Author's often confuse an editor's attempts to whip a manuscript into shape, with trying to change the author's voice. Among other occasions, this happens when editor's request the author change passive voice to active voice. This handout is a multi-sourced doc, which explains author voice.
Remember the About.com definition? Just in case you need a refresher, here it is:
"Voice is the author's style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique, and which conveys the author's attitude, personality, and character."
That covers a lot of ground: writing that reflects the author’s attitude, personality, and character. All three, just in the way an author strings sentences together, how they choose their words, and form their paragraphs.
In a room full of people, you can pick out each person's personality by the way they speak, their body language, the way they look at various issues. Some of us might use simple, everyday language, rife with common slang, expletives, etc., while others phrase even the simplest things in long, involved sentences or in short, clipped phrases.
Some of us only answer questions when asked, while others rattle on with involved exposition, and ignore anyone else's input.
Guess what? Author voice is as diverse.
One author may have a voice that is light and fast paced while another may have a dark voice.
Definition: Voice has two meanings as it concerns creative writers:
Voice is the author's style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique, and which conveys the author's attitude, personality, and character; or
Voice is the characteristic speech and thought patterns of a first-person narrator; a persona. Because voice has so much to do with the reader's experience of a work of literature, it is one of the most important elements of a piece of writing.
An undeveloped author voice is one where the reader can't determine where one character ends and the other begins. Every character appears the same—their views, their experiences, the way they think and feel, and talk. Take them out of one story and plug them into another. They are all the same.
As writers, we strive to create well-developed characters, each unique in their characterization. We do this by getting to know them, completely—what makes them tick, why they feel and do things as they do. The lives we create for our characters should be as rich and varied as our own. As their creators, we should know each character's backstory, what their motivations are, how they got to the place in their lives that we join them in the story, even if most of that never sees the written page.
An author's voice is their signature, their fingerprint, the heartbeat of the story, the way the author communicates with their readers. A voice that is their own and is recognizable. “This could not have been written by anybody else.” That is voice.
The guy at terribleminds.com says this:
"Don’t mistake bad writing for good voice. Bad writing is bad writing." He also says:
"When you first start writing, you write like those writers you read most frequently. Maybe you mean to. Maybe it’s an unconscious thing. But don’t fight it. It’s all part of the process. Your writer’s voice, like your real voice, changes." (http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2012/01/10/25-things-writers-should-know-about-finding-their-voice/)
Why do you need a writing voice?
Finding your voice is the key to getting dedicated followers and fans and it’s the only sustainable way to write. If you’re not yourself, you’ll eventually burn out.
Once you’ve found your voice, make sure you continue to develop it through discipline, one that can’t be overlooked if you’re going to have the impact you desire and that your words deserve.
The bottom line is that there’s a lot of noise out there in the world. If you’re going to get heard, you can’t just raise your voice. You’ve got to set yourself apart, show you have something special to say — and that you have a unique way of saying it.
Make a list of the characteristics of writing that indicate strong voice. "You know writing has voice if
It shows the writer's personality
It sounds different from everyone else's
It contains feelings and emotions
The words come to life
It comes from the heart
“Filtering” is when you place a character between the detail you want to present and the reader. (Janet Burroway in her book On Writing.)
Filter words give the reader their experience through a character's POV, which removes the reader from the experience and reminds them that they're reading. Filters explain the obvious, and often lead a writer into telling instead of showing, or into crafting passive sentences.
Examples of filter words: can, saw, heard, felt, knew, watched, decided, noticed, realized, wondered, thought, looked. Even worse, writers often use filter words in their passive forms: to see, to hear, could tell, to watch, to decide, to notice, to realize, to wonder, to think, to look, to seem, to sound, sound like, to feel, to touch, to know.
Here are some examples:
(Filter)Jack saw two gunman get out of the black car. (or in passive) Jack could see two gunman get out of the car.
(Without filter)Two gunman got out of the car.
(Filter)Frankie heard a scream from the darkened alley. (or in passive) Frankie could hear a scream from the darkened alley.
(Without filter)A scream echoed from the darkened alley.
(Filter)Jack knew he had to escape. (or in passive) Jack could tell he had to escape.
(Without filter)Jack had to escape.
(Filter)Arvin felt the cold metal of Frankie's gun against his temple. (or in passive) Arvin could feel the cold metal of Frankie's gun against his temple.
(Without filter)Cold metal pressed against Arvin's temple.
By eliminating the filters, the author puts the reader in the moment. They feel the characters urgency, the cold metal, the fear of the gunmen. We hear the echo of the scream.
(Filter)Frank realized he'd have to confront his boss.
(Without filter)Frank had to confront his boss. Or Frank confronted his boss.
