Thursday, June 25, 2015

Style: Are We Being Robbed? by Jeanette Grant-Thomson


I love writing and reading. I love slipping into the world of the novel with its believable characters, its enjoyable setting, its gripping story. Unique well-written styles delight me. I enjoy words and I enjoy writers who obviously do too.

But during the past, say, fifteen years, there’s been a difference. I wonder if we’re being ripped off. With the emphasis on ‘tighten it up’, ‘delete every unnecessary word, especially adverbs’, has sometimes come a blandness, a lack of individual style.
I would like to – realising these are just my own views and not gospel – express my feelings about the current trend.

Why the push to write so succinctly?
We are told: We live in a fast-paced society.  Nobody will take the time to read your novel if it is written in a leisurely way, with adverbs dangling everywhere.  It’s action readers want. It’s a text message world. People want facts delivered fast and hard. It’s even been whispered: the Real Reason is that publishers have to save money on printers’ ink! Seriously (woops, another adverb!).

I see their points.

But nothing quite replaces a good book which creates a world where you can escape for that precious time of unwinding at night. So let’s have a look at a few of the contemporary authors I’ve really enjoyed – and who are also best sellers. I applaud these writers who have felt free to ignore the current trend and wend their way patiently through descriptions, adverbially modified where appropriate, and to repeat things for effect. To write with their own distinctive style.

Kate Morton, author of The Shifting Fog, The Forgotten Garden and a few others. Kate rambles, gives plenty of details, takes her time in getting to the first pivot point of the story arc (I wonder if it may be too long but I so enjoy the journey, I forgive her), and she periodically addresses the readers.
She takes us into the magical worlds of her characters and her 500plus page novels are captivating reading. I willingly suspend my disbelief! (Did anyone else have an urge to pray for Eliza, in The Forgotten Garden, when she is about to make her final disastrous decision?)

Then there’s Alexander McCall Smith, particularly in his first five or six Botswana books – his quaintness of style, his creative use of words, his wonderful character Precious Ramotswe, all are a delight and take one into the ‘dry, aching land’ of Botswana with its ‘vast empty sky’. Its characters talk like many people do. “It’s just like that, Mma. It just is.” All set amid adverbs galore.

Why delete adverbs? They – well, they modify!
‘Find a better verb,’ you say. Sometimes this works. But I prefer fluid, textured prose with a sprinkling, only where appropriate, of adverbs.
 Recently I read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. The first several hundred pages of this gripping testimony are almost devoid of adverbs and despite the   wonderful story, I felt the prose lacked texture. It was hard and staccato in this part. Well . . . I thought so.

There’s definitely a place for simply-written, fast-paced novels. I’m sure they will continue to be popular. But give me a novel that feels free to break the current rules and leads me into its special world with the author’s individual writing style and well-rounded characters. 


Jeanette Grant-Thomson, a Brisbane author, has been writing in various genres since she was a child. She began book-length works with her biographical novel Jodie’s Story, published in 1991.Her most recent novel is Lantern Light, set in PNG and Brisbane in 1972-4.

24 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for this post, Jeanette--sounds as if we are something of 'kindred spirits', as Anne of Green Gables would say. I almost laughed out loud when I read how you felt like praying for Eliza in 'The Forgotten Garden', as I can totally (adverb!) relate. I love Kate Morton's books. And I have quite a few of Alexander McCall-Smith's 'No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' books too and thought, last time I read one, how he sticks to his own individual, quaint style--and it works. But, like you, I can understand the push to write more succinctly (whoops, another adverb!). I have a sister though who said to me when I told her how authors have to be careful with adverbs these days and delete unnecessary words, 'Oh ... you mean you have to "dumb it down" for your readers?' Hmm.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What a delight to read your comment, Jo-Anne! Yes, I have several of Kate M's and Alexander Mc's books. And Anne of GG was one of my formative figures, back long ago! I still like those books. Some people never give in to age! Thanks!

