Sunday, March 31, 2013

Happy Easter!!!!!!!!!!!

Happy Easter!

Easter and Christmas are the only two big holidays of the Christian religion, but I would argue that Easter is the more important. Yes without Christmas, Easter isn't possible, but it's not enough that Jesus was born. He had to die and be resurrected to. And without the resurrection, well, Paul says it better than I do in Corinthians:

"And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise...if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins." 
~ 1 Cor. 15: 14-15, 17

So praise God for the resurrection, which gives us hope, new life, and salvation. 

He is Risen!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Passive Voice: Is It Ever Okay to Use in Novel Writing?

(I know this is my third post on passive voice, and I promise it's my last one. It's just that the passive/active argument is one of my pet peeves.)

From a very early point in our writing journey, writers are told that under no circumstances are they to use the passive voice. It's one of the writing "rules" to which we find ourselves bound.

As a writer continues on their path, they discover that many writing rules are made to be broken, especially if they can be broken well. But for some reason, this one, this passive voice rule, is one that writers cling to, even when it doesn't make sense.

Let's be clear about something. Passive voice serves a purpose. Yes, passive voice can distance the reader from the text, but sometimes that's what you want. Passive voice can also serve another purpose: it can put the focus on the object instead of the subject.

What do I mean by that? Well, let's look at something I've written, something that in my opinion is a completely valid use of passive voice: the first line of my query:

"Chris is doomed to life as a Norm."

That my friends is most definitely passive voice. I mean just do the "by zombies test."

Chris is doomed by zombies.  

Yep. Passive. 

Now if Chris is actually doomed by zombies, I would agree that the sentence should totally be revamped to  "Zombies doomed Chris." But the thing is, zombies didn't doom Chris. 

What doomed him? Genetics, Fate, God, chance, destiny, or maybe the universe. (Ok, ultimately it was me. Since I created him, but you definitely can't put that in a query.) Chris doesn't particularly believe in God or fate so it wouldn't make sense to say "God doomed Chris" or "Fate doomed Chris." And who wants to start their query "Genetics doomed Chris to a life as a Norm." 

The crux of the matter here is that a kid name Chris feels like he's doomed. It doesn't matter what doomed him, because what is important here is Chris. He's the object and he is the most important part of that sentence. Who cares what did the dooming?

Chris is doomed. 


Think about that. "Doomed" is a really strong word. In that one word I completely summarize everything Chris feels about his Norm status. And yes it's passive, but you know what? That's ok. 

Because nothing Chris did made him a Norm. He was born a Norm. He didn't ask for it. He didn't want it. He just is. He didn't doom himself. Nothing doomed him other than genetics. He just is doomed. 

Chris is doomed.

I think that's a strong statement, even if it is passive. 

So yes, in general you should avoid using the passive voice, but like any good writing rule, there are definitely times when it can be and should be broken.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Passive Voice and Zombies

A lot of writers have a very well tuned passive voice radar--since passive voice is one of the big "no-no's" of writing novels. But sometimes when I'm on critique blogs, I see that some writers seem to find passive voice a little confusing. As in, they're not sure the difference between what's passive and what's merely using a state of being verb. 

If you're one of the people who is confused over whether or not the sentence "Mandy is happy" is passive or not, never fear! I've got a quick and simple test for you.

If you add "by zombies" in the sentence, does it make sense? If the answer is "yes", then you most likely have a case of passive voice. If the answer is "no", then you have some other construction that requires a state of being verb. (And to refresh your memory, state of being verbs are verbs like "is", "was", "are", basically all the conjugations of "to be".)

So is "Mandy is happy" passive?

Let's check.

Mandy is happy by zombies.

Well that makes absolutely no sense. Zombies make me happy, that is true. But happy by zombies? I don't even know what that means. This is just a case of using a state of being verb. I'm saying someone (in this case me) is happy. Mandy = happy. That's not passive. Not particularly a strong statement writing wise, but not passive.

How about this one:

The dog is walked.

The dog is walked by zombies.

Bingo! Makes perfect sense. Can't you just see a group of zombies, shambling down the road with a leash in hand walking a dog. What? You can't? Well, regardless of your abilities to imagine it, it makes perfect grammatical sense.

Like most grammar rules in the English language, there is a caveat to this, and this is the sort of construction most people find confusing in the question "is it passive voice".  What construction?

Suzie is running.

Suzie is running by zombies.

That...makes sense. While not particularly healthy, it makes grammatical sense to run by a group of zombies. But this is not passive voice. Do you see why? 

