passive vs active and past vs present

I got an email from someone who is writing his first novel and it’s shaping up to be really good. One of the things I suggested to him is that instead of writing it in present tense, he write it in “past active”. Both past active and present active engage the reader, but past active gives the writer more flexibility and it seems less overt.

“What’s that?” he asked. Here’s my answer:

Here are the first couple of paragraphs, as published, from my novel, Nobody’s Child:

They’re written in past active:

April 1909 — Adana, Turkey

They travelled on foot. That set them apart from the other migrant barley harvesters. The others travelled with donkeys or an oxcart. What also set them apart was that their group included women and children.

Mariam’s father and uncle kept pace a few steps in front of the others in their group, and right behind them walked Mariam’s mother. They each carried a cloth sack of supplies on their backs. They each brought their own large sickle.

Here they are again, written in the present:

April 1909 — Adana, Turkey

They travel on foot. That sets them apart from the other migrant barley harvesters. The others travel with donkeys or an oxcart. What also sets them apart is that their group includes women and children.

Mariam’s father and uncle keep pace a few steps in front of the others in their group, and right behind them walk Mariam’s mother. They each carry a cloth sack of supplies on their backs. They each bring their own large sickle.

At all costs, you want to avoid the past passive:

April 1909 — Adana, Turkey

They had travelled on foot. That had set them apart from the other migrant barley harvesters. The others had travelled with donkeys or an oxcart. What had also set them apart was that their group had included women and children.

Mariam’s father and uncle had kept pace a few steps in front of the others in their group, and Mariam’s mother had walked right behind them. They had each carried a cloth sack of supplies on their backs. They each had brought their own large sickle.

Present passive is also deadly:

April 1909 — Adana, Turkey

They were travelling on foot. That was setting them apart from the other migrant barley harvesters. The others were travelling with donkeys or an oxcart. What was also setting them apart was that their group included women and children.

Mariam’s father and uncle were keeping pace a few steps in front of the others in their group, and right behind them was walking Mariam’s mother. They were each carrying a cloth sack of supplies on their backs. They were each bringing their own large sickle.

showing vs telling

On another blog, Elizabeth posted to me the first paragraph of her story. Here it is:

There is only so much a person can do before it feels like their head is going to explode. That’s how Katie feels. Now, Katie is 17, she’s 6’0” and she’s about 120 lbs. As you may have already imagined, she’s a model, a big time modeling agency has just signed her, and she’s back and forth from Abbotsford to Vancouver, with the occasional trip to Toronto, preparing for her big arrival in Milan.

And here is my suggestion on how she might want to revise:

Hi Elizabeth,
What you’ve got here is the beginning of an overview or outline rather than a story or novel. You are _telling_ about Katie, rather than showing her, like in a movie.

Put her in a scene. And then _show_ her. For example, you could show her in the first class waiting area of an airport or in the first class section of an airplane. Have her be offered stuff to eat or drink but then have her only accept something like a Perrier with lime. Or if she has food set in front of her, have her eat a single pea or something. And then you can describe what her hand looks like as it delicately picks up the crystal glass of Perrier. Does she have long slim fingers with french-manicured inch-long nails that have never washed a dirty dish in years? Does she blot her lipstick before taking a sip? Does she look at other people who are seated around her and judge them by how they look? By giving these details, you allow the reader to get _inside_ of Katie’s feelings and personality while at the same time you build a visual image. It’s a much slower way of writing but it really helps it come alive.

Let me know if this helps.

all the best
Marsha Skrypuch

Aram’s Choice and Kobzar’s Children: covers are up on amazon now!

While noodling around on, I noticed that the covers for both Aram’s Choice and Kobzar’s Children are now up. Check them out:

These are only the mock-ups so the errors are still there. For example, Forchuk is spelled incorrectly on Aram’s Choice, and the fact that I’m the editor of Kobzar’s Children isn’t noted, but still, this is so kewl that the images are up!

doing readings

I have been exceptionally lazy over this holiday season. When I’m not wrapping gifts, cleaning, cooking, ironing or unwrapping gifts and eating, I have been reading trashy books. Glorious!

I really must get back to writing Daughter of War and looking over the massive pruning I did for Spirit Lake Diary.

In the meantime, a fellow writer asked me the following question via email:

“Help! I have been asked to do some Canada Council readings and I need some advice.”

