Sketchy Writing Advice – The Time and Place for Passive Voice

Disclaimer: the following writing advice is base on the author’s personal experience of writing and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.

The Passive Voice Narrative

How to talk about passive voice as a useful thing? An okay thing? An allowed thing? So many of us as writers have received the advice that we need to change the passive voice in our work to active voice. This is good and important advice. You should do that. I even explain how to change passive voice to active voice in another post, because I live in the camp of advocates for active writing. Especially after having just read a book with the most passive writing I have ever witnessed in traditional publishing. An actual slog to get through.

Reading too much passive voice is unpleasant and boring. But, contrary to what short, insightful, and thought provoking nuggets of wisdom like write in active voice would have you think, passive voice has a place in your prose. Albeit, a sparing one.

A quick note.

First and foremost, always consider ways to change the passive phrase you think you need to use into an active one. You may not need that passive phrase as much as you think. But after you have exhausted your options in active voice and found no alternatives, you may use passive voice. That’s how you break the rules like an artist.

What’s the big deal?

Just to make sure we’re on the same page, let us recap the definitions and differences between what makes passive and active voice.

Being verbs: A ThoughtCo.com article states that “a verb that does not show action instead indicates a state of being. …[I]n English most being verbs are forms of to be (am, are, is, was, were, will be, being, been, etc.).”

Adverbs: Any word that ends in -ly (quickly, oily, chilly, moodily, etc.).

Action verbs: Any verb not one of the two above (run, slam, kiss, hold, breathe, help, etc.).

Being verbs and adverbs make up passive voice, while the leftover action verbs make up active voice.

When to Use Passive Voice

Everyone told you to get rid of your being verbs and your -ly adverbs, but… hey, that published writer used several being verbs in that paragraph! And some adverbs over there! Why do they get to use passive voice and I don’t?!

I understand your frustration.

Some exceptions to this rule exist, but it takes getting good at writing in active voice to begin noticing them. I cannot stress enough that you should understand and execute active voice in your writing before you start toying with these exceptions. You must use your own judgement on when your unique words merit some passive voice, but below, I have put together a list of when I have noticed that passive voice works.

When writing a rough draft

While I recommend learning to write in active voice in the first place to train those brain muscles, writing your rough draft in passive voice is not the shameful act some feedback would have you think. Using being verbs and -ly adverbs helps you get your thoughts down on the page. Those first thoughts act as a road map to tell later you, editor you, what you meant by this. Just make sure you edit out your passive voice before you take new pieces to your next writing group meeting or post them up on your blog.

When an object is at rest

Rarely does this exception occur, but it has a lot to do with an object’s potential for movement. Some examples:

Active voice: He stood next to the door.
Passive voice: He was standing next to the door.

The first example in active voice implies your character just now stood next to the door. He moved there, stopped there, or got to his feet there, and thus, he stood. The second example in passive voice implies your character may have stood next to the door for some length of time. Less an action and more a continuation of a previous act. So you have the option to portray how long your character has done or has been doing something through your choice of active or passive voice.

Another example:

Active voice: A comet flew across the sky.
Passive voice: A comet was flying across the sky.

In the first example, the use of the active verb flew indicates the comet performed this action before any description to follow took place. Zzzip, gone! A mighty quick comet. The second example using the passive phrase was flying indicates that the comet continues to fly across the sky as the descriptions that follow take place. This object’s action becomes a backdrop to whatever else happens until the writer describes that said passive action has ceased or the scene has ended.

When a character’s thoughts shift to the theoretical

In my observations of when a character’s thoughts occur in passive voice, I have noticed that this works best not in the paragraph’s first line or its last, but somewhere in the middle. An active first line draws readers into the paragraph, where they feel more willing to read some passive thinking sorts of sentences. Then, an active last couple of lines draws the reader back out of that state of passivity and keeps them interested in reading the next paragraph.

Example, with active in bold and passive in italics:

I struck out across the river, struggling to swim against the current. Trying not to think scary water thoughts. How deep was the water? Were there alligators here? Fear chased me across the river. I almost cried when my fingers touched the muddy bank on the other side.

This example of passive voice could still function better as active voice. But I would stick to passive voice here if I wanted to get these thoughts across while not lingering over them too much. Plus, passive voice in the middle of a paragraph can allow your readers a small brain break before getting them back to the action.

When indicating emphatic truth

Using passive voice sparingly lends power to your occasional use of being verbs. As such, you can use them to make true statements that carry much more weight when you pull them out.

Examples:

Too much passive voice: She was a straight A student and she had never even been in trouble! They were accusing her of murder, but she was no killer.
Just enough passive voice: She crushed her grades every year and kept herself out of trouble. They had accused her of murder, but she was no killer.

Compare all the being verbs in the first example to the number of these in the second. So many claims of truth in the first stole the impact of the final claim. But in the second example, one moment of passive voice surrounded by so many active verbs made that statement stand out and shine. Every active verb indicates an action that took place once, so that the one passive verb indicates a state of true and continuous being as not a killer.

