Change and Conflict

So my weekend was full of change. Granted, a fair amount of it had needed to happen for a while–my mattress and my bed frame were not playing well together, to the point that I not only added a couple of boards to the frame, but then stuck all of my old pillows between my frame and the mattress.

On Sunday, one of Mom’s friends called her up and said, “Hey, I’m getting rid of the bed in the guest room. It’s practically brand new–do you want it? If so, come over and get it.” Mom, knowing about my bed situation, said “I’ll round up Connor and we’ll be there by 4.”

So I spent most of Sunday blitz-cleaning my room, discovering both things I thought I’d lost forever (my new carry-everywhere-just-in-case notebook; my microSD card for my new Nook) and things I only wish I’d lost forever (some lube packaging that was supposed to have gone into the recycling bin months ago turning up, happily bright orangey-red and obvious, among the stuff under my old bed).

I also discovered that I own entirely too many clothes. I don’t need all of them, and I certainly don’t wear all of them. In a bold move, I actually threw away some socks because I didn’t wear them, they didn’t have mates, and they weren’t worth giving away. Some things went into a give-away box, but not nearly enough. Since the idea was to get enough room for my new bed, I didn’t take the time to do a thorough cull–but I will.

My new bed is awesome, by the way. No head or foot boards, but that’s not a big deal–I can get those later. The lady who gave it to me threw in two sets of sheets, two standard pillows and one body pillow/bolster, a memory-foam topper, a bed skirt, and a heated mattress pad (though we walked off and left the cord behind, oops). Oh, and a dark purple blanket-with-sleeves-that-isn’t-a-snuggie-as-far-as-I-know, though that was intended for the Unofficial Nieces.

It’s taking a little getting used to, both in terms of sleeping in it and in its presence. It’s been a while since I’ve had a bed this tall, not to mention one where I’m in danger of falling out of either side. (My old bed was a twin-sized mattress (no box spring) that was in the corner, so I tended to end up against the wall. The new one is a double/full with box spring, and only the head is against the wall.) I’m exceedingly happy with it, though, especially after having discovered the hard way that a saggy mattress really does affect your back, and that in turn affects things like, say, being able to walk. Sleep. Think.

What does all of that have to do with conflict? Everything! No, wait, bear with me.

Once upon a time, I was grumbling about conflict. That fighting made me tired, and writing characters who fought all the time was just as tiring. Reesa, who is wise beyond her years, pointed out that just because the usual word used as shorthand for “stuff that moves the story forward in small, smooth increments” is “conflict” doesn’t mean that it’s all about fighting.

This fascinating (and totally worth reading!) article starts with the statement that, “In the West, plot is commonly thought to revolve around conflict: a confrontation between two or more elements, in which one ultimately dominates the other.”

The author of the piece argues that there are other options, but the premise–that “conflict” is inherently violent, requires a “winner”, and that violence is the only tool in the western story-telling arsenal–is the same one I started with. And it’s not true.

Part of the problem is with the connotations of the word “conflict”. People have used the word “conflict” as an euphemism for “war” (or massacre, or genocide) for so long that probably at least two generations have grown up internalizing that connotation.

You can find conflict in the most mundane of tasks. Take changing a light bulb, for instance. The first conflict is one’s desire for light, but alas, there is none. No one wins or loses anything, in this case — it’s just a fact: I want the light on, but the bulb is burned out. So I have to go find a new bulb, which isn’t too difficult, and something to stand on.

Ah! The stepladder. It’s downstairs. So I have to put the new bulb somewhere safe (so the cats don’t knock it down and break it, and where I won’t forget it), then tromp downstairs to find the ladder. I find the ladder, but… It’s behind a bunch of boxes, which I have to move before I can get to it. And before I can move the boxes, I realize that I have to go to the bathroom, which means I have to go back upstairs…

See? You thought changing a light bulb was boring! Getting ready for my new bed was the same way. Very little actual violence (there was a bit of recyclable-tossing), but plenty of conflict that didn’t necessarily have a winner or a loser. There are ways in which it is possible to have a negative outcome–dropping the vacuum’s dust-cup full of, well, dust and cat hair and fuzz and crumbs and God only knows what onto the freshly-vacuumed floor, for instance. Or attempting to adjust the blinds and having them fall down. Or any of a million other ways that things go pear-shaped.