No? Well, it's because the "by" in this case really means "past". As in Suzie ran past a group of zombies. Suzie was running and a group of zombies were standing nearby. This is not passive voice. In passive voice zombies are actually doing the action. The zombies walk the dog. The dog is the object. In this case, Suzie is still the subject. Suzie is the one doing the running. The zombies just happen to be there when she's doing her running.

The "is running", "was talking", "kept laughing" construction is not passive. It's a construction that says something is on going. Like "I walked into the room and my boss was talking." This gives a different meaning then "I walked into the room and my boss talked." In the second case, it could be I walked in and THEN my boss talked, while in the first case I walked in at THE SAME TIME as my boss talking. Get it? That's not passive. But I feel this is the case that is most often mistaken for passive and writers slap other writers wrists for using it.

Granted adding a state of being verb can weaken your writing, so you don't want to use this construction as much as possible. You don't want to use state of being verbs as much as possible, but there are still cases where something like this might be necessary. 

However, there are also cases when the passive voice can be permissible (gasp! I know that's writing heresy), but more on that on Friday.  

Monday, March 18, 2013

Pitch Madness!!

Dear readers, sorry about being so sporadic with posts over the past two weeks. I had to travel for work and then last week I had to work night shift for a satellite test campaign. Basically, things have been crazy!!

But I plan to get things back to normal here, so expect a post on Wednesday and Friday as normal!!

In other news, I made it to Round 2 of Pitch Madness!! Granted, there is still another round of cuts before things go live on March 26 and I may not make it through, but it's just good to know I made it through at least the initial gateway.

So for Pitch Madness we had to write a 35 word logline and send that with our first 250. Loglines are something I really suck at, but with the help of my awesome CP's (i.e. Critique Partners) I was able to make one.

So my pitch, just so you guys have it all in one place is:

Genre: YA Contemporary Fantasy*
Word Count: 87,000 words

Pitch: Seventeen-year-old Chris is the only Norm in his wizard family, until an amulet grants him magic. When confronted about his unnatural powers, he must choose between betraying friends for power or losing power for friends.

Excerpt: My shoulders hunch under the weight of my backpack as I near the front door, and I tighten my grip on my trumpet case. I shouldn’t stress. Odds are no one will notice me slipping into the house. Dad’s probably in the basement. Mom’s car isn’t even here so she must be at work. And the twins know better than to get me in trouble—especially about this.

And yet my heart beats unevenly. At this moment, I would sell my soul for the ability to know if anyone stood on the other side of the door.

I reach for the knob, but the door opens before I touch it. I stumble back. My father stares down at me with his magical, silver eyes, catching my gaze before I can look away.

At first my dad’s expression is worried, but then a scowl replaces fatherly concern. His hand shoots out, pulling me inside before I can think to protest.

“Chris! Why aren’t you wearing your contacts?” he demands, the door slamming shut magically behind me. I imagine a normal father would show concern about my bloodshot eyes, questioning whether I’m getting enough sleep, if something is stressing me, or if I’m on drugs. Not my father. His only concern is that people might have seen my normal, gray eyes. That someone might know the truth he’s so carefully hidden for over a year now.

I am not a wizard.

*So I decided to call it "contemporary fantasy" at least for the sake of this competition. There are a lot of reasons for that. I feel like "paranormal" gives off too much of a ghosts/vampires/werewolves vibe, and since my story doesn't really have any of those things, it's not appropriate. I also didn't like "urban fantasy" since though my story does take place mostly in the city of Atlanta, it mostly just takes place in people's houses or at school. So it seemed inappropriate. But since it's contemporary and fantasy, I decided contemporary fantasy works. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Why Tech Writing and Novel Writing Aren't the Same

The problem with taking an English class at Georgia Tech is that it exists to check a box. Therefore, the English professors can do whatever the heck they want. And the poor unsuspecting freshman have no warning. All English classes look the same on paper. But Prof A always teaches Shakespeare, Prof B always watches movies and is a complete joke, Prof C does a study on SF, and then Prof D, my prof, turns it into a philosophy class. We studied phenomenology. We read Heidegger. It was terrible.

As if that wasn't bad enough, my senior year I was required to take a "technical communications" class. One would think that this class would be about engineers and scientists learning to communicate technical ideas. But now you're forgetting that English profs at Tech do whatever the heck they want. Even when they have absolutely no understanding of the subject matter.

And this is how I got a 'C' on a paper for using passive voice in a technical paper.

Let's be clear about something, dear readers, the rules for writing a technical paper are not the same as the rules for writing a novel.

