Saturday, 12 September 2015

Breaking the rules - use that adverb

Poor adverbs! The consensus in some quarters is that anyone who is not paring their work down to post-Carveresque minimalism just doesn't have a clue. Verbs must stand alone. Adverbs must be shunned at all costs. If there are any adverbs lurking in your draft, you should get the Adverb Exorcist round to seek them out and sent them into the outer darkness, where everything is spinning ceaselessly, timelessly, eternally in a terrible miasma of adverbial overwriting.

There ARE 'rules' in writing, as in all artistic disciplines, many of them based on conventions. (Stories are about change, dialogue shouldn't be expositional, main character should drive the plot, for example.) And there are always writers who set out to break the rules and subvert expectations. All good so far. But there is another difficulty, which is that some 'rules' turn into an orthodoxy.

Some agents take a dim view of adverbs, which is bad news if you have submitted a script which breaks this particular 'rule'. Recently, I heard that one agent say they would bin any submission that had an adverb on the first page.

So I'm posting three openings that this agent would presumably have had to jettison, were they to come her way. All three novels are seminal works which have been praised for their literary merits as well as being best sellers. One of them has been awarded the Pulitzer prize.

The author contemplating the plight of adverbs

1. 'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in a possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.' (Movie adaptation clue: Keira Knightly.)

2. 'When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he'd wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.' (Movie adaptation clue: Viggo Mortensen.) 

3. 'I see...' said the vampire, thoughtfully, and slowly he walked across the room towards the window. For a long time he stood there against the dim light from Divisadero Street and the passing beams of traffic. The boy could see the furnishings of the room more clearly now, the round oak table, the chairs. A wash basin hung on one wall with a mirror. He set his briefcase on the table and waited.' (Movie adaptation clue: Tom Cruise.)

Three extracts, three questions:

1. Can you name the three novels?
2. Can you name the three authors?
3. What are the offending words?

Photo pause:

Light dawns, courtesy of Georgia O'Reilly

Okay, so the novels are Pride and Prejudice, The Road and Interview with the Vampire, and the authors are Jane Austen, Cormac McCarthy and Anne Rice. 

And the words in question? In running order: 'universally', 'soundlessly' and (two for the price of one from Anne Rice) 'thoughtfully' and 'slowly'. 

Worth bearing in mind. My own rule is that if you are using a word in your writing, it should be working hard enough to earn its place.  But that may be too prescriptive in itself. 

The adverbs that fall foul of the pared-down prose police are only one kind of adverb, too. Here is an overview from Cambridge Dictionaries online, just so you know.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Five tips for autumn writing

My day job is teaching creative writing at the Open University. So like many teachers and academics I am a tiny bit like a child, in that I measure out my life in terms and school holidays. (Possibly in other ways as well, such as being institutionalized and inclined to stare out of the window...)

Also, my allegedly adult children are now at uni, so this is a time of persuading them to register for their course, paying accommodation fees, and driving them to the far corners of England (Nottingham and Liverpool) so they can be institutionalized there and stare out of their own new windows, killing time.

As a writer, it's good to feel that there are new beginnings, and as the Life of the Mind is pretty formless, left to itself, the whole Back to School thing can be quite therapeutic. Here are five autumnal tips for this annual rebooting:

1. Declutter. You may not have a school uniform to put on, but it's useful to clear the decks, make sure your filing system isn't collapsing on your desk or crowding out your brain.

2. Organise Check out any writerly deadlines that are coming up, such as competitions, calls for submissions or open mic events.  (BBC Short Story Alert! Check out this link for more information.)

3. Take some exercise. Being a writer needn't mind living a life that is sedentary to a toxic degree. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up, clearly ahead of his time. Go for a walk, run, swim, waddle - anything to get out of the house and get moving. Take a notebook or your phone and make notes as you go. If walking as an aid to writing was good enough for Virginia Woolf, it is good enough for me.

4. Do it. Yesterday I wrote 800 words entirely by accident. Just doing it frees up loads of time that is wasted in procrastination, and leaves more space for the day job. Joking about the tasks you get done while not Doing It is futile. No one needs the backs of their radiators to be dust-free.

5. READ. Find the best book you can, and lose yourself in it. I am re-reading 'Wide Sargasso Sea' by Jean Rhys and it is totally inspiring.