Guest Post by Patrick Hopkins
If you’re part of our Sub It Club Submission Support Group then you know Patrick! He’s always popping in to give helpful advice and lots of feedback on queries.
Patrick is also known for pointing us to Carissa Taylor’s super informative Successful Queries database. As some of you may well know, Patrick loves data. He’s read through the database. He’s looked at the numbers. Now he’s here to break down the info for us on passive verbs in query letters.
The Successful Queries database helps writers answer a number of questions. Some take little effort to answer. Others have taken me two weeks to answer, such as:
How many passive verbs does the average successful query use?
The answer, after reading 426 full queries:
Of those 426 queries, 166 used zero passive verbs, 139 used only one, 74 used two, 22 used three, 14 used four, 10 used five, and one used six. Here’s that information in chart form:
The rate by age range is .23 passive verbs in the average picture book query, .68 in the average middle grade, 1.14 in the average young adult, .88 in the average new adult and 1.26 in the average adult. Here’s that information in chart form:
Now, by itself, this evidence doesn’t lead to the conclusion that the more passive verbs you have in your query, the worse your chances of landing an agent are. But I’ve been reading successful and unsuccessful queries for a few years now, and the unsuccessful ones almost always have a large pile of passive verbs.
Passive verbs aren’t inherently bad. They focus the reader on who or what was acted on rather than who did the acting. In some cases, they’re excellent. And in fact, when I read those 426 full queries, I found a few trends that suggest frequent good use of passive verbs:
- Characters are “murdered”
16 of the passive verbs are murdered, and 11 are killed.
The point of a murder is generally that you don’t know who did the deed, which complicates efforts to show agency. Furthermore, “someone murders her best friend” lacks the punch and focus of “her best friend is murdered.”
- Characters are “sent” [wherever]
12 of the passive verbs are sent, four are transported, and many others are verbs of movement.
If you’re trying to show how determined a character is to control her life, you write something like “she hijacks a jet and redirects it so she can visit her wife.”
If you’re trying to show how determined someone else is to control a character, you write something like, “she’s sent onto a hijacked jet and forced to face her wife one last time.”
- Characters are “forced” to [whatever]
18 of the verbs are forced, and 10 are faced. Whether the forcing is “to kill someone” or something less fatal, the point is that some other thing is acting on the character and depriving them of complete free will.
Many of the passive constructions in these queries are, in my view (I’ve been a copy editor since George W. Bush was in office), excellent. But the basic problem with any passive structure is that if you’re trying to build a world — such as one in which giant fish women walk the streets raining down frogs on shoplifters — passive verbs give a too-compelling opportunity to conceal agency that tells the reader what your world is like. If you’re concealing worldbuilding elements because the book is about figuring out who’s raining the frogs down, that concealing can be good. But if your book opens with the frogs and the giant fish women, a clause that imparts that information via a passive verb is (in my experience) usually going to be inferior to a clause that does so via an active verb.
That’s Part 1 of 3 of Patrick’s Passive Verbs in Queries breakdown. Check back for more soon. Or subscribe to the blog in the sign up box in the footer!
Patrick Hopkins has been copy editing professionally for more than a decade. He is equally passionate about data and editing, which makes him such a hit at parties that he has not been invited to one in three years. He has written several (unpublished) queer picture books and is working on a social justice-focused queer YA detective series. He received his B.S. in English from Radford University, which is where he learned about how important verbs are. When he’s not linking absolutely everyone in Sub It Club to the Successful Queries database or using 45,307 emoticons in one message, he’s probably trying to coax one of his “full of leadership skills” daughters off the roof. Of someone else’s house. Which she is trying to fly off.