Adjectives, adverbs, and imagination

I am, technically, about three years into my “taking writing seriously” journey. It was just about this time in 2012 when I decided I needed to drop out of my master’s program. Writing was the somewhat decrepit life raft, leaky and not very sturdy, upon which I landed. Frankly, it sort of amazes me that three years have passed, although that first year was pretty much lost in a blur of tears and depression. But still, I have learned a lot. I may not be the writer I want to be (yet), but in bits and pieces, occasional lines, steps forward and then back, I think I’m getting there.

One of the areas I feel like I finally understand in a more developed way is the oft-repeated, oftener-ignored advice to avoid adverbs. There are basically two conflicting “rules” about this that you’ll hear in critique groups. One is to use stronger verbs instead, i.e. instead of “walk slowly,” “trudged.” Of course, if you replace “said angrily” with “raged,” you’ll hear that you should avoid using dialog tags except “said” and if you see how those two rules work together, congratulations, you’re smarter than me. I think Stephen King basically decreed these rules in On Writing and to the best of my recollection, he claims that writers use adverbs out of fear and timidity.


But I think writers use them — or at least I used them — in an attempt to make my story as clear, as precise, as accurate a depiction of my image of the story as I could. And I’ve come to realize that I don’t need to do that. More than that, the story is better when I don’t. It’s better because it leaves the reader more room to bring her imagination to the game.

Here’s an example from the first draft of the book I ought to be working on right now:

“They are evil spirits,” she said. “And your Noah is clearly possessed by a djinn. He creates ifrits wherever he goes.”
“He doesn’t create them,” Joe protested. “You know that.”
“We have had this argument before. A thousand times before. I know an ifrit when I see one.”
“Are you saying you and Misam are evil spirits? If you’re not, why are the rest of us?” Joe said, with strained patience.

I’ve used “protested” and “strained patience”. But what would happen if I didn’t? In those words, I’m revealing information about Joe, and his relationship with Nadira — that it’s ongoing, argumentative, and strained. The reader might decide from this that Joe is kind of a jerk. Or that Nadira is, depending on your perspective. If she or he is left with just the dialog, though — without *my* interpretation of it — they get to decide what it means, how it sounds. And what they’ll bring to that decision will come from their imagination, not mine, which means it will be stronger and more meaningful to them.

When we use adjectives and adverbs, we narrow the possible scope of the story. We lose the opportunity to let it resonate in a different way for the reader. Sometimes that’s okay. Sometimes it’s essential. If I need the reader to see a magical fairyland, I’m not going to depend exclusively on nouns and verbs. But sometimes — and more often than I’ve ever realized in anything I’ve written — we can rely on the reader to fill in the story, in the way that will work best for him or her.

Take a line like this one: “I didn’t understand what you meant,” she said.

If the reader would be angry in this situation, maybe she hears that line in her head in an angry voice. If the reader is a gentler type, maybe she hears it in a more placating voice. Either way, she’s going to identify more with the character because the character is more like her. That’s because she’s bringing her ideas, her imagination, to the creation of the character.

Actors understand this. The same role gets different interpretations, has different meanings. Is Hamlet an idealistic activist or an incestuously-conflicted son? Shakespeare didn’t dictate the answers, which probably has a lot to do with why the play is still performed hundreds of years after it was written. On the other hand, the simplest possible way to for me to establish the distinction between those two approaches was with two adjectives and an adverb. It’s not wrong to use them, but I finally understand how avoiding them does more for your writing than just keep it simple.

Writing Fairy Tales

I’ve been thinking a lot about fairy tales recently. Sometime during the writing of A Gift of Time, I realized that what I was writing was a fairy tale. A modern one. A weird one. Not at all traditional. But a fairy tale nonetheless. It gave me, at the time, the clarity about the ending that I needed to keep going and it’s been a thought in the back of my head ever since.

My latest story–not yet in its final version–is also a fairy tale. But I’m not sure why I believe that. I suppose it would be easy to argue that almost all romance novels are fairy tales — the princess gets her prince and they live happily ever after, right? But that doesn’t feel right to me. A certain type of story is a fairy tale. Not all romances. Maybe a fairy tale requires magic? Enchantment?

