March 7, 2012

Insecure Writers Support Group: Confession Time

It's the first Wednesday of the month. Time to confess our insecurities. Here is mine, and if you want to sign up or check out other member posts, GO HERE.

As a relatively new writer who's still finding her voice, I get confused about the rules. And that's mostly because I see people breaking them all the time, even bestselling authors.

What's good and what's bad in the writing world?

First, there's the verb thing: was, were, are and is are bad. They're weak.

In the bestselling I Am Number Four, by Pittacus Lore, the whole first chapter is a monologue littered with weak verbs, "was"ing and "were"ing planted right on the surface for everyone to see. And it didn't bother me. It engaged me. I wanted to know more.

And then the weak adverbs, words ending in "ly" - they're bad, too. Yet JK Rowling of Harry Potter fame used adverbs relentlessly (yes, pun intended). And it didn't bother me. I find her writing cozy and comforting. I actually wonder if adverbs are what makes her writing "cozy," perhaps because they take the edge off of using the harsher, stronger verbs. I don't really know.

Here's my confession: I secretly love adverbs. A terrible weakness, I know.

But in JKR's case, adverbs worked! I wonder if the first 12 publishers she sent her MS to only looked at the abundance of adverbs and rejected it, without taking in the content! I wonder how many times publishers rejected Pittacus Lore's MS because of the "was"s and "were"s, too. They broke the rules. They're bestsellers.  

So when is it okay to employ "weak" writing?

And that begs the question: how can bad writers be bestsellers? And the answer has to be that reading preferences are completely subjective. If you have a good story and tell it well, breaking the rules sort of fall to the wayside.

So I get confused.

In the meantime, I am scared to use the weak "was" and "were" and I tremble ridiculously at the thought of using adverbs!

What are you afraid of?


Miranda Hardy said...

It's the story that matters most. If its good, the writing can suffer and it won't matter a bit to the reader.

Carol Kilgore said...

First tell your story. Then find good critique partners and trust them. Through it all, keep learning.

Thanks for commenting on my blog this week.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hey, Lady Gwen,

Boy, you said a mouthful here. I was struggling with these same issues, with my first novel, which of course, was littered with thousands of adverbs and was's were's .
I LOVE JK Rowlings' writing and she inspired me to write.

Your frustration is totally justified. I love adverbs too. If we are not to use them, why are they apart of our language? They add to the feelings of the story.

I "murdered" most of them in my first book and only use them sparingly ... oops ... there's another one, in my second novel.

I am now using them again where they fit. I almost took out every "was" in my ms', finally figuring out they are needed too.

I guess the key is in the balance. A dance of words that need to flow with the prose.

I hope this helps....

Mary Aalgaard, Play off the Page said...

I think these "weak" methods are more likely to be overused and done in a weak way. A wise teacher once told me that first we need to know the rule, then we'll know how to break it in a way that enhances our writing. Try writing those sentences in a different way and see what happens.

Mary Aalgaard, Play off the Page said...

Came back to click follow and leave my signature.
Play off the Page

Emma said...

I have today, just received 2 nasty reviews from folk who come from the "anti-adverb" brigade. But I also have 12 other reviews from folk who love my style and adored my 'poetic prose'. You just cannot please everybody. I think it depends on the genre as to how much you can get away with. Writing is so much richer with adverbs - as another commenter said - why are they there if not to be used. Go with your instinct!

LindaK said...

Even the word RULES makes me spit! (Not literally - I'm much more ladylike than that!) As a reader I never analyse a text - it's the story I'm after. It's either badly written - which can be for many, many reasons - or it's engrossing or intriguing and I want to read on. I suppose one way of weeding out texts is for editors to do something petty like counting the adverbs. Seems pretty silly to me!

Michele Helene said...

Gwen, don't be confused, write what you want. You'll know that you've reached a new stage in your journey when you follow the rules. And then you'll know you've reached another stage when you understand exactly why to break the rules.

