Monday, February 11, 2013

Saying Grimly

Image courtesy of Wisegeek
Do not use -ly adverbs! This is howled from editors' desks and reviewers' blogs. And they are right - too many adverbs in a manuscript sinks it to a hackneyed, overdone, immature level - although this is true of anything (more on that later.)

But should the writer purge every single -ly from the page? Adverbs, if used judiciously, are a lot of fun. 

See what I did there? Sure, I could have written: "Adverbs, if used in small amounts by a writer who is taking care with her script, are a lot of fun." Yeah, that's a lot of convolution to get rid of one word.

And I like the word judiciously. It calls to mind an author being a judge of her words

Furthermore, I like other adverbs too, and not just of the -ly variety:

"Nobody under the bed; nobody in the closet; nobody in his dressing-gown, which was hanging up in a suspicious attitude against the wall." - Dickens

The gloom and mystery of a Victorian house.

I always loved this sentence; it seems to project the gloomy, Victorian atmosphere of Ebeneezer's house as he prepared to go to bed by the light of one candle. In a  suspicious attitude describes perfectly the heart-jolting moment when you think you see someone in a room where no one should be, only to discover it is your coat or, in this case, a dressing gown.

If we removed that adverbial phrase, the sentence is: 
"Nobody under the bed; nobody in the closet; nobody in his dressing-gown." 

No. It has now lost that dark, dreary punch of the original.

Let's try some pop culture now, and examine one of my favorite voice-overs: 

"Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before."

The last clause not only uses an -ly adverb, the infinitive has been split as well. Let's try it without the dreaded -ly word: 

" go where no man has gone before."

Nope. That loses the tone of the show, highlighting a brave group of explorers looking for new class M planets and civilizations. I want that boldly back in the sentence. It's perfect.

(Mindworm alert: Who's humming that theme in their head now?)

Of course adverbs can be overused, and if they are they lose all punch. "Boldly" is the only adverb in that voiceover, and if they had put in more, it would have collapsed:

" bravely explore strange new worlds, to carefully seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before."

This dude is THE MAN.

Welcome to hack-ville!

As with all rules, the -ly and adverb rule can be broken. But the writer must use care and precision as she commits adverb usage.

As I said in the first paragraph, this is true of anything. Another example is the present participle, or -ing verbs. They have fallen out of favor, and after two years of editing, I see why. 

Beginning writers lean on -ing to add imagery to a scene. It's an easy way to show what's going on, especially after a burst of dialogue:

"I don't care what you think!" he shouted, slamming down the phone.

"Will you come with me?" she asked, pushing back one stray curl of her hair.

Read ten of these on one page and you may, as I have seen other editors do, decree that the writer must purge all present participles from the manuscript. It's exhausting going through a MSS to work out 99% of those present participles; we editors would much rather concentrate on vocabulary choice and story arcs.

However, if an editor does lay down that decree, that it can lead to verbal gymnastics as a writer tries to evade the dreaded ING. If a writer takes two sentences where one would have done in order to avoid one verb tense, then for heaven's sake go and use an -ING, I say.

And, of course, the present participle is also used beautifully in literature, as in this line from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

If I "dare disturb the universe" for a moment and rewrite T. S Eliot, the sentence becomes:

Image courtesy of Phillip Colla and OceanLight

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
That scuttles across the floors of silent seas.
Again, NO. "Scuttling" is so much more evocative; I can hear the clicks of the crab as it scurries along under unimaginable ocean depths. 

As with cooking, authors can use adverbs and present participles as spice and seasoning. However, too much curry will certainly ruin the soup. Not enough, and the meal is bland.

The problem and glory lies in finding the balance.


Johanna Garth said...

I notice that for a while I was trying to strip all my adverbs away, but then decided it took away some flavor too and so I've been letting them sneak back in...judiciously.

Unknown said...

No more adverbs? Sigh. I think I missed that memo...
I shall consider the matter most carefully over a good glass of Cab.
~Just Jill

Catherine Stine said...

Wise advice. As usual, less is more when using adverbs. A few spice things up. A ton of them are completely annoying. The -ing overuse is a real pet peeve of mine.

Alison DeLuca said...

I think Jill has the best advice with that glass of Cab idea. I'm in.

Unknown said...

SO, I had the cab, and I re-read the post. How erudite and fair it was--really. You informed us of trends, cautioned against overuse, and sighted examples of how--done judiciously, they sing!
I have to admit, as a relative newbie, I was in the dark about this. And after my somewhat previous glib comment, I wanted to touch back to thank you for your time and thoughtfullness in preparing this blog-post. Kudos my dear. An excellent cuppa.
~Just Jill

Alison DeLuca said...

Jill, I was all about that cab. Could it be that writing, like speaking a foreign language, becomes a bit easier after a wee nip?

And thanks so much. I hate to lay down the law on anything, and I feel that at times we are being stripped of more and more words - no ly adverbs, no INGs, no then or which or that - what is next, no language?

At the same time, Catherine is absolutely right. Overuse of any of these drives me mad, and I scuttle away like that J. Prufrock crab.

I think that the cure is reading - a LOT. Being a bookworm gives a writer a fluency and ease with words that my tiny grammar lesson here could never provide.