Can We Steal Success?

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately on a critique site where writers can post work, critique work, discuss writing. And it has been very helpful. It’s made me a more critical reader, more conscious of what I’m reading. But I think that for any writer using a tool like this site, there are two things to watch out for… (Actually, I’m sure there are more and I’ll come up with those as I learn more. For now, I’ve realized these two and have thought a lot about them lately.)

1) Not all rules apply to all kinds of writing. Writers don’t like run-on sentences. But I’m reading We the Animals by Justin Torres, which begins with one of the longest run-on sentences I’ve ever seen. And it’s brilliant. And if he’d posted this work for critique on this very useful site I use, he would have been reamed and called sophomoric and inexperienced. After all, everyone knows that run-ons are bad, right? Not right. Not always. Like the adverb rule I railed about before… no rules of writing are hard and fast. But there are probably best practices. I think the danger of a critique site like this is that we get very comfortable building our ideas of what good writing looks like and then have difficulty accepting someone who is breaking those rules, especially if he or she isn’t an already established and esteemed author. It’s fine for Victor Hugo to spend 100 pages in description at the beginning of Les Miserables, but that would be totally ridiculed if attempted by a fledgling writer working on something new. Start in the action, right? The reader’s not going to sit around for 100 pages for you to paint a scene! You’ll never get it published, Hugo, you silly lout. I think that this kind of blanket criticism leads to more and more people writing in a formulaic way that dumbs down language and limits expression. And that leads us to number 2.

2) There are a lot of popular books out there at the moment that are not exactly, um, high art. They are written…but not necessarily well-written. And they’re fun, and a good read, and an enjoyable story. But they are not what “real writers” want to write. I know that because these “real writers” are drinking their coffee, smoking their cigarettes and bemoaning the lack of good writing out there all over the forums at this critique site. They sit back and wallow in their own brilliant and as yet unpublished words and spit venomous threads about the terrible writing getting attention today, about the stupidity of the audience that they themselves have not yet managed to woo. They cry about the failings of the publishing industry, the consumerism of readers, the lack of writers creating “good work” (the same work that they themselves critique on this site and warn about the use of modifiers and run-ons…) I think there is a real danger in this. Should we not be supportive of those who have played the publishing game and won? How does it hurt me to be happy for EL James? Why should I be upset that Charlaine Harris is doing so well? Shouldn’t I take heart that maybe there is a place for my work if theirs has found such receptive readers? I greatly dislike the jealous poison being spewed by would-be great writers about the successes of those who have managed what they have not. Say all you like about JK Rowlings adverb abuse… didn’t we used to celebrate her for bringing literature to a whole generation of kids who we previously believed to be hopelessly illiterate thanks to the advent of computer games and consoles? Isn’t anything that keeps people reading good for all of us?

Just my two cents.

Unapologetically Considering the Use of Adverbs

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve found a happy home in two different critique communities. In both, I’ve found people with great advice, and those with different perspectives than my own — exactly what I went out searching for. But now that I’m subjecting my writing to the critical eyes of many other writers, I’ve been bombarded with the “rules” that I haven’t thought about in a long time.

Don’t get me wrong — I haven’t been writing in the wild west, flagrantly ignoring common rules of grammar and style. But I haven’t been self-editing too heavily while writing the first draft of any of my WIPs.

One of the rules that has been brought up more than once now, and which is a topic of great debate in the forums, is this: don’t use adverbs. This must be a good rule since everyone repeats it. After all, we all know that Stephen King dislikes adverbs above all other parts of speech, saying that the road to hell is paved with them. Or something like that.

And while I agree that using them continually, repeatedly and carelessly (see how I did that there?) can signal a writer unwilling to consider how to make their verbs strong enough to stand alone, I also feel that it’s unfair to cast aside one part of speech altogether. Adverbs, surely, serve a purpose.

Since being reminded of this “rule,” I’ve started reading with an eye toward evaluating how much use these pariahs get in the books that I enjoy. They’re not absent. In fact, they appear frequently in some of the books I like very much. Maybe my tastes are very un-literary. This has led me to believe that we, as writers, should be very careful with these types of “rules,” especially when critiquing the work of others. It is easy to stand with a crowd of self-professed literary types and spout dogma as if it was your own original thought. It is harder, perhaps, to step away from the crowd and see where a writer might be justified in breaking a rule to the benefit of their work.

Adverbs may not be the end all be all of the literary world, but I do believe they have a place there. If you are acting as a critic, be a thoughtful critic. Don’t page through someone’s work on the lookout for broken rules. Take a piece as a whole and try to see what the writer is doing. Give your fellow writers some credit for knowing the same rules you do, and see if they’re using their adverbs thoughtfully. (see how I did that again? I’m lazy. Willfully, stubbornly, admittedly lazy.)

Check out these other writers who defend the lowly adverb. (ha!)

Jan Fields, ICL Web Editor

Lilly Rothman at the Atlantic

Penny, of the Quirky Ladies