Monday, June 11, 2018

If You Don't Have Anything Personal to Say

Let’s face it, you’re alienating readers based on the genre you choose, the amount of swear words your character feels an affinity for, the frequency of your cat posts, and even your hairstyle. Alienating readers shouldn’t be at the forefront of authors’ minds because people can be very particular in their dislike of something.

I’m not here to shame talk of adverbs, but I think that there are far better, more accessible, creative ways to discuss writing rules that people should be aware of.

We’ll start with some honesty; if you begin advice with “Don’t use adverbs,” you’ve lost me.

A few years ago, a critique began by handing me a "story formula," telling me that I wasn't allowed to have backstory in the first act because "Star Wars doesn't," and then spent the rest of the the few minutes we had together pointing out each adverb I used and telling me that all were "fine." What started off as a good day filled with insights ended with a woman who I now sincerely believe skimmed the first fifteen pages of my manuscript for adverbs and then called it a day.

What was most shocking to me, I suppose, about the whole experience was not that she presented me with every generic writing rule on the face of the planet, but she did so without a second of hesitation—it never occurred to her that some people might vehemently disagree with her philosophy.

It was something like sitting down and having a stranger bring up God in the first sentence, not only assuming that you are religious, but behaving as though it was the most natural, least controversial thing in the world. He acts like you would immediately agree with him, sense the right in what he was saying, and never for a second thought you might be stirring up an argument.

Which begs the question: Are you really well informed about this topic if you have never experienced talking to someone who doesn’t agree?

Writing rules are fairly controversial, and for good reason. We want a variety of different philosophies in the literary world. Not a single person believes that a masterpiece is created from strict adherent to these restrictions—even those who push them on unsuspecting victims will admit that there are different standards for the greats. The comments are repeated for a reason, of course. If you don’t like your sentence, try getting rid of an adverb and see how it improves. It's easy and will have an impact. But it can be frustrating to see someone adamantly insist that there is no place for them, moreover thinking it is the only way peons are allowed to write.

Anecdotally, people who focused on dialogue tags—the use of said and its synonyms, or the adverbs connected to them—typically have had a lower level of comprehension on my characters’ emotional states compared to those who focused on bigger, more abstract criticism. They were less likely to pick up on sarcasm, lies, or jokes, this particularly critique partner especially. Those who did not worry about whether or not I used “said” yet still claimed they didn’t know who was being sarcastic were more likely to pick up on the sarcasm overall; they followed enough to realize what they weren’t getting. Those who focused on adverbs struggled to comprehend the intent of what they've read, what actually happened in the story.

For example, during the four critiques at the Writers Conference (three of whom believed my dialogue was my strongest skillset), one man told me he was uncertain about who was actually religious and who was being sarcastic. When I told him, he said that he thought so, but I could make it clearer. This is a good piece of advice and shows he read the work, attempted to understand, and then specified what I could do and why.

The woman, however, seemed to miss the sarcasm all together. She was extremely literal and was confused when characters said something that they didn't fully mean. This is in contrast to the other people who'd read the work. Most recognized jokes and understood there was conflict between the two people, even if they weren't positive who was being serious and who was making fun. She missed all of that and behaved like an robot who doesn't understand subtext.

Most of our communication is tone and body based. Many people say that you shouldn’t use words other than said because mood should be conveyed in the quote itself or through descriptions of action—and if you can do so, I agree. But sometimes the nuance to pick up on things in real time are too small for us to describe it in a natural, succinct, clear way. In some cases, it’s not worth it. And you try too hard to detail the action, you risk the chance of “explaining the joke.” The funny part is, she would have understood the characters' intentions better if I had used adverbs instead of trying to convey information through contextual banter. "He said sarcastically."

I would argue, in fairness, the reason most who focused on adverbs struggle with subtext and character’s inner life is likely due to not actually reading. They were too busy looking for surface level mistakes to listen to the words themselves. It’s also possible that they are less inclined to play games in their everyday speech, like sarcasm, joking, or basic manipulation of phrasing. They are literal, upfront people. Maybe they don’t notice body language and tone in everyday life. I will say, with certainty, there is some reason that people hate and misunderstand adverbs so much while others don’t.

It’s all reasonable though, and I am not suggesting for a moment that people don’t discuss whether or not “said” is better than “goaded.” Some people, for whatever reason, genuinely hate it, and more importantly, I have seen people use them to an extent or in a way that was purely cringe worthy for me. You want to know why a writing rule exists? Read amateur fiction.

What brought me to write this post was when I was exploring the blog of an aspiring author/creative writing teacher, and I came across her advice on writing dialogue. After casually looking through her free short story (a succinct and to-the-point style), I moved on to her opinions. Truth be told, I knew what she was going to say before I opened it up. “Don’t use adverbs,” she insisted adamantly.

Here’s the thing: it’s not bad advice. And if you believe in it, and you utilize it, you should discuss it, offer it to people, stand by it.

But keep in mind that it is controversial, that it is overly exposed, that no one likes being told what to do, and no one should do everything the same way anyway. Instead of repeating verbatim what you've been told, discuss the pros and cons—it’s not all bad and realize that if you have spent a lot of time thinking about it, there’s more to say on the subject. Generic one-liners are indicative your are not speaking from experience.

Every author has heard 'don’t use adverbs.' If you're a believer, and they chose not to listen the first time they heard it, then saying again in the same way won't do anything. You’re going to have to come up with another angle, that angle will come from your experience, in your own words, via the way that you realized the importance of that rule. Before telling someone not to use them, really consider if that’s the most useful piece of advice you have to offer, where it’s coming from, and the fact that people may not agree with you. Not even (just) because they’re petty, self-involved, or stubborn, but because some people genuinely like adverbs. Or, at least, don’t give a shit about them.

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