Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the tag “how to write a novel”

The Best Book About How To Write is Free (yay free)

I have some strong opinions about “How To” books by and for writers. One opinion, really: They usually do more harm than good. They contain opinions from authors about what worked for those particular authors on the particular books those authors wrote. Which would be great, if those authors had time machines and could send copies of their “How To” books to themselves twenty years ago. As guides for the rest of us, though, they usually suck.

Using the time machine and sending “here’s how you will write” books to themselves would still probably do more harm than good. The process that got them to the level of success that warrants a “How To” book certainly included about a million valuable mistakes. It also probably involved a lot of reading—real books, with well-developed characters, interesting plots, and compelling dialogue, instead of douchey how to manuals. Novels that showed them what good writing is, instead of telling them how to construct the “Next Bestseller” or a “Blockbuster Novel.” A compelling narrative is not an IKEA bookshelf, and no assembly manual will ever tell anyone – other than the person who wrote it – how best to assemble it.

Outlining is an example I’ve used before. Ken Follett advises a complex 25-40 page chapter-by-chapter outline, including plotted biographies of each character. Stephen King, on the other hand says an outline “freezes it, it takes what should be a liquid, plastic, malleable thing to me and turns it into something else.” He’s even gone so far as to say, “it’s the difference between going to a canvas and painting a picture and going out and buying a Craftsmaster paint-by-the-numbers kit.”

Who’s right? Both are, with respect to how they should write. Neither is, with respect to how anyone but Ken Follett and Stephen King should write. If he hates doing it, Stephen King is not going to write a better novel if he’s forced to create a forty-page outline first. Ken Follett obviously works best with that kind of preparation and structure. The Pillars of the Earth would not improve if Follett decided to say “what the hell” and just start winging it.

[Note to Mr. King: Writing your own outline is not like buying a kit someone else created. By your estimation, every finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the last two years and virtually every Nobel Laureate do “paint-by-the-numbers” fiction. The difference is more akin to doing a sketch before putting the brush to canvas, which hacks like da Vinci and Rembrandt did, than paint-by-the-numbers, which kindergarteners do between naptime and snack.]

The best book a person can read to learn how to write is the fifty best books in her genre. Period. There is no substitute for doing that. Even to the extent there are worthwhile things to learn from books about writing, getting any real value out of them requires that you already be immersed in good writing. If you aren’t immersed in the craft itself, books discussing it theoretically aren’t going to do jack shit for your writing.

The First Five Pages is a fine book, but until you’re ready to conceive and give birth to a novel, it won’t do you much good. Self Editing for Fiction Writers is certainly a helpful, hands-on craft guide, if you’ve created something to edit. Save the Cat and Scene & Structure certainly explain how to structure a narrative, but without the formed context of what your own narrative should be, the result will be more akin to what King was warning about than anything Rembrandt ever produced. After immersing yourself in the specific type of book you want to write, the core elements and themes should become self-evident—with or without a handy checklist of core elements and themes.

But I promised a recommendation,

and I intend to deliver. Not a douchey “all” (Here’s a list of 500 novels I think everyone should read) or “nothing” (Craft books? We don’t need no stinkin’ craft books”) recommendation. An honest-to-god recommendation.

Some of you know me well enough to know what I’m going to say. If you found this blog because “Michael J. McDonagh” is the number one result when you Google “Anton Chekhov’s bitch” you’ve probably got a pretty good idea as well.


Physician, comedy writer, grandson of a serf (read: Tsarist Russian slave), and master of the short story, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov provided the most helpful and useful writing advice I have ever found anywhere. Not just “write with your heart” platitudes, either. Direct, craft-oriented advice. Advice that could never come from someone fattening her wallet or stoking her ego by hawking a book to aspiring writers. Advice that comes almost entirely from letters the patient, dutiful mentor wrote to people he was emotionally invested in. Loving, fatherly advice about how to do something from someone who was a master at doing it himself. Not given as grand proclamations or even for posterity. Straight-up advice to people asking him for help learning to write better.

As a doctor, Chekhov went out of his way to help the poor (who were not particularly hard to find in Tsarist Russia). As a writer, he evolved from a popular “lowbrow” comedic writer to a literary figure as venerated as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. But, always, he studied the craft the way a scientist studies anything, with a deep need to objectively understand the world, even if, as a writer, it was a often world of his own creation.

His letters are fascinating. They are also public domain, which means 100% free (yay, free!). Creighton University has collected many of the key sentences and paragraphs about the craft of writing in one place (so, I guess, “Here’s your How To book”): Anton Chekhov on Writing. If that taste makes you want to read a much larger, less focused, but richer collection, check out the Project Gutenberg version of the Letters of Anton Chekhov to His Family and Friends  (yes, still public domain, which means, yay, still free).

Even Chekhov’s papers are no substitute for exposing yourself to good writing in a deep, meaningful way. But if you want to experience something that is as close to sitting down for the night with the great masters and a bottle of scotch as any of us are likely to get, buy a bottle of scotch and start reading. Those collections are a goldmine. They are arguably the greatest wealth of writing tips in existence, and completely free.

So there’s my recommendation. Screw all they quasi-mysterious “keys to the craft” bullshit, and read some damn books. Then read how a true master, who isn’t shilling his own crap to make money, talks to an aspirant. It’s concrete stuff, but it isn’t a checklist. Because if the bullshit checklist craft books worked, nobody would write anything but brilliant narratives. Plus all of our books would look the same, and who the hell wants that?

Get back to me when you’ve had a chance to check out those links. I am thinking of expanding the “Anton Chekhov’s Bitches” organization. If that’s not a convention worth flying to, I don’t know what is.


Alpha Readers, Betas & Critique Partners: The ABCs of having a book that doesn’t suck.

Relationships with alpha readers (“alphas”) beta readers (“betas”) and critique partners (“CPs”) are RELATIONSHIPS. That fact, so key I’m yelling in bold, permeates every aspect of this topic. For starters, those relationships can range from “If you show me yours, I’ll show you mine” casual one night stands to serious, long-term “I feel as invested in your writing as I do my own” literary soul mates. The relationships evolve, grow, and/or end. I could easily drop a couple thousand words just analogizing alpha/beta/CP (“ABC”) pairings to every other relationship you could imagine—from parents to prostitutes—and barely scratch the surface. But let’s get to some definitions so we can at least make sure we’re all on the same page when we’re talking about this stuff.

Although I spend a good deal of this blog trying to disambiguate writing terms, that’s impossible with this topic. That’s the basic premise of this post. We are talking relationships, which means there are no rules beyond what the people in the relationship decide.

Alpha and Beta readers – it’s important to know what they are and are not

Let’s get the word-origin part out of the way. These are software industry terms that migrated over to writing communities. It looks like the terms first came into common use in the world of fan fic, then migrated to other online writer communities from there.

I got that far into my research and asked myself, “seriously, who gives a fuck?” I’m like a dog with ADD who saw a bright shiny object tied to a squirrel when it comes to research.

Suffice it to say, the terms were adopted from the software industry, where they have the following meanings:

Alpha Test:          The program is complete (or very nearly complete), but may have known limitations and problems. Testing is performed by software engineers for the purpose of finding and fixing critical issues.

Beta Test:   The program is complete and polished and needs to be tested in real-world conditions by real users to see how if functions in an uncontrolled environment. Testing is usually performed by customers, who are getting a free copy of the program in exchange for testing.

For some reason, the term beta reader is in extremely common use in writing communities. In some circles, it’s even become an umbrella term that encompasses everything in our ABCs. Alpha reader is less common, and many “betas” are really alphas.

