The Careful Writer: When To Use Passive or Active Verbs

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Maple spalting with carbon cushion fungus (photo by Nina Munteanu)

One of the most common pieces of advice I give to students of writing in coaching sessions and my classes at UofT (technical and non-fiction writing) and George Brown College (fiction writing) is that active verbs most often work better than passive verbs.

 

Active Verbs Clarify by Identifying Agent

The use of active verbs avoid confusion because they clearly identify the subject (the doer). For instance, consider these two versions:

ACTIVE: Alice walked the dog.

PASSIVE: The dog was walked.

The active sentence clearly identifies Alice as the one walking the dog; the passive sentence does not provide agency (Alice). We don’t know who walked the dog. When we use active verbs we always know the agent (of change); not so with passive. However, if we modify the passive sentence with “by”, then agency is provided:

PASSIVE (with agency): The dog was walked by Alice.

But the sentence no longer flows easily. This is because the typical subject-verb-object (SVO) flow that we are used to in the English language has changed to object-verb-subject (OVS). If you speak Native Brazilian Hixkaryana, you might be OK with that, given they organize their sentences this way. But that is not how we think and read. Here’s another example:

PASSIVE: The report was written by Ahmed, and it was found to be excellent

ACTIVE: Ahmed wrote the report and it was excellent.

ACTIVE BETTER: Ahmed wrote an excellent report.

 

Active Verbs Clarify and Empower by Reducing Need for Modifiers

Another reason to use active verbs is that a writer depends less on modifiers to prop up a weak verb, which passive verbs tend to be. For instance, which version is more compelling and easy to take in?

  1. Jill was walking quickly into the room.

  2. Jill rushed into the room.

The example below that I explore in my book The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! shows how the use of active and powerful verbs adds vividness and clarity to a scene.

PASSIVE

ACTIVE

„ Joe walked slowly into the room.

 

„ Joe sidled into the room.

 

„ The naked couple were in the bed almost buried under the rumpled covers. They were now struggling to get up.

 

„ The naked couple struggled out from the rumple of clothes and blankets.

 

„ Joe saw the big man sit up and stare at him angrily.

 

„ The man reared up and glared at Joe.

 

TOTAL WORDS: 38 TOTAL WORDS: 25

TheFictionWriter-NMNotice how the use of active verbs also unclutters sentences and makes them more succinct and accurate. This was achieved not only by choosing active verbs but power-verbs that more accurately portray the mood and feel of the action. Most of the verbs used in the Passive column are weak and can be interpreted in many ways; words such as “walk” “were” “sit” and “stare”; each of these verbs begs the question ‘how’, hence the inevitable adverb. So we end up with “walk slowly” “were now struggling” “sit up” and “stare angrily.” When activated with power-verbs, we end up with “sidle” “struggled” “rear up” and “glared”—all more succinctly and accurately conveying a mood and feeling behind the action.

 

When Passive Verbs Clarify…

In Chapter 17 of their book The Craft of Research (University of Chicago Press) Wayne C. Booth and colleagues stress that mindlessly adhering to the tacit rule to choose active verbs over passive verbs can in fact cloud a sentence. They suggest asking a simpler question: do your sentences begin with familiar information, preferably a main character? “If you put familiar characters in your subjects, you will use the active and passive properly,” they say.

It’s all about context.

Booth et al. provide two passages and ask you to choose which “flows” more easily:

  1. The quality of our air and even the climate of the world depend on healthy rain forests in Asia, Africa, and South America. But the increasing demand for more land for agricultural use and for wood products for construction worldwide now threatens these rain forests with destruction.

  2. The quality of our air and even the climate of the world depend on healthy rain forests in Asia, Africa, and South America. But these rain forests are now threatened with destruction by the increasing demand for more land for agricultural use and for wood products used in construction worldwide.

Most readers will find that 2. flows more easily. This is because the beginning of the second sentence picks up on the “character” (the rain forest) introduced at the end of the first sentence (…the rain forests in Asia, Africa, and South America. But these rain forests…). In the active verb version of 1. the second sentence starts with new information unconnected to the first sentence. The sentences don’t flow into each other as well.

The passive version (2.) permitted the reader to continue with the familiar “character” right away. This, argue Booth et al., is the main function of the passive: to build sentences that begin with older information. The other reason version 2. works better is that the second sentence opens with something short, simple and easy to read: These rain forests are now threatened. In the active version 1. the second sentence opens with something long and complex. The key to clarity is to start simple (and strong, with a “character”) and end with complexity; this way, you set up the reader to better understand by starting with familiar/simple and moving to new/complex.

