Sunday, May 10, 2009

Adverbs and Other Descriptors, Part 2

Go to almost any writers conference, seminar, class, discussion, critique, or retreat, and you'll likely hear someone--either a speaker or a fellow attendee--warn against the use of adverbs, adjectives, or gerunds.

Now, go to the bookstore, pick up almost any book, and what will you find? Adverbs, adjectives, and gerunds.

Much like the pirate code in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, literary rules are not so much laws as they are guidelines. There is a difference between what authors are told is acceptable versus what's actually published--did you catch that adverb?--so what's a writer to do? Are editors and agents just being paranoid or snobbish about this stuff?

Yes, and no.

We should be careful with what we put on the page, in the sense that we want our work to grab readers, to be fresh/original/inimitable (look! a list of three adjectives!), but words are there to be used, and there is a difference between "walked slowly" and "walked quickly", and sometimes ran, skipped, leaped, jogged, strode, ambled, strolled, meandered, or myriad other descriptors don't convey the actual moment the way we see it in our minds.

A great way to describe reluctance, for instance, is to tell us how a character acted; if he did so "slowly", then we have an obligation to say so.

On the other hand, as an advocate for non-lazy writing, I like to use strong, punchy verbs wherever possible. As a poet, however, I understand the importance of cadence, that sometimes sound and pacing are just as important as the idea itself, and can enhance that idea.

Like one gone mad I hugged the ground;
I raised my quivering arms on high;
I laughed and laughed into the sky,
Till at my throat a strangling sob
fiercely, and a great heart-throb

instant tears into my eyes;

O God, I cried, no dark disguise
Can e'er hereafter hide from me

radiant identity!

Thou canst not move across the grass

But my
quick eyes will see Thee pass,

Nor speak, however

But my
hushed voice will answer Thee.

I know the path that tells Thy way

Through the
cool eve of every day;

God, I can push the grass apart

And lay my finger on Thy heart!

(excerpt from
Renascence by Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1892-1950)

Renascence launched Millay's literary career, but one might argue that it is old fashioned and has no place in this discussion. After all, as the words in bold type can testify, it breaks the modern guideline of No Adverbs, No Adjectives, No Gerunds.

On the other hand, if a writer avoids over-using descriptors, his writing will gain punch. Or, in the words of Mark Twain, "
You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by." - Letter to Orion Clemens, 3/23/1878


Alexander Field said...

Now that you expand the guidelines to "no adverbs, no adjectives and no gerunds," I find I'm a little taken aback. I quite like my adjectives and gerunds. In fact, I use them all the time and I don't want to stop. Adverbs are kind of the black sheep of this family, but I will continue to use all three...if only sparingly! Fun discussion Keanan...

Keanan Brand said...

Sparingly? Absolutely!

I quite like my adjectives and gerunds, too, and I dislike the way some folks hold to "rules" at the expense of the story.

The same kind of rigidity occurs regarding active v. passive voice. Yes, active voice is preferable, but sometimes passive voice does the job better, by shifting emphasis, changing cadence, leading from one point to another, improving clarity, and so on. (My, my, my. Look at all those gerunds.)

The Texican said...

I have been taught at times by those who have yet to be published. Hmmmmmm! Pappy

C. N. Nevets said...

Keanan, thanks for introducing some level-headeness into this perpetual conversation among writers and publishers.

There are certainly times when you need to use adjectives, adverbs, verbals, passive voice verbs and all sorts of other forbidden fruit.

That said, I have to be honest. There are far more times when I read something and choke on the layers of grauitious modifiers than there are times when I wish I knew more about just how that gay ran to his car.

Phy said...

I'm not a 'rules are rules' guy, however, I am a pragmatist, and understand the spirit behind many of these rules.

I think the bottom line is this; don't break a rule for the wrong reasons. If you're lazy or new to writing or tone-deaf, it's a good idea to follow the rule until you know when to break it with brilliance for the sake of an intangible that only long experience adhering to the rules can teach. (Does that make sense? Adhere to the rules only as long as it takes to know, inherently, when and how to break them in a way that is as brilliant as it is unconventional.)

C. N. Nevets said...

I think I agree with you, Phy, but not sure I'll ever have the necessary Doctor-like swagger to consider my writing maneuvers brilliant. By your description, that would consign me to following the rules forever. LOL

Keanan Brand said...

Tex - It's always good to remain teachable. Takes a lot of humility sometimes, though, to admit we don't know everything!

CN - You mean you don't like purple prose? (laugh) If the words are piling up and the story isn't going forward, that's my clue to cut it to the bone. When someone hires me to help them, I've been known to edit a writer's page down to only a paragraph or two. (I'm gonna post on this very topic in a day or so.)

Phy - I'm reminded of a musician riffing on a theme, totally off-the-page, impromptu. Artists are taught the rules, too, as are musicians, so that when they do break them, they can do so with skill.

I am an advocate for knowing the basics -- by basics, I don't mean the simple stuff, but the foundational knowledge required to accomplish a task; in this case, writing fiction -- but when the rules become so binding that the story suffers, however, a writer should be willing and able to bend, stretch, or break those rules.

That said, I'm still striving for brilliance, dangit!

Alexander Field said...

By the way Keanan, I am a stickler for passive voice...I hate it, even though I use it often. Though you're right, it's not an error necessarily in the grammar books, it's just that active voice is "preferable". So what does that mean? Only that grammar is much more fluid and debatable than most people think!