Honesty, a foundation of any good relationship

Glancing at those definitions shows how quickly alpha/beta relationships can go south. Particularly with most people calling all critique work “beta reading.” If you have a rough draft that you spellchecked once, it’s perfectly reasonable to want another set of eyes on the manuscript. You’re looking for an alpha. If you’ve revised and polished the crap out of your manuscript, and you want to know what someone who bought it at a local bookstore would think of the novel, you’re looking for a beta. There is nothing wrong with wanting either of those things—or both, from different people at different times. But both you and your partner need to be clear about what you’re looking for.

I am now going to make this the most important blog post on the subject of ABC relationships in the history of the interwebs. I’m going to say it again, and this time it will be bold, in all caps, and italicized:


Sitting down to beta read for someone who really wants (or needs) an alpha is not fun. It’s like to showing up to take someone to a church picnic and having your date hand you a ball gag, saying, “Mama don’t do safewords, slave.”

It doesn’t matter what the terms mean. The non-online writing world still, generally, doesn’t use them, and writers got along just fine without them for a thousand years. F. Scott Fitzgerald never called himself Ernest Hemingway’s “beta reader,” and I can’t see a single reference in James Joyce’s papers about Hemingway being his “critique partner.” [In fact, that may be the only thing Joyce didn’t call Hemingway at some point.] Alpha and beta reader are semi-useful labels that have little meaning beyond that which we give them.

That, and it’s a useful answer to your daughter’s questions when you leave a folder open on the computer containing about a thousand emails with a woman she’s never heard of before.


I’ll get into how to pick ABC partners and trying to make the most of your ABC relationship in a future post (because I foreshadow future posts on this blog more than the witches foreshadow the events in Macbeth). In terms of what alpha and beta readers are, though, we can use two sets of definitions:

Set One: If you read it somewhere and assume the person is using the term correctly, or want to sound all hip and writerly in a conversation and use the terms yourself with someone other than an ABC partner:

Alphas get the MS when it still has problems and needs to be edited, maybe even before it’s finished; and

Betas get something that is as close to publishable as you can possibly make it, usually with the help of an alpha or two. Alphas should be other writers, Betas are usually better betas if they are nonwriter avid readers…


Set Two: For our own purposes, we don’t give a damn what the definitions are, since they’re likely not exactly the same as your prospective ABC partners anyway. Just make sure you and they have an honest discussion about what you’re looking for and what you’re willing to offer.

Then what the hell is a CP?

This is what I call everyone who isn’t a beta. If I’m sharing work with another writer, and reading and commenting on that writer’s work in return, I call that person a critique partner. Sometimes they function more like betas, sometimes more like alphas. If the relationship really clicks, it can go from beta to alpha to alpha on steroids (to your daughters wondering if they have an estranged sister who lives in Oregon or you are shopping for a Nigerian mail order bride).

How you’ll use a CP can depend on so many variables, not the least of which is how your write and edit, that it’s likely to change project-to-project even between the same two participants. I rewrite so much during the writing process itself that I would be wasting both of our time if I sent Chapter One to a CP the minute it was done. But I’ve had CPs who send work to me that way, and I don’t mind at all. I’ve sent standalone rewritten paragraphs at times, and asked/answered more than a few “how do you think I should handle” questions about things that haven’t even been written yet. When you get to the “bouncing ideas off each other” stage, neither alpha nor beta reader is an apt title. There isn’t anything to read yet.

That’s why I call any other writer I share work with a critique partner. And I mean it; particularly when the relationship evolves to the point that emphasizes “partner” over the word “critique.”


Bonus Materials and quiz:

What follows is a verbatim (including misspellings) transcript of a letter from Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald asked for feedback on his novel Tender is the Night, although it had already been published. Read the correspondence, then answer the following question:

Based on the above facts and what Hemingway said in his letter, what was Hemingway to Fitzgerald:

A) An alpha reader

B) A beta reader

C) A critique partner

D) Fuck this quiz, lets get drunk.


Key West
28 May 1934

Dear Scott:

I liked it and I didn’t. It started off with that marvelous description of Sara and Gerald (goddamn it Dos took it with him so I can’t refer to it. So if I make any mistakes—). Then you started fooling with them, making them come from things they didn’t come from, changing them into other people and you can’t do that, Scott. If you take real people and write about them you cannot give them other parents than they have (they are made by their parents and what happens to them) you cannot make them do anything they would not do. You can take you or me or Zelda or Pauline or Hadley or Sara or Gerald but you have to keep them the same and you can only make them do what they would do. You can’t make one be another. Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen. 

That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best—make it all up—but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way. 

Goddamn it you took liberties with peoples’ pasts and futures that produced not people but damned marvellously faked case histories. You, who can write better than anybody can, who are so lousy with talent that you have to—the hell with it. Scott for gods sake write and write truly no matter who or what it hurts but do not make these silly compromises. You could write a fine book about Gerald and Sara for instance if you knew enough about them and they would not have any feeling, except passing, if it were true. 

There were wonderful places and nobody else nor none of the boys can write a good one half as good reading as one that doesn’t come out by you, but you cheated too damned much in this one. And you don’t need to. 

In the first place I’ve always claimed that you can’t think. All right, we’ll admit you can think. But say you couldn’t think; then you ought to write, invent, out of what you know and keep the people’s antecedants straight. Second place, a long time ago you stopped listening except to the answers to your own questions. You had good stuff in too that it didn’t need. That’s what dries a writer up (we all dry up. That’s no insult to you in person) not listening. That is where it all comes from. Seeing, listening. You see well enough. But you stop listening. 

It’s a lot better than I say. But it’s not as good as you can do. 

You can study Clausewitz in the field and economics and psychology and nothing else will do you any bloody good once you are writing. We are like lousy damned acrobats but we make some mighty fine jumps, bo, and they have all these other acrobats that won’t jump. 

For Christ sake write and don’t worry about what the boys will say nor whether it will be a masterpiece nor what. I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket. You feel you have to publish crap to make money to live and let live. All write but if you write enough and as well as you can there will be the same amount of masterpiece material (as we say at Yale). You can’t think well enough to sit down and write a deliberate masterpiece and if you could get rid of Seldes and those guys that nearly ruined you and turn them out as well as you can and let the spectators yell when it is good and hoot when it is not you would be all right. 

Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it—don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist—but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you. 

About this time I wouldn’t blame you if you gave me a burst. Jesus it’s marvellous to tell other people how to write, live, die etc.

I’d like to see you and talk about things with you sober. You were so damned stinking in N.Y. we didn’t get anywhere. You see, Bo, you’re not a tragic character. Neither am I. All we are is writers and what we should do is write. Of all people on earth you needed discipline in your work and instead you marry someone who is jealous of your work, wants to compete with you and ruins you. It’s not as simple as that and I thought Zelda was crazy the first time I met her and you complicated it even more by being in love with her and, of course you’re a rummy. But you’re no more of a rummy than Joyce is and most good writers are. But Scott, good writers always come back. Always. You are twice as good now as you were at the time you think you were so marvellous. You know I never thought so much of Gatsby at the time. You can write twice as well now as you ever could. All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is. 

Go on and write. 

Anyway I’m damned fond of you and I’d like to have a chance to talk sometimes. We had good times talking. Remember that guy we went out to see dying in Neuilly? He was down here this winter. Damned nice guy Canby Chambers. Saw a lot of Dos. He’s in good shape now and he was plenty sick this time last year. How is Scotty and Zelda? Pauline sends her love. We’re all fine. She’s going up to Piggott for a couple of weeks with Patrick. Then bring Bumby back. We have a fine boat. Am going good on a very long story. Hard one to write. 

Always your friend


[Written on envelope: What about The Sun also and the movies? Any chance? I dint put in about the good parts. You know how good they are. You’re write about the book of stories. I wanted to hold it for more. That last one I had in Cosmopolitan would have made it.]

The Story/Plot Disambiguation Page

The Concept Was Simple (then writers started talking about it)

No concept is more basic to fiction writing than the concept of a story. After all, that’s the whole freaking point. We’re out to tell a story. The tricky part is telling a story well, which is to say interestingly. That’s what the plot is for. At its core, that is the difference between story and plot.

