By Denna Holm
Have you ever sent off your manuscript to a publisher and received one of those depressing generic rejection slips? Or maybe I should ask: How many times have you received a rejection slip? Personally, I have a whole box full of them. At some point one needs to stop and ask yourself why. A good story is a good story. It should be enough. Right? Wrong. Most acquisition editors are far too busy to give an in-depth reason for why you are being rejected, so it’s up to you to try to figure it out. As an author myself, I know how difficult it can be to look at your own work with a critical eye.
As executive editor for Crimson Cloak Publishing, I’m in a unique position to see all types of writing styles through submitted manuscripts. One of the top of my reasons for rejecting a submission is “passive voice.” What I want is an “active voice.” I want to make an immediate connection with a character.
What is a passive voice compared to an active voice?
Simplified, the subject is something, or it does the action of the verb in the sentence.
The dog chased the ball. (Active)
The ball was chased by the dog. (Passive)
If you are reading a novel and the narrator is explaining everything that is happening (often step by step in detail) rather than allowing the story to unfold through your characters’ actions and dialogue, they are likely using a passive voice. The writer is typically trying to control the reader’s every thought. Imagine taking the above example and reading a whole novel through a passive voice. It usually puts the reader to sleep within the first few pages, which is what happens when it passes over the desk of an acquisition editor. This gets you dropped immediately into the slush pile. It won’t matter if you have a great idea for a story if nobody reads it.
I’m going to pull a rough draft opening paragraph from one of my works in progress. Once I finish a rough draft, it’s always set aside for at least four to six months while I work on something new. A separation is needed for an author to have any hope of seeing potential problems with your story. Time away will give you a fresh perspective. The opening paragraph is usually where we hook or lose a prospective reader (or an acquisition editor if you are submitting to a publisher).
Rough draft opening.
Sitting at his kitchen table, Raif Lucianus had been working for hours in front of the computer. There had been discrepancies in their finances that he needed to track down, but right now, all he wanted to do was get out of the house for a few hours. It was his responsibility as the pack’s alpha to keep track of every detail concerning his people, including their finances. Raif didn’t have any training when it came to balancing books. They needed to hire a real bookkeeper, only it would mean approaching a human. The elders would never go for it. He raised his arms over his head, thinking it might be a good idea to shift forms and go for a run. Maybe he could even hunt, stretch his legs, before he met the elders later tonight.
(In this example I’m only trying to set the scene in my head. I know this won’t go in my final copy. I’m trying too hard to explain what is going on. What I will ask myself during the first rewrite is what is necessary to set the scene for a new reader. How much do they really need to know? The average person will understand without handholding how tiring it is to sit in front of a computer screen for hours looking at numbers. Word count 137.)
Raif Lucianus slammed his computer closed, tired of staring at the screen. He massaged the knots on the back of his shoulders, then stretched his arms over his head. Too bad there wasn’t time to shift forms and run for a few hours; try to relax before he met the elders later tonight to go over their missing funds. They needed a trained bookkeeper, but the elders refused to allow a human to be brought into the loop. As their alpha, they expected Raif to deliver all the answers. What he’d like to do was take those books and shove them right down their cantankerous old throats.
(Word count 107.) What I decided on was to focus more on Raif’s frustration with his elders than the missing funds themselves. A reader should be able to pick up that the elders of Raif’s pack will be a problem throughout the story. I edited out uses of ‘had been,’ which always tends to come across as passive. We need to watch out for over-uses of ‘was’ too. I try to eliminate anything that says ‘he wanted, he saw, he felt’ and be more direct. I want to start setting up my conflicts right from the first paragraph. Hopefully it will be enough to hook a reader who likes paranormal/sci-fi romance.
This may or may not be in my final copy. If beta readers don’t connect, I’ll switch things up.
Most rough drafts come across like my example paragraph. You do not want to send something like this to a publisher. The real work begins when you start your first rewrite. As I’m watching out for plot holes, repetition, or conflicting information/descriptions, I’m also starting to edit out the passive voice. By the time I reach the final polishing stage—which usually takes a minimum of 3 rewrites, I’m looking at each sentence, each paragraph, always with tightening in mind, strengthening the wording. These are steps I take with every single novel. If I try to rush the editing stages, I’m always sorry later. It’s difficult to pull one back once it’s published.
Passive voice is my number one reason for rejecting a manuscript. I can forgive a few problems with punctuation or grammar if the story itself is solid, but it’s a steep climb to make an emotional connection with a reader using a passive voice.
I hope you find this information helpful the next time you sit down to rewrite your rough draft. I personally find the polishing stage just as much fun as writing the rough draft. Make sure you keep all your rough drafts as you polish so you can see the difference in how it reads.
Next time I’ll discuss believability—or convincing the reader to suspend disbelief. It is my second reason for rejecting a manuscript. No matter if you are writing historical romance, mysteries, horror, or science fiction, the text must sound reasonable to the reader. The second they start questioning actions, you’ve lost them.