In engineering and the sciences where I teach at UofT, teachers still demand the use of passive verbs, believing that this makes the writing more objective. This advice is often equally misleading. Booth again provide two passages to show this:

  1. Eye movements were measured at tenth-of-second intervals.

  2. We measured eye movements at tenth-of-second intervals.

In fact, both sentences are equally objective; however, their stories differ. Version 1. ignores the person doing the measuring and focuses on the measurement. Avoiding “we” or “I” doesn’t make it more objective; it does, however shift the focus of the narrative. There is another explanation for using the passive version of 1. vs. the active 2. When a scientist uses the passive to describe a process, she implies that the process can be repeated by anyone—much like providing a recipe that anyone can follow.

Consider the following two passages:

  1. It can be concluded that the fluctuations result from the Burnes effect.

  2. We conclude that the fluctuations result from the Burnes effect.

The active verb in 2. conclude and we as subject refers to actions that only the writer / researcher can perform. In other words, they are taking responsibility for that conclusion. Anyone can measure; only the author / researcher can claim what their research means.

The lesson here is that there is no one magic stick for sentence structure and active vs. passive verb use. Reader-ease and clarity depends on context and a natural flow of ideas.

 

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in May 2020.

One-Day Writing Intensive in Georgian Bay

On June 22, 2019, I joined Honey Novick and Cheryl Antao-Xavier as presenters of a one-day writing intensive at Noël’s Nest Country Bed & Breakfast near Port McNicoll.

NoelsNest-Group-close

writing group at Noel’s Nest

A small group of dedicated writers joined the intensive and we explored topics to do with writing, manuscript preparation and submission, as well as publishing models. This included meaningful discussions and writing exercises, readings and sharing.

writers writing2I talked about the importance of theme to help determine a story’s beginning and ending. We also discussed the use of theme in memoir to help focus the memoir into a meaningful story with a directed narrative. I discussed the use of the hero’s journey plot approach and its associated archetypes to help determine relevance of events, characters and place: all topics explored in my Alien’s Guidebook series.

As part of the intensive at Noël’s Nest, a magnificent lunch was served along with refreshments. The day was sunny and warm. And perfect in the shade. We ended the intensive with a short nature walk led by naturalist Merridy Cox.

Liana-Lillian writingWhile everyone left at six, I stayed on with a friend. I’d booked the night and looked forward to a restful evening among deer, rustling trees and a chorus of birdsong. The owner had left us some leftovers for supper, and, as we dined on a smorgasbord of gourmet food and wine, I reveled in Nature’s meditative sounds. The night sky opened deep and clear with a million stars.

The next day we enjoyed exploring southern Geogrian Bay, which included the small towns of Port McNicoll, Midland and Penetanguishene. Georgian Bay is part of Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes.

Tom_Thomson_-_Pine_Island,_Georgian_Bay

Pine Island by Tom Thompson

The bay itself is quite large, comprising about four-fifths the size of Lake Ontario. Eastern Georgian Bay, where we were exploring, is part of the southern edge of the Canadian Shield. Granite bedrock exposed by the glaciers at the end of the last ice age about 11,000 years ago, forms a rugged coastline dotted by windswept eastern white pine. The rugged beauty of the area inspired landscapes by artists of the Group of Seven.

The shores and waterways of the Georgian Bay are the traditional domain of the Anishinaabeg First Nations peoples to the north and Huron-Petun (Wyandot) to the south.

Port McNicoll-GeorgianBay2

Georgian Bay at Port McNicoll

The bay was a major Algonquian-Iroquoian trade route when Champlain, the first European to explore and map the area in 1615–1616, arrived and called it “La Mer douce” (the calm sea). Originally named Waasaagamaa by the Ojibwe, the bay was renamed Georgian Bay by Lieutenant Bayfield of a Royal Navy expedition after King George IV.

After driving through Port McNicoll, we drifted into Midland, where we enjoyed a delicious crepe at La Baie Creperie. On the recommendation of a local, we then moved on to Penetanguishene to the Dock Lunch for the best ice cream in Southern Georgian Bay.

LaBaie Creperie-Midland

La Baie Crêperie in Midland

Upon leaving, I realized that I’d only seen a small portion of the Georgian Bay area and vowed to return soon.