(Filter)Sam wondered if he'd ever see Frank again.
(Without filter)Would Sam ever see Frank again?
(Filter)Jack decided to take the job.
(Without filter)Jack took the job.
(Filter)Ryan noticed Jack's blond hair.
(Without filter)Jack's blond hair attracted Ryan.
While every rule has its exceptions, it's a good idea to check manuscripts for filters. They tend to lead to telling and passive text.
What Do Filter Words Look Like?
You might, for example, write:
Sarah felt a sinking feeling as she realized she’d forgotten her purse back at the cafe across the street. She saw cars filing past, their bumpers end-to-end. She heard the impatient honk of horns and wondered how she could quickly cross the busy road before someone took off with her bag. But the traffic seemed impenetrable, and she decided to run to the intersection at the end of the block.
Eliminating the bolded words removes the filters that distances us, the readers, from this character’s experience:
Sarah’s stomach sank. Her purse—she’d forgotten it back at the cafe across the street. Cars filed past, their bumpers end-to-end. Horns honked impatiently. Could she make it across the road before someone took off with her bag? She ran past the impenetrable stream of traffic, toward the intersection at the end of the block.
Are Filter Words Ever Acceptable? Of course, there are usually exceptions to every rule.
Just because filter words tend to be weak doesn’t mean they never have a place in our writing. Sometimes they are helpful and even necessary.
Susan Dennard of Let the Words Flow writes that we should use filter words when they are critical to the meaning of the sentence.
If there’s no better way to phrase something than to use a filter word, then it’s probably okay to do so.
Filters are words or phrases you tack onto the start of sentence that show the world as it is filtered through the main character’s eyes.
(with filter phrase) I see the moon rise overhead.
(without filter phrase) The moon rises overhead.
(with filter phrase) I feel sad. (I feel my heart beat, and the ever popular, I feel my cock harden)
(without filter phrase) I am sad.
(with filter phrase) I hear a howl from the hall — it sounds like Emily is in trouble!
(without filter phrase) A howl comes from the hall — Emily! She’s in trouble!
(with filter phrase) I can feel the roughness of the canvas beneath my fingers, and it reminds me of Mom’s jacket.
(without filter phrase) The canvas is rough beneath my fingers — just like Mom’s jacket.
(with filter phrase) He looks furious, with his eyes bulging and lips pressed thin.
(without filter phrase) His eyes bulge and his lips press thin. He’s furious.
Filter words are natural to write. But as easy as they are to insert, they’re even easier to catch and edit out! One read through of your novel, and you can slash them all.
What passive voice is and what it isn't
Myths about passive voice
So what is the passive voice? First, let’s be clear on what the passive voice isn’t. Here are some common myths about the passive voice:
1. Use of passive voice constitutes a grammatical error.
Use of the passive voice is not a grammatical error. As a stylistic issue, passive voice pertains to clarity—that is, there are times when using passive voice can prevent a reader from understanding what you mean. Or you use many more words than necessary.
2. Any use of “to be” (in any form) constitutes the passive voice.
Passive voice entails more than just using a being verb. Using “to be” can weaken the impact of your writing, but it is occasionally necessary and does not, by itself, constitute the passive voice.
3. The passive voice always avoids the first person; if something is in first person (“I” or “we”) it’s also in the active voice.
On the contrary, you can very easily use the passive voice in the first person. Here’s an example: “I was hit by the dodge ball.” (active voice: The dodge ball hit me.)
4. You should never use passive voice.
While passive voice can weaken the clarity of your writing, there are times when the passive voice is OK and even preferable.
5. I can rely on my grammar checker to catch the passive voice.
See Myth #1. Since passive voice isn’t a grammar error, it’s not always caught. Typically, grammar checkers catch only a fraction of passive voice usage.
6. To eliminate passive voice is eliminating the author's voice.
Passive voice has nothing to do with style, which is what author voice is.
DEFINING THE PASSIVE VOICE
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. Take a look at this passive rephrasing of a familiar joke:
Why was the road crossed by the chicken?
Who is doing the action in this sentence? The chicken, but the chicken is not in the spot where you would expect the grammatical subject to be. Instead, the road is the grammatical subject. The more familiar phrasing, why did the chicken cross the road? puts the actor (the chicken) in the subject position, the position of doing something—the chicken (the actor/doer) crosses the road (the object). We use active verbs (cross) to represent that “doing,” whether it be crossing roads, proposing ideas, making arguments, or invading houses (more on that shortly).
