Tag Archives: Writing Pet Peeves

Stephen King’s No-Adverbs Rule

Posted by March 22nd, 2013

How adverbs lead to affectation and weakness in your writing.

stephen_king_sm“…while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.” –Stephen King

Stephen King’s On Writing is one of the most popular books on the craft of writing. And with good reason: it is chock full of practical writing advice and curious anecdotes about King’s own path to publication.

Adverbs are a sign of a timid writer

What amused me when I read it recently was the author’s utter disdain for adverbs. He starts with a grammar refresher:

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 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.

Here it gets even better:

Someone out there is 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, you find five the next day…fifty the day after that…and then, my brothers and sisters, your loan is totally, completely and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they are, but by then it’s–GASP!!—too late.


Adverbs in dialogue attribution ends in affectation

There is one case in which King just hates adverbs: dialogue attribution. He invites us to compare the following sets of examples:

“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, shoutedpleaded, 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.

But even if you’re not guilty of populating your dialogue with adverbs, he warns us against another common misdemeanor:

Some writers try to avoid the no-adverb rule by shooting up the attribution verb full of steroids. 

Which leads to atrocities such as these:

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

King concludes:

Good writing is about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as “good” and other sorts as “bad,” is fearful behavior. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with. 

The bestselling author is a proponent of William Strunk and E.B. White’s simplicity of expression school. If you’ve read their slim volume The Elements of Style, you probably have the incantation “Omit needless words” branded into your memory.

Flowery language, or overwriting, is a challenge for newbie and seasoned writers alike. Spurred on by fear, they try to dazzle readers with verbal fireworks, and might forget that what’s more important that using a “pretty” word is using the “right” one.

A Confession:

I must admit I’ve been guilty of overwriting.

My sin is called qualifiers.

Qualifiers are words—many of them adverbs—that modify the meaning of other words. I wasn’t aware of my problem until one of my colleagues read a piece I had written. She said, “You use a whole lot of qualifiers, and it makes your points weaker.”

Ouch! I reread it and realized that she was right: my writing was peppered with “rather,” “somewhat,” and “quite,” “completely,” “actually,” and “seemingly.” They made my ideas sound tentative, as if I didn’t believe in my own assertions.

These words are an old habit from my academic days, where this kind of “hedging” language is widely accepted. Outside of academia, qualifiers lead to weak, lackluster, and hesitant writing. And I’m determined to weed them out.

What about you? Do you have a writing tic or thorn? What tendencies are you trying to exterminate? 

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Meet Book Country Member Herb Mallette

Posted by February 19th, 2013

Book Country Member Spotlight Q&A

herb_mallette_bookcountry_member_3“No matter how successful you might become as a writer, you need to retain your sense of humor.” –Herb Mallette

You might recognize Herb Mallette as the glasses-wearing cartoon avatar known for his pithy contributions to the Book Country discussion forums and his thoughtful peer reviews. He’s also a lifelong writer from San Antonio, and has been editing professionally for the past twenty-five years. He’s a big science fiction and fantasy fan (some of his favorite writers include Jack Vance, Michael Shea, Iain M. Banks, and Edgar Rice Burroughs), and has a wicked sense of humor. Last week I chatted with Herb about his writing life, his love of science fiction and fantasy, and his soft spot for Pixar movies. 

Nevena: How and why did you start writing?

Herb: As a child, I loved to read, write, and draw. I wrote my first story at age five on a page in Dr. Seuss’s My Book about Me. I started drawing comic books around seven, and by the end of middle school, I was determined to be either a writer or a comic book artist. Because I had the fortune or misfortune to be good friends with a kid whose artistic talents vastly exceeded mine, I mistakenly concluded that I wasn’t cut out to be an artist. So in the tenth grade, when my chemistry teacher re-ran a particularly boring filmstrip, instead of watching it I started my first novel. By the time I graduated, I’d finished two books and become addicted to it.

Nevena: You write fantasy. What draws you to it?

Herb: Fantasy and science fiction inundated my childhood with realms so colorful and exciting that I had no choice but to pursue them. I used to write in both genres. Nowadays I find fantasy more liberating because it allows me to make up all the rules.

Nevena: Is there a cliché that you’d like to see erased from the genre?

Herb: The dour, gruff dwarf is probably my least favorite fantasy cliché, but I don’t know that I’d eliminate it—to each his own.

Nevena: Could you tell us more about your own fiction? What are you currently working on?

Herb: Right now I’m writing a prequel to my four-book Delvonian series. The existing books start with The Last Tragedy and wrap up with a trilogy, The Aveliad. The prequel features four characters from The Aveliad on their first adventure together, when they’re just forming the relationships we see unfold in the trilogy.

In my work, I aim for a high level of adventure sprinkled with human commentary. It’s very important to me to be entertaining, and only slightly less important to provoke thought in readers who want to be so provoked.