Here’s my answer:

A Canada Council reading is no different than any other. It just gets paid differently. Gear your reading to your audience. Ask the group who requested you what they’d like you to do.

The deadliest thing is assuming that a reading means standing up there and reading from your book. I have witnessed many of these disasters. I feel so sorry for the audience and equally sorry for the author.

When I first began doing readings in 1999, I wanted to avoid this major error so I asked Barbara Haworth Attard if I could sit in on one of her readings to see how a pro does it.

Barb is naturally shy like me but you’d never know it by her engaging performances. She has a wonderful way of interacting with her audience and keeping the presentation personal, polished, informative and oh so interesting.

Since 1999, I’ve done lots of readings. Last year I did 80 and it looks like I’ll be doing something like 150 by the time this current school year is over. Here are some quick tips:

– Limit the actual “reading” portion to a page or two at a time.

– Talk about the story behind the story — ie — how you came to write this story and what it means to you and what sort of research you did and how writing it changed who you are.

– Ask the audience questions and make eye contact as much as you can. This will ensure that you’re not boring them. You can modify your presentation if you see people nodding off.

– I always ask someone in charge to stand at the back of the room and hold up ten fingers when I’m ten minutes away from being finished and five fingers when I’ve got five minutes left. I find that I lose track of the time when I’m speaking and this really helps me focus.

And here is something I feel very strongly about but perhaps others don’t agree:

The most boring thing a person can do is get up there and talk about their “accomplishments”. Yadda yadda. Gag me with a spoon. Who _isn’t_ “award-winning and bestselling” for pete’s sake? Instead, talk about your challenges, your failures and how perseverence makes a difference. Writing a book is like opening up a vein and pouring blood on the page. It isn’t easy to write a book and it sure isn’t easy to get one published. That journey is one that interests many people.

editing fatigue

My hands are killing me. I have been working pretty much non-stop for days on end on cutting out 7,000 words from my Dear Canada diary novel.

What made it especially challenging is that I was doing the changes in “track changes” mode, meaning I couldn’t check the ever evolving word count as I worked because all of the deletes and additions showed up in hot pink and baby blue with cross-hatches going through. So I got the whole first pass finished at about 7pm tonight and saved the file, then went through and removed all of the editing notes and accepted the changes. Turns out I was able to remove 8,000 words. This is good! I’m going to let it cool off for a day or so and then take a look at it again to see if I’m happy with the changes.


I’m itching to get back to writing Daughter of War. Perhaps in a few days ….

Dear Canada edit and Kobzar’s Children

My Dear Canada diary novel, tentatively called Anna Soloniuk’s Spirit Lake Diary, is scheduled for release in 2007 by Scholastic Canada.

Being my usual energizer bunny self, I completed the manuscript a year ahead of time — last fall. In May and June of this year, I did a substantive edit at my editor Sandy’s request, adding approximately 10,000 more words. I just got back the next round of edits, and I am removing approximately 7,000 words.

Now in case you think adding those 10,000 words in the first place was a waste of time, you’d be wrong. I had written to the required word count initially, but my editor’s fabulous suggestions helped enrich and deepen the story line. My challenge is to remove 7,000 words without removing story. I am to use a delicate scalpel.

I love editing above all else. Writing in the first place is hard hard hard. But editing is polishing what’s already there. To be good at it, one must be willing to killing one’s darlings. I’m glad the manuscript has had a chance to cool down. I can do this. I know I can.

Meanwhile …

Ann’s copyedit of Kobzar’s Children for Fitzhenry & Whiteside is nearly finished. She has done 11 out of the 12 stories. There are still poems, but they don’t require the same sort of copy editing by any stretch of the imagination. This anthology has been a rewarding experience. I am the “editor” which means I selected the stories, organized them into a theme, did the initial substantive edits, and acted as the intermediary between the individual contributors and my editor. I have also selected photographs that compliment the stories. These photos don’t necessarily illustrate the stories, but rather, show a different facet of the same theme brought up in the story. Ditto for the poems. What amazes me is how everything falls into place so beautifully.

This collection is a century of untold Ukrainian stories, starting with a homesteading story set in 1905, and ending with one set during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine last Christmas. Each story and poem in the collection illuminates a facet of the Ukrainian immigrant experience and each stands alone. But what is interesting is that all together, they weave a colourful patchwork whole. Some stories are laugh out loud funny, like Sonja Dunn’s “Changing Graves”. Others are sad, yet filled with a sense of dignity and hope, like Stefan Petelycky’s personal memoir about his time in Auschwitz, called “Many Circles of Hell.”

