A few years ago I wrote a bank robbery scene in passive voice


A few years ago I wrote a bank robbery scene in passive voice and the result was pretty funny. The robbers themselves completely vanished from the story–only the effects of their actions remained and honestly, I was laughing by the time I got to the end of the first and only paragraph.

I posted it online because I had gotten caught up in a (deeply stupid) argument about the subject. What exactly is passive voice, and is it always terrible?

To answer the second question first, no, of course it’s not always terrible. There are times when passive voice is exactly what a sentence needs. The whole point of studying writing as an art form is to recognize that words and sentence structures are tools that we can put to use. So, there’s nothing inherently bad about passive voice. It just has to be used correctly.

As for what passive voice is, the question gives me flashbacks to the person who argued “Blood pooled on the floor” was in passive voice because blood is an inanimate object and how could it therefore be doing the action? The active force was gravity, which might have been absent from the sentence but was the active force causing the blood to pool. Therefore: passive.

Which… sure. But we’re talking about literary structures here, and that argument misses the point.

Another sentence that’s not passive? “He was tall.”

Which brings me to Prosecraft, (link deliberately excluded) a service offered by a company using an AI called Shaxpir (a joke name that I didn’t get until I said it aloud.) Supposedly, you submit your work of fiction to them and they use Shaxpir to run a linguistic sentiment analysis to compare it with other previously published works in their database.

There’s one work by me in there. The Twisted Path.

Some authors are contacting the guy behind it all with angry demands to pull their works from his site as though this was another free pirate library. I’m not sure it is, though. If he’s bought these works legally, then run them through his dumb (more on that later) algorithm to analyze and compare them, I’m not sure that’s a copyright violation. If he’d been doing the same analysis and comparison with a notebook and sharp pencil, I doubt anyone would complain.

Others are unhappy by the idea that he’s using their works to “train” his AI, Shaxpir. But when I look at the site, Shaxpir seems to be another a word processor with some publishing and analytical bullshit thrown in. It doesn’t appear to be one of those enter a prompt and the AI will vomit a novel manuscript for you places. It looks a bit like Scrivener.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m not going to look any deeper into it, considering the quality of the analysis it does.

Judging by the Prosecraft page about my own work, I see problems with the service. First, listing adverbs–broken out into adverbs with an -ly at the end and those without–as a percentage of the total word count, then ranking the book in a “percentile” with other books in the database tells you nothing about the quality of the book. Adverbs are not a metric for quality. They’re a tool, and the only measure that really matters is whether the tool is used correctly.

Second, the service breaks down the text into “vivid” and “passive” words, then using the aforementioned sentiment analysis determines where your book is more of one of those things than the other. There’s even a little color coding for the text: the words the system codes as vivid are red, and the deeper the color the more vivid they’re supposed to be. Passive is the same but blue.

And state of being verbs are all rendered in the most intense blue.

Maybe the creator of prosecraft was a little careless with the way he labeled things. Maybe he liked the word vivid because he thought Vivid books are good books, and so he wanted to put something with a negative connotation at the other end of that scale. Therefore: passive. Passive is bad, right?

Except, in his blog post on the software, he posts an analysis of some text from one of his favorite authors, says it rates in the 99th percentile for Passive, then talks about how much he likes the guy’s writing, esp his use of “passive-voice constructions.”

No surprise then that, out of all that blue text indicating passive voice, only one of those sentences is actually in passive voice. The rest just use state-of-being verbs, which are not themselves passive voice, although there’s an argument to be made that they are not particularly vivid.

But you know what state of being verbs are? They’re really easy to identify.

So it’s a mess, really. The Passive label is being stuck on words/sequences that are not in the passive voice, and passive is used as a binary opposite to the Vivid label, which it absolutely is not.

If the books are being shared like a library, that’s bad and it shouldn’t happen. If they’re being entered into an AI so the algorithm can pull them apart and regurgitate them as works of fiction, that’s also bad and shouldn’t happen.

But as I see it, the main problem is that the service Prosecraft offers is a mess and is basically useless.

Edit: He took the website down. I knew I should have just been lazy and ignored all this. Now I’ve blogged about nothing.

Randomness for 6/19


1. Cracked makes an honest ad about the ways casual games are like crack for our brains. Video.

2. Chatbots built by Facebook engineers to negotiate with each other begin to develop their own non-human language. Time to re-watch Person of Interest.

