July blog prompts have arrived. If you are wondering how these happen, Mod R combs your comments and questions you send in and then compiles them for each month.
You have very unique comparisons and metaphors when you write descriptions. Are they just things you come up with naturally, or do you have helping tools or exercises? How prescriptive are you in regards to writing rules like “don’t use adverbs, don’t use adjectives”?
Gordon and I read widely. We also watch widely. For example, I’ve watched this K drama where the king of Joseon is trying to sneak out of the palace, and this is very difficult for him, since he has done it before and is now feverishly watched 24/7 by eunuchs and court maids. So he sends his eunuch to bring him a snow sculpture, which turns out to be a very anachronistic snowman. The eunuch delivers the snowman on a platter, patiently knocks, opens the door… and finds an empty room.
The king and his friend are walking away from the palace in plain clothes and they hear a primal scream.
“Jeon-ha!!!” Which roughly translates to “Your Majesty” or “Your Highness” and to English speakers sounds a lot like cho-nah. Clearly our poor eunuch has had it.
The king chuckles, and his friend looks at him and says, “Why are you like this?”
This is going into a book somewhere. It was such a human moment. It won’t be that scene, but the emotional interplay will be the same. Someone does something, and someone close to them wonders what had gone wrong in their upbringing.
This is why the COVID pandemic has been so devastating. Writers are sponges, we absorb, digest, and make our own version of people and situations we encounter. When there is no stimulus, nothing is getting made. There are no writing rules or exercises to help you with this. You have to feed your brain with as much new fun entertainment and information you can and let it process.
As far as the writing rules, there is only one. If it feels right, do it. That’s it.
When people make blanket statements like “don’t use adverbs,” they either don’t know what they are talking about or they are in the process of eradicating their own overuse of adverbs. They have armed themselves with a hammer, and now they swinging it at everything that resembles a nail.
Let’s talk about adverbs a little, because they are often maligned.
When to use and not use adverbs
“They’re coming!” she screamed excitedly.
We know she is excited. “Screamed” accomplished that on its own. Typically if you feel the need to use an adverb in dialogue, you may want to try a stronger verb first.
She walked toward him forcefully.
She marched, she strode, she stomped, etc.
Try to avoid overuse of adverbs in dialogue tags, but do use them when needed.
“I will kill you.” He pronounced the words with crisp exactness, as if slicing them off with a knife.
“I will kill you,” he ground out.
“I will kill you.” He enunciated each word, as if he were talking to someone terminally stupid.
“I will kill you,” he whispered, his face flat.
“I will kill you,” he murmured, his face flat.
“I will kill you,” he promised quietly, his face flat.
Each meaning is slightly different. “Whispered” and “promised quietly” are not synonymous. Whispered may imply speaking to themselves. It’s not necessarily for other people to hear. It can also imply weakness – the speaker is too injured or too choked up with emotion to speak. Promised quietly implies determination. The speaker isn’t just angry, he is resolute. It’s almost a vow.
As a writer, you have to decide which one you want. And great many writers will sit there and stare at these examples for twenty minutes trying to choose the right one, and then go with “I will kill you,” he swore because selecting the right one is too hard and requires too much brain power.
Adverbs have their primary use in the narrative, when the right verb is not enough and you need emphasis.
“He sliced the man’s fingers off, one by one, until the hand was a bloody stump.”
“Slowly, methodically, he sliced the man’s fingers off, one by one, until the hand was a bloody stump.”
The second gives us a lot of information as to the type of person our knife wielder is. This is a cold, callous sonovabitch, and he probably has done something like this before. We infer this, even though it’s not stated, from those two adverbs.
Adverbs are subtle tools and they need to be used with precision. Words exist for a reason. You have great many to choose from so try to use them wisely. 🙂
Wow, the last example left me shaken. The power of well-chosen words…
How are your blogs more helpful than all the creative writing classes I took – and paid for – in High School and College?! How?
If you are writing fiction, practical advice from a working commercial fiction writer will be useful. 🙂 If you were working in academic or technical writing instead, my advice wouldn’t be at all helpful.
