Thursday, August 22, 2019

Common Mistake #14: Adverbs

Stephen King, in his excellent On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft famously said:

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it's—GASP!!—too late.

King sets up the strawman of the evil adverb by providing numerous examples of appalling misuse, with which he then attempts to tar an entire part of speech. American authors, who were never completely comfortable with the adverb, often misquote King as saying one must never use adverbs. That is obvious nonsense. British authors (and by extension, Canadian writers) being native speakers of English are better equipped to use the adverb correctly. Far worse, in my view, is the inexcusable American habit of dropping the 'ly' from an adverb and pretending it is an adjective. But King is correct about the overuse of adverbs, if one is not cautious about their proliferation.

As with said bookism, adverbs in dialog tags must be used sparingly. As discussed in Common Errors episode 13, we usually don't need to spell out how something is said. If the dialog is well written, it is usually self-explanatory:

    "I hate you!" Frank said angrily.

We knew that Frank said that angrily from the words and the exclamation mark. The adverb sticking out can sometimes tip you that the entire tag can be deleted.

By extension, some caution is required not to overload adverbs onto self-explanatory actions:

    He angrily threw down the gauntlet.

Do we really need "angrily" in there? I think not.

Having "angrily" included creates three problems: First, its redundant, so removing "angrily" tightens the text, which I've suggested earlier means faster pacing, more tension, better action. Second, it restricts the reader to a single interpretation of "threw down the gauntlet" and in the reader-director's cut, that might have been better rendered as "haughtily" or "carelessly" or whatever. Don't try to overcontrol the script. Third, "angrily" is an example of that most basic of errors, "telling, not showing". If you have to tell us the character is angry, then you're probably not doing it right. We need to see anger in their body language, in their actions (throwing down a gauntlet, for example), in their choice of words, the punctuation, and so on. Too many adverbs may be a sign that the author is giving the reader the outline rather than the story.

A few deftly chosen adverbs can refine descriptions, occasional use in dialog tags and action scenes can provide necessary stage directions, but each use of an adverb should be interrogated to ensure that it's necessary.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Common Mistake #13: Said Bookism

Somewhere about grade 6, depending where you went to school, there's an exercise in Language Arts class that has students try to come up with more descriptive words to use instead of "said". Your English teacher then circled every time you wrote "said" and scrawled "choose better word" in red beside it. But here's the important thing I want you to remember about your English teachers: they themselves never published anything.

Yes, it's important to point out to students once during their schooling that there are some other words that mean "said" which might, on rare occasion, be usefully employed. But it is not helpful to insist on changing every "said" in an actual piece of writing (as opposed to the 12 example sentences on that one worksheet). If your English teachers had a thing about "said" it's because they read that one lesson and didn't understand that it was intended as a tool to add to the writing toolbox, not a rule to be slavishly enforced. In fact, it probably indicates that your English teacher wasn't even reading stories because if you look at actual writing, there are way more "said"s than their alternatives.

Don't think of "said" as a word: it's punctuation. Just like commas and periods, said is completely invisible to readers with Grade 5 literacy and above (i.e., your readers unless you're writing for beginning readers). Replacing said with any other word introduces stage directions into the dialog. Sometimes one needs stage directions, but providing stage directions every line of dialog drives readers to distraction.

First, stage directions are usually redundant:

"I hate you!" he shouted.

Really? You had to tell us he shouted that? The words "hate you" and the exclamation point weren't sufficient, you had to step in over the reader's shoulder and whisper into their ear, "this line of dialog is shouted"? Dialog, if well written, should be self-explanatory. We don't even need a "said" here, because unless there three different couples all talking at the same time, it's usually pretty clear who is yelling at whom.

There are three problems with replacing the invisible said with stage directions.

First, unnecessary stage directions are words that could be cut to tighten the writing to speed the pacing and so increase the tension and immediacy of the scene. "I hate you!" doesn't usually need any explanation. You can just move on immediately to the next piece of action or to the response:

"I hate you!" Grabbing the gun off the table, he pulled the trigger. (No dialog tag required.)
Or
"I hate you!"
"I hate you more, you bastard!" (No dialog tags required.)

