Thursday, April 29, 2010

Why No Adverbs?

I recently came across some warnings for fiction writers against using adverbs, those -ly words that modify adjectives and verbs. (I even used one in the previous sentence: recently.) I understand that overuse of adverbs could make your writing look silly and that overuse of any particular tool is to be avoided. However, these writers insisted that adverbs should be shunned, that you should exorcise them from your prose and rewrite any sentence containing one. In short, using adverbs is bad writing for fiction writers. Unfortunately, these writers did not explain why adverbs are bad for fiction. When someone states an absolute rule about language, particularly when they don't explain it, warning signals go off for me. Adverbs shade the meaning of the words they modify. They are grammatical and an accepted part of speech. I've seen them used by well-respected writers. So, what's behind the injunctions against adverbs?

Here's some advice I gathered in my search for the case against adverbs.

Problem #1: Adverbs are redundant when paired with strong verbs. For example: "clenched his teeth tightly"; "moped sadly"; "screamed loudly"; "whispered quietly." In each case, the adverb adds no additional meaning to the verb. There is no other way to mope than with sadness and when someone whispers, they are being quiet.

Problem #2: Writers misuse adverbs to explain dialogue, combining emotions with speaker attributions when those emotions should be clear from the dialogue itself. If the dialogue carries its own weight, adding flying buttresses with adverbs makes it appear weak. For example: "You snapped my pet stick," he said accusingly. The dialogue records an accusation. Nothing is gained from telling the reader again.

Problem #3: Adverbs are used to prop up weak verbs. A better solution is to replace those weak verb/adverb pairings with a stronger verb. For example: replace "frowning angrily" with scowling; "running quickly" with sprinting; "petting softly" with caressing; "moving slowly" with creeping.

Problem #4: Adverbs lead writers to tell rather than show. Instead of telling readers that a character "reads incessantly", show us the stack of books and magazines blocking the door; his reading glasses in the front pocket of his shirt; the many scars from paper cuts crisscrossing his fingers.

Problem #5: Adverbs lead to subtle point-of-view problems. For example, Joe is the POV character but the writer states that "Sue looked at the merchant incredulously." If there is a physical or verbal cue that suggests Sue's attitude, we don't need the adverb. It's redundant. If there is no cue, then we are invading another character's thoughts and momentarily stepping into a different POV.

So, should you ever use an adverb? They are permissible in a few cases. It's reasonable to employ them in dialogue. People use them when they talk. In other cases, an adverb is adequate to create a mental image and rewriting makes the prose wordy. Consider this example: "The man stood silently at the window" versus "The man stood at the window making no noise." The instance with the adverb is more concise. The rewrite is longer and draws unnecessary attention to the phrase "making no noise".

It is very easy to fall into the adverb traps. The good news is that they are easy to find. Search your manuscript for "ly" and consider each instance. You will be surprised how much richer your writing will be when you eradicate those adverbial weeds from your prose. Happy weeding.

Friday, April 23, 2010


Genre is becoming a four-letter word to me. My hackles raise every time I hear it. According to Merriam-Webster, genre is "a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content." Fair enough. I have no problem with categorizing literature. Imagine a bookstore or library without any categories. What I do have a problem with is something the dictionary isn't capturing, the word's pejorative use. At a writing conference I recently attended, I overheard someone say that she wonders from what people who read science fiction or fantasy are trying to escape. When I told someone manning a vendor's booth that I write fairy tales and fantasy, she looked at me like I had the plague. Others told me indirectly that they published good fiction but were not open to genre fiction.

It appears many people have bought into a dichotomy that separates fiction into two folders: realistic-literary fiction and genre fiction with all its sub-folders. In addition, many people associate the former with art and the latter with pulp. The definition of genre covers all categories of fiction, including realistic-literary fiction. That's right, realistic-literary fiction is just another genre with it's own particular style, form, and content. At its heart, fiction is about people: their choices, their struggles, their joys, and their sorrows. Good fiction should tell us something about the human condition. Good fiction must also "ring true." The events in the narrative and actions of the characters must be believable within the context of the story. The realistic-literary genre does not have a lock on any of those characteristics or content.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Festival of Faith and Writing 2010

Set This House in Order: A Romance of SoulsLast week I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College. This was my first writing conference. I had no idea what to expect or if it would be worth the registration fee. I'm glad I attended. The experience was invaluable and fun. Some of the presentations directly answered my questions or pointed me in the right direction to build my career. I also made a personal connection with an editor and an agent. This whole business is still about personal connections. If you're seriously interested in writing and publishing, get thee to a conference.

The Miracle Life of Edgar MintI was also introduced to the work of Matt Ruff and Brady Udall. I heard a reading by Ruff from his novel Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls and attended a session in which he talked about the interior landscapes of his characters. Ruff's Set This House in Order centers on two people with multiple personality disorder. The protagonist builds a house in his mind for the different personalities or souls, as Ruff terms them, to live. Udall gave a presentation on building a novel. That was a great talk, tremendously informative. He offered practical advice on narrative structure and echoed some of the ideas I've come across in John Gardner's works about writing, namely that most literary criticism is not very helpful to writers. Criticism rarely talks about plot structure and how a piece of literature works. So, I added two new books to my ever-growing stack of things to read: Ruff's Set This House in Order and Udall's The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint.

One piece of advice I heard from multiple sources was the importance of blogging and doing it consistently. So, I'm going to make an effort to blog more often.