Friday, September 05, 2008

Yes, I love them—truly, madly, deeply.

"I love my adverbs,” she said adamantly, wagging her finger righteously through the air.

I always get a bit incensed when I hear new writers when they speak of the scourge of the adverb. I see it all over the place: knock those adverbs out of your writing, use a stronger verb, make your sentences concise—which is an oxymoron that I will explain later.

Frankly, if I want a character to walk quickly, that’s what I want. Sure, I could change it to run, but what if they aren’t running? Get my meaning. Sometimes things happen suddenly, and sometimes they don’t, not to mention the million ways to laugh or speak.

I see so many new authors struggle with comments like these, including myself, since I am in the midst of serious rewrites at the moment. Where do they hear such horrible things, well, they hear comments such as these in writing classes, style books, and see them on the writing blogs -- or they might even hear them quoted from their favourite author, who will remain unmentioned.

Apparently, there are two camps when it comes to adverb usage, those of us who love our adverbs and those who do not. Maybe it’s some deep-seated fear of poetry? Who knows.

This isn’t a new subject, but it is still hotly debated and opinions are deeply divided. Some may even say that this is a battle between European and American style. However you want to describe the situation, it is still a matter of style and not a rule. Adverbs exist for a reason and should be used, deliberately and liberally, if you choose to write in that style. Stylistic choices are not grammatical faux pas. Grammar is grammar and style is completely different. Someone who chooses to use adverbs, structurally and poetically, should not be automatically accused of novice error and accosted for their assumed ignorance.

I am currently reading Douglas Adams “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. Adams was one of the most brilliant writers in the sci-fi genre with over 14 million in books sales from that series of books alone. I read the book twenty plus years ago, and it is as timeless now as it was when he wrote it, not to mention just as hysterical to read. His voice is genuine and pronounced, and Adams, like many other European writers, loves his adverbs, using three or four in a row in some sentences and doing it rather effectively, I might add. But then again, those were the days when a novel was judged by its literary definition and not by word count, which means the choice of an adverb over a long drawn out boring description was actually more concise. Yes, an adverb can actually make a sentence tighter without losing its poetry. Go figure.

I think the adverb began its dark descent from literary grace when the American style of writing began to define itself with the minimalist prose of Hemmingway and others of that sort. Short and direct sentences became the standard, and flowery poetic prose was labelled pretentious and even novice. Adams and more recently Rowling are laughing at that I imagine, laughing hysterically all the way to the bank.

Now, I am not advocating that we get all willy nilly with our adverbs; overuse of anything can compromise a good story, as can endless yards of overdone description as well. Spare me the tedium of six-hundred pages, use some adverbs for crying out loud and get rid of a few hundred coma inducing paragraphs, please. Anything unnecessary should be cut, but we should cut for good reason. Adverbs are our friend, especially in the shorter forms of fiction. They are a valuable part of our living language. So if you love your adverbs as much as I do, as did many other classic and timeless authors, then listen to your own voice and choose your own style.

I would love to hear from some fellow adverb lovers—and haters—comment here with one of the adverb laden sentences you love or hate so much from one of your favourite books. I will pick a winning entry by the end of the month and send that person a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide.

Let’s stand united for the adverb, those deliciously enticing adverbs.

Cheryl Anne Gardner is a retired writer of dark, often disturbing, literary novellas with romantic/erotic undertones. She is an avid reader and an independent reviewer with Podpeople blogspot and Amazon where sheblogs regularly on AmazonConnect. She is an advocatefor independent film, music, and books, and when at all possible, prefers to read and review out of the mainstream Indie published works, foreign translations, and a bit of philosophy. She lives with her husband and two ferrets on the East Coast, USA.

11 comments:

Diana Castilleja said...

I don't hate them, and I agree they have a use and a place. Unfortunately adverbs also bring in rejections, the Novice style you mentioned.

I've had editors rewrite entire sentences, tags and paragraphs for using adverbs. Eventually you lose the initiative to use them.

meika said...

adverbs lovely are,
and they love me too

bunnygirl said...

I think learning to write short and minimalist is very good practice because it teaches one to seek out the exact words one needs rather than piling up a lot of inexact ones and hoping for the best. THAT is the true newbie mistake, not adverbs, passive verbs, forms of "be" or what have you. Once one has learned to be precise, it's perfectly okay to use any word that's right for the job.