As someone who reviews a steady stream of technical reports, I can say with some amusement that much of your advice for good fiction is exactly the type of things I advise editing out in technical writing. On the other hand, your advice on grammar is excellent regardless of whether the text is fiction or non-fiction.
When reporting on a failure analysis, avoid metaphors and inexact adjectives – stick to the facts.
On the flip side, when putting together a presentation for non-technical executives, a carefully selected metaphor can go a long, long way.
This is precisely my problem. My advisor read the introduction to my thesis, handed it back and told me “you will make a good mom someday. Your explanations are colorful and lively. Please rewrite the whole thing so it sounds as boring, repetitive and technical as possible to you.”
This is possibly the best feedback ever from an academic, I can just visualize that interaction.
So, how did you do?
“Slowly, methodically the author authored till the tome was a towering pile of papers in no particular order.”
Always love your posts. I’m improving in leaps and bounds.
I LOVE your writing rule.
The goal is to move beyond superficial labels and prescriptions to what they call naturalistic decision-making, where you use all of your experience, instinct, and knowledge to find what feels right for you.
It’s true for cooking, interior design, firefighting, yoga, anything – and, as you say, writing, too.
Michal Glines says
“They have armed themselves with a hammer and now they swinging it at everything that resembles a nail.”????????????
That applies to SO many situations in life!!
I haven’t had a desire to write a book since I was a teenager with delusions, but I love reading this type of post…fascinating! (I actually edited out an adverb before fascinating =) ).
Lynn Thompson says
Thank you, Ilona Andrews for the post.
I thought your “ screamed excitedly “ example was educational. As a very literal minded person it aids me to know if excitedly or hysterically or estatically. Then some people just scream to scream for no particular reason (in real life) except to inject some drama in their lives.
Kind of like the dog barked. Titan has a number of barks from “this is my territory “ to “Intruder. I am going to shred you to pieces”. But simply : the dog barked. ????
However, I will say when I am listening to an ear audiobook, I hear the emotion in characters voice so then the word excitedly is not needed/ necessary/ redundant.
Thank you for the thoughtful post.
What’s the name of the K-drama? Thank you!
Moderator R says
I think it may be Moon Embracing the Sun (2012).
Here is the snow statue and eunuch scene – unless the bringing of the snowman is a K drama trope hehe
I have a flock of wild turkeys that live nearby… when they started visiting my yard, I felt like I’d finally arrived at a new level of backyard feeding. Today I saw one female about to leave and was like, “oh wait I have your corn!”… opened the garage, filled the cup, sprinkled some dried worms on top and when I turned back, an entire group was running towards me from across the street.
It was so joyful! In a getting greeted by adorable feathered dinosaurs kind of way… I don’t have a word for it. But it’s also how I feel when there’s a new post to read here.
I have cats and a house rabbit… none of them come running when I get home lol
Carina M Paredes says
As an amateur writer working on a few projects this is gold. Thanks so much for your writing tips.
Taylor H says
Marcia Sundquist says
Love learning more about the world of use of English language.
“They have armed themselves with a hammer and now they swinging it at everything that resembles a nail.”
This is the same way I feel about those writers who avoid any use of the word “said”. They heard you should be able to find alternate verbs for “say” and they think it means *always.* That is an authorial tic that can cause me to stop reading before the end of the first chapter.
“Adverbs are subtle tools and they need to be used with precision.”
Modifying “said” is one case where they can be used to great effect. All modification in moderation, of course.
After binging The Crowned Clown last week, I randomly bellowed, “Jeon-haaaaa!” at my husband when he came into the kitchen as I was making dinner. (He’s Korean-American and understands Korean. I’m white and trying to learn Korean with our daughters.) He looked completely startled and then amused and said, “What the hell are you watching now?” ????
Hahaha. It’s never just Jeon-Ha, it’s always bellowed, isn’t it?
Yes! Bellowed but in a monotone voice. I informed him that he may now refer to me as dae-bi mama. He rolled his eyes. ????