When replacements for adverbs make the prose too wordy

I am guilty of this myself. Complete aversion to the use of passive voice can cause you to stuff in more words than necessary just to avoid adverbs. Yet sometimes I relax a little. Above, I used an adverb in the sentence that begins, “Using passive voice sparingly…” I allowed myself this bit of passivity because the alternative for that adverb sparingly would have come out as: “Using passive voice once in a while…” That adds a solid four words and would not get the point across as well as the adverb did.

Use your judgement here.

My personal guiding principle on adverbs decrees that I can use one adverb in a paragraph at most, so I must make it count. That means I cannot waste the adverb on a gerund + adverb [-ing verb + –ly adverb] phrase such as “walking quickly.” I also should not waste it on the next step up in passive voice, qualitative adverbs, such as necessarily, only, eventually, occasionally, or especially. Use your adverbs where they will have the most impact and will weaken your prose the least, if you must use them at all.

Takeaways

  1. Passive voice includes any ‘being verbs’ (be, was, been, is, were, am, are) and –ly adverbs
  2. Active verbs are any other verbs besides being verbs and adverbs
  3. While not very often, passive voice has its place
    • When writing a rough draft
    • When an object is at rest
    • When a character’s thoughts shift to the theoretical
    • When indicating emphatic truth
    • When replacements for adverbs make the prose too wordy
  4. You should learn to write in active voice a majority of the time
  5. You must use your judgement on when passive voice will have the most impact

How I learned this skill.

Long ago, I resolved to write just in active voice and avoid all being verbs and adverbs. This forced me to learn how to change passive voice into active voice. But as I developed a standard for writing within certain word count limits or for tightening up my prose by X percentage, I found that, at times, an adverb would serve better than a bunch of other words. Or a being verb would make a point pop better. I did make sure to set myself some guidelines, as above, to avoid overusing passive voice to the point of lazy writing.

My journey to a certain, qualitative acceptance of passive voice began during a conversation with my high school writing mentor, Jennifer Archer. I had mentioned my revelations about the importance of active voice during a school project and how a session with a local writing group had put into words the lessons learned in that project. Active voice. Voíla. It had a name.

Jenny then told me that her editor had once changed an instance of active voice in her prose into passive voice. Indeed, the very example used above in, “He was standing next to the door.” That one conversation led me to wonder, when else can I use passive voice?

Got any questions about using passive voice? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about how YOU learned tricks for writing in passive voice, I want to hear them!


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Visible at Sunset

An apparition. As the second sun fell behind a rocky horizon, the conical tail of a long-falling star appeared against the backdrop of deep blue night. Blazing with light, it outshone surrounding clutches of stars. Pointing down toward the disappearing sun like an arrow shot into the heavens, as if someone had taken issue with their sole source for life.

“Disaster…” The whispered word repeated over and over, taken up like a chant among several voices around me. We sat upon the spine of the world, one of many such spiny mountain ranges, and the word seemed to fall away down into the deep, rocky trenches, vanishing into the night.

Still gazing up at the wonder above, I asked, “Disaster for what?”

Eyes and teeth flashed in the dark as faces turned toward me. I had not started this mountain trek with this group, but we’d had the same destination in mind, so I had joined them somewhere between flat ground and here. A thoughtful hum rose from their ranks as they considered my question.

“The oceans may continue to rise,” one of them postulated.

“Bigger earthquakes,” said another.

“Restlessness of spirits.”

“Species extinction.”

“You know,” the last said, “disaster. The apparition is an ominous portent.”

“You forgot acid rain and deforestation,” I said. “All those things happened last year. And the year before. Our planet is dying. But this-” I waved my hand toward the distant comet, “has nothing to do with that.” My hand dropped back into my lap, heavy with the futility of it all. “The only ominous portents are us.”

The apparition, the mere comet, wandered along its journey around the suns. At such a great distance, cold and heedless of our tragedies. No wisdom to impart as it passed.


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Sunshine Blogger Award

Thank you to Words on Key for nominating me for the Sunshine Blogger Award. You are too kind for including me in your list of nominees. Everyone should go check out their work; the aim of their blog is to write and share their work with other word nerds (like me and you!). Feel free to check out and follow their page on Pinterest @ikwords K.

Rules I Received

• Thank the person who nominated you and provide a link back to their blog so others can find them.
• Answer the 11 questions asked by the blogger who nominated you.
• Nominate 11 other bloggers and ask them 11 new questions.
• Notify the nominees about it by commenting on one of their blog posts.
• List the rules and display a Sunshine Blogger Award logo on your post and/or your blog site.

Questions Asked of Me

Why do you blog?

I love entertaining an audience. Even outside of blogging, I post on Facebook funny stories about my life and observations. If I didn’t blog, I would create Twitter threads or write a whole lot more fanfiction. Maybe I would practice telling stories at gatherings more. Who knows? But blogging allows me my fill of positive responses. Here, I get tangible proof that my stories, my voice, my jokes entertain others. Not always very many, but then, there’s always next week’s post to try again.

What makes a book good?