And personally, I consider Douglas Adams to have been more of a satirist than a SF writer. SF was simply his vehicle for making splendid fun of how things work right here on Earth. :-)

cheryl anne gardner said...

That is why one shouldn't take rejections too seriously in today's literary climate. I would much rather read a creatively drawn sentence laden with poetic adverbs than "see spot run".

And yes, adverbs are consise. I wish someone would tell the editors that. But sorry to say, today's publishing industry is about money not art, and most people read between the 5th and 8th grade reading levels. You just have to find an editor that like adverbs and understands their literary merit. Rowling's editor sure did.

And yes, Adams was a satirist, but his genre for those books was Sci-Fi. And Bunny girl, if you like Adams then try "Wisdom of Crocodiles" by Paul Hoffman. Yet another brilliant social satire, loves adverbs, and yet again, is British. Maybe we should all start submitting to publishing houses over there. They seem to understand the language.

Ruby (Mouth) said...

I love love love adverbs and I LOVE ADAMS. He is soo awesomely wonderfully postively humorous. Hee hee hee!!

Dusk Peterson said...

Sometimes it's not so much hatred of adverbs as it is love of verbs. For example:

"He ran quickly forward."

"He charged forward."

It's a matter of taste, I agree, but I find the second sentence much more interesting, encompassing as it does the imagery of battle.

Also, as others here have pointed out, all too often adverbs, like adjectives, can be a sign of sloppy writing. Somebody who asked me to copyedit a letter they'd written used the phrase "very impressive." I wrote back to him, "'Impressive' is a superlative in itself; you don't need to add 'very' unless you're talking about, say, how impressed you were by the face of God :)"

Now, mind you, if he'd been a skilled writer, I'd have probably let his usage pass. But this is precisely the problem with adjectives and adverbs; they tend to be used by unskillful writers as a way to pad inadequate writing. The novice can't really visualize what type of running their character is doing, so they say, "run quickly." This is the sort of thing that gives adverbs a bad name, and I agree that it's different from making a deliberate stylistic choice.

"Some may even say that this is a battle between European and American style."

I immediately charged forward - er, ran quickly to my bookcase to check this. I picked up novels by Mary Renault, Dorothy L. Sayers, Mary Stewart, and Rosemary Sutcliff. Sayers seemed to be the only one of the four who was interested in adverbs, and I'd say that she was the weakest stylist of the four.

I honestly haven't noticed any difference in this matter between American and European writers, much less between flowery writers and minimalist writers. Patricia A. McKillip is one of the floweriest fantasy novelists I know of, yet she's sparing in her use of adverbs.

It's been quite a few years since I read lots of poetry, but I grew up in the seventies when it was death for a poet to so much as use an adjective, much less an adverb. :) (I exaggerate, of course, but really, some of those modernist poems were little more than nouns and verbs.)

"I think the adverb began its dark descent from literary grace when the American style of writing began to define itself with the minimalist prose of Hemmingway and others of that sort."

Um, no. A quick look at great works of English literature would assure you that adverbs have never been very popular. (Let's leave Hemingway aside. I cannot for the life of me figure out why people like his style. It reads like bad writing to me.)

Take a look at this and this and this and . . . Well, I could go on for a while, but I'll just point out that one of the most influential works for English-language writers, for many centuries, was the King James Bible, which has very few adverbs indeed.

So Hemingway hardly invented the relative lack of interest in adverbs.

Now, against that, I'll mention one highly influential work whose author did seem to have a fairly strong interest in adverbs: the Book of Common Prayer, authored by Thomas Cranmer in the sixteenth century. Here is a seventeeth-century version of one of his most famous prayers, with four adverbs in it.

For centuries, nearly every English writer heard prayers like this every Sunday; that was bound to make quite a few English authors adverb-conscious. But I have to confess that I had to do a little digging to fine that particular prayer because, while Cranmer liked adverbs, he still didn't use as many adverbs as the average writer does today.

Parts of speech aren't a popularity contest, of course, and I'm quite prepared to agree that well-chosen adverbs are a thing to be cherished. The tale that you and others here tell of having your adverbs attacked purely on principle makes me gnash my teeth. But I also think there's a reason why so many good authors have been sparing in their use of adverbs. Adverbs are like spice - a little goes a long way.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

I nor has anyone here told a tale of having their adverbs attacked??? So, I do not know what you are speaking of with that statement about gnashing teeth. I was merely making a statement regarding some writing blogs I have seen of late and a few authors’ statements demonizing the adverb for no good reason. Not to mention a conversation I had with another author recently where it was said that someone told him to go back through his manuscript and cut all the adverbs. Such a broad based hack and slash astounded me.