Meanwhile Pittacus Lore - I am number four was written by James Frey and his Fiction Factory. There was a big hoohaa about the book mainly because of the contracts for his ghost writers that many thought were quite unfair. I haven't read his books, but I did read a really bad review by a writer that I respect and therefore gave up on it.

Michelle Pickett said...

I don't think using adverbs is bad. I think using only adverbs is.

As far as breaking the rules...GO FOR IT! Great books are born that way. Find your voice and don't let anyone make you change it.

I look at the "rules" as guidelines - sometimes we need to color outside the lines a little. Besides, they're always changing the rules. :)


farawayeyes said...

I'm afraid of a weak story and thin characters, confusing plot that has holes to swallow Cincinnati. Compared to that a few adverbs and weak verbs are child's play.

Besides, rules were made to be broken. Write your heart, write your best, then edit, edit, edit. Trust your instincts. That's my motto.

Nice to meet you Gwen. Nice space. I'll b back.

Lady Gwen said...

Miranda, I agree. Even if you're not the best writer, the story makes the difference.

Carol, you're right. I'm learning ever so much as time goes by.

Michael, yes, I'm thinking balance is the key.

Mary - that's what's revision is for, right? Thanks for following:)

Emma, I think it does depend on the genre - and nasty reviewers shouldn't be so mean!

Linda, LOL. Counting adverbs is an interesting option for editors. If they add "was" and "were" to their counts, they can weed out the "bad" writers.

Michele Helene, I had NOT heard that bit of gossip. Now I'll have to go look it up:)

Michelle P, I love that metaphor. Now I'm off to color outside the lines. Thanks:)

Farawayeyes, you're right about instincts. Hmmm, so many writers are telling me to break the rules. Interesting. I love it:)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

We just have to know when to break the rules.
And the kid that wrote I Am Number Four was never rejected. He was paid $250 by a "Factory" publisher to write a young adult story. So were hundreds of kids. The person who owns the company selected it and put another name on the book, as part of the contract was the kid was to receive no recognition for his efforts. Sad huh?

Gwen said...

I like adverbs too. And I always get confused about dialog tags and worry I'll get it wrong.

Lady Gwen said...

Alex, that is just sad. I had no idea about this "Factory" publishing idea. You're right - it's totally sad that this kid wrote a bestselling book for $250 and no recognition or anything else. This is the second time I heard this today - I need to go look it up.

Angela Brown said...

Oh my. My MS is "was"-ed crazy. I'm working on the adverb bit too.

I'm coming to understand that stories, not just the writing, draw the readers. And the readers matter, especially in mass :-)

Siv Maria said...

Oh no! There are rules? Who made these rules? If you have a list of them I would like to know because you see I have this incredible desire to break as many rules as I can and get away with it :)

Tricia Clasen said...

Such an interesting post. It's hard not to worry about whether the very things that make you unique as a writer may be the cause of your rejection.

Everyone's had wonderful points about finding the story and the voice and going from there with mechanics.

Jessica Salyer said...

I very new to writing too, but what I want to know is who made the rules? Who say's these things can't be done? Obviously they can if the story is good enough and people choose to look past it. Nice post.

Lady Gwen said...

Gwen, I am constantly editing my dialog tags!

Angela, you're right. We focus so much on the agent/publisher that sometimes I totally forget about the reader!

Siv, I haven't seen an official rules list, but you know "THEY" are watching.

Tricia, yes, the concensus seems to be "story first." I agree:)

Lady Gwen said...

Jessica, we all know "They" made the rules, lol. That's all we know. But just try breaking them and "they're" all over you. But you know JK Rowling laughed all the way to the bank!

Tara Tyler said...

i know what you mean! but i guess
the story and the voice conquer all
and thats when i wonder, is that my weakness? aww!

Sharon Bayliss said...

