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Adverbs Are of the Devil

Adverbs Are of the Devil

Yes, I confess to my own part in the misconception that good writing is full of them. I did once *gasp* encourage students to slather their poetry with adjectives and adverbs, but I do have a defense: You know how you've read that Picasso had to be able to paint realistic scenes in order to hone the skills that allowed him to create his own masterful style? Well, while beginning writers are learning to choose the exact right noun or verb, adjectives and adverbs help create the images that bring life to the page.

Stephen King says in On Writing (y'all know how I love that book): "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. . . they're like dandelions. If you have one on our lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . ."

It's no accident that Hollywood uses the term "wrylies" (as in "he said wryly") to criticize overuse of parentheticals in screenplays. If you're doing your job with dialogue, your readers will know the tone of the lines without adverbs or parentheticals to guide them.

"But I like adverbs!" she shouted defiantly. (Bad.)
"Fine," he said. "You may continue to show your ignorance on hundreds of pages of adverb-filled prose." (Good.)

One of the best tips I ever heard was from a woman at a B'ham SCBWI meeting who told me, when we were discussing adverbs at a cocktail dessert party (ah, the social skills of writers) to run an "ly" search on my manuscript after I thought I'd rid my novel of adverbs. I was shocked at how many were still there! Did I delete all of them? Of course not! But I made freakin' sure they were all really, totally, completely, undeniably, indisputably needed. (Yes, those adverbs were intentional. I was just havin' a little fun.) Thank you, nice blonde-haired lady. I wish I knew your name to give you credit. If you're reading this . . .

*Note: Two years after I wrote this (and five years after it happened,) I actually recognized the nice blonde-haired lady at another SCBWI conference and told her how helpful her adverb tip had been. So now I can appropriately thank Cathi O'Tyson for her great advice and for being a new writer friend; we can't have too many of those!

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Posted in 2010


Write it Down; Don’t Write it Right

We spend SO much time thinking about writing, planning to write, dreaming about writing, wishing we could write, making lists for writing, taking notes for writing. See a pattern here? Why do we hesitate? Because we're terrified. We're terrified it won't be any good. This is silly.

OF COURSE IT WON'T BE ANY GOOD! Have you ever seen a first draft of Cormac McCarthy or Michael Chabon? Do you really think Sherman Alexie jots down the first thing that comes to mind each morning on a Krispy Kreme napkin and hands it off to his publisher? Dylan Thomas' "Fern Hill" is one of my favorite poems; he wrote over 200 drafts before he completed it.

Anne Lamott devotes an entire chapter in Bird by Bird to Shitty First Drafts. You should read it. Thinking that you should automatically be a great writer because you know how to type is about as dumb as thinking you should be a Olympic medalist because you know how to run or swim. So it won't be perfect. You gotta start somewhere. Write it down; don't worry about writing it right.

Relax. Have fun with it! Go a little crazy - cause NO ONE IS GOING TO SEE IT. There's nothing more satisfying than unleashing your creativity. Don't sit down to write a book. And don't write about the boring day you had yesterday. Just write down a funny or weird story someone else told you once (it's easier to start with something not-so-personal) and change it up a little bit. Make it your own by tweaking the events and inventing dialogue and creating a character to whom the story happens.

Do it today. No excuses, anyone can spare half an hour. Okay, do it this week, or in the next two weeks, I can wait. And let me know how it goes.

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Posted in 2010

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