Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Do Editors Really Hate Adverbs?

By Kelley Lindberg

[I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because most bots are boring, but bots that argue with you about grammar are disturbingly sexy.]

At some point in just about every writing workshop or conference, someone reminds someone else that adverbs (those notorious “-ly” words) are the devil’s own tools and should be hacked mercilessly from every manuscript. (You noticed I used an adverb there, right?)

Question: Do editors really hate adverbs?

Short answer: Pretty much, yeah.

Long answer: When it comes to adverbs being verboten, those immortal words of Captain Barbarosa leap to mind: “They’re not really rules. They’re more like guidelines.”

So here’s the thing about adverbs: They aren’t, in and of themselves, evil. It’s just that over-dependence on them can begin to look lazy. Or redundant. Or sloppy. Or inaccurate. Or clich├ęd. Or… fill in the blank with your own adjective. Adverbs are handy because they can modify a verb. That’s okay, except that it might let you get away with a less-than-stellar verb. Not okay.

Another reason to avoid adverbs is that if you use a word like “suspiciously,” you missed an opportunity to describe the body language that would have shown us the character’s “suspiciousness,” like narrowed eyes or crossed arms. Body language is far more interesting, unique, and personal than just an adverb that feeds us the generic emotion. I’d rather see how that character exudes suspicion, rather than having the author hand me the shortcut word “suspiciously.” That’s not visual at all, and I want to SEE that character!

If body language doesn’t get the job done, then interaction with another character might. By describing one character’s reaction to another, you can give us a better picture of both of their emotional states, which is far more intriguing than some over-used generic adverb.

The occasional adverb is fine – great even – if it truly is the best way to illuminate a sentence. But mix it up by using unexpected but spot-on verbs, participles, body language, dialogue, and interaction.

So, to continue our example, you could write:

“I’m not sure I believe you,” Sarah said suspiciously.

However, we've already established that the adverb “suspiciously” is generic, with a broad spectrum of how that might look on a person. Because we want to see how Sarah actually looks, acts, or feels in this particular situation, we could give her a bit of body language:
“I’m not sure I believe you,” Sarah said through tight lips.
That’s better, but can we do more with her body language to show what’s really going on here?
“I’m not sure I believe you,” Sarah said, slipping her hand to the hilt of her dagger.
Now let’s try showing some body language as well as some interaction with another character:

   “I’m not sure I believe you.”
   Sweat prickled the back of Gerald’s neck as he watched Sarah’s hand shift to the hilt of her dagger. “Yeah, Sarah, I can tell.”

Adverbs save a lot of time and words because they’re shortcuts. But as shortcuts, they often simplify everything too much, leaving us a little bored. The scenic route can be a lot more captivating. (Just ask Gerald.)
Adverbs can also be redundant. If we’d added “she said suspiciously” in the last example, it would have been a waste of effort, because the action in the scene shows us how Sarah feels. We don’t need to beat our readers over the head with a generic adverb just in case they missed the whole sweat-inducing dagger part – that’s just insulting. And a waste of word count.
On the other hand, sometimes the perfect adverb can tighten a sentence eloquently. (See what I did there? I used an adjective AND an adverb because economy of language was appropriate in that sentence. Whee!!)
Editors don’t hate ALL adverbs. They’re just tired of the lazy writing that happens when it’s riddled with ordinary adverbs instead of evocative description and taut emotion.
Adverbs, adjectives, participles, and other descriptors all carry the same caution: it’s not quite a crime punishable by death to use them, but be certain you apply them like a strong spice – wisely and sparingly – and make sure there isn’t a more riveting way to write life into your scene.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Joyfully Subversive in L.A.

By Kelley Lindberg

There I was last Thursday, walking along the sidewalk outside the terminal at the Los Angeles airport, following my printed instructions that explained how to find the SuperShuttle (note to SuperShuttle: there ARE no overhead orange signs saying “Shared Ride Vans”) until I finally stumbled across the SuperShuttle representative (still no orange signs). After I gave the helpful woman my name and reservation number, she radioed the van with the secret code for “don’t stop here for at least 20 minutes,” then she looked at my hair and said, “Is there something going on where everyone has to have purple hair?”

Right, I have a streak of purple in my hair this month. I’ve been adding color to my hair for a couple of years now, and I tend to forget about it until I catch my reflection in a plate-glass store-front window. And even then I sometimes fail to notice the color, because I’m busy disguising my horrified gasp as a coughing fit. Plate-glass store-front windows are not kind to women who are not 16-year-old gymnasts. (Trust me. It’s the window.)

So yeah, I have purple in my hair. But as far as I knew, I hadn’t accidentally staged a flash mob of purple-haired performance artists to converge on the LAX passenger pick-up area. Although I have to admit, it’s probably been done.

But I was in Los Angeles for the international conference of the Society of Children’s Books Writersand Illustrators. I explained to the SuperShuttle woman that over a thousand writers and artists were arriving in Los Angeles for this conference, and perhaps that crowd might contain a higher-than-average number of people with color in their hair.
Me, Jean Reagan, Neysa Jensen, and Bobbie Pyron
at SCBWI LA 2013

But what I really wanted to say was:

“This is L.A.! How does a bit of color in one’s hair stand out in L.A.?!”

Had she not noticed where she was working? Had she failed to see the staggering variety of the mostly (but perhaps not exclusively) human-shaped beings flowing past us on the sidewalk?

I mean, we writers and illustrators of books for young people might embrace our inner whimsy a little more freely than, say, accountants from Poughkeepsie (although I’ve known some pretty hip accountants in my day), but seriously, in L.A. – a town that canonizes plastic surgeons, where bodies are renovated from the ground up, where even the nearby shopping mall sported a sign saying “Pardon our dust – we’re having a little work done” – here of all places a lock of iris-colored hair raises an eyebrow?

She accepted my explanation with skepticism, clearly still hoping for a glimpse into an underground society of violet-haired revolutionaries wielding airline-approved carry-ons and shampoo in 3-ounce bottles.

But then I got to the hotel, made my way to the conference registration desk, and discovered something kind of wonderful.

I was surrounded by a society of revolutionaries wielding airline-approved carry-ons and shampoo in 3-ounce bottles. And some of them did, in fact, have violet tresses. Or scarlet. Or blue. Or yellow. Or blond or black or brown or gray. And we were all there for one reason:

To subvert the children.

Matt de la Pena signed a book for my son, even though
neither of them has colored hair.
Every one of us at that conference writes or draws or edits or (even worse) sells subversion. We lure those precious young people, from babes to impressionable teens, into that most dangerous land: Imagination. We write and illustrate them into places where they can explore and think and dream and think and love and think and cry and think and tremble and think and triumph and think and escape and maybe even think some more.

And we do it gladly, with everything we have within us. With or without colored hair.

And the children thank us.

Muchas gracias to everyone who organized SCBWI LA 2013. The speakers were luminous, inspiring, and laugh-out-loud funny. The workshops were enlightening and invigorating. My fellow attendees were friendly and supportive, and it was great to reconnect with old friends and meet new ones. And the party was, well, a party! Congratulations to my wonderful roomie Jean Reagan, who received the Crystal Kite award for her picture book How to Babysit a Grandpa. (And a shout-out to my other roomie extraordinaire, Bobbie Pyron, author of The Ring, A Dog's Way Home, and The Dogs of Winter!)

Now I’m back home in Utah, my purple hair still proclaiming my subversive nature. I am inspired. Stand back, everyone. I have a keyboard in front of me, and I’m not afraid to use it.