Back when I was an English major in college, my TAs would always warn us about writing our papers in the passive voice. I nodded along with the rest of my classmates, but in truth I had no idea what the “passive voice” even was. It sounded like something vaguely horrible and dangerous, but I had enough problems trying to figure out what in the heck James Joyce was writing about.
Now that I’m an agent, I know that the truth is even more serious: the passive voice is ready to kill your query letter.
What, ask you, is the passive voice? Good question. Here’s a website that will explain it better than I can, but basically it’s a way of writing a sentence without attributing an action to an actor.
Here are some examples:
Spencer called me on his homeboy phone. — normal sentence
Calls were made on Spencer’s homeboy phone. — passive voice
The monkey’s bananas were stolen. — passive voice
Spencer stole the monkey’s bananas. — normal sentence
Make sense? It basically kills a sentence by making it vague and dull since the actions aren’t attributed to a person or thing.
Well, some people manage to write nearly their entire query letter in the passive voice. It goes something like this:
Vengeance will be found. Mistakes will be punished. When his dreams are shattered, Spencer is compelled to find the enemies who have caused his life to be destroyed…
This makes me pound my head on my desk. Vengeance will be found HOW? Mistakes will be punished HOW? HOW were his dreams shattered? WHO are the enemies? HOW are they destroying his life? WHY don’t you just go ahead and rip my hair out for me?
So watch out for the passive voice, the silent killer of query letters, and of writing in general. A novel is not a place where things happen, a novel is a place where characters do things.