Once you know what to look for, passive constructions are easy to spot. Look for a form of “to be” (is, are, am , was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being) followed by a past participle. (The past participle is a form of the verb that typically, but not always, ends in “-ed.” Some exceptions to the “-ed” rule are words like “paid” (not “payed”) and “driven.” (not “drived”). Here’s a sure-fire formula for identifying the passive voice:
form of “to be” + past participle = passive voice
The metropolis has been scorched by the dragon’s fiery breath.
Active construction: The dragon scorched the metropolis with its fiery breath.
Not every sentence that contains a form of “have” or “be” is passive! Forms of the word “have” can do several different things in English. For example, in the sentence “John has to study all afternoon,” “has” is not part of a past-tense verb. It’s a modal verb, like “must,” “can,” or “may”—these verbs tell how necessary it is to do something (compare “I have to study” versus “I may study”). And forms of “be” are not always passive, either—”be” can be the main verb of a sentence that describes a state of being, rather than an action. For example, the sentence “John is a good student” is not passive; “is” is simply describing John’s state of being. The moral of the story: don’t assume that any time you see a form of “have” and a form of “to be” together, you are looking at a passive sentence.
Need more help deciding whether a sentence is passive? Ask yourself whether there is an action going on in the sentence. If so, what is at the front of the sentence? Is it the person or thing that does the action? Or is it the person or thing that has the action done to it? In a passive sentence, the object of the action will be in the subject position at the front of the sentence. As discussed above, the sentence will also contain a form of be and a past participle. If the subject appears at all, it will usually be at the end of the sentence, often in a phrase that starts with “by.” Take a look at this example:
The fish was caught by the seagull.
If we ask ourselves whether there’s an action, the answer is yes: a fish is being caught. If we ask what’s at the front of the sentence, the actor or the object of the action, it’s the object: the fish, unfortunately for it, got caught, and there it is at the front of the sentence. The thing that did the catching—the seagull—is at the end, after “by.” There’s a form of be (was) and a past participle (caught). This sentence is passive.
Let’s briefly look at how to change passive constructions into active ones. You can usually just switch the word order, making the actor and subject one by putting the actor up front:
The metropolis has been scorched by the dragon’s fiery breath.
The dragon scorched the metropolis with his fiery breath.
To repeat, the key to identifying the passive voice is to look for both a form of “to be” and a past participle, which usually, but not always, ends in “-ed.”
CLARITY AND MEANING
The primary reason why your instructors frown on the passive voice is that they often have to guess what you mean. Sometimes, the confusion is minor. Let’s look again at a sentence from a student’s paper on Homer’s The Odyssey:
When her house was invaded, Penelope had to think of ways to delay her remarriage.
Like many passive constructions, this sentence lacks explicit reference to the actor—it doesn’t tell the reader who or what invaded Penelope’s house. The active voice clarifies things:
After suitors invaded Penelope’s house, she had to think of ways to fend them off.
Here’s another example, from the same paper, that illustrates the lack of precision that can accompany the passive voice:
Gender training was conducted in six villages, thus affecting social relationships.
And a few pages later:
Plus, marketing links were being established.
The writer never specifies the actors for those two actions (Who did the gender training? Who established marketing links?). Thus, the reader has trouble appreciating the dynamics of these social interactions, which depend upon the actors conducting and establishing these things.
The following example, once again from that paper on The Odyssey, typifies another instance where an instructor might desire more precision and clarity:
Although Penelope shares heroic characteristics with her husband, Odysseus, she
is not considered a hero.
Who does not consider Penelope a hero? It’s difficult to tell, but the rest of that paragraph suggests that the student does not consider Penelope a hero (the topic of the paper). The reader might also conceivably think that the student is referring to critics, scholars, or modern readers of The Odyssey. One might argue that the meaning comes through here—the problem is merely stylistic. Yet style affects how your reader understands your argument and content. Awkward or unclear style prevents your reader from appreciating the ideas that are so clear to you when you write. Thus knowing how your reader might react enables you to make more effective choices when you revise. So, after you identify instances of the passive, you should consider whether your use of the passive inhibits clear understanding of what you mean.
DON’T BE A LAZY THINKER OR WRITER!
With the previous section in mind, you should also know that some instructors proclaim that the passive voice signals sloppy, lazy thinking. These instructors argue that writers who overuse the passive voice have not fully developed what they are discussing and that this makes for imprecise arguments. Consider these sentences from papers on American history:
The working class was marginalized.
African Americans were discriminated against.
Women were not treated as equals.
Such sentences lack the precision and connection to context and causes that mark rigorous thinking. The reader learns little about the systems, conditions, human decisions, and contradictions that produced these groups’ experiences of oppression. And so, the reader—the instructor—questions the writer’s understanding of these things.