Is dae-bi mama the equivalent of “your baby mama”? 😉
It’s Your Highness to a Queen. ???? I laughed out loud at baby mama. Totally sounds like that and I didn’t even realize it!
Patricia Schlorke says
Sara T says
I hope these are as fun for you to write as they are for us to read. For me at least, it feels like we stopped by your house for a cup of tea and had a fascinating discussion about your writing process. Its a whole new way to feel connected to your writing and we appreciate it!
YES! I have been trying to figure out a way to say exactly that and never came up with that exact phrase. We are at your house, having a cuppa — I like coffee, you like tea — and discussing things about word choices today. Very well put!
Aurora Ebonfire says
LOL — “They’re coming!” she screamed excitedly.
If she is 3-years-old screaming might be a default setting that still requires an adverb for clarity.
Or maybe “They’re coming!” she screamed again, this time with excitement.
Hehehe – true
Cheryl M says
Words have power. Too often we forget this.
That’s been a takeaway my whole life. I had to measure words precisely when growing up to prevent family drama. I’m an engineer who got a 790/800 on the math GREs and was still more adept at language by the percentiles. Words cut and healed in my family.
My persuasive writing is the opposite – horrible. I am very much a “these are the facts and this is your life. exercise free will” type of person.
Fascinating. I’ve been helping ‘anglify’ (to coin a word) some translations into English, and keep running across this same issue. This viewpoint really helps, so thanks!
Diane Wilson says
Reminds me of a wonderful scene in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood.
Mr. Pugh dreams of poisoning his wife. He has purchased a book “Lives of the Great Poisoners” which he has wrapped in brown paper. He reads from the book at the dinner table.
“What’s that book by your trough?” Mrs. Pugh asks.
“Lives of the Great Saints,” Mr. Pugh replies.
Marija Španović says
Patricia Schlorke says
“Use your words wisely” yep. I wish everyone would do that. ????
Thank you, thank you, thank you. I have been trying to beat this into peoples’ heads for a long time. The words you choose shape what people read into your prose. You just have to read an article about the same event from two politically different papers. Words have meanings that follow after them, in the ether.
Sara T says
I suck at grammar. And spelling.
As a non-writer and avid reader, I enjoy these instructional posts. I’m always impressed with the level of detail and depth of character you portray without being overly wordy. These posts give insight to what sets your writing apart from other authors, and why I enjoy your books so much.
I feel like so much stuff people think is bad writing can be amazing if it’s doing other work too.
Like when an author feels a desperate urge to tell me the species and degree of variegation of every bush their character encounters I hate it.
But if you want to use a description of someone’s garden to kind of illustrate their character as the protagonist goes to meet them for the first time….
Or, you know, create a funny or surprising image ( manicured lawns, trellised roses, grey dreadlocks, tie-dyed t-shirt)
Or have your narrator take cynical shots at all the fancy cars and buildings he passes so you get a feel for who he is…
I feel like it’s not “Don’t Do It”, so much as
“know how to do it, and why to do it, and when to do it”
When I hear talk about adverbs I remember this:
“Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here!” 🙂
Gah! I so Love it when you do this stuff. As a both an editor and a writer of governmental technical work, I love seeing it from the fiction side. I so often have to tell my folks to stick to active voice, not passive. Best way I can explain this is that records, documents, and files do not do things, people do things to the records, documents and files. Inductive versus deductive writing. Shorten, shorten, and get to the bloody point.
Thank you for all the insight, and especially the humor. Someone once told me, Life without humor is a hot meal served cold.
Carysa Locke says
:applauds: Yes! I could not agree more. I totally understand why unilateral writing “rules” so often get shared around and especially told to newer writers, but there are always those sneaky exceptions, right? And it ends up being very confusing for people. “Show, don’t tell.” “Never use adverbs.” “Never use dialogue tags.” “Never use sentence fragments.” I can pull out pretty much any NYT Bestselling fiction book and point to all of these things. But as with all such advice, it’s really “Use these things deliberately and sparingly, and for a specific purpose in the craft.”
This was a great explanation of when, and when not to use adverbs, and why they can be important. Word craft is so important, and the implications of word choice are often just as vital as their literal meaning.