Nevena: Wow, that’s poetic! Why should Book Country members read and review The Last Tragedy, the book you’ve posted to the site?

Herb: People should read The Last Tragedy if they’re looking for clever, engaging characters moving through an unusual world in a beguilingly entertaining plot. The good guys are witty and resourceful; the villain exquisitely malicious. As for reviewing it, people should do that if the excerpt on Book Country makes them want to say something.

Nevena: Sounds good! What’s the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in your writing? How did you overcome it?

Herb: Real life. I have a day job and a family in a world that, if you watch the news, is often quite depressing. Writing is a way that I can raise a light against the gloom, both for myself and, hopefully, for others. But it’s sometimes hard to find the time, energy, and spirit to stay brave in the things I am trying to express. As for overcoming… Well, the world needs heroes, and when I was a kid, many of mine were writers, so I push onward.

Nevena: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?

Herb: Surprising myself, especially at the end of a book. I love getting to an outlined event, realizing it doesn’t do what it needs to do, and then hitting on a solution that whoops the pants off the original plan.

Nevena: Why did you join Book Country? How has it helped you in your growth as a writer?

Herb: Writing about writing helps remind me (or, if you prefer, helps me delude myself into thinking) that I do kind of know what I’m doing. Reading about writing helps me learn from the perspectives of others.

Nevena: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Herb: At a book signing, I told sci-fi/fantasy writer Michael Moorcock that he was indirectly responsible for my writing several bad fantasy novels in high school. Without batting an eye, he replied, “As it happens, I’ve been directly responsible for several myself.” That wasn’t exactly advice, but it showed me that no matter how successful you might become as a writer, you need to retain your sense of humor and not take yourself too seriously.

Nevena: Is there anything you want the community to know about you?

Herb: I am ridiculously susceptible to the emotional effects of certain movies. I have cried buckets at almost all of the last several Pixar films, for instance, as well as the recent return of The Muppets to the big screen. When filmmakers manage to put real human beauty onto the screen—especially through elements of the fantastic—something just turns a switch of joy in me until I am a quivering wreck. My favorite movie scene of all time is the asteroid field sequence from The Empire Strikes Back. Just listening to the soundtrack for that scene makes me stream tears, and there have been times when I’ve gotten the accompanying music stuck in my head at work and literally had difficulty concentrating on my job. Please don’t tell my boss.

Nevena: Pinky promise! Thanks for sharing, Herb, and for being such a spirited voice in the community.

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Meet Charlotte Firbank-King

Posted by December 21st, 2011

Book Country Member Spotlight Q&A

Charlotte Firbank-King_headshot_1_3 height

Haven’t interacted with Book Country member Charlotte Firbank-King yet? Get to know her in our member spotlight!

Every time I read a book, a short story, a poem, or anything really, I wonder about the person behind the words. I ask myself a million questions, wishing I could know some of their true-life stories and how their experiences have shaped them. Why? Because what we’ve been through is what shapes our creativity. It’s not identical, of course, but it makes us who we are as people and as writers.

So, I decided to chat with Book Country member Charlotte Firbank-Kingabout some pieces of  her life, her process, and her writing to get a little insight into this recently minted member’s mind:

DP: The majority of our members are from the United States but I noticed you are not. I’d love to hear a little bit about what it’s like in South Africa where you live! What is the writing community like there?

CFK: South Africa is a complex land with 11 official languages and almost every ethnic group known to the World. We have wide open spaces of pristine bush with a staggering variety of creatures. And no, lions and elephants don’t wander down our streets—unless you live in a village in the bush. Here, a stark third-world existence rubs shoulders with gleaming first-world technology and opulence. Our weather is wonderful. We don’t get many earthquakes or tornados and snow only falls on mountainous areas. The writing community sucks. I personally don’t bother to explore its limited offerings. In that regard, we are definitely third world.

DP: You edit, write, and illustrate? What was your first creative outlet? How did you shift into the other two?

CFK: The illustrating, art came first. I studied art at Pretoria Art College. I visited England and France to see the works of old masters. There, my existing love of history was fuelled. I have always dabbled in writing, from childhood. First poetry expressed my angst, and then cheesy bodice rippers served as a release for raging teenage hormones. Finally, life turned out to be my greatest motivator and teacher. About seventeen years ago, I sent a very, very length novel to Sandy Tritt, CEO of Inspiration for Writers. Because of the poor exchange of SA Rand, I couldn’t afford the editing fees, but she offered to read my book anyway. She imparted her extensive knowledge freely and I honed the craft of writing under her guidance over the next ten years. She eventually asked me to become an editor and ghost writer for IFW.

DP: It says in your profile that you usually write from the male protagonist’s POV. Why’s that? What’s your favorite (and least favorite!) part about writing from the perspective?