“SWINDLES AND PERVERSIONS”
Before we discuss a few instances when the passive might be preferable, we should mention one of the more political uses of the passive: to hide blame or obscure responsibility. You wouldn’t do this, but you can learn how to become a critic of those who exhibit what George Orwell included among the “swindles and perversions” of writing. For example:
Mistakes were made.
The Exxon Company accepts that a few gallons might have been spilled.
By becoming critically aware of how others use language to shape clarity and meaning, you can learn how better to revise your own work. Keep Orwell’s swindles and perversions in mind as you read other writers. Because it’s easy to leave the actor out of passive sentences, some people use the passive voice to avoid mentioning who is responsible for certain actions.
SO WHEN IS IT OK TO USE THE PASSIVE?
Sometimes the passive voice is the best choice. Here are a few instances when the passive voice is quite useful:
1. To emphasize an object. Take a look at this example:
100 votes are required to pass the bill.
This passive sentence emphasizes the number of votes required. An active version of the sentence (“The bill requires
100 votes to pass”) would put the emphasis on the bill, which may be less dramatic.
2. To de-emphasize an unknown subject/actor. Consider this example:
Over 120 different contaminants have been dumped into the river.
If you don’t know who the actor is—in this case, if you don’t actually know who dumped all of those contaminants in the river—then you may need to write in the passive. But remember, if you do know the actor, and if the clarity and meaning of your writing would benefit from indicating him/her/it/them, then use an active construction. Yet consider the third case.
3. If your readers don’t need to know who’s responsible for the action.
Here’s where your choice can be difficult; some instances are less clear than others. Try to put yourself in your reader’s position to anticipate how he/she will react to the way you have phrased your thoughts. Here are two examples:
Baby Sophia was delivered at 3:30 a.m. yesterday. (passive)
Dr. Susan Jones delivered baby Sophia at 3:30 a.m. yesterday. (active)
The first sentence might be more appropriate in a birth announcement sent to family and friends—they are not likely to know Dr. Jones and are much more interested in the “object”(the baby) than in the actor (the doctor). A hospital report of yesterday’s events might be more likely to focus on Dr. Jones’ role.
SUMMARY OF STRATEGIES
Look for the passive voice: “to be” + a past participle (usually, but not always, ending in “-ed”)
If you don’t see both components, move on.
Does the sentence describe an action? If so, where is the actor? Is he/she/it in the grammatical subject position (at the front of the sentence) or in the object position (at the end of the sentence, or missing entirely)?
Does the sentence end with “by…”? Many passive sentences include the actor at the end of the sentence in a “by” phrase, like “The ball was hit by the player” or “The shoe was chewed up by the dog.” “By” by itself isn’t a conclusive sign of the passive voice, but it can prompt you to take a closer look.
Is the doer/actor indicated? Should you indicate him/her/it?
Does it really matter who’s responsible for the action?
Would your reader ask you to clarify a sentence because of an issue related to your use of the passive?
Do you use a passive construction in your thesis statement?
Do you use the passive as a crutch in summarizing a plot or history, or in describing something?
Do you want to emphasize the object?
If you decide that your sentence would be clearer in the active voice, switch the sentence around to make the subject and actor one. Put the actor (the one doing the action of the sentence) in front of the verb.
TOWARDS ACTIVE THINKING AND WRITING
Keep these tips in mind as you revise. While you may be able to employ this advice as you write your first draft, that’s not necessarily always possible. In writing, clarity often comes when you revise, not on your first try. Don’t worry about the passive if that stress inhibits you in getting your ideas down on paper. But do look for it on revision. Actively make choices about its proper place in your writing. There is nothing grammatically or otherwise “wrong” about using the passive voice. The key is to recognize when you should, when you shouldn’t.
The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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Writing it Sideways
Redundancy Is Repetitive
Redundant – characterized by verbosity or unnecessary repetition in expressing ideas.
I’ve witnessed a great deal of bad grammar throughout this writing journey of mine, and marvel when I hear the same errors in everyday speech. A particular pet peeve is the piling on of intensifiers that turn a simple word into a poorly thought out redundancy. Newscasters, celebrities, and politicians give questionable credence to them, without a thought as to the meanings of the words.
Over the last couple of months, I’ve jotted a number of them down as I’ve read or watched television. Most are redundancies, but some are outright laughable when you think about the meanings of the words.
Think/Thought to myself – who else would you think to?
Exact same/same identical – Per Writer’s Digest: If my pair of pants is exactly like your pair of pants, then—aside from us both having a keen sense of style—we’re wearing the same pants. If you’re comparing items that aren’t exact or the same, then they’re similar—so combining the words to form the phrase “exact same” adds no extra meaning.
