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Guess Who's Back? (he shrieked adverbially)

What can I say after being away this long? Lots of things kept me away—not just writing, but a play, book promotion, hashtag games on Twitter (I’ve gotten my followership over 1,000) and of course looking for work. I’ll try not to let this blog slide so long again. (If anyone would like copies of the first two Backstory Files, let me know.)

On Saturday I attended the Bay to Ocean Writers Conference. There I had an insight. Writing students and new writers get a lot of advice on their craft. The most common piece of advice, after “replace all dialogue-tag verbs with ‘said’,” is “destroy all adverbs.” As an extreme example, in Altered Seasons: Monsoonrise I wrote:

All Thel wanted was to help her family. Carrie had been the same way at that age. And then, at a slightly later age, she had been completely different.

The point of that last sentence was to convey Carrie’s wary anticipation of the rebellious-teenager phase her daughter hasn’t entered into yet. Believe it or not, a former editor of mine tried to take out all the adverbs, leaving behind a sentence—“And then, at a later age, she had been different”—that has no reason to exist at all. The only possible response to it is “Thank you, Captain Obvious.” I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that someone once told Jonathan Safran Foer to retitle one of his books Loud and Close, or suggested that the film Truly, Madly, Deeply be released with a title consisting of two commas.

The problem a lot of writers have with this is sort of thing that if you pick up any best-selling novel and turn to a random page, odds are you’ll find dialogue tags other than “said,” some of which make more sense than others. (“‘He shrieked’? Who shrieks in complete sentences? ‘Smiled’? ‘Sneered’? Those are facial expressions. WTF?”) And, of course, you’ll also find some adverbs.

The reason writers get this sort of advice when they’re starting out isn’t that following it will invariably improve your prose. It’s that following it will stretch your writing muscles, forcing you to get creative when describing speech and actions, and also to think about how much description any given action or line of dialogue needs. Adverbs are a tool, but as Neil Gaiman wrote in the Sandman series, “Tools can be the subtlest of traps.”

In the meantime, if you want to see an example of adverbs used well, here’s my advice. Next time you reread the Harry Potter books, notice every time someone says something “quietly.” What J.K. Rowling is telling you is that this person is speaking in a lower than normal voice. What she’s showing you is almost always a lot more than that. Here are two examples, from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

”What’s in the Department of Mysteries?”

“What did you say?” Snape asked quietly and Harry saw, with deep satisfaction, that Snape was unnerved.

Well, yes, he was. For context, Snape has spent the last few pages shouting and snapping at Harry while telling him to “empty yourself of emotion” and “Control your anger, discipline your mind!” (Potions Master, heal thyself.) Now, when Harry asks what sounds like a random question out of nowhere, Snape responds “quietly,” for the first time showing a hint of the same iron self-discipline he must use when he’s in the same room with Voldemort.

”Did Hagrid breed you, like the thestrals?” asked Dean eagerly.

Firenze turned his head very slowly to face Dean, who seemed to realize at once that he had said something very offensive.

“I didn’t — I meant — sorry,” he finished in a hushed voice.

“Centaurs are not the servants or playthings of humans,” said Firenze quietly.

Firenze doesn’t say it “sternly,” much less “angrily.” He says it “quietly.” You are left to imagine the tension in his voice as he contains his rage while imparting the information necessary to make sure Dean never makes this mistake again. (And yes, Dean asks “eagerly.” This is Rowling telling us that he sounds eager, but showing us that he’s making an innocent blunder—which is necessary when a character we’re meant to like says something so demeaning.)

For writers of this skill level, rules like “no adverbs” are unnecessary and confining. How will you know when you’re that good? Other people will let you know. But when you’re good enough to put more than one layer of meaning into an adverb, you’re probably good enough to use it.

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