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About This Writing Thing

Jul 2021

S2:Ep 3: Adverbs! Oh, the Horror!

Show Notes:

In case you're wondering about my submission journey at the moment, it's at the juncture of Maybe and Not Going to Happen. My agent is working hard to sell the title and I have total faith in her. However, I'm losing faith in me and, most of all, publishing as a whole.

I did a TikTok video last week where I lamented the process a bit. I'm afraid I rambled. Not surprising, I know, so I don't know if I made my point beyond I'm frustrated. I read Publisher's Weekly every week and see these huge deals and then I think about the writers I know with great books that didn't sell. I know a handful of writers whose first books didn't sell and this isn't something that's uncommon in the traditional publishing world. When we're trying to land an agent that step is built up as the end all, be all. If we can just get an agent then we'll be okay.

Sorry to break it to you, that isn't always the case. Sometimes, (more often than I realized) not even your agent's passion for your book can get it sold to a publisher. This means that the book we worked so hard on for months and months (most often years) languishes, because after they take the book out and it's declined (or ignored) by everyone, that's it for that book baby. You have to put it to bed ala Sleeping Beauty and hope that one day a heroic knight (i.e. editor/publisher) will come along and wake it from its slumber.

We're nowhere near that point now with Catching Fireflies, but it hasn't stopped me from panicking about getting to that point.

Word of warning to those of you who've chosen a traditional publishing path: Get ready to have your emotions seriously played with.

I still have hope for my book baby, but I will say that the closer we get to August and then the end of the year, the closer I will be to having a complete and total failed-writer breakdown. The good news, though, is that I have the first draft of my second novel almost completed. I think that's good news anyway.

If you're experiencing similar oh-woe-is-me moments in your writing life, send me a message or an email and we can commiserate. I'm pretty good at that.

Now, let's talk about adverbs. First and foremost, what is an adverb? According Callum Sharp at The Writing Cooperative, an adverb is "A word or phrase that modifies the meaning of an adjective, verb, or other adverb, expressing manner, place, time, or degree." Most often those adverbs end in "L-Y" (i.e. sudden-ly, angri-ly, happi-ly, bitter-ly, awkward-ly, etc.), and most often those adverbs can be found in dialogue tags, otherwise referred to end tags.

From <https://writingcooperative.com/adverbs-the-death-of-good-fiction-writing-92c841284412>

Allow me to remind you of Elmore Leonard's rule #4: Never use an adverb to modify said.

I'm a firm believer that writing rules aren't really rules at all. They're guidelines. Some are too rigid, too restrictive. While others seem like something tossed out into the writingverse to see how many people would be crazy enough to follow it.

Elmore Leonard has ten writing rules. Most of them are good. Several of them should be modified. These are rules that worked for him while writing. They, in his opinion, made his writing stronger, and if they made his writing stronger they'll certainly make our writing stronger, right? Maybe.

I like rule number 4. It makes sense because if you're using an adverb to modify said, you probably haven't done your job with the action in the scene. It comes across as lazy or amateurish to use adverbs to let your readers know how a character is saying something.

On Twitter last week a writer posted that they had no idea exclamation points are so abhorred in writing. They used over 100 in what they were working on and they were thinking that was a bit much. I agree. As I read through the replies, though, I found one that exemplifies exactly why the rule exists:

"I use exclamation marks to demonstrate tone in my character's dialogue."

This, my friends, is bad, bad, bad. It shows that you aren't using the actions in the scene to your advantage, that you're counting on that exclamation point, or adverb, to do the heavy lifting for you.

It's certainly easier to write: "This is your fault!" Cameron exclaimed angrily. But think of the disservice you're doing to your readers. You're not allowing them to connect with Cameron or the scene because you're telling them how he said something. You're TELLING them that Cameron is angry and that his exclamation is angry.

What if we take Chuck Palahnuik's advice (https://litreactor.com/essays/chuck-palahniuk/nuts-and-bolts-%E2%80%9Cthought%E2%80%9D-verbs) and unpack this a bit. 

Cameron stalked to the door, then back to where she sat on the sofa. His eyes flashed, nostrils flared as he looked from her to the cursed book on the table. "This is your fault," he said, finger jutting out to emphasize the accusation.

We know Cameron is angry because of his actions and the way his body is responding to the situation. Using the verb "stalked" lets the reader know he's moving with anger. His eyes are flashing and his nostrils flaring, a bodily response to the anger he's feeling, and then he points at her, his finger "jutting", another strong verb to indicate anger.

