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About This Writing Thing

16
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.

 

Resources:

https://prowritingaid.com/art/324/What%E2%80%99s-Wrong-with-an-%E2%80%9Cly%E2%80%9D-Adverb-After-a-Dialogue-Tag.aspx

https://www.autocrit.com/editing/support/adverbs-in-dialogue/

 

Find me on Instagram, Twitter, & TikTok (@saybeller)

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16
Jun 2021

S2:Ep2: End Tags: When should we use them?

Show Transcript:

Hello, and welcome to About This Writing Thing, a bi-weekly podcast about living the writing life. I am your host, Sayword B. Eller, novelist, short story writer, and podcaster.

 

Last week I heard some pretty terrible writing advice on TikTok. I know, right? This video encouraged writers to forego "said" and embellish with punchier verbs like "retorted", "expounded", "wept", etc.

 

Elmore Leonard's "10 Rules of Writing" hangs above my desk. Mere inches from the top of my screen. Rule number 3: Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue."

 

I'm not in the all or nothing camp. I think sometimes it's okay to use a verb other than said in an end tag, but I think it should be done sparingly. Most often we should be using actions to indicate how a character is saying their dialogue, but now and then a simple verb may be used. In other words, sometimes "asked" is necessary, but never "shouted", especially if you've used an exclamation mark.

 

One thing I 100% agree with Leonard on is rule 4: Never use an adverb to modify "said". I know bestselling authors do it, but this is an instance where you should seriously avoid following their lead. It's amateurish and lazy to let an adverb do what the actions of your characters should be doing. No surprise here, but that bad TikTok writing advice I mentioned came with a list featuring scores of adverbs.

 

I know Stephen King's It is riddled with adverbs in dialogue tags. Trust me, I tried to read it. But even he added in his 1999 memoir/craft book that we should avoid adverbs. What's the quote again? Oh yes, "While to write adverbs is human, to use 'he said' or 'she said' is divine." We'll talk more about adverbs and end tags in a couple of weeks.

 

What is the main use for end tags? To let the reader know who's speaking, right? Yes, I am right. The question was rhetorical. Some writers do this masterfully. Using end tags sparingly but at the right moment that keeps the reader in the conversation without them pausing to say, "Wait a minute, who said that?"

 

There is an author whose work I love, but they don't use enough end tags sometimes. In both their books I've found myself (at some point) taken out of the story to try and figure out who is speaking. That's a case where the author is using end tags far too sparingly. Most often, I find myself shrugging and moving on, never really knowing who was speaking, but not knowing gnaws at me. I find this most often in writers who are trying to stay in deep POV. They want the reader completely and totally immersed in a story. Problem is, if I don't know which characters is speaking I'm not longer immersed in the story. Instead, I'm going back to try to follow the line of dialogue and figure out who's saying what.  

 

This is exactly, as writers, we should make a concerted effort to learn as much about end tags and how to use them as possible. Yes, in the '80s and '90s it was all the rage to pretty up the end tag with other verbs and adverbs, but that's when everyone was still writing in third person omniscient and we hadn't quite learned that a limited perspective is favored above a know-it-all one. It gets us closer to the character, lets us feel what they're feeling and experience what they're experiencing without some ever-present entity telling us what's happening.

 

Speaking of telling, the use of verbs in end tags is a big signal that you're telling instead of showing in your narrative. While some telling is necessary, when our characters are in conversation the last thing we should be doing is telling our readers how they should be hearing the characters speak. This is where action or beats are so important. When in conversation we're not simply sitting stiff and unmoving, so our characters shouldn't be either. There should be movement even in your conversations, just like in real life.

 

"You don't know what you're talking about!" Sally exclaimed. Isn't nearly as effective as: Sally paced back and forth, hands flying through the air shooting her energy out into the room like bolts of lightning. If only they were. Oh, the havoc she could wreak. She was caught and there was little she could do to deny it now. Turning, she looked at him through eyes that pulsed in time with her rapidly beating heart. "You don't know what you're talking about!"

 

Okay, it needs some work, but first drafts are supposed to be bad, right?