The question lead me to, which was awesome as always. I so love that site. And I can definitely see how I’ve used some of the fairy tale tropes in my work. (Back from the Dead, anyone?) It also amused me enormously to see how many of them I’ve already used in A Gift of Grace, which is only about 25% done. And it gave me some fun ideas for new stories–which, quite honestly, I did not need. I can’t keep up with the ideas I have! But I will be adding a couple of these to my story notes file, because they would be fun, fun, fun.

Moving on, though — here’s the thing about fairy tales. Yes, at the end, the princess gets her prince. But she gets a lot more than that, too. The princess — think Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty — gets to be queen. She gets the gorgeous dress, she gets the big castle, she gets power. On the surface, yes, a lot of fairy tales (not all of them) are stories about a girl in need of a boy to rescue her. But when she’s rescued, it’s not into a life of boredom or drudgery. It’s a rescue into a world of magic and beauty and love. Cinderella doesn’t wind up working 9-7 and coming home to piles of laundry and dirty dishes.

But fairy tales also have their dark undercurrents. In the originals, of course, they were sometimes incredibly grim and graphically violent. But even in the less dark versions, there is a threat of some sort — the evil witch, the wicked stepmother. And that threat carries with it a sense of impending doom, of … well, creepiness, for lack of a better word. Plenty of romances have some threat in them that creates conflict but doesn’t inspire anxiety. Those don’t feel like fairy tales to me.

I’m still thinking about this, obviously. But for me, it’s a good framework for thinking about what I want to accomplish in a story. Is it magic? Does the princess win ALL the things? Does the threat cause real unease?

Back when I decided to indie publish, my goal was to write a million words that I was willing to share with other people and then decide if I wanted to be a writer. If I was good enough to be a writer, really. I’ve probably got another 300,000 to go (and I might be being generous to myself by counting words that I never really did share with that number). Anyway, I can’t objectively judge my writing, of course, but I’m definitely noticing that I’m thinking about it differently again.

For a while — maybe 400K into my goal — I was obsessed with mechanics. Avoiding repetitions, tightening, stronger verbs, better mannerisms. Now, though, I seem to be goal focused. A beta reader suggested I delete a paragraph and I ruled out the suggestion immediately. When I took a step back, I realized it was because I know exactly why that paragraph is there. I know what my goal is with it, how I’m using it to build character, why it’s important in the overall story, what it does. Now maybe it’s not doing it successfully, which is why the reader might not see its purpose, but I’ve gone from writing entirely on intuition to … well, writing on intuition, but still being able to break it down afterwards in a different way.

Which brings me back to fairy tales. Tomorrow (or perhaps tonight) I will start working on A Gift of Grace again, and I’m going to be thinking about fairy tales every step of the way. Instead of discovering at the end that I’m writing a fairy tale, I’m going to plan it as a fairy tale. I think it’s going to be fun. Fun to write and, I hope, someday fun to read.

The Artist’s Way

No words yesterday. None, zip, nada. Zero.

But! My kitchen is 99% done. I still need under-cabinet lights and, more importantly, to eliminate the wires sticking out of the walls where those under-cabinet lights will get installed. Plus, possibly, a tile back-splash, the cost of which rather makes me question the need. But the microwave is up and the sink has been re-plumbed (because of a persistent minor drip). Everything got to come out of a cupboard and then go back in.

Also lots of household chores done, from laundry and clean sheets to dusting, including paintings and windows sills and baseboards, some vacuuming, sweeping the back porch, much dish-washing, in coordination with healthy cooking, of course. Also multiple dog walks, some extended playtime with dogs, and yoga. And there the day was, gone. It was 9PM and I thought about writing, but… I didn’t do it.

I did, however, spend some time reading The Artist’s Way. I’ve had this book recommended to me multiple times and, in fact, came very close to doing a group therapy workshop centered around it, but every time I picked it up, I got stuck on the spirituality involved. The author is in recovery and she’s a higher power person, by which I mean a believer in an active, involved, interactive creator. I’m… not. Not so much, anyway.

Maybe that all comes down to parents? My parents were present but strongly encouraged independence. A skinned knee might get a band-aid, but the band-aid probably came with “you’re fine, go play” and chances were probably good that before that came, “you know where the band-aids are.” Three kids under five and boo-boos get short shrift. It’s strange to try to imagine how very young my parents were back then.

