Wednesday, March 31, 2010

To boldly split an infinitive

I asked myself a question that spurs most of my researching.  "What the heck is a…?"  In this case, I wanted to know what the heck a split infinitive was.  What indeed.  My next question was, "What makes split infinitives so evil?"
Ironically enough, I wrote a masterful split infinitive in the very forum post that caused me to ask the question to begin with.  I didn't even realize what I had done.

"My goal is to one day, many years down the road, have some of this…"

So, what is a split infinitive?  Heck, I don't even know what an infinitive is let alone how to split it.

Infinitives are the base form of a verb usually proceeded by "to".  Examples:  "to be", "to go" or "to run".
Split infinitives are where you split the "to" from the verb by adding words in between:

"I would like to, eventually, leave this place."
"To leave" is split by "eventually".  A way around this is:

"I eventually would like to leave this place."
So my original example of where I split an infinitive, without even trying, could be rephrased like:

"My goal, one day many years down the road, is to have some of this…"

Now, why are split infinitives so evil?  That's a question that has been under debate for a very long time.  There are good arguments on both sides of that fence.

In simple terms, the split infinitives are evil crowd thinks that the "to" should never be separated from the verb.  It's grammatically incorrect and just plain wrong.  Don't do it.
The pro-split infinitives crowd says that it's not really grammatically incorrect and we only think it's wrong to split it because that's what's been pounded into our heads.  The rule goes back to Latin where it is grammatically incorrect to split an infinitive.  Problem with that line of logic is that in Latin infinitives don't have the equivalent of "to."  So it's impossible to split them, even if you wanted to.
There are other pro/con arguments and I could make this an extremely long and boring post.  Don't worry, I won't do that (at least not more than I usually do).

Where do I stand?  As with the other rules I've been learning, my feeling on the matter is to try not to do it.  It might not be grammatically incorrect, but it is still considered poor style.

However, one of the most famous split infinitives just wouldn't sound the same and the rhythmatic flow would be hurt if it were "fixed."  This is for all my Star Trek geek friends out there!

"To boldly go where no man has gone before."

To go is split by "boldly".  But, it just doesn't sound right and it loses impact any other way:

"Boldly to go where…"

"To go boldly where…"

So yes, avoid them, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The business of show (not tell)

One of the first rules I ever encountered was:
Show, don't tell.
Again, my mind screamed, "What does that mean?!"  Aren't we writing stories and, therefore, telling a story?  So isn't it always telling?
Well apparently not!  Here's what I learned.

Telling is more…well…telling the reader what happened, whereas, showing allows the reader to read it firsthand.  For example:

Telling - John called the sheriff and told him about the crime.
Showing - John picked up the phone and dialed the sheriff.  "Yes, Sheriff?  There's been a crime."
See how the showing example involves more action? It's a boring little detail, but possibly necessary for the plot that John call that sheriff.  They both relay the same message, but the showing version draws the reader in and involves them in the action instead of just telling them about it.
There is quite a debate about show vs. tell.  The theory is that showing is more intense and will draw the reader in.  Telling will just bore the reader to tears.
A fact that I found interesting is that showing didn't really become popular until the early 1900s.  Before that, the standard was to tell.  So what I wonder is, how much of these rules are really just a product of the preferences of the readership at the time?
I was reading a book series where the author just loved to tell everything.  Lots of telling and very little showing.  I love the world and the plots were okay.  However, I had to put the book down several times and nearly stopped reading altogether because the telling got old quick.  The only reason I kept reading was because the world the author created was extremely detailed and my OCD kicked in and I wanted to finish the series.  That and the later books got a little better on that front.
I won't get into a big debate here because that's been done and redone too many times.  My goal for this post is just to point out what Showing/Telling is and to state that it's the preference these days to show and kick tell to the curb.
So, show and NEVER tell.  Of course that gets my brain whirring.  I swear, just use the word "never" and that alone will jumpstart my little brain and get me thinking of examples where telling would be more appropriate.
What if, my brain asks, there's a long passage of time, say a road trip, where nothing really happens, but it's important to know so that the reader knows there's a passage of time, not to mention how they got to be 500 miles from where they started.
How about something like:

The road trip to Phoenix was uneventful.  John and Mary made the trip in record time.

