Follow That Car

by limebirdmichele

I take no credit for this list of rules for writers except for sharing it with you. My brother sent me the link. I am just awake and thanks to this I am also chastened to the danger of using adverbs. As if to demonstrate its acuity, my better self  intervened before I could throw one in. Honest, I was about to use an adverb. Never again.

The first caution by Elmore Leonard is about using weather as a shill for atmosphere:

1 Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. 

Here he makes the zero tolerance case against adverbs:

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

The list goes on — ten rules each from a handful of prize-winning authors — and halfway through you are congratulating yourself for having the courage to take a pen (or pencil) to paper. I won’t go on because frankly I just want to get back to it. Oh, and I have to get off the simile train. They’re telling me no similes. Damn. It’s harsh love.

What rules do you have?

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20 Comments to “Follow That Car”

  1. I’ve read this rule many times, and I agree for the most part. However, the occasional adverb doesn’t bother me as a reader. I always notice them, but I think that has more to do with this kind of advice than any real danger … unless you way over use them to the point of being silly.

    Having said all of that, though, there are usually better ways of getting the point across than using an adverb.

    • I experimented with a piece I’d written a year earlier, took them out and it read much better.
      Still, adverbs must exist for a reason… 🙂 maybe they’re like mascara for nouns and verbs.

  2. There’s a lot of snobbery about adverbs but using too many of them is annoying and it slows down a piece of writing when you’re trying to read it. My rule is no more than one per thousand words, any more than that and I think of myself as being a lazy blighter 😉

  3. I tend to use a lot of adverbs on a first draft run-through of the story, just to get the feelings down, out of my head and onto the page. But this rule is one I always remember as signifying laziness if the technique is overused, and I always have to go back and pare down when I edit.

    I think they can be justified to really give a phrase or action some oomph…but you can overuse description action, as well: sometimes “said softly” just LOOKS better than “murmured” if it’s too close to “muttered” or “whispered” or “breathed.” 🙂

  4. Anyone who’s seen my blog knows I don’t hate adverbs. Don’t overuse them, but sometimes they are the best way to move a sentence forward. I’m sorry, but sometimes we do have to TELL and not SHOW! I think most readers gloss over them unless the writer has gone overboard with them.

    My basic rule once the story’s on the page is edit, edit, edit. Does every scene have a clear function? You always hear each should move the story forward. But if your story’s been racing along, I think a scene allowing the reader to catch his or her breath is fine. Do all characters have a clear role? If not—out they go. Did I choose the right words for this dialogue? No? Change it.

    Hopefully that will lead to successful publication!

    • I think self-publishing will slowly change the rules over time. It won’t be the end of the world if you use a word other than SAID in a dialog tag. The correctly placed adverb will be just fine. I don’t think readers care all that much despite what the experts say. If the story is good and entertaining, the author can be forgiven for much. Besides, there will always be those that follow the rules to the letter. The readers that want that kind of book will just have to steer clear of the rest of us.

  5. I understand the case against using adverbs in dialogue attribution–the reason being the scene/action should already be set up. Stephen King says in his book, “On Writing”, that if we want to see dialogue done well, pick up and read just about any Larry McMurtry book and note what he does. Like jm though, I rather like well placed adverbs in the story but I’m so paranoid about their use I do a lot of striking out! 🙂 It seems strange to me to have adverbs as part of our language then not use them. Maybe we need new rules? LOL

  6. I agree that overuse of adverbs can take away an opportunity to create better imagery, however JM brings up a good case for accelerating the pacing. I have often thought the same thing. And huzzah for Jeannie – I think we do need to write as we speak, at least at times. Of course, rules often come from experience, which I have not, so I will always consider them. “No reason to reinvent the wheel, he said boastfully.”

  7. This reminds me of the Stephen King quote “The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.” I think the problem is that it’s far easier to use them badly than use them well!

    I like the Margaret Atwood rules, though I’m pretty sure that it’s impossible to write on your arm in pencil!

  8. I don’t mind adverbs as long as they’re used as needed. I totally agree with JM that adverbs have a purpose in that they are great when you need to “tell” something as opposed to “showing” it.

    I definitely agree with not opening a story with weather. Start with a character, and better yet start with a character in trouble.

  9. If there is a verb that does the job better, it shouldn’t be necessary to modify if, but of course there are always exceptions and isn’t there a famous one from Star Wars or Star Trek or something “to boldly go where no man….”

  10. So many writers, so many great pieces of advice!

    Follow the link trail and check out the “Lester Dent master plot formula” referred to by Michael Moorcock http://www.paper-dragon.com/1939/dent.html I’m definitely going to try using that with my next short story (and will probably start out by using it to analyse a couple that I have in my folder that need a little something extra).

  11. My rule is white space. If I look back over my writing and there is little white space ie. dialog has gone out the window, I know I’m rambling.

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