AWC: Using Passive Voice & Guest Bernice McFadden

Posted 16 April, 2011 by DLWhite in Writers Read, Writers Write 0 Comments

Hello, fellow writers. It has been a LONG day. I did a little shopping (read: I went to Target for Charmin and spent $37) and attended my first Writer’s Club meeting, which was very exciting because we had a guest speaker today: Ms. Bernice McFadden, author of Sugar, Glorious, Nowhere is a Place and 9 other novels. I read Sugar in 2009 and STILL tell everyone to read it when they ask me about great books. I posted my review of Sugar here.

Our meeting started with a 5 minute grammar lesson by English teacher Mary Grace Schaap on Passive Voice and when to use it. The lesson was really instrumental, because I can count on two hands how many times I’ve read advice to avoid it. However, Ms Schaap showed us how using Passive Voice adds a little style and mystery to your writing, no matter the genre. Most often, it is used when you want to hide certain details.

Verbs can either be active or passive. In active voice, the verb is said to do or be. It is direct. In passive voice, the object is acted upon. The effect is wordy and the sentence lacks spice but is most useful when the attention belongs on the person or thing being acted upon, and not the action itself or when the do-er is unimportant. In fact, the do-er can in many cases be left off of the end of the sentence, especially if you’re suing a  ‘by’ as in the policy was approved by the committee. It’s just superfluous words. 

Crime novels and journalists use Passive Voice:

The missing child was found a mile from her home

The jewels were stolen in broad daylight

Mistakes were made

Genres like poetry use Passive Voice beautifully:

Soothed by the Sea

Rocked by waves

The key, said Ms Schaap, is to know WHY you’re using Passive Voice. Recognize the effect or style that you want to put into your piece and you’ll stand up to any proofreader or editor’s criticism. Great lesson, and she used sentence diagrams, which I used to LOVE in English classes. I was the nerd grinning in the fifth row. :)

After our 5 Minute Grammar primer, the President of the Club introduced Bernice McFadden. Ms. McFadden began her talk by taking us through the journey of her career. As a child, she was a voracious reader, digesting mostly picture books until she found some Harold Robbins and Jackie Collins novels that weren’t meant for such young eyes. It reminded me of when I was about 12 and found my mother’s stash of VC Andrews. I was forbidden to read them, but over the course of the summer, read the entire Flowers in The Attic series and have never been the same. After writing a pretty graphic story (of which she had no idea what she’d really written, since she’d just lifted sentences and phrases from the books she read), thus began her journey as a writer. 

She’d always written short stories, but after years of trying to get them published, decided to focus on one story and try to expand it into a novel. Sugar stood out and after ten years of writing, 4 drafts, 70-some rejections, Bernice found an agent and weeks later was the proud owner of a three book deal. An inspirational story if I ever heard one.

One of the things I really grabbed onto was that early on, she realized there weren’t a lot of writers that were published that looked like her– and frankly me. Even today, when I look through announcements of what’s being published and and marketed, I don’t see a lot of African American authors. Bernice said she picked up a copy of The Color Purple, and not only did it inspire her but gave her hope that she could also be a published black author. After Terry McMillan opened the door for black authors, it became even easier for writers of color to find a spotlight.

A few things I picked up during her time on stage:

Always ask yourself “What are you willing to risk?” Don’t skirt issues in your writing. Put them out there, dont cheat your reader out of an experience. Be upfront with your subject matter.

Not all writers write everyday. I can’t tell you what an audible sigh of relief I breathed when I heard this. I hear so much(and feel so ashamed by the fact that I don’t) that “real writers” write everyday, even when it’s hard. Quite actually, I hear from a lot of “real” writers– you and me, published and unpublished– that they don’t, actually. Like Bernice, I find it to be a creative process, a mood that isn’t ever present. And when I don’t feel like it, it’s obvious. When she does write, she can go weeks writing for ten or so hours a day, until she has purged her mind of the story… a process that I engage in as well. It reminds me of the binge and purge… except I think the writing version is much healthier. I took it to heart when she said to not shame yourself if  that’s not something that works for you.

Finally, a member asked what she knew now that she didn’t know then, or what she would do now that she didn’t do then. Her answer?

YOU will be your biggest, most number one fan. PROMOTE yourself. Save some of your advance (no matter how paltry the sum) and put it aside for a marketing budget and market yourself to bloggers and book readers, twitter, facebook, TV shows, what have you. Publishers will promise X,Y and Z… but may only do X. You may have to complete Y and Z on your own- be prepared, be willing to do that for yourself.

I sincerely enjoyed seeing Bernice McFadden today. I’m always encouraged and inspired by people who are really doing it. It helps me to keep dreaming that I might someday be one of those people really doing it, too.

Thank you for sharing your story, Ms McFadden.


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