For example, let's say you're writing up a lab report on a rat experiment with cheese. Which of these is right to say:

A) I placed the cheese in front of the rat.
B) The cheese was placed in front of the rat.

The correct answer is of course B. You see the point of technical writing is to almost make it like the scientist disappears. No one cares about the person placing the cheese. That person is not part of the experiment. What we care about is the rat and the cheese.

The reason why it's not ok to do this in novel writing is that it displaces the reader...which is exactly what it's supposed to do in a technical paper. Let me give you an example.

Technical Writing Scenario:

The rat was not fed after 9 PM. Compound 1 was injected into a piece of cheese that was then placed in the rat's cage at 10:15 AM. The rat consumed it without any indication that it tasted Compound 1. Afterwards, the rat behaved as normal until approximately 10:45 AM, when it began to display shortness of breath. This was followed by disorientation and lethargy. At 11:30 AM, the rat was dead.

Ok, now let's do the same scenario like a novel writer.

I didn't feed the rat the night before in order to ensure he would be hungry the next morning. When I got into the lab the next morning, I injected Compound 1 into a piece of cheese and put it in the rat cage. The rat devoured it without hesitation. I watched the rat, and he appeared to behave normally. Then around 10:45 am, he began to have shortness of breath. I watched, not allowed to help him, as he became disoriented and lethargic. Then finally at 11:30 AM, the rat died. I removed his body from the cage and put him in the incinerator. 

Neither of those are perfect examples, but you get the point. In one scenario, it's almost like this unfortunate experiment just happened to befall this rat. In the other scenario, the scientists is purposefully inflicting it on the rat. In one scenario a rat died. In another scenario, the rat was killed.

Do you see the difference?

In a novel you want the reader to be write in the moment. You want them to feel what the character is feeling. In a technical paper, there are no feelings. There is only observation. 

So basically novels are Star Wars and technical papers are Star Trek. 

And I don't mean that in a sense of one franchise is dryer than the other. I mean it in the way the worlds are expressed. Star Wars is all about high emotion. Darkness, rage, doing the right thing, glory, honor, etc etc. Whereas the Federation is supposed to be a bunch of neutral observers. 

They're different things. They serve different purposes. And right now I'm really trying not to turn this into a J.J. Abrams new Star Trek rant. (That's a post for another day).

Technical writing has to be dispassionate. And part of how you do that is passive voice. 

Does it make it hard to read? Yes. But does it make the experiment or whatever more clear? I think yes. 

So there you have it. A small taste on why technical papers are not written like novels.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Chapter 2 Wall

Thinking of shiny new ideas has never been one of my problems. Whenever a new shiny idea pops into my head I immediately write a really rough query for it and then one or two other paragraphs to capture details that aren't captured in the query. Then I write a first chapter and usually it's a really good first chapter (you know, for a first draft). 

I have this folder full of word documents on Dropbox that are all just queries and first chapters. 

But getting from that first chapter to the second chapter? Egad. It's not an easy task. 

And that's where I'm stuck right now. 

THE DESCENT OF CHRIS CHAPPELL has been set aside as I wait for feedback from my critique partners. In the meantime I should be in full first draft mode on one of my numerous shiny ideas. 

And yet, no matter how hard I try I can't make it past the second chapter. 

I keep bouncing back and forth between two ideas: XANDRA and LEX. Both are nicknamed after their MC's nicknames right now. LEX is a cool SF that takes place in the distant future on a colony world. It's a fairly new idea in my arsenal, one that's only had a word document to its name for about a year now. The idea for XANDRA on the other hand came to me back when I was in undergrad and has languished in my ideas folder ever since. It's a contemporary SF that I'm really excited about. I love the idea and the characters. 

Heck, I love the ideas and characters for both stories, and yet for some reason I can't make it past the second chapter on either. 

I wrote a second chapter for XANDRA and it's just terrible. I know when it comes to first drafts, nothing needs to be perfect, but this is soooooo terrible. It makes it hard to go on, because I feel like I'm derailing my set up somehow. Or like I'm completely missing the truth of one of my characters or something. 

With LEX, it wasn't the second chapter was terrible. It was just at the end of it I realized I was trying to right a dual POV story and it really needed to be one POV. So now I need to re-write the second chapter from Lex's POV. Which isn't a terrible task, I just find I have absolutely no motivation to do it.

So I have two shiny ideas, and I'm excited about the ideas, but every time I open either word document I just find there is this huge wall between me and the completion of the second chapter.

Surely I'm not the only writer who experiences this, so how about you guys? Do you ever experience a second chapter wall? How do you power through it? How do you keep going?