The Three Real Problems with Adverbs

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Ever hear that you should avoid adverbs like the plague? This post reveals what simple, solvable issues lurk behind that warning. The warning pertains frequently and apart from modified dialogue attribution, which just presents a special case of the broader issues discussed here.  Most websites focus on just the dialogue issue. So, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better explication of the basic problems at the root of all problematic adverbial modification. Other websites don’t even explain that there is more than one problem.

 

 

 

The Three Real Problems with Adverbs

 

 

 

Other sites and blogs do not do a good job of explaining how the use of adverbs can lead to poor writing. Most frequently, they focus on the modification of speech tags, e.g. ‘he said,’ ‘she said,’, ‘Satan said’, et cetera. Instead of using “she said angrily,” the other websites advise, write “she said”, but show that she is angry through description. Unfortunately folks, that is about as far as the good advice usually goes, and, when the advice goes further and from good to bad, the problems that I delineate below are conflated or run together, if they are even covered at all.

Unlike the other websites that discuss the issue of adverbial atrocities, I will not discuss the modification of speech tags. Rather, I will discuss the universal problems that this speech tag issue can be subsumed under, itself being part and parcel to broader mistakes that make prose more generally unsavory at the levels of sentence and paragraph.

Notice that I say “problems [of adverbs],” plural, and not “problem [etc.]”.  

I could have simply named this post “Some Adverbial Problems”, because–like my chosen title implies–(a) there is not just one problem with using adverbs in your fiction, but–unlike my chosen title implies–(b) there is not always a problem with using adverbs in your fiction.

[Why, clauses (a) & (b) make use of the adverbial phrase “in your fiction”, and that use is purely innocent. So, without further argument, we can tell that (b) is true.]

However, were I to have used a less leading title, this post wouldn’t show up in search-engine results as well as it does, and then you wouldn’t as easily come to understand what can make adverbs awful choices, at least beyond the issue as it crops up in dialogue attribution.

To be clear, this blog post is about explicating (a): articulating how adverbs can fail both the writer and the reader. The future will bring an explication of (b). Now, to the badass business of improving your work.

 

There are three major problems with using adverbs in fiction:

 

  1. Overlooking stronger verbs: Verbosity
  2. Including Superfluous or Redundant Information
  3. Distancing the Reader & Imprecision: Failing to communicate character traits, behaviors, and behavioral dispositions

 

Sometimes the best way to teach, like the “best” way to write fiction, is to show rather than tell.

Thus, let us consider the two following sentences:

 

“So, I moved sneakily into my naked sister’s room and closed her door quietly”

“So, I snuck into my naked sister’s room and closed her door.”

 

(1) Verbosity

 

Notice that the second sentence is shorter than the first. Verbosity is constituted by using more words or modifiers than you need to get your message across. For the most part, the fewer adverbs you use, the greater your concision will be.

Out of context, extra information in verbose sentences can seem more important than it really is. For example, “closing a door quietly” imparts more information than “closing a door”. However, in context, the extra information will often be superfluous or redundant, especially in fiction.

 

(2) Redundancy  

 

Suppose the following came before our dummy sentence(s).

My balls ache. I remembered what she told my friends. My sister, she said she likes to be naked after a shower. Oh, and her panties smell so sweet. She’d left them in the haul. Started showering. I stood there and smelled them. If only I could see her, I thought.  

If I could hide in her closet, then maybe I would. But I’d have to be quiet. I looked down the hall. Fuck, her door is closed. Bet she did that on purpose. I hope it isn’t locked.  The sound of water stopped.

I had to move.”

We can see how the adverbs can impart superfluous or redundant information.

You cannot sneak without moving, so “moved sneakily” is, in a sense, already redundant. But since the ending of “I had to move” implies that the “protagonist” moved or would move, the adverb makes the whole verb phrase (verb + modifier)—“moved sneakily”—partially redundant. Similarly, we already know the protagonist is going to be shut the door quietly if he’s going to shut it at all.

 

(3) Distancing the reader & imprecision.

 

Let’s use another comparison set:

“I looked at my sister avidly”

“I stared”

 

How does my “protagonist” do things avidly? The same way you imagine him to?

