Author A. LaFaye is known for wandering -- both physically by traveling here and there and back again to visit schools, speak at conferences, and visit a zoo or two along the way AND mentally when she goes off topic on a wordy little tangent about who knows what. Read and find out.
Writing in active voice. We remember the lessons in
elementary school about John.
The tree was cut down by John—Passive Voice
John cut the tree down—Active Voice
Did anyone just have a flashback involving red ink?
Seriously though, let’s talk about “active voice” beyond the
confines of grammar.Bring it into the
realm of writing—fiction, poetry, picture books, a note to your kids.Whatever you’re writing, active voice can
bring your writing alive for your readers.
Like all aspects of writing, active voice doesn’t travel
alone, so we’ll also talk about a few of the traveling companions of active
voice as we go through some brief advice about this stylistic element of writing.
A Verb a Day Keeps ….
Passive voice away. Not really, but it is true that learning
and wielding new verbs is a great way to hone your active voice as well as
improve you Words with Friends scores.
Can you use these verbs in a sentence?
Sluice, gambol, cajole, decant
Notice that they’re not only active verbs, but their
precise, and they’re lyrical with strong emotional and rhythmic qualities.
Knowing your verbs gives you more flexibility, precision,
and prosody in your writing.
If you said, “the rain cleaned the gutter,” you’d be well
and good,but if “the rain sluiced the gutter,” you'd have more sound, imagery,
and motion just by using a slightly more specific word. But whatevery you do, don’t
let the “gutter be sluiced by the rain”—the rhym is thrown all off and your
writing will be more passive than active.
Literary Waistline (Or Waste in a Line)
Another important part of using active voice is making
sure you don’t waste any words in a given line of writing.For me, the most valuable tool in trimming
your writing is using a “poetic weed.” The idea there is to weed every line of
writing as if it is a line of poetry
sure every verb is active and specific
any unnecessary words –articles, conjunctions, and prepositional phrases
every image—is it as tight, concrete, and specific as it could be?
Developing new writing habits is like changing your
lifestyle—diets don’t work—and it’s a day by day battle.You have to
A. study the writing of other writers
who have tight active voice you admire.Look
closely at how they do it.Teach yourself the tricks. Here’s a look at
reading as a writer. Read
B. Practice the techniques as you
write. It’s usually better to do it in writing exercises
because while you’re composing a story, poem,
or pictutre book, you want to be in the
moment, not thinking about if you’re
using the right verb.Stay in the zone
of your work.
C. Revise. You learn how to hone you writing by revising. Notice I said revise—not
edit. Revise means to re-see. Look
at your writing in new ways. Play with it, expand it,
contract it.Turn a story into a poem. A poem into a
song.Flex your writing like your
muscles—sprint, do yoga, run the
stairs, find writing muscles you never knew you had.
D. Repeat. You internalize new
writing techniques by using them again and again.It
takes quite a few morning runs
before you get into the routine of it. Writing works the
same way.Overtime, you internalize the new writing
techniques and make them your
own so that you don’t even have to
think about it.You’ll write in active
voice as easily as
you prepare your morning coffee.
So, Who is Ready to Give It a Try? (AKA The Contest Part of the Post)
If you’re ready
to take your active voice to the next level, then follow this prompt.
1. Find an
author who has great active voice. Sit down, take apart the writing. Look at
how the active voice is specifically constructed.Make a list of how it’s done.Ruminate on it a bit.Hmm.There’s a nice verb. Ruminate.Lovely sound quality there.
for 5-10 minutes on one of the following prompts
A. A child tries something new
B. A person solves a problem
C. A family gets a new pet
3. Go back
through and use the techniques described in this post and/apply the techniques
used by the author you studied in step 1 to your own writing.
4. Read and
reread what you produced in step 3.Tinker with it.Oh, another nice
verb, eh? I can just hear those words clunking around in your head as you work.
5. Set aside
your work and write it all again. See what new things emerge.
Post them in the
comments on this blog to enter the READY, SET, ACTION contest which runs from
9/1/17 to 9/30/17. The winning will be featured on Sylvanocity: A Creative Community
with a profile on the author.They’ll
also receive a nice literary surprise to further their growth as a writer.
mind.The comments on my blog must be
approved before they appear, so if your entry doesn’t appear, be patient. It
Craft advice is essential to building a career as a writer,
but so is consciously crafting your writing persona. By its very nature,
writing is a solitary act that requires us to
plumb the depths of our subconscious as we create literary worlds out of the
reimagined fabric of our own lives. In order to do that in a way that is not
only self-sustaining, but also promotes growth, we need to have a healthy
approach to the public side of writing.
Making Our Work
In the comfort of our own computer, mind, or office, our
writing is a creative extension of the process we went through to create it.