That's definitely telling and, depending on the plot, possibly necessary to the story.  This doesn't bore the reader into a coma with showing scenes of them driving in silence for 500 miles, occasionally stopping for gas and bathroom breaks.  Yes, that's exciting stuff!  Maybe, to really spice things up, they buy Funyuns at one of the gas stations. Perhaps there was a Cheetos vs. Funyuns debate.  Oh boy, now we're talking some action. If we're really lucky, there'll be a showtunes scene.
Yeah, the reader doesn't need to know all that detail.  Who cares if they had Cheetos or Funyuns (or both for that matter)?  It's not necessary to the plot.  It's just extra fluff.
The pro-show side of the audience is now screaming at me.  A counter-argument to this tell example would be to put in a scene break and then show what happened.  Supposedly, this is a dying artform.

John grinned.  "It's decided.  We're going to Phoenix."
(scene break)
John pulled the car into the driveway.  He turned to Mary and said, "Wow, it sure is hot and dry here in Phoenix, but we made that trip in record time."
Mary nodded in his direction, but remained silent, obviously still upset.
John opened the door and stepped out, muttering under his breath.  "I still think Cheetos beats out Funyuns any day of the week."
Okay, so I added a bit of flair to that example.  I couldn't help myself.  It doesn't have to be so cheesy, but it's just an exaggerated example to prove the counter point to the telling point I made previously.

I thought up another example from one of my own works in progress.  I have a scene where the main character goes to the bathroom.  I know she's fictional, but I wanted to give her a little privacy, so I didn't show her actually using the facilities, I told.  I know, I know…put the cuffs on and lock me up in writers prison immediately!  And before you ask, yes it was necessary for the plot that she go to the bathroom.  If you must know, it proves how tight security needed to be and, ironically enough, showed her lack of privacy during that particular time.
The counter point to my point was that just because you show doesn't mean you have to add more words.  It doesn't have to be all purple prose and flowery.  Sometimes simple is better.

So instead of the several sentences I used to tell about the process, I could have just written something like:

"I'll be right out here if you need anything."  Denny's voice came from the other room, the open bathroom door affording little privacy.  Her sister stood in the doorway, in view of them both.
Under her sister's watchful eye, Kat attempted to go about her daily bathroom routine without being too self-conscious.  Geez, does everyone need to see me pee?
Believe it or not, this version is quite a bit more concise than my telling version.  The above example is showing and it's actually a lot less verbiage.  Okay, okay, there is a little bit of telling still in there, but it's much less than before.

So…maybe there's something to this whole show, don't tell thing.  Just don't tell the pro-show people that.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Series Review: The Southern Vampire Mysteries (Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries)

And here we are, back to vampires again.  Be honest, you knew we'd end up here, didn't you?  Yes, this is a review about another very popular universe that revolves around vampires, weres and shifters.  It was made popular by the hit series True Blood, which has been taking one season per book.  Of course, they have their own interpretation of things and there are some significant differences.
This is a series that has several books is still ongoing.  It's written by Charlaine Harris (  I believe Charlaine Harris has a three book deal in the Sookie Stackhouse series on top of a new installment that's coming out in May.  She also has a couple other popular mystery series.
Overview: There's way too many books to go into detail about them all, so I'll just do an overview.  There are a couple things that irk me about this series.  Why don't we get those out of the way up front? Actually, I have a few other bones to pick, but they include spoilers.  I'll do a spoiler's section at the end to include those.  Here are the non-spoiler irking parts:
1. – There are TONS of inconsistencies.  For example, in the first book Bill had 5 kids and was turned into a vampire in 1871.  In another book he dropped a few kids and had only 2 and was turned in 1869.  Finally, in a third book he was turned in 1868 (but he still had 2 kids).  Stuff like that just bugs me.  I notice it and it detracts from the story because my brain cells won't let it go.  However, most of them are inconsequential to the actual plot.  It's usually passing comments.
2. – I had a hard time with the author's writing style.  Let it be known now that I'm not a big "southern mystery" kind of person.  So some of this is completely personal preference.  However, I found it hard to get immersed in the books because of the writing style.  Once I was able to get into it, I found the style humorous and quirky, but it took a bit of effort to get to that point.
3. – This is yet another case where the whole love triangle is stretched out WAY too long.  Just make a decision already!  Even if the decision is to ditch them all and start over, at least it's a decision.  And I use the world "triangle" loosely.  There's the main triangle between Bill and Eric, but there's a few love interests hanging out there on the outer edges.  In later books, there's a third (I won't spoil it).  Yeah, I know you've got to make the suspense last.  I can rattle off quite a few series that died as soon as the tension between the main characters was gone, but that just means you've got to come up with something else to keep our attention and stop using the same old plot devices over and over and over.

