Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Avoid adverbs, writes Elmore Leonard, sternly, decisively and mysteriously, as number 4 in his ten rules of writing fiction. From The Guardian:
1 Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
2 Avoid prologues: they can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory [see what I mean - M.J.], and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."e
3 Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.
4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".
5 Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
6 Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.
8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", what do the "American and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story.
9 Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
I'm not sure I agree about the adverbs, she wrote tentatively. Digollice was an adverb, and that served us well on the quiet, she added cheekily. In any case, she concluded defiantly, you should ditch all the rules if it works. I like Margaret Attwood's better:
1 Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can't sharpen it on the plane, because you can't take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
2 If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
3 Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
There you go. Take a pencil, she says, pointedly.
Posted on 02/24/2010 4:42 AM by Mary Jackson
24 Feb 2010
re: "weather" and "rape and adverbs"
Night, Stormy, Dark
Or: More "Look At The Harlequin Romances!!!!!"
Or: Win One For The Ripper*
I don't know weather [sic] 'tis nobler in the eye of the storm to suffer the syntax and adverbs of outrageous writing or to put to sleep the opening line of my bodice-ripper which invokes the spirit of the lascivious and lilliputian Emily Dickinson:
"It was a tall, dark, handsome and hallowed Knight possessed of a brobdingnagian circumference who took her knickers by storm and teased apart the trembling nether regions as she asseverated perseveratively, 'You must be genital with me. You must be genital with me.' "
* See Spring has sprung, where the bodice is and You don't know Jack
24 Feb 2010
..... he wrote, Reactionrily
24 Feb 2010
Libeling The Dead
Or: Bring Out Your Dead & Bring Out Your Helminths*
Or: In The Belly Of The Bolshevik Beast
Or: Worm Food For Thought
Or: McCarthy, McCarthy & Dzhugashvili
Or: My Sweet Georgian
I once asseverated that every word written by Lillian Hellman was a lie, including "and" and "the." Mind you, I wasn't altogether sure about some of the adverbs, though I am sure that, as one wag asserted, she cut her conscience to fit the fashion of the Communist Party line.
Whatsamatta', Lilly, cat got your tulle tippet?
- Mary McCarthy
Give it a rest in peace, willya'? We two are part of "The Group" which forms the "innumerable caravan" and, ironically, I guess, while I tried to do my best to destroy the West from within the belly of the capitalist beast, now the "same crooked worms" go at both our "sheets" and innards.
- Lillian "Helminth" Hellman
Yo, Bitches! Uncle Joe says, 'Ho!'
- J. McCarthy & J. Stalin
24 Feb 2010
An adverbarial post, with that adversarial touch.
But what's an "aeroplane"? Do you breathe aer? Are statements said, "aerily"?
colon right parenthesis
24 Feb 2010
But what's an "aeroplane"?
It's an aesthetically pleasing "airplane". See here for more aery faery vowel movements.
25 Feb 2010
Rule no. 3 has some merit in it; as anyone will know who is familiar with Captain W E Johns' 'Biggles' books.
For some reason, W. E Johns *didn't* like writing 'said' all the time, and furthermore - why, I don't know - seems to have been allergic to the verb 'exclaimed', preferring to write 'ejaculated'. And his characters do a *lot* of exclaiming...er...ejaculating.
Now this was probably perfectly good neutral English usage in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s; but readers from the 1980s onwards are liable, if picking up the books for the first time, to find Johns' choice of vocabulary...disconcerting, shall we say, to say the least.