Group writing

Eager writers work on an exercise I’ve given them

Writing intensive June 22, 2019

 

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

 

Write and Publish, Part 2: Redefining Yourself

Author and university writing instructor Nina Munteanu shares how you can become successful as a writer: one of them is to redefine yourself as an author–to be successful you need to play the part.

 

Nina-RedefineYourself

The Write and Publish Series

You want to write but don’t know how to get started? The Write and Publish Series focuses on:

  • How to find time to write around your busy schedule
  • How to make the most of your present resources
  • How to get inspired and motivate yourself to write
  • How to write, finish and submit your work

The 7-part series of lectures consists of: 1) Nina’s 5-Ps to Success; 2) Redefine Yourself as an Author; 3) Time and Space to Write; 4) Adopt a Winning Attitude; 5) Write What Excites You; 6) How to Beat Writer’s Block; and 7) How to Keep Motivated.

The Writer’s Toolkit

This series of lectures and workshops is part of Nina Munteanu’s “The Writer’s Toolkit”, available as three workshops and DVDs for writers wishing to get published. This 6-hour set of three discs contains lectures, examples and exercises on how to get started and finish, writing craft, marketing and promotion. Available through the author (nina.sfgirl@gmail.com).

the writers toolkit-front-WEBI was fascinated by Nina’s clear and extremely interesting lecture on the hero’s journey.  Maybe all writer’s have a novel in their heads they want to write one day, and the techniques Nina  shared with us will help me when I get to that point.  In fact, because of her, I may get there a lot sooner than I had planned.”— Zoe M. Hicks, Saint Simon’s Island, GA

Nina Munteanu’s command of the subject matter and her ability to explain in a way that the audience understood was excellent. As a hopeful author, I found her words inspiring.”—Amanda Lott, Scribblers Writers’ Retreat, GA

Rarely have I encountered someone of Nina’s considerable talent and intellect tied to such an extraordinary work ethic…A gifted and inventive writer, Nina is also an excellent speaker who is able to communicate complicated ideas in simple terms and generate creative thought in others. Her accessible, positive approach and delightful sense of humor set people at ease almost immediately.”–Heather Dugan, Ohio writer and voice artist

What you’ve done for me, Nina, is you’ve just opened up a whole new world. You’ve shown me how to put soul into my books.”–Hectorine Roy, Nova Scotia writer

The Writer’s Toolkit workshops were based on my award-nominated fiction writing guide: The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!

“…Like the good Doctor’s Tardis, The Fiction Writer is larger than it appears… Get Get Published, Write Now! right now.”—David Merchant, Creative Writing Instructor

The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire World Syndicate) is a digest of how-to’s in writing fiction and creative non-fiction by masters of the craft from over the last century. Packaged into 26 chapters of well-researched and easy to read instruction, novelist and teacher Nina Munteanu brings in entertaining real-life examples and practical exercises. The Fiction Writer will help you learn the basic, tried and true lessons of a professional writer: 1) how to craft a compelling story; 2) how to give editors and agents what they want’ and 3) how to maintain a winning attitude.

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webThe Fiction Writer is at the top of the required reading list for my Writer’s Workshop students. With its engagingly direct, conversational style and easily accessible format, it is a veritable cornucopia of hands-on help for aspiring writers of any age…the quintessential guidebook for the soon-to-be-published.”—Susan McLemore, Writing Instructor

As important a tool as your laptop or your pen.”—Cathi Urbonas, Halifax writer

Has become my writing bible.”—Carina Burns, author of The Syrian Jewelry Box

I highly recommend this book for any writer wishing to get published.”—Marie Bilodeau, acclaimed author of Destiny’s Blood

I’m thoroughly enjoying the book and even learning a thing or two!”—Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of Wake

 

Nina Munteanu

Nina Munteanu next to a metasequoia tree in The Beach, ON (photo by Richard Lautens)

 

The Fiction Writer is the first of a series of writing guides, which consist so far of: The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice; and The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

 

Microsoft Word - Three Writing Guides.docx

 

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

Write and Publish, Part 1: Nina’s 5-Ps to Success

Author and university instructor Nina Munteanu gives her “formula” for publishing success that she calls ‘the 5-Ps.’