Story: Everything that’s happening in your fictional world, on or off stage, known or unknown to your POV character at any given time. It is the whole of the “real world” in your made up world.

Plot: The events that actually happen in front of the reader.

Put more simply, the difference is

Story: All the shit that matters, whether or not anyone actually sees it or does it.

Plot: All the shit – and, more importantly, only the shit – that your characters and/or narrator see and/or do.

This is an incredibly simple concept. Like most simple writing concepts, writers have written about it so much, and thrown around so many opinions about it, and felt so compelled to opine grandly about it, that it’s now completely fucked up. We have books and blogs telling people that story is the emotional journey, while plot is the physical journey. Print books that say, “story tells you what happened” (OK so far) and “plot is why it happened” (and then you fucked it up).

Don’t get me wrong, there are more nuanced and insightful concepts here, particularly with regard to plot. The problem is, many writers, including some creative writing teachers, seem to have come in on the tail end of the nuanced discussion, decided that’s what plot means, and confuse that nuance for a definition. Usually ending up with a definition that comes very close to being the opposite of what it should be.


So we’re not going to do it that way. It’s a hell of a lot easier to put the horse in front of the cart, and nail the principal distinction first.

Story: A man drives to the store and buys whipping cream.

Plot: A man has a pint of fresh strawberries and decides he wants some whipped cream to go with them. He backs his car out of the garage, drives to the end of his street, and makes a right. He reaches a stoplight and, when it turns green, makes a left into the store parking lot. He parks his car, goes to the dairy case and finds heavy whipping cream is on sale. He buys a carton and pays at the self-checkout.

That’s the difference. The story is an event (or, in a novel, a whole series of events). The plot is the thought and the action that describe the event. End of (hehe) story.

The Story of Story and Plot

We can get a little help here from etymology. We get the word “story” from, not surprisingly, the word “history.” First to the Greeks and then in Latin, the word came down as “historia.” It was initially “a chronicle of events,” meaning real ones, but in 1500, the word “story” came to include recounting of fictional events. The function was the same. A story is the basic, underlying  historical event, even if it’s a made up history about vampires or intergalactic warriors. It only has one timeframe, which is the order in which the events occurred. Nothing but the chronology of events matters.

Plot has a fittingly murky history (the plot thickens). It’s possible that we get the word from the middle French word “complot” (which means a conspiracy). It also derives (or complot is related to) plot, as in plot of land, which may or may not be related to plat (which is a map of said plots, although sometimes plot also meant map). In 1901 philologist, Walter William Skeat boldly predicted, “When the words complot, platform and plot (of ground) have all been thoroughly worked out, we may be confident that the mode of formation of plot a conspiracy will appear.”

Apparently, Bill and I are the only people who get geeked out on this stuff enough to care, because nobody’s gotten around to working it out. And it gets even weirder if you try to go earlier than Billy W did, possibly coming to complot via comepeloter, a really, really old fucking word that means roll a ball.

The funny thing is, no matter where it comes from, it still means the same thing when it comes to plotting stories. It is a plan, overview, map, or conspiracy. Or, I guess, the shit that gets the ball rolling, which is probably the best definition of all.

One way or the other, by about 1580, plot meant to plan or map. So, before 1600, we have:

Story: A chronology of events.

Plot: A map or scheme.

Which means we just took the simple answer and made it simpler. And probably more accurate. It’s fairly easy to look at questions of story and plot realizing that, at their base they simply mean these things. A guy goes to the store is story. He has to make a right out of his subdivision to get there is plot.

So, How’d it Get all Fucked Up?

Writers did it. It started with E. M. Forster, a genius at plotting. In 1927, he gave a series of lectures, which were later published as Aspects of a Novel. The thing is, Forster nailed it, and his explanation is brilliant. Unfortunately, his example seems to be the only thing anyone paid attention to.

The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot.

In the context of his lecture, it’s a great example. Cut out and isolated, it leads to people stating, then repeating, the wrong premise. “The queen died of grief” is not the plot because it tells why she died. It is the plot because that is the character’s experience in the story. It has nothing to do with cause and effect or action/reaction or any of the other things people have spent ninety years saying plot means. It’s the plot because, instead of turning a left to get whipped cream, she turned dead because she was grieving.

In the same lecture, Forster said, “A plot demands intelligence and memory on the part of the reader, to remember incidents and create connecting threads between them.” It’s ironic, because a significant minority, if not the majority, of the people who use his analysis seem to lack said intelligence and memory, because they keep forgetting the fucking connection he was making.

Cause and effect is a huge component of plot, story couldn’t care less about either. Motivations often drive characters’ actions, which usually drive plots, but that does not make those motivations the plot. It’s just that motivations are not the story. The story is: A happened, then B happened, then C happened. Even if you choose to start your story at C, then drop back to B and only tell A through flashbacks, the story remains the same. First A, then B, then C. You are making decisions about your plot, how and when you make those things happen and reveal them to the reader with flashbacks and out-of-sequence narrative. None of that changes the story one bit.

For example, the story in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather starts with Vito Corleone’s father being killed and Vito fleeing to the U.S. He is a shop clerk, meets a shady friend, hates being ripped off by a mobster, and becomes one himself. Although the book starts long after he’s reached the pinnacle of power and not long before his death, the Story starts at a very different time and in a very different place. Because a story is always chronological, even if the plot is not.

Back to Simple Stuff that Makes Sense

If you think of your novel as a play, plot is the stuff that happens on the stage. If it doesn’t happen on the stage, it is not part of the plot. A nuclear explosion may be central to the story you are telling – and therefore be a key story element – but it probably isn’t happening on the stage. So it’s not part of the plot. Your characters hearing about or reacting to it, because that is what happens on stage, may be less important to the story than the explosion, but it is far more important to the plot. Because those reactions are the plot.

When you hear someone begin to explain the difference between plot and story with talk about how vague, nuanced, or theoretical the differences are, your bullshit meter should start going off. If it’s within the chronological list of events you are relating in your book, it’s story. If it happens onstage, it’s plot. A lot of things are both, like buying the whipped cream. It’s key to the story, it also took place on the stage, so it fits both definitions. If a thermonuclear war starts while the man is buying his whipped cream, it could be key to the story, but it will only become part of the plot when something related to it shows up on stage. Making a right out of the parking lot to head back home is a plot element, but that act, in itself, is not story.

That’s about all there is to it.

Gun Control with Anton Chekhov

First, fair warning, I’m Anton Chekov’s bitch.

In my opinion, few writers have provided good advice as consistently as Anotn Chekhov. He primarily wrote plays and short stories, but I’m not sure anyone has explained the key elements of fiction writing as well. He seems to have tapped into a blend of science and art that afforded him the humility of an artist and a scientist’s (or professional athlete’s) understanding of the process that created the art. He was not a “I just sit down and fluffy butterflies come out of my ass” writer. He was a “I have worked hard to understand this process, and this is what I have learned” writer. Which is a boon for me, because I don’t tend to have fluffy butterflies coming out of my ass. Even if I did, I would still want to know how the hell they got there.

By far, Chekhov’s most famous writing advice relates to the famous Chekhov’s gun. Advice he appears to have given in many forms and with different phrasing, sometimes referring to acts of a play, other times to chapters of a book, and still others to placement in a story. It isn’t apocryphal – Chekhov said it – but he said it many times in many ways. To novelists, it’s best put:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

The end.

Seriously, that is where a blog post on Chekhov’s gun should end. I mean, he’s right. We should be shoehorning 150,000 words of STORY into 100,000 words. 500 words about room décor or intricate descriptions of clothing should get axed on the first edit if they don’t move the STORY forward. It’s a simple concept, it’s true, and I sure as fuck can’t say it better than he did, so the “what a Chekhov’s gun is” part of this post has now concluded.