I also think "run quickly" is not really a stellar example of my point; since you are running we can thus assume you are moving quickly. This would, however, be a great example of sloppy writing. We can also argue that Adam’s frequent use of “said quietly” is also sloppy, since quiet means no sound.

Now, I am not saying all European writers love adverbs, and I am not saying all American writers hate them -- I also did not say Hemmingway invented the simplistic style of writing; I merely used him as an example since he is well known and well read -- but when I make comparisons based on my personal reading material, I find the favour of adverbs leans that way. This is not s scientific study, obviously, just an observation. I was also speaking of the poetry of prose not verse, which is the art of taking a commonly constructed sentence and instilling a poetic flow into it. In this case, adverbs can be quite beneficial to the cause. This has to do with diction, and diction is also a writer’s personal choice. Most of the links you sent me were verse, and verse has it own unique theory and principles.

Anyway, we can argue semantics, but the point of my post was that grammar and style are separate, and if one chooses to use adverbs in their writing, they should not immediately be judged as a crap, sloppy, or a novice writer. I have seen books padded with worse than adverbs. New writers are continuously bombarded with a lot of crap advice and sometimes it is difficult to distinguish foundation from embellishment.

And I have seen a lot of sloppy writing by authors who do not use adverbs. So, my rant was for inspiration only, and it did not apply to anyone’s work in particular. All writers should seek to find their own style when it comes to creating the imagery needed for great literary works; whether that means adverbs, similes, metaphors or any other device is entirely up to the writer and their preference.

It’s wonderful to see the dialog on this subject, proves my point that the argument is still alive and kicking.

cheryl anne gardner said...

Oh, and by the way Dusk, I love, love, your cover art. Very classy. I wish more indy authors understood the importance of cover art. Maybe that will be my next rant.

On the adverb thing, well, you know my stance. I just hate seeing new authors get strapped to the rack by all the "what you should do's" instead of finding of their own passion and discovering their own unique style. After all, that is part of the artistic journey. Don't ya think?

And one of your books is on my to read list. Can you guess which one, wink, wink. I am a huge fan of boundary pushing stuff. Plus, I love the title. Awesome title.

Dusk Peterson said...

"I nor has anyone here told a tale of having
their adverbs attacked???"

Sorry for me misremembering your post. My memory was of Diana Castilleja saying, "I've had editors rewrite entire sentences, tags and paragraphs for using adverbs." It sounded to me as though she was saying that the editors were rewriting the sentences, not to strengthen her writing, but simply because they believed, on principle, that adverbs should not be used. And I was trying to say that I thought
that sort of editing was ridiculous.

"Not to mention a conversation I had with another author recently where it was said that someone told him to go back through his manuscript and cut all the adverbs."

Yes, that's the sort of thing I was gnashing my teeth about.

"said quietly is also sloppy, since
quiet means no sound."

As far as I know, "quietly" just means "free from noise," like "softly" does. So one can speak quietly.

"Most of the links you sent me were verse"

Um . . . well, yes, because most pre-seventeenth-century literature that's still read is verse. :) I couldn't give you any medieval novel examples, because (unless one counts the Italian novellas), novels didn't exist. The nearest equivalent would have been poems like Chaucer's.

Since you'd mentioned verse in your post, I didn't realize that you were confining your discussion to prose. However, I won't irritate you further by pulling up prose examples. :)

"I make comparisons based on my personal reading material, I find the favour of adverbs leans that way."

I also see adverbs as being more popular than in the past, and I'm curious as to why. That's why I was exploring the historical antecedents of this; I'm sorry that the tone of my post led you to regard me as arguing semantics. What I was really trying to do was discuss literary origins. See, I'm a history writer, and my father's a literary historian, so I naturally zero in on any history aspects of a post. :)

"I just hate seeing new authors get strapped to the rack by all the 'what you should do's' instead of finding of their own passion and discovering their own unique style."

Oh, I agree completely. It's good to know the general rules of what has worked for most authors (just as it's good for a writer of free verse to know first how to write a sonnet), but I've seen far too many authors imprison themselves by rules that have never been adhered to universally. If I hear one more solemn discussion of "you mean 'that,' not 'which,'" I'll scream.

