The Passive Argument makes me Tense

Several months ago I had the pleasure of reading a book on writing by an American publisher that doesn’t negate the entire use of ‘passive’. For anyone who is saying, “Huh?” a somewhat humorous but an excellent example I’ve seen recently is this (sorry, I don’t know whom to attribute it to):

She was eaten by zombies.

Zombie ate her.

The first is passive, the second is not. American publishers (I can’t speak for non-US/UK countries as I’ve no experience) can be more selective about passive to the point of banning it altogether. Some, unfortunately, go to such lengths to avoid a single instance that they will rewrite whole paragraphs into awful stilted entanglements that are cringeworthy. British writers especially seem to have a hard time with this, probably because our rule on passive is simple: Don’t overuse but no need to avoid at all costs. British publishers don’t seem so worried about passive, and I know I’m not the only writer to never have passive sentences pointed out until I wrote for a US publisher.

It’s difficult to argue wrong or right because many publishers have a house-style and if they reject passive, they have the right; however, it’s to everyone’s detriment to rewrite the occasional use if to get the same information results in a sentence so convoluted it makes the reader wince.

Other forms argued with are ‘to be’ or ‘was’. Some publishers become known for ‘de-wasing’ work. I once read a submission guide taking this to extremes and stating the writer was to remove every instance of the word. Many writers consider was to be a throwaway word—one that passes through the ear and mind without calling too much attention. I’ve heard other British writers ponder what is so wrong with all forms of ‘to be’.

Passive can be used to great effect, in fiction and in life. Politicians and solicitors purposely use passive to deflect answering questions directly. One can find examples of passive in many famous poems that would have lost power had the authors written the passive out.

And don’t be confused (yes, be confused is passive). There is such a thing as passive ‘writing’. There is no such thing as passive ‘tense’ no matter who uses this term. A tense is a set of forms taken by a verb—the simple tenses being past, present, and future. There is passive writing or passive voice, but not tense.

Sometimes passive is superfluous or ‘gets by’ the writer during the draft, and it is worth checking and getting rid of a percentage. Fewer passive sentences increase the pace and that’s largely what a modern audience wants, so it’s at least understandable that publishers encourage minimum use.

Reads of 2019 continued

NOS4R2, by Joe Hill reads like a children’s book for adults blended with a dark thriller. Though surreal, perhaps bizarre, the increasing conflict kept me enthralled. It’s been a while since I felt I couldn’t put a book down and while I maybe didn’t feel like that all the way through I did for most of the novel. This may be in part because Joe Hill has created a better heroine for me than many blockbusting movies. Victoria may be a mess but she’s a mess with reason, has stamina, purpose, tenacity, and a whole list of exceptional traits that many female leads lack. Perhaps some belief edged close to the line but in a world where Christmasland exists a thought or bike ride away I’m prepared to suspend my doubts for the sheer enjoyment of reading. I like the way he stretches the story over time told at different points in the characters’ lives. I may never enjoy Christmas in quite the same way but will happily live with that too for such a well-thought and excellently presented story which tugs on so many emotional strings.

V-Wars edited by Jonathan Maberry best known for his Young Adult zombies book also writes for adults and proves he’s capable of handling the vampire genre. I started this because the series in in production. The thing instantly to stand out for me was I’ve never seen a multi-authored book arranged in this manner with the stories broken up into parts and a sliding timeline. I can easily see why and how this was adapted for television.

The Doll Factory, Elizabeth Macneal: I have to admit the style distracted me at first but soon drew me into the world of Victorian London. The perfectly assembled cast delivers a tale of love, obsession, and atmospheric horror. The fair Iris who wishes to better her situation; her poor embittered sister, Rose; the exuberant Albie; the questionable love interest in Louis; and the infatuated Silas. I couldn’t help thinking of undertones of John Fowles ‘The Collector’ although if that in any way gave inspiration to this novel the author has enriched a basic idea and made it her own. Also, I think the comparison to various other titles is a pity as people like John Fowles are literary noteworthies (regardless of whether you like them) which promotes the book to a level difficult to attain. Some books are simply enjoyable. I’m uncertain whether to consider some parts of the story entirely historically accurate but the tone suffices to transport the reader into another era. The only real downside for me is that I was expecting something perhaps a little more gothic. Still, a fabulous debut.