At any rate, The Artist’s Way author believes in a benevolent creative force working through us for positive growth and I kept getting stuck on my inability to buy in to that. Do I find the punitive Old Testament God more plausible? Well, yeah, kind of, I do. Or God as love, sure. But God as creation? As a force of creative energy focused on art? That seems pretty idealistic in a world that includes fungus and cancer and tooth decay, slime molds, termites, gangrene… and, you know, dozens of other things that involve decay, destruction and death. Yesterday, however, I managed to shut up the questioning me long enough to break through and get into some different territory and there’s definitely some good stuff in that book. I’m going to have to work on at least accepting the spiritual side — pretending I believe until I believe or until I can’t pretend any more — and give the other aspects of it a try.

One of those aspects is to write Morning Pages every day. Three pages. It irks my analytical side that it specifically says three pages, but doesn’t offer a clue to what size notebook you might be writing in. Three pages on a yellow legal pad is a hell of a lot compared to three pages in the kinds of journals I used in college. But these Pages (yes, I capitalized again on purpose) are the starting place of this book’s approach to developing creativity, and I’m willing to go along and give it a try. So I’m revising my Write Plan — which I’m allowed to do, since it’s my plan — to start each day with Morning Pages. They’ll count as 350 words of my word count goal, because yes, I am obsessive enough that I did manual word counts on this morning’s pages and my loose-leaf notebook gives me room to write about 115-120 words per page.

After one day, I can’t say that it feels like I’ve unleashed great wonders of creativity, but it did give me room for some interesting thinking, as well as some satisfying metaphors. No one is ever supposed to read Morning Pages, including the author of them. They are written and then the page is turned and filed away. And they are written in longhand, with no corrections. The idea is to be setting your writing free and since that is definitely something I need, I’m willing to give it a try. But I pointed out in today’s pages that I was convinced a Creator couldn’t be a snob, since he/she/they’d created snot and farts as well as sunrises and starlit skies, and I want to remember that thought, not lose it to the swamp of spew that the Morning Pages will inevitably become.

Last thought before I go do something useful… yesterday, for Valentine’s Day, I had leftovers for dinner. This is a literal truth. It’s also a technical truth. And yet, what I had was a starter of prosciutto and melon, followed by a salad of mixed salad greens, avocado, and white radish, sprinkled with lime juice and Himalayan pink salt, and finished with a grass-fed beef burger accompanied by avocado slices and garlic-salted sweet potato fries.

prosciutto and melon image



And what different stories can be created from that one reality! Poor me, leftovers all alone on Valentine’s Day. Lucky me, delicious gourmet dining in peaceful solitude. (Well, as peaceful as it gets when three dogs are staring at every bite taken.) Both true stories, but so different in their emotional weight. For me, the latter story is really the true one. I was quite pleased with my dinner last night, and loved the process of going from, “Hmm, what am I going to eat? I should really finish up those salad greens and that radish and … I guess I should clean out the refrigerator. If I peel this sweet potato and cut out the bad bits, I can use that. Ugh, this melon has dripped on the shelf…” to the moment of sitting down to my fancy dinner on my great-grandmother’s china and then remembering that it was Valentine’s Day.

Back to the writing thoughts: I’ve hit my word count for the day, so I’ve got writing sprints to do with fiction. Two of them. Today is the day where I break my chain of fail and start my chain of success. (That belongs on an infomercial for a motivational speaker in its level of hokiness, but — as the Artist’s Way author might say, people in creative recovery have no room for snarky self-doubt, so motivational self-talk it is!)

Being productive in the right (wrong?) direction

I picked up the mail while walking the dogs this morning. (1.5 mile walk, that I did not record on the annoying mapmyrun app. That thing is getting deleted from my phone in the very near future, because it is seriously annoying to be woken up by a beeping phone informing me that someone in my Facebook network just completed a work-out. I thought I had it set to not give me alerts, but apparently this news was so imperative and pressing that of course I would really want to know. I barely even want to know about my own exercise, much less someone else’s. Deletion coming soon, maybe even tonight.)