      Delete
  2. So refreshing and politically incorrect, Jeanette. I think the 'stink' about adverbs is silly. I use descriptive verbs when I can and adverbs when it would take too many words not to use them. Yes, by all means once we find our 'voice' stick with it, as we're all unique beings with original ways of describing things.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I typed in a reply and it vanished. Me and technology! Just saying yes, I'm not great on politically correct. Thanks for commenting.

      Delete
  3. Yes, I'm afraid being politically correct is not my strongest point. I do enjoy various authors' voices, if I think they write well. Rules or minimal rules.Thanks for commenting!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Oh how delightful Jeanette. I love your honest to goodness, honesty (politically incorrect is okay with me). I agree with Jo-Anne, I think we must all be kindred spirits to some extent. I adored "Anne of Green Gables" and continue to whenever I get the chance. I had "The Forgotten Garden" down as 'reading' in Goodreads, but removed it when I ran out of time. I think I must put it back now and get the reading done, as it sounds wonderful. I love to describe, elaborate, adverbalise, adjective-erize etc. Oh look I am now inventing words - this is what this craft does to me. Please Lord - "I just wanna be me!" ♫♫♫

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Reading Anne of Green Gables series with my daughter a year or two ago - I was surprised at how modern her prose is - she generally sticks to Anne's point of view (only rarely uses omniscient) and despite her exquisite descriptive passages that add to the joy of reading the books & the sense of place - she doesn't pile up the adjectives or use a lot of adverbs.

      Delete
    2. Josephine, The Forgotten Garden is my favourite Kate Morton. A wonderful book.

      Delete
    3. Mine too, Nola. Then The Shifting Fog.

      Delete
  5. I hear want you are saying Jeanette - and I have often bemoaned the straight jacket of modern stylistic rules along the way myself. But saying that - I believe that understanding the logic behind the 'rules' has actually made my writing stronger. No one has ever accused me of a sparse style. Hemingway is not my muse - I'm much more into lush, descriptive prose. Yet I can achieve that without peppering my prose with adverbs. In fact, when we do away with 'lazy' adverbs that describe speech or action- and use action or description ('show rather than tell') we often need to write more not less. Strong verbs and nouns can be more immediate and vivid.

    I'm not suggesting that all adverbs should be eliminated from our prose - but I do think every one needs to have an excellent reason for being there :)

    I do tend to agree that not all stories need to be shoe-horned into a strict 'hero's journey, 3 act climatic structure - with a turning point at 50% & the climax at 80%' etc etc. 'Slice of life' structures like Alexander McCall Smiths' No 1 Female Detective Agency is a classic example (though even he sneaks in an overarching plot arch at least in his first book). Maybe, (heresy) it’s possible to have a multi-climatic structure. Still, having an understanding of character arcs and narrative arcs and different plot structures is, I believe, helpful. As readers, we often have an intuitive understanding of that anyway.

    I think it helps to know the rules, to understand why they are there, so that we know when it works to break them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree on the whole. Like painters have to learn to draw a horse before drawing an abstract one. but I love individual styles, if written well (i e, if they work for me). These rules re adverbs etc are all fairly recent. It may be a phase. Just a possibility!

      Delete
    2. Yes, I'm sure elements of it are a phase - styles change over time though there are also commonalities.

      Delete
    3. Hi Jenny - Yes I agree that it's important to know why the rules or conventions are there before breaking them. I like Jeanette's art example too. I went to an abstract acrylics class once where the presenter showed us lots of great abstract techniques, and her own abstracted versions of animals and birds were brilliant. I was surprised when I looked through her sketchbooks in the break and discovered that she was very realistic in her drawing - perfect perspective and line. She knew what to do and then abstracted it for her paintings. I think the same could be true for writers. I think you can tell the difference if you're reading the work of a really good writer who breaks the rules vs someone who doesn't know what they're doing. Oops - maybe I've just been politically incorrect :)

      Delete
    4. Isn't it hard to say what you mean without being politically incorrect! I agree re the art and that's interesting. Thanks for commenting.

      Delete
  6. I there there's always a balance with these things. Some are okay, certainly within dialogue, and if a writer is skillful enough, often they will pass unnoticed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. yes, that's for sure. I think it is important not to have characters speaking according to the rules. I like them to have their own voices and sometimes quaintness.

