“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” ― Mary Harris (Mother) Jones

Archive for October, 2010

Stalking the Wild Adverb

Ah, adverbs. They are so very badly (yep, there’s one now) maligned in modern creative writing courses. To hear some people talk about them, you’d think using them resulted in either a severe case of acne or eternal damnation. Maybe both.

What is an adverb? It’s a word that describes a verb, adjective or even another adverb. They have some perfectly (look, another one!) valid uses and can enhance your writing when properly (okay, I won’t) applied and not overdone.

Where many beginning writers get into trouble is when they use adverbs in dialogue tags instead of a descriptive verb. I suspect this arises more these days because of the opinion in certain quarters that the only acceptable dialogue tag is the Associated Press model. They limit tag verbs to “said,” with an occasional “asked” permitted, although that last would seem a bit redundant given the question mark.

As a result, beginners who are told this is the only way to write (rubbish!) will tack an adverb after the “said.” So, you get ““I hate you!’ Jane said loudly.” instead of ““I hate you!’ shouted Jane.” Can you hear how much stronger the second tag is than the first? And Jane can scream, screech, howl, and each verb carries a different nuance.

Using an adverb in a dialogue tag is an outdated way to write, and in the sixties gave rise to a delightful and challenging word game making “Tom Swifties.” Swifties are named after the young readers’ science fiction adventure series, in which an adverb was included in many dialogue tags.

To make a swiftie, you select an adverb that plays on the dialogue and makes a pun, as in:

“I’ve struck oil,” Tom said crudely.
“Buy me something to drink?” said Tom dryly.
“I collect fairy tales,” said Tom grimly.

Try it—it’s harder than it looks.

But getting back to adverbs, another case where they are used to the point of excess is as qualifiers: obviously, certainly, seemingly, clearly, simply.

Let’s face it, if someone “obviously” does something, it’s—well, obvious. So calling attention to it is redundant. About the only place you can use the word “obviously” is with internal monologue, when your character is talking to herself. Even then, it’s best avoided. Same with the others.

Why?

Adverbs weaken your prose. Observe:

John walked quietly along the corridor, looking quickly from one side to the other. A door just ahead of him opened suddenly.

Let’s replace the adverbs:

John crept along the corridor, glancing from side to side. Just ahead, a door sprang open.

Both say exactly the same thing, but the second passage contains a much more dramatic tone than the first.

So, should you ever use an adverb? Of course, but like hot pepper in your soup you want to use just enough to season your prose. If there’s absolutely (<–!) no other way to express your idea, go ahead and find a great adverb then use it with courage and dedication.

Some Facts about Small Presses

There is a good deal of misinformation on the internet these days about publishing. Much of it focuses on on-demand printing and ebooks, both of which are the foundation of the Zumaya Publications business model. In hope of not having to endlessly repeat myself, I will list some facts that will save both of us time.

1. The publisher is not your enemy. To listen to some people, many of them self-published authors who either gave up after their book was rejected over and over and/or decided they’d make more money doing it themselves, publishers are all crooks who steal the bulk of the sales money and are determined to screw authors any way they can. This is a lie. Not that there aren’t crooked “publishers,” or (more often) people who thought they knew enough to start calling themselves publishers but end up tanking for lack of business skills. However, the publishers I know are in the business because they love books and want to help authors get published.

2. The publisher is not your friend. Since the early days of the independent ebook industry, circa 1996, it was repeated frequently how much more author-friendly they were than the major publishers. This mantra has led to a belief that a small press, whether print or ebook or both, is willing to let an author dictate such things as cover art and editing. Wrong. Publishing is a business, and the publisher is the final authority with regard to how that business operates. If you can’t accept that, then self-publishing is likely a better option.

3. Small presses are desperate for manuscripts, so you can ignore their guidelines. Oh, lordy, I wish. With the exception of ebook-only presses with large monthly publishing schedules, small presses almost always have more queries for submission than they can deal with. They also are nearly always run by a handful of people—sometimes only one person—so they are going to be particularly fussy about having those guidelines followed.

4. Small presses are more willing to accept first-time authors. True. However, that doesn’t mean you can type “the end” and send them your first draft. Or worse, send them the first three chapters of a work in progress. What—do you think they’re going to provide you with a free critique or editing service. Dream on. The standards at small presses are no different from the ones you would apply before approaching an agent or a traditional house. They expect well-written, professionally prepared manuscripts. That means either finding a good critique group or paying someone qualified to edit your work. Your high school English teacher may do a bang-up job correcting your spelling and grammar and punctuation, but unless he or she also teaches creative writing—and maybe not even then—he or she isn’t qualified to edit a manuscript.

