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Am I suffering from passive writing?

Discussion in 'Critiques' started by TonyHarmsworth, Jan 4, 2017.

  1.  
    TonyHarmsworth

    TonyHarmsworth Well-Known Member

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    This is a first chapter of a book I would like to submit to publishers soon. Please pick holes, but most importantly I need to know if I'm using too much passive writing.

    Book description: Specialist astronaut Evelyn Slater encounters a badly damaged, ancient alien artefact on the first ever space junk elimination mission.

    A security clampdown is imposed by the USA, Russian and European governments. Evelyn leads a team of hand-picked scientists who make amazing discoveries within the alien device.

    Secrecy is impossible to maintain and she becomes embroiled in international politics as the existence of the alien emissary is announced to the world.

    Chapter: I was strapped into a seat moulded to the shape of my body but I no longer needed its support and the same harness was now restraining me, holding me tightly to prevent me floating away. I didn't care. I was captivated more by the view than the seat's restraining belts. I was unable to divert my gaze from the small circular window.

    Silence descended upon the three of us, broken only by some words in Russian and the crackle of the communication system.

    There was the expected, yet still disconcerting sense of falling. The feeling we had reached the pinnacle of a devilish roller-coaster which, at any moment, would rush headlong along the downward slope back towards Earth.

    But it wasn’t a roller-coaster. I was in a Soyuz spacecraft and I would not be hurtling earthwards – well not for seven months, anyway.

    The vista of Earth was stunning, the land green and brown, the clouds brilliant white and the sea was the most vibrant and azure blue. The whole sat in an ocean of jet-black. The curvature of the Earth was another phenomenon I was expecting, yet seeing it first hand was an awe-inspiring experience.

    “Вы все в порядке, Ева?”

    I snapped out of my trance, Yuri, our commander, a bullish man with a shaved head, had asked if I was okay, “Yes. Да.”

    He was worried about my quietness and I told him it was the view which had stunned me into silence. He laughed.

    I returned to watching the astonishing scene which floated past my eyes. Remarkable. I was going to love my time on the International Space Station.

    There was more Russian radio dialogue between Roscosmos and the ship. Learning Russian was an essential part of our training. It was difficult as I do not have an affinity for languages.

    Yuri Bulgakov switched to English, but with a thick Russian accent, “Hello ISS. Soyuz MS-87 here. Over.”

    Africa and the Mediterranean slipped away to the left, the Sahara standing out, a vast cloud-free expanse of desert. I listened but the view seduced me and I could not turn from the porthole.

    At any moment, normal weight might return and ease my queasy stomach, but of course there would only be spasmodic weight now until I returned home in time for Christmas.

    The radio, sprang into life, “That you Yuri? Mike here. How’re you guys doing?”

    “Hi Mike, yes me again. Bringing some professionalism to you American spacemen who still have no spaceship!”

    A chuckle emanated from the speakers. The smiling round-faced Russian told me it was normal to wind the Americans up about the demise of their shuttle and the delays in their new low-Earth launch vehicle which was due into service in 2025, but was still undergoing tests two years later.

    “We are about to change orbit. See you in a few hours.”

    “Okay. Copy that. We’ll put the dinner on.”

    “Roger that. Will speak soon, Mike.”

    Yuri pressed a couple of buttons, switched back to Russian and told Roscosmos he was in contact with the ISS.

    Roscosmos acknowledged his message as a cloud streaked Russia passed across my field of view and the shadow of night appeared on the right.

    A jerk caused me to grab my armrest. For a horrible moment, I believed I was falling instead of being in freefall. Zinaida Sobolevskaya, a more rotund version of myself and the third crew member, had fired a jet to raise our orbit to the next level. Weight returned for a short while.

    I was a square peg during this part of the mission as the computers, monitored by Zinaida and Yuri, carried out all the control functions on our approach. I was merely a passenger, travelling to the ISS to continue my research into space junk.

    More thrusts. On each occasion, there was the disturbing movement of my internal organs to compensate for the vectors being applied to the ship.

    “ISS. We have aligned. On course. It is excellent trajectory. Copy?”

    “Looking good Yuri.”

    There was another burn. A short side-burn to take the Soyuz out of the ISS’s plane to prevent a collision if the retro jets failed.

    “Side burn complete,” confirmed Yuri, his piercing blue eyes flashing at me with the excitement of the launch achieving its orbit.

    “Copy that.”

    Unimportant Russian chatter continued, while I peered at the night side of Earth and its ribbon of sparkling jewels. I knew these spangled clusters were towns and cities lining the rivers and highways beneath. Celestial jewellery.

    “KURS locked on,” said Yuri, confirming a positive lock on the ISS. Now the approach was automatic.