Upshot: writing well is hard work.
As a college English Comp instructor, I am overjoyed if my students use adverbs or adjectives. Most are too busy avoiding writing (or reading, for that matter) to bother using such tools in their essays. They are hardly willing to learn and use varied sentence constructions. Disappointing but I keep working with them
on it. ????????
I’m not a writer, but I still love whenever you talk about your craft,and often find the tips useful in terms of improving my communication skills.
Kristan Paige Hall says
As a writer, you have to decide which one you want because words do not have just a dictionary meaning. They carry the connotative meaning as well, or the emotional meaning that people have attached.
Judy Schultheis says
Tom Swifties were still kind of in fashion when I was a kid. They were very often reasonably funny, but they did teach me the value of usually letting the word “said” stand by itself.
I actually read the original Tom Swift books – I’m not sure who gave them to us, but we had some when I was in grade school and I found a lot of others in assorted libraries. That kid almost never just got to just say something.
Kind of a late question, but upon rereading (again) magic binds I pause to wonder what the dowry of the “princess of Shinar” was due. Erra tells Kate to pay for mercenaries from her dowry.
Anyone else wonder what it was and if Kate got/took it?
After all “Dad” did come to the wedding.
Oooh, good question!
Ceryl Tubungan says
Omg! The moon embracing the sun!! That’s the one that popped in my head when you mentioned the snowman. That poor eunuch. But he is clearly loved ????
Time for a rewatch, ohohoho! Luckily the drama is now on netflix. Though I do own a seedy dvd bought off the street a decade ago when I was in high school and kdrama-crazy.
The question “Why are you like this?” I can totally see it been used with Arabella, she s got that kind of energy 🙂
Thanks for this amazing posts!
your descriptions, and all your writing helps me with my english!
Barbara Kay Swanson says
oh, you are good. So good. I learn from you every time you answer.
I love these kinds of posts. It helps me understand why some writing styles work and why some don’t. Too often I know my tastes I just don’t know WHY. You guys are really good at these explanations. Thank You ????
Dee Trottier says
“Slowly, methodically, he sliced the man’s fingers off, one by one, until the hand was a bloody stump.”
This took me right to Hugh D’Ambray deboning a man like a chicken, lol. Murderous psychopath with a heart of gold.
He is the best! Only HA could have made a character I hated vehemently become one of my top favourite characters ever!
Abha Dhupkar says
Aaaand that is why I love your writing……right there….the explanation of a grammar use, appropriateness in context, and the impact of that usage.
Your blogs give me a lot of material to think about and helps me look at things with a different perspective.
Thank you for this post, Ilona!
Yes, your precise usage of language is one of the main reasons I enjoy your books so much.
Humor, realistic character developments and unexpected plot twists are the others.
Plus baskets of smaller reasons, too many to mention.
So, to pay you back a bit:
“Go, House Andrews, you are awesome!”
So, anyone else start reading this while singing the adverb song from Schoolhouse Rock? LOLLY, LOLLY, LOLLY, GET YOUR ADVERBS HERE… Or is there anyone here that remembers the glorious 70s and Saturday morning cartoons and Schoolhouse Rock? They are all on YouTube.
Tina in NJ says
How else does one remember the entire Preamble to the Constitution of the United States? I will always remember Conjunction Junction.
Exactly. That song helped me to remember the Preamble since we had to recite it to pass the 8th grade Constitution class.
Phenomenal post! It almost makes me wish I was still teaching English, and therefore writing, just so I can use, “Words exist for a reason. You have great many to choose from so try to use them wisely.”
I need a “love” button so I can love this 🙂
Today I needed a few adverbs to describe how elated I felt, receiving (finally!) your last Kate Daniels paper book.
Since I couldn’t wait for the french edition, I had already read the entire serie in English ???? but I had to buy them in my native language too. Especially with such amazing covers ????
Finding the perfect word to use and then having someone not understand what you said can be heart-breaking. My sister taught English lit in high school with her doctorate degree, and one day I said someone was “frenetic” and she had no idea what the word meant. We’re talking being online, able to check a dictionary is ten seconds, and she had no idea what I was saying. It just hurts to choose the exactly correct word and not be understood.