5. You don’t need to know grammar and such to be a writer. Right. And you don’t need to go to medical school to be a doctor or take flying lessons to be a pilot. I’m constantly amazed at the number of people who think they can be the next best-selling author without ever mastering the tools and rules of the writing trade. Because it is a trade, people. It’s a job that requires very specific skills that must be learned the same way a musician learns to play the piano—practice. This bit of nonsense is usually accompanied by the belief that as long as the writer has a great story idea, the publisher will take care of editing it into shape. If I ever lay hands on the moron responsible for that misinformation, I will squash him/her between volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

I may add to this list as life progresses, but based on my discussions with other publishers these are the top five. That is, the ones that will get your query or submission deleted or tossed without hesitation. Ignore them at your peril.

The Pleasure of Someone Else’s Book

Avid bibliophiles love first editions. They are willing to pay as much as their bank accounts will bear to acquire them.

I consider myself a bibliophile, too. As much as I enjoy the convenience of ebooks, especially when I’m traveling or waiting in the car while my driver runs an errand, I join with those who love the feel of having a book in hand.

But even if I had the money to spend tracking down and buying first editions of the books that have come to have special meaning to me, I honestly would rather own a copy that belonged to someone who read it. Someone who, perhaps, scribbled their name on the first page, and the date they acquired it. Who made notes in the margins or underlined passages that resonated with them. Or both.

When I was in college, I owned a mass market paperback copy of a book by Bernard Wolfe: Limbo. This was in the middle sixties, as the generation of love and protest emerged from the staid conformity of postwar society. I’d be willing to state that this book was the one that turned me from a reader of speculative fiction into a hardcore fan.

I even, based on having read it, bought a copy of William James’s On the Moral Equivalent of War, which I never actually managed to get through.

Decades–and many, many other books equally thought-provoking–passed, and all I could remember was the title of the book and that it was one of the first that made me look outside the narrow confines of high school and lower middle class existence and see the danger of not asking hard questions. So, in addition to cementing my addiction to speculative fiction, Limbo turned me from a conservative into a progressive.

In other words, it was that one book most avid readers stumble on that literally alters the course of their intellectual life–and sometimes their social one as well.

Several months ago, I was thinking again about the book and did what for some reason had never occurred to me before–I Googled it, and learned both the author’s name and that it is considered in some quarters one of the classics of the genre. (Others are less complimentary, but that, as Mark Twain pointed out, is what makes horse races; and this is one book that can only be appreciated when debated.)

However, the copies I saw advertised online were, as might be expected, somewhat expensive, and I wasn’t sure nostalgia was worth the price.

Then, three years ago I was at ArmadilloCon, a literary SF convention here in Austin I’ve been to annually for ten of the last eleven years. My favorite bookseller, Adventures in Crime and Space, had suffered a setback prior to the convention, and the owner had cleaned out his closet of used books to bolster his offerings. There, in hardcover, was a copy of Limbo.

I tried to persuade myself I didn’t really need it, but when has that ever really worked? When the universe has gone to that much trouble to find something you’re looking for, it’s just arrogant to turn it down.

So, I now own a hardcover, which I’m re-reading with forty years’ experience I didn’t have when I first read it–and finding it just as compelling now as I did then.

But what, to me, is even more fun, is that I know at least one of the people who shared the experience, because he or she (Bootzie is one of those nicknames you can never be quite certain of) inscribed name and purchase date on the first flyleaf. And on the last one and the facing cover are some sketches and numbers that look like prices that make no sense whatever. It doesn’t matter.

This isn’t a book that went from the printing press to a collector’s shelf. This is a book that was read, and perhaps by more than one person, because it ultimately ended up in a used book store. This book has history, and that history gives it something a pristine first edition can never have–personality.

Someone read this book. They may have loved it…or hated it. Perhaps it had the same effect on them it did on me, or maybe they tossed it against the nearest wall in outrage. Either way, like all books that have been ingested, my copy of Limbo carries with it something of all those who turned the pages and absorbed the words and ideas it contains. Reading it, I almost feel as if I’m sharing it with those who preceded me, like a spiritual book club.

So, those who rush to acquire first editions while they’re still warm from the press are welcome to them. I would much rather have a book that’s been read and handled and enjoyed–and carries “memories’ of that on its pages.

Limbo by Bernard Wolfe (1952)

Hello, World!

Especially those parts of it I haven’t had the pleasure of contacting yet. Welcome to my world, which varies from one minute to the next. I make no promises it will always make sense, or even adhere to the laws of physics. I will, from time to time, rant—feel free to disagree, but do so with courtesy. While I like the occasional snark as much as the next person, personal attacks are strictly prohibited and trolls will be fed to the billy goats.