CFK: Men are simpler. I love their direct, practical approach, and I think they are misunderstood and underappreciated by most women. (Not talking about your wife-beating jerk here) I especially love the warrior spirit in a man and that is what I concentrate on. My husband was a warrior and he was killed. I guess I just understand them. I have no least favorite part. Well, maybe when it comes to finer details like what is it like to make love to a virgin—tricky interview that.

DP: You have great attention to detail, especially when it comes to grammar and word choice, from what I can tell from your reviews so far. What is your greatest writing pet peeve? Why do you think it’s important?

CFK: That sounds like a no-brainer. Isn’t writing all about grammar and word choice? My pet peeve is manuscripts put out there when the author hasn’t even bothered to try to edit a single word. Would a person expect someone to live if they performed brain surgery on them without studying medicine first? This is my mantra and I write with it in mind always.The writer is forever searching for a brilliant phrase that will blow the reader’s mind away. They hunt among the bright pebbles of adjectives and adverbs, worn smooth by overuse, when all the while it is hidden under the boulder of brevity.

Below are a few of my favorite quotes that sum up how I feel:

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back again” ~ Oscar Wilde

“When instinct fails, rules may guide us. But rules shouldn’t preoccupy the writer. The real job, the enduring task of the writer, is cultivating the instinct for language–even when language so stubbornly resists the precision we seek.” ~ George Orwell

DP: There is a wide variety of authors listed as your favorite writers–Dan Brown to Shakespeare! What do you like about them?  Is there a common thread you see in their writing? I’m intrigued!

CFK: Dan Brown and the like are light entertainment (they should edit their books more carefully, too). Shakespeare feeds my soul; Dickens and Oscar Wild teach me how to use words effectively. I have eclectic tastes, interests, what can I say! =)

DP: What brought you to Book Country? What is your own personal writing goal that the community can help you with?

CFK: I saw your site referred to on Kirsten Lamb’s blog. My goal, to get my first, of 12 novels, published. My inability to promote myself is my worst enemy. At first, I just wanted another point of view on my most completed novel Twilight Path. And most of the reviews have been helpful, made me look at the area that bothered me most, what genre is my book? And some things that I didn’t think were a problem, but then had to look at. Finally, as I did more reviews, I wanted to help aspiring authors. Yes, I am paid to edit, but when I see a really talented writer I can’t resist wanting to guide them.

DP: I read that your book, TWILIGHT PATH, is nearly complete and ready for publication. How many rounds of revision did you go through? What was your process? How do you know you’re nearly done? 

CFK: Not nearly, it is completed, but only to the best of my ability. I think what got me was the numerous rejection slips I received from romance publishers. I write for the thinking person. I don’t do wilting heroine on hunk’s arm. I doubt I could give an accurate estimate of how many edits, but I would not be lying if I said at least 150 of my own. So I’m anal, shoot me. =) My process starts with the story in my head, clamoring with a thousand others to be heard. The one that screams loudest gets first shot. First chapters are my thing. It’s like the first time you make love; it has to be good because that defines your love life (story) for the rest of your life (story.) As I go, I have a separate file called a story outline. This has all the details about various characters—eye color, hair, fears, habits, twitches, aspirations etc. It isn’t good to have blue eyes in one place then brown eyes. I guess I will never be done editing; there is always the lure of a better way to say something.

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.” ~Winston Churchill

DP: What kind of books do you edit versus what you write? What do you find appealing about them from the different roles?

CFK: I have edited anything from hard-core porn, romance, Christian inspirational works through to paranormal and some that have no specific genre. I write mystery/thrillers with strong elements of romance. I also write YA fantasy and kids’ books with illustrations. I guess I wear two hats, an editor hat and a writer hat. The editor hat puts aside self. I have no views or opinions that I am permitted to express, concerning the author’s views and opinions. My job is simply to help them grow as writers, be it porn of spiritual. In my own writing, I wear both hats and I sometimes hate my editor hat.

The editing appeals because I can help someone improve, if they are willing to learn. Some aren’t. My writing satisfies a deep, abiding compulsion within me to write—I can’t help myself—I need to write everyday like a junky needs a fix.

DP: What inspires you to write? Do you have a muse, if you will?

CFK: I believe God gives us gifts and those gifts become a compulsion if we let them, I let them. The stories that keep me awake at night won’t go away until I put them on paper, then they grow and consume me. Do I have a muse? A muse, by definition is spiritual, really. So if God likes Shakespeare and those of his ilk, then there is my multidimensional muse—there are ten, mythically speaking, aren’t there?

DP: For our final question, let’s talk about something other than writing. We’d love to hear a random fun fact about you!

CFK: I’m not random, so obviously, I don’t get the question, but here is what my one granddaughter and kids thinks is fun about me, if that counts:

I am into technology and play computer games, so that makes me fun.

Eldest daughter: Editing with me makes me fun.

Son: Woodworking and cooking with me, experimenting with different dishes, makes me fun.

Youngest daughter: I play computer games.

Is that random enough? =)

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