    “Copy that.”

    “Rotational burn complete.”

    “Copy that.”

    “Docking probe unlocked. He is extended.”

    “Copy that.”

    Now we faced a long slow approach taking an hour or so. I had more time to indulge myself with the view.

    “Eva, look at here. You can see station,” Yuri said using the Russian version of my name and pointing at his main screen upon which a tiny spot sat at the centre of a pair of dotted cross wires.

    I glanced at it for a few seconds, but I was almost immediately drawn back to the view of the sun breaking over the curvature of the planet. Amazing. Sixteen sunrises each day.

    Gradually the Soyuz approached the gigantic framework of the International Space Station. Some of the structure was visible through my porthole. Yuri pulled out the manual docking controls in case of emergency. If anything were to go wrong with the automatic system, he would take over. The ISS now filled the view screen.

    The Soyuz was not aligned with the docking port yet and there were a series of burns to change our attitude and bring the spaceship into position.

    “30 metres.”

    “Copy that.”

    The docking hatch on the station grew larger until it filled the screen.

    “Have contact,” he said.

    “Copy that, Yuri.”

    There was a slight push from behind, plus a judder as the docking probe settled into its hole and the hatch seals started to close.

    The sealing procedure was lengthy, taking almost an hour to ensure all the clamps were properly tightened. Yuri monitored the process from the upper module of the spaceship. Finally, the hatch was pulled away from before us. There was a slight equalising of pressure and Yuri asked, “Permission to come aboard, sir!”

    “Permission granted,” Mike Wilson’s American accent sounding much more human now it no longer passed through the electronics of the communication system.

    Zinaida waved me through before her. Grabbing my small pouch of personal items, I pulled myself into the Soyuz orbital module and there was Mike’s familiar ebony-skinned, smiling face on the other side of the constricted access hatch.

    “Welcome to the ISS, Eve,” Mike offered a hand and pulled on me to help me through into the docking module.

    Another face appeared behind him. Dr. Brian Gregory of Caltech’s overweight figure strangely graceful floating in mid-air before me.

    “Lovely to see you again, Brian. Great place to meet up.”

    “Yes Eve, a better venue than the Caltech coffee shop,” he laughed and we embraced briefly.

    I watched Mike’s lanky legs finding their way ahead of me. Brian followed them and I tried to keep up.

    I couldn’t believe I was here, aboard the space station. It had taken more than a decade. Five years of dreaming and hoping, four years of hard work and another two years of detailed planning and intensive training.

    My reminiscing ended prematurely as a siren sounded.

    Mike shouted, “Quick, follow me!”

    Within a few seconds there were several of us pulling ourselves through the corridors of the space station. We were under attack and the enemy was invisible.
     
  2.  
    Jo Zebedee

    Jo Zebedee Come away, oh human child - Waters and the Wild

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  3.  
    TonyHarmsworth

    TonyHarmsworth Well-Known Member

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    Thanks Jo, that is exactly what I needed to know. I think I was misunderstanding the passive/active business. I'd actually changed to the wass because I thought the original was passive.
     
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  4.  
    Jo Zebedee

    Jo Zebedee Come away, oh human child - Waters and the Wild

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    Be warned, though - that's only half the battle! (I have a tendency to passive too). There's also stuff like which object does the action eg the file slid over the floor is passive but she slid the file over the floor isn't - because in the first the file, a passive object, holds the action but in the second a person does. I think.

    Hold fast for the experts!
     
  5.  
    RX-79G

    RX-79G Well-Known Member

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    Yes, it is passive. This first sentence is also a run on, and unpleasant to read. It reads like a list of uninteresting events.

    "The molded seat now longer bore my weight, but the harness kept my body in place."
    "The molded seat cushioned the crushing pressure of lift-off, but only its harness held me now."

    Go from passive list to descriptive action:
    The wood was burning in the fire.
    Wood burned in the fire.
    Snapping as vapor exploded out the wood, a fire pit blazed in the center of the smokey room.
     
  6.  
    Phyrebrat

    Phyrebrat ba-Ba-ba-brat

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    The problem with run-on sentences isn't really one of technique though, but preference. I'm not bothered by them (which is lucky as I am fond of using them), but some might be. Also, it's important not to rely on the matter-of-taste argument with run-ons; you still have to make them readable and clean.

    pH
     
  7.  
    RX-79G

    RX-79G Well-Known Member

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    I agree. I wasn't as much concerned with grammar as the style problem that made run-ons verboten in the first place. Without anything major happening in the sentence the reader just gets lost.
     