Related Concepts

There are a few ways to play with Chekhov’s gun beyond, “don’t spend two pages describing your protag’s car unless there’s going to be a car chase or he’ll be buried alive in it later.”

1)    Turning off the turd machine

As indicated in my last post, there is a beautiful interplay between stashing Chekhov’s guns and avoiding deus ex machina (a/k/a turd machines). Deus ex endings are those with a combination of (a) a surprise ending, that (b) solves the hero’s problems, through (c) an improbable, intervening force. By telling us when not to hang a rifle on the wall, Mr. Chekhov impliedly tells us when one should be there. Put another way, Chekhov’s guns can change crappy “I didn’t see that coming” endings into riveting, reader doing a face/palm, “I should have seen that coming” endings.

In fact, when people disagree about whether an ending was really a deus ex, it boils down to whether the author did a good enough job stashing Chekhov’s guns earlier in the book. In a discussion over at QueryTracker about my deus ex post, one of my friends from that board said she’d never considered the end of Lord of the Flies deus ex, because using a signal fire to attract ships was discussed significantly in the beginning of the book. Because of that, a ship being attracted by the fire the wild boys set was, at least somewhat, foreshadowed. Similarly, another pointed out that Tolkien mentioned the eagles throughout, and they had and helped Gandalf escape Saruman’s tower, so that might not be a deus ex. To me, that’s just serial use of a deus ex device, which does not make it less deus exey, but the response still highlights the interplay between DoucheyZeus and Chekhov. To the extent a reasonable argument can be made that either is not a deus ex, it is because of a gun hanging on the wall in Chapter One.

I’m not saying this would, necessarily, make either book better, but what if that gun were more obviously hanging there? If three paragraphs were added to Lord of the Flies from the bridge of a ship patrolling the area near the island, the appearance of the naval officer would suddenly be much less deus exey. If the little barefoot dudes in Lord of the Rings had a conversation with the Dumbledor looking dude about how the Eagles would not fly near Mordor while the ring still existed, their appearance right after it was destroyed would, in a sentence, make more sense. Although there is plenty of room to argue that those resolutions are not better, they still show how, with a few sentences, Mr. Chekhov can arm us against Deus exey endings.

2)    Chekov’s Joke

Not surprisingly, since I like to write humor, one of my favorite uses for Chekov’s guns are Chekov’s jokes. If you think about it, every joke you know starts with a Chekov’s gun – or three. “A lawyer, a priest, and a stripper are on an airplane…” The punch line is going to have something to do with how their respective professions relate to not having enough parachutes. Probably something about strippers not screwing people or teasing them with promises of things that aren’t really going to happen. Three people, three guns. The first sentence of nearly every joke ever told is, effectively, “So there’s this gun hanging on the wall…”

Writing literary humor allows a lot of time between the setup and punch line, which is a great tool to play with. For example, the second sentence of the novel I’m querying, is: “Feeling like he was being watched, which he preferred to admitting he was being ignored, Nick tried to look casual, pretending to read the various magazines lying around McClintock Publishing’s lobby.” 253 pages later, the person Nick was there to meet – who has become his employer and his friend in the intervening 80,000 words – notices that Nick doesn’t “even resemble the awkward young writer he’d watched nervously pretend to read magazines in his lobby a few months before.” Not hilarious, by any means, but hopefully amusing. More to the point, it’s a callback in Act 3 that, if I did my job well, flashes the reader’s mind through the rollercoaster the two men have been riding since that meeting. At a time when the cars seem to be coming off the tracks.

I should probably provide a more well known example, since this blog post is already more well known than my manuscript. There is a doozey in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. The first book opens by talking about a woman who realizes how much better everything would be if Earth were just destroyed. In a very Monte Pythonesque move, Adams then informs us “This is not her story.”

And it’s not.

That story doesn’t come up again for the rest of the book. Or the next one. Or number three. Then, in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Adams opens exactly the same way, I think word-for-word, up to the point he informs us, “This is her story.”

I think Adams’ execution on that one is brilliant. The first part of the first book is amusing by itself. A bit of Brit humor, not at all unlike Monte Python’s, “And now for something completely different.” It stands on its own as amusing. Which, if you are going to wait five years for the punch line, it has to.

With the punch line, it moves from amusing to genius. A pretty banal opening at best (seriously, try querying “This is her story” and see how it works out) is, in truth, a massive, and massively delayed, payoff on a five year old setup line.

The fact that it could stand on its own as an amusing line is also key to intentionally ignoring Mr. Chekov’s advice when we look at:

3.       One Possible Exception: the red herring.

Back to being Mr. I Hate Absolutes. There are limits to even this (almost) completely true advice from Mr. Chekov. While I am not a fan of including things with no relevance to the story, sometimes things need to be nuanced in order to keep the story from being blatantly predictable and boring to the reader. The most obvious example is a mystery. If the only gun anyone has in Chapter One is the murder weapon, a glue-sniffing kindergartener will probably be able to solve the mystery. A grownup will be bored. Or get drunk and spend a night badmouthing you with a one-star review on GoodReads. I’m not just talking about genre mysteries here, either. All novels need to have some form of mystery to them – if the reader doesn’t wonder what’s going to happen, she’ll never pick the book back up.

Although I’m not talking about genre mysteries, they provide the easiest examples. And those examples show that – even when his advice needs qualification – Chekhov is still basically right. Bad red herrings in mysteries are just plot devices shoved into the narrative so there are other possible suspects. The difference between a good red herring and a contrivance (yes, just different turds from the same machine) is that a skilled writer can work in clues and suspects who muddy the “who done it” waters while at the same time also adding something to the STORY.

For example, all of the victims in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None were also suspects. But the things that made them suspects were also the reason each one was a victim. So each red herring was also part of the plot, apart from merely being there to divert attention from who the killer really was. Much like Adams’ mildly amusing joke was justified in itself, even if it later proved to be the setup for a much bigger joke, Christie’s suspects support the story in their own right, in addition to being red herrings on the “who done it” end of things.

But I digress

(which is probably what I should have named this blog, with an F-bomb thrown in for good measure)

Chekhov’s advice was less about foreshadowing and avoiding deus ex than about avoiding unnecessary detail and description. In practice, though, it pays huge dividends in those areas as well. Making sure any guns in Chapter One are fired before the end of the book, and making sure any guns being fired in the climax aren’t being mentioned for the first time when our hero draws them, are unavoidably linked by good storytelling.

Deus Ex Machina: A Literary Device That Has Sucked Since 400 B.C.

First, an overview:

What is Deus Ex Machina?

Literally, that phrase is Latin for: “A god from the machine.” Roughly translated, it means: “You wrote a shitty ending.” Actually, if you change it to deuce ex machina, as in “drop a deuce” or “go number two,” then it really does translate to “turd machine.” Either way, it is not a good sign.

Not all shitty endings are deus ex. The trademark of a dues ex ending is the combination of (a) a surprise ending, that (b) solves the hero’s problems, through (c) some improbable, intervening force. If you take one of those elements away, it isn’t deus ex. It may still be a bad ending, but it won’t be the mother of all bad endings, which is what deus ex almost always is.

Let’s take the “cavalry rides to the rescue” ending as an example. Is that always deus ex? Certainly not. If you are writing about the Battle of Vienna, a massive cavalry charge turning the tide is a huge part of the story. But (a) it was not a surprise, they knew it was coming from the outset. Although (b) it did solve the hero’s problems, (c) it was not improbable at all, nor was the cavalry an outside force intervening in things. That charge was part of the “hero’s” plan from the outset.

Now let’s say you are writing a contemporary story about a woman on the run from the mob. She’s alone in the park and notices five guys in trench coats closing in on her from all sides. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. But then:


 Deus ex cavalry charge. Notice the cars in the parking lot.

