Revising Leah

December 4, 2008

Of Adverbs, Dialogue, and Vampires

I’m always loath to speak ill of another author because I know there is much in my own writing that might cause others to speak ill of me. In the case of YA author Stephenie Meyer, however, here is an author who has made so much money and has so many more readers than I will ever have that I think any negative criticism I might cast her way would be like spitting into the wind. Here in America, pop culture has been all abuzz over the movie based on her first novel, Twilight. Although I don’t plan to see the movie (it doesn’t look like anything I’d want to watch), it’s hard to avoid the media hype. Online and off, I’ve been exposed to news stories about Twilight, and I frequently encounter snippets of Meyer’s writing. I was bothered by something that I kept seeing in what I was reading, so out of curiosity, I acquired a copy of the novel’s text (umm, at the library — yeah, that’s it, I got the book at the “library”).

What I’ve noticed is the frequency of Meyer’s use of adverbs when the narrator describes characters’ dialogue. Here’s a sampling of what I’m seeing; I think the problem is clear:

“I’m not a good hiker,” I answered dully.

“If you don’t tell me, I’ll just assume it’s something much worse than it is,” he threatened darkly.

“Three,” she answered tersely.

“What are you going to do in Phoenix?” he asked her scathingly.

“Do you have room for a few more players?” Laurent asked sociably.

“Excuse me,” she said brusquely to Edward. [“Brusquely“?! Really?]

Now, Meyer doesn’t abuse adverbs in this way all the time, but she does it often enough that it’s noticeable. If you turned it into a game in which you ate a gummy bear after each time you saw an adverb following a line of dialogue, you’d be sick and puking before you finished a chapter.

One thing that I’ve learned over the last year and a half is that when it comes to describing a character’s dialogue, it’s the verb, not the adverb, that makes all the difference. In the second example above, “he threatened darkly”, “threatened” is a perfectly fine verb all by itself. Adding “darkly” seems unnecessary and redundant (when was the last time you were threatened cheerfully?). Less interesting verbs like “said,” “asked,” or “answered” might need some adverbial accompaniment, but I think writers ought to follow Stephen King’s famous advice on this subject and use adverbs sparingly:

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.

I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions . . . and not even then, if you can avoid it.

I prefer to try to use the verbs themselves to convey the feeling, tone, or mood behind a character’s utterance. Of course, sometimes simple, old “said” is the best word for the job, but if it’s not, it isn’t as if there’s a shortage of replacement words to use instead of “said.” Just Google “synonyms for said” and be amazed at the long lists of words that are available to a writer. In fact, I think it’s fun to try to find just the right word to describe how your character is speaking.

Here’s a couple of examples from my own work. The first is from The Spring:

“Wait a minute!” Rachel said, her voice desperate. “What are you going to do? What are we going to do?”

Trey growled, “I can tell you what we’re gonna do. You are gonna go to college, and I am gonna stay here.”

And here’s an example from my current project:

Anytime she spoke it was a big deal for her, so when the coach reached the names beginning with the letter M, Leah took a deep breath and held it until her name was called.

“Nells?”

“Here!” Leah chirped.

In these examples I used the verbs “growled” and “chirped”. “Growled” is the perfect word because that’s exactly what Trey does in this scene. He’s angry, he’s not in the mood to talk to Rachel, and he’s on the verge of losing control over his anger and becoming like an animal. I like “chirped” because I think it perfectly describes what Leah’s voice sounds like as she tries to answer the roll call in the big gymnasium. No adverbs were needed in these two instances because I chose the right verbs.

Of course, King and other writers also warn against using colorful verbs like “growled” and “chirped” too often in dialogue attribution. Indeed, a word like “chirped” is a word that I can get away with using only once in my entire novel. (“Growled”? Maybe twice.) Any more than that and evocative words like these will lose their force, as I’ve noted before.

To be fair, Meyer sometimes chooses the right verb too, but just as often she seems to rely on her adverbs to do the work for her. Perhaps she would have been better served by another round of revision?