 

Nina-5Ps of Publishing

 

The Write and Publish Series

You want to write but don’t know how to get started? The Write and Publish Series focus on:

  • How to find time to write around your busy schedule
  • How to make the most of your present resources
  • How to get inspired and motivate yourself to write
  • How to write, finish and submit your work

This 7-part series of lectures consists of: 1) Nina’s 5-Ps to Success; 2) Redefine Yourself as an Author; 3) Time and Space to Write; 4) Adopt a Winning Attitude; 5) Write What Excites You; 6) How to Beat Writer’s Block; and 7) How to Keep Motivated.

The Writer’s Toolkit

This series of lectures and workshops is part of Nina Munteanu’s “The Writer’s Toolkit”, available as three workshops and DVDs for writers wishing to get published. This 6-hour set of three discs contains lectures, examples and exercises on how to get started and finish, writing craft, marketing and promotion. Available through the author (nina.sfgirl@gmail.com).

the writers toolkit-front-WEBI was fascinated by Nina’s clear and extremely interesting lecture on the hero’s journey.  Maybe all writer’s have a novel in their heads they want to write one day, and the techniques Nina  shared with us will help me when I get to that point.  In fact, because of her, I may get there a lot sooner than I had planned.”— Zoe M. Hicks, Saint Simon’s Island, GA

Nina Munteanu’s command of the subject matter and her ability to explain in a way that the audience understood was excellent. As a hopeful author, I found her words inspiring.”—Amanda Lott, Scribblers Writers’ Retreat, GA

Rarely have I encountered someone of Nina’s considerable talent and intellect tied to such an extraordinary work ethic…A gifted and inventive writer, Nina is also an excellent speaker who is able to communicate complicated ideas in simple terms and generate creative thought in others. Her accessible, positive approach and delightful sense of humor set people at ease almost immediately.”–Heather Dugan, Ohio writer and voice artist

What you’ve done for me, Nina, is you’ve just opened up a whole new world. You’ve shown me how to put soul into my books.”–Hectorine Roy, Nova Scotia writer

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webThe Writer’s Toolkit workshops were based on my award-nominated fiction writing guide: The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!

“…Like the good Doctor’s Tardis, The Fiction Writer is larger than it appears… Get Get Published, Write Now! right now.”—David Merchant, Creative Writing Instructor

The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire World Syndicate) is a digest of how-to’s in writing fiction and creative non-fiction by masters of the craft from over the last century. Packaged into 26 chapters of well-researched and easy to read instruction, novelist and teacher Nina Munteanu brings in entertaining real-life examples and practical exercises. The Fiction Writer will help you learn the basic, tried and true lessons of a professional writer: 1) how to craft a compelling story; 2) how to give editors and agents what they want’ and 3) how to maintain a winning attitude.

The Fiction Writer is at the top of the required reading list for my Writer’s Workshop students. With its engagingly direct, conversational style and easily accessible format, it is a veritable cornucopia of hands-on help for aspiring writers of any age…the quintessential guidebook for the soon-to-be-published.”—Susan McLemore, Writing Instructor

As important a tool as your laptop or your pen.”—Cathi Urbonas, Halifax writer

Has become my writing bible.”—Carina Burns, author of The Syrian Jewelry Box

I highly recommend this book for any writer wishing to get published.”—Marie Bilodeau, acclaimed author of Destiny’s Blood

I’m thoroughly enjoying the book and even learning a thing or two!”—Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of Wake

Nina Munteanu

Nina next to a metasequoia tree in The Beach, ON (photo by Richard Lautens)

 

The Fiction Writer is the first of a series of writing guides, which consist so far of: The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice; and The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

 

Microsoft Word - Three Writing Guides.docx

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

What POV are You Using and Why?

oldcedar-holes-LR

Cedars with woodpecker holes, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The story’s viewpoint can be told from several perspectives and which one you choose can be critical to how your story comes across.

Different stories lend themselves to different narrative styles and point of views (POVs). In his April 2000 article in Fiction Writer entitled “First Blood, Third Person” David Morrell warns that some writers may “select a viewpoint merely because it feels natural, but if you…don’t consider the implications of your choice…your story might fight you until you abandon it, blaming the plot when actually the problem is how you’re telling it.”

The viewpoint choices include:

  • Omniscient
  • Third person limited
  • Second person
  • First person

Omniscient View

The omniscient view is the broadest view. Through this viewpoint the narrator describes everything and everyone and may drop into any character at any time, and — in the case of a beginning writer — all too confusingly in the same paragraph.