Okay, now that that's over, what about the good parts?
1. – I love this world that the author built.  It's extremely detailed and even through all the inconsistencies, she sticks to the rules of her own universe.  I like that a lot!
2. – The characters are complex.  They aren't just good or bad, they're a combination.
3. – The plots aren't as obvious as some mystery series, but are a bit on the obvious side.  Even so, there were a few plot twists that had me yelling, "No way!"
4. – She's not afraid to kill off characters.  This is both good and bad.  I like the boldness of an author that isn't afraid to kill characters off.  It means that all bets are off and anyone can bite it at any point.  You don't always know what's going to happen because it's not necessarily always going to be a happy ending.  I do dislike, however, when we've grown attached to a character that has been the focus of our attention for awhile and then BAM they're killed.  Especially when we don't even read about it.  It's more of a passing comment, "Oh yeah, so-and-so got killed.  It was horrible."  "Oh, that's a shame.  What are we doing for lunch?"  Wait! What?  Go back!  This happens a couple of times in the series.
5. – The writing is quirky and humorous.  Yes, I listed this as a negative just a few minutes ago, but it's also a positive for me.  There were quite a few times where I caught myself chuckling out loud.  Her books have a definite unique quality to them.  You'll either love it or hate it.

Here's a listing of the books in order to date.  Note that I am not including short stories/novellas except for the compilation that was published in October of 2009:

Dead Until Dark – 2001
Living Dead in Dallas – 2002
Club Dead – 2003
Dead to the World – 2004
Dead as a Doornail – 2005
Definitely Dead – 2006
All Together Dead – 2007
From Dead to Worse – 2008
Dead and Gone – 2009
A Touch of Dead – October 2009 (a complication of all the short stories)
Dead in the Family – May 2010

A lot of readers were complaining that the later books were darker and just plain different.  This is a complaint I see of a lot of series and it's usually true.  I would say that they are different and darker, but that the characters have grown and evolved.  If they hadn't changed, the series would have gotten stale by now.  Sookie goes through very big changes in her life and she deals with them.  She learns and grows and moves on.  Therefore the series grows and moves on too.
That said, there were a few times where I wanted to scream at Sookie for something stupid she did.  Then, the latest book, Dead and Gone is extremely violent, bloody, and dark.  This particular book turned quite a few people off.  I was okay with it and it's actually one of my favorites, but I'm weird like that.
Conclusion:  It is a good series, but it isn't for everyone.  Maybe read a few of the short stories to see if it's for you.

Now…huge ****SPOILERS**** alert from here on out (and a bit of just random ranting...okay a lot of ranting):

Okay, for those of you who are True Blood fans, you might not like what I have to say.  The TV Bill Compton and the Book Bill Compton are two very different people/vampires.  What I'm going to go off on is the Book version.  As you'll see, I'm am not a Bill fan.
Bill and Sookie broke up early on in book three.  Ever since, it's been one long love triangle with Eric and then Quinn and Bill trying to win her back in some fashion or other.  Sam is just never going to get a girlfriend, especially not Sookie.
When people refer to Bill as a southern gentleman, I want to scream.  He is under no circumstances a gentleman.  Never was, even in the first book.  Just because someone opens a door for a lady, doesn't make them a gentleman.

Why do I have such hatred for Bill?  There are five reasons:

1. – He cheated on her
2. – When she saved his ass, he raped her and nearly killed her.
3. – When they were broke up he purposely flaunted his new girlfriend in front of her when he knew she could hear what the new girlfriend was thinking.  He pit them against each other purposely.  It was very hurtful and spiteful.
4. – While he had another girlfriend, he tried to cheat on that girlfriend with Sookie.  Once a cheater, always a cheater.
5. – He lied to her from the very beginning.  He was sent by the Queen to seduce her from the very start.  He felt it was "beneath him" to shack up with a mere human and wouldn't have done so otherwise.