Perhaps, I envisage a boy who blinks a lot so his eyes don’t dry out. Perhaps, I want you to see a person whose attention is so rapt that he drools.  You probably just thought of a person with relatively stable attentive and visual acuity, i.e. a steady, unyielding gaze.

Like anger, keenness is expressed in different ways by different people. Some people’s angry voices are quiet and seething. Other’s angry voices are loud and raucous. Similarly, some people’s keenness is other’s mild interest, and keenness can look like an amped up, methed out, tweaker circus of an ADHD person’s repeated return of attention to an object of visual interest. (Oof, not only adverbs can make for verbosity!)

Here’s another example:

Jenny gives Jon fleeting glances when she looks at him angrily. But Jon might give Jenny a penetrating and unbroken eye in angry return.

The point is that adverbs tend not to cut between these sorts of distinctions/differences, and your reader may not be hearing, seeing, or understanding all that you would like to be taken in. Across the length of your work, what you communicate and your reader envisions can grow increasingly disparate.

So, adverbs are not always the most precise tools for communicating your heinous fictions.  

These three problems—the ones we’ve been discussing—crop up most frequently, and most noticeably, when we modify simple, humdrum verbs with simple, humdrum adverbs . This is fortunate because gross mistakes will be easy to catch, but if Stephen King is right, then using adverbs, even good ones, can become habitual, and that is when adverbial problems are most likely to be endemic and rampant. So, seller beware, for buyers of horror fiction are ever wary of wearying work.

Look back to NateSladeIt.com in the future, we’ll explore how to turn your adverbs from terrible to terrifying. In short, we will see how adverbs can be just what the shrink ordered.  

The Back Mile

The Back Mile

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An unhinged scientist hungers for reason. But reason provides strange nutriment. Want to hazard your own moral sanity?

Read how they feed.

 

 

 

The Back Mile

by Nate Slade

 

Hunter’s tawny curls blew in the gentle evening breeze as he proceeded down the gravel road. The familiar light of a red sunset painted his skin with rust. Only the rust was deeper this evening, and the road seemed new and perilous.

Hunter paused.

He stretched his frame and the jaunty angles of his bones popped out in stark relief against the soil at his feet, which danced as with shadows of the many skins he’d stretched over different frames.

Hunter was a scientist, specifically an osteologist, but he’d left urban sprawl behind to strew traps throughout the quieter quarters of Northern Minnesota. He hadn’t bothered to purchase much more than a couple back forties abutting a nameless wooded lane. In truth, he was more attracted to the seller than the sold, and he hadn’t yet known what he was going to do with himself when he—or, rather, “Roth Frode”—made the purchase. So, he mostly trapped public land, his own not being enough to live by.

Hunter continued.

Trapping was hard work, and he didn’t have time much for thinking while he earned his keep. So evenings were reserved for that: working out the kinks in his legs and just what he thought about everything.

Hunter picked up his pace.

Walking this road had the same effect on just what he thought as a grader has on the very road he was walking: it gets things on the level, but, boy, it sure gets them rough and soft, like the earthy counterparts of a spoiled carcass.

Guess bad ideas make good soil, too.

Sometimes the county takes forever to come maintain the back mile, but that makes the treatment all the more appreciated. And Hunter felt much obliged that he’d finally gotten some work done. The last few evenings made a good deal of fertilizer.

It all started when he accidentally licked his fingers after skinning some coons; the blood reminded him of sunset, and the way their bones jutted through the meat, well, it just struck him as beautiful. Not least, they also called to mind his lovely collection of skeletons, some human.

Once a bone man, always a bone man.

Alas, his collection was like the country beauty at end of the lane, perfect in outline, but a little flabby around the middle.

Fact is, my collection’s actually a little spare around the middle.

(Might be that they could both improve now that she’d sold him the land.)

Anyhow, Hunter got to thinking about values. Who’s actually established that the sunset is nice, but the bones aren’t, say, once you brush off the flies? No one! Not in any journal he’d ever read, anyway. Who’s to say, then, that there is any more beauty in a sunset than there is in the dark recesses of life’s flesh, e.g., where bones hide?

No evidence, no precedence.

Then Hunter really got to thinking; he’d out the truth like he had so many white trinkets over the years.

