Thursday, October 25, 2007

Public Enemy #1: "There Was"

Just a brief note tonight. I've had several breakthroughs in my plotting, and finally have the next five or so chapters planned out to my satisfaction, which is a major relief. I haven't done much actual writing, but I've been going back through my existing content and have been making minor tweaks. I should be back on track with the actual writing soon, which will be something of a relief.

One thing I've been thinking about recently, however, is passivity. It's something endemic to much of my speech, unfortunately, so it's been a struggle to weed it out of my writing. I'm getting much better at that, and my most recent work is almost all active, both in a grammatical sense and a thematic sense. But going through even my earlier drafts of ALDEN RIDGE, it amazes me how much grammatical passivity was there.

One of the biggest ways in which I enact grammatical passivity is the phrase "there was" (or "there were" for plural). There was nothing there. There were only two cows within sight. There was only the sound of the crows in the trees. Searching for these little red flags has been a big help in weeding out grammatical passivity (though certainly many other forms were present as well). Many of those sentences can just be replaced one-to-one with more active forms, but some of them are also just too passive thematically as well, and so require a larger revision of the paragraph(s) surrounding the sentence at fault.

At any rate, it very much looks like I'm not going to be hitting even my revised goal of 140 revised pages by the end of October. Right now I'm hovering around 114, and I doubt I'll be writing 26 pages in the next six days. Hopefully I'll be able to hit 16 or 20, though, and I'll be pretty pleased with that.


Stephen Parrish said...

I share the same problem (or maybe I should say, the same problem is shared by me). Passive sentences hide so well from me that I bought StyleWriter just to weed them out. It's one of the best purchases I ever made.

Christopher M. Park said...
You're referring to this program? I'd never heard of it before you mentioned it. At $150, it seems kind of expensive to me, but it's definitely cheaper than it would be to hire a human editor to find those stupid grammatical faux pas that are purely technical.

The grammar checker in Word is so worthless that I completely turned it off. How helpful/accurate has StyleWriter been for issues other than passivity? I might have to look into this more.

Rachel V. Olivier said...

You know, any of us who use our writing in the business/academic world as well as in the creative world probably have to deal with the switch over between passive and active voice. Business and academic writing almost demands passive voice. Switching over to a creative active voice is tough. I know I am constantly weeding my writing. I had never thought to look at "There was" as to me that seems more like "said" - punctuation. I am really bad at the past perfect/conditional "would have been" "was feeling" "could have been" etc.

Chandra Rooney said...

Great tip.

Are you going to do NaNoWriMo or just keep pushing ahead to meet your own goals?

Christopher M. Park said...


That's an excellent point. I think I've definitely picked up that habit by being democratic and nonthreatening with business writing. Often passive voice is received best in correspondence in my line of work, as it sounds like it is in the writing of yours.

I think that "there was" can definitely be used as "punctuation" (to use your vernacular) and those instances of "there was" and "there were" that remain after my revisions follow that pattern. I'd say I have about 1 of those every 10-15 pages or so.

The problem was that when I was using it in passive construction, "was" and "were" took the place of actual action verbs. So instead of describing things happening or acting, I was just describing the state of being of how something existed. At least, that's how I've been thinking about it after a friend pointed out a number of instances of grammatical passivity in my writing, and I noticed how many of them had that construction.

At any rate, it's very interesting that you do too much of the past perfect. I don't have too much trouble with that, except I perhaps have too much of a tendency to say "had" to denote perfect tense in fiction. I think that is a holdover from the strictures of my Latin studies, because you have to carefully identify each tense there (as with any language that conjugates verbs -- maybe you picked that up studying another Romantic language?).

Using English words that can be perfect or imperfect past tense still makes me a little uneasy, but I'm getting used to doing it. I think it is less wordy, and more expected by the readers. At least, since we're aware of these problems, we can do something about them!

Christopher M. Park said...


I'm not too much of one for the "forced marches" (haha) -- I can definitely see the value, and support other people doing it, but it just doesn't fit my writing style. I have a top speed cap that seemingly precludes my doing that sort of thing.

But best of luck with hitting your goal this November! I'm in awe of those of you who can do that sort of thing...

Stephen Parrish said...

Hi Chris. My comments about StyleWriter are too long, so I'll do a blog post on the subject (a software review).

Christopher M. Park said...

Sounds like a great topic! I'm looking forward to it.

Rachel V. Olivier said...

I had never (see, had) thought about how it might be a romantic language thing! Cool. Yes, it is this habitual combing through. I don't even try to control it on my first or second draft as it's so second nature. But in the third draft, definitely one of the goals is to get rid of the passive voice. Thanks for pointing out this other part of it.