Okay, #1 I can over look because he was "compelled" by his maker.  Supposedly no one can resist their maker.  Whatever…
#2 I can almost overlook too, because he was so starved and had been tortured.  He wasn't in his right mind.  He's a vampire, he's going to want blood and when they drink a sexual instinct kicks in.  So even after all that, I still had a secret wish that Bill and Sookie would hook up again.
#3, 4, and 5 was it.  I'd had it with Bill.  Now all he does is lurk outside Sookie's house and a very creepy way.

Now, I'm obviously not on Team Bill, but whose team am I on?  I'm SOOOOO on Team Quinn.  When she broke up with him I was shocked at her reasons.  That was such a bitchy and selfish move.  It was very unlike her and it did make me take a step back and re-evaluate the series.  The author must have realized it because in the next book Sookie wonders about her decision.
Where does that leave Eric?  I absolutely adore Eric.  I think he's fabulous.  Who else would don hot pants and a pink tank top and pretend to be gay to help Sookie save the day?  It also doesn't hurt that he's been described as having 1,000 years to perfect his kissing/love-making skills and that he makes love like a freight train going through a tunnel.  I really really really want the author to explore Eric's feelings for Sookie more.  Both he and Pam are my favorite characters of the series.  (Pam rocks!)
I know what you are thinking.  You're thinking I just said I was Team Quinn and then I gush about Eric.  What gives?  Eric is great and all that, but he's a vampire and Sookie has made him promise to never change her.  It just won't work out down the road. As hot as it might be, it's a relationship that's doomed to fail.
Quinn, on the other hand, is exactly what she needs.  He's also huge and can protect her since she seems to be a danger magnet.  In my humble opinion, when she's done diddling with Eric, she needs to invest some major time with Quinn.  Hopefully he'll take her back.

Finally, for those who like to compare Bill Compton to Twilight's Edward Cullen, here's the main difference:

Edward Cullen – "No, you mustn't come near me.  I'm a monster."  *dramatically turns away with a sob*

Bill Compton – "Yep.  I'm a monster.  Let's go have sex."  *turns on the Jacuzzi*

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The blog was written in the passive voice...

Active voice vs. passive voice is one of those things that I'd heard bantered about, but never truly understood.  I gathered that it was a way of writing and that it was preferable to write actively as opposed to passively.  That's about as far as I ever got.

According to Wiki:

The passive voice is a grammatical voice in which the subject receives the action of a transitive verb. Passive voice emphasizes the process rather than who is performing the action.

But what does that mean?  I didn't really know.  So I did a little homework and found out that active voice is when someone does something to something.  Passive is when something happens to something else, possibly by someone.  And yes, there is a difference!  Examples:

Active – John picked up the paper
Passive – The paper was picked up (by John – optional)

Notice how when using the active voice, John is the subject.  John is doing something to something.  It's direct.  He picked up the paper.  The sentence revolves around John and what he's doing.  Go John!
When switching to passive, the paper is now the subject.  Something is happening to the paper.  The paper isn't doing anything.  It's just sitting there waiting for something to happen to it.  John is optional at this point.  Who needs John anyway?

Passive voice is used more in business and/or scientific papers.  Like when writing about a reaction to some chemical interacting with another, example:

Active - Charlie poured the chemical over the other, causing a reaction.  (Charlie is causing the reaction by pouring)
Passive – Chemical A was poured over Chemical B, causing a reaction. (Now it's Chemical A's fault that Chemical B reacted)

In the above example, the chemicals and their reactions have more significance than who actually poured one over the other, so poor Charlie being left out is probably a good thing in the scientific world.  Here it would be better to go with passive voice.
There are many more examples where passive is used, but I'm going to try to stick to fiction.

Speaking of fiction, it's usually better to go with the active voice.  Most stories are character driven to an extent.  Switching to passive voice keeps focus on objects and away from the characters and what they are doing.  Example:

Active – John picked up the lamp and threw it against the wall.
Passive – The lamp was picked up and thrown against the wall (by John – optional).

The active example is very violent.  We can tell that John is mad about something and taking out his frustrations on the innocent lamp.  (We've shown he's angry without having to say so, but more on that in future posts!) The focus is on John and his actions.  The lamp is secondary.  It could have been anything that John happened to be close to.  Just happened to be a lamp.
The passive example loses some of its umph.  We don't really get that John was upset, but more that the lamp got smashed to smithereens.  It's all about the lamp.  The fact that John threw it is inconsequential.  In essence, you just took a possible main character and made him take backstage to a lamp.  Must be some lamp! Maybe it's Tiffany's…

So, passive is bad, very bad.  Must never write in the passive voice! Never ever!