A rich examination of the human condition. Not everyone will agree, though, and I understand. But for a home schooled, introverted kid like me, stories which delved into questions of humanity, of relationships with others, and of conscience were my version of growing up on the playground. I gained wisdom and a form of experience from these stories that I would otherwise have missed, so that when I showed up to public school for the last two years of my education, I at least was not an emotionally shriveled shut-in.

Whatever your blog is about, when and why did you get interested in that topic?

Fiction: I have ever relished the mindful, thoughtful, peaceful stories I have consumed in books and on television. Those full of magic, nature, kindness, and strangeness, the ones not scary, but a little creepy. I never found many of these out in the wild. So at some point, I began to incorporate these aspects into my own writing, just so I could read them later. Over time, this congealed into my stories about The Hopeful Wanderer, the weekly fiction installment of my blog. I keep writing these stories because I can put into them everything my heart loves to read. But given the blog’s current following, it turns out other readers were looking for the exact same thing.

Book reviews: Who am I to think I have an opinion worth giving about a book? An egotist, that’s who. One confident enough in my own deep and thoughtful perspective to have the audacity to write my insights down for others to read. Probably, this came from studying for an English degree, where every class is an exercise in forcing students to give their thoughts and opinions in agonized mumbles. I love to be right and to answer questions correctly, so I got good at forming opinions of what I read. You never know when someone will call on you for your thoughts on the reading.

Writing advice: Every writer gives writing advice. Because of this cliché, I resisted doling out advice for a long time. (I didn’t know much myself anyway; what could I even pass on?) But I, of course, have received advice myself from good writers, both in person and through advice posts online. I put much of it into practice as I wrote and got feedback, wrote more and got more feedback, discarding some and keeping others. Recently, I joined a fantasy writing group on Facebook, a wonderful group full of seasoned writers willing to help newbies with all their questions and requests for feedback. I found myself among those willing to help. But I also caught myself repeating to one writer the same advice given to another. This made me realize two things: 1) I am a seasoned enough writer now that I do, in fact, have wisdom to pass on; and 2) writing up the tips and tricks I have learned from hard-earned experience gives new writers a chance to find the answers they seek, all in one place.

Tell me your favorite poem and quote the lines you found beautiful.

From Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie by Maggie Stiefvater:

He does not bite so much as nibble, my friend Death

Wearing me down to the size of a child

Soon I am small enough to nestle in his hand

Gone in one swallow, behind his gentle smile.

I appreciate the final line the most. How sinister. How beautiful. Death poetry speaks to my heart, because aren’t we all always dying?

What “genre(s)” of your niche do you like best? For example, for a cooking blog — desserts, meat, soups, etc. or for a writing blog (this one’s kind of obvious) — fantasy, short stories, horror, poetry, etc.

My writing interests lie somewhere within the intersection of fantasy, soft-apocalypse, and soft-horror. The magical, the encroaching disaster, and the creepy. I enjoy the soft and the strange, the reprogramming of the mind’s capacity for acceptance when the unnatural happens to be not that far off from the natural. I find I work better with short-stories. I have always struggled with getting my stories to the end, so I have less practice writing endings than beginnings. (Yes, I know, “write the end first.” Yet here I am.) But writing short stories and flash fiction forces me to the end almost at once, so that I get the chance to experiment with conclusions. Though I have worked on several novels, I may always be a writer of anthologies and novellas, and that’s fine with me.

Where do you get inspiration for your hobbies/interests/talents?

Spite.

Others say, “Don’t do X in your writing.” I think, I believe I will do X thing.

Or I look at what someone has done and think, I could do better.

Then I go write something.

Besides whatever your blog is about, what is your hobby/interest/talent?

I love to play Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying games. Acting out an imaginary scene with my friends activates the creativity in me and allows me to explore the reaches of story in a collaborative setting. One of my writing weaknesses has been creating characters too similar to each other, but playing with other people who dream up wildly different goals, attachments, and personalities for their characters has taught me a thing or two about building in diversity. I also homebrewed (meaning: made up my own) and ran a mini-campaign myself, which forced me to face and overcome my weaknesses in building interesting plot and conflict for my players to experience.

Which of your posts has been the most popular? Reflect on this… why, do you think? Do you agree, or are you annoyed by it? Is it really your best work or is it just what seems like would appeal to readers (in your opinion)?

My most popular post was a fluke. It happened on October 21, 2017, when I posted my review of Maggie Stiefvater’s newest book All the Crooked Saints. Somehow, my tweet about the review got to her and she retweeted, saying she liked the review because it had turned out less of a review of the book and more of a review of her views. (I found out later I had gotten the main reason for the book wrong, but I still stand by my perceived insights of the time.) Because she retweeted the review and said she liked it, over 600 of her followers viewed my post. I will never again receive that many views, so that date will stick out on my insights stats. Forever.

What motivates you in life? (This is a broad question – answer however you interpret it)

Once again, spite. Anything I do, I want to do it better. Do it best. Especially better than my last effort. I’m very competitive toward myself. I also suffer from depression. When life grows dark and I feel no motivation, I keep dragging myself forward, because I despise depression and the effect it has on my life. So I’m out every day to prove that pit of negative feelings wrong.

Is this the first time you’ve gotten one of these awards?