  8.  
    tinkerdan

    tinkerdan candycane shrimp

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    This has many good elements and I think I could read more of this with a few provisos.
    A couple things:
    Then I'll go away.
    First I think you should introduce her name earlier.
    Next you have a lot of one and two sentence paragraphs, occasionally three and more.
    One sentence paragraphs some times are good for emphasis and shorter one sentence can really get the attention. So many seem like an effort to try to make things that are slow look faster (that's just my strange opinion or maybe the way I read a series of one sentence paragraphs).

    Also I think that, since the time from liftoff until the moment your story starts is usually one of the most exciting parts of the whole voyage, you have a tough task to make this exciting. With that in mind I think if you get closer to Eve with some bits of feelings, senses and her experience; and remove all the was; and then push that whole initial experience into the first paragraph.

    Something like this::(You don't have to do this, it's just how I would try to fix it.)::

    I floated. Moments ago the molded seat embraced me so tight I nearly smothered and the straps that pressed down hard across my chest, waist and shoulders were now light and buoyant and stretched to their limit, restraining the sudden urge to fly. My head was light and butterflies danced all around my stomach. I didn't care. At the end of my leash, my gaze fixed on the small circular window that held the most astonishing sight, to captured the heart that threatened to leaping into my throat. Filling that glass. The Earth was a stunning vista of greens, browns, whites and azure blue. An opalescent gem of swirling clouds and sparkling oceans, displayed in majestic curvature against the black satin backdrop of space. Struck speechless, silence engulfed us as though the vacuum around had reached in and sucked all sound from the three of us. My ears popped. The crackle of the radio filled the void with Russian words. We fell upward while the Earth moved quickly below and this devilish roller-coaster had reached its apex, however the Soyuz spacecraft would not be taking that mad slide downward for another seven months. My mind raced beyond the craft to imagine the awe inspiring experience awaiting us at our destination.

    “Eva. Вы все в порядке, Ева?” Yuri, our commander, a bullish man with a shaved head, had asked if I was okay.

    'Yes.' I snapped out of my trance to acknowledge him.

    'So quiet.' Worry etched his face.

    I told him it was the view, which had stunned me into silence.

    He laughed.

    ::

    Of course if the short paragraphs are a style choice then you should just ignore this.
     
  9.  
    HareBrain

    HareBrain Big Rabbit of Chrons Staff Member

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    As I understand it, both those are active.

    "The file was slid over the floor" would be passive, because it implies an unacknowledged subject. You could argue that "The file slid across the floor" also does (why did you have to pick that example? :p), but only because we know the file is incapable of sliding by itself. Though you could have "The building tipped as the earthquake struck. The file slid across the floor", and this would clearly be active.

    A clearer example is "Some coffee was spilled" versus "She spilled some coffee". In the first, the real object (coffee) has become the subject.

    As you say, this is a different use of "was" from "I was unable to".
     
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  10.  
    Jo Zebedee

    Jo Zebedee Come away, oh human child - Waters and the Wild

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    See? I know nothing. :D
     
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  11.  
    Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    I agree with Harebrain. In the passive voice, the subject is having something done to it. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence is doing the thing.

    However, "passive writing" is a bit vague as it might just mean that the characters aren't doing enough or having enough adventures. In a book that's fairly description-heavy, or not an obvious adventure story, it might be a risk, but that's hard to tell from a short excerpt.
     
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  12.  
    TonyHarmsworth

    TonyHarmsworth Well-Known Member

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    All incredibly useful. Another rewrite will obviously be in order. Keep the comments coming.

    The intention in the first paragraph is to make the reader wonder what the hell is going on and to make them think about the sensations being experienced. Maybe this is not something I should be doing at that point.

    I quite liked the first para, but then that is why I'm asking for the help.
     
  13.  
    TonyHarmsworth

    TonyHarmsworth Well-Known Member

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    Yes, that is an interesting point and one which I thought about initially, but decided that building in lift-off into the same chapter could make it too long with too much detail. It also struck me that there is a lot of exciting stuff before you even get to lift off.

    In the end I decided to start in freefall, but I cover an Arabella lift-off in a later chapter and go into quite a lot of detail on her return to Earth, which is pretty scary.

    That's interesting. I'm curious - when did you realise she was female? Did it disappoint or fit in with the rest of the chapter? Only answer if you have time.
     
  14.  
    tinkerdan

    tinkerdan candycane shrimp

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    Forgive me. This is the result of trying to put my thoughts on paper. I don't know it it will help any.

    Passivity of sentences isn't necessarily the problem here; but the problem is related to that, in that the sentence structures are similar to those that are derived from using passivity and they tend to become cumbersome: more difficult to understand.

    Take for instance:

    I was strapped into a seat moulded to the shape of my body but I no longer needed its support and the same harness was now restraining me, holding me tightly to prevent me floating away.

