Tuesday, February 11, 2014

She Said Adverblessly

If there is any one thing that writing fiction has trained me to do, it would be to hunt and mercilessly destroy all unnecessary adverbs in a piece of writing. Like mercilessly, for instance. And after being trained to it, it's easy to catch those wily adverbs when they come up in writing, or even speaking.

What's an adverb? Generally, a word ending in -ly is an adverb. Generally would be an example. (*Wily, above, is not, because the -ly is an adjective ending and comes from the word WILE. If that doesn't make the different clear to you, think of a synonym for wily--sneaky, right? Not an adverb since it doesn't end in -ly. A synonym for generally? Basically. Both -ly words!) The reason editors and professional writers advise against the use of adverbs is because they so often function as fillers and qualifiers in sentences that could just as well do with better verb choices instead. Obviously, adverbs have specific uses in English; the theory behind avoiding their use is that a writer can more effectively express themselves by just finding better verbs that don't need to be qualified with adverbs. Quite often, adverbs are considered a crutch for lazy writers--they easily come to the mind, while picking perfect verbs takes practice and a certain knack. And considerable editing.

So when you come across an adverb like this (in your own writing or someone else's):

The castle rose ominously over the village.

Can you find a way to phrase that with just a verb? One word that embodies the meaning of rose ominously? How about this:

The castle loomed over the village.

Besides being more to the point conceptually, this is also just so much quicker and easier to read! Since overblown prose isn't a preferred style for informed readers (i.e., editors and professional writers) these days, a certain economy of words is required. If you can get your point across with greater force and fewer words, why wouldn't you? Being able to do so is a sign of a writer who cares about not just story, but prose and presentation.

Now we've established why verb choice is an important skill to have! So how would you improve these sentences?

He laughed evilly.
Cackled, maybe?

She walked slowly.
So many options, all dependent upon what you're really trying to say. Do you mean strolled, ambled, wandered, minced? Walked slowly is actually a pretty nonspecific action and doesn't say much about the individual doing the walking.

Said quietly.
Or whispered, mumbled, murmured.

The big bad wolf followed stealthily.
The big bad wolf prowled or stalked.

The sword cut his arm deeply.
The sword gashed/gouged/plunged into his arm.

The spacebeast was intimidatingly large.
The spacebeast was massive/gigantic/enormous/huge.

Some of these examples are generalized and could appear in any piece of narrative writing you pick up; others are more specific and therefore require more specific verb choices. And some of these adverbs are worse than others in the way they fail to roll off the tongue. Evilly? Or how about intimidatingly, an adverb born from a gerund? Not only is it unwieldy to say, but takes a bit of mental unraveling, too.

If the wording stays simple, direct, and specific, your reader has more opportunity to focus on the story you're telling, rather than tripping over intimidatingly inconvenient words. Of course there are times when you might have to use adverbs to articulate a point--no one's saying that won't happen. But judicious use is key to keeping your prose orderly, neat, and clear.

This is just one of the many working "rules" of writing that I have heard in my pursuit of creating saleable fiction. If you can master the use of adverbs, you're one step closer to excellent writing!

*All adverbs in this section are in bold to give you an idea of how necessary they are/aren't, and how they function in writing. I'm sure you could eliminate a few more if you wanted!

And now for something I haven't had the chance to do for a while--the return of the What I'm Reading section! Yay! And what's the answer?

Lots of books about the artist James Ensor (I will be writing a paper about him this term). A handful of books and other materials about the Spanish Baroque period (again, for research). And I've reordered The Weird, edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer since I only managed to read about 500 of its 1111 pages last time I nabbed it from the library (yep, I'm one of those people). Now I'm back into it, reading through weird fiction of the 1920s, and definitely finding a certain formula at work in this era. Is it bad? In some of them. Tedious or repetitive might be a better term. But getting familiar with this formula has also made me realize how contemporary fiction is very often just as formulaic--we've just adjusted our expectations or rules of what the formula must entail. Every fiction genre and style has its own formulae and expectations. Of course some stories following such a formula are better than others, but what really grabs me is those stories that break free of the formula while still typifying the genre. Although, currently, I'm still waiting to be grabbed ...