On the day I wrote this column, I saw a tweet from a grown man, using exact same. When 140 characters are required, why waste five?
End result – by definition, the result is the end.
Unexpected surprise – surprises are always unexpected. Surprise suffices.
A.M. in the morning/P.M. at night/12 noon/12 midnight – GRR. A.M. is ante meridiem, from the Latin words meridies (midday), ante (before) and post (after), the term ante meridiem (a.m.) means before midday and post meridiem (p.m.) means after midday. Noon and midnight suffice. No need to say twelve for either one.
Armed gunman –if the guy is a gunman, he is armed.
Blend together – to blend is to mix together. You blend the ingredients, not blend them together.
Collaborate together – To collaborate is to work together. You collaborate, not collaborate together.
Added bonus – a bonus is something added.
Free gift/giveaway – LOL A gift or giveaway is always free. Free adds nothing. If free is the selling word, consider Free Book.
Advance notice/planning/reservations/warning: Notices, planning, reservations, and warnings all occur in advance of the event they announce or you prepare for. Advance is an unnecessary qualifier.
Close proximity – proximity, by definition, means closeness.
True fact – facts are truths, sometimes sticky ones.
False pretense – a pretense is a fabrication, false by definition. Perhaps false pretense is a truth. No, it’s bad grammar.
Final outcome – an outcome is final. The use of final here is redundant.
Invited guests – guests are those we invite, so no need to say invited. They wouldn’t be our guests without an invitation. They would be intruders.
Past history – history is always past. Past here is not only redundant, but silly.
Revert back – sillier. To revert is to go back.
Unintended mistake – Does anyone intend to make a mistake? Mistakes are by definition errors, therefore, unintended.
Usual custom – a custom is a habit, routine, tradition. Usual means traditional, customarily, habitual. Usual, in this application, is redundant.
Crystal clear – clear is clear. Adding crystal makes it no more or less clear.
Whole entire – as in, I ate the whole entire pie. Obviously, this is redundant. They mean the same thing.
Every single – every is the better choice.
Literally – you aren’t going to literally die if eat the whole entire pie.
Basically – This one is simply overused.
The Newbie Blues
As I enter my tenth year as a published author, I’ve thought a lot about the things I’ve learned and the growing pains of being a newbie. And yes, I was president of the club.
We all feed from the same trough in the beginning, until we learn to eat from the table of knowledge.
The first draft we think is epic is, six years in, trash. I shudder when I recently read back over those unpublished writings from the early days. I couldn’t write for beans, but I had ideas, stories, and the will to sit down and pound them out, no matter how many technical errors.
Prior to writing, I gorged on 1980s and ’90s romance novels. In attempting to emulate the craft of those authors, I greeted head hopping straight on. Yep, it used to be in style. How enlightening when I met an editor who showed me a better way.
Passive voice, filters, adverbs where there is no need, weak verbs, and the ever present quickly, suddenly, immediately, whiplashy wordy sentences, like this one. The “I started to run,” instead of “I ran,” the endless descriptions of dresses and rooms. Yes, all new writers make the same mistakes. It’s in the DNA of a writer.
Clunky dialogue with the characters names and ridiculous dialogue tags. “That’s right, Joseph. I am fine today, what about you?” Frank inquired. Rinse and repeat with boomed, whispered, demanded, ordered, etc.
Everyone had a POV, including the dog, though I’m pretty sure I never had a dog in any story. The maids, butler, and every town’s person, because we can’t tell a story in less than a dozen or more POVs–otherwise known as omniscient. I will say, I enjoy omniscient and I’m not in favor of changing the style of writing to accommodate some trend, but that ship sailed years ago, so we have to play along.
Part of the Newbie Blues is the idea that we have invented a new way of writing that is so unique, that if we can only get it out there, it will catch on and become a rage. A little research shows that isn’t so and that what might appear new and unique, is unrefined at best.
Now, bad writing has been around forever and proliferates our virtual shelves. If you have a DNF folder on your Kindle, you know what I’m talking about. Why use ten words to say the same thing fifty words can say? My bike was stolen by the neighbor’s son who hid it in his garage and painted it black because he was going through a Goth phase, or so said his mother when my mother confronted her about the stolen bike.
Or – The neighbor’s boy stole my bike.
Passive voice eats brains, of both the reader and the writer. It’s a proven, scientific fact.
The sin isn’t in committing the crimes against the English language. No, it is in doing it repeatedly without a thought to correcting what editor after editor tells us. Sometimes we hold on to our phrasing because we’ve fallen in love with our words. That is the worst thing an author can do.
And then, we have the dreaded edits. The reckoning, if the book accepted and gets as far as edits. This will happen if the pub sees something in the story.
