Passive Verbs in Queries (part 2)

by Patrick Hopkins

Welcome to part 2 of Patrick’s Passive Verbs In Queries posts. Go to part 1 if you want to catch up!

Some authors are so good that they can mix active and passive verbs and take the reader on a brief agency journey, such as …

Tara Leigh, querying the eventual Penthouse Player (bolding mine):

Abandoned by her mother and spurned by her father, Reina St. James is tired of being treated like a dirty little secret. It wasn’t easy making her way into the high-risk, high-reward Wall Street world ruled by mercurial Hedge Fund Kings and the whiz kids and trust fund tyrants that surround them. But now that she’s got a stiletto-clad toe into Betancourt Bank, one of the swankiest firms in Manhattan, Reina is determined to prove she’s more than just a pretty face hiding an ugly past.”

We begin with lack of agency in a modifier that contains two past tense verbs that here anchor adjective phrases. Before we even get to our character, we’re invited to think she’s lesser. After all, why else abandon and spurn someone?

Then we come to the name and another adjective phrase that hints at a third way people have reacted to her: they want her, but not publicly. 

And still we have no agency, only fatigue. Reina hasn’t done anything yet. All we know of her is how other people see her.

Now, normally, “it [whatever]” is inelegant phrasing because you can just lead with the noun. For example, “it’s raining” becomes “rain is falling,” which allows you to be pretty in a few ways. But in this case, “It wasn’t” is an excellent way to begin the sentence for two reasons:

  1. The noun you’d lead with is “making … them,” which is basically the entire sentence. Rearranging it so you can be elegant would itself likely impart inelegance.
  2. By having the sentence start “it,” we place the character — “she” — subordinate to some unknown noun. And by not even naming the character as she’s making her way (we know her name only in the context of her fatigue), we further marginalize her. 

So now Reina has entered a high-stakes world, but she has double lack of agency because she’s in it, and it’s not doing anything to her. No, it’s “ruled by” other people, and good luck getting to them, because even more menacing people surround them. The “hedge fund kings” rule Wall Street, and to get to them, you have to get through “the whiz kids and trust fund tyrants.”

Then things turn. Reina acquires agency. “She’s got.” 

And while she’s “got,” where are the hedge fund kings, the whiz kids and the trust fund tyrants?

Nowhere. All we can see is Reina’s “stiletto-clad toe [in] Betancourt Bank.” 

And then, yeah, we do see a hedge fund, but what does “one of the swankiest firms in Manhattan” lack?

A verb.

And right after we read about that firm, we get three Reina-empowering verbs rapid-fire

Reina is determined to prove she’s

The rest of the sentence, meanwhile, is an adjective phrase, which robs her “ugly past” of agency and leaves her firmly in control in that swanky firm.

The paragraph is art, and it ought to be in a museum.

That’s Part 2 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.

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