I used to get mad that bestsellers could get away with things and I couldn't, but I think it's best just to let it go. Life isn't fair. In my first novel, I went overboard on removing "to-be" verbs and other "weak" writing, and it led to some weird sentences and overly sparse writing. This is the rule I use now - I CTRL - F my weak verbs and ask myself, "Is there a better way to say this?" If yes, I change it. If no, I don't. In my opinion, it's not reasonable or possible to not use "to be" verbs at all. They're in the English language for a reason! As for adverbs, I use them as sparingly as possible. I only use one if the meaning is totally lost without the adverb or if I can't express the adverb in a better way.

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

Here's the dirty little secret that the silly little "literary legalists" won't tell you (or maybe they CAN'T tell you because they haven't yet figured it out for themselves)...

None, Nada, Zero, Zippo.

There are only good stories and weak stories; intriguing characters and boring characters.

Anyone who still (mistakenly) believes there are "literary rules" needs only to go to a library and find anything published by...

... e. e. cummings.

Read some of his writings, notice some of his unorthodox punctuation.

Rules are for Imprisoned Artists.

I say, "Do as you will. But hold my interest."

"I learnt you can't go nowhere
When you go by the book.
People all around me earthbound,
I learned how to fly
Upside, downside, outside, sailing on by!"

~ 'Trouble Man' by Waylon Jennings

~ D-FensDogg
'Loyal American Underground'

Sarah Pearson said...

Write me a story I can get lost in, and I won't care what words you use :-)

Clarissa Draper said...

I personally don't mind the passive verbs or the 'ly' adjectives. I think it makes the writing more poetic. Thanks for the post.

Tonja said...

I have finally been convinced, after much agrument and defensiveness to control my adverbs. I think it's not the adverbs that are so offensive to people, just the unnecessary ones. You don't need to say 'smiled happily' - happily is implied - but you do need to say 'smiled menacingly.' I could be wrong

I think children's stories need to be full of adverbs.

Caitlin said...

These are issues I struggle with as well. I don't really mind adverbs and I certainly love throwing them in (admittedly a bit too much) in my writing! I think it can be a struggle to find what some would say is the "perfect" balance. Generally, I think that when it works, it works, and forget the rules.

Also, I've tagged you for the Lucky 7 Meme over at my blog!

C.M.Brown said...

I think readers will enjoy reading your work if it is packed full of engaging content - whether or not you overuse adverbs or not! If they are engaged in the story they are not going to break down the symantics of your writing! Just enjoy what you do and your readers will too!

Deborah Walker said...

There are no rules. Then why do people say there are rules? It's a puzzle.

I don't take account of rules at all. Read your work aloud. If it sounds good to you, keep on doing what you're doing.

If it doesn't sound 'right' I think then you could check to see if you're breaking any rules.

Lady Gwen said...

Tara, that seems to be the general concensus - story and voice first!

Sharon,you're right. You can't eliminate weak verbs - they're there for a reason, right? I've got to lighten up on using them:)

Stephen,"Rules are for Imprisoned Artists" - I love that! I am sooo going to remember it. I like Waylon Jennings, too.

Sarah, that's what everyone is saying (story first) and I am taking it to heart. Thank you:)

Clarissa, I agree! It "ly" words do sound more poetic and cozy, like JKR's writing.

Tonja, yes. I can see when something is implied that you don't need to back it up with anything.

Caitlin,I wonder where all the rules came from when every writer I know is saying, "rules be damned!" LOL! Oooh, what's a lucky meme? I'll be by shortly to check it out.

C.M., exactly. Content first, just like JK Rowling.

Deborah, everyone I talk to say there are no rules, LOL! But I should try reading aloud - I heard Charles Dickens did it:)

Anonymous said...

Great post!

I'm afraid of the passive voice. I'm afraid of telling the reader things, not showing them. I'm afraid of sentence fragments and anything else that the Microsoft Word grammar checker might yell at me for, (unless it's so ridiculously wrong that I can laugh at it.)

And I'm really afraid of describing ANYTHING in a love scene!

Thanks for sharing. Happy March!