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October 4, 2008

Fixing Chapter Seventeen

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 10:15 am
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After the last revision cycle, I found that I have three chapters which are lagging behind the others in terms of improvement: chapters six, fourteen, and seventeen. Before I move on to the next cycle, I’m going to perform some “textual surgery” on these three chapters to try to bring them up to speed. I decided to start with chapter seventeen because it’s an easier job: I only have to fix the first half of the chapter. The second half has been making good progress.

The problems that I’m having in each of these chapters are the same basic problems that I’ve been trying to fix in all of the chapters: stilted language, too much “telling” and not enough showing, and awkward scene construction. For some reason, these three chapters have been resistant to my revising strategies so far. Drastic measures need to be taken.

The first thing I did was to print this chapter out. It’s the first time I’ve printed out a chapter since I began this revising project. Holding the hard copy as it comes out of my printer is an interesting feeling. It’s almost like I’m seeing the story for the first time.

I sat down with the hard copy, a pen, and a highlighter in another room away from my computer. I spent about 45 minutes reading through the passage and marking it up. I highlighted sentences that didn’t sound right to me, and with my pen, I jotted down notes in the margin about what kinds of changes I thought I needed to make. When I was done, I took the hard copy back to my computer and went to work. I opened up a blank word processing document and copied the chapter that I was working on into the new document. This way, I could feel free to experiment with whatever changes I want without worrying about messing up the master file.

I won’t try to describe all the changes that I made, but I will discuss one paragraph that I fixed. Here is what the paragraph looked like a few days ago:

When David, Heather, and Melanie had at last finished eating and moved their trays aside, the conversation shifted to their presentation. Leah perked up and made a show of listening to what her partners were saying. Actually, it turned out that there really wasn’t that much to do with respect to preparing for their presentation, but David said that he wanted to make sure everyone knew their roles and the order in which they would present. He explained that he would introduce the topic as well as everyone else in the group. Alex complained that everyone in the class already knew who they were, but David argued that introducing them would kill some time, so they might as well do it. Then David said that the order in which they tried to read their presentations to the camera yesterday would remain the same except that Alex would talk about his posters after the other four read their reports instead of going first like they had planned to do if their presentation was on video. Heather again reminded them to read slowly to eat up as much time as possible. David agreed. “We won’t make an A if we hurry through our reports,” he said. None of this was news to their ears, but David said it was important to keep it all in mind. Leah made sure she remembered what was said.

Yuck! The scene is boring, there’s WAY too much “telling” going on here, and the third sentence is contradicting the rest of the paragraph. It says that Leah and her partners don’t have much to say, but really, they do.

So how can I improve this? Well, reading it you’ll notice that this paragraph is describing a conversation — there’s even a quote from David near the end. I wondered, if this is a conversation, then why don’t I just turn some of these sentences into dialogue? In a novel like Leah, where dialogue is in short supply, every little bit that I add can serve to liven up the story. Now, I don’t want to go overboard here and try to turn this scene into a really long conversation. The ninth graders’ discussion here isn’t really that important in the grand scheme of the novel, so while I want to insert some dialogue, I also don’t want to lead the reader down a long road that will only lead to a narrative dead end. So here is how I rewrote it:

At last, when David, Heather, and Melanie had finished eating and set their trays aside, the conversation shifted to their presentation. Leah perked up and made a show of listening to what her partners were saying. David said that he wanted to make sure everyone knew their roles and the order in which they would speak. “We’ll present our reports in the same order as we were going to read them on Sunday. Before you read, though, I’ll introduce each of you to the class.”

Alex laughed, “But everybody already knows who we are!”

David shrugged, “It’ll kill time. We might as well do it.”

David also told Alex that they would present his posters last. “That way, we’ll be able to use your posters to stall for time, if we need to.”

Heather again reminded her partners that the best way to stall for time was to read their reports as slowly as possible. David agreed. “We won’t make an A if we hurry through our reports,” he said.

None of this advice was news to Leah or her partners, but David said it was important to keep it all in mind so Leah made sure she did.