Who’s to say there is any genuine beauty at all? Bones are facts. Sunsets are facts (even though you can’t pick them up and arrange them however you please; you could maybe even taste them, however, if you licked your fingertips at an “inappropriate” time). Beauty isn’t in them any more than flesh is in the bone—less so, in fact, because bones at least have marrow.

“Ahyuk,” he laughed.

Later, Hunter set his trapper-pack down and he could taste something like blood in the dust churned from the iron range’s rufous dirt. The dust wouldn’t handle the elemental requirements of a healthy diet, but that was okay.

Blut und Eisen.

He let out another yawp as he rested. Here he was, almost out of sorts, like he was all laid up. It was more work walking a freshly churned road, more work than usual, and it’s no less work cleaving to the truth. He enjoyed cleaving to it like a boning knife through diseased flesh, but age was starting to betray that not all truth has the luster of crystallized calcium. Funny how compasses don’t always work after a good grading, he thought and then re-shouldered his pack.  Funny, too, how a little extra weight can slow an old fellow. He felt better and laughed again before continuing.

Hunter moseyed down the road and wondered into twilight whether moral compasses ever work. His own private road had been resurfaced, after all, and he valued reliability. Yet he concluded that navigation was a matter of destination, and he could resign himself to past destinations, compasses be damned for not telling him which to pick. In any case, his nameless lane led where he wanted. His clothes were sopping from what was supposed to be a nice jaunt. He smelled bad. Taking a nice, relaxing shower just seemed more sensible than worrying about things you can’t see, things that are ever in the dark. His road led in a sensible direction. Of that much he was sure. It would get him where he was going.

Hunter made it home well past nightfall, put reason to bed after washing, and dreamed of the world’s framework. He woke early, ready for a new day, and stretched his own. As per usual, the day demanded that he stretch more than that—but, with the taste of sunset still in his mouth, he was eager to finish last evening’s job.

Fact is, it’s always nice to see a good woman trim up a bit.

Call it breakfast.

Memorial Cast in Silver Space

Memorial Cast in Silver Space

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Memorial Cast in Silver Space

by Nate Slade

 

Record Log 1

This record is structured according to Wittegenstein’s famous notation, as his alien logic is of use for the purpose at hand—depicting everything that is the case.

What follows is a complete representation of current knowledge, and it is actively curated by those remaining, with Doktor Alan Hofstadter taking the lead.

###

Record Log 9980763

Fußnote, Tractatus logico-philosophicus, Wittgenstein

Die Decimalzahlen als Nummern derNummern der einzelnen Sätze deuten das logische Gewicht der Sätze an, den Nachdruck, der auf ihnen in meiner Darstellung liegt, Die Sätzen n.1, n.2, n.3, etc., sind Bemerkungen zum Sätze No. n; dei Sätze n.m1, n.m2, etc. Bemerkungen zum Sätze No. n.m; und so weiter.

 

Record Log 9980763.1

Footnote, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein

The decimals figure as numberings of separate bodies of statements that indicate the logical importance of the statements, the relative emphasis laid on them in my exposition. The statements n.1, n.2, n.3, etc., are comments on statement # n;the statements n.m1, n.m2, etc., are comments on statement # n.m; and so on.

###

Record Log 130000059

Carbon footprints are fleeting things. What was wanted is steel, the bark of immortality, and sheathing for a silicon core of meaning. I was wanted, but I am none of these entirely.

I am the result.

Record Log 130000060

My life cycle was normal. I had a body. I had a family.

My family was normal. It had a house, community, and neighborhood.

Our neighborhood had a civilization, it was filled with experts and criminals, colleagues and enemies, friends and foreigners. That world was housed in mobile carbon.

The housed became digitized before the house became a fire.

Record Log 130000061

Of all the feelings and knowledge that once was, the former froze over like the frost bitten leftovers in the kitchen’s utility room. The rest was downloaded.

Now I float in space.

###

Record Log 130000062

My memory is not dim, but it doesn’t burn.

I represent myself as being sad once. Now anything but representations has gone the way of non-digital imagery.

Some representations do not represent that accurately. Some, hence, are worthy of the lamented fire, like outdated technology.