I have received two blogger awards before this one. Although I will admit, I did not feel my, at the time, lackluster blog merited the first award, so I did nothing with it.

Do you ever feel nervous before publishing a blog post?

Sometimes I think, well this is a dud. But I don’t have time to make adjustments. Or my brain feels so devoid of ideas that this story was all I could extract from those wrinkles. Or the depression has me looking at the world through a dull and dirty lens. So I know I have given my best and I post it anyway. Oftentimes, it turns out my audience didn’t feel the same way I did, which is nice.

Mostly, I feel excited. More than doing the work, I love having work done.

My Dear Nominees

Featuring beautiful blogs about books and words. Check them out; each has uniquely wonderful content to offer.

  1. McGee Travel Tales Exploring the Places No One is Talking About
  2. the dark netizenshort stories – mostly dark ones!
  3. Elaine Howlin to inspire creativity, expression and exploration
  4. Sirius Editorial a writing service and online literary journal 
  5. Casey Carlisle musings, anecdotes, and excerpts…
  6. Ephemeral Elegies the poetry of emotion
  7. To the Salt of the Sea fragments of my days or little pieces of fiction
  8. Leigh Hecking Writer. Blogger. Reader. Dreamer.
  9. One Round Cornerwhere my fairy tales, poems, and images collect
  10. fantasynovel1fiction, fantasy, supernatural, random
  11. Ashaa cat, a book, and a cup of tea

My Questions

For you, my dear nominees, are these questions to answer on your own blog.

  1. What quote inspires you the most?
  2. What story has most impacted your life?
  3. How has your blogging fared during the effects of the pandemic?
  4. When did you become interested in the topic(s) of your blog?
  5. What do you hope to achieve with your writing?
  6. Who do you get most excited to imagine reading your work?
  7. What to you daydream about over and over?
  8. Where was the best place you have ever visited?
  9. Why do you keep blogging?
  10. How do you envision the content of your blog looking in the future?
  11. What do you lie about when you cannot tell the truth?

You may pick and choose the rules you wish to follow. Eleven questions took ages to answer, so five might be better.

That’s That

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Book Review: Network Effect by Martha Wells

Introduction

Following the events of the first four Murderbot Diaries novellas, Network Effect by Martha Wells delivers a long-form adventure for our favorite anxious SecUnit. When its human clients get kidnapped by a familiar research transport and unfamiliar humanoids, Murderbot must fight to keep all the humans alive while trying to figure out a way out of a hostile situation. Featuring members of Murderbot’s previous crew, the fierce child of Murderbot’s favorite fierce human, and a certain research transport with a charming acronym, the story follows Murderbot’s battle to evolve as fast as the situation changes.

Plot

The narrative of Network Effect covers the importance of humanity and artificial intelligences working together to achieve the impossible: freedom for those enslaved, whether humanoid or robotic. Taking place in a chunk of space abandoned twice by the corporations responsible for terraforming planetary hopefuls, the story picks up after Murderbot and ART parted ways, with them leading their customary lives of security detail for the leader of a free planet and transporting around anti-establishment academics who forge documentation to free indentured humans from bondage, respectively.

But the research vessel gets itself in trouble when the planet its academics hope to free turns out to have an alien remnant hellbent on escaping its planetary prison to infect the universe. Dragged out into this forgotten sector erased from map coordinates, Murderbot finds itself with no chance of rescue. It must solve these overwhelming problems on its own.

Characters

Though Murderbot gets the gift of starting the story alongside some of its friends, such as Pin Lee and Ravi, it now has to contend with Dr. Mensah’s brother-in-law, Thiago, who does not trust the ungoverned SecUnit, and Mensah’s stubborn and intelligent daughter, Amana. Murderbot has grown enough to admit that it has friends and likes helping and protecting them, but starting over with new humans who did not come along for that journey makes gaining their trust a struggle all over again. Especially when Murderbot would rather be allowed to watch media or just get on with its job without human interference. Or, worse, shows of affection.

Yet with the re-entrance of an old acquaintance, Murderbot gets to revisit little pockets of peace through sharing media. The narrative covers the autonomy of constructs, but more than that, the ways respect for personhood and botdom can lead to friendship.

Review

My favorite part of Network Effect was all of Network Effect. I would happily live in that world and Murderbot’s mind full of scathing criticisms of incompetence, admissions of inability, and growth as it continues to learn how to be a person. I couldn’t get enough of the HelpMe.file snippets showing Murderbot’s normal life and inner conflicts in between the action. Though a good-sized book, the snappy pace of Wells’s writing led to me to devour the story almost in one sitting (alas, I have a day job).

As always, I appreciated the anxious desire to do a perfect job, the acceptance of Murderbot from others with the occasional gentle reprimand, and the catharsis of letting the savagery out when lines get crossed. Anyone who loved the first four books will love this healthy dose of everything that makes Murderbot’s life relatable.

Conclusion

In addition to the narrative’s human drama and space opera hijinks, Murderbot’s inner voice and its obvious attempts at “unreliable narrator” crack me up. When I read most of the book, I spent my whole evening snorting in amusement, along with the occasional cackle of glee. I also cried at one point, I think. Network Effect reaches out and grips your heart, but makes the experience fun the whole way. I recommend this book to anyone whose hands I can push it into saying read it read it read it. (Spoiler alert: I have already done this once. Expect many more.)

My rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Goodreads rating: 4.47 stars


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The Hopeful Wanderer – The Taste of Copper

The white glow of a small ornate lantern pushed back the darkness surrounding us like a tiny star. My guide crouched on a rock beside a still pool, holding a common stick with the ring of the lantern hooked on the end. Below, the reflection of the light glowed just as bright, a twin star. But neither my guide’s nor my reflection appeared in the water.

Covering the bottom of the pool, thousands of copper coins of all shapes and sizes glinted like dull eyes staring back at us. Waiting on our move.

Before we could cross the river, my guide had insisted we visit this place to gain passage. I eyed the slow, lazy river passing us by, wondering what danger could lurk within such a quiet channel.

“Can I take one?” I asked him.

“You can try.”

I slid my hand beneath the cool water, cooler than I expected. My fingertips brushed against flat coins, sensing their round edges, bumping along embossed words and images. Coins from all over the world. Meaningless currencies, some no longer even in existence.

At random, I selected an old coin, one enduring a slow takeover of blue-green malachite. This one, I figured, would see me across to safety.

The moment I drew the coin from the water, my mouth flooded with the taste of copper. Surprised, I dropped the coin back into the still water with a minute plunk. Working my mouth, I spat out a glob of blood. It, too, hit the water. I watched as the glob sank.

By the time it came to rest among the piles of treasures, my blood had itself changed into a copper coin. Shiny, new, winking at me in the lantern light.

My guide nodded once. “The river accepts you. Now you may cross.”


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Ideal Inspiration Blogger Award

Thank you to Rachel Rahmdan for nominating me for the Ideal Inspiration Blogger Award. You are too kind for including me in your list of nominees. Everyone should go check out her work; the aim of her blog is to touch lives and inspire you to become the best version of yourself despite your circumstances. Feel free to check out and follow her pages on Instagram (@rachel_ramdhan) and Facebook (@rachramdhan).

Rules

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and provide a link back to his/her blog.
  2. Answer their questions.
  3. Nominate up to 9 other bloggers and ask them 5 new questions.
  4. Notify the nominees through their blog by visiting and commenting on their blog.
  5. List the rules and display the “Ideal Inspiration Blogger Award” logo.
  6. Provide the link of the award creator of Ideal Inspiration Blogger Award as Rising Star from https://idealinspiration.blog/

Questions Asked of Me

Rachel Rahmdan gave me new questions to answer below:

Who or what was your inspiration for blogging?

Though I wrote a post about this titled How and Why I Started Blogging, I suspect the answer to this question comes down to the writing and life advice I read as a young person on two writer websites: brentweeks.com and maggiestiefvater.com. They had wisdom to pass on. Back then, I thought I might have wisdom to pass on, too. I did not, because I was small and chewy, but I started anyway. It took a long time to find my way from there to the true beginning of blogging, which began somewhere in the middle, just like everything else. Perhaps, in the end, my friends inspired me to blog, because they loved the words I wrote about them, and I wanted to share those words about my friends with the world.

If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?

Small Summer, your sense of inadequacy stems from your conclusion that everyone knows better than you. However, when action, execution, or technique differs from yours, that does not make your way wrong, just different. Very little is diamond-cut black and white. Seek only relevant input; otherwise, make your decisions. Anyone who has a problem with your choices can just deal.

What is your dream vacation spot?

A cabin or cottage far away from everything. Some body of water nearby. Lots of big, green trees. A place with foggy early mornings and rainy afternoons. A place to write and rest and think.

What is the title of your favorite novel, if any?

Favorite? This may sound clichéd or pretentious, but I could never choose a favorite. Although, I did just publish a post about My Top 10 Favorite Books Written by or About Women, wherein I narrowed down the parameters of this exact question. You can check out my answer there. (They’re excellent books. You should read them.)

What advice would you give to a new blogger?

Put heart into your posts; but more than that, imbue them with thought. Splattering words on the page will get you nowhere in terms of audience. And we all know you blog to gain audience, or else you would simply journal for your own eyes. Don’t write a post just to write. Say something meaningful for you and your readers.

My Dear Nominees

I frequent these blogs the most and these blogs also frequent mine the most. Check them out; each has uniquely wonderful content to offer.

The Drabble – shortness of breadth

Words on Key – a blog for word nerds

Worlds Unlike Our Own – a place to share my bookish thoughts with the world

DirtySciFiBuddha – musings and books from a grunty overthinker

unbolt me – the literary asylum

Lucy’s Works – a little writing workshop of horrors

lemanshots – fine pictures and digital art

GiftedAndChilling – sharing my writing and creative exercises that can hopefully inspire you to do writing of your own

My Questions

For you, my dear nominees, are these questions to answer on your own blog.

  1. What do you get from blogging? In what way does blogging satisfy you?
  2. If you could be doing anything at all right now, what would you be doing?
  3. From the field of your blog’s niche, whose work would you most love to promote?
  4. What project lays dormant in your heart right now, waiting to come out when you’re ready?
  5. What do you tell people scares you the most when you cannot tell the truth?