While this POV is the easiest one to use it is really the hardest to master. In the wrong hands, this viewpoint can be as intrusive as it is distancing. And it is prone to polemic. In the hands of a masterful writer, this viewpoint can make for the most powerful and rich storytelling. Epics of any kind, especially epic fantasies or historical epics, lend themselves to this style. The omniscient viewpoint is particularly suited to a story that is “large”, where ultimately the main character is not any particular protagonist but “the story” itself, or a society or world or time period. The writer must still somehow achieve connection and intimacy with the reader to succeed with this viewpoint. You can do this through lyrical and compelling narrative, poetic language and powerful imagery.

Limited Third Person Viewpoint

A story told through limited third person POV is narrated from one or a few key characters (though not at the same time) by revealing not only their movements but their thoughts and feelings (e.g., he struggled up to his feet, giddy with pain). When starting out, it is often best to adopt this style, which is generally more personal, appealing and least confusing. So long as you respect the readers’ need for clarity by keeping to one POV per scene, you can choose to enter into the heads of as many characters as you wish. It is the norm to use chapter, section or scene breaks when changing from one POV to another.

This style of narrative is the most common one used in contemporary books, particularly genre books, thrillers and action/adventure books. Through conflicting perspectives of your characters, you can swiftly paint a rich tapestry of tension for both characters and reader.

Second Person Viewpoint

This second person viewpoint (“you”) is not often used, mostly because it is both distancing and less easy to read. Although it is a narrative often used in conversation (e.g., “you never know what you’re gonna get with a box of chocolates, do you?”) this style of narrative is harder for readers to embrace and get close to the story’s characters. This viewpoint works effectively in certain artistic situations when you wish to purposefully impart a distance to the narrator, due to their own limitations, infirmity or situation.

First Person Viewpoint

The first person point of view is both the most limiting perspective (told only through one viewpoint) and most personal and revealing (of that viewpoint character). This viewpoint works well in literary fiction where the main character’s thoughts and issues are the key focus in the story. When the character who changes the most is the one telling the story, this makes for very compelling reading.

Cedar trunk base-LR

Base of cedar tree, Little Rouge woodland, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Many detective stories are told in first person to great effect. The reader is right there with the detective, solving the mystery. The first person viewpoint is also the preferred POV for memoirs, for obvious reasons.

One thing to keep in mind, particularly when narrating through the first person POV, is the reliability of your character. You need to decide how reliable your first person POV character is in telling the story and how you will impart this to the reader.  Writing through a character’s faulty perception of the world (and of themselves) provides a writer with an incredible opportunity but also an incredible challenge. You can only go so far with an unreliable character before losing your own credibility as a writer — and losing the reader in the long run. Obviously, you need a balance.

If you are struggling with your story and can’t quite pinpoint what is bogging it down, try changing how you are telling it. Change the viewpoint and see what happens.

References

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, KY. 266pp.

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webThe Fiction Writer “is the most practical book on publishing that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read them all! Not only is each chapter packed with advice for writers at every level of the publishing process, but the text is highly readable and even entertaining. The clear format, the direct style and the playful layout keep the large volume of information from ever becoming dry or boring.

This book is aimed at anyone interested in gaining entrance to the world of publishing, whether you want to write sci-fi novels, poetry, children’s books, how-to books, or magazine articles. If you want to publish with the big-name pros or even self-publish, this book will help you decide what would suit you best and how to achieve it.”

Lucia Gorea, English professor at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

Hybrid Publishing: Understanding the Writing and Publishing Landscape

Cafe on Baldwin-TorontoOn Friday evening of October 26th Nina will be giving the first in a series of 10 writing workshops through the Immigrant Writers Association Writing and Publishing workshop series for members and non-members. Workshops are free for Class A members, $10 for Class B members, and $15 for non-members.

WORKSHOP: Hybrid Publishing: Understanding the Landscape 

DESCRIPTION: The workshop is structured as an hour-long lecture followed by discussions pertinent to the topic, such as various publishing models, self-publishing, indie publishing, the traditional and the hybrid model with the pros and cons of each model.

The workshop will cover:

  • An overview of the publishing industry, spanning from traditional to indie and self-publishing and everything in-between.
  • Advantages and disadvantages of each option discussed based on needs and perspectives. These include marketing, distribution, creative control, revenue, timing, branding, and reputation.
  • An exploration of emerging directions, models, collaborations and structures in the publishing industry and what this means for the writer.