Yea, that’s a deus ex. You can tell, because it sucks.

Western Civilization as it Relates to Deus Ex 

The term itself originated around 19 B.C.E. Yes, B.C. As in, Before Christ, which, regardless of your belief in the divinity of Christ, was a long, long, long fucking time ago. It comes to us courtesy of Quintus Horatius Flaccus, a Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus, whom the English speaking world usually calls Horace. He coined the term in Ars Poetica, which was basically a style guide for Roman poets, where he instructs poets that they should never resort to a “god from the machine” to resolve their plots “unless a difficulty worthy a god’s unraveling should happen.”

Like most things scholarly and Roman around that time, it was not a Roman idea. Horace was parroting Aristotle’s 335 B.C.E. bitchfest about Deus Ex, entitled Poetics. Translated, Aristotle said, “It is obvious that the solutions of plots, too, should come about as a result of the plot itself, and not from a contrivance.” The contrivances he hated so much in ancient Greek plays were – you guessed it – gods being lowered or raised onto the stage by way of some kind of machine. Usually it was a crane, sometimes a trap door.

Either way, you have your Greek tragedy going along just fine, we’ve been through Act II, the characters are in a hopeless position, all seems lost, then *POOF*


 DoucheyZeus is here to save the day.

Zeus shows up and just fixes everything. And around 400 B.C., most people agreed that ending kinda sucked.

For a little perspective, the first novel printed in the English Language is believed to be William Caxton’s 1483 translation of The Book of the Knight of the Tower. So people giving advice about how to write had been saying deus ex sucks for almost two thousand years before the first book was ever printed in the English language. It’s been well over five hundred years since that book was printed, and nothing much has changed.

Deus only knows how many not famous books are not famous because they suffered from this malady. Some famous novels do, too. The important thing to note is that those books’ fame is usually attributed to their other, more worthy aspects or the prior fame of the author. Criticisms usually point to those other aspects and note that the books are successful despite – and never because of – the crappy ending.

For example, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Return of the King, Frodo and Sam are surrounded by an army of about two million evil minions inside a dark overlord’s volcano lair. Oh, yea, then the volcano starts to erupt. Pretty impossible situation, right? Apparently, because Tolkien couldn’t even think of a satisfactory solution to the problem.


Yea, so, um, then giant eagles show up and fly them to safety. The end. Bad enough to undo the prior thousands of pages of epic Middle Earth storytelling? No. But in my entire life I have not heard one person say, “I love the part where the eagles just show up from out of nowhere and save them.” He also gets a bit of a pass because the real story conflict was already over. The ring was gone, Golem met his fate, the boys had accomplished their mission – the story was done. They just happened to end said story and mission in the middle of an evil overlord’s erupting volcano lair and surrounded by an evil army. Tolkien was just cheating to make the characters survive, not to complete the saga of the ring itself.

Why is Deus Ex so Bad?

I like to think of this in terms of investing. When readers enjoy a story, they are invested in the characters and the plot. Those things matter to them. The better job we do writing, the more invested they are. By the time we get to Act III, they have invested time, they are invested in the characters and the story, and they expect that investment to pay off.

Then a deus exey writer says “Forget all that, here’s something that has nothing to do with any of it. Story’s over, the end.”

Every moment spent investing in the story and the characters was wasted. Three hundred pages of learning about the situation and wondering how the characters could possibly get out of it were answered with: “They can’t, but they live happily ever after, anyway. The end.” Basically, it feels like the author is saying “Fuck you, it’s your fault you read the first 300 pages, because all that matters is the last one.”

More truthfully, though, a deus ex is the author’s admission that he painted himself into a corner. H.G. Wells told a great story in War of the Worlds, right up to the end. I’m sorry, but more advanced civilizations wiping out native populations are generally the ones with the nastiest bugs, not incapable of dealing with them. Stephen King, no stranger to writing himself into a corner, uses it in a very in-your-face way in the Dark Tower series, intervening as author/god and sending a note into his fictional world that actually says, “Here comes the deus ex machina.” Kurt Vonnegut did something similar in Breakfast of Champions.

 Is Deus Ex Always teh Suk?

If you’ve read much of this blog, you know my distaste for commentary about writing that uses “always” or “never.” Because my only “always” is that such commentary or advice is never true.

Deus ex has been used for comedic effect brilliantly. Monte Python uses it with abandon – A UFO showing up to rescue Brian after he fell off a cliff, characters being terrorized by an animated monster being saved when the animator keels over from a heart attack at his desk, a modern police raid ending the medieval battle – it’s one of their favorite devices. And they’re not the only ones:


 Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (The writers hung a lampshade to protest the producers’ demand for a happy ending)

Douglas Adams’ Infinite Improbability Drive is another wink at this device. The drive got its name from the fact that he’d painted himself into a corner, Ford and Arthur are floating in space without space suits and it was ridiculously improbable that any spaceship would come along and rescue them in time. Voila, the Infinite Improbability Drive is born.

In my opinion, William Golding’s ending to Lord of the Flies may be an acceptable use. The situation is hopeless, the protagonist is facing certain death, and then a naval officer shows up and stops the story in its tracks. It’s unquestionably a deus ex — even Golding called the ending a “gimmick.” But allowing the hero to prevail through some reasonable course of events would completely undermine the point Golding was trying to make. Plus, like Tolkien’s example, the deus ex was used there as a device for returning the characters to the normal world after the core story had completed. It was not offered up as a resolution of the core story.

Having said that, outside comedic uses or the need to put a stop to the slaughter of innocent children, deus ex is usually pretty bad. Like cholera is usually unpleasant and Fran Drescher’s laugh is slightly annoying. It is a symptom in Act III that you have severe problems with Acts I and II, and can unravel everything you’ve done in those acts with a single paragraph.

Outside parody, nobody sets out to write a deus ex ending. It’s a last, worst option. And there’s usually a better solution. If you’ve painted yourself into a corner and find yourself staring DoucheyZeus in the eye, you still have another option. Wait for the paint to dry, go borrow a gun from Anton Chekhov, and shoot the motherfucker in the face.

Which might give you a hint what my next topic will be.


Sinning My Way out of a Shitty Act III

Well, my muse finally showed up about six weeks ago. This is Erato, the Greek muse of lyric poetry.

She is not my muse.

In my world, a muse is more along the lines of:

And, yes, she uses the whip. Since this isn’t a novel, I’m going to start with backstory.

After about a year of toil, my manuscript (MS) way finished. Yay Me. Then I got to spend several months revising and editing and refining and everything else I recommend people do — including letting the damn thing fester for a month before I did said revising, editing and refining. Then I queried some agents, had MSs out and had to wait. And wait. And start going crazy, because all I could do was fucking wait. 

But that wasn’t true, there was something else I could do. I could start the new WIP (which wasn’t IP yet, just an idea). Ironically, about an hour after I started it, I got another full request. Karma.

Somehow, though, starting the new WIP gave me breathing room from the old MS that even making it fester for a month did not.

Life Lesson NO. 1: Starting the new novel is probably the best thing you can do for both your sanity and your old novel.

For the next several weeks, my nightly walks with Coho the Wonderdog turned into critique sessions about my Act III. Eventually, my critique group (the dog and I) came to unanimous agreement that my Act III kinda sucked. Except for the kinda part.  Because it sucked. Boo me. That was soon confirmed by a rejection, accompanied by eight pages of notes. Notes that can be summarized in a six word memoir: Love your writing; Act III sucks.

Hope and despair soon began arriving in my e-mail (and on my telephone) in the form of instructions to revise and resubmit my manuscript (R&R). Three of them, to be precise. Any guesses what those three agents thought I needed to change? I’ll give you a hint, it rhymes with Act III sucks.

