Here’s the first in a series where I’m going to share my personal top 13 hates in a book. There are bigger crimes in writing, I’m sure, but good editing tends to weed those out before I read the book. Usually.
‘But you’re not published,’ I hear you say. ‘What makes you think you can judge?’
That’s a fair comment. But I’m a reader. And I’ve been a reader ever since I can remember. I read almost anything, even the sales pitches on food packets, parking signs in carparks, hey I even read a contract before I sign it.
In fact, I have a confession to make, I even read chick lit. I never thought I would, but thanks to Sophie Kinsella, I’ve expanded into a whole new genre.
So I am going to judge, because I know what I want to read. And I know I’m not alone in thinking these 13 hates make for difficult reading.
And when I’m published (ok, ‘if’ – I really hope I can do it) then I want you to judge me right back. There are bound to be things I miss, no matter how hard I try. I’m counting on you telling me.
So here goes.
13. “Insert pithy comment here,” he laughed.
If you say this, you lose me, because I picture a drooling fool of a character.
Here’s why: Firstly, the comma means he laughed the words out. I’ve tried this. It’s against the laws of physics – my lips are stretched and my mouth is wide open, and most of the letters of the alphabet require my lips to go the opposite way. And that makes me laugh even harder.
Secondly, even if you use a full stop, implying he first spoke, then laughed; did he really do that? Why? Was it really that funny or were you just getting sick of saying ‘he said’?
Maybe what you were really thinking was: “Insert pithy comment here,” he laughed, before grimacing as he realised his creator couldn’t be bothered to think it through.
If a serious tagline doesn’t need to be highlighted, then why does the non-serious one need it? If the mood is set right in the first place, the reader knows what the character meant – flippant, hilarious, serious; all of these can be shown rather than told.
Of course, fools will laugh. Evil henchmen will also laugh (or maybe they ‘mwa-ha-ha’). Babies laugh. Mr Ed laughs.
‘So what?’ you ask. ‘What does it matter if I use these?’
Well, after only two or three of them, I see the character as that socially awkward sap – you know, the one who attaches himself to our circle of friends and laughs loudly at all the wrong moments and we wish he’d go away so we could all talk about him behind his back.
So if that’s what you meant to convey, go right ahead and use it. But just once per book.
And don’t just listen to me, read this post by Dawn Johnson on the Scribophile website.
12. How to use adverbs dramatically, enticingly and generally really really well.
We keep hearing about how badly adverbs can get out of control, how easily they are overused, and how terribly ineffective they are, but we keep allowing them to crop up endlessly.
Do you like what I did there?
Why do we do this? And what should we use instead? And does it really matter?
The one thing we should not do instead is change ‘suddenly’ to ‘all of a sudden’ or ‘frantically’ to ‘in a frantic manner’. I don’t think it’s the adverb itself, but what it stands for.
Maybe, instead of just telling you ‘adverbs are bad’ I can show you how distracting and ineffective they can be:
Suddenly – means the author couldn’t think how to make the transition from one scene to the next, or how to set the scene for the reader while keeping the surprise a secret from the character. It’s a hard skill to master, but just going with suddenly won’t get us any closer to mastering it. Instead of telling me to gasp in shock, shock me. Otherwise, I’ll just groan (and not ‘inwardly’ either).
Drily – often seen right after ‘he laughed’ (see hate #13) and used to denote that the character isn’t a drooling fool, but was being sardonic, scornful or cynical, or even laughing at their own expense. Great, so you noticed ‘he laughed’ was inappropriate, but instead of parting with those precious words and setting the mood, you explained or worse, justified. She says, drily.
Frantically – means the author couldn’t think how to show our hero realise he’s lost the engagement ring. What about trying this instead: ‘He went cold. Patted down his pockets, patted them again for good measure, and cursed.’ It shows me what frantic means for this scene and this character.
Frantic is different every time – I’ve seen a frantic mother watch her child die while she can do nothing to help her, and believe me, she wasn’t patting down her pockets. I had to call the police to help stop her from attacking the paramedics who were trying to help. To say she was reacting ‘frantically’ does nothing to convey what she was going through.
Maybe, after everyone has done everything they can for her child; the paramedics have rushed him to hospital, sirens screeching; doctors have cut him open, replaced and repaired, in a gruelling ten hour operation; the blood-spattered nurse has tried to comfort the distraught mother; the mother has held her cold and still little bundle for the last time; and she’s put on a brave face as the tiny coffin is lowered into the ground; maybe then, she can go home and ‘simply’ cry.
If we make our characters go the extra mile, then we as the writer owe it to them to go the extra mile ourselves. Make me feel what the character feels. Make me sob, or jump in shock, or go cold all over. But don’t you dare tell me that’s what you want me to do.
Sometimes we shouldn’t avoid them, and characters say them all the time (and we judge them for it). But we should ask ourselves, ‘what did the adverb add to the meaning of the sentence?’.
We need to be absolutely certain we’re not just taking the extremely lazy way out first.
Try removing them, and if your sentence still works without them, leave them out: we need to be certain we’re not just taking the lazy way out first. See – it works. And I don’t feel like it’s been rammed down my throat.
For a great post on adverbs, read No 3 in Patricia Holt’s ‘The Ten Mistakes’ – and read the rest of her post while you’re there.
I’d love to hear your comments. Did I commit some of your personal hates here? Have you read a book that included too many suddenlies and unintended drooling fools? Did you finish the book or did you give up reading forever?
And tune in next week when I continue my countdown.