This is where my brain started whirring like it usually does when I hear the word "Never".  As a story teller, what if you WANT the focus to be on the lamp?  What if John IS inconsequential?
What if Mary owns the lamp and it's her most prized possession?  John is just some random guy who happens to be there and we're never going to see him again.  He doesn't even have any lines!  He just comes in and smashes the lamp and leaves Mary heartbroken.  In this case the lamp really is more important than John in the grand scheme of things.  Who cares about John and his anger management issues when Mary's priceless lamp has been smashed?!

It brings me back to the infamous example:

Active – The car struck the child.
Passive – The child was struck by the car.

Which is more important?  The car or the child?  On which do you want to put more emphasis?  I'm sure if you were the child or a parent then you'd put more emphasis on the passive version.  Even though it's passive, it's more emotional and dramatic.

So how do you go about finding out if you are using passive voice?  There's always going to be a form of the "to be" verb.  Examples:

The lamp was thrown
The lamp will be thrown
The lamp is being thrown
The lamp had been thrown
The lamps were thrown
The lamps have been thrown

If you are writing in the past tense, do a search for "was".  A lot of times, you'll find some passive voice strewn in the midst if you find "was".

Now, here's what I really learned.  There's nothing wrong with passive voice.  It's grammatically correct and as long as you use it correctly, it's fine.
However…same as with 'ly adverbs, you can do better.  Let's take a few of the examples above and rewrite them, but keep the same meaning:

The lamp was thrown against the wall.

What do we really want to point out here?  We want to point out that Mary's prized lamp is being smashed.  So why are we focusing on the lamp again?  Don't we really want to focus on Mary's feelings?

Mary watched in horror as John threw her prized lamp against the wall.

Or even the less flowery/purple prose version:

Mary watched her lamp hit the wall.

How about:

The child was struck by the car.

The child's face filled with terror as the car's tires screeched on the pavement in an attempt to stop in time.

Or the even less flowery/purple prose version:

The child went limp as the car hit her.

Either example, the direct one or the purple prose version brings more to the story than what the passive example brought.  Focus was brought back to the main character and how they were feeling/reacting.  Each example was more dramatic and descriptive.

Long story short, passive isn't evil, but just because it's not evil doesn't mean it can't be rewritten into something even better.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Series Review: The Riftwar Saga

Just to prove that I read more than just paranormal romance and trashy vampire novels (I do, honest!), this review is going to be about Raymond Feist's Riftwar Saga (  Okay, so if it wasn't about vampires or werewolves, you knew it had to have at least one dragon in it to pique my interest.
I have actually read this series twice over my lifetime and am severely tempted to make it a third.  Before I knew anything about that Tolkien guy or anything about some silly ring, I was reading about Pug, Tomas and Princess Carline (and later Lyam, Aurtha, Jimmy and Princess Anita).
It was the first fantasy series I'd ever read and it sparked my interest in not only reading but writing.  I wasn't the only one.  The popular series has spawned comic books, video games and is still in print 25 years later.
Series Overview:  The series is very multi-dimensional.  Yes, there are actual dimensional portals, but it also spans many times and over several cultures of the worlds it describes.  There's magic, dragons, elves, evil dragon riders and a whole lot more.
The main premise is that there are two worlds joined by a rift.  One world wants to take over the other, but because of the rifts, it's attracted an old evil that could destroy them all.  Only the power learned from both worlds and a young magician will save them.

Magician – 1982 (Later republished as two separate books Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master)
The story starts in the world of Midkemia.  Pug and Tomas are young boys, Pug working in the kitchen and Tomas aspiring to be a squire.  Pug is chosen to become a magician, taught by Dulgan.  As the rifts become known to the inhabitants of Midkemia, Pug gets taken to the other side and is enslaved.  Taken from all he knows, he finds his own way in a strange land.
This is Pug's story and my favorite of the series.  He grows from a kitchen boy to a man. It shows his growth as a person, as well as in the magical realms.