There are stages of editing acceptance, as there is in the grieving process. Editing is a grieving process, if you're invested in every word or if you can’t accept criticism, a necessary evil if we want to become an author.
How many of these steps do you recognize?
I had this story in my head and only I know how to tell it.
They can edit all they want, but I’m going to reject all. No one is going to tell me how to write.
No way. They aren’t going to screw around with my baby.
The editor is trying to edit out my author voice and then the story will be hers.
I concede on commas. Accept all.
WHAT!!!!!?????? No exaggerated punctuation??? How in the world am I going to tell the reader that my hero is screaming!!!??? Or that the heroine is screaming and asking a question at the same time????!!!!
Why are there a hundred and fifty comment bubbles with passive voice written in them?
Dangling modifier. Wow. Dear editor, you must have written that, because I wouldn’t have. Here, let me look. Oh, wow. Forgive the ring. Well, okay, that's a valid point, but the other eight hundred, no way.
TAKE OUT A WHOLE SCENE????!!!!!! No way! I’ll never do it. That means I have to rearrange things and, wait, that scene is pivotal to the story. What do you mean it doesn’t relate to the story at all? Sure it does. Well maybe it isn’t important that he bought a new suit, but the reader should know that, because that makes the character more real. Doesn’t it?
What does the editor mean by episodic chapters? Are they all supposed to be about one story? But each character is so unique, never has anyone written more unique characters, and I need to tell all their stories. I don’t know how to weave their stories with the core story and this episode thing is easier.
Present tense, past tense. Tomato, tomatoe. I concede I might not be up on tenses. Accept all.
Eliminate a chapter? Why? No way. I refuse. It does relate to the story? I promise. You’ll see. What do you mean you read the whole book and you don’t see where a weekend at the beach had anything to do with the hero’s vision quest? I beg to differ. Really, I’m begging. Don’t make me take that out. That brings my word count down by twenty-five hundred words. That’s a whole day’s work.
Write this chapter from the other main character’s POV? Yeah, I guess that would work.
Now here’s something new. Filter words. You’re picking on me. Never heard of them. What do you mean I’ve heard of ALL of them? Look here. He felt his heart beat wildly. Isn’t that a nice sentence? Emotional. Heartfelt. Okay, bad joke. What do you mean, if he didn't feel it, who would? Okay, smarty pants, how else should I say it? His heart beat wildly? Well, yeah, that’s more concise. Yes, it does say what I intended.
Oh, damn, that reader hated that I didn’t change that scene, like the editor suggested. Oops. Maybe six POVs wasn’t such a unique idea. What does she mean I shouldn’t give this character a POV? She’s the maid. She has to see things the heroine or hero can’t, so she can bloviate about it to the rest of the staff, out of earshot of the main characters. That’ll take up at least two chapters all told. Yay. Up to 40k.
Oh, that reader liked how the editor had me change that scene. Cool.
This reviewer likes my author voice. Even after all the editor’s changes.
Okay, editor. You didn’t catch this misspelled word. Gotcha!!!!!
Don't be offended by history
My writing often requires I research the obscure as well as the blatant. I’m also an amateur genealogist of over twenty years, so I’ve dug into many a family history, including a thorough, if incomplete exploration of my own. You’re never done.
I’ve learned how people lived and died over many centuries, discovered things I’m thrilled about and things I’d rather weren’t in my genealogical record. But the cringe worthy episodes are precisely what make for interesting, sometimes uncomfortable reading, and shows how far we have come.
I write historical fiction because I love history and my hope is to convey that love to readers. As any author of historicals will tell you, research is key to gaining the authenticity in a piece. Note the word authenticity. While we create fiction, we place our characters in authentic settings, surrounded by the authentic circumstances of their times. This can be backdrop or in the forefront of the story.
Is history sometimes uncomfortable? Of course. But unchangeable. Yesterday is gone. The question is, should we as writers, portray history as it was, or should we participate in the growing movement to create a revisionist history?
Anyone who knows me knows I am firmly in the camp of authenticity. Why? Because we can’t pretend that women, for instance, were treated as they are today. Men ran the world and women had their place. These are facts.
A recent article exposed this, saying that we as writers shouldn’t portray women as the wives and mothers they were, but as kickass, feisty, independent, and able to function without men, because the writer of the article felt that to portray them different demeaned womanhood as a whole. I called nonsense and had I wanted to argue, I’d have left a comment stating the writer should read history before trying to change it.
Why would a woman today be offended by the roles women played in the past? Why judge women characters whose actions are in accordance with the period in which the story is set? Prepare here for a little harsh reality.