The reason I wanted to do this anthology is because I have been getting lonely, being one of the few people in North America who write YA and children’s lit about the Ukrainian immigrant experience. This anthology is my exercise in mentoring some promising new writers while showcasing some seasoned but lesser-known ones. Little did I know when I plunged in that being the editor of a collection like this would be more time-consuming than writing TWO novels! Ah well, it is worth it!

writing “real” from research

Hi Elizabeth,

2. making something sound personal and believeable when the writer hasn’t actually been there/done that.

There are different ways of doing research. It can be done by reading books, articles etc, or it can be done by interviewing people who have done what you’re wanting to write about. If you’re writing historical fiction, you can’t interview people because they’re dead, but you can do the next best thing, which is to find “oral histories” — ie — interviews with people in similar circumstances that have been preserved in archives and libraries.

For my novel, The Hunger, I needed to find out what it was like to be an anorexic. I had no personal experience with this so what I first did was find a social worker who worked with people with eating disorders. I also visited an eating disorder wing at a hospital and interviewed a psychiatrist who treated the problem. The most useful thing I did, though, was to find a person who had suffered from an eating disorder and was willing to talk to me. The woman who agreed to help me was Heather (she’s thanked in the acknowledgements). I asked her VERY specific questions, like what she’d eat for breakfast and how she’d avoid eating more; about how she hid her weight loss and what SHE saw when she looked in the mirror. Do you remember that vomit scene? Heather — after much prompting by me — told me each detail, right down to getting her hair out of the way and cleaning the stray vomit off the space heater. It was those specific details that allowed me to write the scene even though I had never done this myself.

You can also do the things you want to write about. For example, in The Hunger, Paula goes to the grocery store and spends 40 bucks on junk food. As research, I went to a grocery store with a calculator and chose forty bucks’ worth of junk food. What she puts in her shopping cart is what I put in mine. The stares I got for my choices is the same as what she got.

Is there a specific thing you are wanting to research? Let me know and I’ll suggest how you might do it.

how to make a story does not peter out

Hi Elizabeth,

One of the best ways to make sure a story doesn’t peter out is to show your story in action rather than to tell what your story is about. For example, in my novel Hope’s War

I begin with a very simple scene, about a grade 10 student on her first day in a school for the arts. I could have written something like this:

In grade nine, Kat almost got expelled from St. Paul’s high school, but then the principal had her tested and it turned out she was gifted. When she went to her new school the first day, she was nervous. Her friends from St. Paul’s seemed mad at her and the kids at the new school didn’t know her. There was only one student who would even talk to her.

The above gets the message across, but it’s telling about the story rather than showing the story.

questions from tall_princess about novel writing

tall_princess asked:

I have only really tried to write one novel, and I got about 90 pages of it done, and then I didn’t have anything else to say. I alternated points of view, and had it written as though there were several people thinking out loud, with one main one.

I like to write stories based on things I have been through, so I know a little bit about it. I personally don’t like to read something that someone has written, and been through it myself, knowing what it’s all about, and knowing that the information is wrong. I know that you can do research, but no matter how much research you do, I can’t seem to get the personalized veiwpoint. How can I get past that?

how to come up with ideas for a novel

Here’s another super question from tall_princess:

“How do you come up with your ideas for writing a novel? I have no problem coming up with an idea for a novel, it’s just the craft of drawing it out into an interesting piece that I have an issue with. They always seem to end up as a short story writing piece. I finish what I have to say in 90 pages or less! How can I fix that?”

Hi Elizabeth,
For me, writing a novel is similar to reading one. I want to know what happens next. Also, I tend not to write novels on topics that I can find novels on. Ie, I’ll just pick up the novel and read it, but if I can’t find a novel on the topic, I write it.

Writing 90 pages is very impressive! That’s more of a novella than a short story.

Are you writing your stories in first person? If you are, that might be why they peter out after about 90 pages. If you can alternate points of view, it gives you more story to work with. In Nobody’s Child, I alternated between a male and female POV with two main narrators but a couple of minor ones too. I find that writing in third person past active gives the most flexibility in terms of being able to set vivid scenes but also being able to jump inside a variety of heads.

What sorts of stories do you like to write?