That’s That

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My Top 10 Favorite Books Written by or About Women

You know readers. We can never pick just one favorite book. For my part, I can’t even pick my favorite series. So many amazing books await out in the world, more than I could ever read before I die. To keep this post short, I had to narrow down the parameters to my top ten favorite books written by or about women.

While I spend my life trying to read the most moving, the most truthful, and the most meaningful novels out there, a few have drawn me back into their welcoming pages over and over. I have reread every one of the books below and keep most of them on my (limited) bookshelves. (Only Sabriel still lives at my local library, but I will own a copy someday.)

Nothing makes me happy quite like when I meet someone who has read one of these, or who decides to read them at my suggestion. Please check them out. They’re arranged in no particular order. If you’ve read any of these, I would love to hear what you thought!

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

Though I loved The Raven Boys, the first installment in the Raven Cycle, I fell deeply into Stiefvater’s writing in The Dream Thieves, which released just after I finished the first book. Imagine characters you know so well as to be your friends. Imagine they stumbled upon magic, the dangerous kind, and upon each other, dangerous people. Want so big and impossible as to swallow up existence. All set against the backdrop of Virginia’s mysterious Shenandoah Valley.

Her writing hooks itself like thorny vines into my veins. The narrative driven by these characters makes me breathless for flashed smiles, daring choices, and the strength of unbreakable friendship.


The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Oh, look. Another book by Maggie Stiefvater. (Spoiler alert: there is not a single one of her stories I have not enjoyed.)

I first bought The Scorpio Races for my mom’s birthday, even though I had never read it. While sitting within the massive shadow of a Gander Mountain sign, hoping to sell a litter of puppies to passersby, I read the first several chapters aloud to my mom.

I may or may not have later asked several times if she was done with the book yet so I could read it.

Every year in October or November, I reread The Scorpio Races. Nothing else I have read evokes the magic of fall and deadly horses the way this book does.


Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

I’m not even sure how I wound up reading Six of Crows. My friend had convinced me to read Leigh Bardugo’s previous series, the Grisha Trilogy. I recall standing in a Barnes & Noble with her as she gushed over the book’s beautiful, black-edged pages. Maybe she handed it to me one day in that Read this! way some readers will do.

I had never loved heist stories before reading Six of Crows. As a fantasy heist, The Lies of Lock Lamora could not begin to compare to Six of Crows and its sequel for sheer brilliance of maneuvering, tactics, risk, and stakes. And beyond that, each and every character breathes with life, cleverness, and desperation for a better life.


Trickster’s Choice by Tamora Pierce

Trickster’s Choice by Tamora Pierce

In Tamora Pierce’s lengthy, multi-installment series about the country of Tortall, the Trickster’s Choice duology comes at the very last. I own every one of her books, but for me, none compare to this one.

Two words: fantasy spies. The daughter of a rogue and a knight who becomes embroiled in the espionage of a foreign country as she works to prove herself a capable spymaster. She’s fun-loving and sly, surrounded by clever and brave characters who grow dangerous enough to stage a coup.

I have ever loved the rogue and spy tropes. Perhaps this book is why.


Gregor and the Code of Claw by Suzanne Collins

Gregor and the Code of Claw by Suzanne Collins

You want a fantasy, underground (literally) reimagining of World War II and the Holocaust, mixed with giant flying bats, kickass princesses, and prophecies? The Underland Chronicles have exactly that and more. I love this entire series, more even than Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. But the fifth and last grips me the most.

Lines have been drawn, alliances made and severed. The main character has experienced loss, betrayal, and growth as a young man and warrior into a deadly fighting machine. Gregor and the Code of Claw puts Gregor through the wringer of all-out war. I love tracing his journey to this point, from kid to adventurer to soldier, training to become deadly enough to protect the mysterious world he loves.


All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Anxious? Just want to be left alone to do your thing? Have only a specialized skill set at which you are very, very good? Don’t know what you want out of life? Sarcastic and cynical?

If so, you will love Murderbot. I identify so hard with the protagonist of All Systems Red by Martha Wells, a SecUnit designed for security and nothing else, that hacked its own governor module in order to… keep pretending to work just so it could watch media serials. Where ‘pretend’ means do a top notch job while worrying about the quality of the work performed. Y’know, like we all do.

Eight chapters of thrilling action, touching moments, wonderful characters, and seething intrapersonal conflict makes up this first installment in a quartet of novellas, all set within a seamless science fiction interstellar society.


Sabriel by Garth Nix

Sabriel by Garth Nix

Whenever I talk about good books about necromancy, I always laud Sabriel by Garth Nix as the best. Beyond a wonderful story about a strong and thoughtful young woman adventuring in a land full of monsters and finding a boy to love and protect along the way, the narrative covers all the delectable little necromancy things I love. From a representation of the River Styx to the death knell of a bandolier of small bells to a lineage of necromancers who, instead of raising the dead, send them back down the river where they belong.