Whoever said admitting you have a problem is most of the solution never had this problem or is a big fat liar. Admitting I had the problem was nothing compared to highlighting and deleting about 30,000 words. And that was a breeze compared to figuring out a completely new ending. In fact, that part was even harder writing the new 35,000 words, plus another 10 or 20 thousand worth of cutting old and putting in new to make the new ending flow. In other words, writing half the novel from scratch was easier than thinking up what to write. That part was so hard, I gave up on using my normal thinking time (yes, the dog again). I finally decided I had to get my ass in a chair and start writing (an outline for the ending, not the actual prose). 

Life Lesson No.2: There is no substitute for getting your ass in a chair and writing.

Not coincidentally, that’s when my muse showed up. She didn’t fill me with inspiration, she reminded me that I’m her bitch. So I started putting out. It took me about a week (around 25 hours of writing time) to crank out a two page outline. But I knew exactly where I needed to go by the time I was done. I was certain of it, in a way that I hadn’t been certain of even the parts of the book the agents loved. It took another week or two to draw all the threads from Act I and Act II together for the new ending, and then (after about a month) I started writing my new ending.

Who’s the bitch now? Well, I am, because I still had a third of a novel to write.

And this is where we get to my sins. The new ending needed to be told from a new POV. My protagonist’s wife, who went from the No.2 secondary character (or maybe No.3) to the clear No.1, and the MC (not just the main POV character, the main acting character) for part.

I like tight POV. And I don’t like shifting POVs unless absolutely necessary. It happened in the original MS, when I had simultaneous things happening in different places for a couple of chapters, but the break was clean. With the new ending, I couldn’t make a clean break, and I spent about two weeks of my life trying. Fearing the lash, I finally said, fuck it. I just wrote out the ending with some pretty gnarly head-hopping. At least I’d have something on the page. I’d list that one as a life lesson, but it’s mantra — you can’t edit what isn’t on the page. It just hadn’t made such a stark appearance in my life before.

If you follow this blog, you know how I feel about rules. They are guidelines. Anything that makes the story work better for the reader is the rule, and any conflicting rule should be disregarded. That said, most of the “rules” are summaries of the things that work best for the reader, so they are not to be disregarded lightly. Not bouncing around POVs is one of the cardinal rules. So is not changing narrative perspective. Together, they’re damn near sacred. Which is why I was so certain I was doing the right thing when, after weeks of trepedation and seeking alternatives, I concluded both those rules can go to Hell. For a couple of pages. Not even pages, but for a for a smattering of lines in the pages leading up to the new POV shift.

Life Lesson No.3: When you agonize about breaking a rule for a week or two and still can’t find a better way to do it, the rule needs to be broken. No matter what the rule is.

Ultimately, I found myself throwing in a few lines from a limited omniscient POV, sharing what the main POV character and the soon-to-be POV character were thinking. In theory, I freaking hate that solution. On the pages, though, it really seemed to work. Instead of one jarring shift (and I don’t shift back for the rest of the novel), there is a relaxing of my super-tight protag POV. Soon after, there is the introduction of his wife into the POV. Then I cut him back and increase her and she is the super-tight POV for the rest of the book.

Did I mention I hate that idea in theory? Because I really do. And I’m nervous about what the agents will think of it. Because, unlike the recreational reader, they’ll be looking for it. My solution was basically to adopt a typical flaw in unskilled writing. A couple of them, actually — shifting POV and head-hopping with the characters. It’s a gamble. But it was also the best way to move the story forward. Not out of laziness, but directly as a product of how it unfolded. And I hope the measured and precise way I changed focus — essentially passing the baton — will not be lost on them.

Because, to be completely honest, I’m proud as hell of how it came out on the page. And if there had been any other way to do it, I would have. So I’m pretty sure (sin and all) it was the right way to do it.

There’s More to Writing Members of the Opposite Sex Than a Name and a Haircut

Growing up with three sisters and being the primary parent to four daughters, I have a passing familiarity with females. My closest friend over the past 30 years (since high school) is also a woman. Shit, even my dog/constant companion is female; as is our cat. We also have a frog. I don’t know whether it’s male or female, but some species of frog have been known to change their gender. In my house, if you had a choice, you’d probably be a woman.

Having spent my life treading water in an ocean of estrogen, I think I write women reasonably well. Being a huge fan of women helps. Seriously, if there is a fandom for womanhood, I’m in.

The popular, and politically correct, thing to say about gender is that “people are people, and it makes no difference.” That’s a lovely thought, but it’s also complete bullshit. Straight men are different from straight women, gay men, gay women, genderqueer men and women, and pretty much everything except other straight men. And everyone in each group I mentioned is different from every other group I mentioned, too. If you want to write from a gender and/or sexual (or asexual) orientation other than the one you inhabit, I earnestly believe step one is: There are differences, deal with it.

You can’t write a good woman if you’re a man or a good man if you’re a woman by acting as though they aren’t different and just attach a female gender designation to a generic character and expect her to be believable. You can’t include LBGTQ characters in your manuscript by taking a heterosexual couple and gender switching one of the people. Most gay male couples I know are more like hetero couples than they are gay female couples. The European Union spent ten billion dollars building the Large Hadron Collider to study shit that less complicated than some of the lesbian couple dynamics I’ve been witness to. So, no, you can’t just rename Jim “Jane” and call it a day. Trying to address the LBGTQ issues this topic implicates would expand it way beyond a blog post, so I’m going to drop that issue here, except to say that the same general principals apply.

I hate gender binaries, but the fact remains — there are generalized differences in the way women and men react to things. We process somewhat differently. That doesn’t define who a female character is, but (like education level, the stability of a character’s childhood home, and a billion other things) it colors how the character will act and react to things. Ignoring those differences is not healthy or helpful. It might be nice to claim to be gender blind, but it’s also stupid.

It’s not writing related, but the example that leaps to mind comes from the time I was a college debate coach. Understanding the difference between the way you motivate (most) 20 year-old men vs. motivating (most) 20 year-old women was a watershed in our success. Embracing, rather than pretending to ignore, that difference is critical.

The problem is, just recognizing the differences and basing characters on them leads to shitty character development at best, and harmful stereotypes and tropes at worst. The differences between men and women don’t define men or women as individuals. Which brings us to step two: Those differences don’t define a character. Gender differences constitute one aspect of the lens through which she views things or reacts to things. It exists alongside her upbringing (abusive alcoholic parents vs. Leave it to Beaver) and education level (junior high dropouts tend to view things and react to situations differently from – and be in different situations than – people with doctorates). There are a thousand things that make up a character’s perspective. Gender is an important one, certainly, but it is still just one of many.

The funny thing about this subject is that the “trick,” if there is one, is a nuanced version of “ignore step one.” Or, more accurately, embrace it at a very deep level. There are two standard pieces of advice on this subject, and they both suck. The first is to just write good characters and not worry about whether they are male or female. That, to me, is equivalent to saying “just write good characters and don’t worry about whether they are eight, fifty, or eighty years old” or “people are people, so it doesn’t matter whether your character is devoutly religious” or something like that. The second piece of bad advice is to study the people you are trying to write – in my case study women. I understand where this advice comes from. If I want to write about a beat cop, you can bet I’m going on ridealongs with the police as often as they’ll let me. But this is one of the rare instances where studying what you write is a mistake. At least, going outside yourself to study it.


So here’s Step three: Come to terms with the fact that all people are cocktails of femininity and masculinity. It’s not an on/off switch between men and women, it’s a question of addressing each character’s unique blend. 

Women tend to be higher on the femininity, but that’s not always the case. In my manuscript, for example, my protagonist is a fairly feminine guy (feminine, not effeminate). He is extremely close to his sister, who is fairly masculine for a woman, and certainly more masculine than he is. She’s still quite female, but not particularly feminine in her behavior or the way she processes information. I didn’t spend a year structuring my manuscript that way so I could prove a point in a blog post – That’s just the way those characters came out when I wrote them eighteen months ago.