Dracula, Bram Stoker: A re-read of a classic I’ve not touched for many years. A book of this type will always receive mixed reviews. A classic, by definition, is always a book of its time and will jar for a modern reader. Especially for a modern reader who has not read classic literature for most of their life. My childhood books included novels such as Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island so I have no problem with reading this. At such times when Dickens was popular, writers were paid by the word so if any such novels feel padded there’s a reason. This book does feel overlong, and if written/edited now would be much shorter. I’d particularly forgotten the peculiar way Van Helsing speaks which I read with a blend of irritation and amusing pleasure. In the 21st century the book has many faults, much of it reading like Victorian melodrama, and is far from horrifying, but in 1897 Dracula would have been petrifying. It’s almost impossible to review a book of this type so it’s important to understand how this novel was pivotal.

Though Stoker did not invent the vampire myth or write the first well-known story, he wrote the crucial novel, bringing us a vampire who would popularise the genre and creating a legend. Like the writing or not this book deserves its pedestal. Stoker touched on the darkest fears, not only of the time, but at the heart of terror, a creature capable of overtaking the human mind, of seducing, of changing shape and appearance, of ‘infiltrating’ the home, the heart, the marriage bond. Horror novels often reflect societal fears of the moment, and Dracula is no different though many of the same fears exist more than a century later. Stoker also puts into the mind unforgettable images — a wild country of superstition, Dracula’s towering castle, Harker’s slow realisation he’s a prisoner, Dracula’s vertical crawl, his intention to take over London, the crazed incredible Renfield, Dr Seward’s asylum. And, perhaps, for women today, the book represents the ultimate equality statement. Lucy and Mina’s story both begin with them represented as something beautiful and fragile, ‘creatures’ who can do nothing without their men and who require protection. The book ends with a gun in Mina’s hand. She has become a far different woman from the shy girl who did nothing more than look forward to a life of marriage. She wishes to protect Jonathan as much as he longs to protect her, perhaps placing Stoker as a realist and/or ahead of his time. Still, there are moments that sit uneasy with me, the worst of which is the historical error that anyone can provide a transfusion without blood-matching, a fact not discovered at the time but which cannot help making even this modern reader wince.

The Shining, Stephen King: I’m sure there’s few people who need telling the plot of The Shining. Alcoholic writer takes a job at the Overlook Hotel to be the caretaker over the winter taking with him his wife and son, only young Danny Torrence has a talent the like of which undocumented and to the ghosts of the Overlook he’s a shining beacon. As a side note for anyone who has only seen the film, the book is decidedly different with a depth the film lacks. This story is also far creepier than I recalled, maybe because you can feel a five-year-old’s panic.

Doctor Sleep, Stephen King: This novel returns to events which happened in the Overlook Hotel of ‘The Shining’, with Danny Torrence now grown. A well written and enjoyable paranormal thriller but don’t go into this expecting the same type of scare.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams: Having recently watched the series, I wanted to read the books and I’m glad I did because they vary greatly. Dick is only somewhat similar to the energetic performance in the show. The interconnectedness concept makes these a fun read. Though they’re not as good as Adams’ other works they have an inherent cleverness, and it would have been nice to see how the series may have developed had Adams written more than two and a third incomplete. This is my favourite of the Dirk Gently novels.

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, Douglas Adams: Though I preferred the plot and concept of the first Dirk Gently book this one perhaps has the stronger ending. I advise to read them in order — connect them as Dirk would do. Well worth a read and to be forever haunted by an ominous fridge.

The Salmon of Doubt, Douglas Adams: A collection of essays and a well put-together but incomplete last Dirk Gently novel, I can see how this will always garner mixed reviews. Overall, I enjoyed this book as there’s something poignant about reading Adams’ words one last time that makes this a fond farewell, but the lack of an end to the Dirk Gently book left me disappointed and wistful, but the story was shaping up so well I’m glad to know as little as I now do. Maybe one for true aficionados but a touching book to add to a collection.

The Cabin at the End of the World, Paul Trembley: My first read by this author but not my last. I wasn’t sure about the style at first but that made it different and I was so quickly drawn in and almost instantly riveted. A cabin in the woods, end of the world, hostage situational horror story with a twist and real uncertainty that digs into surprisingly emotional depths, and an end I found satisfying. If this is indicative of this author’s work, I’m in for a treat with his other titles.