Anyway, I picked up the mail, and yay! The final paperwork from the insurance company was there, so I spent a chunk of the morning dealing with that. The personal banker kindly suggested that I might want to look into a line of credit should this ever happen again and while I appreciated the suggestion — I did, it was a good suggestion and she was undoubtedly right — all I could think was no, no, no, never let this happen again. My house and I are going to decline into shabby old age together, never letting work people through the door again. Well, except maybe for very soon to get the microwave installed again, because it’s still not. And the under counter lights that I don’t have. And the tile backsplash. And perhaps a new front door, because the wood in the old door jamb is rotting. Sigh. I suppose never is idealistic.

Also in the mail, not so yay, a notification from Honda that my air bag is dangerous. Like dangerous, dangerous. Shards of metal impaling your passenger kind of dangerous, because of the specific years of the car and the living in a humid client. Gah. I thought I’d already dealt with that.

So first bank, a certain amount of time, second bank, very quick. Came home and went online to do some exciting (not really) bill paying. Called R to find out what sort of schedule would work for dealing with the car, plus also warn him that no one should be riding in the front passenger seat. Discovered that he’s having computer problems and hoped I could help him with a new battery. Seemed to me to not be the most sensible plan, given that his computer has been a problem for him for a while. Called Honda to schedule the car repair, discovered that I was right, I was done. Went online, found out that I had my last tax form. Finalized my taxes. (Are you bored yet? I’m bored.) Spent some time researching computers for R, exchanged a few emails.

Suddenly, it was noon. I’d missed yoga, I hadn’t done any writing, and I had totally forgotten that A Lonely Magic was free today, so I hadn’t bothered to mention it to anyone. ARGH. And I was tired.

Yesterday, I was also tired. I wound up writing 1K words, but not doing a writing sprint and not having any of the words been fiction. And no yoga, either. Oh, but kayaking was wonderful. Really lovely. Being on the water was so peaceful, and being in control of my own boat was terrific. But I’d expected today to be a great day as a result of that, and instead I took all of that great energy and dumped it into terrible, boring, bureaucracy kinds of stuff.

Eventually, I took the dogs for another walk (again, 1.5 miles), made myself a delicious dinner (bacon avocado burger, no bun, yum), managed one writing sprint of about 30 minutes that netted me 275 words, which are good words except that they don’t continue the scene that I was working on, which means eventually they’ll have be smoothed over and probably won’t survive as written, and did 30 minutes of yoga.

But it wasn’t 1000 words. Sure, lots of useful stuff done and I ought to be able to appreciate that. But here it is, Friday night (specifically 8:30 on a Friday night) and I still appear to be a little confused about the primary job in my life — write, write, write, darn it.

That said, I’m on the verge of giving myself a break. Well, not really a break — these were stupid words, but they were words and there are enough of them that… almost? Not quite? Yes! I have broken 1000 words written today (barely, I admit) and now I’m going to go play WoW and enjoy the rest of my evening. And tomorrow, I will start again, because this is a good productive zone, even if it didn’t include all the words it should have included.

Writers Write

Last night, I was headed to bed when I realized that I was tired. Really tired. Tired like I haven’t felt recently. I immediately started analyzing my diet — where could some gluten have snuck in? Did I have soy sauce with gluten in it? Had I eaten salad dressing?

And then I realized that I’d walked four and a half miles, done thirty minutes of yoga, cooked a serious dinner, driven to the airport, run errands, done some concentrated writing and stayed up too late. A year ago, that day would have wiped me out for the next three. So maybe I was just tired. But yesterday was a productive day.

I didn’t write enough words of fiction, surprise, surprise, but I did break my 1K word count. Today is the day that I’m supposed to take it up to the next notch of my Write Plan, so I need to go back and figure out what that was. But I definitely give myself credit for two writing sprints yesterday — more or less. I started them, but got engrossed enough that I lost track of time. All of the absorption wasn’t in the words, unfortunately — I did spend some time researching silly stuff on the Web and pinning clothes to my pinterest board (Grace’s clothes, mostly, although I stumbled across some Sia Mara styles, too). But enough of it was that even though I didn’t hit my 500 word goal, I’m okay with what I accomplished.