So if I were going to try to give a piece of functional advice, it would be to start by realizing we’re talking about different ratios of Masc/Fem, and both are present in every person. Instead of looking outward at women as a starting point, if you’re a man, look at yourself and evaluate your feminine qualities. They are the same ones that are present in women, they’re just there in different proportions. They’re probably easier to spot when you realize you share the same characteristics, just (possibly) a different blend. When looking outward at women, pay attention to what you probably consider masculine traits. Again, they’re all there, just in different proportions. Then mix and match those traits in all of your characters. Each character is a different cocktail of those traits. There is no “woman” character and there is no “man” character. And the easiest place to find and understand those characteristics is in yourself, because all of those traits are in all of us.

Passives Should Usually be Avoided Part Two (Or: How to effectively sprinkle zombies through your writing)

I already dedicated one post to my jihad against grammatical absolutism. The “Rules of Writing” Should be Called (and treated like) the “Guidelines for Editing” Once again, with respect to active versus passive voice, Messrs. Strunk & White are among the standard-bearers Once again, the general concept has been expanded to dogma. Usually preferring active construction over passive is a worthwhile editing tip, along the lines of looking for excessive, well, anything. But that’s about it.

According to Strunk & White, “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.” Gee, you mean sentences like that fucking sentence about passive voice? Let’s run a few tests from the last post.

  • Is the verb being done to the subject? The subject is “sentence” the verb is “made.” Oops. Hey Mr. White, you wrote the fucking sentence telling us not to use passive voice in passive voice. Like I said before, if you can identify the subject and verb, you can always identify passive, so that proves it. For a quick refresher, though, let’s run through the other tests.
  • Is the Noun followed by a prepositional phrase? Hey, look at that. The prepositional phrase “by substituting” follows the noun “sentence.” The preposition “by” and verb “substituting” creates a prepositional phrase. Which means the sentence is passive.
  • Is there a conjugation of “to be” followed by a past participle? Since “can be” is a variation on “to be” and “made” is a past participle – ding, ding, ding.
  • Did zombies write the sentence? “Many a . . . sentence can be made lively by zombies!” Yay zombies. Boo Elements of Style.

This example does a great job of showing how hypocritical (or, more likely, clueless) Strunk & White could be about grammar. The sentence does a great job of showing why we should avoid passive voice. It does so by: (a) using passive voice; and (b) sucking so much. Specifically, sucking so much in the precise way passive voice can (but doesn’t always) make our sentences suck.

The sentence has been treated (hehe) as a call to action, challenging writers to make their prose more vigorous and engaging. Something you can only do if you ignore what they actually wrote.

What they wrote:      “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.” (teh suk)

What they meant:      “Active voice makes your writing livelier.” (less teh suk)

By sucking, Elements manages to show us the reason we should avoid passive voice. Usually (but not always) passive sentences are less engaging. This, like the adverb advice and every other “Rule” about writing is worth understanding. Not because passives are inherently bad, but because they have about a 50/50 chance of making our writing less engaging.


Bad passives should be avoided.

How do we know which passives are bad? We’re the writers, it’s our world, they are our words, so it’s up to us. I like finding all of the passives in my writing, but I don’t expect to get rid of them all when I find them. Typically, I look for alternatives. In the case of the title of this tip, the obvious alternative is “Writers should avoid bad passives.” Meh, it’s a little better, so I would probably make that change (without any great feeling of accomplishment upon having done so). Sometimes, though, I find sentences that are watered down by passive voice, and changing it to active improves the sentence enormously. Changing an event from passive to active often changes the tone from one that reports to the reader about what happened (“The protesters were excited by the speaker. The embassy was attacked”) to one that shows the scene more vividly (“The speaker worked the protestors into a frenzy. They attacked the embassy.”).

There is no “Rule” for this. If I were to try to formulate one, it would be Passives are worth finding because there’s a coin-flip chance the sentence could be better. Unless you write with a lot of passives, in which case they are even more worth finding because there’s an even better chance the sentences could be better. Grammar check is your friend. If you honestly wonder whether you overuse passives, look at your readability statistics (most word processing programs have them built in, and the Google machine can send you to dozens of free sites where you can paste in pages to do a quick test). If you’re over five percent, you should do some serious thinking about your writing. Less than that, you’re probably doing just fine. That’s just a blood pressure check, though, and a final manuscript needs an angiogram. Grammar check misses passives on a regular basis. You need to be able to identify them for yourself, because (particularly in longer or more grammatically complex sentences) a fair number just slip through the cracks.

Good passives should be hugged (by zombies).

Thanks to grammar check, I know that, statistically, my fiction runs between two and three percent passives. That’s a good range for me because, at that level, I’m probably not using passive voice in sentences where it is not clearly the best tool for the job. Contrary to what my college professor, a law school professor, scores of people giving grammar advice on the interwebs, and Strunk & White believe, there are plenty of situations in which the passive voice is best. The first paragraph of my manuscript contains this double-dose of passive voice: “Feeling as though he was being watched, which he preferred to admitting he was being ignored, Nick tried look casual.” Passive? You bet, times two. That’s the least of its problems. Not only is it passive deux foix, the whole thing is nothing but exposition about my protagonist’s feelings and thoughts. Something else I do very little of in my writing. For good measure, I split an infinitive.

In that introductory paragraph, I’m teasing out why Nick is there and what he’s waiting for. It’s all explained, through dialogue, about 200 words later. For that particular paragraph, though, I wanted to leave a bit of a question mark about who was watching (or ignoring) Nick. I did this largely to make the “them” more of an abstract concept (which, to Nick, “they” were at the time) and less of a good-natured guy named Jim (which, “they” turn out to be). I want the putative watcher(s) to be as abstract as possible. Because active voice usually helps by making our writing more concrete and direct, it works against that goal.

There are a number of situations in which passive voice may be the better choice. (Alliteration, yay. We should all march around chanting that). Those times include instances in which:

  • The actor shall remain nameless. Maybe you don’t know who the actor is (“The book was printed in 1614”), the actor is too broad to try to identify (“…has been proven by hundreds of studies”) or you want to keep the mystery going (“we were being watched”).
  • The action is the focus of the sentence. Sometimes, passive voice can be used (by zombies) to place emphasis on the verb, downplaying the relative importance of the subject. “All men are created equal” may be sexist, but it’s not bad writing. Saying “the experiment was conducted in strict conformance with ethical standards” shifts the emphasis from the subject (the experiment) to the manner in which it was conducted, which is the focus of the sentence. If the answer to the question “Where’s mom?” is “She was kidnapped,” you are not lacking for clarity, action, or anything else. “Three men in a gray sedan kidnapped her,” provides more information, makes the sentence active, and changes the emphasis from “kidnapped” to the three men.
  • Put your best foot forward. If your subject is not the actor, but you still want to keep as much focus on the subject as possible, it helps to identify it first. “Clouds are formed by evaporation” places the emphasis on clouds. “Evaporation forms clouds” says the same thing, and does it actively, but it also changes the focus of the sentence from clouds to evaporation. This is the inverse of “action is the focus of the sentence” and can sometimes yield the opposite result based on whatever else is happening in the sentence. Hence absolute rules being a bad idea.
  • If you’re Richard Nixon’s press secretary or you’re withdrawing your nomination of Zoe Baird to be Attorney General. In some instances, the grammatical double-speak that is the hallmark of passive voice can be your friend. “Mistakes were made (by zombies)” is easier to say than “My boss, the President, really screwed the pooch on this one.” My favorite personal example comes from this group. I had a legal research and writing professor who was adamant about passive voice. He would not accept the argument that “Sam Watson was killed” was better than saying “My client killed Sam Watson.” A man like that needs to be in academia. In the real world, his adherence to the prohibition against the use of passives is called malpractice.
  • The nature of what you’re writing is instructive. Meaning, you are writing a passage or blog post or something else that provides instruction. “When you finish doing X, Y will start happening” is a natural formulation in instructive writing. Most of what I am advising here is oriented toward fiction writing. The advice is probably worth keeping in mind, but sometimes constructions that avoid the passive in instructional writing are so convoluted, they make things way worse than a zombie ever will.