The point is, you can write a story without violence, without people clashing and without defining who/what “wins” and who/what “loses” — but you cannot write one without adjectives or adverbs.

And Now For Fun With Search Strings Theater!

I use Woopra Analytics to keep an eye on visits to my site, mostly because there’s a plugin for WordPress that makes it easier to check them. My favorite part is seeing the stuff that people are looking for that leads them here, like the following:

books about things that are not awesome
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day?

writing without adjectives or adverbs
…is pretty much impossible, I think. All you’ll find here are arguments against even trying.

fwbs
I don’t know what their FWBs stands for, but mine is short for “Filthy Welsh Boys” (which is what I started calling Max and Trev during the long-distance phase of their relationship — it involved a lot of sex-heavy text messages/pictures and of course video chats.)

name of someone easily entertained
Connor J. Wright, at your service. *Hat tip*

why am i always the odd one out
Because you yourself are strange and unusual? It’s okay to be the odd one out. I honestly think that odd people are more fun, most of the time.

how to tell a story without adjectives or adverbs
You pretty much cannot do it, is what I’m saying. Still, if you manage to do it, please let me know.

why is reesa awesome
It would take too long to tell you all of the ways in which she is awesome, so I’ll stick with these two: she writes (and shares!) Awesome Stories, and she can do that whole plot thing, which makes me a little jealous at times.

how to right a two paragraph story with adverbs and adjectives
…Well, you did ask about writing, not spelling or homophones. First things first: decide what you want your story to be about — titles and all of that can come later, if they ever do. You don’t have to have a detailed idea, just something to aim for. First Flight started with the really simple premise of “I love ravens and I wanna write a story about them/one!” From there, it grew into what we have today. I have another story (which may or may not ever be finished, never mind published) that started life as “there’s this war, and a soldier in love with his immediate superior, and the one in love just wants to go home and never see another sword again…Plus he’s gone and confessed to his officer that he’s in love, but the officer is thisclose to dying of pneumonia, so then what?”

The next thing to do is both the simplest and the most difficult: WRITE it. And if it takes more than a couple of paragraphs to get your characters and your story where you want it, that’s okay — it’s what rewrites and editing and revision is for. The only “real” rules for writing are that you absolutely cannot get anything written if you don’t do the work, and that there are as many methods (outlining, seat-of-the-pantsing, hybrid, snowflake, etc) to getting from “idea” to “story” as there are authors. If one way doesn’t work, try another.

which is done first revisions or edits
This is a great question! I don’t really know, but I suspect it really depends on the author. With First Flight (and Tobias’s Own, to an extent), I actually started my own “This Stuff Needs To Be Changed” file before I got anything back from the editors/proofers. My sailors story was sent back with suggestions for revision, as well as edits, which means that some people see them as synonyms.

because science thats why
“Because it’s science, that’s why!” is a line from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Eegah. Dr. Forrester has installed a radiator in Frank, and Joel asks why he didn’t just leave Frank alone; the doctor starts his reply by saying, “Since Frank’s blood was a previously unknown type, the money that brings in will–Why!? Because it’s science, that’s why!” At my house, ‘because it’s science, that’s why!’ has pretty much become a way to (jokingly) tell people to mind their own business… Or to admit that we’re not sure why we’re doing whatever. Heh.

“Because it’s science, that’s why!”

To answer the question that has turned up several times in my “searches” statistics:

Knowing your parts of speech allows you to write sentences that delight both your English teacher and your readers.

For example, if you don’t know your parts of speech, you won’t know when you’ve broken the “rule” about not using adjectives and adverbs. Knowing your parts of speech can make learning a second language much easier. If you get bored easily, then knowing your parts of speech can provide you with hours of entertainment–don’t just stand in line at the grocery store, copy-edit the headlines on the tabloids! Also, it makes you a kick-ass Mad Libs player.

