Updated: Jan 16, 2019
My name is Meg Trast. I've been an editor since 2013, and my humble beginnings are in a small apartment. If you've read my "about me" on my website, though, you already know these things! I started this blog in response to overwhelming feedback on Twitter, when I asked who would be interested in a blog about editing. I continue to be surprised and humbled by the writing community, and so, without further ado, here it is: Meg's Editing Blog! (Yep, that's definitely a working title).
I'd like to start with a big, fat disclaimer here: the things that I say and write about are not law! I have several years of experience in this field, and I consider myself somewhat of an expert, but writing, like any other art, is totally subjective. I can only make suggestions to improve. The rest, my dear writer friends, is up to you.
That being said, there are guidelines and rules that you can generally follow to ensure the palatability of your work. Of course, no writer ever wants to hear that their work is "palatable," so I'm hoping that I can offer advice in this blog that helps you to create something that is beautiful and leaves your readers craving more.
At this juncture, at least 39 of you have promised to read my blog, so I suppose this is the moment of truth! Hah!
Throughout the course of my posts, I'll be creating examples to use for dos and don'ts. Any resemblance these examples have to any works I've edited, for any authors, are purely coincidental and are not intended to reflect the work of any specific writer. They are simply issues that are so common, I have been, thusly, compelled to address them, in blog format.
These examples and suggestions will be, primarily, for fiction writers. I frequently edit in the SciFi/Fantasy genre for Middle Grade, Young Adult, and New Adult, though these are by no means the entire scope of my work.
For this first blog, I've decided to tackle the issue of the past-participle narrative and passive voice.
Definition of past participle
: a participle that typically expresses completed action, that is traditionally one of the principal parts of the verb, and that is traditionally used in English in the formation of perfect tenses in the active voice and of all tenses in the passive voice. (source)
This is a common element that authors, especially new ones, often place into their storytelling.
Example: Jeanine had entered her apartment after scanning the parking lot and sat on the couch while she sipped on a glass of wine she had poured for herself in the kitchen.
My editor's eye immediately catches several problems within this simple sentence, but let's start with the topic at hand.
If you've used an editor or editing service, I'm sure you have suffered the frustration of your editor telling you to delete all instances of the word had. This is an annoying process, and it's bound to destroy your sentence structure, if it's put together like the example above. "How?" you may ask. "How do I get rid of had but still keep the actions there?"
Do you remember that advice that your creative writing professor gave you about using active voice? If you didn't attend college for this subject or ever take a creative writing class, then you have certainly, by this point, read somewhere that you should always use an active voice when telling a story. If you haven't, I'm telling you now: always use an active voice when telling a story. This is easier said than done.
The best way I have found to keep the voice active is to ensure that there is absolute clarity about the order of operations in your narrative, who is performing an action, and that your reader is following it from A to B without confusing detours.
In the example above, we get a series of actions. We know that Jeanine has entered her apartment, scanned the parking lot, sat on the couch, and poured herself a glass of wine in the kitchen. However, the order in which we receive this information is not the order in which these events occurred. We have gotten them nearly backward, which leads us to jumping from scene to scene trying to figure out where we should be picturing Jeanine.
Now, how do we fix this?
Let's assume that this is being written in 3rd-person past, close POV (point of view). We are seeing things from a 3rd-person perspective, but closely connected to Jeanine.
While you're learning how to avoid this issue, ask yourself: what did Jeanine do first? What did she do next? And so on. Let's place all of her tasks in order of how they actually happened, like so:
1. Scanned the parking lot
2. Entered her apartment
3. Poured herself a glass of wine in the kitchen
4. Sat on the couch
From here, we can construct a sentence, avoiding past-participle/passive voice, which directly ties each action to Jeanine actively performing it, thus carrying the reader from A to B without any hiccups or confusion.
Example 1: Jeanine scanned the parking lot, then entered her apartment. Once in the kitchen, she poured herself a glass of wine, then sat on the couch.
Of course, this is a very simplistic series of actions, and they leave the reader a little disconnected from Jeanine. We haven't assumed motive, thoughts, or emotions, so let's try that now:
Example 2: Slowly, Jeanine scanned the parking lot, searching for the obnoxious orange of her boyfriend's old car. Satisfied that he hadn't yet arrived, she unlocked her apartment door and stepped inside, closing the door softly behind her. She rummaged in the fridge and found her half-consumed bottle of Pink Moscato, poured herself a glass, and relaxed into the couch.
We have now learned a few things about Jeanine, from a series of simple-yet-impactful statements. She seems relaxed, so she enters her apartment, slowly, to pour herself a glass of wine and wait for the boyfriend we've just learned she has.
But, wait! There's more!
Let's change Jeanine's composure and motive.
Example 3: Jeanine eagerly scanned the parking lot, searching for the obnoxious orange or her ex-boyfriend's hideous, old car. With shaking hands, she jammed her key into the lock and slammed the door shut behind her, flipping the deadbolt into the locked position. She swiped the nearest bottle of red wine from the fridge and poured herself a full glass, then sat, stiffly, on the couch, nearly guzzling the wine as she stared out the window.
This is the exact same sequence of events, but now we have Jeanine rattled, anxious, and frustrated (I'll address "show, don't tell" in another blog shortly, don't worry!).
Now, let's say that you aren't looking to make much of an impact with this series of statements and simply wish to place Jeanine on the couch with wine! You could do so like this:
Example 4: Jeanine scanned the parking lot, entered her apartment, poured herself a glass of wine, and sat on the couch.
This is much less wordy than the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd example, and can be easily utilized to simply place your character quickly into position. You can also skip these steps and open the scene with Jeanine on the couch with her beverage, and that is a creative decision you will have to make on your own.
When writing fiction, you aren't simply recounting events; you're taking your reader on a journey through a story. If you jump ahead of them and force them to catch up with things that have happened outside of their view, you take them out of the narrative and make them an outside observer. Some authors are able to do this with finesse, but it is a difficult skill to master and must be done intentionally to have impact.
Your assignment this week, Authors, should you accept it, is to glance at your Work in Progress and see where you have used passive voice in the form of past participles. Before you send it in to your editor, see if you can rearrange those paragraphs to bring them to life! Your editor will thank you, your audience will thank you, and, hopefully, your future self will thank you.
Happy New Year! I hope to see you all around for the next blog.