Silverthorn – 1985
Pug wasn't the only one that was busy.  There were lots of other plots going on while he was off learning all that magic stuff.  This part of the series picks up back in Midkemia.
In this book we learn more of the underbelly of all the political intrigue.  We see more of Jimmy the Hand and learn more about the Mockers, a society of thieves.
Also, at its heart, it's a love story.  Prince Aurtha is to marry Princess Anita.  She's poisoned and the only cure is Silverthorn.  The prince will do anything to save his beloved, even risk his life.

Darkness at Sethanon – 1986
This is the culmination of the previous books. All the rifts and world jumping has beckoned true evil that will destroy both worlds, an ancient evil that will swallow them all whole.  Everyone returns in this all star cast to battle for their existence.

Other Thoughts:  I loved this series.  There's a little something for everyone.  Magic, politics, vortexes, knights, elves, pirates and even a dragon.  What's not to like?
Okay, there are spots where the author slows down and feels the need to describe every tiny little detail.  I will admit, this annoys me and there were times when it felt like a strain to get past certain parts.
However, I found myself always rewarded for sticking with it by once again getting sucked into the world after the describing was done.
This was truly my only gripe.  The plot made sense (for their world) and I never questioned where they were or what they were doing.  And for a highly complex plot(s) such as this, that's quite impressive.
I love maps, and having a map of Midkemia and having the author stick to that map was wonderful.  He threw out all the names of cities and areas just as a character would think of them, but because the reader never heard of it before, it was handy to have a reference.  Of course the character wouldn't question what the capital was, but the reader sure would.

Conclusion:  If you like fantasy, then why haven't you read this yet?  It is definitely worth the read.  I can't vouch for his other work.  He has a couple other series based in the same world with some of the same characters as well as series on completely different worlds, but the Riftwar Saga is special.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

'ly Adverbs/Adjectives. Are they really so bad?

Two things happened that sparked my curiosity about this little guideline.
  1. Someone critiqued a story of mine and mentioned that I should get rid of an “ly” word.
  2. I was lurking on some writer’s forums and they were joking about using “ly” adverbs.
My initial thought was, “Is it bad grammar to use ‘ly words?” That didn’t make sense to me. Why have the words if it’s incorrect to use them?

Faced with a puzzle, my interest only grew from there. I did a web search and ran across several grammarians who are adamantly against using these infamous ‘ly words in fiction.

The information on the websites boiled down to the fact that they are NOT incorrect grammatically. It IS considered bad writing to use them, in fiction especially. They are perfectly acceptable in the eyes of those grammar police out there. However, the thought is that adverbs and adjectives are superfluous and detract from the verb or noun that they are attempting to enhance.

I read many examples and many arguments for and against. I thought back to my own writing and realized I have a nice big smattering of ‘ly adverbs/adjectives throughout. But still, what’s so bad about them if used properly? Many published and famous authors use them profusely.

The main arguments against are:
  • They are usually redundant and because of that redundancy, detracts from the potency of the point you were trying to make in the first place.

    Example: He angrily stomped away.

    Okay, so he’s stomping, and typically when someone is stomping, it is implied that they are angry. The ‘angrily’ is an extra word that’s not necessary.

  • They take away the strength of the verb they are trying to enhance and usually only create more vagueness.

    Example: He quickly ran away.

    How quick is quickly? Is he Olympic dash quick or need to pace yourself for a marathon quick? The word ‘ran’ already implies that he’s moving quickly. Actually adding the word ‘quickly’ brings more questions and vagueness. Other verbs could be used here that would add more description and meaning. Like, “He rushed away,” “He hurried away,” “He ran away so fast that he broke the speed limit.”

  • It’s considered poor writing. Now this is the one that got me thinking. I can see the points of the other two arguments, but I could also see using ‘ly words that would add more description instead of detracting from the sentence. How is it considered bad writing?

Mulling all these points over, I went back to the first paragraph in my book. Sure enough, the second sentence had one of those little buggars in it.
“She had just woke up to find herself tied to a chair in an old, dimly lit basement that smelled like gym socks.”
Still not completely understanding why I needed to, I thought about how to go about rewriting this. I tried many different things in my head. After all, ‘dimly lit’ is not redundant. It’s simply explaining that it’s actually not very well lighted. I don’t care about the potency of ‘lit’ because the room isn’t really lit.

I toyed with the sentence and tried out a few rewrites:

Taking out the ‘ly word - “…old, lit basement…” But it isn’t a lit basement. It’s not dark, but it’s not bright either. This implies that it’s bright. No good.