I think that what makes you both such great writers is that you are both highly intelligent and know how to make your points without fussing so much over whether you are using adjectives or adverbs. Descriptive words are necessary in many instances, but not in others. When you know what you’re saying, just say it. I ponder each word choice I make when I write to people. I want the meaning of what I write to be clear. This is what separates you from so many authors. Your meanings are always clear because you choose correctly. I thank you. This post was very informative.
Ruth Levantis says
Thanks for the writing tidbits. MY daughter writes and does really well with dialogue. I’m passing this on to her for when she gets stumped.
Yay! What a great description of the usefulness of adverbs. I will “heart” you forever.
Faith Freewoman says
This is AWESOME!
I’m going to send it to all my editing clients with a 5-star recommendation.
And P.S. I learned some cool stuff too.
Cheers & thanks,
Ah, finally what I’ve been thinking, expressed by someone who has more credibility than I!
I hate sweeping rules about writing. “Show, not tell” – if taken too seriously, 100 years of solitude would never have been written. Plus you could never pass even insignificant events quickly while writing – you’d probably write a book about just crossing a room (has been done, obviously, Volter Kilpi’s Finnish book “Alastalon salissa” is a prime example.) But not a complicated adventure. Use what works, learn what’s lame (like using really too much adverbs in places where they’re not needed), then break any rules you want and write your own damned story, that’s what I’d like to say. But unfortunately most people aren’t very interested in what I’d like to say, so I really appreciate this post!
Jude C says
‘very unique’ – just no, unless it’s in speech. Unique is an absolute, like pregnancy – something is unique or it isn’t, and you either are or you aren’t pregnant.
“As far as the writing rules, there is only one. If it feels right, do it.”
I am no writer but I think this is very true. There shouldn’t be to many restriction writers follow just because.
I remember having a discussion in a forum with someone about the video game “The Last of Us”. He or she complained that the story was bad because it did not follow the classical narrative structure of a classical drama.
I never understood this. The story is toying with your expectations, you think you know what is going to happen and how it will end but the story kept surprising you. How that is bad I do not understand. It is one of the best video games ever.
I tried to tell him or her that some of the most influential work in literature defy the narrative structure that was expected in the respective time period (like Faust 2 or Woyzeck), to no avail. Well, his or her loss, you should not be to hung up on things you seemingly must or must not do, it hinders creative work
Thank you. I may write marketing pieces for a manufacturer, but I still look to you for inspiration. Good writing is good writing.
At least that’s my excuse for checking the blog during working hours. 😉
Bigmama Battillo says
We are all nuts here. Our brains have been captured by aliens who are nuts, and I mean like pecans or almonds, etc! This is a strangely comfortable state of being. We can ponder deep philosophical concepts which make NO RATIONAL SENSE but it doesn’t matter because we are all on the same mental path so we are all totally in sinc with one another! I enjoy being a pecan altho I could just as comfortably be a pistachio, I think. Life is so full of variety! It is so comforting that I am accepted for what I am and not my flavor or crispness! 🙂
Angela Knight says
Great blog! I have never agreed with the no-adverb thing either. I’m not depopulating my verbal armory for someone else’s priggishness.
You are so right! Adverbs have been taking a beating for at least the last 20 years or so. Folks use adjectives in place of adverbs or drop the -ly ending off of adverbs all the time. I have heard professional writers argue for the use of adjectives in place of adverbs because “they sound the same.”
“Eyes wide, she slowly, step-by-quiet-step, backed away from the authors’ murder-promising, finger-lopping villains.” Your adverbs are creeping me out!