Although the revised passage takes up about the same amount of space on the page, it is actually about 30 words less than the original passage. I cleaned up some sentences and deleted that sentence in the original passage that contradicted everything else. The most obvious difference is that I’ve added a lot more dialogue, but notice that I didn’t transcribe every word that the students say. Heather’s comment, for example, is left out of quotation marks. The effect is that I transformed a single, big paragraph into a shorter paragraph and some dialogue, making this passage easier to get through.

Overall, I made a lot of good changes that move the chapter in the right direction. One chapter down, two to go.

September 28, 2008

Dashes! We Don’t Need No Stinking Dashes!

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 2:21 pm
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One of the stylistic decisions that I’ve made in recent years as a writer is to misuse overuse the dash. Technically, a dash or a pair of dashes is used to set off a parenthetical word or phrase from the rest of the sentence. It’s like a parenthesis, except that it suggests a quicker reading pace. You don’t linger on the content surrounded by a dash, it’s just something that has been thrown into the text — almost as an afterthought. I started using dashes more and more just a few years ago. I now enjoy using them so much that I sometimes wish I could use them in place of all commas, semicolons, and periods. I often have to stop myself from using them when a pair of commas or parentheses would be the better choice.

The one place where I give myself permission to use dashes as much as I want is in my dialogue.

If you really listen to people when they speak, you’ll find that people don’t usually speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences. Were you to transcribe a conversation that you have with someone, what you’d see is a “blizzard of words” — to borrow a phrase — that doesn’t necessarily make sense on paper, but in the act of speaking, it can make sense. Language in speech has its own logic — its own grammar — that is different from language in writing. People speak in fragments or run-on sentences or in extremely tortured and convoluted sentences. When I write dialogue, I go out of my way to mess up my characters’ grammar, in an attempt to capture how real people really speak.

But dialogue also screws with the rules and customs surrounding punctuation. Suddenly, in dialogue, question marks and exclamation points seem to pop up a lot more often. There’s still a place for commas and periods, but they’re not quite as discernible and distinguishable when you hear someone speak as when you see a sentence written out.

Speech allows for a number of utterances that are almost never seen in writing. What do we do, for example, when a character abruptly changes the subject, when another idea forces its way into what he or she is trying to say? What do we do when a character is struggling to find the right word or phrase? When you write, you have the luxury of stopping and thinking about what you mean to say. You can check a dictionary or a thesaurus. You can rephrase a sentence again and again until you get it just right. You can’t do that when you are speaking. So how do you capture that element of speaking when you are writing?

I use dashes. Here are a couple of examples from The Spring:

“You’ve been quiet today — what’s the matter?”

“I’m not sucking up — I’m just being nice.”

In the first case, a period would be the correct punctuation mark after “today,” but in this instance of dialogue it might not be the best punctuation mark. The question emerges from the statement. They’re two distinct sentences, yet they’re not. In the second example, a semicolon would make more sense if this were writing and not speech. But you can’t use a semicolon in dialogue because, well, NOBODY speaks in semicolons. I mean, seriously!

Do you find yourself doing anything out of the ordinary stylistically when you write dialogue?

September 3, 2008

How to Speak Without Saying a Word (Things I Like #3)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 2:32 pm
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When should a character speak, and when should they just shut up? When I write dialogue, I sometimes tend to get a little chatty, and I put words in my characters’ mouths that are off topic — that don’t really have anything to do with anything. I can correct such off-topic rambling during the revision stage, of course, but when I’m writing the first draft of a story, and I have two or more characters in a scene together, I feel compelled to let them talk to each other, just as two people in the real world might be compelled to speak to each other.

I like to write dialogue, but Leah is a story that, due to the personality of the main character, doesn’t have a lot of dialogue in it. So writing and revising this novel has actually taught me a lot about using dialogue sparingly and trying to get the most out of as few words as possible. It has also shown me how powerful silence can be both in terms of character creation and plot development.