Leaving the ‘ly word without the ‘ly and taking out the word it enhanced – “…old, dim basement…” This just didn’t sound right to me. Yeah, it was accurate in describing the basement, but it just didn’t flow for me.

Changing the sentence completely – “She had just woke up to find herself tied to a chair in an old basement that smelled like gym socks. A fluorescent light flickered above, casting the room in intermittent darkness…”

…And that’s when the lightbulb in my head came on. I had my “ah ha!” moment and complete understanding hit me.

It’s not that it’s bad grammar or poor writing. It’s that you can do so much better. Yeah, I can use “dimly lit basement”, but, with a little more effort, I created a sentence that was so much more descriptive and hands down better (yeah, it still needs work in other areas, but that's for the next post!). I still got my point across and my writing was drastically improved.

So is it wrong to use ‘ly adverbs/adjectives? No. Is it better to not use them? Yes. I know it’s hard if you’re like me and used to using them all the time, but my writing is leaps and bounds better when I don’t use them.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s very hard to not use them. I actually have to use my brain and think of better, more accurate verbs (i.e. "He gripped" instead of "He tightly held"). I have to stretch myself. But then, isn’t that the point? I did want to be a better writer. The exercise of tossing all those ‘ly adverbs/adjectives definitely helps me towards that goal.

Now, every time I run across a ‘ly adverb/adjective, I think to myself, “You can do so much better than that.” And I can.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Rules? There Are Rules?

I'd been plugging away at now two, not just one, novel.  My mind was reeling with plot lines and characters and all sorts of fantastical things.  It's probably the most fun I've had in quite some time.  It was extremely easy to get sucked into these other worlds my mind thought up.
So, it was with a bit of reluctance that I started to research more about the techniques, styles and rules of writing.  I wanted to write, not study about writing! 
My biggest fears regarding writing were that I hadn't known grammatical rules and that I was breaking them all over the place and not even aware of it.  This was the fear that I was determined to overcome with education.  Having been self taught with most things in my life, I viewed this as no different.
I viewed it as a challenge and I hit it head on.  Not even knowing where to start, I stumbled across several websites.  A few were helpful, many were not.  Finally, my fingers clicked across The Critique Circle website.  Everything until then had been just words and definitions, most of which still didn't make sense to me even after reading it several times over.  I was truly a beginner.
I joined this new website I had found and proceeded to lurk in a manner that would impress any industrious forum troll.  It was here, among other ordinary people who had similar questions, that I started to finally understand what I was missing.
It wasn't that I didn't know the rules of grammar.  Actually, I did and quite well.  I just didn't know the terms.  The mere mention of participles, modifiers and compound phrases sent me running for the hills in fear, when I really knew what they were, at least in the abstract.
What I didn't know, and still have a hard time with, were the writing rules.  When I started writing, in my mind if it was grammatically correct, then that's all that mattered.  Turns out there's a whole world of rules and guidelines that have very little to do with grammar.  This revelation opened my eyes quite a bit. 
One of the first rules I came across was not using adverbs.  My logical side wanted to buck the system.  Why have words if you shouldn't use them?  That just didn't make sense to me.  And what the heck is passive voice and why shouldn't I use it?  Showing?  Telling? 
I quickly gathered more terms that I feared.
Gathering what courage I could muster, I dived in and have since wrapped my brain around quite of few of these rules.  Although, I still want to call them guidelines rather than rules.  To me, the word rule implies no deviance at all.  In reality, authors deviate from these rules all the time, some successful and some not.  What I have realized is that the rules/guidelines are there for a reason, many of them good reasons.  They are there to strengthen and enhance writing by not letting writers get lazy.  By following some of these rules/guidelines in my own writing, I've made my writing better by leaps and bounds if only because it made me think. They gave me a fresh perspective when looking at my writing and allowed me to grow.
Over the next week or two, I'll go over a few of these rules/guidelines that  learned and accepted.  Some of them include: 
  • Use of Adverbs/Adjectives (especially the dreaded 'ly' ones).
  • Using active vs. passive voice.
  • Showing and not telling.
  • Using tags in dialogue.
  • Split infinitives (this falls a bit more into the grammar side of things. It's still a big debate, but it came up while I was doing this other research.  So here it shall remain!)