Friday, November 11, 2005

The Five Ways You Mangle Your Writer’s Voice

A few years ago I was doing a lot of critiques. Most were for
beginning writers like myself at the time, and it didn’t take me long
to notice we all shared one thing in common—the rotten habit of
abusing the five P’s.

I’ll tell you what the five P’s are in a moment, but first I want to
expose the damage we do when we abuse them. Flat characters. Boring
descriptions. Wordiness. Tranquillized action scenes. Laborious
reading. Eye snags. Rejection letters.

Are you scared yet? I know I am. Almost as scared as the first time I
saw mentioned in a writing loop that I should eliminate as many he’s,
she’s, and they’s as possible from my wip. Huh? Excuse me, but that
sounds like work.

It is. But from the moment someone made me aware of those three
deadly little words I started to find my own voice. I still have to
ride myself about this constantly and don’t always succeed, yet I’ve
often wished someone would have warned me sooner, saving me years of
truly putrid wips.

Since then, those three deadly words have gathered a few nasty
friends and turned into what I call the Five P’s. So here they are in
the hope it clicks for someone else the way it did for me.

The Five P’s are: Pronouns, Possessives, Prepositional Phrases,
Paragraph Structure, and Passive Voice.

Let’s start with those deadly he’s, she’s, and they’s. Have you ever
read a published novel and noticed every sentence starts with he,
she, or they? Me neither. So why do we do it? Because they’re
pronouns, and they’re just begging for abuse. Other pronouns are it,
we, and for sanity’s sake I’m going to include an article, ‘the’.
Variety is the spice of sentence structure.

Of course you’ll have to start some sentences with a pronoun but keep
this P in mind.

You also might have heard the phrase ‘slutty pronouns’. Pronouns
are promiscuous little buggers. If you have two or more males in a
scene, make sure if you use a he, the reader can easily discern which
‘he’ you mean. I can almost guarantee you’ve witnessed this problem
in a published novel, but when an editor requests your ms, the
interest in ‘whodunit’ better not be caused by slutty pronouns.

Next come prepositional phrases. Examples? Into the x, off the x, in
the x, by the x, through the x, like x, to x, up the x, in your x…
Ok, let’s stop before that starts meaning something. These phrases
are great. They’re in our language because they’re necessary. But
they’re also the leading cause of wordiness. Pay attention to these
phrases because if you abuse them, you’ll be almost as wordy as I am.
And no one wants that. Trust me.

Then we have possessives. Her, his, our, their—if you’ve ever written
a love scene, you know what I’m talking about. He’s got his hands
there, she’s got her lips on his… neck. They’re everywhere. They’re
necessary but they’re also redundant and lifeless. Get creative to
eliminate as many as you can.

Ugh. Paragraph Structure. This is the biggest gripe I’ve got with my
mechanics these days. On a regular basis I edit paragraph by
paragraph to make sure of two things: the thoughts are organized in a
coherent pattern, and they don’t repeat what was said before, within,
or after them. Read your paragraphs. Read them again. Make sure they
say what you mean and then move on.

Another quirk I have is to end a paragraph with a sentence that
should be the leading sentence of the next. You’d think this would be
the most basic, fundamental, and therefore easiest mechanical element
to control but seeing is believing. I’m not alone in this abuse. Many
lead sentences go to bed at night, starving for their own paragraph
but they’re stuck where they don’t belong through no fault of their
own. For just 25 cents a month you can clothe, feed, and provide
health care for these under-privileged sentences. Send your donations
to the editor of your choice. Their swear jar’s almost empty.

Still more on paragraphs. Unlike certain elements in romance, bigger
isn’t better. Nothing more off-putting than a big block of text.
Sure, you poured your heart and soul into that paragraph but unless
it’s nookie we’ll skip it. Sorry.

And it’s come to this. You’ve all heard the phrase and cringed.
Passive Voice. In the most elemental sense, it means using wimpy
verbs. She quickly grabbed the tazer and used it on Shell. Blah. How
about: She snatched up the taser© and zapped Shell. Hmmm… that’s got
a nice ring to it, don’t you think? A red flag for wimpy verbs are
nearby words ending in –ly. They’re called adverbs. ADDverbs. Your
verb was wimpy so you had to ADD something. Again, not all adverbs
are evil but they must be sequestered lest they breed.

However, passive voice is more than verbs. Abuse of all the
aforementioned P’s makes your voice passive. Look at it this way:
Beefier verbs mean fewer pronouns and prepositional phrases. Varied
sentence structure is like tae bo for paragraphs. Except you can move
your arms afterwards and no one has to call 911 when you smash your
TV with a mule kick.

They all work hand in hand. Stop abusing one, you avoid abusing others.

Bottom line, once you’re aware of the problem, you catch yourself at
it and this can save hours of editing. Sound good? But wait. There’s
more. When you get creative to stop the abuse you leave yourself only
one option: writing in a voice that’s uniquely yours.

© 2001 Madalyn Reese


Blogger Liz said...

If I send you my story will you edit for me? I am a new aspiring author and need all the help I can get. Thank you.

4:12 PM  
Blogger Liz said...

I am an aspiring author and need all the help I can get. I was wondering if I could send you my story and if you would edit it or reccommend somone that would. Thank you.

4:15 PM  

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