 

Even though it's a sub par example, it's still evident why action is preferred over an end tag. An end tag simply tells us how Sally said this dialogue. I want to point out that the exclamation point does that anyway, so "exclaimed" is redundant, but that's a different conversation. In the first example we only know that she exclaimed because the writer told us Sally exclaimed. However, we don't know how she's feeling, what's going through her mind, etc. But in the second example we know that she's agitated because she's pacing back and forth, her hands are flailing about. We also know that she's angry. We don't lose the exclamation point because she needs it there to get that energy out, but we've used her actions to completely eliminate the end tag.

 

I talk about beats in episode 24. You'll find the link in the description below.

 

It is important to remember as you listen to this podcast, other podcasts, or read craft books and articles that you remember, writing is subjective. (remainder of section not transcribed)

 

Because I think we should all develop our own rules for writing, here are the rules I follow when it comes to end tags:

  1. Don't use an end tag if an action will work better: This is the primary rule in my writing process when it comes to end tags. When going back through my drafts I pay special attention to sections of dialogue to see if I could have used action to convey how something was being said, or who was saying it. Using actions or beats keeps a scene active and keeps the pace moving forward. 
  2. Use them at the beginning of a conversation: This signals to the reader know who is in the conversation and who is speaking. They will find their rhythm from there and be able to follow along, thus allowing you to avoid overusing end tags.
  3. Use them midway if a conversation is long: This will help the reader keep their place in the conversation. Sometimes if dialogue between two characters goes on for too long the reader may forget who's speaking when. An end tag (but preferably action) midway through the conversation will help the reader keep their place.
  4. Never ever use adverbs: In my older writing you will see adverbs galore in my end tags. That's because the writers I was reading when I began writing were from that school of writers who believed that adverbs jazzed up your end tags. Truth is, they don't. Nowadays they just make you look lazy. I'm not putting these writers down. I loved their work at one time. But, like everything else, I evolved and changed with the times. Most of them have as well.

 

The same things that were popular 10, 20, and 30 years ago in writing are not popular now and when you continue to use them your writing appears dated, and you look like a writer unwilling to learn new things. What's rule #1 of being a writer? You will never know everything there is to know about writing. Why? Because writing is an ever-evolving organism. It shifts and changes with the times. We should do so as well.

 

When should we use end tags?

 

The simple answer is, when they're needed. This is something you will learn over time and through reading and being critiqued. The thing to remember is that we're not perfect. What you write today will make you cringe five or ten years from now because you will be a different writer then.

 

Look for your cues. If you read your dialogue out loud and you begin to register the "he saids" and "she saids" then you've used too many. If you read the dialogue out loud and you lose who's talking, you haven't used enough. If you have verbs other than "said" or "asked", pay attention to those passages and see if you can add an action or beat that will eliminate the end tag. Usually if you're using verbs outside of "said" or "asked" you're telling and that should almost always be eliminated.

 

As always, I've included several articles in the description of this episode that will be a great starting place in your journey to learn how to use dialogue tags effectively.

 

That's it for this week. If you liked this episode please give me a like, subscribe, whatever. Share me with your friends and on social media. If you want to know what I'm doing between shows you can find me on Instagram and Twitter (@saybeller) and you can find this podcast on Twitter (@writingthingpod) and on Instagram (@aboutthiswritingthing).

 

Next time I'll be talking about end tags and adverbs. Until then, take care and keep writing.

 

Resources:

https://writingcooperative.com/how-to-use-and-not-use-dialogue-tags-d057c7f98b62

 

https://www.janefriedman.com/dialogue-tags/

 

https://litreactor.com/columns/on-dialogue-tags-why-anything-besides-said-and-asked-is-lazy-writing

 

Give Me A Beat: Finding a Balance that Works: https://aboutthiswritingthing.podbean.com/e/episode-24-give-me-a-beat-finding-a-balance-that-works/

2
Jun 2021

S2:Ep1: Why Some Writing Advice Should be Taken with a Grain of Salt

Mentioned in this podcast: 

The Courtney Project

Show Notes are available HERE

Find me on social media:

Sayword B. Eller: Instagram, Twitter, TikTok (@saybeller)

About This Writing Thing: Instragram, Twitter, TikTok (@aboutthiswritingthing)

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