Sunday, June 16, 2013

More on Damn Adverbs

Another old article uncovered.

I am often amused, sometimes annoyed by the level of debate on the internet, the way weak writers, self-published writers will pontificate as if they actually know what they are doing.

Do I know what I'm doing?

You judge. I've won a fifteen writing competitions and picked up $12,000+ in prizes. I've placed twice second and once fourth in the UK's prestigious Bridport Prize (it gets 5,000+ entries). 

I've published five novels, one of which was short-listed for an international award, and well over four hundred short-stories and articles and ONE in womag! 

I've led a group of writers (usually 10-20 at any one time) for a dozen years and between them they have won around 140 first prizes. In 2006 they won 26 first prizes. 

Maybe, MAYBE, I know what I'm talking about?

I should add that I write literary short fiction or serious general fiction but that I've sold five crime novels and a dozen or so humorous stories. Boot-campers and ex-Boot-campers have sold womag stories, romances, science fiction, crime, humour, chick-lit, and one a series of bodice-ripping western romances. So my advice can be shown to work for total raw beginners (some eye-bleedingly hopeless when they start), for improvers, intermediates and advanced, well-published writers.

I DO know what I'm talking about!

So why then do we get these arguments about, let's say "Alex Keegan's view on dialogue openers" or "Alex Keegan's view on the use of adverbs and adjectives"?

We get arguments because those on the other side of the fence DON'T LISTEN. Because they paraphrase (and often actually misrepresent what I say) and then, because they cannot beat the sound advice, beat up the falsely paraphrased misrepresentative "advice".

In my article published in The Internet Writers Journal and The New Writer I asked the question: Would you prefer a cool, dark, Guinness or a Guinness? I also asked would you rather make slow, delicious love or have a quickie? It's here, by the way:

"Cool, Dark" above is NOT a case of a writer choosing a weak noun needing to modify it (because it's weak.) Instead it's a case of a writer carefully extending, expanding, elongating a sentiment, partly to make the sensuousness more "sticking", and partly to actually "open up" the basic sense into one that involves more senses and approaches the visceral.

If I was marking this in a story I would mark it with a tick, not a cross (unless I felt the context made it cliché) but I might well, elsewhere blue-pencil ten or more adjectives and adverbs.

So what about that quickie? Well, firstly, "quickie" is a strong noun, it says it all (more or less). "Making slow, delicious love" is NOT "a quickie". And note too how sLow, deLicious, Love, is stretched, expanded and slowed semantically (by the actual meanings of the words), and ALSO by similar consonant and vowel sounds and feeling. It's what I like to call the colour and music of the words.

At another time we might want the words to be staccato, hard, short and sharp: kick, duck, smack, black.

Compare that to undulating mellifluousness.

Gary Provost in Make Your Words Work says: "The adjective, no doubt, is the most maligned part of speech, and for good reason. For every adjective that is improving a sentence, ten are being written to the detriment of the sentences they inhabit." In the Elements of Style, William Strunk suggests that adjectives are "The leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words."

First of all note that. Note I quote it. Note I've quoted it before. Note I have NOT said, "all adjectives are bad". I reserve such statements for womag stories, as in, 'All womag stories are bad,' (except that is too kind.)

Now note this re-statement of the twice-stated statement:

For every adjective that is improving a sentence, ten are being written to the detriment of the sentences they inhabit.

THAT is the point. Routinely, commonly, virtually all beginners use pathetic, shitty nouns and tatty vanilla verbs and ladle on almost-as-shitty adjectives and adverbs as if somehow the two litres of thick, gooey gravy will cover up the fact that the so-called fillet steak they are pretending to offer is actual a camel's rancid penis.

But-but-but-but cries beginner, there was this book, see, and THAT had lots of adjectives! So what? So WHAT if John Banville can pack in the modifiers and call a rusty iron gate "a filigree of rust"? So WHAT if Doris Lessing once opened ONE of her novels with dialogue? What about the other ninety-nine?

Remember the phrase exceptions prove the rule?

Beginners SHOULD attempt, extended periods where they do not use adverbs and adjectives "AT ALL".

Note, the above does not say they are banned. Note the above is NOT saying, "Here is a quick-fix rule from a box of ten."

What the above is saying is: Try to write without adjectives and adverbs, because, if you do, you will realise how often, almost automatically, you choose thin, weak nouns and verbs. By stopping yourself using modifiers for an extended period you learn to seek out stronger nouns and stronger verbs. The use of stronger nouns and verbs almost always makes for stronger writing.

