1984, active voice, Alfred Wallace, Atonement, Bromine, Charles Dickens, Crick & Watson, curriculum, Daniel Defoe, first person, Gandhi, Great Gatsby, Harry Potter, Ian McEwan, isotopes, Jane Eyre, Lolita, Marie Curie, Mills and Boon, passive voice, Pierre Curie, POV, Pride and Prejudice, prolepsis, rhetorical tricks, second person, The Fault in our Stars, The Hunger Games, third person, training, Tristram Shandy
14-11: The countdown continues to the biggest blunders to help you avoid them.
I was once in a Science training session where the ‘facilitator’, an English Advisor, was endeavouring to encourage greater creative English writing into the secondary Science curriculum, by using… Mills and Boon as an exemplar−I absolutely kid you not! Mills and bloody Boon! –Charles Boon, the last survivor of the duo, managed to hang on until 1943, didn’t even have the manners to wait for the discovery of the structure of DNA in1953! Scientists tend to use passive voice to produce reports in an attempt to try and maintain a sense of subjectivity, whereas fiction writers tend to use the active voice. (Interestingly Crick & Watson’s original paper contained some active voice within−they were probably so cock-a-hoop at the breakthrough, and not wanting to end up like also-rans, like Alfred Wallace, they got it out quick smart.) What’s the difference between passive and active voice; well let’s have a wee look…
14 Active voice, not passive. That’s the general rule for the fiction writer, but what’s the difference?
‘Trisha loves Tarquin.’ = Active voice.
In active voice, Trisha (subject) loves (verb) Tarquin (object).
‘Tarquin is loved by Trisha.’ = Passive voice.
In the passive voice, the object is promoted to the subject of the sentence.
If you want to make your writing stimulating, engaging and lively, try and always write in active voice. Can passive voice ever be used, yes. When you don’t know who has taken the action, or for example in a detective novel when the narrator does not want the reader to know who has carried out the murder. A lot of technical, medical, crime and scientific reports are written in the passive. But I want to be a fiction writer, but you may want to prefabricate a scientific report, such as I did in The Space Between the Notes. This is another reason why traditionally educated scientists generally find writing fiction quite hard, but there is always an exception to the rule!
Like the obvious spelling and general grammar check in word, there are lots of advance settings, such as possessive apostrophes and active voice. You will find these under: Review, Language, Language preferences, Proofing, When correcting spelling and grammar in word, Settings. If you have not visited this magical kingdom before you are in for a treat, don’t switch them all on or your writing will light up like a Gay Pride flag!
13 Dialogue: he said she said. We have sort of alluded to this before, but last time I looked at the overuse of ‘ly’ adverbs (and adjectives) to describe direct speech. This is a very common mistake when people are starting off; they want to be certain the reader knows who is talking, even if there are only two people in the narrative at the time. You don’t need many; use them if there is genuine ambiguity. Flick through some novels and see how sparing authors are with this direction. The reader will be able to work it out, but you don’t want the reader to get to the end of your book and say, ‘Oh, I thought he died in chapter two!’
12 Point of view (POV) choice. This is actually quite a big decision and one that would be difficult to rectify if you get it wrong, well, it will take you a lot of re-writing and time that’s for certain. So in a way it should be at both ends of the top 50 mistakes, as you need to decide this as soon as you start-a-tapping at your computer keyboard. There are three points of view, the two that are nearly always used are first person, the narrative told through a single person POV (I, me), examples; Great Gatsby, Jane Eyre, Lolita, The Hunger Games, The Fault in our Stars) and third person (he, she, they, them, it), examples Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, 1984), the narrator can go anywhere they choose in time and space (the omniscient narrator). This is the one needed if the reader needs to ‘see’ into different minds, events, locations, etc. It allows more flexibility for the writer and is often less confusing for the reader. The hardest part of third person narration is how much to give away and what ‘voice’ to use, this is where measure and skill is important. I mentioned the omniscient narrator, but narration can be a little more complex than that depending on what you are trying to achieve, for example in the Harry Potter books the ‘third person narration is ‘limited’ to Harry’s time at Hogwarts and we pretty much see the ‘world’ though his experiences.