The Reddening, Adam L.G. Nevill: The Reddening paints a highly descriptive portrait of the South Devon coastline unlike any I’ve read before, bringing the setting to life and creating a realistic landscape in which anything, even the horrors of the book, seem possible. Nevill has a way of writing horror through not only what is said, but also what’s not said, and left to the imagination, is perhaps worse than the words on the page. Several scenes had me so engrossed I even jumped once when I lost track of time disturbed by someone coming home and opening the front door. Nevill writes intellectual horror enhanced with a rich vocabulary.

The Bishop’s Wife, Robert Nathan: As a fan of the original black & white film, I was curious to read the story. Only able to find this as a 99p download, I took the opportunity. Though the basis of the plot are present in both, they are very different expressing both similar and yet varying philosophies. I have to accept I prefer the film which injects humour and perhaps a greater depth to the story.

Reads of 2019

I usually look back at a year of reading at the start of another so here are my most notable reads of 2019. There’s quite a few so I’m splitting these into two blogs.

Teacher, Teacher! by Jack Sheffield is not normally my kind of book but throughout the year I read the series. Told perhaps with a little artistic license (it’s not possible for the narrator to know what others are thinking) this makes for a novel that feels part storytelling and part memoir. As sad at times as it is humorous in others. I want to say this series makes for a pleasant read though I don’t think it does the book justice. For those who like books a little biographical in nature, perhaps, this has a much warmer tone of fiction. Charming and nostalgic.

Wolf Winter, Cecilia Ekback: A Swedish mystery set in 1717, this was a surprising read, skilfully accomplished. This is a book more suited to adults, although the protagonist seems to be Frederika, a young girl which is surprising as the general rule for fiction is the age of the main character determines the reading age. I loved the historical atmosphere, the remoteness and added complications of the environment. There were enough twists and possibilities to keep the reader guessing, with the setting as much a character as any of the people.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury: Hard to believe I’ve never read this classic before. The book opens to make the reader question what he or she is reading. It has a crazed, abstract poetry to it. Gradually, it dawns the story is about much more than is seemingly on the page, questioning the meaning of books, the attention span of society, of works  shortened, condensed into snippets, even of politics, censorship and, ultimately, war. The book feels timeless yet never more timely than now, speaking of people turning from books to technology. This story is visionary. Clarisse McClellan: ‘She didn’t want to know how a thing was done but why.’ Fantastic line. Even better ones: ‘If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.’ This on a page well worth reading alone. A subliminal work perhaps, certainly supreme. Some say works of fiction aren’t real but no fictional work can get more real than this.

Icebound, Dean Koontz: Another re-read for me that proved to be fun. This is the only real attempt Koontz says he made at a traditional thriller and he did a wonderful job. The factual details are enough to be engaging without boring and there’s a real sense of a ticking bomb. While there may be better thrillers on the market at the time Koontz wrote this he did a job good enough to translate to film although the ability to put this on screen likely didn’t exist to do the story justice. One particular mention, I love it when I’m reading and come across a sentence that expresses a perfect sentiment and in Icebound there is one: Politics was an illusion of service that cloaked the corruption of power.

The Searching Dead, Ramsey Campbell: First in a trilogy, this book has more of a slower pace than many modern day novels plus the protagonist is a teenager—unusual in a horror story though this may read more supernatural than horror. It’s certainly not horrific, more creepy with touches of sadness — the older generations do not fair well, from Mrs Norris missing her deceased husband, to Mr Noble’s father and his dark memories of war. While I would have liked to discover more about the strange haunting presences (can’t say more without giving too much away), this creates the foundation for a hoped-for deeper story. The setting makes for a nostalgic read, both good and bad, and I particularly felt the helplessness of being young and having no one believe or even listen to fears unfounded or otherwise.

Born to the Dark, Ramsey Campbell: In the best sense this book is an exercise in frustration, carrying on the story begun in The Searching Dead but moving several years ahead when the protagonist is now an adult encountering the strange Christian Noble again. The threat, now largely aimed at his son, Dom cannot shake off the vexation of having no one believe him, least of all his wife. With more insight to the great overall peril, a deeper mystery dragging Dom and his family and his friends into an impossible darkness…I hope the third book in this trilogy has the payoff the series deserves.

The Way of the Worm, Ramsey Campbell: First, I have to draw attention to the cover on this one. The more one delves into the story the more I realised how well suited the cover design is. The eyes grew creepier the more I progressed with the plot. Where the first of this trilogy portrayed the protagonist, Dominic Sheldrake, as a teenage, the second an adult, the third instalment enters his twilight years, which reflects the semidarkness that has plagued his life. His son is now an adult, but this only exacerbates both Dominic’s fears and the frustration the reader shares. The result convenes on a colossal scale and, if any parts of the tale come across as vague, or dreamlike, or illusory this fits with the tale we’ve followed, the half-truths and semi-falsehoods Dominic continues to battle. This reads as a modern Lovecraftian tale of a warped universe and fragile dimensions of tenuous existence. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the disquieting subtle horror.