Women did not run countries (with the exception of a queen here and there,) or states or cities. They were, however, the backbone of the family. They ran households. They bore children, cleaned, cooked, did laundry, sewed clothes and sheets, and coats and hats. Knitted baby booties out of necessity, even spun the yarn. They taught their children their prayers and manners, ate less at meals so the children could have more, wore threadbare clothes so her children could have a new pair of shoes when the old ones pinched. She taught her brood to collect eggs, pump water while warning them not to lose the prime, feed the old wood stove, and peel potatoes and carrots with a knife, not a scraper. Mothers tumbled into bed long after everyone else had gone to sleep and rose before the others to provide a hot meal before starting her day all over again. Mother was the center of the small universe each child lived in.
Fathers worked hard, sometimes fourteen to sixteen hours a day to bring home a meager wage. He sacrificed too, for the sake of his wife and children. Some weren’t good men, much like in today’s world. Some drank and beat their wives. Worse, their children. No excuse for them. They likely learned all they knew about being men from their fathers. Life wasn’t easy and I don’t say that cavalierly. I lived in such a household.
The good men, though, are often maligned. The good men who worked hard, but had a traditional view of women – as the weaker sex, creatures (in a kind sense) he needed to take care of, protect, provide for. He took his responsibility seriously and did the best he could.
Were men disrespectful of their women because they didn’t include them in “important” discussions? A subjective question. Some women, I’m sure, considered such exclusion a blessing, my mother included. Poor thing. Her eyes glazed over when my father discussed anything headier than Red Sox scores. Her entire focus was on the running of the household, cooking and cleaning, and raising four children.
You see, women were taught to care for the home, while men were expected to work and support their families. Being a parent was treated as a job and housewives were respected for fulfilling that job. I have nothing against women who work, I’ve done it. I’m speaking here about history. My mother had worked before marriage and she often said she’d like to bring in some money, but her job was to raise her children, four in her case, and cater to my father. She understood this.
During periods in our past, women didn’t inherit from husbands or parents. This is illustrated in detail in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The father dies and the fates of his wife and daughters are left to Mrs. Bennett’s ability to marry off her daughters to wealthy husbands, as the estate was entailed to the nearest male cousin, William Collins. Unfair by today’s standards, but a way of life in times gone by. The simplistic reason behind the practice was that the daughters would be raised to attract a man able to provide for her, but the son had to do the providing. Archaic by today’s standards, but no less factual in the course of history.
When a woman of parental means married, her father conveyed a dowry upon the husband, to help the man take care of his new wife. A poor woman’s parents often put together a hope chest, filled with handcrafted blankets, clothes, pottery, cutlery, a Sunday hat, Grandma’s lace handkerchief, and other things needed to start a household.
Unmarried women were chaperoned until after marriage. A man was expected to sow his wild oats, but he married a chaste girl. A double standard, but the way life was.
When a woman broke the mold and eschewed marriage, her career options were limited. She’d most likely work as a schoolteacher, secretary, or maybe a store clerk. Growing up, I knew many “old maid” school teachers. If a teacher married, she retired from the profession and took her place as the center of her family’s universe. The belief, shared by men and women, was you couldn’t have both a profession and a successful family. Something would suffer and best it not be the family.
Married women often took in sewing or laundry to make ends meet. Husbands worked their farms or factory jobs. Women helped harvest crops, feed the animals, slaughter cows, and myriad other jobs on the farms in this country. My husband’s grandmother loved to talk about harvesting potatoes and how she had a baby in the potato patch, and went right back to collecting the harvest. I don’t know how true her story was, but knowing her, I imagine pretty damn accurate.
To view these peoples’ lives through the enlightenment of generations negates who they were. I’ve lived long enough to have known some of the women and men who had to work as described above. Long hours, no matter the weather, just to put food on the table. Did the women think their lot unfair? Hell no. No one they knew lived any differently.
Women weren’t oppressed by the standards of their day. Men weren’t oppressors. Each person had their job to do and they were well aware of their responsibilities.
Why did women stay in abusive marriages? Because you married for life in those days. Divorce was a shame on the family as it meant failure. The stigma affected not only the parents but the children. For the most part, and of course there are exceptions, women didn’t go home to their parents when things got rough. They stuck it out rather than place the financial and physical burden on them and to keep the family together. I am the product of parents who shouldn’t have stayed married, but they did, for fifty years. My mother carried that marker as a badge of honor. She’d weathered the bad times and thought the good more than enough to make up for it.