Why can't I say, "Use adjectives sparingly"?

Because no-one has defined "sparingly"!

Carver would say sparingly means one a year. John Banville (spit) would say, "If the reader is conscious and sane, I obviously didn't use enough."

Why can't I say, "Use adjectives sparingly"?

Because half the beginners I've ever met think "sparingly" means only use one adjective for every noun.

The POINT is this.

When you use a verb and then an adverb to qualify it, how easily did that verb come? Isn't that the same verb as 99.99% of people would use to describe the car coming out of a side road? Was it boring? Is that why you poured on gravy?

Was the verb SHARKED (Martin Amis) or was it "pulled out"?

Did you write (YAWN) "the car pulled out cautiously into the traffic"?

Why not "tip-toed" or "tip-toed into the traffic like a three-year-old in her mother's shoes"

Which bit of language is ALIVE?

If you are a beginner, I tell you now, you use too many adjectives. You use too many adverbs.

If I tell you to stop doing that, that doesn't mean you won't grow up to write "wonderful stories" full of mellifluent prose. What it means is, that given enough time and practice you will learn that yes, you really did over-use adjectives and adverbs, and you'll discover, later in your career, every time you go to remove that adjective or adverb you "can't".

Why "can't you"? Because without the adjective that noun is a bit vague. Without that adverb that verb is ambiguous or insipid. But I "insist" the modifier has to go. You go back to your lexicon and dig out a far better noun, a much better verb. Suddenly the wishy-washy, so-so same-ish, plain vanilla, brown-paper writing you did earlier now has a bit of bite, a bit of power. Oh, you think, maybe what Miss Duffner said wasn't actually very good advice…

Eventually (but only if you are beaten sufficiently to make you think) you will place your modifiers on the page, for deliberate specific effects. They will be doing important work. They will not be casual, tossed-in modifiers, but ones that are there because the combinations are more powerful, less bald, than the unmodified noun and verb. Or maybe the modifiers are there to stretch time, to slow down the reader, to give other impressions beyond the immediate phrase.

Here, a mining village in the rain, an old guy is waiting for his equally-old buddy (who is sick and won't be coming).

We could write.

Dai's bored. Where's Fred? Late again! Hah! He drinks his pint, stares at the rain. Tum-te-tum, he drums his fingers.

Maybe that would work (bit too good to be in a womag story?)

But if the story is meant to be "slow, sad, dying," then maybe:

Saturday afternoon and Dai Griffiths sits with his finger-polished roll-up tin. He is patient, fixated, listening. His tongue protrudes slightly as he makes careful, half dog-end, half Old Holburn, delicate, thin cigarettes.

It is raining outside the pub and along the valley side snake-terraced roofs glisten. The afternoon light closes.

Rivers run down from the top of the mountain, down the steep side roads, black with coal dust. The rain is like stair-rods now and the Cwm road is welly deep. Running boot-steps splatter past the open pub door and Dai’s black and white terrier looks up. The dog is spotted with splashed black water and moves slightly. Without looking, Dai puts out a hand. The dog lowers its head back onto Dai's feet.

Here the extensions are DELIBERATE. A specific effect is sought. Te writer wants the reader to enter that same, slightly melancholy "what can we do?" mood of a wet Saturday with nowhere to go, no hope.

The passage should be investigated. Where might an adjective or an adverb be cut? Would it hurt the piece? What about, for example, "his tongue protrudes slightly"? You could probably get away without the modifier, but here it's OK, slows things down (and we want things to be slow) and it's a tiny bit more specific. There is no easy replacement verb for protrudes-slightly.

Finger-polished roll-up tin is not "excessive modification". Instead, here the modification is close-detail which gives a lot of back-story and character-detail. Anyone who had a dad who rolled his own can SEE that tin and smell the tobacco (and maybe have his heart-strings tugged as he remembers Gramps.)

Splashed black water is again specific while at the same time being onomatopoeic. The point is there's real purpose here, not casualness.

Whereas these two:

He wondered what the sex would be like. She thought it would be good. When she asked him, "Do you think the sex will be good, Harry?" he knew it would be great. But that was later.

Let's get right-down to the point. These city-types don't dick about. They are go-getters, with-it, fast-moving. So is the text.

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