Friday, March 30, 2012

On Writing, rules, and life

This is going to be my last blog post, for a while at least, so as a farewell I decided to condense all of my stored-up wisdom into a crash course in Sarah-thought. The textbook for this course is Stephen King’s On Writing. Don’t worry if you haven’t done the reading; I quote the important parts.

Writers love rules. They give us goals, guidelines for revision, and nits to pick—not to mention fodder for arguments. On Writing has rules about everything from active voice to daily word counts. King advocates pantsing over plotting, though he doesn't acknowledge the level of storytelling genius he brings to that equation. He is a Strunk & White devotee, as every writer should be. Most famously, he admonishes against adverbs and overzealous dialogue tags:

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

If you have a rotten tomato handy, get ready to throw it at me. (That was a metaphor. I am not responsible for damage to your screen.) 

Here goes: I think the occasional adverb can useful. Consider:
Option 1: “I trust your judgment,” he said, but she knew from the tone of his voice and the faraway look in his eyes that he wasn’t really paying attention.
Option 2: “I trust your judgment,” he said absently.
The first is more descriptive, but what if that extra sentence slows down my pacing? I don’t buy the argument that tone can always be inferred from well-crafted dialogue. Sometimes I want a mismatch between what is said and how it’s said. An adverb can handle that problem just fine. You may call it lazy; I call it efficient.

I know better than to argue for an adverb beyond the confines of this post. But while I'm still on my soapbox, I’ve gotta say what’s in my rebel (gangsta) heart: Adverbs are just words, yo.

Mary Sue and Gary Stu's love triangle
has a heartbreak-free resolution,
 and all utterances are adverbial.
Travesty... or delightful classic? 

“To write adverbs is human, to write he said and she said is divine.”

Simplicity in dialogue tags seems as much a fashion as a rule. I just finished reading my well-worn copy of Maysie Greig’s Janice, a pulp romance published in 1932 that elevates creative dialogue attribution to art. The characters are pinnacles of propriety and there isn’t a hint of sex anywhere in the book, yet the male love interest managed to ejaculate twice. That was the only tag that gave me pause, but maybe my reaction says more about loss of innocence than abuse of vocabulary. The book was still a page-turner, still rich with well-crafted detail, and still one of my favorites.

The Heart of the Matter

I may quibble, but all of King’s advice is solid. My real argument is with those who quote his rules of mechanics while ignoring the heart of the book, which is this:
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. […] Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.
Drink and be filled up.”

The Unbreakables

Back to rules. Maybe it’s the beach living, but as I get older I’m becoming one of those free spirits who owns a few too many peasant skirts and tends to say: Rules, schmules. I advocate learning rules only so that breaking them becomes a conscious choice.

Even in my most contrary moods, though, I still think two of King's rules are unbreakable. The first is a practical matter:
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
The second is about finding balance:
“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around."

Moving Furniture 

Sadly, not my actual desk.
I have to say thank you to the wonderful Prosers who invited me here. Thank you for your support, for your friendship, for the chance to have my voice heard. The inspiration I’ve found from your posts is part of what helped me recognize when I was starting to lose my way. When I was getting busy instead of getting happy.

It’s time to push my metaphorical desk into the corner. Writing isn’t the only water that’s free, that sustains me, that’s magic. My five-year-old read Hop on Pop to me the other night. He truly read, and he was so proud of himself. 

During the hour or two I can steal while the kids are in school, I want to focus on finishing a first novel that I might be at least a little bit proud of, starting a sure-to-be-better second novel, and reconnecting with the joy in fiction. But when the school bell rings, my laptop really ought to turn into a pumpkin. 

(Don't worry. You'll find me lurking around these parts after dark, like a vampire...)

With love to Sheena, MaryAnn, Sabrina, Susan, and Melanie. Drink and be filled up.



  1. Sarah that was beautiful, insightful, and funny. All the reasons I'm going to miss your posts so much.

    But I understand the need to put the time into your novel. You are immensely talented, and I just know some day I'll be hunting you down for your autograph. I wish you the best.

    I hope you will lurk around and still share your brilliance in the comments, but still, you will be greatly missed.

    Thanks for all your awesome posts.

    Now on to adverbs. :)

    Adverb dialogue tags are telling, IMO. And telling is allowed at times. But "he said absently" is vague. Is he looking at something else or staring into space? Is he deep in thought or just not interested? Is he trying to watch the game or fingering his cell phone? All these things show us how and why he isn't really paying attention.

    But overall, I agree. Sometimes it is better to tell than to show.

  2. We're going to miss you, Sarah. Especially when I read such an awesome post like this one, and realize how much we are losing with your departure.

    But that said, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE going out to you and your family and your novel(s).

    I agree about the adverbs. Sometimes the best word is the simplest, even if it breaks the rules. Even Steven King uses adverbs, on occasion. I do think thought that adverbs need to fight to be there. I think put in as many adverbs as you want to in the first draft, and then on edits, most of them can go, and it'll tighten up the writing, but a few absolutely can stay.

    I wish you could stay too, :)

  3. Sarah,

    Children really are the absolute most important thing. Thank you for this reminder. I'm going to miss your terrific posts so much! Good luck with your novel. If you ever need a critique, I'd love to do it!

    In a crazy turn of events, the post I'm writing for today--if it ever gets finished (!) relies rather heavily on Stephen King as well. It's amazing how often this happens here on the Prosers, and the only explanation that makes sense is that we are all connected in some cosmic way that won't vanish just because you won't be posting for a while. :)

  4. Thank you so much for your time here, Sarah. I have laughed and cried and ewwwed (the Ratatouille post, yes I'm looking at you) and thoroughly enjoyed every one of your posts.

    With your writing skill, your novel is going to be amazing. I hope you'll keep us posted on its progress. Thanks for being a part of the Prosers (you always will be one, you know!)

  5. Thanks for the well wishes, everyone!

    @MaryAnn, I completely agree about the adverb, especially in a dialogue tag, being a show vs. tell issue (unless it's just plain redundant, which is a different case). I find it nearly impossible to come up with a decent example of when I think showing works better than telling, because it will always depend on the context and the writer's goal for the line in question. Which brings me to...

    @Sheena: Good advice. I love my purple adverb-laden prose on first write. When it comes to deciding whether to keep them, I think about my writing class in which the teacher declared that each adverb cost $20. If you like an adverb enough to put $20 in the class pot, then go for it. If it's not worth $20, it shouldn't be in there.

    @Melanie, of course we're cosmically connected. :)

    @Susan: Thank you for the vote of confidence! I have to say that writing a blog post and writing a novel feel about as related in skills as playing piano and ice skating. (At 36, I've given up hope of developing any sense of physical balance, but I'm still optimistic about my plotting and pacing intuition kicking in.) I will definitely keep you posted!

  6. I put off reading this because I knew it was going to make me sad. If I didn't read it write away, there would still be one more Sarah post waiting for me!

    But as we learned from Star Trek TNG (available on Netflix!), All Good Things Must Come to an End. But hopefully you too will defeat the evil time vortex and get lots of work done on your novel. :)

    Lots of love to you, and as I said in my email, come visit every once in a while. And keep in touch!

    (on dialogue tags: nothing makes me flinch as an editor like He exclaimed! She gasped! He grumbled! all in a row. Adverbs aren't so bad, if used sparingly).


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