      Delete
  7. I have to say I agree with you Jeanette. Pretty much! :) I have been enjoying some of LM Montgomery books of late and have realised how much freshness there is in her books with the use of the omniscient POV and use of adverbs. I sighed to myself realising that the author I'd most like to write like is LMM but in the current writing world such writing is slashed with a red pen.

    So - thank you for your post which resonated totally with my own thinking.

    I do know that writing succintly has its place. Showing and not telling creates vivid writing. But I read all kinds of books (some of which you mentioned) and note that they have got away without the modern day RULES - something you and I cannot do if we strive to get published in the 2015 world.

    So thank you - I found your blog a breath of fresh air. Bless you Jeanette. I think I have been robbed! :)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks so much, Anusha! you're a real encourager. I'm glad you agree with most of what I've said. Yes, definitely a place for succinct writing. If I were as famous as Kate Morton, I'd experiment with words like she does. But I'm not!

    ReplyDelete
  9. A great post Jeanette and it's certainly created some good discussion. I have all of Kate Morton's books and all of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Series books (except the last one) and I know what you mean. I think the leisurely style of Alexander McCall-Smith really fits the pace of Botswana, which is his setting. I know when I read the first of those books, I kept thinking 'Gee, he'd better hurry up or Mma Ramotswe won't get the crime solved in time'. But then I realised it wasn't that sort of book and I've kept reading (for the next 14 in the series!). So perhaps expectations have a lot to do with it. If I'm reading a suspense novel, I don't want to keep being slowed down to hear how nice the flowers in the garden are. But if it's a different sort of book, I'm happy to meander with the author if the writing is good.

    To me it comes down to what's important for the story. Everything needs to be there for a reason, whether it's to progress the plot, tell you more about a character etc. So I'm happy to read two pages of Mma Ramotswe having a cup of bush tea, but might not be happy to do that with another book.

    Also, I think it's important not to confuse tight writing with length. I've read all of Kate Morton's books and I think she still writes tightly, even though she has some lovely descriptive passages. There's always a lot of plot in a Kate Morton book. On the other hand, I've read short stories of less than 2000 words that have rambled unnecessarily (Whoops - adverb!). I think one of the reasons the 'fewer adverbs' convention came in is that sometimes it can be lazy writing. But there are other times when it's just the right word, so as Lynne said, balance is necessary.

    Good on you for getting us all thinking, Jeanette. You've done fantastically, amazingly, politically incorrectly :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Nola. And thanks for helping me through the hoops to get my post up there! I do enjoy the cosiness of Kate M and Alex Mc for bedtime reading. I suppose it is a relaxing read and that's what I want at that time. The style is relaxing ( except near Kate's climaxes) - is that the right plural?

      Delete
  10. I take your point, but not all readers are the same (which is a good thing). My mother in law loaned me the first AMS book - she'd loved it, because it brought back pleasant memories of visiting that part of Africa. I didn't love it. I read the first of his Scotland St series as well, and liked that even less.

    If you want to publish through a publisher, you need to follow their "rules", because that's what their readers expect. Self-publishing gives you the freedom to create your own rules ... and find readers who like that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for commenting, Iola. I agree - different readers, different styles will appeal. I don't like the 'Scotland books' either. But I love the individuality in the Botswana ones. I have never self-published as it was not such an acceptable option when I began doing book-length works, as it is now. I have had several books published over the years. I hope not to have to self-publish!

      Delete
  11. You rebel you Jeanette!
    One of my favourite mentors, a successfull Australian children's author, told me to be succinct. During our workshops, she mercilessly deleted virtually all my adverbs in virtually all my work. It really made me think and moulded my writing to a better style and to be .... yes more succinct. I am really grateful to her as I am grateful to you now for giving me permission to break the rules every now and then. Thank you Jeanette!

    ReplyDelete
  12. I do believe in being succinct! I go through manuscripts several times and delete lots of words. But I like individuality. Thanks, Mimi!

    ReplyDelete