A Cool, Dark Guinness and Something About Adverbs

by Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, February 2005
There is no doubt that beginner (and often intermediate) writing contains too many adjectives, too many adverbs, and most cringe-makingly, too many speech tags. The argument goes, from those now-famous authors (and not-so-famous creative writing teachers) that the reason we have to use an adjective to modify a noun, or an adverb after a verb is because we didn't choose the best noun or the best verb. They are "weak."

I would, simplistically go along with that, but let me ask you this. Would you rather drink a cold, dark pint of Guinness or a Guinness? And would you rather make slow, delicious love or have a quickie?

There are times when adjectives or adverbs work, there are times when they just look bolted on the side of the story. The question is: how do you know when to modify, when to be bald and bold?

With the Boot Campers, I'm working my way through the selected stories of Andre Dubus (stories I recommend to all aspiring writers).

Here is the opening to "Waiting." "Waiting" is the story of a woman, widowed in the Korean War and ever since slightly lost, moving from man to man. It's acutely sad.

Juanita Creehan was a waitress in a piano bar near Camp Pendleton, California. She had been a widow for twelve years, and her most intense memory of her marriage was an imagined one: Patrick's death in the Chosin Resevoir. After Starkey got back from Korea, he and Mary came to her apartment, and he told Juanita how it happened: they were attacking a hill, and when they cleared it they went down to the road and heard that Patrick had caught it. Starkey went over to the second platoon to look at him.

"What did they do to him?" Juanita said.

"They wrapped him in a shelter half and put him on a truck."
Stark, almost Hemingwayesque, yet full of detail. OK we have "most intense" one modifying phrase, but surely needed?

Much of the story is almost devoid of modifiers from here on. In the next long paragraph the Korean snow is described as frozen mud and snow and a look between Juanita and Mary (Starkey's wife) is done "quickly". Dubus would rather not modify.

Except where he wants effect.
Later in the story, after another meaningless night with an almost-stranger Juanita wakes early. She sneaks out in the dark and went out of the apartment and crossed the cool damp grass to her car. With the windshield wipers sweeping dew, she drove down a hill and through town to the beach. She locked her purse in the car and sat on loose sand and watched the sea. Black waves broke with a white slap, then a roar. She sat huddled in the cool air.
Here, Juanita's sensuousness, the night which wraps her, the feel of the sand and the sea, matter, so the moments are stretched, described, not so much modified as painstakingly extended, expanded, heightened.

It's fascinating to see how Dubus one moment is as bald as Ernest Hemingway but prepared (when it is appropriate) to ladle out exactly the right amount of modification (isn't modifier a terrible word?)

So:
She walked across wet sand, into the rushing touch of the sea. A black swell rose towards her and curled, foam skimming its crest like quick smoke; she turned to the beach, watched the wave over her shoulder: breaking it took her with head down and outstretched arms pointing, eyes open to dark and fast white foam, then she scraped sand with breasts and feet, belly and thighs, and lay breathing salt-taste as water hissed away from her legs. She stood and crossed the beach towards her clothes.
When sensuousness, detail, the lingering, extended moment, is the artistic need, then language plays a few tunes, extension, detail, sound, swell.

Gary Provost in Make Your Words Work says: "The adjective, no doubt, is the most maligned part of speech, and for good reason. For every adjective that is improving a sentence, ten are being written to the detriment of the sentences they inhabit." In the Elements of Style, William Strunk suggests that adjectives are "The leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words."

That's the trouble with Strunk, always sitting on the fence!

Provost goes on to mention Somerset Maugham's book written without a single adjective. Maugham managed the feat of writing without any of the frills of language, but added that the result was somewhat cold. As an exercise, writing without modifiers is very interesting. Here was my attempt, just for this article:

I heard there was an author wrote a story, no adjectives. I heard there were no adverbs. I cannot think why he did that. Was there a point?

Why would an author want to write a story without an adjective, and without an adverb? Next there will be exercises where writers write sentences without letters. Sentences without "a", for example. Verbless sentences. And there'll be sentences beginning improperly, or sentences ending in propositions, constructions we can think of.

(That would upset the purists, I mean).
I heard there was a woman who didn't believe in love. We married. After the divorce we sat in rooms. The room where I sat was the color of coal. The room where she sat had no color. I had a telephone. And she had a telephone. We had telephones. Telephones which did not ring. I stared at the telephone. I wanted it to ring. She stared at a telephone and hoped it would ring. They did not ring.

Three days passed. I did not eat. I picked up the telephone. I imagined three days passing. Did she eat? Did she want to use the telephone?

