Tuesday, February 23, 2010

More Maunderings About Saidisms

Responding in the comment trail, I got all talkative about saidisms and rules and thought I'd stretch out and natter about that in a post instead of trying to fit everything into the little comment box.

 I saw the Guardian article with many Writers' Ten Rules of Writing.  It's here,  I enjoyed it up down and sideways, of course, and found it interesting and educative.

One problem with rules is that they tend to tell you what not to do.
But people don't read books because of the tremendous number of adverbs the writer didn't employ.  They read books because of what the author is doing right.

So another way to approach this is to skip right past the not using adverbs thought and look at what you do instead.  Look at why we want to go dropping all those adverbs and other modifiers into the language machine of the manuscript, gumming up the works.
 I will now wax philosophic which probably needs a shine on it.

A writer --
(Listen to me say that just as if I had some special hammerlock on how folks should write. I don't really think that.)
-- writes from the heart of the language. Nouns and verbs.

Noun-ness and verb-ness is hardwired into the brain. Every language makes a distinction between noun-things and verb-actions. These are inherent to the way we think.
It is natural that the strongest sentences are built on robust and specific nouns and verbs.

If we have strong nouns and verbs, modifiers can be kudzu hanging on, weakening them.
If the nouns and verbs are meh, modifiers aren't going to invigorate them.

One way to look at this in the writing is to go to page 100 of the manuscript and run a search for words that end in -ly. Do it from page 100 to page 105.

Discursiving here madly . . .
One possibility brought up was using just an adverb to tag dialog --
As in:
"Congratulations," softly.

I like the informality and directness of the example given.

I use this form, I think. Stuff like;

Angrily, "Step outside and say that."
Slyly, "Go ahead. Take that next step."
"I've never tried this before," coyly, under her breath.

Or, if I don't do this, it's the kind of thing I would do given the least provocation.
Though I can see how this would drive folks to giggling madness.

But getting back to how to deal with adverbs in a manuscript. [/DISCURSION]

In Forbidden Rose, there are 1800 words on pages 100 to 105 inclusive.  I have 19 -ly adverbs.
(So if you got fewer than that on your five pages you have my encouragement to ignore the advice about cutting back on your adverbs.)

This is your case study on whether the writing has a problem with modifiers.  You look at each instance of -ly on your five pages and think about shifting strength into the base verb.  Is the sentence better if you just strike the modifier out?  Is it better if you substituted a single word for the verb+adverb pair?

Here's one  of my -lys.

His fingers left her lips and slid downward slowly.

'downward' is a strong and useful modifier and I don't think I'd mess with it.

What about the 'slid slowly' complex?
Would I be better off if his fingers eased, lazed, crept, dawdled, or some other single word that holds the concept of 'slide slowly'?
Is the little phrase 'downward slowly' good enough that it should be kept?
Is the simplicity of those very common words and very common image what I want for this moment?  Do I want this sentence gussied up, or not?
Is the emphasis of that last word 'slowly' so useful it should be retained?

I'd leave that sentence in place, modifiers and all.

Anyhow . . .
one of the activities that make the final polishing draft such fun is going through the writing and punching up the verbs at the expense of the adverbs. 

We're not doing the negative activity implied by the rule -- don't use adverbs.  We're doing the positive -- do  fold meaning and beauty into the verbs themselves instead of into the modifiers surrounding them.

This leads to the somewhat related issue of TomSwifties,  which came up I-do-not-precisely-remember-how and I have wandered far afield  . . .

(A TomSwifty is an unintentionally amusing combination of said and an adverb.

"Put the gun down," Tom said disarmingly.
"It doesn't work," Rick said lazily.
"Fine.  Direct it that way," Tom said pointedly.

The term comes from a boys' adventure series where every said trailed along an adverb behind.  It is worth noting that the series was tremendously popular despite numerous flaws in the writing.  This is because it told story.)

The problem with the whole said + adverb thingum is that you can't move excitement and skill and specificity from the adverb into the verb because then 'said' becomes a saidism and Rule #3 on everyone's list condemns saidisms in a manner so vehement I may never use one again.

So we rest upon the cusp of indecision where we cannot create a saidism and we cannot let go of the adverb and we are subject to just an overwhelming desire to TomSwifty our way through the manuscript and hook an adverb onto every passing 'said'.