TIME: 7pm to 9pm

PLACE: Toronto City Hall, Committee Room #2
100 Queen Street West
Toronto, ON

COST: Free for IWA Member type A; $10 for IWA Member type B; $15 for non-members

REGISTER/PAY HERE

Learn with IWA is an initiative of the Immigrant Writers Association, which helps its members enhance their writing skills, gain knowledge about the Canadian publishing landscape, and advance their careers. IWA also encourages its members and other immigrants to share the expertise they brought along, their culture, and thoughts to enrich the society they live in.

Nina’s IWA Writing and Publishing workshops series include:
(C: on craft; P: on publishing, promotion, marketing)

1 (P): Hybrid Publishing: Understanding the Landscape (Oct 26, 2018)
2 (C): World as Character (Nov 30, 2018)
3 (P): How to Promote Your Book and Increase Your Visibility (Jan, 2019)
4 (C): Storyboarding: creating “story” from scenes to worlds
5 (P): Getting Started and Finishing
6 (C): Things to Consider in Fiction Writing
7 (C): Genre-Specific Writing
8 (P): Cover Design / Interior Layout
9 (C): Self-Editing: Ways to Improve Your Language in Writing
10 (P): Getting Feedback: what to do with it

NinaOct26

_________________________

To find out more about IWA’s membership type A and B, please visit immigrantwriters.com/join-us

 

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

 

 

When Do You Know Your Story Is Finished?

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Spalted maple log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

A student of mine once asked me how many drafts it took to get the final version of a story. I answered cagily: as many as you need. I wasn’t trying to be cheeky or elusive. In truth, this is a question that only you can answer; and it will be different with each story you write.

George Lucas once said in an interview about the remaking of Star Wars that in the film industry, projects were never finished; only abandoned. What he meant by this was that at some point in the creative and revision process of polishing a story, you have to stop and show it to the world. Let your baby walk and stand on its own.

This is a big step for all beginning writers and many will freeze. Terrified at the idea of failure or censure, they end up sabotaging their own work. If you’re emotionally or psychologically not ready for the consequences of getting published, then you will falter, procrastinate, forever fuss over your creations and convince yourself that it isn’t ready. In truth, it’s you who aren’t ready.

This is a shame because to have written an entire novel is a great accomplishment. You’ve already done what over 80% of those who embark on a book don’t do: finish it. To halt the process by entering a perpetual cycle of revision is admitting defeat when you have really won the major battle. It’s like that fatal stumble on the last leg of a homerun.

If the idea is to publish, then you need to give yourself a kind of deadline or goal, based on something that makes sense to you and is achievable. This could even include a time deadline.

Robert J. Sawyer’s response to the question of “when do you stop revising?” was: “When you’ve taken out all the boring bits.” That may seem on the face of it either too simple or too abstract. But, in fact, he is right on the mark. However, to truly achieve that conclusion and consequently get your manuscript to where it is meant to be without you lingering like a frightened ghost, you need to accurately perceive what “boring” is. In order to do this you need to do several things.

The first is to gain objectivity of your work. You accomplish this by setting it aside for a while and letting it “breathe” (really, you’re letting yourself breathe). By distancing yourself a little from your work, you are able to return with a fresh outlook and read it more like a reader. Your “boring” meter will be running better this way and you will be in a better position to pick out redundancies, overly long exposition and detail, lack of context, “talking heads”, lack of action or tension, and confusing or awkward sentences. The other thing you gain with distance is the ability to describe your book’s theme and major plot. What is it really about? You need to reach the point where you can describe it in a couple of sentences or even a few words as you would describe a movie you like to a curious friend who hasn’t seen it yet.

patterns-Spalting log and blu-green stain fungus LR

Carbon cushion fungus spalting maple log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Once you’ve gained some objectivity, you can critique each scene and each character for his or her plot purpose within that central plot and theme. You can also assess each sub-plot’s role within the major plot and theme. When every paragraph within every scene within every chapter of your story scintillates with purpose and meaning, you have accomplished your task of removing the boring bits. Now you have a story that is finished.

Art is self-expression and expression is a reflection of the culture and time in which you live. Stories are a snapshot of time and place. Treat your art like life; some revision is good but at some point you need to just LIVE. Let go of your work and move on to the next chapter.

 

Nina MunteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.