Second, said replacements are often a sign the author is over-controlling, trying to dictate to the reader every tiny detail and nuance. Insisting the reader read the scene exactly as you saw it in your head is self-indulgent and alienating. The reader has to be allowed to bring something to the page, just like the play director has to have some room to interpret a script. Once you've written the scene, it's not yours anymore: the reader gets to remember the time their mom/lover/neighbour said "I hate you!" and bring all that emotional baggage to your scene, to relive those emotions in your scene—which makes your scene way better than you wrote it. That won't work if you insisted "he shouted" instead of "he growled" which is what it was for them.

Third, too many obvious stage directions (like "he shouted") could be received by at least some readers as insulting to their intelligence. Not a reaction you want!

Therefore: save "said" replacements for when you need them.

For example, if the character is saying something in an unexpected way, then a "said" replacement can really improve a line of dialog:

    "I hate you!" he whispered.

Oh yeah, we needed that "whispered", because it goes against the expectation of the exclamation mark, which is way creepier than some guy shouting it. People yell their emotions all the time and don't necessarily mean it literally; a covert, whispered threat can be significantly more sinister. So sometimes we need the stage directions.

Sometimes we need a dialog tag of "John growled" because even if the tone is obvious, the speaker isn't and "said" would be discordant with the emotion being expressed.

And sometimes, yes, we need to break up 200 "said" dialog tags with something different. But the use of said replacements has to be deliberate and sparing.

Too many "said" replacements is called "said bookism" because it usually feels like the author is trying too hard to elevate their writing. Said is indeed elementary, but replacing every "said" quickly comes across as pompous and tedious. So, choose carefully.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Writing Better Fiction - Brent Nichols

Writing Better Fiction released at When Words Collide (Calgary writer's convention) this weekend.

Pleased that my chapter was included in Writing Better Fiction, a charity anthology of donated essays on writing tips for fiction authors. All proceeds go to support In Places Between, the Robyn Herrington Memorial Short Story Contest, https://ipbcontest.weebly.com. I was keen to contribute because Robyn was my friend: I did some beta reading for her years ago, so have read everything she wrote, and I greatly treasure a strikingly beautiful blown-glass globe she made and then gifted me. I've also been a judge for In Places Between, and believe that the contest and the accompanying anthology have done a lot to develop new writers.

The volume covers everything from beginnings to endings and every aspect of writing in between. There is also a chapter on business plans for writers. My contributions is "Description: When Less Equals More".

Besides me, contributors to the volume include Robert J. Sawyer (major award-winning author and Keynote Speaker at the upcoming Wordbridge conference), Hayden Trenholm (author and managing editor, Bundoran Press) Barb Galler-Smith (author and editor with On Spec Magazine), Adria Laycraft, (author and editor with EssentialEdits.ca), Ron S. Friedman (author), Brent Nichols (author), J.E. Bernard (author), Shawn Bird (author & poet), Sally McBride (author), Tim Reynolds, (author), Craig DiLouie (author), Ace Jordyn (author), Liz Westbrook-Trenholm (author), J. Paul Cooper (author), Renée Bennett (author), Randy Nikkel Schroeder (author), Jim Jackson (author and author of storytelling manuals), and the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association (IFWA), Josephine LoRe (author and poet), Swati Chavda (editor, author & neurosurgeon), Sandra Hurst (author), Mahrie G. Reid (author and instructor), Sandra Fitzpatrick (author Lee F. Patrick) and Lisa Brassard (author).

Thanks to Brent Nichols for taking on this project, and for accepting my chapter.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Common Mistake #12 "As You Know, Bob" Dialog

One way authors try to work in information the audience needs is through dialog. This can work well if there is some believable context where one character knows something the other doesn't, so both that character and the reader can learn the fact or clue at the same time. There are two possible problems here, however, that one has to be on guard against.

