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Oh! The Dreaded Adverbial Modifier and Other Writing Sins by D K Elliott

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Oh! The Dreaded Adverbial Modifier and Other Writing Sins by
Article Posted: 05/04/2014
Article Views: 1943
Articles Written: 4
Word Count: 874
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Oh! The Dreaded Adverbial Modifier and Other Writing Sins


I read a novel from my local library by an author with a leading publishing house and was horrified. The story started out with much promise, but rapidly slid into mediocrity amid a stream of adverbial modifiers hung on dialogue citations, e. g.: ...she said witheringly, ?.... ...she added tightly, ?.... ...she promised unpleasantly, ?.... ...said reassuringly, ?.... ...added unhelpfully, ?.... Oh, the pain of it all. Where are Strunk and White—the grammar cops— when you need them? One wonders if the author was too lazy, or too rushed, to “show” and relapsed into “tell”. For example, how does one wither when expressing a point of view? By slurred speech? By sagged posture? By an ashen complexion? Wouldn’t a descriptive expression of the character’s withering be more clear and interesting? After all, clarity ought to be every author’s primary consideration when narrating a story. Would that there were an authors’ guild that could impose remedies for “-ly” infections among its members. This particular author also committed a second sin—strings of dialogue citations shorn of character attribution. Who said that? Again, clarity is violated when the reader must backtrack to figure out who is speaking. This problem doesn’t arise when there are only two characters conversing, and their expressions clearly indicate who is speaking, but it certainly presents a problem when there are multiple characters in a scene and all may be participating. When in doubt, always attribute dialogue to a character, and be considerate of the “patient” when serving up large dosages of dialogue. “She sighed...” “He sighed...” Everyone in this story is sighing. Dear authors, please eliminate sigh and sighing from your vocabulary except where the character is depressed, yearning or ill, and even then, use it sparingly. I found another impediment to enjoyment of this author’s literary style—exhaustive description of every character, minor as well as major. I really didn’t care to know the color of the corpse’s hair and eyes, or whether he had bushy eyebrows, or about the tie he wore, particularly when these items have nothing to do with furthering the plot. Each character introduced need not be described as if one is preparing a “Wanted” bulletin. One or two descriptive characteristics ought to be sufficient for the reader to visualize the individual. Some critics even suggest avoidance of any character description. Allow the reader to imagine the character based on behavior and attitude. Instead of serving up a whole hog portrayal of a character in one bite, whet readers’ appetites with subtle hints that pique their curiosity: Who is this character? What role is he to play in this story? Structure events in ways that reveal the character and his role at appropriate beats in the story. Painting a picture of every scene in the novel with irrelevant details also detracted from my enjoyment of the story. If two characters meet outdoors to exchange points of view about a murder, I really don’t care that it’s a partly cloudy day, if gulls are flying overhead, or a man in the background is repairing his boat. When the protagonist meets with a character in her home to probe for clues about the murder, I’m not interested in every detail of the furnishings in the home, the items hanging on the hall clothes rack, or the views from the windows. That type of writing is nothing but filler. I recall Truman Capote’s criticism of another author’s work: “That’s not writing, it’s typing.” I feel the same about this author’s writing. Employ Occam’s razor to every scene and retain only those descriptions that advance, or enhance, the story’s plot—the characters and the action. Don’t overlay the story with interior design exhibits, or community publicity, that detour the reader from the story. The purpose of editing is to correct these deficiencies in writing. Why they were not addressed here, raises questions about the publisher. Does the pressure to turn out books by authors with a following, in pursuit of profit, drive the publishing business to the detriment of quality literature? I can see this type of inferior writing coming from self-published authors, but not industry leaders. Leaders have a responsibility to raise the bar of literary excellence in published works. Further, reviews of this book by correspondents in the media failed to point out these deficiencies and, instead, “marketed” the book with carefully worded praise. Reviewers have a responsibility to expose poor literary execution when they see it, else the quality of literature suffers to the detriment of culture. Publishing industry capacity has exploded with the advent of self-publishing, lowering the quality of literature flooding the marketplace. Book reviewers serve as gatekeepers between publishers and the public. Reviewers must, first, be conversant with the principles of quality literature, and, second, be dedicated to candid critique of published works if they are to fulfill this role. Perhaps certification is called for to provide quality control in the industry. A board of literary artists from academe and the industry may be necessary to accomplish this end. Unless something is done to raise the bar for published works, a Gresham’s Law for literature will ensue—poor literature will steadily drive out quality literature. D K Elliott

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