Thursday, February 16, 2012

On Writing by Stephen King

According to the advice given in this book, I should be a published and successful author if can only do two things:

1. Find an agent to represent me.
2. Remove most, but not all, of the adverbs from my writing.

Seriously. Let’s take them one at a time.

Finding an agent to represent me.

I’m glad King saves this advice for the very end of his treatise on what has made him a successful author. It’s the part of the process (necessary though it is) that frankly interests me the least. If he had led with this information, I may not have been able to make it through his admittedly brief work.

Don’t get me wrong. Selling your work is essential, but it really is the last step of the process—and very different than the steps that come before it. First you have to have something worth selling. First you have to master your craft, and consistently write things that are both of interest to readers and enjoyable to read.

And that’s where I have my battle. I do want to write things that are enjoyable to read (and think I’m getting better, but still have some work to do on that front), but mostly they are things that are of interest to me. That’s essentially my motivation for writing, what gets me to actually sit down and put words on the screen. I suppose I can view myself as a sample set of my potential audience, although something tells me that would be an extremely small audience to be targeting. So small that it’ll be difficult to find anyone to represent such work. Not enough money to be made in it. Not enough appeal to the masses of our paperback devouring pop culture.

But that’s okay with me. I’ve already dabbled in that direction and found no traction. But I’m neither bitter nor resentful. In many ways it was a productive experience. I think it taught me two important things:

1. My stuff isn’t ready for publication. Like I said, I’ve got more work to do on improving my craft. More on that below.

2. Focus first on building an audience. The agents and book deals will come later. Or maybe they won’t. But in today’s fragmented marketplace, they’re certainly not going to come unless you’ve already got an audience reading your stuff. That’s what blogs and self-published e-books are all about. Putting your work out there and seeing who (if anyone) is interested, and what feedback you can get from those readers to improve what you write and to extend your reach and appeal. Doing that the old-fashioned way, through query letters and self-addressed stamped envelopes, is a cumbersome and time-consuming process that takes you away from the writing that excites your passion. Doing it this new way makes it more a part of the writing experience, and something that doesn’t take you away from the things you’d rather be doing.

But enough of that. The business and the craft of writing are two very different subjects, and like I said, I’m much more interested in the latter than the former.

Removing most, but not all of the adverbs from my writing.

When it comes to improving your craft, King has other bits of advice, but most of them I feel like I’m already doing. But this adverb thing really hit home for me. Here’s what he’s talking about:

The other piece of advice I want to give you before moving on to the next level of the toolbox is this: The adverb is not your friend.

Adverbs, you will remember from your own version of Business English, are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in –ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is the voice of little boys wearing shoepolish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me…but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your 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…and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.

I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions…and not even then, if you can avoid it. Just to make sure we all know what we’re talking about, examine these three sentences:

“Put it down!” she shouted.
“Give it back,” he pleaded, “it’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said.

In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:

“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly.
“Give it back,” he pleaded abjectly, “it’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said contemptuously.

The three latter sentences are all weaker than the three former ones, and most readers will see why immediately. “Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said contemptuously is the best of the lot; it is only a cliché, while the other two are actively ludicrous. Such dialogue attributions are sometimes known as “Swifties,” after Tom Swift, the brave inventor-hero in a series of boys’ adventure novels written by Victor Appleton II. Appleton was fond of such sentences as “Do your worst!” Tom cried bravely and “My father helped with the equations,” Tom said modestly. When I was a teenager these was a party-game based on one’s ability to create witty (or half witty) Swifties. “You got a nice butt, lady,” he said cheekily is one I remember; another is “I’m the plumber,” he said with a flush. (In this case the modifier is an adverbial phrase.) When debating whether or not to make some pernicious dandelion of an adverb part of your dialogue attribution, I suggest you ask yourself if you really want to write the sort of prose that might wind up in a party-game.

Some writers try to evade the no-adverb rule by shooting the attribution full of steroids. The result is familiar to any reader of pulp fiction or paperback originals:

“Put down the gun, Utterson!” Jekyll grated.
“Never stop kissing me!” Shayna gasped.
“You damned tease!” Bill jerked out.

Don’t do these things. Please oh please.

The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said. If you want to see this out stringently into practice, I urge you to read or reread a novel by Larry McMurtry, the Shane of dialogue attribution. That looked damned snide on the page, but I’m speaking with complete sincerity. Mc Murtry has allowed few adverbial dandelions to grow on his lawn. He believes in he-said/she-said even in moments of emotional crisis (and in Larry McMurtry novels there are a lot of those). Go and do thou likewise.

I use adverbs all the time—especially when it comes to dialogue attribution. I use them as a kind of stage direction, adding in a little more detail, not just about what was said, but how the character said it. When I’m writing, I think this makes eminent sense. But when I go back and read my stuff—especially when I read it out loud, as I imagine a first-time reader would be hearing it in their heads—I usually discover that King is absolutely right about them. One or two is okay. But when your yard is covered with dandelions, no one wants to spend very much time there.

The best part of the book comes on page 155, when King is talking about how difficult—and “morally wonky”—it is to write anything other than what you yourself are interested in. The sentiment speaks to me, as you can well imagine, and King sums up his point with this little homily:

The job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies.

Precisely. That, more than anything else, is why I’m interested in writing fiction.

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