We’ve taken a four-dimensional world and reduced it to squiggly lines on the
page. It makes sense to us. It’s a fully fleshed out representation of a
fictional world we’ve created.But
something happens on the way to sharing this piece with others.
Our work loses the tendril connections to our subconscious,
the invisible little lines that fill in all of the spaces others see in our
writing, but we can’t see this spaces because we fill them in automatically as
we reread. How many times has someone critiqued your writing and your first
response, is, “But that’s not what I meant”? We’ve all been there.
Let’s talk about a step we could all take before we ever
show our work to others and that is to “divorce the draft,” a concept
introduced by Bruce Ballenger and Barry Lane, in Discovering
the Writer Within (a composition textbook).When you “divorce the draft,” you separate yourself psychologically from
the manuscript so that you can view it as a public work versus a private piece
of art.It’s still your story, but
you’re sharing it with the world. Now you have to see it through the eyes of a
reader who doesn’t have access to your writing process. By distancing yourself
from your work, you’re better able to see and accept constructive criticism as
a means of helping you grow as a writer.
Divorcing the draft also makes revision exponentially easier
because you’ve taken a step back to look at your work anew and can find
exciting and inspiring ways to expand your work.
“Revision” means to re-see your work, so if you approach
this process with an adventurous spirit— asking, “what new things can I
discover?”—you’ll find the critiquing and revision phase to be a much more
creative and inspiring process.
Sending Your Work Out
Into The World
When you send your work out into the world, you’re often on
edge about how it will be received. At this state of the game, it’s important
to separate the intertwined influences of taste, market, existing list, and
craft. To know more about what editors
and agents are looking for and why, check out the wish list http://mswishlist.com/mswl/by/editor
An editor once rejected a manuscript of mine because a
central character was an octogenarian and she didn’t really feel a connection
with elderly people.This response was purely
based on her own personal tastes and we can often read that as the main reason
for a response to a manuscript in statements like, “this isn’t for me.”Taste is one of the main response agents work
so hard to learn what different editors prefer and have an affinity for.If it’s a matter of taste, you just need to
keep looking for an editor/agent whose tastes are more in line with what you’ve
Unfortunately, the market is often the biggest hurdle for
agents, editors, and authors. Often all three parties love a particular style
of writing or a certain manuscript, but they know that it will not have enough
of a broad appeal to sell enough copies to earn a large profit.When this happens, it’s usually the case
where the editor takes the manuscript to acquisitions and the “bean counters”
aren’t sold on the accountability of the piece. When this happens, you can try
another house who can see new ways to market the book, consider a smaller house
that has lower sales expectations, or you can wait for the tide of public
interest to change to the genre you’re writing.
Sometimes a rejection can purely be based on the fact that a
particular editor or agent has other manuscripts or clients with manuscripts
that they’re already publishing or pitching for publication.In this case, it’s just a matter of moving on
to a house that needs a book like yours to fill out their list.
All of the above issues are based on the publishing world
and you really have no control over them at all.Craft is a whole different story. If there are elements of craft that are
holding you back, then you need to address those issues with education,
exploration, and revision. When you receive comments about inconsistent voice, variations
in plot development, expository vs. experiential sections of the piece, then
you know that the situation is more about your ability to fully polish the
manuscript.If that’s the case, then you
need to go back and dig in.It’s also
helpful to pursue opportunities to expand your own skills with webinars like
those offered by Kidlit College, develop writing groups with fellow writers who
have a keen critical eye for craft, delve into excellent books on craft, and/or
consider coursework in craft.Making the
study of craft a life-long journey is an essential part of your growth as a
Here’s a great list to get your started on writing books. My
thanks to Bethany Roberts in compiling this list.
Your desire to advance your career may often push you to
change yourself and your writing to fit the market and it’s important that
you’re not resistant to change and growth, but it’s also essential that you
don’t sacrifice the unique contributions you have to make to the field in order
to “get a sale.” Be yourself. You are who you are for a reason. You have a
unique perspective on life and art and writing that only you can share with the
world, so be true to yourself and your art.
Speaking of Being
Yourself: A Little Bit About Me
I’m a writer and a teacher who teaches English Department as
part of the Center for Visual Culture and Media Studies at Greenville College
and the low residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Hollins
University and I love to offer craft based webinars through KidLit College. I’m
also a huge supporter of other authors and independent publishers like Milkweed
Editions https://milkweed.org/ who have
published a handful of my books and I’d love to see more folks pick up a copy
of Water Steps this spring in preparation for facing their fears and heading into summer.Kyna nearly drown as a child and was left
with a pathological fear of water she’s overcoming one step at a time thanks to
her adoptive parents, but now they want her to live on a lake for the summer
and she’s having none of it.Especially
not their silly story that it’s inhabited by shape-shifting silkies.This could be her most exciting summer if
she’s will to take her her biggest “water step” ever.Can she do it? Pick up your copy of WATER
STEPS and see.