Full disclosure here, if you look at my work from seven, ten, and twenty years ago, you're going to find adverbs in end tags. That's how they were writing when I was first learning the craft. We even see it now from authors, especially those who publish more than one book in a year. It's tough to put out solid work that follows the important guidelines of writing if your publishing schedule is rapid. When you publish often syntax suffers. That's just facts. In addition to adverbs in my early writing, you'll also find head hopping, stilted dialogue, and very shallow characters. I'm not embarrassed by this (anymore). After all, I was a baby writer and they're allowed to make all the mistakes. For a little while.

Callum Sharp says, in a 2019 article for The Writing Cooperative, that, "Adverbs remove […] interpretation. Adverbs show your hand to the reader rather than build curiosity and individual thought. They’re ugly, superfluous and unenjoyable to look at on the page" (Sharp 2019).

From <https://writingcooperative.com/adverbs-the-death-of-good-fiction-writing-92c841284412>

I pretty much agree 100% with this statement, especially when the adverb is in the dialogue tag or the action surrounding the dialogue. Personally, I think when people hear the adverb rule they think it applies to the entire narrative. It's understandable, given that American culture often takes an all or nothing approach. Someone says you can't use adverbs? That must mean we can't use them anywhere in our books. They can’t do that! I refuse to be held fast to some "rule" that isn't even backed by the writing police!

Seriously, y'all, calm down.

Adverbs are as necessary in fiction as bending those antiquated grammar and syntax rules that, were we to follow them, make our writing stilted and yawn-inducing. I mean, can you imagine writing or reading an entire novel with no adverbs? Me either. We don't need a ton of them, but we do need them on occasion. You know, like an exclamation point.

Though we have this propensity to get our hackles up if we feel someone (or a lot of someones) are contradicting us or trying to make us stop using things we love (I once said they could have my passive voice when they pried it from my cold, dead hands), the knee-jerk defensive reaction isn't really needed when it comes to adverbs. First of all, I honestly believe it is intended specifically for "L-Y" adverbs, and second, it tends to be specific to dialogue end tags or the action directly related to said dialogue. So, for the sake of this podcast episode, I'm only talking about using adverbs in end tags. 

How often do you register he said, she said, I said, etc. when you're reading a novel or short story? Personally, I don't notice them unless they come after every single piece of dialogue. FYI, you don't need to have he/she/I/you/name said after every single piece of their dialogue. 1) We should know who's speaking based on the flow of the conversation and 2) It becomes super tedious. Just don't do it.

What I'm trying to get at here is that dialogue tags (or end tags) are meant to be invisible. Use too many and your readers will start to see them. That is bad. It's equally bad if they notice them because the action in the scene isn't doing its job.

Let's look at this first draft scene from my current WIP.

“Where is this place?” I ask, breaking the silence that’s covered us since leaving the hotel.

“Just ahead,” she says, her voice quiet, troubled.

“How did you find her sister’s name?”

“Genealogy search. I looked at the census records for Rendy Altizer, which led me to her maiden name, which led me to census records from her childhood.” She glances over at me. “Have you never done a genealogy search before?”

“I didn’t want to strike out twice.” The answer is glib, I know, but it’s the most honest I can be with her about why I’ve never attempted to find my mother’s family.

She nods. “I get that.”

First off, you can see that I've modified Elmore Leonard's rule #3 by using "ask". I'm good with using "ask" or "asked" because sometimes "said" just isn't appropriate. Rule #3 says "Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue" (Leonard). My rule #3 says, "Try not to use a verb other than said or ask to carry dialogue". We should avoid speaking in absolutes in this business. Something works or it doesn't, but sometimes what doesn't work for one of us works for another.

Unless it's adverbs in end tags.

Back to this scene. My preferred writing style is to identify the speaker using said or ask early in the conversation and then (if there are only two people in the scene) leave out the saids or asks until midway through when it may be necessary to remind the reader who is talking. However, I like to use actions during conversations (as we all should), so this helps keep the reader on track. Did you get lost in the conversation above? Did you understand that the situation these two characters find themselves in is a bit troubling? I hope so because that's what I was aiming for. Two things that you will find largely missing are end tags and L-Y adverbs in the end tags. My goal is to convey the tension and uncertainty of their situation with actions and dialogue. This is a first draft, though, so even this is subject to change during revision. I still won't be adding end tags with adverbs, just to be clear.

Here's the main thing you should remember about writing fiction: we want the reader to be affected. If they don't feel connected to the characters and their conflicts, they're not going to care about them. We do this in a multitude of ways. We learn to make our characters convey emotions in their actions the same way we do it in reality. When talking to new writers about writing character emotions, I always tell them to think about how they feel emotionally and physically when things happen to them. When they're betrayed how does their body, heart, and mind react? When they find those feelings, I tell them to write from them. Let us feel their character's heartbeat quicken, their legs quake, and their heart shatter.

You can read more about the pros and cons of using adverbs in end tags in the linked resources located below.






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