Dear Writer Revisited: Letter Two

A is for Alive, D is for Dead

Ah the humble adverb... I never knew you were so evil until I went to university and had some learned people tell me so.  You make the difference between purple prose and sharp, pithy, witty opening lines that will con unsuspecting readers into buying my book.  You are a heartless wench.

Letter Two opens with an examination of the un-named writer's first sentence.  Writing teachers will constantly tell you how important the first sentence is, which of course makes it very difficult to put anything down on your blank page at all, because frankly that's a lot of pressure.  What a lot of these teachers leave out (and I notice it isn't emphasized in this chapter either) is that often, the real first line isn't written until after the last one is.  Phew!

So start off with any old line.  It could be the cat sat on the mat, so long as it's not "The hissing, grey and brown Tom Cat lounged luxuriously on Mr McAllister's expensive, hand-wash only Iranian prayer mat."  Because 1) that's very florid and weighed down by evil a-words (we'll get to that in a minute) and 2) because if that's any good, I thought of it and I call dibs.  Ha.

Virginia wants to impress on writer that first lines are VERY IMPORTANT because they set the scene and create atmosphere, but the best way to do this is not with the synonym function in Microsoft word.  She begins her letter with a gentle examination of why Writer's opening scene contains far too many adjectives.  I can only assume that Writer is paying for Virginia's services, because if I were writer, and I'd sent that paragraph to Virginia, rest assured my book would be going straight from slush pile to bin.  Why?  Because adjectives and adverbs weaken prose.  They rob it of it's vitality and originality.  Not because adjectives and adverbs are useless pieces of the English language that should never have been invented, but because most writers don't know how to use them.

A writer who does know how to use them?

Vladimir Nabokov.

Who, me?
 Seriously, go and find your copy and read that first chapter of Lolita.  I'll wait.

Carmel Bird makes Virginia's point very well in this chapter, once again using quotes.  I particularly like the quote from Fay Weldon, that "a weakness is a strength not properly developed."  She then goes on to tell you WHY adverbs and adjectives weaken prose, and sets exercises that help you on your journey to be the master of your descriptive language.

Here are mine:

First, I had to use adjectives to spice up this passage.  My inserts are coloured.

"Pushing her way among the tawny weeds, many of which were covered with pink blossoms, Mary found herself a seat on a rock that had been rolled against the trunk of a rotting tree.  The weeds half concealed her and from the road only her sunburnt head was visible.  A prickly hedge separated the orchard from the fields on the hillside.  Mary intended to sit by the tree until darkness cam creeping over the land, and try to think out some plan regarding her bleak future."

What does adding these descriptors do here?  I hope that it adds some measure of character and situation, while showing Mary's opinion of the landscape through the negative words I've chosen.  But you'll have to tell me if I am right...

The I had to take OUT some adjectives and adverbs, as follows.

The summer-idle water mirrored the towering cliff in a tea-brown pool, and in a small low cave at the crumbling base of the cliff, the soft grey birds were huddling together. 

What do you think?  Too little or too much?  I didn't want to take them all out and risk another Cat Sat on the Mat type story. 

This is another great chapter, building from the basics in a concise and clear manner, linking ideas and following a parallel structure.  I'm expecting great things to come. 

Go on, go find your copy of Lolita and read the first chapter.  I'll wait.  Ser


  1. So glad I can read this book vicariously through you, Emily. Her first book is a real treasure, and this one sounds like a gem, too ...


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