My favorite passage of dialogue in the entire story comes at the end of the longest chapter of the novel (currently chapter 16). In this chapter, Leah and her partners from history class gather at David’s house on the Sunday before their Egypt presentation is due. They are hoping to put their reports on video so that they won’t have to stand in front of the class and deliver their entire presentation. I like the chapter, and it stands out from the rest of the novel in a couple of ways. First, it’s by far the longest chapter in the story — more than twice as long as most of the other chapters. Second, it’s a chapter that is filled with dialogue — so much that it almost reads like a one-act play. Towards the end of the chapter, as Leah and her partners are waiting for their rides to take them home, Leah has a brief “conversation” with David’s mother. It’s a scene that reveals a lot about the true nature of Leah and David’s relationship:

Heather and Melanie were the first to leave. A gray car pulled up to the house. Leah, the only person looking out the window when the car arrived, was the first to see it, but she didn’t say anything to the others. After half a minute, Melanie noticed the car and said, “C’mon Heather, there’s your mom.” Heather looked out the window and then said goodbye to David. She yelled a thank you to Mrs. Parks in the kitchen for allowing them to use the house that afternoon. Mrs. Parks emerged from the kitchen and said goodbye. Melanie and Heather, with their reports in hand, walked out the door. Leah watched them through the window and felt relieved to see Heather go. When their car drove away, Mrs. Parks said to her son, “David, I want you to go into the kitchen and clean up your mess.”

“OK,” he said reluctantly, and he marched off to the kitchen. Leah stood there, disappointed, for she hoped she might have a chance to talk with David alone, but now she wouldn’t.

A minute later, Alex’s ride arrived. He shouted a goodbye to David who responded in kind. As Alex gathered his posters and the box with his camcorder inside, Mrs. Parks helped him by holding the front door open. When he was gone, she closed the door.

Left alone in the foyer with Leah, David’s mother stared at the silent girl for a moment and then asked, “What’s your name again?”

“Leah.”

“Are you one of Heather’s friends?”

Leah shook her head no.

“Just a classmate then?”

She nodded.

“That’s what I thought. I didn’t think I remembered David ever mentioning a girl named Leah.”

Silence.

“What was all that shouting I heard down here a while ago?” Mrs. Parks asked. “My husband and I could hear it all the way upstairs.”

Leah shrugged. “David and Heather had an argument.”

“Oh,” the woman said. “You certainly weren’t yelling, though. You don’t say much, do you?”

Leah shrugged again.

Mrs. Parks glanced at something out the window. “Is that your ride?” she asked.

Leah looked and saw her mother’s car. “Yes.” She opened the door and started to leave.

David must have heard the door open because he shouted, “Bye, Leah,” from the kitchen.

“Goodbye,” Leah replied, but her voice wasn’t very strong, and she didn’t know if David heard her. She exited the house and gently shut the door behind her.

As usual, Leah doesn’t contribute much to her half of a conversation, but while she doesn’t use a lot of words, she does communicate with gestures (nodding her head or shrugging her shoulders).  There’s one moment, though, when Mrs. Parks innocently mentions that David has never spoken about Leah, and Leah responds only with Silence. She doesn’t speak or gesture or communicate at all. That is my favorite line in this passage because that Silence perhaps says more than any other word or gesture could ever say. In that silence so many things might be occurring, and the silence allows me to leave it up to the reader’s imagination to “fill in the blank” — to speculate and guess what Leah is thinking at that moment. There’s nothing that I, as the author, could have the character say or do at that moment that would be more powerful than to have her say and do nothing but silently ponder the unintended significance of what Mrs. Parks has revealed to Leah: that David has never mentioned Leah to his family and perhaps doesn’t think about Leah at all outside of history class.

So, for those of you writing your own stories, keep in mind that moments of silence from your characters (even characters who are a lot chattier than Leah) can be just as powerful as even the most eloquent statement.

September 1, 2008

Speak Softly and Carry a Red Pen

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:38 am
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One of the advantages of reading a text over and over again as I’m doing with this project is that it allows me to see patterns in the text that I would otherwise probably miss. One type of pattern that I look for when revising a piece of writing is whether I am repeating a particular word too many times.