I decided to experiment. I concentrated. I sent a message across the ether. I sent thoughts: pick up the phone. Ring the man. He loves you. I strained. The message sailed through the night. I knew the message got there. I felt the message strike. But here, the phone did not ring. It did not ring. It did not ring. It did not ring. I waited. But it did not ring. I gave in. It was late. I had tried to not ring. But I rang. I dialed the numbers. It had been three days. No person could wait three days. The phones connected. Engaged.
What is interesting is how the simplest modifiers can matter. In the above short-short I wanted to write a red room, a white, because the symbolic differences would matter, and when I couldn't, I squirmed and had to write tortuously, oddly.

Provost, after reading Maugham's tirade against the modifier, went to a novel by Eudora Welty and found an adjective every eighteenth word and this from a relatively terse, tight writer. As Provost says, would you want to remove the adjectives from "a little book bound in thin leather, falling apart" and can you better describe sheep-cropped grass?

I am currently putting together a three or four volume set of craft advice set around my articles. It is called John Dreams and is a compilation of my answers to John (actually various Boot Campers) when they have a problem. This article is a response to just such a query.
Alex, my two recent stories have highlighted a tendency I have to use "modifiers" - which are considered to be a BAD thing by the more experienced BC writers. These writers argue that modifier always dilute the language, and never add to the strength of the piece or the imagery.

Examples: "Four needless modifiers which add virtually nothing, and tell me straight away that this is a relative beginner."

and

"Six modifiers in the first paragraph (though they thin out after this) give me the whiff of 'trying too hard' for the big opening. DARK streets, BRIEF glow, all feel like trying to create some sort of atmosphere."

I'm sure that not all modifiers are bad, but I'm trying to understand how to pick good ones, where to use them, and how often. It was suggested that I think of modifiers as jewelry.

Earrings are there to accentuate the ears, not overpower them. Big chunky earrings don't look nice. If people notice the earrings before they notice the ears, the earrings need to come off or be smaller.

My problem is that I think modifiers are good and add to the imagery. Take the words "men" and "streets."

A sentence such as "the streets are full of men" generates a image - but not necessarily the one that I want to achieve. So I add a modifier. "the streets are full of old men" Still not there, so perhaps. "the dark streets are full of old men" And perhaps one step further: "the cold, dark streets are full of tired old men" And now I've overdone it!
I find critiques in themselves revealing. I often blame glib, soundbyte writing advice for many of the straight-jackets I see new writers apply to themselves. They hear "show-not-tell," and if they understand it, freak and think that any exposition must be bad. Or they hear Hemingway-style advice about strong nouns and perfect verbs that don't require qualifying.

Understand, folks, that often, advice is trotted out, and it's the advice that most needs qualification! The best advice is do what is right.

Do what is right? Hah! Like "Just be an Olympic athlete"?

Getting there takes years of reading, writing, critiquing, analysis, and then more reading and writing, but read the quality writers, see what they do. Dubus is terse and bald when baldness works, is more mellifluous when that is what is required.

In my article, "Sing to Me," I mentioned this piece of prose: Nabokov
In front of the red-hued castle, amid luxuriant elms, there was a vividly green grass court. Early that morning the gardener had smoothed it with a stone roller, extirpated a couple of daisies, redrawn the lines with liquid chalk, and tightly strung a resilient new net between the posts. From a nearby village the butler had brought a carton within which reposed a dozen balls, white as snow, fuzzy to the touch, still light, still virgin, each wrapped like a precious fruit in its own sheet of transparent paper.
Laced with extension, modification, detail, but all part of the particular sought effect. Do we believe that any of these extensions were accidental or do we think they were chosen carefully, like a great painter dabs a spot of silver as the glint of an eye?

Beginners almost always over-write. They write baggy prose and include irrelevant detail. One exercise is to ask them to cut the story by 50%, to work through it wave after wave, finding ways to say this, this, this in less words each pass. At first it is relatively painless (though cutting a single word seems the equivalent of running off with someone's child) but gradually the point is approached where nothing more can go.

In human terms, we want to trim excess fat, and work-out a little, and there comes a time where any further trimming will be of muscle, eventually bone. No more!

Now, at this point the story is probably cold, brittle, clunky, abrupt. But it is the stories core. It is the actual message, the heart. I have seen hearts less than 25% of the original.

Now we can add words, but every word has to do loads of things. Does it smooth the reading, does it enhance the language, does it sharpen the imagery, does it hold the reader against the heat or sharpen his gaze? If it's a modifier, how does it make things better? Does it make things better?

Here we want a slow, late, afternoon, and old man, time:
Saturday afternoon and Dai Griffiths sits with his finger-polished roll-up tin. He is patient, fixated, listening. His tongue protrudes slightly as he makes careful, half dog-end, half Old Holburn, delicate, thin cigarettes.

It is raining outside the pub and along the valley side snake-terraced roofs glisten. The afternoon light closes.
Here we want in yer face, snappy, lively. London.
He wondered what the sex would be like. She thought it would be good. When she asked him, "Do you think the sex will be good, Harry?" he knew it would be great. But that was later.
Same author.

Alex Keegan British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.

His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.

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