    I know you love this sentence; but does it say the same thing to everyone?

    I love long sentences, but they need to flow and are best when the reader doesn't have to go back and try to unravel what it just said.
    At first I thought there were two sentences, but maybe there are three.

    I was strapped into a seat moulded to the shape of my body.
    I no longer needed its support.
    The same harness was now restraining me, holding me tightly to prevent me floating away.

    I was strapped into the seat moulded to the shape of my body-

    This could end with them on the floor, but it doesn't; yet it might give that expectation. Was strapped...will they say they were no longer strapped.

    Also a sense of being strapped in is more one of restraint than support and I think I lose understanding because we could use punctuation.

    I would try.::
    I was strapped into a seat, molded to my body shape,
    ::
    I no longer needed its(the seat's) support

    Should follow to the reader that I don't need the molded seats support, but were the straps there for support? Maybe, I don't know.

    try::
    no longer needing its (the seat's) support
    ::
    I was strapped into a seat, molded to my body shape,no longer needing its (the seat's) support.
    The same harness was now restraining me, holding me tightly to prevent me floating away.

    and the same harness was now restraining me
    is there another harness?

    try
    the harness now restraining,
    holding me tightly to prevent me floating away.
    This last part is the problem with the long sentence because it is completing the thought about the harness restraining and isn't necessary to the previous sentence unless you try to connect it with the word same and if that connects the readers mind to the straps mentioned.

    Now removing I was:: changing the end to; my body tried to float away::

    Strapped into a seat, molded to my body form,no longer needing its support, the harness now restraining, holding me tight, my body tried to float away.

    Now we're saying: Strapped into a seat, my body tried to flat away. And the stuff in the middle is extra description. It still needs work.

    Strapped into a molded seat, support no longer necessary, the harness now restrained and held me tight, my body wanted to drift away.

    We could even add the I was::

    I was strapped into a molded seat, support no longer necessary, the harness now restrained and held me tight, my body wanted to drift away.

    If you wanted to add more words to that to pretty it up...

    The question is, did I get that to say what you intended?

    ---------The Eve question-------------------------
    I wasn't put off by it, but since it could have gone either way, I had the sense that you deliberately withheld it for some reason and I'm not sure that it suddenly enhances the scene any to discover their sex as much as it highlighted--oh yes--the author hasn't named this person up to this point and I felt that there was little reason to withhold it when you had a perfect opportunity at the beginning of the first conversation.
    --------------------------------------------------------
     
    Last edited: Jan 5, 2017
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  15.  
    TonyHarmsworth

    TonyHarmsworth Well-Known Member

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    Strangely I just reworked that paragraph from 6 to 4 sentences. I hadn't known what I had done was called a run-on sentence. Thanks.
     
  16.  
    TonyHarmsworth

    TonyHarmsworth Well-Known Member

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    That's what I had originally.
    It does describe the same scene, but sounds clinical to me. It needs work and your reasoning will be helpful elsewhere too.
     
  17.  
    Martin Gill

    Martin Gill Well-Known Member

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    Buy Strunk and White's elements of style, or the more fun Elements of F@#cking Style if you don't mind profanity. Both explain passive voice. Toby describes it correctly.

    There's a lot of passive here, both passive voice, but also for me the POV character basically does nothing. You have some nice descriptions and a lot of detail, and you do make the point that she knows she's a passenger, but for the story's sake, why start at the point when your POV character is passive? Would it not be better to start when she's doing something? One of ten Disney or Pixar (I forget which) storytelling rules is always start showing your character doing what they do best. I don't totally agree with this, but there's wisdom there. If she's doing something, it's easier to use more active language.
     
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  18.  
    TheDustyZebra

    TheDustyZebra Breathe Staff Member

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    If the reader has to wonder what the hell is going on in the first sentence, it had better be something interesting enough to keep them there to find out. If they're wondering what the hell is going on because they have to go back and sort out the lack of punctuation, it's probably not worth sticking around.
     
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  19.  
    RX-79G

    RX-79G Well-Known Member

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    What do you think is mysterious in that first paragraph? It is a description of someone floating out of their seat in zero G. Are there any sci fi readers that are going to be confounded by that situation?
     
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  20.  
    TonyHarmsworth

    TonyHarmsworth Well-Known Member

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    Someone's first experience of weightlessness being described is not intended to confound, but to be wondrous. It is hardly an experience any of us have ever had. Perhaps I didn't mean to make you puzzled, but to make you wish you were experiencing it with the character.

    Point noted however. I do wonder sometimes if we are getting blase about travelling into orbit. None of that is relevant, of course.
     
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