This was my third time at the Sci-fi / fantasy group. Our meeting had one person I hadn’t met along with some of the regulars. (I’m going to call him Ben.) They were having a discussion when I arrived, about using passive voice. Ben mentioned something about it being wrong to use phrases with the word “was” in them. I cringed but kept my mouth shut since I didn’t hear the conversation from the start. I’ll get into the whole passive voice issue later.
We began with Fred. If you’ve been following along with my blog, you may recall that Fred started off the last time he was here by telling us all that he just wrote his piece an hour or so before the meeting. He begins tonight’s reading the same way. I’m not sure if this is true or if he automatically says these sort of qualifiers all the time because he’s insecure about his writing. Maybe he does this as a way to let us all know that if he really spent time on his work, it would be much better. I don’t know.
The scene is about this ship captain who’s not exactly human. She’s really a few-thousand-year-old part human, part something else. The scene is taking place in a nightclub where she’s friends with one of the dancers. I won’t get into all the details. This author does very well with scene description. Much better than me. The dialogue had some parts that everyone thought wasn’t natural and could be improved. A bigger problem with the piece was the Captain’s inner thoughts. Somehow inside the Captain’s head is three separate intelligences. One is the original human, one is the mind of her ship, and the last is something I didn’t understand. He’s intentionally keeping these separate beings secretive. The reader is supposed to find out the details of the Captain’s existence over the course of the novel. It’s an interesting concept, but I’m not sure how well it’s working. To be fair, I think this is still chapter two for him, so I’m expecting to have plenty things to wonder about in this stage of any novel.
The second person to read is our friend Butters. This is the story about Earth and the two different types of Cyborg creatures. This author is my favorite in the group. I’ve only heard a couple of chapters, but I’m really interested in the story and would love to read the final product. The largest flaw the group can find in this story is the portrayal of one of the Cyborg types. It’s not actually a Cyborg. It’s a being that was created by an alien species thousands of years ago that is somehow part machine… but not really… He tells us an autopsy of one of these things won’t show a difference between one of them and a regular human. Right down to the cellular level. To me, this defies logic. He’s saying that all the way down to the cells this creature is exactly like a human. To me, that makes it a human.
I can understand that the author wants to portray these things as something nobody could detect. I just don’t think his explanation is rational. I can tell that other members of the group are thinking the same thing. We give each other meaningful stares as he’s trying to explain all this to us.
This brings up one of the problems with a writer’s group. Even though I’m new to the group, I’m thinking I’ll be coming back to this meeting. I don’t want to hurt this guy’s feeling by coming right out and saying – “This makes no sense!” It makes me wonder how honest everyone is being. I know there have been times I’ve held back being completely honest. It’s tough to balance a critique between stark honesty and being tactful. For myself, I think a lot of it depends on how the writer has taken my comments in the past. If the person is one to give me nasty looks or start defending themselves, it’s going to reduce my desire to be open and honest in the future.
Moving on to author three. I didn’t give this man a name last time. His writing is about X-men / superhero style of characters. Let’s call him Dr. Chaos. Last week Dr. Chaos read us a fight scene. This week, he reads the same scene with his changes. One of the things nobody liked the last time was the POV character is supposed to be an emotionless killer. Because of this, everyone this person was fighting was referred to as either R1, R2, R3 etc. or M1, M2, M3 etc. (The numbers went into the teens.) The “R” was referring to robots, and the “M” meant machine. (Yeah… I know, a robot is a machine.) The “R” enemies were actually people inside some kind of battle armor. His point was that the character has no memory so she wouldn’t know what the people in battle armor were. None of the characters know where they are or anything about their pasts. The characters aren’t supposed to understand what is attacking them or why.
All that is fine with me. The problem was that the fight scene was all – I kicked R1 then flipped over R8 while shooting at M2. It came off boring and not really understandable. I made the suggestion to change all the R1, M2 stuff to something like target 1, target 2. To me, doing this would bring out the intent of the author that the POV character was an emotionless killing machine. His rewrite of the scene included my suggestion. (Weeeee. Someone liked my suggestion.) There were other changes to the scene. It made more sense and held my interest more this time.
Author four is Uncle Dave with his Native American develops new power source story. He reads the same chapter as the past two times with more changes.
Author five is Ben. He reads his scene involving the hero MC in a fight. It’s not bad but I thought it lacked in some important details. I had no idea what type of setting the scene took place in. I could tell they were on land and there was shooting going on, but that was all for scene description from what I could remember.
My turn to read. This was chapter three, and the scene included character’s 4, 5, & 6. It also introduces the reader to subplot three. Here we have a refugee family who’s recently arrived in North America. They are taking their eight-year-old daughter to a doctor for a procedure. She is having a device installed in her head that is essentially a smartphone. This device is how people in my story communicate and search the web. I’m using this scene as a way to explain the device instead of an infodump elsewhere.
The reader also learns that the father is living with a genetic disease called MJD (Machado–Joseph disease.) Yes, it’s a real disease. The couple is concerned that the doctor will also find the disease present in their daughter. MJD causes the father to live wearing an exoskeleton to keep his limbs functioning smoothly. This chapter is also designed to explain all this to the reader without it being an obvious infodump.
When I get done reading the chapter, the only feedback I got was – “sounds good.” There were a couple of questions asked about the disease. I was pretty disappointed. My ego isn’t big enough to think the chapter is perfect. I was hoping for a little more.
The last thing I wanted to write about today was the topic of passive voice. Before beginning this journey of novel writing, I heard the term passive voice but couldn’t have given anyone an explanation of what it is. That seems to be a common problem. There are lots of people out there that think they know what passive voice is but they’re wrong.
When I first began having other people read my work, several of them brought up places where I was using passive voice. I decided to do a little research to find out what this meant. My schooling was mostly science.
So… What is passive voice? What’s wrong with passive voice? How can you spot passive voice? I’ll start by saying passive voice has nothing to do with using the word – was. But from what I have read on the topic, I can understand where people are getting this idea. Lot’s of the examples I have seen on the subject use a sentence that includes – was. It’s not the word that’s wrong. It’s how the word -was- is being used in the sentence. You can also use -to be- without it being passive voice. I found this explanation on the University of N. Carolina website:
“A passive construction occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence. That is, whoever or whatever is performing the action is not the grammatical subject of the sentence.”
When I see explanations like that, my eyes start glossing over, and I start thinking about tequila. The site does explain that using passive voice is not a grammatical error. The problem comes from a lack of clarity in the sentence. The best (and easiest for me to understand) explanation of the problem, I found in an article that told me that if I read a sentence and can insert “by zombies” into it, it’s probably passive voice.
So using the example:
The contest was canceled because someone cheated.
We can place “by zombies” in after canceled to explain who was doing the canceling.
We can change the sentence to:
The company running the contest canceled it because someone cheated.
This gets rid of the passive voice.
The word “was” isn’t used in the correction but that doesn’t make “was” a forbidden word.
If we write:
Tom was planning on going to the beach tomorrow.
It’s perfectly fine and doesn’t break any of the passive voice rules.
We can even say:
Tom was going to be at the beach tomorrow.
That about wraps this week up. Thanks for reading.