Personal Writing Challenges (part 1)

I have been giving myself personal writing challenges to force myself to not slip into procrastination. I have a small list of exercises, topics and stuff that I can fall back on when the creative juices dry up.

One of the exercises is to take something I have written for work (where passive voice is encouraged) and revise it into the active voice. (i.e. “The design was implemented by the lead programmer. The coding was finished early.” became “Our lead programmer coded the patch in record time.”) However, one item on my list demanded that I look into situations where the passive voice is appropriate.

In a blog entry on “voice”, author and high school teacher James Van Pelt described his favorite passive voice sentence used by one of his students. “My eyes were opened by me.” (BTW his blog is a treasure trove of good stuff for those of us who had our self esteem smashed flat by our own high school creative writing teachers. But that is a different blog topic.) I laughed out loud and I decided then and there that I would take that sentence and use it as the center piece for my passive voice story exercise. It took a month and a half for a story idea to form around that single passive sentence. Once the idea was in mind, it took less than twenty minutes to hammer out the first draft in long hand. I have been refining it for the past two weeks. The majority of the story is purposely in the passive voice because of the situation of the main character. The story deals with physically opening ones eyes, not with a metaphorical or spiritual “eye opening” experience. The character opening his own eyes, instead of having someone open them for him, is key to the plot.

As is typical for me, it is a science fiction story. I have decided that I am going to send it into one of the big three SF magazines; which is something I haven’t done with a full blown story for nearly 25 years; mainly because of that creative writing class in high school, but also because I am a procrastinator. Back in the late 1990’s I did send out “The Journey” my flash story that EDF published in November, but that was just a whimsy, I haven’t sent anything else out to a fiction publisher.

I am expecting a rejection. The story is in the passive voice after all, and just because I think it works does not mean that a professional editor will. But there is a chance they will agree with me.

(Thing #94)
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7 Responses

  1. Let me know how the story does! I’m glad to have a small part in it.

  2. Jim: I’ll keep you updated. Your blog has been a great help to me these past few months.

    All: In my last revision, I indulged in a passive voice edit-fest. I removed most of the silly passive voice constructions and only left in those that I think need to be passive for the story to work. I am planning on getting it into the mail by the weekend.

  3. I think it would be interesting to see a story told this way.

    Most anyone who has taken a creative writing class (which I haven’t) or received lots of rejection letters (which I most definately have) tends to avoid passive voice if they are able. And to a degree, that’s fine. We’re told to avoid passive voice for a reason.

    But ultimately prose either works or it doesn’t. I think there is a tendency with some editors to discard a piece because it breaks certain rules, even if it works (I won’t name names here. I still submit stories, you know).

    So… good luck and kudos. You have my admiration simply for trying.

  4. David: I really had no intentions of creating a story that I thought could be published. It was just an exercise. But the result startled me when I read it back to myself the first time. I remember thinking that was good, something I almost never do when I read what I write.

    I am going to do a blog post, soon I think, about my two experiences with creative writing classes.

    And thanks for the good luck wish; I’ll accept kudos upon publication.

  5. Exercises like yours are always instructive … if you get something you can sell out of it, that’s gravy!

    I look forward to seeing it land somewhere.

  6. You can get some very interesting results with stylistic experimentation. Robert Silverberg wrote a story once just to see if he could mix point of view in the narration (1st person, 2nd person, 3rd person attached, and omniscient). I think Alfred Bester’s “Fondly Farenheit” was a stylistic experiment. I wrote a story that was completely backwards, with all the effects proceeding their causes and dialogs starting with the last thing each character said to each other and ending with the first. Realms of Fantasy bought it. It was called “Happy Ending.”

  7. Steve: Thanks for helping me to focus on the craft part of writing. When I was thinking of this passive voice exercise, I mused, how would Steve incorporate “My eyes were opened by me.” in a story. A scene in a published Calthus tale was the spark I needed. I’ll tell you about it over a beer sometime.

    Jim: I am learning a lot by just experimenting with different things, and most of the results are not very interesting, story-wise. I think that is why this exercise caught me off guard. I was thinking that any work that started out completely in the passive voice would be weak and, well, passive. I unintentionally switched to active voice for the last paragraph, and that made the story.
    I think that the best part of the exercise was that it helped me find more of my own writer’s voice.
    “Happy Ending” sounds interesting. I’ll have to track that one down.

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