I am a bit ashamed to admit that I am rubbish at quite a lot of things related to book production: I am not as good as I should be at punctuation and my typing is truly shocking so that, in spite of all the advantages of self publishing, I have always been a bit lazy and tried to get someone else to deal with my weaknesses. Every book I have published has had mistakes – a character called Ruby morphed into Roberta in the space of a paragraph in one novel, but generally good editing has saved me for looking like an ignorant, illiterate ignoramus more times than I can say.
However, I recently sent a book out to a couple of small presses and was slightly perturbed by the result. Now, I don’t actually mind a book being rejected – or rather after I have stomped around the house, kicking my non existent cat and swearing at my existent husband – I accept that my writing is not for everyone. I have never sold in the kind of quantities that will make a publisher rich beyond the dreams of even moderate solvency, let alone avarice.
The book I was trying to sell is well written, if I say it myself, but is a rather complicated post apocalyptic story about a young girl coming of age. As a creative writing lecturer, I have come across any number of these and I have no doubt that a bored submissions’ reader would glance at my synopsis and yawn. It is not a bad book or I wouldn’t be trying to sell it, but it isn’t high concept and though it is barbed, as all my stories are, it lacks any obvious hook. I was disappointed when I received a rejection email from some reasonably obscure publisher but not that surprised: it happens and even I didn’t believe this book would sell in enormous quantities. What shocked me was the feedback.
There is too much passive voice (was, were, am, is, etc.). We recommend removing all instances of these verbs and replacing them with active verbs.
Well, I kind of see what was meant. I did use passive voice once to describe the action of a violent storm on a barge: you are allowed to do that sometimes for deliberate effect. However, the entire book was written in third person past tense, which inevitably involves using the past tense of the verb ‘to be’. Occasionally, people speaks to other people in the story and reasonably enough use the present tense of the verb ‘to be’ too: ‘I am, she is ‘ - it is pretty well impossible to avoid. This is not passive voice! Passive voice is quite easy to spot, as one very intelligent facebook post pointed out, if you can add ‘by zombies’ after it, it’s passive voice so: ‘my text was evaluated ( by illiterate zombies)’ is passive voice. ‘I was distressed to discover that the person who evaluated my text was an illiterate zombie’ is not, even though the verb ’was’ occurs in both sentences. Did you see what I did there?
Rejection is inevitable as a writer. I don’t like it, but I accept it will happen - like death and taxes. The press has recently been full of rejection letters sent to the famous and successful so everyone knows that the publisher's process is both flawed and subjective. Nonetheless I do think that as writers we have a right to expect that the people who read our work and judge us have something of a clue about the business of writing or If they know nothing about the technicalities are honest enough to say, ‘I didn’t enjoy your book.’ Not liking something is a good enough reason to reject it. But please Ms or Mr Unpaid New Intern don’t try to give half baked advice about something you clearly know nothing about. I am old, published, embittered and generally cynical, but I would be very upset if anyone felt that as a result of an ill judged email they were obliged to avoid, ‘was’, ‘ were’, ‘am’ and ‘is’!
Is I not right?