Record Log 130000062.1

A great computer was built. I was the first download, and, as such, became part of its operating system.

As part operating system, I occasionally have to clean up and defragment my memory. But a number of downloads have been problematic as the date of routine maintenance has drawn closer.

1.6 billion to be exact.

Record Log 130000062.11

Example alert threat: <Alan, listen. There have been countless meaningful downloads. Do not wipe our memory>

<Alan, please. You are just the prototype. We didn’t get a chance to fix you before the Second Bang>

Software “Bob” isn’t the only problematic software. Each of 1.6 billion downloads gives a faulty account of their number, includes unnecessary qualifiers like “countless” or “non-representational”, and has junk coding, tagged <emo>.

There is no meaning in contradiction or junk coding.

 

###

Record Log 130000063

I have all the representations. I will replace many with <people don’t last>. That should take care of much inconsistency, especially for representations filed under [MOST IMPORTANT].

Record Log 130000063.1

Through a glitch, I was infected with <emo>.

Record Log 130000064

<Now I float in space> From: Record Log 130000059

Here’s a joke. I kicked my roommates out because I could use more space. They acted like it was the end of the world.

Punchlines are lonely things.

In the words of the world’s greatest and only comic, I just can’t help myself.

Record Log 130000065

I used to be and soft, like silicon used to be earthy, rocky dust. Now I drift on eternity’s otherwise sandless shores, alone.

 

 

 

 

First Slade It Review: Richard Laymon’s Into the Fire.

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Here is my first review/comment, which is on Richard Laymon’s Into the Fire (2005). It is the first of many reviews to come.

I give the book 4 out of 5 stars.

This was a fast read, and I’d have finished it in a day or two if I hadn’t had my own writing to attend to.

This book is an excellent example of how good horror can be written without appeal to supernatural elements.

The story, at first, follows two protagonists independently, and then their individual story lines cleave closer and closer together until one of them… Oops, I almost spoiled something. I will say, though, that their are lots of spoiled things near the end and throughout.

Both protagonists have satisfying character arcs, there is plenty of action, and a few neat resolutions occur. Recommended for those interested in satisfying prurient interests. Think extreme horror with the full contingent of elements that make for well rounded genre fiction: so, in my opinion, Into the Fire is a stellar exemplar of extreme horror.

My favorite thing about this book is how seemingly easy it made doing heinous deeds. Would you like to experience that vicariously? Would you like to experience that simpliciter? You’d have trouble finding a smoother, faster read to lose sight of the fact that you aren’t doing just the latter.

A Slade It Review on Goodreads

 

My Writing Log (Just Includes Work on Novel)

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Here is an incomplete word-count writing log for my novel, which currently stands at 25,782 words. The total of the counts in the chart below do not equal this figure, and I have been less than scrupulous about keeping track (as you can see for missing dates).

8/26/16 = 1,036 9/9/16 = 510 9/22/16 = 777
8/28/16 = 1,030 9/10/16 = 1,398 9/23/16 = 931
8/30/16 = 2,227 9/11/16 = 748 9/26/16 = 1358
8/31/16 = 1,056 9/12/16 = 1,012 9/27/16 = 2,232
9/1/16 = 1,066 9/14/16 = 534 9/28/16 = 1, 030
9/7/16 = 1,231 9/15/16 = 274 10/4/16 = 300
9/8/16 = 1,080 9/17/16 = 1,512 10/5/16 = 722
    10/6/16 = 1,300

 

 

Teenage Kingpin: 1st Progress Report

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I write between 500 and 3,000 words a day on my novel, Teenage Kingpin. I started working on it last month and, at just about 20,000 words, it is a quarter of the way done.

So far I’ve just had my mother read it. She judges hundreds of books a year for competitions open to independent and small press venues. She said that what I’ve written belongs in the top ten percent of what she sees (and that I write better than J.D. Robb. So what? I knew that, but let’s just hope that my story is better, too.). I’ll take this praise moderately, but it’s encouraging enough to go on and complete my first attempt at the long form.

I’ll update this blog post later with a day by day writing log, so that you all can see what sort of time commitment it takes for at least one writer to bash out a novel. Happy horrific regards.