writing, work and life in NYC) via Instagram.