In all seriousness, though, I have found that knowing an adverb from an adjective from a direct object has been the most helpful in learning other languages, as well as in my writing. For instance, the simplest sentence construction in Japanese is: [Noun] is [noun/adjective]. In Japanese, the verb always comes at the end of a sentence, and there is a particle that marks the end of the subject. This makes it dead easy to make up declarative sentences, such as: sora wa aoi desu. Sora ([the]sky) is the subject; wa is the subject-marker particle; aoi (blue) is an adjective; desu (is) is the verb. [The] sky is blue. (Japanese has no articles. On the other hand, German has at least nine.)

More complex sentences are just as simple (providing you have the vocabulary). Watashi no neko wa kuro desu. Watashi (I) is a pronoun; no is a possessive particle (essential an apostrophe-S); neko (cat) is a noun; wa is the subject marker — this makes ‘watashi no neko’ (my cat) the subject. What about my cat? Well, we already know where to look for the verb, and it’s the same as the first time, so we know that my cat is…something. In this case, it’s another adjective: kuro (black). My cat is black.

How about something a little more exciting? Here’s this one:

Watashi no neko wa neko no tabemono wo tabemashita. We already know what the subject is: my cat. Same construction as before, pronoun + possessive particle + noun being possessed. Then we have another possession: neko no tabemono. Tabemono is ‘food’ (literally ‘eating thing’, tabemasu = to eat, mono = thing), so it’s cat food. There’s a new particle, wo, which usually denotes that what came before is a direct object. And, at the end as usual, we have the verb tabemashita (ate; past-tense form of ‘tabemasu’).

So, in English, we have the sentence: My cat ate cat food. What was eaten? Cat food. (And yes, I suppose the narrowest answer is just ‘food’, but I’m not being that picky.)

Now that we know what goes in each slot, we can make up Japanese sentences all day long. Watashi no neko wa ninjin wo tabemasen. (My cat didn’t eat [a] carrot.) Anata no mimizu wa kowaii desu. (Your earthworm is scary.) Kore uma wa shiawase desu. (This horse is happy.) Anata no uma wa watashi no ninjin wo tabemashita. (Your horse ate my carrot. [Explains why the horse is happy.])

And that is just one of the reasons that it’s good–vital, even–to know your parts of speech.

In honor of Banned Books Week…

I’m going to commit atrocities on classics! I mean, I’m going to use passages from classics to which people have objected to illustrate the necessity of adjectives and adverbs. If you’d rather just learn more about Banned Books Week, the American Library Association has all you’d ever care to know right here.

So, I’ve taken the liberty of removing all adjectives and adverbs (as well as a few articles) from the following passage.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago–never mind how long–having money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about and see the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing the mouth; whenever it is November in my soul; whenever I find myself pausing before warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and whenever my hypos get me, that it requires principle to prevent me from stepping into the street, and knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Old Melville’s writing may not be for everyone, but that’s just…horrible. There are places where it makes no sense, and places where it says the exact opposite of what is actually true for the character. While it conveys the same general idea, it’s just not quite right.

Here’s the original:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago–never mind how long precisely–having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such and upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Now we know that Ishmael’s run out of cash and, being rather bored and having nothing and no one depending on him, decides to run away to sea again. We now know what’s so compelling about the warehouses he’s loitering around, what he’s growing, and even the bit about the hats is somewhat more amusing. (Okay, maybe that’s just me.) Not only is it November in his soul, it’s a damp, drizzly November. If you’ve ever experienced a damp, drizzly November, you can appreciate how he must be feeling. (If you haven’t, they’re about as much fun as they sound.)

Adjectives and adverbs help the reader fill in the gaps. A fiction writer’s job is to hand the reader the bricks (characters, plot-points) and the mortar (descriptions, setting, atmosphere, theme, tone) in such a way that the reader may reconstruct the story you are telling as effortlessly as possible.

Take a look at any of your favorite scenes from any of your favorite books. It doesn’t matter what kind of a scene it is–action, sex, maybe just two people chatting in a kitchen. Five will get you ten that a big part of what you get out of that scene comes from the way the author used adjectives and adverbs. If the scene was merely a recitation of the things within it, or if one character merely recapped it for another without letting you see it, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective or affecting. It wouldn’t be your favorite scene.

