They’re Really More Like Guidelines

Happy Day 1 of NaNoWriMo! October just flew by this year. Hopefully everyone had a great Halloween/NaNo’s Eve and are now furiously typing away.

For today’s blog post, there’s really just a quick reminder that seems to be far too often forgotten when people start to argue about “writing rules.” Where there is a ton of really good advice out there about how to make writing better/stronger, but it really is just that: advice.

When people begin to argue whether alternatives to “said” should be avoided or if adverbs are best to be avoided, the go to response tends to be “well, find a book with no adverbs” or similar. That is, of course, taking the arguments to an extreme. Any standard advice you might read is a general guideline that tends to make for stronger writing. It is not an absolute that “you can’t write a good book without taking this as cardinal law.” You don’t need to hold witch hunts for telling, adverbs, or anything else people will generally tell you to avoid. You can even do the exact opposite of the advice if that is what works for you. The important thing, when it comes to creative writing, is you’re allowed to be creative. If you can make something work, then it works. Certain things are just easier to make work than others.

And that is where the advice comes in. Adverbs can be great. Much of the time, they become a crutch for weaker word use. Other tags rather than “said” can work well, as well, but often times they can be distracting.

So, while you’re writing, do what’s best for your story. You are the author and need to decide if an adverb is what is needed or not. Just keep advice in the back of your mind so you don’t fall back on things that are damaging rather than helpful.

Happy NaNo and happy writing!

Adjectives and Adverbs

Keeping on my “parts of speech” kick, today’s post will cover another part of speech that is commonly misused–adverbs. Unlike pronouns which replace nouns, adverbs are modifying words more akin to adjectives. As both adjectives and adverbs modify words, however, their largest problem is being confused with one another.

As a refresher:

Adjectives are words that modify nouns. The short boy with brown hair, for example. Short and brown are both adjectives, modifying the nouns “boy” and “hair” respectively.

Adverbs are words that modify verbs. The short boy bounced the ball forcefully. Forcefully is an adverb, not an adjective, since it is modifying the verb “bounced” not either of the nouns (“boy” or “ball”).

As a helpful tidbit, adverbs often end in -ly making it a little simpler to differentiate them and adjectives.

Luckily, for the most part, people have some natural idea whether to use an adjective or an adverb, especially since adverbs should be used relatively sparsely (double adverbs there!) in prose as it is. (More often than not, it is possible to use a stronger verb rather than an adverb in writing: said softly=whispered; ran quickly=sprinted). The largest problem I tend to find in writing, however, is quicker vs. more quickly.

Part of this comes from the lexicon. When speaking, people–more often than not–tend to use as few syllables as possible. That’s why not using contractions seems odd. Few people say, “That is why I am not going to go…” when they could just say “That’s why I’m not going to…” With “quicker” being, well, quicker to say than “more quickly” people speaking tend to use it as a catch-all (“If he doesn’t do his homework quicker he’s going to be late”).

So what’s the problem? “Quicker”, when used properly, is an adjective. Okay, okay, you can get into an argument about English evolving with usage and using “quicker” as an adverb not being the end of the world (it really isn’t), but the fact is “more quickly” is the proper phrasing to make “quick” an adverb.

Most tips I have seen suggest using “quickly” over “quicker” in formal works with “quicker” being all right informally (again, not the end of the world), but I, personally, tend to use this as a narrative vs. dialogue tip in my own writing. If it sounds too formal for your character who says “ain’t” and “gotta” to turn around and say “more quickly” don’t try to force it. The voice of your character comes first in dialogue. In narrative, however, proper grammar seems a little more important (works written as missives notwithstanding).

Will this rule change in the future? Possibly. Someone once railed against splitting infinitives, after all. But for the time being, it is always my suggestion to use “more quickly” over “quicker” when it comes to adverbs unless it is a conscious choice about voice.

All of a sudden, he was suddenly there

Please excuse the delay in blog posts, I’m currently recovering from some nasty bug. Now that I am once again able to sit at a computer, we return to your regularly scheduled blog posts.

Today’s question:

Somewhere I heard that you should never use “suddenly” or “all of a sudden” in writing… I was just wondering if this was true or not.”

Now, before we start, it’s always important to remember that “never” is an abused word when it comes to writing tips. There are certain things that can make your writing weaker–such as over using “to be” verbs, or adverbs, or…–but it’s just as much of a problem if you hinder your writing by avoiding things like “to be” verbs or adverbs at all cost. Advice that begins with the word “never” should always be taken with a grain of salt. Or, as my friend likes to joke, “Never take advice that begins with the word ‘never’.”

That said, I don’t believe trying to stay away from using “suddenly” “immediately” “all of a sudden” etc. in your writing is a bad idea. Beyond the fact that it sometimes falls into the category of unnecessary words, using “suddenly” and its partners often has the exact opposite effect of what you want it to in writing. It makes the action seem less, well, sudden.

This comes down to one of the biggest problems about writing action scenes. Where in a movie or the like you’re able to control the pacing (wait just another second and then *bam* Monster is there out of nowhere) each reader reads at their own pace. It’s possible that they’ll read slowly enough there seems to be little tension, or have to do something and set the book down, or get distracted, or any other number of things that you can’t control for as an author.

So how, then, are we supposed to get that same jump-through-yourself moment you have in the movie? Use “suddenly” right? That’s what it means after all, all of a sudden. “Suddenly the monster appeared.” It makes sense.

Counterintuitively, however, putting in another word makes the entire action less sudden to a reader.

Often when editing, I’ll put in the suggestion to keep sentences short in high action scenes. You can’t control much about the pacing as far as how your readers read a scene, but sentence length and paragraph breaks are a good way of speeding up and slowing down action. The shorter you keep a sentence the more immediate the action is. For example: “He ran.” Two words, the reader knows exactly what’s happening and is on to the next piece of information. Make it longer, however–“He began to run”–means it’s going to take the reader longer to make it through one action. The longer it takes to read something, the slower the action feels. The same goes for breaks. When reading, a comma is a generally a quick pause in the reader’s mind. A period is a full stop. (Hopefully how you read the past two sentences served as a good example for me). Commas blur things together. Periods break them apart. Therefore:

“She looked around, and then the monster was there.”

Seems to move more slowly than.

“She looked around. The monster was there.”

The same goes for using “suddenly” “all of a sudden” etc. “The monster was there” takes four words to get us from point A to point B. “All of a sudden, the monster was there” takes double that (and has a natural pause in reading it with the comma).

By writing that the action is sudden, we have successfully made the action that much less sudden in the pacing of the scene.

As with all of my other advice, you shouldn’t take this tip as gospel law. If “suddenly” makes a sentence flow more smoothly, use it. If it seems entirely necessary, use it. It is just one more piece of advice telling you to look carefully when you feel the need to point out something is sudden. Don’t hinder your writing trying to stick to “Never do X, Y, and Z” rules, but always consider how you can best serve your writing. If that’s by using an adverb or “was” or “all of a sudden” by all means use it. But, if there’s a better, stronger way to say what you mean, use that.

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