Critics of historical fiction lament the accurate portrayals, wishing apparently, a costume drama where the author dresses up the heroine in period clothes and has her act like a twenty-first century woman. Or they rail against the treatment of homosexual men and the laws that prohibited them from having a happy life. My favorite is the “too stupid to live” heroines people cynically malign in romance novels. I argue that they are oftentimes, the characters written most accurately. They adhere to the mores of their time. They don’t sleep with men before marriage, they listen to their fathers and mothers, and their husband. And they don’t leave when the going gets tough. Historically accurate, but somehow offensive to some readers.
We as historical authors are faced with a fine balancing act. If we truly wrote history as it was, we’d offend a great many people, because history is either misunderstood or poo-pooed as something before our time, out of step with modern thinking. If we dress it up and attempt to revise the truth, our stories are better received, but in doing so, we’ve done a disservice to history and our need to tell an accurate story.
As I get older, I care less about accommodation and more about truth. Times, throughout history were hard. Women, men, races and creeds were treated unfairly, by all standards. Little Suzy Q didn’t get a new dress every time she blinked, she actually had to learn to take care of a household. She and her brothers had to learn that money didn’t grow on trees and every time they experienced a shortfall, they couldn’t run to Daddy for relief. Sometimes life isn’t fair.
Don't Taint Your Author Brand
Authors, are your sales down? Have you taken to social media to weigh in on the political war that’s raging? There may be a connection.
As we’re all aware, a contentious political season is upon us. Facebook is full of prickly rhetoric, with posts aplenty to spark anything but civil discussion. And that brings me to the purpose of this month’s post.
As authors, we have two personas—one for real life (family, friends, co-workers,) and the one we present to our readers. Most authors I know keep their personal life as far away from their author life as possible, be it to protect their children, their job, or familial opinion. I have clearly delineated the two and I intentionally keep them that way, for the sake of protecting my author brand.
Before I say more, let me point out that I’m familiar with the First Amendment—freedom of speech among other invaluable inalienable rights. That said, because we have the right to say something doesn’t necessarily mean we should. Discretion is a valuable tool in any author’s bag of tricks.
What author hasn’t heard, “Don’t engage those who write bad reviews?” We cut our author teeth on those words, right? We could as easily say the same about politics. Respect and decorum makes political views and beliefs a slippery slope between authors and readers.
Each morning, as I scroll through Facebook, I stumble upon one political rant after another. Invariably, the words moron, idiot, and worse, are peppered in them, aimed at anyone who might disagree. Does this fend off the naysayers, or change minds, or is the outcome more insidious? Who truly cares what your opinion is? You might preach to the choir to some extent, but you also might turn people away. Garnering readers is a numbers game. Can we afford to alienate readers for the sake of “getting something off our chests?”
As authors, we should know the impact our words have. Those who don’t consider the impact, because on balance, their opinion and the necessity to express it trumps common sense, may find their royalty checks short as readers turn away.
For the most part, we don’t know who our readers might be or their beliefs. The arrangement we have with our readers is to pen a great story and hope they’ll take to it. Period. The foisting of our personal opinions on readers isn’t a part of the covenant. If those opinions include vitriol, name calling, or insults, that could shut down even the most ardent fan. Next author please. There is no lack.
We are our author brand. We’ve worked hard to get to our particular rung on the ladder to success. Why sabotage that success by blurring the line between personal life and author life?
I don’t want to blur the line between RLM (Real Life Me) and Brita (author brand,) because they are two separate and distinct entities. RLM educates herself on all things politics, while Brita is focused on writing the stories that inspire her. RLM votes, Brita doesn’t. RLM has definite opinions, Brita has none about anything but writing and the associated necessities. Why? Her job is to write. Period.
While no political post ever convinced the reader to change their own views, being called an idiot or moron (as generalities for anyone in disagreement,) will and has impacted many an author’s credibility with this reader.
I’m a huge fan of a particular author, one whose books held a prime place on my re-read list. Several years ago, I friended her on FB, where we interacted once in a while. Then she blurred the line with her political rants. I respect everyone’s views, and their right to express them, but I draw the line at blatant disregard for others. Mind you, I agreed with her view, but not her method of expression. I lost respect for her lack of insight into who might see those posts, and she lost a reader.
What did those posts and my reaction to them teach me? Yes, she had the right to express her view, but should she have restrained herself for the sake of her author brand? I’m in the yes camp and many others were as well.
Readers too have views, some strongly held, and to have someone they respect trash those views is often the ultimate disrespect.
I never have and never will express my personal or political views online. There is a place for them, but in a public forum, under my author name, with my hard-won author brand at stake, social media isn’t the place.
I appreciate zeal and dedication. But in a world where anything goes, we sometimes get caught up in our right to do something despite the harm done to our ultimate goal. We spend considerable time and money building our author brand. Don’t trash it. Sometimes, nothing said is enough. You offend no one with your silence.