I recently got an audio book version of one of my favorite books (I won’t say which, because I’m about to shit on it a bit. Figuratively, of course. Lol.) I put it on my phone, and have been listening to it while at work, and….it’s just stunning. It really is a perfect story, even if the writing could stand a few improvements, at least in the beginning of the book.
It has aliens and futuristic technology, primitive survival and humans on the brink of extinction, other worlds and a new vision of our world, drama and tension. Multiple romances, even a love triangle, though in this case it’s more like a square with one side collapsed so that two corners collide.
In short, the story has nearly everything that I like to read.
But hearing it spoken aloud brings writing flaws to attention. There’s a reason that one very common tip mentioned in writing groups is to read your work aloud.
Which brings me to the topic of discussion today: passive voice and copula spiders.
Basically, they’ll fuck your shit up.
Too many make your story drag on, racking up the word count without adding to the plot, or moving it forward, at all. I know how comforting a higher word count can be, believe me, but if it’s all going to be cut out in editing, it doesn’t help in the end.
Passive voice example:
The apple was eaten by Tom. (passive as hell)
Tom ate the apple. (much better)
The second sentence actually shows someone doing something. It’s active. It’s more interesting, and doesn’t pack your story with useless words. (A tip I saw in a meme recently said that if you can insert “by zombies” after your verb, you’re using passive voice. The apple was eaten…by zombies.)
Now, for copula spiders. Basically, if you search for the word “is,” or some other conjugation of the word “be,” in your manuscript, and can find more than 8 on a page, that’s a copula spider. If it’s printed, circle one, and then circle the others, connecting them all to one in the center. It’ll kinda look like a spider.
Is, am, were, was, be, been.
Look into it. They’re vicious soul suckers, and slow the story down. Don’t believe me? Here you go:
The apple is red. It is shining. The sunlight is bouncing off it.
The red apple shines brilliantly in the sunlight.
Which would you rather read?
Hell, I was able to add another word (“brilliantly”) for impact, and the second version was still shorter. Concise writing vastly improves story quality.
Let’s combine the two flaws, because they tend to go hand in hand. How about we raise the stakes while we’re at it, really drive the point home?
The gun is loaded. It is pointed at me by Tom.
Tom points the loaded gun at me.
Sweet (in theory, not in the practice of pointing guns at people), simple, and to the point (pun intended).
It just flows, so much better.
Don’t get me wrong, there are times where this can be used for emphasis. Perhaps, Tom wants to assure us that the gun is loaded. Perhaps, someone is colorblind, and has confused a fuji apple for a granny smith. They need corrected, lest they put the wrong type of apple in their pie, and someone says, “It is red.”
Similarly, passive voice can be used to emphasize parts of the sentence, and, let’s face it, people love to really drive their points home, any way they can. So, dialogue becomes a free-for-all, to a degree.
In a similar vein, first person-present tense can use these things quite effectively, if the story is written as if it were the character’s thoughts. Even then, it has to be done well.
Not to mention the potential for a troublesome character who tends to over-explain, thus limiting any possibility for concise language.
So, every rule has its exceptions.
But, for the most part, passive voice and copula spiders hinder storytelling. Burdensome and ineffectual, they slow the reader, transforming a potentially page-turning novel into a sluggish read.
That’s not exactly something most writers want.
Some stories are strong enough to pull their weight, regardless of a few extra words. The one I’ve been listening to, for example.
But not every story can bear that kind of burden.
Do yourself, your editor (and thus your wallet), and your readers a favor. Be wary of these things. When you employ them in your story, do them with great purpose, and make sure it’s obvious that you meant to do it.
We can tell when it’s an accident.
*steps down from the soap box*
*prepares to use the hell out of copulas, because at this point, I’m just talking*
On a more personal note, I want to say that rewrites are exhausting. Lol. I worked through about seven chapters of Salt and Silver, and was frustrated the whole time. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. I just knew that it wasn’t working.
Then, I realized I was holding on too tightly. To sentences. To phrases. To chapters.
To a character.
So much stuff must be cut to make room for the things I have to work in. I was trying too hard to adjust things, rather than eliminating them. But if a character’s role in the story changes…naturally the amount of time they’re given in the limelight should change, as well.
So, I head into this week’s revisions with a clearer idea of what I must do.
Wish me luck. Lol.
For now, though…
Keep reading. Keep writing.