You can have my… Revisited

I am, for the most part, a decent kind of person. I don’t start flame wars, I don’t pile on when other people do, I stay away from sites and topics that make me want to throttle someone.

Today, however, I have come across two different sites that said the same thing–DON’T USE ADJECTIVES OR YOU SUCK!!!!11212!ehjouhe–and I have been having a very hard time maintaining my usual even demeanor.

One of the sites had collected five quotes from Stephen King and claimed they were five that all writers should take to heart. I really don’t know how King’s fondness for putting Junior Mints on a toothpick in the movie theater will make my writing better, but then again, I like editors so what do I know?

The very first King quote was “The road to hell is paved with adverbs”. The author of the article gleefully joins the chorus of adverbial hate, without (as usual) bothering to offer suggestions, options, definitions, or even examples. (Also, I noticed that the author of the article did not manage to avoid using an adverb. I did not leave a comment pointing that out.)

The second site I came across is written by “an award-winning author”, though I didn’t bother looking to see what award it was. While the author’s name is unfamiliar to me, that means nothing — I probably wouldn’t recognize this year’s Caldecott Medal winner’s name, either. This author is offering an A-to-Z list of “writing tips”, and right there in the As is “Adjectives”.

“Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly”, Author says, and I just heard you pull that muscle, you rolled your eyes so hard. Here, have an ice pack.

On top of that, in the Ds is “Description”. Author offers examples of passive and active descriptions, but the thing about Author’s examples? Mm-hm. Dripping with adjectives. Seven adjectives and four adverbs in the passive/short example; eighteen adjectives and three adverbs in the longer. And that’s not even counting the prepositional phrases–as they tell you where, they function like adjectives. (Also, there’s a subject-verb disagreement in the second example, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Again, I have not left a comment on that, though I am sorely tempted. After all, if I’m following the advice from Adjectives, then I cannot also follow the advice from Description, can I? They seem to be mutually exclusive.

Sure, there are good reasons not to lard your prose with every adjective and adverb under the sun, but to declare war on them wholesale is pretty much defeating the purpose of writing.

I’m not trying to recite a grocery list, when I write. I am trying to show you the pictures in my head, to bring what I hear and see into being with the admittedly limited medium of the English language. When I see a hot, dusty street, crowded with bodies and all manner of animals, in my head, I don’t want to sit down and write something like, oh, this:

Area: 50 square meters
Population: 2,015
Animals: 110
Temperature: 95 F
Chance Precipitation (percent): .005
Heat index: 115 F

(Numbers are adjectives, by the way — they tell how many.)

You could do something like this, which keeps the numbers:

Two thousand and fifteen people stood in fifty square meters. They were accompanied by a half-dozen dogs, twelve wildebeest, sixteen Guernsey cows (all pregnant), seventy-five parakeets and one very confused-looking penguin. The ambient temperature was 95 degres fahrenheit and rising precipitously. The chance of rainfall was less than five thousandths of one percent. The dew-point was listed as twelve degrees fahrenheit. The heat index was one hundred fifteen.

Or you could just give in and do this, instead:

The narrow street pressed friends and enemies closer than anyone really wanted to be. The smell of cattle and dogs mingled with the scent of humanity and their varied wares, a cloying combination that lingered in clothing even after one made their escape from the area. The merciless sky held nothing more than the sun, not even a wisp of teasing cloud, not even a bird.

Which of those makes you want to keep reading? Which of those rings of story, of potential adventures and heartache and maybe even something funny? I’m going to take a wild guess and strike the first example from the list.

And that is why I refuse to give up on adjectives. And why I refuse to take writing advice from people who actively refuse to be edited, but mostly the former.

You can have my adverbs and adjectives when you pry them from my clammy, tightly-curled fists.

Why you want to wait until I’m in full rigor is beyond me, but hey. To each their own, right?