In the third cycle of revision I noticed that I used the word “softly” to describe Leah’s manner of speaking at least four times throughout the course of the novel. For example, it appears in this exchange with Mrs. Nells:

“Did you have any trouble finding your classes? That school is an enormous place. I remember my first day of high school — or maybe it was junior high — I’m not sure. Anyway, I once got lost on my first day of school and found myself in a class full of juniors and seniors when I was only . . . when I was only a sophomore. Yeah — now I remember: it was high school. I didn’t realize I was in the wrong class until the roll was called. I was so embarrassed!” Mrs. Nells giggled. “I hope you didn’t have any trouble like that?”

“No,” she said, softly.

Now, using a word four times within the scope of an 85,000 word novel to describe how a main character speaks probably wouldn’t be a big deal if that character had a lot of dialogue. But Leah rarely speaks at all in the story (out of curiosity, I’ve been trying to count the number of words that she speaks, but I haven’t got a total word count yet), so when she does speak, it’s a big event. Those four uses of the word “softly” represent a high percentage of the word’s use.

Since I’ve begun noticing the word’s frequent use, the correction that I’ve made in each case has simply been to delete everything outside of the quotation marks, thusly:

“Did you have any trouble finding your classes? That school is an enormous place. I remember my first day of high school — or maybe it was junior high — I’m not sure. Anyway, I once got lost on my first day of school and found myself in a class full of juniors and seniors when I was only . . . when I was only a sophomore. Yeah — now I remember: it was high school. I didn’t realize I was in the wrong class until the roll was called. I was so embarrassed!” Mrs. Nells giggled. “I hope you didn’t have any trouble like that?”

“No.”

I realized that I don’t need the adverb “softly” to describe how Leah speaks because elsewhere in the text I tell show the reader that Leah doesn’t have a very strong voice, and that when she does speak it tends to be in whispers and mumbles (her Egypt presentation is one of the best examples of this). So when she simply says “No” to her mother’s [relatively] lengthy question and anecdote, it is possibly the best revision choice that I could make. That one little word, only two letters long, without the narrator explaining that “she said,” takes up almost no space on the page, just like the rest of her dialogue takes up very little space in the context of the entire novel. It’s simple; it’s elegant; it’s efficient.

August 5, 2008

I’m a Poet

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 12:08 pm
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Reading the story out loud makes me aware of little quirks in the text, such as unintentional rhyming:

She could smell the exhaust of the school buses lined up in the bus depot just a few yards away. She could feel a light breeze on her skin and the warm morning sun, rising in the east, ready to begin this late August day.

But so far, the biggest surprise has been chapter 2. I start the novel, in chapter 1, by jumping right into the action, following Leah and her mother as they shop at garage sales. In chapter 2, though, I violate one of the cardinal rules of storytelling by slowing the story down with narrative exposition that fleshes out Leah’s character a bit more. It isn’t all narrative in chapter 2, though. The last few pages of the chapter find Leah eavesdropping on a conversation between her parents. Their conversation offers a little more exposition, but it’s not so bad because exposition through characters’ dialogue is almost always a better option than exposition through narration. Leah is a difficult character to write about, though, because although the narrative follows her throughout every chapter of the book (possible exception: chapter 17 at David’s house) she rarely speaks, so I can’t use her dialogue with other characters as the vehicle to deliver exposition, especially in the beginning, because the character doesn’t even speak at all until chapter 3 (page 20, to be precise) — and even then she only utters six words.

With Leah, I’m forced to construct her character and her story through narrative exposition and description. Dialogue just isn’t an option most of the time. So as I started re-reading chapter 2, I was worried that it wasn’t going to be very good — that there would be too much exposition, but I was very surprised by how well it sounded as I read the chapter out loud. I’ve done a lot of revising work with that chapter in the first two cycles, and that work seems to have paid off. I even thought that some of the narrative sounded vaguely poetic in places (in a good way). Here’s an example:

Her books were like her friends. She always had a book with her when at home or at school. Whenever she had a free moment, she would read. When she was finished with her homework, or didn’t have any chores to complete, she would read. During lunch at school, while her classmates talked and socialized, Leah would sit by herself and read. Like a young child clutching a favorite doll, Leah always made sure to have a book with her.

Overall, I’m happy with how the chapter has turned out. When I read through it, I made hardly any changes to the text, which means that it’s a little further along than even chapter 1 which I’ve been working on quite a lot lately.

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