The Silence, Tim Lebbon: An excellent apocalyptic thriller, well plotted and disturbing, tugging the heartstrings in all the right places. Simple writing which does nothing to reduce the tension but makes this accessible for most ages from young adult to adult in part because the story is told by two main protagonists, father and daughter. As a side note the film based on the book does not do the novel justice.

The Terror, Dan Simmons: I wish I could say I love this book. The amount of work and research that’s gone into this tome deserves well-received recognition. Unfortunately, I can only claim to like it. This has much to do with the book’s branding. If looking for a supernatural horror in the wilderness, this isn’t it. The reviews on the book refer to details such as a ‘massive combination of history and supernatural horror’ and a ‘tour de force’. Both are right but it underwrites the supernatural element while it overdoes the history part.

The most irritating plot point for me was the obvious device of having someone walk into a clear trap. I can’t say more without a spoiler but this frustrating point comes late in the book. I found some of the most interesting things in the book to be what the Esquimaux woman, Lady Silence, does. The woman who understands how to survive on the ice makes the efforts of the ships’ crews appear naïve and inept.

The book IS a masterpiece and yet suffers from overwriting more often than not. I really didn’t need to know so many names, or reminding of them, or a full list of men who died on the way no matter how much they took up the Captain’s thoughts. Fair editing could likely trim a good couple of hundred pages. If looking to read an epic tale of man’s survival in an Arctic wilderness, then this book is excellent. If seeking a shiver of supernatural terror, this may not be the book, for the reveal, though wonderfully strange, lacked some vital element to make it scary or compelling. The most horrifying aspect for me was the scurvy. I’d be interested in watching the series, though.

The Sorrow King, Andersen Prunty: Essentially, the supernatural cause of several teenage suicides, which is obvious from the outset, this story could have been better written and likely more exciting if told with more show rather than tell. However, there’s something persuasive about the narrative and the concept is interesting. I purchased the e-book because print wasn’t available.

The Living, Isaac Marion: The last in the Warm Bodies trilogy, a far superior Zombie novel that I would have loved to purchase in print to add to the two titles I already own. Alas, postage to the UK and import duties prohibited this.

My favourite in the series is and shall always remain the first book, a title which perhaps says enough, but this takes the exploration further, giving us a beautiful, painful, and sad view of the world. These books are about so much more than a horde of walking dead — it’s about life, love, relationships, politics, society, racism, religion to name the most obvious, though I’m certain that to each the books will have something different to say. With each title the books grew darker in context. At times the writing felt poetic, at others surreal, but always undoubtedly philosophical, which perhaps explains why the author has had to self-publish the third title. This is the most literary use of the zombie genre I’ve stumbled across, one that would be hard to exceed, and therefore publishers may have feared its lack of potentially purely commercial value.

I won’t deny moments where the story lost its grip on me, perhaps because each of the books has a decidedly different feel and the tone of the third was different to what I expected, but the way the author writes, the world he’s created, the intellectual significance behind the books are too eloquent to ignore. Though I enjoyed the last book the least, and it perhaps has some flaws, it completes an exceptional story arc, strong enough to be keepers for me.

The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion: When I started this my first thought was OMG (the protagonist) is Sheldon (Big Bang Theory) but while it’s difficult for fans of the show not to see the inevitable similarities, it didn’t (as some people have pointed out) put me off reading but added another layer of amusement to the read. There’s a love story here with a difference. Intelligent, witty, at times throwing a light on human interaction in a way standard romances might not, this book is often joyful to read. I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would though the ending seemed a little rushed, perhaps explained because the book has sequels. I kind of prefer this as a standalone read but, if not for my to-be-read mountain, I might consider perusing the other titles.

Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman: A reread of a classic (while awaiting the DVD release so I can see Amazon’s adaptation starring David Tennant and Michael Sheen) by two outstanding authors who are also my favourite writers. This story displays both their talents, creating a meld of the sublime and ridiculous in all the right ways. Any fan of Douglas Adams would do well to pick up this story. The world would be a poorer place without this collaboration. Pure magic.

Update Dec 2019

Hi Everyone!

