A Call To Arms

I remember when I started this blog a few years ago. I had no precise idea what the purpose of it would be or the range of topics I might cover.

It’s since evolved. To some extent.

One of my earliest posts focused on common writing tendencies — encountered in as much published writing as editing clients’ “books to be” — that bothered me. Like, actually bugged me enough to write about it publicly.

Lately, I’ve been coming across a number of articles (and other things) regarding The Craft that I found useful. Today, I’ll highlight a few of them that I feel are worth your time. I’ll also touch on a couple of the writing terms mentioned that might need some extrapolation.

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Let’s start things off with discussing the use of vulgarities, profanities, swear words. There’s a gentleman whose posts have garnered some steam in the NaNoWriMo group Facebook Group,occasionally circulating amongst us aspiring writers with varying degrees of opposition or acceptance. I, for one, rather enjoyed both what he had to say and the manner in which he conveyed it – that is, with extreme profanity.

The words of John Hartness in these two articles, Five Reasons You Won’t Make it as a Writer and Why Your Self-Published Book Looks Like A Pile Of Ass And Won’t Ever Make You Any Money come off as unsurprisingly irate. I imagine they are written as much to dissuade the dissuadable as to encourage the competent. If one were to read these articles and these articles alone, one could quickly and easily surmise that the anger boiling in this man’s belly is like the stomach acid of a sarlacc.

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Any would-be writer would do well to read these two articles simply on the basis of knowing what’s going on out there; whether or not Hartness’ words are news to you is besides the point. If you find yourself discouraged, then perhaps indeed you must rethink your path. While not in agreement with everything he says and I’m not exactly endorsing him, I will make one quote that I believe in:

“…I’ve spent my life in the arts. Theatre and writing are how I’ve made my living, at least tangentially, since I got out of college. I’ve spoken to many high school theatre kids and I’ve always told them the same thing – if there is anything else in the world that will make you happy, please go do that. This (theatre and writing) is a lonely, bizarre, world-destroying, soul-crushing business where you accept rejection as the norm and the tiniest bit of encouragement is like the first rainbow after Noah docked that fucking ark.

A life in the arts will destroy your health, relationships, and any hope of routinely seeing sunlight. It is not a career, it is a calling, it is an addiction, it is my church. If you can imagine yourself doing anything else – go do that. Save yourself the suffering. …”

But, as has been pointed out by both unknown commentators and even some of my peers, he isn’t saying anything particularly original in these articles. His use of excessive profanity is meant to be attention-grabbing (you will indeed notice a shameless plug for his own work somewhere between the fucks he doesn’t give) but I will say I learned something.

One thing that stood out to me is his mentioning of the passive voice, something I learned about from Steven King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft many years before writing this post, and have since endeavored to reduce it’s usage whenever possible. I do, however, often enough forget the terminology used to describe the passive voice, and why it’s sub-optimal. I, for one, am in the camp that using it does indeed weaken your writing. I also did not know there was term for what’s known as “filter words,” which I’ll talk about in a moment.

A colleague of mine wrote a post in response to John Hartness’ articles I linked, talking specifically about the use of vulgar language in blogs. You can find Joy’s post here – she, too makes a solid point.

 

The Passive Voice 

So what exactly is the passive voice? Perhaps it is best to demonstrate. passive 02

Passive Voice: Tired and blood dripping from the blade, and the sword was gripped by John.

It was, eh? Well, we can glean easily enough that this was a night in the Simple Past tense, but that’s not quite what is meant by a passive voice; it is passive in the sense that stuff happens to the thing, rather than the thing doing something. Compare that with:

Active Voice: Tired from the fight, John gripped his sword, blood dripping from the blade.

The active voice, even in this very rudimentary example, so
unds noticeably more immediate. Stuff’s happening now, and has a more urgent energy to the imagery you paint in your mind. The passive voice is especially damaging to faster-paced action scenes. Also, there’s this nifty trick…

 

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Not sure? Take the example I provided a moment ago:

Tired and blood dripping from the blade, the sword was gripped by John.

[by John] can easily be replaced with [by zombies]. Anything that was written in the passive voice can be capped off with [by zombies]. Or, conversely:

Tired and blood dripping from his blade, John was gripped by zombies.

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What I have read, and what I do,  to avoid this is simply omit the usage of the word “was” as much as possible. Nowadays I see it mostly as a sort of ‘word inefficiency,’ and sometimes, at its worst, I see it as downright lazy. At first, I was ruthless about cutting it out of my prose, because I found strengthened my writing. If you don’t allow yourself to use the word “was,” you force yourself to reconstruct the entire sentence. More often than not, the result turned out to be more expressive and articulate.

I suggest you attempt the same, but one must always strike a balance. I’ll let it slip occasionally, but very rarely in straight-up prose — and when it comes to character dialog, well, they say whatever they say (‘cuz real folks don’t much cotton to grammar).

A final words (at least in this post) in regards to the passive voice from are none other than the King himself.

“[One] of my pet peeves [has] to do with the most basic level of writing, and I want to get [it] off my chest before we move along. Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive voice. I’m not the only one who says so; you can find the same advice in The Elements of Style.

Messrs. Strunk and White don’t speculate as to why so many writers are attracted to passive verbs, but I’m willing to; I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.

You can find the long version of Stephen King talking about the passive voice here. And if you’re unfamiliar with Stephen King to any degree, you’ll soon learn that he’s not particularly afraid of using profanity and cutting through the bullshit to make a point.

There are loads of articles with similar advice and similar links. Yet we frequently encounter the Passive Voice, and I cannot help but agree with the King in the above quote. We each have our stages, and our paths; perhaps once I was a timid writer but I wouldn’t ascribe to such a label these days. I have restraints, sure, and there are certain topics that make me downright uncomfortable to write about. My stance on profanity is that if it helps further the point of the topic (or if a character is speaking, it does more than just “adultify the tone”), then have fun.

If you’re one of those types who either don’t yet see “the big deal” with the Passive Voice or who have otherwise staked out a tent in the camp of people who believe that people can write whatever they want, then please understand that I see you’re point.

I just heartily disagree with it.

I’ll get into a list of tips and tricks of the Craft that I follow in a future post. Until then, consider these things when writing and revising.

Happy writing!

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Today’s musical number recommendation comes from Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts, the work of whom I fondly came to love while watching Cowboy Bebop. As of January 2016 (some weeks before this post) I managed to, at long last, watch the series in its entirety. Cowboy Bebop my responsible for my interest in soft Jazz.