A sensible approach to passive voice makes the ability to identify passives a valuable tool. Saying that passives have no place in our writing just makes you sound like a tool. It’s ironic that I feel compelled to defend something that only shows up in one of every forty sentences or clauses of prose I write, but the idea it needs to be avoided altogether (by zombies) compels it. Primarily because we should get rid of passives most of the time. Knowing the rule and being able to spot them facilitates that. More importantly, it empowers us to look at a sentence and, with the full understanding it’s passive as hell, decide, yea, the zombies can keep this one.

Passives Should Usually be Avoided Part One (Or: What World War Z taught me about passive voice)

I had a professor once who thought (a) passive voice happened any time you have a conjugation of “to be” at work in a sentence; and (b) passive voice must always be avoided (hehe). He was wrong on both counts, and it took me years to overcome the trauma. We’ll start with a rule (whether something is passive or not is a yes or no question, so there’s no problem having a “rule” about that). Then we’ll talk about applying the general idea (not a rule) that passives usually (i.e., sometimes but not always) weaken our writing.

A)  The Basic Rule

Passive voice is a simple, but often misunderstood, concept. We’ll start with the simple part. In passive sentences, the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action in the sentence. That’s it. You do not need a Spymaster Deluxe Decoder Ring to work your way around this concept. If you can figure out what the subject of a sentence is, you can figure out whether the sentence is passive or active.

If you can’t figure out what the subject is, don’t worry. That’s not rocket surgery, either. The subject of the sentence is, generally, the thing the sentence is about or the thing that does the action. If it’s the thing that does the action, the sentence isn’t going to be passive, so the problem solves itself. We only need to worry when the sentence is about a thing that isn’t the actor. This also applies to clauses, but I am going to just address sentence structure to keep this simple.

We ate pie.           We are the subject of the sentence. We did the verb (ate). Yay us. This sentence is not passive.

The pie was eaten. The pie is now the subject of the sentence. The pie didn’t do shit. It just sat there being eaten. Boo pie. This sentence is passive.

So, the basic rule is simple. Look at the verb and ask whether the verb is being done by or to the subject. If it is done by the subject, you’re golden. If it is done to the subject, the sentence is passive. Does the fact that it is passive mean it sucks? Not necessarily. But we’ll deal with that in a bit.

B)    Same Rule, Just a Little Less Basic

If all sentences were three or four words long with one noun and one verb, the issue would be closed there. We’d sound like 1950s Hollywood stereotype cave men and Native Americans, but we’d be done worrying about passive voice. Assuming we want our narratives to be slightly more nuanced than “Kate make fire,” we need to take a couple more issues into account.

The pie was eaten by us. Now we have two nouns (well, OK, a noun and a pronoun). Now there’s a noun (us) doing the eating, so the sentence can be active, right? Not quite. The “by us” part is a prepositional phrase (“by” is the preposition). But hang with me here, because if you just learn one more little rule, you’ll have your black belt in passive kicking. Or at least your fourth-degree brown belt (not to be confused with a fifty shades of grey belt, which is a whole other thing).

Whenever a passive sentence has an agent doing the verb, that agent is going to show up in a prepositional phrase. So there will be a preposition (by, from, after, etc.) followed by a noun or pronoun. They aren’t the subject of the sentence, they modify the verb that is doing something to the subject of the sentence.

If you grew up speaking English, you don’t think twice about prepositions. If you are learning English as a second language, you probably think preposition is a four-letter word (or a twenty-one-letter word like “big-fucking-pain-in-my-ass”). From a linguistic point of view, they are amazing little buggers with an amazing history, but today I am focusing on the fact that they are a pain in the ass to identify.

In passive sentences, the prepositional phrases most often used are: by, for, from, after, off, on, and between. That’s not a scientific study of language, by the way, it’s my opinion. Here’s another opinion, about half of the time, the preposition is “by.” So when you see a sentence with a noun, a verb, and a prepositional phrase “by [whatever]” your passive radar should start ringing.

C)     Same Rule, The Part My Dickhead Professor Didn’t Get.

If he weren’t the only person with this misconception, I’d assume he just learned half a rule and missed the next day of class. Because a good portion of the English-speaking world (including a few old-school English teachers) labors under the same misconception, it’s worse than that.

The truth is if you find a form of “to be” in a sentence AND it’s followed by a past participle (let’s just call it a past-tense verb for now), you’re going to end up with a passive.

The cake has been [that’s our ‘to be’] eaten [that’s our past participle] by them (or anyone, at that point, because it’s already passive).

So Professor Asshat had half the rule right. Well, half of the first half of the rule, because he was dead wrong about passives being wrong all the time, too. But forms of “to be” (is, are, were, will be, have been, etc.) by themselves do not create passive sentences or clauses. When combined with past participles, they’ve always resulted in passive voice, though (hehe).


D)  Same Rule, Keepin’ it Real.

If your eyes rolled back in your head when I started talking about prepositional phrases, roll them back. The grammar part is over, and it’s time to deal with the real-world use.

1)    It helps to learn about the past participles and prepositional phrases, but it’s not required. You can identify passives if you are able to identify the subject of the sentence.  

2)    What’s the sentence about? That’s the subject. In my examples, some sentences have been about pie (“The pie was eaten by us”) and some sentences have been about us (“We ate the pie”). If you can identify the subject, you can identify passive voice.

3)    What does the subject do? In many sentences, the subject is also the agent of the action. If the subject is doing something, we don’t need to worry. The subject can’t be the doer of the action and the recipient of the action at the same time. It’ll go blind. (I’m kidding, it’s grammatically impossible). If the subject is doing the action (e.g., “The pie attacked Cleveland”), your sentence will be active.

4)    If the subject isn’t doing anything, you probably have a passive sentence. Take a look, is the verb being done to rather than by the subject? If the answer is yes, then your sentence is passive.

5)    If all else fails, look for prepositional phrases. Sentences can get complicated. Especially if you write like I do, and half of your first-draft sentences are run-on amalgamations of phrases and punctuation that seem to last for pages. You can still catch most passive sentences that have two nouns (and/or pronouns) if you just look for prepositional phrases that include “by.” Broaden your search to include on, off, from, against, between, and the other prepositions, and you’ll nail that type of passive.


E)    What the hell does this have to do with World War Z?

Because — zombies, man!

Among their few contributions to society are the zombies’ uncanny ability to guide us through passive sentences. Want to know whether a sentence without a telltale prepositional phrase is passive? Ask yourself this: Could the zombies have done it?

We ate the pie. (nope, there’s no pie left for the zombies)

The pie was eaten (cue awesome, eerie music) BY ZOMBIES! (yep, passive).

What you’re really doing here is inserting the implied prepositional phrase to show the actor in a sentence that lacks one. This is one of those rules that works better than it should, probably because it’s fun, which keeps editing interesting. Nothing livens your writing up like a good zombie apocalypse. Ironically, nothing shows the need for livening as effectively, either. If you run through a page or two of your manuscript and realize that you could have zombies doing most of the things that happen, there’s a pretty good chance your writing contains too many passives. One zombie every few pages? That just keeps your characters on their toes.

As I’ve said before, there are no rules of writing that shouldn’t be broken for the right reason. More importantly, knowing what the rule is, why it operates the way it does, and why it has been accepted as a “rule” is a prerequisite to breaking those rules effectively. Today I covered the relatively boring part (except for the zombies, because zombies are cool). Next up, we get to the fun part:

Passives Should Usually be Avoided Part Two (Or: How to effectively sprinkle zombies through your writing)

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