The Dumb Blonde
Back in the bad old days of pulp fiction, it was fairly common practice to have the scientist hero explain how the warp drive works to the attractive heroine passenger whose primary role in such space operas was to say things like, "How does the warp drive work, professor?" You can imagine the reaction to this 1930's motif today. Sexism, racism, agism, etc is going to get you assassinated in reviews, so don't have a dumb anything in your story. If the only purpose of a character is so other characters can explain things to them, that's a fail. (Mirrors and pets count as another character if your protagonist talks to them more than once or at length.)

"As You Know, Bob"
It's okay to have the detective explain that the suspect was seen at the scene of a previous crime, because that's information the character who wasn't there couldn't be expected to know. As long as that dialog arises organically from the current scene, and doesn't interrupt the action, that's how to do it. But having one police officer explain police procedure to another police officer makes no sense. They both know that already so would no more explain that to each other than you explain how a toaster works to your family every time you heat bread. Explaining things other characters already know is only acceptable when deliberately portraying a character as mansplaining or afflicted with particular varieties of mental illness. Having characters say things they already know to each other drops the reader out of the character's point of view and therefore out of the story.

If you could add "as you know ______ (character name)" to any dialog between characters, all that dialog has to go.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Common Mistake#11: Roundabout Redundancy

As an undergraduate, I was often told I needed to "tighten up" my writing. I never understood what that meant or how one might go about 'tightening', so the advice wasn't all that helpful. It wasn't until I was in grad school and discovered Howard Becker's book on Writing for the Social Sciences that I figured what that meant and how to do it. Allow me, then, to explain it to you.

Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, the process is the same. We start with an idea or scene, and we try to get what's in our head down on paper. But because it's still in the process of forming, you don't know quite what you're trying to argue or show until it's actually down on the page. This exploration of the scene/idea/theme is a natural part of first draft writing, but the result is that one writes down a line, then a second line to fill in some detail that first sentence didn't include, then another line to show some action, then another line to firm up your idea/visual, and then yet another line to nail that all down. The result is that as one circles 'round the core of the scene/idea, one ends up taking the scenic route to get to the point. Trying to tease out your own thinking leads to a lot of repetition, of rephrasing the same thought several different ways, of half saying the point here, saying the other half over there, and a third half over again because you feel you still haven't quite got it.

As you can see by the math, the first draft doesn't quite add up: it's likely wordy, unfocused, and repetitious. That's to be expected for the first draft, because you cannot see the scene or fully realize what your point was until you've worked it out on paper. You didn't realize the hero had to duck left, until you wrote that bit where the villain swings right. You can't see that A plus B equals C until you write A down on paper, to give B a chance to pop into your brain. The first draft is all about getting your ideas or scene down in rough so you can go back and refine later.

"Tightening" your writing simply means revising this initial rough draft to reduce those eight or nine roundabout sentences into one or two clear sentences. Now that you know what the scene or argument is, you need to go back and rewrite the paragraph to get directly to the point, without all the wandering hither and yon.

That's a lot harder than it sounds, because the scene or argument is now perfectly clear in your own mind, so when you look at you wrote, you see the scene that's in your head, not the circuitous labyrinth that's actually what's on the page. That's why many authors recommend putting a manuscript aside for six months and work on something else (a different scene, another story, gardening) and then come back when you've half forgotten what you've written. Then, hopefully, you can see the scene with fresh eyes and say to yourself, "Gosh, that line repeats the information I already covered two lines back" or "These three lines are trying to describe X, I should just write X" and so tighten up the writing so it actually says what you're trying to convey.

Howard Becker's dictate was simply: how many words can you cut without losing the meaning of the sentence/paragraph? Of course, he was addressing nonfiction and was all about being more precise and concise, but the principle holds equally for fiction. I'm not saying you have to cut out all the poetry and nuance, only that you have to be sure that you only have the image/symbol/metaphor that you need. That you're only describing the action that the camera would show the audience if this were a film, and not going off to describe details or scenery that isn't immediately relevant.