Sunday, July 31, 2011

Adverbs, Those Needless Little Buggers

There are many constants when you're a writer. Some days you will hate everything you write. Others, you'll think what you've penned is a lyrical masterpiece and you will question why other mere mortals dare write while you are. You will discover the necessary evil and illuminating worth of editing. You will face rejection. And, if you work-really work-at it, you'll improve, grow and ultimately thrive as a writer. These are constants. These are the inevitable little truths that you will encounter at one time or another over the span of your writing career.

You will also, I promise, hear many, many nuggets of advice on writing, on character development, pacing, query letter writing and all those dirty little publishing secrets. Those simply aren't avoidable.

What, I think, is one of the most important bits of advice you'll hear is how to structure your narrative so that you avoid any and all instances of The Clunk. Do you know where those come from, folks? Well, adverbs, of course.

Why are they bad?
Well, to the unskilled, they seem like an easy fix, the clearest and easiest path to lazy writing. These little monsters modify verbs and aren't, on their own, so bad. It's when they enable The Clunk, that you have to watch out.

Charlie Jane Anders, with explains it far more intelligently than I can with this article. Essentially, Anders echoes my long-held belief in why adverb usage is bad.


  • Cause redundancy- She crept stealthily. He yelled angrily. They ran quickly. As David Byrne says, "Say something once. Why say it again?"
  • SPEECH TAGS - This is a biggie and a personal pet peeve of mine. When your character is angry/upset/frightened, the worst thing you can do is TELL the reader what they're feeling. "I don't want to die!" needn't be followed by she said hysterically. If we know that the character is scared of death or is in a situation where death is imminent, the emotion is implied. This type of writing reeks of 'telling not showing' and is consistent with lazy, novice writing.
  • They weaken your verbs or point out when you have a bad one - First, let me explain weak and strong verbs.

Strong verbs = Irregular verbs (generally) that aren't aided by other tense endings (ed, d, t). They demonstrate action. Example: give, gave.

Weak verbs = Regular verbs that cannot form the past tense without the aid of compound endings (ed, d, t). They 'insinuate' action. Example: call, called.

So when you have a weak verb, your sentence structure is passive and the difference is obvious: Weak: She cringed at the horribleness of her long day. Strong: She had a bad day.

A better understanding of why adverbs should be avoided comes from Renni Browne and Dave King’s take on the evils of those ly monsters in Self Editing For Fiction Writers: “Ly adverbs almost always catch the author in the act of explaining dialogue – smuggling emotions into speaker attributions that belong in the dialogue itself. If your dialogue doesn’t need props, putting the props in will make it seem weak even though it isn’t.”

Still not convinced? I’ll give you an example from Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages (which includes both poor adverb and adjective usage):

In the bright, shiny sky there appeared two large, massive birds, circling slowly around the young, scared rabbit. It ran quickly, jumping bravely over small, sharp, rocks and trying to make is way desperately to its little hole. The birds dived ferociously and with long, sharp nails grabbed the baby rabbit’s short, white hair and swept him up pridefully into the large, open sky. There flew victoriously back home their wide, black slick wings reflecting the hot, afternoon sun.

And with corrections:

In the bright, shiny sky there appeared two large, massive (large/massive both describe the size of the birds. i.e, redundant) birds, circling slowly (circling implies slow) around the young, scared rabbit.(how do we know the rabbit is young or scared? Because the writer tells us so? No! Bad writing, there. What indicates that the rabbit is young? How does he look? Is he trembling?) It ran quickly, (run generally indicates moving fast) jumping bravely (Lukeman says this is an example of the writer not giving enough credit. Let the reader’s imagination work here, don’t do it for him) over small, sharp) (more redundancy here) rocks and trying to make is way desperately (the rabbit is running, trying to escape predators…of course he’s desperate. ) to its little hole. The birds dived ferociously (is there any other way for a predator to dive? cut) and with long, sharp nails grabbed the baby rabbit’s short, (this would have been better served above, when the writer was describing the age of the rabbit) white hair and swept him up pridefully (technically, that’s not even a word) into the large, (we know the sky is large and open, for that matter but I’ll leave that one in) open sky. They flew victoriously (how does won ‘fly victoriously?) back home with their wide, black slick (pick ONE description here and get rid of The Clunck) wings reflecting the hot, (bright, above, indicated this already) afternoon sun.

Okay, so this is what we have now:

In the bright sky there appeared two large birds, circling around the young rabbit. It ran, jumping over small rocks and tried to make its way to its little hole. The birds dived and with sharp nails, grabbed the baby rabbit’s white hair and swept him up into the open sky. They flew back home with their slick wings reflecting the afternoon sun.

Still not perfect, (the gerund use is ridiculous), but you get the point. The Clunk has disappeared along with the redundant and poorly used adverbs.

Happy writing!