This story brought me in to the presentation of trained wizards living in a modern age (that being a World War I era fantasy world), mixing ancient magic and rune-inscribed swords with modern inventions like firearms and flying machines. I practically vibrated with happiness through the whole read and couldn’t get enough of some of the beautiful and haunting diction. In my opinion, Sabriel is the best necromancy story.


Eona: the Last Dragoneye by Alison Goodman

Eona: the Last Dragoneye by Alison Goodman

I have spent many a moment admiring the cover art of Eona: the Last Dragoneye by Alison Goodman. In this sequel to Eon, in which Eona pretended to be a boy in a desperate bid for power and status, Eona must now face her identity as a woman. I loved following her struggle to grasp for power in a man’s world by attempting to erase herself, only to discover that doing so lost her the most important aspect of her life, her connection to the queen of the dragons that controlled the land.

This story inspired me so much when Eona discovered she could find strength in her truth instead of viewing womanhood as weakness. The journey across two books to find her way is filled with splendid characters, a variety of perspectives, and incredible power plays and counter plays, all set against the beautiful backdrop of fantasy China.


Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Remember from before when I mentioned I love rogues? And tough women? Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett has both, as well as playful, fun banter, deadly peril, clandestine operations, and underdog struggles to save everyone in the awful city of Tevanne from several individuals, each with ambitions to be become a god.

I love how the unfolding of the narrative brings the four main characters together: a rogue, a paladin, and two artificers, to use some tropey language. Oh, and a talking key. Though the characters all begin at odds with each other, they soon find that their goals align as they uncover secrets about the magical method of scriving, secrets that upend everything they know about their world.

Also, there’s a fabulous LGBTQIA+ element, but I won’t spoil. Wink.


The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

In The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, Myfanwy wakes up in a park with amnesia, surrounded by dead bodies. The rest of the story follows her discovery that she, pre-amnesia, knew this would happen and left clues and helpful notes to herself to be able to resume her life and find out who would do this to her.

As an office worker firmly planted in the corporate world myself, I appreciate the descriptions of Myfanwy’s experience starting over with a blank slate to discover the person she always could have been as she navigates her high stakes job and office politics. The office life interwoven with supernatural bureaucracy cracks me up. The intricate mystery of finding herself and uncovering her attempted murderer keeps me turning the pages on every read.


If you’ve read any of these novels, I would love to hear what you thought! If you haven’t, then what are you waiting for?!


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The Hopeful Wanderer – To Be Known

Cradled in the palms of a young man was a nest of interwoven brown twigs, the bowl filled to the brim with tiny eggs the color of spring. Buttery yellow, pastel pink, hazy purple, soft white. All speckled with little red dots, minuscule dribbles of blood. The clack as they jostled against each other promised thick, hard shells, filled with gooey, spicy delight. My stomach twisted at the memory of overindulgence.

We stood together in a faded barn loft, where the boy had just pulled the nest down from among the rafters. Straw so old it had gone to white littered the wood floor and fine dust wandered away through the open loft doors. The eggs almost glowed with color by comparison with our drab surroundings.

As if in offering, the boy held the nest out to me. “Take these.”

Though desire arced through me, I raised my hands as if to ward him off. “Why do you want me to have them?”

“They’re my secrets,” he said. “I need you to hold onto them. Don’t you want to know?”

My mouth watered with the heady scent of sugar wafting up from the eggs. I swallowed. “If I take these,” I warned, “I will devour them.”

As his eyes widened, he hugged the bundle of eggs a little closer to his chest. “Why would you do that?”

I slipped my hands into my pockets, resisting temptation. “Don’t be so willing to give your secrets out,” I growled. “No one can protect them like you.”

The boy’s head bowed. “I’d still risk it,” he whispered. “To be known.”

“You know yourself,” I replied. Though he flinched, I pressed on. “Secrets are dangerous and therefore delicious. Be careful who you feed.”


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Sketchy Writing Advice: how to change passive voice into active voice

Disclaimer: the following writing advice is base on the author’s personal experience of writing and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.

The plight of the passive voice writer.

You just got back from your writer’s group meeting. Or you just got feedback from your critique partner. They pointed out some passages in your piece that were weak. They described those passages as ‘passive’ and said that you needed to change them to ‘active voice.’ There was something in there about adverbs and ‘bewasbeeniswereamandare,’ but they said it too fast for you to understand. They might have told you to use the find function in Word to search for all the ‘being verbs’ and change them to active verbs. You nodded and said, “Sure, okay.”

But inside you were thinking, how?

Certainly, you may already know about being verbs and adverbs. Maybe you’ve heard about this enough already. If you have, you can skip down to the advice.

But in case you haven’t heard of being verbs, adverbs and action verbs, here’s a quick breakdown:

Being verbs: A ThoughtCo.com article states that “a verb that does not show action instead indicates a state of being. …[I]n English most being verbs are forms of to be (am, are, is, was, were, will be, being, been, etc.).”

Adverbs: Any word that ends in -ly (quickly, oily, chilly, moodily, etc.).

Action verbs: Any verb not one of the two above (run, slam, kiss, hold, breathe, help, etc.).

What’s the big deal?

