Revising Leah

December 22, 2008

Technology, Culture, and Writing Fiction

If you are writing stories set in the present day, as I am, then you’ve probably worried, as I have, about how to refer to (or ignore) information technology and all of the little electronic devices that we carry with us nowadays. Their ubiquity in modern culture causes the fiction writer at least two problems.

First, there is the problem of trying to keep up with technology. Things are changing so fast. Every day there is a new gadget or a new must-visit website, and every day some other gadget that was popular a few years ago falls into obsolescence, or yesterday’s cool website or web app is abandoned as users flock to the next big thing. Writing about young people, as I do, makes the problem even more difficult because fads and tastes change daily, and it is young people who are most likely to embrace whatever is new and fun. For example, when I revised The Spring for publication, I had to insert mp3s and mp3 players into the story in order to bring it up to date, but at the same time, I was careful not to call any character’s player an “iPod”. The iPod might be the dominant brand of mp3 player right now, but that could change in five years. When I mention technology in my stories, I’m careful not to mention specific brands. If I did, it would date the story and limit it to a specific period of time — even a specific year. I want to try to keep my stories as current and “present day” as possible. There will come a time when certain items and activities seem anachronisitic, but hopefully that’s still a while off.

Second, all of this new technology is changing the way people interact with each other. Yes, people still make friends or fight or fall in love, but the way that they do those things is changing. It feels like we’re in a transitional time — or maybe, from this point forward, the only cultural constant will be transition.

Technology wasn’t always moving so fast. Through most of the 20th century, if two people wanted to communicate with each other, they could write letters, speak on the telephone, or meet in person (by car or train or subway). Now, young people don’t write letters, they text each other. They don’t talk on the telephone, they use cell phones. And while face-to-face meetings are still popular (I hope), young people are just as likely to keep in touch with Facebook, MySpace, blogs, or through any number of the various social applications and websites. Their online existence bleeds into their offline existence. But once again, mentioning any of these specific devices or sites or activities by name is dangerous. Right now, Facebook rules supreme, but if (and when) a cooler, better site comes along, Facebook could be a ghost town in a few years. And already blogs and email are starting to seem old-fashioned. How much longer will WordPress last?

But telling a good story means placing human relationships front and center. Even in a story like Leah, which is about a girl who spends most of her time by herself, the relationships that she has — or tries to have — with the other characters is the most important thing. With technology changing culture, and culture changing the way that humans interact with each other, writers are under pressure to adapt how their characters interact with each other while still preserving the results of that interaction: the loving and fighting that has always been part of human culture and literature.

How has our technological culture influenced the way you construct your stories?

(This will probably be my last blog post until after Christmas. After Christmas, I will begin documenting the process of publishing a novel through Lulu. It should be fun. I hope everyone curious about self-publishing visits me again.)

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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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