Recently an FtQ reader named Stephen wrote me a note that raised questions of technique. I thought I’d share my answers with you.
I've been reading the guidance you provide in Flogging the Quill. It's very good, and it's very easy to see what some of the writers have done and the effect it has.
I've finished the first draft of a novel, and along the way, I've read dozens of novels in my genre and instructional tomes on how to write.
I seem to see a disconnect--maybe it's just me. At the risk of boring you, I'd like to address a few points that confuse me.
1. Stephen King, certainly a first class writer, hates adverbs. Want's 'em abolished. But every writer I read uses them to a greater or lesser degree.
My view is that much of the time—though not all of the time—adverbs used with verbs, eg. “walked slowly,” are a weak effort at giving description. They are, in my view, “telling” rather than “showing.” Every writer uses them because, well, when you’re writing it may well seem like that’s a good description—after all, the writer knows what he/she is visualizing or hearing inside their head. In that case, it’s just being too close to your own writing to see that a. it’s weak and b. it could be better.
But I think there is a terrific time to use adverbs, and that’s in conjunction with adjectives. I discovered this in one of my novels when I was on an adverb hunt, my notion being to get rid of them. But I found several instances where adverbs plus adjectives gave a much more nuanced description than the adjective alone. It my case, it added the character’s inner experience. I discuss this in my book, Flogging the Quill, but it’s also online in this post. Here’s an example of what I mean. The way it was written, using adverbs:
He found Emmaline to be annoyingly cheerful but pleasingly proficient.
Here it is without the adverbs.
He found Emmaline to be cheerful but proficient.
Delete the adverbs and I think the descriptin loses a lot, especially in regard to characterization of the person thinking about Emmaline. With the adverbs, you understand that he resents an aspect of her personality (he’s a crabby guy) but respects her capabilities. Without the adverbs, that’s all gone.
2. Hemingway doesn't like adjectives, but Faulkner strings five or six of them together. Both Nobel Prize winners. And everybody uses them.
First of all, my feeling is that to use classic writers from decades ago as models for reaching a contemporary audience, at least as far as commercial fiction is concerned, is a mistake.
I have no problem with appropriate use of adjectives. For example, how effective is it if you leave “poisonous” out of “There’s a poisonous snake!” That would be dumb. On the other hand, I’ve seen plenty of submissions to FtQ that have clear cases of adjectivitis, a morbid condition that can cause mind’s-eye diabetes.
Here’s my rule regarding fiction techniques: there are no rules. If what you do creates a compelling narrative, it doesn’t matter whether or not you use adjectives. But, in terms of technique, just as with the adverb example, there are good craft guidelines that can help you create a stronger narrative. My advice: be miserly in your use of adjectives.
3. Instructional texts are always imploring us to write in a fresh, new way. Given that there are thousands of new manuscripts produced every year, how can one follow that direction?
You follow it by developing your own voice as a writer. That will, by definition, make it unique and fresh. That doesn’t mean it will also be salable, but it will be your own. Go for what works for you.
4. The 'active voice' is praised, the 'passive voice' is decried. But every major writer I can find uses both in varying proportions.
In any story, I think there are times when both approaches are the best for a particular part of the narrative. They are tools, and they can make your story stronger when used appropriately and judiciously. That said, the passive voice can sap energy from prose and make for sluggish reading.
5. Trying to constantly come up with new descriptions drives me crazy. Mountains 'skitter', trees 'whoosh', houses 'sashay'. Focus on this seems way overboard.
Listen for the way your voice wants to say it. I’ll give you an example. In one of my novels I wanted to give the reader a feeling for an old apartment building in Evanston, Illinois, in the midst of a very cold winter. I could have simply described the windows as loose, perhaps, or warped and drafty, or whatever. Instead, this is the description:
Goosebumps prickle on her arms, and she hugs herself to ward off the chill. The drawback of a charming old apartment in Evanston is that the windows can’t say no to the cold. By morning they’ll be decorated with crystalline art painted by thick coats of frost.
6. To cap it all, I've been reading the first pages of a lot of new releases. Not one in fifty actually follows the excellent guidance you give, yet they are published to rapturous applause.
Despite the fact that few seem to be following all of the writing instructions and manuals, books are published and sold every day. The agents and publishers have told us if we don't follow the guidelines, we'll never make it out of the slush pile. What gives?
What gives is a number of things. First is subjectivity—no agent or publisher will read manuscripts the same way. Published authors happened to have found an agent or publisher with whom their manuscript resonated. There are agents who automatically skip prologues, and then there are those who are fine with them.
Secondly, I think they say “follow the guidelines” because, if you do, there’s a better chance that you’ll send them a viable manuscript. Or they could be simply saying follow my submission guidelines.
Thirdly, I wonder if what you’re reading are debut novels or novels by already-published authors. There’s a difference in how they are received by agents, publishers, and even readers. I do a monthly “Flog a Pro” article on Writer Unboxed that shows the first page of a bestseller. As often as not readers reject it when they don’t know who the famous author is. A recent Flog a Pro post is here—see what you think.
Bottom line, just write the best story in the best way you can. It will either appeal to a reader, or it won’t. But at least you’ll have a shot.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. Keep up the good work. I'll have a first page for you shortly.
I look forward to it.
For what it's worth,
© 2014 Ray Rhamey