3. Having power causes a degradation of certain mental functions.

4. M.C. Esher: Adventures in Perception: a 20 minute Dutch documentary about the way he created his work. Video.

5. Are paintings that mimic photographs more “realistic” than paintings from before photography was invented?

6. How to build a bicycle with car tires for wheels.

7. The same song played on a $100 bass, a $700 bass, and a $10,000 bass. Which sounds best? Video.

Randomness for 9/9


1) Guy writes ridiculous requests in the “Special Instructions” space of his hotel reservation, and gets what he asked for. I hope he leave fat tips.

2) Woman Sues After Police Destroy Her Home During 10-Hour Standoff With The Family Dog.

3) An action figure for “Bulba Fett”.

4) Like Tanith Lee? Live/want to live in the UK? Her house is for sale. I wish I were successful enough for a beautiful house.

5) This longread is AMAZING: How parents of an elementary school child tried to frame a PTA mom for a crime she didn’t commit. Wow. For a crime/mystery reader like myself, this is wild. And it could have gone the other way so easily.

6) I’m a judge and I think criminal court is horrifying.

7) How to tell a mother her child is dead.

Randomness for 8/5


1) “The Most Satisfying Video in the World.” Video

2) Climate change releases Siberian anthrax from melting permafrost. 1500 reindeer dead.

3) Getty Images sends woman demand for payment for her own photo. She sues them for one billion dollars.

4) Japanese sword master tests his skills against an industrial robot.

5) Ten Unusual Libraries Around the World.

6) How Jack Reacher should be traveling the country: a DIY airstream camper light enough to be towed by a bicycle.

7) Test flight held for small jet modeled after Miyazaki anime.

Randomness for 7/24


1) The late great Jim Henson gives a puppeteering masterclass. Video.

2) Inside Portland’s Mystery Hole. #NotPorn

3) Exploding glass filmedin 343,000 fps slo-mo. Toward the end, this gets to be like the drug effects in DREDD.

4) A split screen comparing Los Angeles of the 1940’s with Los Angeles now. Video.

5) What type of low-budget films break out?

6) LA earthquake creates a seiche, a (potentially destructive) wave frequency that amplifies waves and ripples. Video.

7) Police 3D print a murder victim’s finger to unlock his phone.

Randomness for 6/16


1) One-bedroom home for sale in Minneapolis: $150K. Every picture is weirder than the one before it.

2) Eight of the best D&D modules of all time. Warning: gallery.

3) I have 227 browser tabs open, and my computer runs fine. Here’s my secret.

4) Things to never order at a fast food restaurant.

5) Beautiful hand-carved skateboards from Mumbai.

6) Like movies and reading screenplays? Simon Barrett’s shooting scripts for the films THE GUEST and YOU’RE NEXT are online.

7) The worst fucking shoes on the planet: Cowboy sandal boots.

Randomness for 6/1


1) Immortan Joe’s War Boys leave product reviews on Amazon. Shiny!

2) “Though she was a little-known B-movie actress in the 1950s, Allison Hayes also had a legacy with the Food and Drug Administration.

3) My Mad Max: Fury Ponies

4) Showing what’s real and what’s cgi in Mad Max: Fury Road. People have been praising the practical effects in this movie, which some internet bozos thought was a claim that there was no cgi at all. Which is ridiculous. Check out the before and after shots. Pretty interesting.

5) How Hollywood keeps women out.

6) Joint pain, from the gut. Dealing with auto-immune issues through the microbiome. It’s more complex than taking a probiotic.

7) How Sleep Deprivation Decays the Mind and Body.

Randomness for 5/28


1) Darpa successfully tests the first bullet that can be steered after it was fired.

2) Geologists grill up stakes with lava… and ruin them.

3) Richard Prince Selling Other People’s Instagram Shots Without Permission for $100K Whenever I feel cynical about publishing, I think about fine arts and give my oil-painter wife a hug. (Of course, if he was skimming other people’s work from reddit, I wouldn’t be surprised…)

4) Feces rained down on outdoor Sweet 16 party. Dumped from a plane, obviously. Stranger than fiction

5) Nothing about this toy makes sense. Video. Don’t watch that without the sound.

6) Law & Order: Daredevil. Video. Also requires sound.

7) A Kickstarter for a horror video game about a blind woman. Cool.

Randomness for 7/9


1) Dungeons & Dragons and the Influence of Tabletop RPGs | Off Book | PBS Digital Arts Video

2) Camera allows you to see parkour from the POV of the traceur. Video.

3) Cartoon rejection rates at the New Yorker. Includes a TEDTalk of course because New Yorker.

4) A Visual Guide To The Mastery Of Kirk-Fu.

5) Extremely unfortunate spelling mistakes on Twitter.

6) How to live with introverts, a comic.

7) I need NEED to become an incredibly wealthy person solely so I can purchase one of these. My wife and kid can have one, too.