Civilization as we know it rests upon a decent control of our overwhelming desires. Every time an author resists the urge to attach an adverb onto some innocent 'said', civilization advances.

sign attrib louisacatlover


  1. The "saidism" posts, as always, are interesting and helpful. I read the Guardian article yesterday; my favorites were by the authors who avoid romanticizing the process. All the rules are a bit daunting for a beginning writer. I have to keep reminding myself not to confuse writing with rewriting.

    Laura Miller at Salon wrote an interesting response to the Guardian article from the perspective of a reader:


    Distilled to its essence, the advice from Elmore Leonard and Miller can, I think, be summarized as your cardinal rule: "Don't be boring!"

  2. When I'm done with my MS, I search the entire document for:

    words ending in LY
    words ending in ING

    and then for words I suspect I overused in the MS, usually specific to a character.

    I remove probably 90% of the hits and the writing is always stronger for it.

    I'm in the use "said" almost exclusively. Those add on tag words make it too easy to think you've made your dialogue, verbs and nouns work for you.

    If I'm struggling with a passage, I remove ALL modfiers. Every single one. It forces me to make sure my intent and image is coherent. Then I put back the ones required for sense.

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  4. Trying again --

    @ Annie --

    I wandered over and read the Salon article. Very interesting. Thank you for pointing it out.

    Now, in that article the reviewer is speaking from the standpoint of a reader of 'good', 'serious', 'literary' fiction. When she urges writers to return to the basics of storytelling and characterization and action, she's talking to literary writers.

    Genre writers are the choir in this situation, them never having lost sight of the whole 'fiction tells a story' aspect of writing.

    In the same spirit of bemused goodwill that watches folks order skinny triple shot hazelnut mochas or calimari, I look at books where unpleasant characters limply stare out at the rain for thirty chapters before rubbing their bodies with pineapples in a symbolic way and then going out to expire with the swine.

    The comment trail is rather full of gentlepeople pointing out that only commercial writing indulges in coherent characterization, comprehensible action, and recognizable plot. Is the reviewer trying to make people write genre crap?

    Literary fiction could bring us characters who wring pain and joy from our gut and moments of decision so profound they shake the ground under us
    . . . instead of folks standing in the metaphorical rain without a hat.

    But then, according to the comment trail, they wouldn't be literary fiction any more.

    Writing is not a zero sum game, of course. Literary fiction could tell the old stories, the joyful stories they told around the campfires when the whole controlled combustion idea was an innovation. I wouldn't take anything from genre work.

    But I'm kinda glad we keep all the good stuff for ourselves, in genre. We deserve it.

  5. @ Carolyn --

    You have summed up the process in a nutshell.
    Yes. Exactly.


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  7. Hi Janine --

    I had to pull out the comment you gave because it's recommending a commercial product and I don't do that on the blog at all. You could say the same thing without mentioning the product name.

    I'm sorry.

  8. Hi, Jo,

    I intentionally did not read the comments at Salon because I figured they would irritate the hell out of me. A quick peek tells me I was not wrong.

    I should have said in my original post that it's impossible not to think of genre fiction when reading Miller's rules. I kind of took that as a given, since readers of your blog including me, obviously, are fans. As you say, writers of mysteries, historical romance, fantasy, and the like have never lost sight of the importance of storytelling. That Miller does not explicitly refer to genre fiction per se is telling.

    Among many literary studies scholars at colleges and universities, if not the reviewers and readers of fiction that is classified as "literature," the lines between genre fiction and literature get blurrier all the time. In the 1970s, teachers of literature began to pose irritating questions about why certain books were excluded from the canon of good literature. For example, was sentimental literature kept off the syllabi because it was sentimental and therefore bad or was sentimental fiction considered bad because most of the practitioners were women?

    However quality is assessed these days by folks who still speak in terms of aesthetics, I would say that a key change is the recognition that who is reading the books tells us nothing about their quality. You still have folks like Harold Bloom who are out there arguing that Harry Potter is bringing down civilization, but their numbers are diminishing. J. K. Rowling is often compared disparagingly to Philip Pullman, who was too busy and important to contribute to the Guardian piece. I’m not interested in defending Rowling or attacking Pullman, who are very different kinds of writers. There's room for both of them. I just think Rowling’s critics are often motivated by a prejudice against the popular. Books read by so many can’t possibly be any good.

    I should mention that I’m also not a fan of those who roll their eyes at the arrogance of the "cultural elites." It’s just a different kind of snobbery, and I’m not an either/or kinda gal.

