First, something which might seem like a naked shameless plug, but which is in fact a plug modestly garbed in news that might be of interest to Black Gate readers. As part of the run-up to the release of Blood of Ambrose, Pyr has put the complete text of a couple of Morlock stories on their “Sample Chapters” blog: “A Book of Silences”, which originally appeared in Black Gate 10, and a new novelette-length sequel, “Fire and Sleet”. Read and enjoy; no salesman will call. Send before midnight.
After several weeks of reviewing Nebula nominees, I was somewhat at a loss in trying to figure out what I should write about this week. Mulling it over, I decided I should publicly commit heresy.
My heterodoxy (not as interesting as it sounds): I believe that adjectives and adverbs are good things. Not just good things, in fact, but essential.
More shocking confessions beyond the jump.
They say it’s always a mistake to have a brilliant writer as a character in your stories, but if you must then you should avoid quoting his brilliant works at all cost, and when I say “they” I really mean “I”, of course.
The most recent example of this in my reading life was the work of Jack McDevitt’s character MacAllister,
the nature of which I have divulged in my previous utterance about which I complained in a previous entry. But one of the things that bothered me most was the scene where (for no plot-relevant reason at all), MacAllister rails against a (non-quoted) writer for writing with “too many adjectives and adverbs.” Nouns and verbs, we are told, “do the heavy lifting.”
It’s all part of the demonization of adjectives and adverbs which seems to go back to Strunk and White (a sacred text to many) and which is, to put it bluntly, crazy and wrong. Even McDevitt couldn’t criticize adjective-usage without using an adjective.
The thing is, adjectives and adverbs aren’t just paint that gets slapped onto a sentence before it gets wheeled out to be seen by the customer; they’re essential to communicate meaning. (“Not” is an adverb, for instance. So you can’t say “Don’t write with adverbs!” without using an adverb, something which should give adverb-haters pause for thought.)
Consider this famous piece of English:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights
Now let’s Strunkify it by striking out the nouns and adjectives:
We hold truths to be: that men are, that they are by their Creator with rights.
A document written in this half-assed way would be incapable of conveying a simple point, much less inspiring a world with the dream of freedom.
How does this apply to fantasy? Here’s an iconic quote from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth
“What great minds lie in the dust,” said Guyal in a low voice. “What gorgeous souls have vanished into the buried ages; what marvelous creatures are lost past the remotest memory… Nevermore will there be the like: now in the last fleeting moments humanity festers, rich as rotten fruit.”
Here’s the same passage, Strunkified:
“Minds lie in the dust,” said Guyal in a voice. “Souls have into the ages; creatures are the memory… Will be the: in the moments humanity festers, as fruit.”
One almost feels as if there’s something missing, here, in spite of all the heavy lifting being done by verbs like “have” and “are”.
But Vance’s style is famously ornate. You couldn’t pull this trick with a writer using a plainer, more direct voice. Could you?
Sure! Here’s a bit I plucked at random from the first chapter of Lord of the Rings:
“I am old, Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed!” he snorted. “Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean.”
Here’s the Strunkified version:
“I am, Gandalf. I do look it but I am to feel it in my heart of hearts.” He snorted. “I feel… if you know what I mean.”
Well, no, Strunky Bilbo, we don’t know what you mean. Without adverbs or adjectives, you just can’t say it.
You certainly can’t make bad writing into good by pouring adjectives and adverbs onto it like syrup over scorched pancakes. But neither can you make bad writing into good just by gutting sentences of their descriptive elements.
The attraction of simple rules in a field as fearfully complex as English style is obvious: they’re simple, easy to internalize. The trouble is, it’s not easy to make a generalization about this kind of evidence which is simple and also true, and the warning about adjectives and adverbs is demonstrably false and will lead in turn to bad writing and ill-tempered exchanges in crit groups.
I searched for years for a style guide which would do what Strunk&White was supposed to do but didn’t. The best one I’ve seen so far is Joseph Williams’ Style: Lesons in Clarity and Grace (which has a streamlined version, Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace).
But I wouldn’t say they’re magic bullets and I’m always interested to hear what other people are using.