Saturday, July 30, 2011


On Monday, our baby will be here! Adrienne and I are proud to bring to you...

LitStack is a new reviews site dedicated to readers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, short stories, literary magazines, ebooks, manga and graphic novels. (We'll probably even be posting some spoken-word stuff for the super-artsy types.) The site also features indie bookstores and literary landmarks across the world (one city at a time), and cool bookish finds and news we run across online.itack’s diverse staff comprises writers and reviewers with MFAs and various advance
In addition to daily book reviews and regular spotlights on indie bookstores we love, LitStack also features regular segments to promote current titles and build appreciation for older works.

LitStack’s Featured Author- This month-long series of posts includes reviews of previous releases by our Featured Author, along with a current interview and review to coincide with the author’s upcoming release.

LitStaff Picks- Once a week, we feature a collection of books new and old--the favorites of our staff within a specific theme.

ShortStacks - Original short stories and essays by established authors.

Footnotes - Multiple weekly posts highlighting literary events in history, including the birthdays of famous authors, publication and award dates of classic titles, and memorial posts for beloved figures.

Author Interviews - Launch week will feature interviews with Adam Schuitema and Hannah Moskowitz. In the coming weeks, Locus winner Cherie Priest, NYT Bestseller Terry Brooks and Irish Book Awards winner Marian Keyes are scheduled to appear.

The Book Club - Every month LitStack will have a couple of featured titles; a review, open-thread discussion and author Q&A (when available) will be posted for each book so you can read along and share your thoughts.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Painting Stories #8

What I got:

The path before her was guarded only by a small picket fence, haphazardly held together by vines that twisted from the willow beside it. Beyond the path, the mist, and through it, the way home, the only home she'd ever known. Behind her stood her family, the congregated past that displayed all she had been, all she could be. Despite her mother's warning, she looked back, knowing she could have never resisted. What kind of soul, even battered and bruised, could not look back? What kind of daughter would she have been not to see them, one final time, and know that it would be the last glimpse.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Ending at the Close: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Review

How do you turn away from something that has altered the paths you take, the flux and flow of how your creative life forms? Do you walk away and not look back? Do you acknowledge the time spent in this imagined world and recall it as only a faded page in your past?

For me, Harry Potter has never been merely a work of fiction. It's been bigger, greater for me than that and to minimize its affect on me would be an insult. Some may call me misguided, perhaps even a little sad for loving people who are not real and admiring the Creator Goddess of this fictitious world. But for me, Potter was the beginning: the beginning of friendships that I am certain will surpass my lifetime; practices on writing that could not be learned in a classroom and lessons of life shown through examples in words, formed in the imaginary.

So when something has meant so much, given so very much, one cannot simply walk away and forget or acknowledge it with little more than a cursory mention.

Rowling's world became, for me, a symbolic realization that dreams are, in fact, anything but impossible...that what one can fathom, can be achieved. She set the bar and dared us to cross it. She gave us a challenge and beckoned us to follow her along the way to greatness.

I've never quite embraced the love of 'fiction to film,' and so, any expectations for films based on books I've adored have been limited. Die hard Potter fans may scoff at missing plot lines, misspoken dialog or purported important details absent from the films. I understand that. But I also acknowledge that the films are not canon. They're simply another artistic expression of Rowling's work. This last film, however, evolves beyond that.

I write this review with a mind filled of chaotic, nearly bipolar emotions, so please forgive me for spoiling you or waxing on less than poetically about things that may, to the typical movie goer, seem unimportant. Ten years of my life, friends. A girl's gonna babble.

This film begins where Part 1 left off and does its best to set the slightly morose tone. Voldemort relishing his theft of Dumbledore's wand and Harry finishing up Dobby's burial with the fitting "Here Lies Dobby, A Free Elf." Yes, that one pulled a little tear-welling from my eyes.

Then we're swiftly off to Gringott's Bank, where Harry, Ron (Polyjuiced into a Death Eater), Hermione (Polyjuiced as Bella LeStrange) and the goblin Griphook sneak into the belly of the bank and fight the single most beautiful interpretation of a dragon I've seen on film and various random characters who try to stop them from pilfering through the LeStrange vault. Oh and that dragon? Beautiful, but very, very vicious.

Once the trio have captured Voldemort's Horcrux (Helga Hufflepuff's golden goblet for those of you taking notes), we see the beginnings of Voldemort's deterioration. In the film, much less so than in the novels, with each discovery of his Horcruxes Voldemort becomes that more demented, that more unstable. He is quickly realizing that he isn't as clever as he once believed and the result is his loosening grip on what he thinks will tether him to life. His psychotic behavior becomes, if you can believe it, more erratic and a random Death Eater or two feel the sting of that.

