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.

Maybe.

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.

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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 tvtropes.org, 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.