"Can you guess which one, wink, wink."

Actually, no, since so much of my stuff is boundary-pushing. :) But hey, thank you kindly for the comment about my covers. I rarely get feedback about them.

Cheryl anne gardner said...

No worries, I might not have been entirely clear in my post, since I was in a fit and ranting, but I don’t think Diane was saying that her adverbs were attacked as such … but only she can clarify her post, I didn’t get that impression.

I am not history writer, nor am I a literary historian, so you are one up on me there. :) However, I have an extensive library, and my leanings are more towards an antiquarian style of writing. I also write only novellas, true literary novellas. I think deSade wrote one of the most comprehensive essays on the history of the novel and what it takes to write a good one, which is funny, since he wrote mostly romantic novellas. I recommend every new author read it, as the angle he presents is probably the most important one. I also do believe that new authors should know the basics: grammar, of course, but also story arc and character arc, the difference between the various point of view, how and when to use the various devices such as metaphor and similes, knowing what an allegory is … etc. But I don’t think that new authors should rely too heavily on “what worked for other authors.” I feel that when new authors do that, they fail to explore the path to their own unique style and voice. So I say, learn the basics, and then find your own way. Write in the style that you feel comfortable in. Some of my mentors are Poe, Lovecraft, deSade, Bataille, Shakespeare … etc. So, my style tends to be formal and antiquarian with long complex poetic sentences and actual poetry mixed in. Not everyone likes that. No style is a guarantee of success, but I think finding your own is a guarantee of artistic happiness, at the very least.

And I just said ‘Poetry’ in my post, I wasn’t specific, and so the fact that I was speaking of prose instead of verse was not clear. Two different animals there, and many authors don’t know that prose can be poetic, if you like that style. But that’s what I get for ranting. :)

As far as adverbs making a resurgence, I have no clue. I can speculate that it might be because the shorter forms of fiction are becoming popular again, novellas especially, which are the bastard stepchildren of literature. They are coming back with a vengeance especially in e-book format. (Not so much luck selling them in book format, which is why all mine are out of print, to be included in a larger collection, more bang for the buck and that sort of thing. Plus I wanted to add an essay on imagery and a few short stories to it, as well as expand the original text of two of my novellas.) Back to Adverbs: with respect to novellas, adverbs really lend a hand in the shorter forms, where you don’t have a lot of descriptive wiggle room. And you are right, some rules are meant to be broken – some. I use a lot of em-dashes and ellipsis because I am very concerned with the poetic flow of a sentence, its diction, as well as its content.

But of course, what is most important, I think, is that all authors understand the editing process and practice a lot of self-editing. I had to learn that the hard way. The first draft is always rough and the manuscript only gets better with each successive pass, so every author should exercise their critical eye … some of those adverbs might not be necessary and then again, they might be.

The book is ‘Lawnmowers’ I love the whole title. And you are welcome. Your covers are simple and eye catching and they are symbolic of the story. I like that. Very professional. I grew up reading Chaucer, Dante, Milton, and deSade … so boundary pushing is my thing. And I love disturbing psychological realism, Bataille is one of my favourites when it comes to that and his essays on sex and death are brilliant. But I get off subject.

Email the podpeep gmail if you want to chat offline. I love chatting with authors who know their stuff, but I am not a big blogger.

cheryl anne gardner said...

I am still looking to give away a copy of the Hitchiker's Guide to the best adverb laden piece of prose. So, I thought I would share one of my favorites from philosopher, essayist, novelist, eccentric Czech writer Ladislav Klima, whom I fell in love with instantly. I quote from his book titled: The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch

"But she did not display the least happiness. She stood up mechanically, danced like a wooden doll. Rather unusually confused, I spoke little and stupidly. I don't know what it was that penetrated me so narcotically...She lightly pushed me away, lifted her eyes. And now they were no longer covered by her upper eyelids -- they opened suddenly, unbelievably, until they were like cat's eyes -- just as green, just as wild, predatory, uncanny. Her lips, previously lying sluggishly one on top of the other or slightly parted, closed tightly, became sharp as a razor, her nose became narrow, her nostrils distended and undulately wildly."

Now that's what I am talking about. I don't think it could have been written any other way to beautifully describe such an ugly woman.

So let's here them. Contest is over at the end of the month.