Why does it matter if you write in passive voice? While passive voice has its place in prose, most of the time, you will hold a reader’s attention better with active voice. Some examples:

Passive voice: He was walking quickly along the dark alley. His skin was chilly from the cold.

Active voice: He hurried down the dark alley. Cold air chilled his skin.

Note the differences. The first example checks a few boxes – describes what the character does, shows that he feels cold. (Critiquers who know their stuff always tell you to show, show, SHOW! They’re not wrong.) Passive voice just doesn’t bring you into the story; it brings you to the story. Here it is. This is what happened.

The second example entices the reader. He didn’t just walk quickly, he hurried. You can see in your mind’s eye what that looks like, what it means. Something happened. The cold didn’t just make his skin chilly, it chilled. You know how that feels. Active voice doesn’t just bring you to the story; it dunks your head beneath the icy waters of the story. You’re here. You’re in it.

A quick note.

Writing your rough draft in passive voice is not the shameful act some feedback would have you think. Using being verbs and -ly adverbs helps you get your thoughts down on the page. Those first thoughts act as a road map to tell later you, editor you, what you meant by this. Just make sure you edit out your passive voice before you take new pieces to your next writing group meeting.

What I did.

In the above example of passive voice, I found the being verbs (was in both instances) and the adverbs (quickly and chilly). For the first sentence, I looked at quickly and let it tell me what it wanted to show. A number of active verbs would have worked here (stormed, rushed, thundered, raced, even ran or trotted), but I picked hurried because that’s what walking quickly makes me think about. Your choices depend on your context, what’s happening around your action (is he angry, frightened, speeding, or just a little late?).

For the second sentence in the passive voice example, I let the adverb become the action verb. Adverbs often stem from verbs, such as how chilly can come from to chill. (Quickly would not have changed the sentence to ‘he quickened down the dark alley,’ but it could have become ‘he quickened his pace down the dark alley.’ I would still have cut this last option down to ‘he hurried.’) So instead of ‘his skin was chilly from the cold’, chilly changes to chilled and becomes active in ‘the cold chilled his skin.’

Takeaways.

  1. Passive voice includes any ‘being verbs’ (be, was, been, is, were, am, are) and –ly adverbs
  2. Active verbs are any other verbs besides being verbs and adverbs
  3. Active voice trumps passive voice in most cases because it invites the reader into the story
  4. Active verbs replace [being verb] + [-ly adverb]
  5. Adverbs can be used as an indicator of the active verbs you need and converted into them
  6. Passive voice has its place, but not very often

How I learned this skill.

I, too, got feedback on my writing that told me to change from passive voice to active voice. Mind you, this advice came from my high school English class where I had begun to learn how to write essays and research papers. So the explanation was this: “Do a word search in your document for being verbs and adverbs, then delete them.”

Well. They must have meant to say ‘replace them.’ I did follow this advice. But once I found a being verb, I had to figure out what to do with it. That’s when I learned to replace them with active verbs (since I had nothing else to use). You can sure do this to help you activate your prose and I encourage you to do so as you get started. But using this ‘find + replace’ method takes forever. I suggest learning to write in the active voice in the first place. Makes your life much easier.

I made it a point to practice this method of avoiding being verbs and -ly adverbs. I told myself I could use neither unless absolutely necessary, and even then, I would exhaust all my alternatives first. Not until I had written my way through a huge chunk of my flash fiction series, The Hopeful Wanderer, did I begin to feel that I had a firm understanding of when I could use passive voice.

So I say to you, learn to write with active voice until you know it by muscle memory, then let yourself play around.

Got any questions about converting passive voice into active voice? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about how YOU learned to write in active voice, I want to hear them!


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Making Arrangements

Stacks of desert rocks dotted the sand, piled high and straight. Each painted a different color of the rainbow, each the size of my head or bigger. But in the early morning light, my guide and I noted in silence how around the toes of these rainbow pillars, the light pink and the light blue rocks lay scattered about in the sand. My guide frowned, his mustache twitching.

“Are they always like this?” I asked. The sun had not yet grown hot, but I could feel fingers of warmth tickling my spine as it crested the horizon.

“Not at all,” my guide replied. If anything, he looked a little green. “The ancients meant for all the colors to support one another, as we all support one another.”

I stalked around the cluster of pillars. Those still standing looked faded and weather worn, but the blues and pinks each featured a dent in them, exposing raw, fresh color to the air. “Looks like someone hit these very hard. Hard enough to knock them out of the stack without upsetting the rest.”

My guide hefted one of the pink rocks in his hands, regarding it as if it could speak to tell him why this had happened. “The ancients placed these pillars here long ago. We have guesses, but we don’t know much about the colors’ meaning.”

“Can we put them back where they were?”

“Not without help.”

“We can’t leave them like this.” The sight of such a targeted attack left my stomach wrung out.

“We’ll get help,” my guide reassured me. “After.”

Before we went back, we stacked the pinks and the blues at the tops of each pillar. That felt right. That the other colors should, for a moment, support those which had gotten knocked down.

That felt right.


The beautiful image in this post courtesy of Paulo Jacobe on Unsplash.

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