Today’s goals: 500 words of fiction — this is the official goal of Week 2 of the Write Plan, but at least one writing sprint of 30 minutes, preferably 2. Oh, and overall, at least 1000 words. I’ve got plans for today — yoga at the Y, dinner with the Orlando Indies — plus C is away, so I’m managing three dogs instead of two. They’re like kids in that the chaos rises exponentially instead of linearly, but also like kids in that it doesn’t actually get exponentially harder, just more chaotic. At any rate, I expect interruptions, but it’s an achievable goal.

Fingers crossed that when I open up yesterday’s file, I still like the words in it. I did realize, too, that’s it time to go back and refresh my memory on everything I’ve written before, but I think I will leave that for a Friday or weekend task. Or maybe even next week. Even if the words I’m writing now are not the most perfect flow of words in relation to the ones that I wrote before Christmas, at least the flow is starting to happen. I don’t want to throw it off.

And now… time for a sprint. Thirty minutes, three hundred words. I can do it!

Edited to add:
Writing Sprint 1: yWriter claims that it’s 485 words. I might even believe it. But I got stuck on the stupidest thing — the name for those little pouches of ketchup and mustard that you can get a fast food restaurants. Pouch seems wrong, but what’s the right word? Still working on that!

Re-edited to add: Packet, of course! They’re called packets.

Tracking my goals

Yesterday — I did good yoga. The dog got a good walk. And I did write over 1K words by the end of the day, but every writing sprint got interrupted and the fiction words were stupidly agonizing. If I’d pushed just a little harder, I might have hit my goal of 500 words, but instead I was at something like 420. Plus, annoying myself, revisions on some of the ones that I’d written previously. That’s a bad habit that I really need to break.

Today’s goals — two writing sprints. Five hundred words of fiction. A thousand words overall. Also taking C to the airport, running a couple errands, and having dinner/library time with my niece in the evening. That means I need to be focused about both the writing and the yoga, because my time is going to be chopped up and disorderly. (Can time be disorderly? It feels like the word that best describes the minutes grabbed between interruptions, but maybe there’s a better. I’ll ponder that question while I’m driving to the airport!)

Two things that I’m struggling with in Grace right now — too many characters with too many points of view, and too much story. I realized while walking this morning that I’m having the same problems with both Grace and the wedding story — sort of that there’s too much going on but more that I’m letting there be too many core stories. The heart has to be with one character/couple, one main plot. All the other threads are rightfully subplots. But at the moment, all those subplot threads are too strong, too dominating — in my head, as much as on the screen, because that’s part of why it’s so hard to write. Anyway, hoping that realization helps me clarify my ideas and focus on the core story. Maybe the reminder will make these writing sprints a little more productive!

Successes and failures

Both days this weekend I wrote a thousand words. Alas, not words on my story, but still words. No writing sprints, though. On Saturday, I started one, just in time for the guys working on my kitchen to show up. On Sunday, I had good intentions for most of the day, but I was doing many other things and eventually it was 10PM and I hadn’t done it.

So not perfect on my Write Plan and technically, I have broken my chain. (If you’re not familiar with Jerry Seinfeld’s chain technique for motivating himself to write every day, you can read about it on lifehacker.) I’ve never used the chain technique, because you actually do need a big calendar on which to mark off the days for it to provide the proper level of motivation. When you can’t see the chain, its ability to work on your subconscious disappears. But — hey, actually I did write every day. So my chain is not totally broken. Either way, though, while I didn’t perfectly meet my goals, I did work toward them. And I did a lot of other stuff, too — finishing the kitchen organizing and cleaning the bathroom and walking the dogs and so on. I’ll give myself a little credit.

Plus, as always in good news, today’s a new day and I get to make today be the kind of day I want it to be. Z and I did a two-mile walk this morning and I finished straightening up the kitchen, washed some dishes, ate a healthy AIP-friendly breakfast of smoked salmon and avocado with a little lime juice and pink salt… boring stuff, yes, but the kind of boring stuff that keeps life feeling orderly and sensible. Now all I have to do is open the file and get started…

Why is it so hard to open the file and get started?

I feel like Grover worrying about the monster at the end of the book. Do not open that file! There is a monster in that file. No, no, do not open it. But the monster’s just … words. And me, trying to make new words.

Goal for today — two writing sprints, at least 500 words added to Grace. It should be entirely achievable. But maybe I’ll just go call the bank and insurance company first.