    As she defended good storytelling, it would have been nice had Miller not danced around the issue of genre fiction. Perhaps that was a failure of nerve on her part. I guess I sympathize. She reviews for The New York Times Book Review and no doubt has to preserve her credibility. As the comments indicate, even suggesting that writers keep readers in mind is controversial.

  9. @ Annie --

    It is funny, and very human, that Miller could give advice wholly appropriate to 99.9% of published fiction, and half the comments come back excoriating her because she wasn't talking about that last one-tenth of one percent.

    "But that's the important one-tenth of one percent!!!" they cry. "The rest is pedestrian trash for the proles."

    Poor Miller -- You are so right. It would totally discredit the value of any writing advice to be associated with 'genre'. We iz the red-haired stepchile.

    I have a great fondness for people who devote themselves to tiny specialties. I may not, myself, see the fascination of Pleistocene ferns or Medieval Croatia or lacemaking, but I applaud the enthusiasm and feel the human race is richer for knowing about Acrostichum spp, the Batltle of Gvozd Mountain, and speldewerk.

    That said, experts in obscure fields do tend to have a protective feeling about their work. It can make them . . . tetchy and peevish. Knowing no one appreciates Acrostichum must lead many a fern specialists to say nasty things about the local plant nursery and its vulgar display of pansies and peonies.

    It may be inevitable that folks interested in the more extreme aspects of 'Important Experimental Literature' feel threatened and marginalized and strike back by criticizing everything outside their fortress walls.

    ("I spit een your general direction," they sneer.)

    There'd be less conceit and close-mindedness among graduates of MFA programs, perhaps, if each of them didn't secretly know that the vital, wonderfully intellectual, important work they so admire will disappear utterly in two or three years . . . while 'The Sheik', 'Murder on the Orient Express', 'My Man Jeeves' and 'Gaudy Night' will be read at their century mark.

  10. Thank you for the wonderful, (exhaustive!) reply.

    Your conclusion made me laugh; I definitely emerged from that article in a state of disorder, frantically patting myself down for pens in my pockets--a bit like an addict searching for their cigarettes. (See! I have these! Still a Writer! (Even if I can't follow the rules worth beans.)

    I think you make a great point about deciding on a case-by-case basis--that each sentence demands something different. And as another commenter noted, there's a real difference in writing and rewriting.

    I'm pretty sure it was Orwell who had that codicil to his own list of rules, which went something like, "And disregard any of these rather than write something awful." Another of these impasse-busting tidbits I love.

  11. Interesting comments on genre fiction. Same thing is true in visual arts.

    I was talking to a friend, whose husband is a painter - a "serious" painter who does commercial photography as a day job.

    We started talking about what constituted serious painting, real art, and in the course of the conversation and a discussion of gallery politics, she said Monet would not be considered an artist these days, just a commercial painter. What he did had already been done. Baffling.

  12. @ TS --

    Writing is a nebulous, subtle business -- like braiding smoke -- best done when we're not thinking too much about how we do it.

    We do it in public
    and get criticized in public.

    When people do a frightening job, they get a little superstitious.

    That's how I see some of these 'rules of writing'. We're trying to take control of what is a dangerous, irrational process. We want to put reins on the tiger instead of getting on his back and riding.

  13. Hi Martha --

    There's good writing and bad writing, just as there's good painting and bad painting.

    But I see no reason why good work can't exist within the confines of convention, artistic or commercial. If Noh Drama can be good art, genre Romance can be good art. If Medieval Madonnas can be good art, Anime can be good art.

    Doesn't mean genre Romance or Anime (or Ottonian Madonnas) will necessarily break forth in a flowering of creativity -- just that limitations imposed by the format don't keep it from being good art.

  14. Hi Jo,

    I completely agree. Her explanation was that Impressionism has become decorative painting (read, genre fiction), and so by definition cannot be not art. Craft and technical skill, maybe. I completely disagree. There is good and bad Impressionism, then and now, the style is not the point at all, imo.

    But I think Monet was a genius. He lived so long, and grew the whole time -- do people think he would have stagnated had he lived now?
    It floors me.


  15. Hi Martha --

    In one of those synchonicity thingums, I was just reading 'Faking It' by Crusie. The MC is thinking that Monet was faking his own work at the end . . . being a copyist of his younger self.

    Art, I know from nothing.