The trio descend on Hogsmeade and we finally meet the only Dumbledore left: Aberforth. Playing Aberforth is CiarĂ¡n Hinds and he is so convincing that I wonder if he isn't really Michael Gambon's (Albus Dumbledore) Doppelganger. We hear Aberforth's argument for 'giving up and going home' and Harry's immediate 'not going to happen' response, but the details of the Dumbledore family's tragic past is glossed over, as is the basis of the two Dumbledore brothers bitter relationship. However, this scene is done in such a way that I don't believe die hard fans will be dissatisfied. Especially since the appearance of Neville Longbottom in Ariana Dumbledore's portrait leads us to Hogwarts and the bubbling action of the film.

Despite the dark tone of the film, there is humor, given to us, as per usual, by Rupert Grint(Ron Weasley), but what brother wouldn't be offended if his sister completely ignored him in favor of Emo-gawking at her long lost boyfriend?

By this time, we are at Hogwarts proper and quickly subjected to the "new regime" of the school: Snape as Headmaster. Students are lined up, military style, and interrogated by Snape and his Death Eater minions about the presence of Harry Potter in Hogsmeade . With brief prompting for anyone with knowledge of Potter's whereabouts, Harry emerges and proceeds to offer Snape a vicious, (and well-deserved) tongue lashing. They do not, however, duel. That small job is taken over by Professor McGonagall, the ever elegant and brilliant Maggie Smith.

Snape flees, (after receiving quite the magical spanking from our favorite Transfiguration professor) and McGonagall directs everyone to "batten down the hatches" and prepare for battle. The castle comes alive...stone guards and imposing statues are animated and students, Order members and staff pull together to construct an amazing protective barrier around Hogwarts.

EDIT: How could I forget? For nearly four books, many true Potter fans have been waiting. There were awkward silences, years and years of innuendo and unresolved sexual tension, jealousies and arguing but finally, finally, there it was: Ron and Hermione, in the Chamber of Secrets, nearly dying and then...a kiss. Well, a kiss, a tiny pause of awkwardness and a giant smiling laugh.

There is so much chaotic activity by now, (the castle prepares for war, Harry searches for the one of the last Horcruxes (Ravenclaw's diadem)), that I almost forgot what would happen next. It nearly slipped my mind that Snape would soon die and when the time came, I was a sobbing mess.

For years, readers wondered 'Is Snape really evil?' Certainly, if we followed Harry's perspective of Dumbledore's death, we assumed that he was; that he was truly a vile creature who hated Harry because he played a hand in making Voldemort vanish when he was an infant. But with Deathly Hallows we discovered things simply aren't black and white. We learned that Snape's animosity toward Harry had little to due with Voldemort's destruction and everything to do with simple jealousy. Going in, I knew Snape's agenda...I knew his unyielding love for Lily Potter was the genesis of his hatred; that he protected Harry only because he was the son of the woman he loved from childhood. But seeing it? Watching it unfold, was something altogether overwhelming. I'd be an idiot to discount Alan Rickman's talent. His CV speaks for itself. But Snape's death, which was violent and made crueler by the fact we saw only its silhouette, was a perfect mirror of Rowling's description in the book. There was a vulnerability never present previously on Snape's face...there was pain and a real sense that he had failed Lily when Harry watched him die. And then, there was the 'take my memories' bit and the heartbreaking 'look at have your mother's eyes.'

In that moment, with Rickman's face scrunched in pain and regret, for just a moment, Snape is loved and perfectly understood. On the background of the slow, haunting 'death music' I guarantee you, the only other sound you will hear in this scene is the mass sniffling of hundreds of theater goers.

From this point, I'd advise keeping a tissue, or several, close at hand.

We see Snape's memories-- his history with Lily and their childhood, his jealously over James Potter and his conversations and dealings with Dumbledore once the Potters are marked for death--all leading up to his mad dash up the stairs to cradle the lifeless body of his one true love. And, of course, the revelation that Harry is marked for death.

More sobbing here, more necessary tissues.

And, finally, Harry knows the truth. He is a Horocrux. He must face death and he must not fight back, not just yet.

The sequence is, perhaps, wrong but it is around this time that we learn the long list of the Battle victims.

Fred Weasley. Well, I defy you NOT to cry when George grabs Ron and then he sobs and wails over his dead brother's body. Just not possible, folks.

Lupin and Tonks. New parents, which was only hinted at during the last film. Harry looks at their still, pale bodies and, though I know I missed the other bodies around them, I was transfixed. They were dead, to be certain. I couldn't say for sure what they looked like because, by this time, my eyes were a clouded mess and my vision was obscured by the ridiculous amounts of tears. So. Incredibly. Heartbreaking.

This emotional display was only made worse when Harry tells Ron and Hermione that he has to face Voldemort, that he must go to the forest. Thank you, Emma Watson, for having absolutely no regard for just how good my makeup looked last night. By the time she hugged Harry and the trio said their goodbye, I was quite clown face-looking.

