Wednesday, May 13, 2009

usually used

My latest brain craze is adverbs. A few weeks ago, a grad student criticized the number of adverbs in my hastily-written story (get it? get it? a little humor there). He then proceeded to give the best explanation in the history of written language about why to avoid adverbs.

He said, "Because everybody walks clumsily in a different way." I've been turning that over in my mind and have come to the conclusion that everyone is also cheerful in a different way, but the principle still holds. I revisited the subject a couple of days ago when I read a similar adverb cautionary tale on a writing website. Apparently it's Rule 14:

14. Avoid excessive use of adjectives and adverbs; trust the precision of your nouns and verbs. Verb form: the shorter the better. Avoid helping verbs and progressives. Avoid passive voice. Avoid cliche and stock phrases.

Has telling people to avoid stock phrases become cliche yet? If not, what day should I calendar that for? Anyway, the truth is that I remembered Rule 14 in much greater detail than it appears above. I thought it said to replace adverbs with strong verbs. I guess I embellished it during the course of my 48-hour obsession. In my mind, Rule 14 came complete with examples like:

"She eyed the chocolate greedily" vs "Her eyes consumed the chocolate."

You know, the kinds of examples that invite counter arguments. Like the fact that "eyed" is a strong verb and "greedy" is a strong adjective. It's true that "greedily" is no fun to trip over. But also true that "consumed" is a really impersonal verb -- the only reason it gets away with being cool in the sentence above is that it gets to hang out with the "eyes" noun. So which sentence is better? Seriously, I'm not sure.

Whatever, I started doing a whole adverb scan on Amazon books. Amazon writing technique scans deserve their whole separate blog entry! Maybe even an entire blog! I know I can't be the first person to realize that every novel in the history of every language is on Amazon, and that we get to read the first five pages instantly and for free. But no one has ever shared with me the marvel that is the Amazon WTS, so I'm taking credit for it as my own independent invention.

Beyond the whole adverb thing, I learned that good novels have this great "brain feel" from the very first word. Like the first moments listening to an orchestra in a concert hall. The music resonates in your body. For example, the first page of The Great Gatsby has phrases like, "privy to the secrets of wild, unknown men." Jesus Christ, how can you argue with that?

The first page also contains an adverb. And this is what fascinates me: Good writers do avoid adverbs. But they also use them, and in very specific ways. Which I'm attempting to scientifically (ha! another joke) outline here:

1. Idiom. Phrases like "Our team won handily" or "she wept openly" or "hardly ever" or "isn't necessarily so" really can't be communicated any other way. Those are the phrases. And we love them, adverbs and all. Same with temporal adverbs. You "usually" use them or "occasionally" use them, but you better at least sometimes use them because it's very hard to describe frequency without an adverb.

2. Character. People use adverbs, so characters use adverbs. Someone who says "we've always been unusually communicative" is telling you something about his education and background. Someone who says "...he mentioned someplace in Dorset, and his face beneath the blotches went into a completely new kind of grimace" is talking almost the way a person might actually talk, or at least think, or at the very least picture something. Replace "went into a completely" with "transformed into a" and you have a stiff, writerly construction in the middle of a sentence about illness and bad memories.

3. Third person. Adverbs start appearing more when people start talking about other people. I myself have never done anything "jerkily," but five constables might have come "jerkily into attention" before they "subsided into their usual sprawl."

4. Expedience. Not every moment in a story is some hushed perfect long drawn-out moment. Sometimes you just want to mention a thing in passing and go on to the next more important thing. Adverbs speed things up, or at least I suspect they do in some cases. For example, notice the two adverbs in the second sentence of Toni Morrison's A Mercy:

"Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark -- weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more -- but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bear teeth." Are we really going to want to slow down that incredibly long and interesting sentence in order to "lie in the dark without making a sound" or "see blood in certain moments"? "Quietly" and "occasionally" give us the images in real time.

5. Past events. We don't really need to be in the moment for stuff that happened before the action of the story takes place. If this is just background info, it's enough to say, "And then, miraculously, Adam's new job came through..."

And you've probably already started noticing that the examples that illustrate one use also illustrate a bunch of others. One adverb for a past event described by a character in third person using standard idiom... It seems like good writers often have more than one reason to plunk in an adverb.

I think the thing I liked best was noticing the purposes the adverbs served: the reason to avoid them is the same reason to use them. They keep you at a distance, out of the moment, they summarize. And sometimes that works perfectly for a particular moment in the story.

I think where adverbs go awry is when they make you "repaint" the story in your head. Like "walked across the room lightly" makes you first picture walking, then go back and picture it again, only this time "lightly." Tiptoed across the room places the picture in your head before you are even conscious of it being there. That's the kind of thing that creates great "brain feel." (Not that the above sentence is a terrific example. I'm just saying.)

Okay, last thing and then I'll put a stop to this whole anal retentive tiresomeness (at least I'll stop this one instance of it). I once took a physics class from a teacher who wrote her own textbook. The first chapter discussed the principle of Occam's razor, which is “The simplest explanation for a phenomenon is most likely the correct explanation." (Actually, Wikipedia just explained to me that that's not exactly what he said -- he just wanted us to introduce the fewest assumptions and postulate the fewest entities. Let's pretend we didn't hear that.)

Anyway, I had learned about this principle at a snobby private college I'd attended in the past. Only there they acted like it was the kind of thing you defend to your death. In contrast, my physics teacher described it as a prejudice (I'm paraphrasing badly here; whatever it was she actually said carried no negative connotations). It was somehow soothing to read, "Look, we just all think simple explanations are cool so we're going to believe those whenever we get the chance. No offense to the funky complicated ones."

Applying this to adverbs -- ha! you thought I'd forgotten what I was talking about, didn't you? -- one of the standard reasons given for avoiding them is to "streamline" your writing. Which is a prejudice. And one that really didn't exist before the 1900s, if I understand the whole Hemingway phenomenon correctly. I mean, I'm all for adopting the styles particular to my era, but let's do what my old physics prof did: let's call a spade a spade.

Even better is finding out that this whole eschewing adverbs thing isn't just a passing fad. Which is why I'm so excited to learn that there are deeper reasons to avoid adverbs. Or use adverbs. Whichever makes things go most swimmingly.

Note: Adverb examples are from The Great Gatsby; Never Let Me Go; A Mercy; Sacred Games; and Unaccustomed Earth. And here you thought I was making all this up.

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