    Maybe Monet is like Wordsworth. Wordsworth's early stuff is better than his later stuff. Maybe (some) writers have only so much creativity in them and they use it all up but then they go on writing.

    But then, Wordsworth's early stuff wasn't written under the gun of supporting a half-dozen various hangers-on.

    They should set up a fund for genre writers. After the first seven books, everybody takes a year's sabbatical. Imagine the book we'd get from our favorite writers if they had a year, undisturbed, to work on a new-and-different something.

  16. I often read your posts and find incredibly useful advice for aspiring writers. But on this one I am going to disagree.

    Language is a beautiful and rich thing. All of it. There is nothing more inherently 'natural' about nouns and verbs. And what a dull thing it would be if there were no lovely adjectives and adverbs. Sure, these words can be used lazily and badly, but stark, plain prose can be just as lazy and difficult to read. Look at the books that have lasted 200 years or more - the classic novels are packed with adverbs and adjectives and wonderful, luscious prose. Why should we reject that kind of skill with words in the modern novel?

  17. Fantastic post, and a wonderful chain of comments. Still chewing and digesting it. Thank you all. :)

  18. His fingers left her lips and slid downward slowly.

    You are absolutely right to leave this as is, and this is why: when it comes to love scenes, less is more. Replacing "slid slowly" with a more robust verb (such as dawdled or lazed) makes the prose appear overwritten. It calls attention to the verb and away from the action/emotion.

    "Dawdled" or "lazed" might be perfect in another setting. But not there.

  19. @ ros --

    I've written poorly if I've given the impression folks shouldn't use all the adverbs and adjectives they need.
    I try, with indifferent success, to write fairly sparse, meeself. That's probably why I come across as anti-modifier. My own prejudices creep in at the corners and I should watch for that.

    Now, when I talk about the noun-verb, I'm coming at this from two directions.

    The first is --
    I DO believe in the primacy of nouns and verbs. Especially verbs.

    Falling into metaphor mode --
    art students take life drawing classes and sketch the naked human figure because the form of the body is basic. (Well ... there's the sex factor too, but . . .)
    Artists need to know what's under the clothes. Only when they've got the human form right, can they go on to velvet, Valenciennes lace and seed pearls or skintight leather trousers and a bandolier. Or a feather boa.

    The subject-predicate is the body under the clothes.

    When we list the subject-predicate pairs of the page, we're looking at structure of the action. At who does what.
    Adjectives and adverbs and prepositional phrases -- while necessary and beautiful -- don't carry the action.

    The experienced writer, at some time in the drafting process, might study sentences from the nouns and verbs out, making sure those words are central, that they do the heavy structural lifting, that they are rich and important words. This is necessary whether the experienced writer lays down seven stingy modifiers on top or slathers on twenty-seven.

    Though the experienced writer don't need me nattering away at her anyhow.

    A second reason I talk about noun-verb and kinda -- I admit it -- suggest stripping off most modifiers, is that weak nouns and verbs covered by too many modifiers is a VERY common problem for writers in the early stages of the craft.

    Speaking to a writer early in the craft, I'd suggest concentrating on the nouns and verbs. It's a good starting point. One absolutely has to get this right. Setting the modifiers out of the way lets you look clearly at those nouns and verbs.

    And . . . yes . . . I'm suggesting early writers who use many modifiers might consider simplifying their style. Not because ornate is bad, or because ornate didn't cross the counters like hotcakes in 1860, but because -- for whatever reasons -- ornate can be a hard sell in the current commercial market.

  20. @ Beth --

    You are bringing up a big part of this 'how much modifying do we do?' bit.

    Sometimes we want a word that flies under the radar. Heck. Lotsa times we want a word that flies under the radar. We don't want to linger. We want to get a move on.

    Whenever we become specific, or build a picture, or create a lovely metaphor, we slow down the pacing.

    Each word's 'richness' and 'complexity' is a sort of rheostat that controls the speed of the action.

    So we put our complex words into the strongest visuals in a lovescene, because that's where we WANT the reader to slow down and notice.

    That's one of the problems where modifiers get too thick. If everything has description attached to it, indiscriminantly, it all goes by at the same deliberate, slow, limping pace.

    Whereas what we really want, (notice me laying down the law here?) is richness of detail in exactly the right spot.

    If we have described everything, line after line, we can't describe in loving detail the touch of Doyle's hand on Maggie's mouth and make the reader -- she won't realize why she's doing it -- slow down at that sentence and see it vividly.