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As you know, I was bitterly disappointed when Satalyte shut up shop as it might have meant the end of my admittedly short career as a publi...

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I am a writer, editor, reviewer and dance teacher based in Perth, Western Australia.

My books

The first two novels of my trilogy, The Talismans, are not available as e-books at present, but I expect to get them back online shortly. However, I do have paperbacks of The Dagger of Dresnia at the low price of $25 including postage within Australia. I also have a short story, 'La Belle Dame', in print - see Mythic Resonance below. The best way to contact me is via Facebook!

Buy The Talismans

The first two books of The Talismans trilogy were published by Satalyte Publications, which, sadly, has gone out of business. I hope to see my books back on Amazon under a new publisher in the near future.

The Dagger of Dresnia

The Dagger of Dresnia
Want a copy? Contact me at satimafn(at)gmail.com

The Cloak of Challiver

The Cloak of Challiver
Available again as an ebook soon!

Mythic Resonance

Buy Mythic Resonance

Mythic Resonance is an excellent anthology that includes my short story 'La Belle Dame', together with great stories from Alan Baxter, Donna Maree Hanson, Sue Burstynski, Nike Sulway and nine more fantastic authors! Just $US3.99 from Amazon. Got a Kindle? Check out Mythic Resonance.

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Places I've lived: Manchester, UK

Places I've lived: Manchester, UK

Places I've lived: Gippsland, Australia

Places I've lived: Gippsland, Australia

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Places I've lived: Geelong,  Australia

Places I've lived: Tamworth, NSW

Places I've lived: Tamworth, NSW

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Places I've Lived - Sydney
Sydney Conservatorium - my old school

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Places I've lived: Auckland, NZ

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Places I've Lived: Mount Gambier
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Places I've lived: Adelaide, SA

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Places I've Lived: Perth by Day
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Places I've lived: High View, WV

Places I've lived: Lynton, Devon, UK

Places I've lived: Lynton, Devon, UK

Places I've lived: Braemar, Scotland

Places I've lived: Braemar, Scotland

Places I've lived: Barre, MA, USA

Places I've lived: Barre, MA, USA

Places I've Lived: Perth by Night

Places I've Lived: Perth by Night
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Sunday, 25 July 2010

Authorial voice, passive writing and the passive voice

How do you like my new-look blog? Kudos to my clever son Scott over at ManeyActs.

I've decided to import some old posts from the WordPress blog that I no longer use, and as Blogger won't let me import the lot in date order, I shall copy and paste them one by one. Here's one I posted in March of this year:

On sites that offer writing advice one sometimes reads instruction that confuses “passive writing” with “passive voice”. We see this among critiquers in writing groups as well, and it’s a source not just of confusion but also of misinformation.

I think there are two sources for this confusion. We often read that a writer needs to develop his or her own “Voice”. (I’ll capitalise this hereafter, to distinguish it from the other meaning of the word, which I’ll deal with farther down.)

“Voice” in this context really refers to those distinctive elements of a writer’s style that remind us of who is writing. If we look at authors of bygone days, Voice is not hard to see. Charles Dickens, for instance, had a distinctive Voice. So did Rudyard Kipling and DH Lawrence. In fact, pick up a work by any well-known author active before about 1980 and if you’ve read a few of that author’s books you will probably recognise the Voice straight away, because it did not vary much from book to book within that author’s oeuvre.

Few authors today have that kind of truly distinctive Voice. This is, I think, because of the popularity of the so-called “deep third” (AKA tight third or close third) Point-of-View (POV). It is currently fashionable for authors to hide behind their characters, giving the reader a seamless experience in which the author almost “channels” the POV character. In speculative fiction, two authors who demonstrate remarkable mastery of the deep third are Joe Abercrombie and Margo Lanagan. It is easy to lose oneself in their characters; to feel the character’s sensations and emotions and even to feel as if one is thinking that character’s thoughts. The author’s Voice and the voice of the POV character become one.

Some other authors use the close third only for moments of high tension and drama, retaining their own voice for narrative passages. Guy Gavriel Kay’s work is largely written in this style.

That more obvious, capital-V voice found in authors of past decades is easily confused with another sense of voice – passive writing. If a writer employs a lot of unnecessary auxiliary verbs (forms of “to be” and “to have” as part of an action, such as “He was running”) and constantly uses weak verbs such as walk and go (or went) people say the writing is passive. It’s only a short step from here to thinking that the writer has a “passive” Voice, and here’s where the trouble really starts, because the expression “passive voice” has a clearly defined grammatical meaning.

The “passive voice” as opposed to the “active voice” means using a verb without close reference to the doer of the action, as in, for example, “The ball was thrown by John” instead of “John threw the ball”. The giveaway is that little word “by”. A verb in the passive voice is followed by a preposition, most commonly “by” or “to” (as in “The award was given to Jenny”).

Let's look at examples of the three matters under discussion here – authorial voice, passive writing and the passive voice:

1. An author’s voice (I'll stop capitalising it now you 've got the picture!)
Here is Dickens’s famous opening of A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

The opening gives us an excellent feel for Dickens’s very distinctive (authorial) voice.

2. Passive writing
Here’s a passage I’ve just made up:

I was walking along the road, having just been to the dentist, when I was hit from behind by a cricket ball that had been thrown by a schoolboy. I had been intending to go to visit my mother, but the blow to my head gave me such a migraine that I found myself thinking that perhaps I should be going straight home to lie down.

That is passive writing. We don’t get any feel for the action or for the character’s feelings and sensations because we are separated from them by wases and –ing words – and one example of the passive voice! Can you see where it is?

3. The passive voice
Yup, that’s right: “I was hit from behind by a cricket ball” is in the passive voice, grammatically speaking. The passive voice is best avoided in fiction writing because it is frequently found as an element of passive writing.

But don’t get the terms mixed up. Passive writing is not always in the passive voice. Passive writing, as I’ve said above, is characterised by too many auxiliary verbs, weak verbs and probably weak nouns as well. It may or may not include use of the passive voice.

And not all writing that uses auxiliary verbs is passive, either. For instance “The pretty girl was dancing when I first saw her” uses the auxiliary “was” to indicate the past continuous tense. Some critiquers might try to persuade you to replace it with the simple past – “The pretty girl danced when I first saw her”. They would be wrong, because the simple past tense in that case would be incorrect and somewhat ambiguous. It might suggest, for example, that the pretty girl started to dance because I saw her!

What I’m trying to get across here is don't confuse authorial voice with the passive voice and especially don't confuse passive writing with the passive voice. “The pretty girl was dancing when I first saw her”, and, for instance, “The pretty girl will be dancing next time I see her” are certainly not in the passive voice, and, used correctly, are not necessarily examples of passive writing, either. They are perfectly legitimate uses of continuous forms of the verb “to dance”.

We are fortunate in having so many ways to express things in English, and the continuous tenses have their place. The skill lies in knowing when you can get away without using them, rather than making blanket statements about "passive writing" or worse, confusing them with the passive voice.

2 comments:

Jo said...

Nice site Satima, not being a writer, I didn't read the whole post, but I do like the look of it all.

Satima Flavell said...

Thanks, Jo, I'm glad you like it!

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