My husband is a blokey-bloke sort of guy. (Bear with me, I am going somewhere). He's not very emotional, not altogether a mushy type, which suites me perfectly. But when we read the Potter novels, there were certain parts in the books that had him cursing AND crying: when Harry returns from the Graveyard in GoF; when James and Lily emerge from Voldemort's wand, when Dumbledore is murdered and, of course, when Harry approaches the Forbidden Forest on his way to face Voldemort and uses the Resurrection Stone to summon his parents, Sirius and Lupin.

The book chapter is titled "The Forest Again," but I like to refer to it as "The Escort of the Dead." Of all the things I eagerly anticipated seeing, it was this scene. Harry turns the stone over and before him are his family-- those who sacrificed themselves, either indirectly or not, for Harry. At this point, Blokey Husband was wiping his face and my shoulders shook a time or two.

The chin quivering started properly as Harry approached Voldemort and was swiftly 'killed.'

Then there was the all-too-brief exposition at "King's Cross," with a much 'Gandalf The White-looking' Dumbledore, the hideous 'last bit of Voldemort's soul' baby which disgusts Harry and we're back in the forest.

Hagrid carries Harry down the bridge, flanked by Voldemort and his Death Eaters and the Order and the students endure Voldemort's ribbing that he has at last killed Harry. (Bonnie Wright, you're on my pffft list as well for making me more of a sobbing mess).

Have I mentioned Neville Longbottom yet? Let me clarify: Neville Freakin Longbottom. I loved, loved, loved Matt Lewis here. Gone forever is the chubby little guy who was always chasing his escaping toad. Vanished is the idea of a shy, timid little boy bitterly encumbered by his awkwardness. Longbottom is a warrior in this film, as he was in the book, and Lewis shines in this scene, his monologue perfection. And. He. Killed. Nagini. Yes, yes, yes!

More battling ensues, Death Eaters flee and Mrs. Weasley, says 'the' line as she kills Bella. Prepare yourself for the entire theater to jump to their seats and sing out choruses of a resounding YES!!!!

Yates took some liberties with the final battle and the only complaints I heard about the film have to do with that. There is no great reveal that Harry is alive in the Great Hall because he and Voldemort partake in a bit of a cat and mouse chase through the castle, in the skies (sort of weird, that) and finally duel each other in the courtyard, alone, in front of the castle. The Elder Wand flies up and is gripped in the hands of its true master and Voldemort disintegrates into ash and his no more.

Harry walks through the Great Hall, smiling at all those who remain, then he and his best friends end up on the bridge, battle bruised but alive, debating what to do with the Elder Wand. Harry snaps it in two and throws it over the bridge and the trio holds hands, taking in all that the day has brought them.

And then...

Nineteen Years Later

Complaints about the epilogue have sounded since the release of Deathly Hallows. Many hated the quick gloss over what happened after Voldemort was vanquished. Readers were robbed of any real closure. There were no funerals, no memorials and any knowledge we received of what happened to those who survived came in interviews from Rowling. But the epilogue was written some seventeen years ago. Rowling used it as a device to motivate her to end her series. She used it as something to look forward to. I assume she wanted to see the finish line while in the midst of all those writing years.

In any event, we knew that Harry and Ginny married. We knew that their children, (James Sirius, Lily Luna and Albus Severus) would make an appearance. We knew that older versions of Dan Radcliffe and Bonnie Wright would emerge at King's Cross to bring the newest generation of Potters-at-Hogwarts to Platform 9 3/4. I personally had little faith that this would be done precisely and without bordering on a bit silly. I was wrong. The actors were aged appropriately and the entire scene was a fitting, happy ending to what had been an exciting, exhausting film. I was pleased to see an older Harry counseling his son on how to avoid or embrace Slytherin House. I was amused to see Ron and Hermione (and even Draco) saying goodbye to their children. But as the camera panned back and the activity around them faded, we see the trio- older, stronger, survivors-- watching as their children take the trip they'd made so many years before. They were saying goodbye, not just to their kids, but to us as well.

Ten years is a long time to invest in a series. There have been moments of exhaustion (I'm pretty sure there were many times my friends and family wished I'd never cracked open the first Potter book). But it was a remarkable ride and this film, was, I think, a beautiful 'tip of the hat' to all of Rowling's readers, all of us who straddle the threshold of fan and obsessed loon and to the the amazing, amazing lady herself.

All was epically well.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Painting Stories #7

What I got:
Her vision blurred and the heavy burning in her gut knotted tight. It had not left her in the hours since he vanished and she suspected it would remain ever present. It crested into her ribs, her heart, until she felt the compression of her chest so that a simple, clear breath was impossible. 'Is this heartache?' she wondered. 'Is this what grief feels like?' The sensation was foreign, something her nomadic, sheltered childhood could have never prepared her for.