Great post! My sort of unrelated question is which K drama you watched… 😡
Moderator R says
Why so angry hehe? I think it was probably Moon Embracing the Sun (2012) 😀
Laurie B says
LOL! The comment about the king in your K-drama reminded me of an instance that occurred in a historical group I belong to. At the time, I was a “Baroness” and my poor lady-in-waiting (Lady A) was always chasing after me because I would suddenly remember something I needed to do (or, let’s be honest, when something shiny caught my eye ;). She would turn to me to ask me something and I was just..gone (or, several shops down where I saw someone I needed to speak with.) The one time – the ONE time – she left me in someone else’s care, we were at a large camping event in August. It was very hot that day and I had been convinced to take a nap in my tent while my friend took some much-needed time for herself. I agreed with my other friend (Lady B) that I would, in fact, be in my tent napping. I had every intention of napping, I really did. However… I suddenly remembered something I needed to do. I went out the back door of the tent since it was facing the path I needed to take (no, really!) When my lady-in-waiting returned, she asked Lady B how I was. Lady B cheerfully replied, “Oh, she’s been good! She’s in her tent.” To which Lady A responded, practically bursting a blood vessel mind you, “You fell for that?!! How could you fall for that?!” Much side-eye was passed to Lady B when they entered my tent, only to find my partially-eaten lunch but no me. I still hear about it to this day.
Just saying, anyone who is slicing people’s fingers off one by one is a “cold, callous sonovabitch” by default xD
I really enjoy the pictures you use for your blogs.
I especially like the writer guy above (my favorite is the cranky writer guy).
So much information can be conveyed in a single picture.
Thanks for the illustrations!
Wow, words mean things, my husband was right.
This post should be used it writing classes. Yes, yes, and yes! Thank you!
Sue R. says
Thank you, thank you! I’m not a writer and haven’t been able to figure out why some authors’ (you guys!) books are so much more engaging, better written and have much more complete character development than others. This helps tremendously! You’re the best!
I especially enjoy your insights into writing. I vividly remember your blog post few years back on the difference between writing in the first and third person, and how it changes everything–the pace, narration, and mood.
I also understand that writing dialogues is not necessarily about replicating how people speak, but about communicating the fact of something being spoken, which is as important as the content of what is being said.
As a reader I feel like these tiny details and decisions can make or break a book–if not done carefully, can interrupt the flow and emotional charge. And I have never once felt a word out of place when I read your books. Every choice feels like it was meant to be; I believe the words felt and spoken by the characters, and each book feels just and righteous.
Bill G says
I have a question unrelated to this post, but I didn’t want to email since it’s not a technical issue. I’m curious if the Olympics still happen in the HL world? There’s a picture making the rounds on my Twitter of a sharp shooter standing relaxed and casual while aiming, and it reminded me of Leon. Thanks!
Moderator R says
Please absolutely ask in the comments ????, all of them get read and added to The List! ✍️
Great, thank you! I thought of Leon as a sharp shooter, and wondered if the Olympics still happen in the HL world, and if so, whether people with magic participate or if it is only for non-magic people? I’ll keep an eye out for the blog-comments response next month! Have a great day 🙂
Or maybe there would be multiple types of Olympics (magic vs. non-magic), since a hydrokinetic swimmer vs. non-magic swimmer would not be an entertaining race.
If everyone hadn’t been surprised about the Sagredo House Spell, I’d suggest a null field around the non-magic Olympics to ensure the field is leveled, at least in the magic/non-magic aspect.
Yes exactly! Is it now like the olympics and paralympics? Or in the second example, what an interesting experience someone might have if they go to compete and discovered that they actually had some magic ability that they lost after entering the null field.
Man, I love how much you love your work. 🙂
Ooooh! I love kdramas as well! Especially the historical ones. Do you mind sharing the name of the one you referenced above? And, if its not too much to ask, your favourite ones?
Moderator R says
I think the series referenced is Moon Embracing the Sun (2012). Unless snowmen are a particular K drama trope hehe.
Ilona has mentioned C and K dramas a lot of times, some of her favourites can be found here:
https://ilona-andrews.com/2020/burn-out/ (a big recommendations thread with the BDH pitching in)
also here https://ilona-andrews.com/2019/things-i-learned-from-chinese-dramas/
and here https://ilona-andrews.com/2019/moonlight-drawn-by-clouds/
Hope this helps 🙂
S C RAGHUNATHAN says
Very absorbing read, tku!