If you go with first person POV make sure your character is interesting, lovable, battling something momentous, flawed, on an incredible journey, can be emphasised with. If they are not it is likely to be a pretty dull novel, but not necessarily so, because you are inside their head with their thoughts and what we say, and what we think, can be two completely opposing things, which obviously works well in comic novels. If you do choose the first person, you are restricting yourself to one location and guessing the thoughts and actions of other characters through your single narrator. If you are writing your first novel, don’t make it too complicated, stick to a single narrative and not something even an experienced author would find demanding, like a duel (or more) first person POV.
There is as of course second person POV; this is used by the author to drag the reader into the book, often asking you, the reader to take the place of one of the characters or be with them, by asking questions, such as, ‘What would you have done?’ Tristram Shandy used this device all those years ago. Iain Banks favoured the second person in some of his books.
11 Giving the plot away too easily. I have mentioned this already in passing, when talking about measure and craft. You want the reader to want to carry on reading until the end, it does not have to be a page-turning thriller, but it has to have something to drive the reader forward, intrigue. There are formulaic things you could do, leave each chapter hanging for example, over littering of heart-clenching-moments−that happen so often they become cliché! The key is great characters and plot, if these are fully formed−so is your novel. This is where the extensive plotting of your characters is essential (Brief outline of the characters and then motivations, hindrances, etc will make all the difference. You can give the ending away before the end because it may be just as interesting to find out what happens after the main event, does she get her man? How does the world react after he comes back from Mars alone? What happens after the love of her/his life dies?
You could even go the whole hog and reveal what will unfold at the very beginning, then deconstruct it with a compelling ‘telling’ of the events up to this point in the story, this is called prolepsis, many authors do it. This is a rhetorical trick; the first time I came across this was not in a book, but in the eponymous film ‘Gandhi’; he shot at the very beginning of the movie, then the film rewinds, takes us through his adult life, until the inevitable. It is a great use of prolepsis, and worth checking out. (I visited Gandhi’s house in Mumbai when my children were young, bored, they started scuffling! –“Violence is a tool used by the weak, not the strong,” I informed them in mock parental horror, quite pleased with my apt use of the quote, in the even more apt location!) Prolepsis is not new, Dickens and Defoe both use premature giveaways. If you want something a bit more modern, Atonement by Ian McEwan is a good example. Whatever device you intend to use, plan it carefully before you start. I would avoid using a prologue, often frowned upon by the Literati, if you tell people what will happen in the end at the start, they are more likely to give up on your great labour, as they already know the outcome! We talked about something similar with chapter headings giving the book away as a ‘flash story’.
Extract from ‘Love between the Isotopes.’ Published by Pills and Loon.
The lab door swept open and her musky French fragrance clung to the dimly lit air even before he could turn. “Put your oversized ignition tube down, I need to say something to you Pierre, it cannot wait any longer.” Her bosom heaved heavily with emotion.
“I have a confession first Marie, I have seen your isotopes, while you were getting changed, I feel so fraudulent.” The eventual confession unfettered him.
She moved closer to him, her eyes sparkled like warmed diamonds in liquid oxygen, he considered her more than a Scientist now, below the lab coat was a woman, flesh, blood and tiny capillaries, trying to escape, to be freed. He wanted to brush the lab-top clean (of sterilised equipment) with gay abandon and roll breathlessly with her atop.
“There is something I need to say to you Marie, I feel if I don’t say it soon I may explode, or implode into myself, you have set off within a chain reaction of such unbridled ferocity, I cannot quell it, however hard I endeavour to do so. However much Bromine vapours I inhale.”
“Oh Pierre, you are so good with words and elements. Let’s throw caution to the wind, and… and−”
“I think I know what you wish to utter my love, but before those sweet words pass your glowing cherry-red lips. I must get you some sweet smelling roses from the florists across the road.”
“Make haste Pierre, the assistants have all gone home early. I’m counting the seconds with my atomic clock, be careful, those carriage drivers are so, so, reckless and the rain is so heavy today.”
Stay active… you know what I mean, you lascivious imps. Too much Mills and Boon, Science and second person, that’s your problem!
Ian M Pindar’s latest books, under his real name are: ‘Hoofing It’ and ‘Hoofed,’ the first and second novels in The Robert Knight Series and are on special offer http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Ian+M+Pindar He has another three novels out this year.