I don’t understand– No, that’s not true. I understand why people get annoyed by thesaurus abuse, and I understand why people get annoyed by an overabundance of pedestrian adverbs. What I don’t understand is the absolute lack of compromise that I see in OMG NO ADVERBS/ADJECTIVES OR YOU SUCK!!!! “writing rules”.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that Kristen Lamb may be the one and only person I’ve ever seen to author a list of “writing rules” who actually explicitly states that it’s boring adverbial phrases like “she smiled happily” that need to die in a fire — but something like “she smiled, gleefully wielding her scalpel” is acceptable.

See, the thing is, you canNOT write without adjectives. Since I’m a highly visual person, I find examples to be far more illuminating, so here! Let’s have another experiment:

This is the first two paragraphs of my Sailors story, with every adjective, adverb, or other remotely descriptive word removed:

Everyone lined the railing. Tevseth was searching.

There. Tevseth caught sight of Kelvi, watching healers helping the men.

No adjectives, no adverbs, no prepositions. What do we learn from this? Well… There’s a railing… And some people, two of whom we’re maybe supposed to start caring about, but…

But what railing? Where is it? Who’s Kelvi, why should healers bother helping the men, what is it that Tevseth sees? Why the hell should we give a tin-plated rat’s ass? Who knows? I sure don’t — and if someone wanted me to read their story and this is what greeted me? I’d be clicking the ‘close tab’ X or the back button without bothering to see what happened in paragraph three.

So here, try those two ‘graphs again, this time with the dreaded and deadly descriptors (but no alliteration):

Everyone who could stand lined the railing as the Sea Dragon limped into the harbor, two and a half weeks late. Tevseth could see the crowd on the docks—most waving, some jumping up and down—and leaned forward, searching for one familiar figure. It wasn’t until they were manuvering into their berth that he found him.

There. Gold-brown hair glimmering in the sunlight, green eyes he couldn’t see yet, a wiry body half a head shorter than most and a full head shorter than himself. Tevseth’s throat went tight as he caught sight of Kelvi, standing toward the back of the crowd and watching the town’s healers helping the badly injured men off the boat.

There. Now we know where the railing is and what it’s attached to: on a boat! We also know why people are at the railing — they’re finally home. Tevseth is looking for someone among the crowd — not an easy task, because the crowd is just as happy to see their sailors as the sailors are to see home — and we know when Tevseth finds him. We immediately know that Kelvi is important to Tevseth (physical reaction); we also see that Kelvi is watching the healers because there are injured men that need help getting off the boat. We can guess that Kelvi is probably looking to see if Tevseth is among those who can’t move under their own power, but that’s not nearly as obvious as the rest of it.

And all of that information is conveyed through the use of adjectives, prepositions, and at least one adverb. Oh, and italics, but I’ve covered those elsewhere.

So no. I’m going to just keep on ignoring the screams and wails of THOU SHALT NOT when it comes to adjectives and adverbs, because I am trying to tell a story, here. Something made up out of whole cloth. Fake. Factitious. Fiction. If I tried to do it without adjectives, adverbs, or any other descriptors, you’d have something like “There was man.” and that is IT. Not really a story, there, not as it is.

(Edited to remove another prepositional phrase.)

Punctuation! Not For The Faint Of Heart.

Or something like that, anyway.

Reading–or trying to read–a story where someone has gone through and stripped out all of the ellipses and replaced them with a single period is almost enough to make me tear out my hair. They didn’t bother replacing them with em-dashes, or evaluating each ellipse on a case-by-case basis to see if they actually needed it to stay, they just removed them wholesale. (Or maybe they were never there in the first place, I don’t know.)

“I.” isn’t a sentence. It should not have a full stop at the end. “I…” or “I–” conveys a sense of being uncertain and interrupted, respectively, if that’s what you’re intending. If you want your reader to take a little break, you can start with “I,” add some narrative, then go back to dialogue.

Seriously, there’s a really good reason that style manuals are intended for everything except dialogue: people never ever speak exactly like a style manual was the only book in the house during their formative years. Not even the most rigidly proper speaker of a language does. Not even people who are paid professional editors.

Actually…

In the midst of rolling my eyes after reading about someone prepositioning someone else, I realized that it was entirely possible to write suggestive/sexual dialogue using almost nothing but prepositions.

(The blurb should still say ‘proposition’, though.)