OUT AND ABOUT:
Aside from visiting family over Christmas time seemed to get away from us, though we managed our annual trip to Killerton House, a National Trust Property, to see the themed decorations. This year was The Night Before Christmas but we were a little disappointed when comparing with the previous years. Still, the day we went was perfect with crisp sunny weather, particularly when in the days after much of the UK would see nothing but rain.

FILM/TV:
Have started Daredevil having watched the other Marvel series and so far find this to be my favourite, though I have one pet hate that seems to run through many television shows. There’s not a second to spare but the characters have time for a long heart-felt discussion.

Also spent time with our favourite Christmas films which invariably includes two black and white originals, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Bishop’s Wife. Both have several messages as appropriate today as they’ve always been.

Though we enjoyed the BBC adaptations of His Dark Materials, and The War of the Worlds to various degrees and though I freely admit to only seeing the second part, I disliked their updated version of A Christmas Carol which I found distasteful and boring.

READING:
The Salmon of Doubt, Douglas Adams
A collection of essays and a well put-together but incomplete last Dirk Gently novel, I can see how this will always garner mixed reviews. Overall, I enjoyed this book as there’s something poignant about reading Adams’ words one last time that makes this a fond farewell, but the lack of an end to the Dirk Gently book left me disappointed and wistful, but the story was shaping up so well I’m glad to know as little as I now do. Maybe one for true aficionados but a touching book to add to a collection.

The Cabin at the End of the World, Paul Trembley
My first read by this author but not my last. I wasn’t sure about the style at first but that made it different and I was so quickly drawn in and almost instantly riveted. A cabin in the woods, end of the world, hostage situational horror story with a twist and real uncertainty that digs into surprisingly emotional depths, and an end I found satisfying. If this is indicative of this author’s work, I’m in for a treat with his other titles.

The Reddening, Adam L.G. Nevill
The Reddening paints a highly descriptive portrait of the South Devon coastline unlike any I’ve read before, bringing the setting to life and creating a realistic landscape in which anything, even the horrors of the book, seem possible. Nevill’s way of writing horror through not only what is said, but also what’s not said, and left to the imagination, is perhaps worse than the words on the page. Several scenes had me so engrossed I even jumped once when I lost track of time disturbed by someone coming home and opening the front door. Nevill writes intellectual horror enhanced with a rich vocabulary.

The Bishop’s Wife, Robert Nathan
As a fan of the original black & white film, I was curious to read the story. Only able to find this as a 99p download, I took the opportunity. Though the basis of the plot are present in both, they are very different expressing both similar and yet varying philosophies. I have to accept I prefer the film which injects humour and perhaps a greater depth to the story.

I’m reading two other works I’ll review in the new year.

WRITING:
My short story, Remnant of a Haunting, a follow-up to my novel, A Very Private Haunting, is now available as an exclusive edition anthology, Loose Ends, from Candy Jar Books.

A re-write and extended edition of a work I’m editing seems to want to change tense on me. I’ll be annoyed if I change my mind and have to set it back but it is tightening the story.

Happy Reading!
Sharon x

Peace

There’s often an argument this time of the year over the politically correct way to send wishes. For me, it’s simply Merry Christmas. But more than that, for everyone out there I wish you peace.

Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing or not doing, whoever you are with or not with peace to you and a Happy New Year.

Only the Dead…

Having had a cold all last week, looking like death warmed up, and having difficulty lying down, it’s maybe little surprise I should recall a snippet of information once told to me by a National Trust volunteer. I cannot recall which property we were in but we lingered to look at a rather short double bed.

“How many people do you think slept in that?” the volunteer asked us.

Aware this must be a question with an unusual answer, we suggested, “Four?” Our thinking was that perhaps as there were no other sleeping arrangements and for warmth the parents kept their children in the bed with them.

“Six.”

I have to admit I blinked at the bed, mentally trying to calculate the extraordinary positions or height variations required to make them all fit but failed to come up with anything short of a nocturnal game of Twister. “Six?”

“Yes. How did they all fit?” She echoed the question revolving in my head. The answer is simple and one that explains why this sprang to mind last week.

They sat up because only the dead lay down.

Such was their belief but forced to sit to sleep all last week, the risk of drowning in unspeakable fluids while I slept too great, all I could do was to grumble at the idea. I hate having to sleep sitting up; the thought of doing it voluntarily makes me shiver with more dread than the notion ‘only the dead’ take up a horizontal position.