Friday, October 9, 2009

Adverbally Yours

Book #2 of my Jonathan Grave series, Hostage Zero, (July, 2010) is done at last. The bad news is, I blew my deadline by a few weeks; the good news is, I like the story, and it think it advances the characters well. I hope that means it was worth the wait. (Knocking wood and all that.)

I've spent many hourse this week revising and trimming in preparation for final submission (trimmed 20,000 words with half my keyboard tied behind my back). I'm sure there's more trimming to come as we put the final coats of polish on. In doing the rewrites, though, I was shocked by my use of adverbs. My key offenders were, actually, really, nearly, clearly, apparently, exactly and quickly. Not that there weren's a bunch more, but many, did I hammer the hell out of those. I cut every one that I encountered, though I'm sure a few sneaked by.

Another word that invaded my writing like kudzu is "just". (Just about, just lazy,just wondering . . .) It's a word that accomplishes nothing. The adverbs accomplish nothing. Their like parasites on prose, and what I found most stunning is the fact that I know better. I teach creative writing classes from time to time; I consider myself to be a journeyman writer. How come I'm still making rookie mistakes?

I hope it's because we all make rookie mistakes in the initial drafts, and that professionalism is defined by a writer's ability to recognize the weaknesses and errors before it's too late, and the book is inflicted upon the world. It's not a definition of professionalism that would work for, say, brain surgeons, but for us scribes I'll take it.

My editor noted in her notes for No Mercy that I was obsessed with arching eyebrows. All the characters did it, and I was oblivious. Taking her remarks to heart, I tamed most of the eyebrows in that book, and pretty much kept them at bay in Hostage Zero. It seems, however, that you can't tame one writing reflex without tickling another. It's frustrating.

Am I alone here? Do you find yourself locking onto a repetitive writing gremlin from time to time? Are you likewise plagued by adverb invasions? Come on and share your own prose parasites.


  1. First, congrats on the finish and good cuts, John. It's a great feeling.

    And yes, in EVERY BOOK I have a word or phrase or two that I repeat without knowing it. Luckily, I also have a wife who is my first reader and is a great editor. She'll say, "Okay, I found your word..." It's a joke we have, because it happens every time.

    One example: I had a book where everybody kept touching everybody else on the shoulder before delivering a heavy line of dialogue. It was like some 60's Love In, not a crime novel. (Or maybe I'm a romance writer stuck inside a suspense body)

  2. Oh, you've struck a nerve. My own "favorite" word is also "just." I just deleted--strike that--I recently deleted a handful of them from the final version of a manuscript.
    And repeated actions? That was a habit I had to break very early in my writing journey, one that keeps creeping back if I don't recognize it and beat it off with a club.
    It's never easy, is it?

  3. My most overused word is suddenly. It's always amazing to do a search for it after completing the first draft. But I feel like anything goes with that first version. That's the time to let the story flow uninhibited. It's like sawdust on the floor of a carpenter's shop. At some point you sweep away the dust and apply the polish.

  4. In my first book one of my beta readers pointed out that all my secondary characters were blond--every one of them. I actually do a pass through the manuscript on "ly" to hunt down adverbs, and usually wind up killing about 40% of them.

  5. "Just" is one of my words, too. So far, I've managed to avoid most adverbs (my motto has always been "adverbs are evil"), but every once in awhile one slips through.

    In one of my drafts, my protagonist flipped open her cell phone way too much. I think I eliminated all of them. I hope.

  6. "Just" "Pretty" and "Maybe" seem to multiply in my books. And I've got plenty of "nodding" and "smiling" going on, with more than a few arching eyebrows.

    That's what search and replace was designed for!

  7. I feel for you, John- had to trim the same amount on Gatekeeper. It was truly amazing how excising the "justs" and "suddenlys" and "started to/began to" made a difference.
    In first drafts my characters shrug an inordinate amount, as if their shoulders were on the verge of springing loose from their bodies...

  8. Just is a problem for me, too. I've got into the habit now of searching out and deleting any word that dilutes the meaning of what follows. (Just, some, pretty, a little).\

    My problem is, i come up with the word/tick of the day. One day justs are all over the place; next day, none, but everyone shrugs their shoulders. As several have said, this is what subsequent drafts are for.

  9. The word I have trouble shaking is "probably." I must have the need to qualify everything because absolutes are so hard to come by, but I find myself going back through the manuscript with a Weedeater to chop them down.

    Another awful word is "luckily." If my characters are lucky more than once in a novel, then they're getting too many breaks.

  10. I was just reading this then suddenly just arched my eyebrows, clearly surprised as I totally and completely identified with this just incredibly pointed essay.

    I simply just totally understand how completely simple it is to just keep doing it relatively unaware that we just keep repeating mostly the same words and phrases.

    ...Anybody know how to unarch my eyebrows?

    they're just like totally stuck now.

  11. Thanks. Even the mistakes that I'm consciously trying to avoid seem to keep slipping in. It's comforting to know it's not fatal.

  12. Good post, John. But there's something troubling to me about this war on adverbs. I know, I know, you can't go around writing "...he said loudly", but, contrary to popular myth, adverbs are not the work of the Antichrist. They're a legitimate part of speech and they have their place in the written language.

    Consider the word "just", for example. It's a very utilitarian word, especially when used in dialogue or first person narration. It nicely conveys a certain shade of meaning to the word it modifies (as the word "nicely" does in this sentence), and usually no other word will do . It also contributes to establishing the voice of the character who uses it. The problem doesn't arise with its use; it arises from its OVERUSE (sorry for the caps, no italics available). Ditto a lot of the offending adverbs.

    There's a sort of literary political correctness that's slithered its way into our writing world, where "just", "was", "had", and many other words have fallen under attack, along with every adverb ending in "ly".

    Bulletin to the Word Nazis: there's nothing wrong with these words, as long as they're used judiciously (Now, look at that! Another one of those damned adverbs!) Any word, regardless of which part of speech it is, will not read well if it isn't used well.

    And therein lies the challenge.

  13. John - can't wait for the new book!

    I just got called on the carpet by my beta reader for having everyone flushing and blushing when somebody else said something nice to them . . .

    Out came the hatchet . . . and my darlings paid the ultimate price.