When Two Adjectives Go Walking…

As I wrote in my last post, I’ve spent a fair bit of time this past week over at Critique Circle reading and commenting on various stories posted there. Of course this brings thoughts about improving one’s writing — which will now spill into this post.

I’ve posted my own story and gotten seven critiques. WONDERFUL! Being critiqued has been good for me. For one thing, I’ve had to go back to grammar books and other published authors to study up on the acceptable use of commas. Tricky little things. When it comes to separating clauses, there seems to be no uniform rule of, “Yes, one here,” or “No, none there.”

One of the things I often note in my critiques is the overuse and/or duplication of adjectives. Some genres tolerate more descriptive adjectives than others, but I do like the advice I once heard from some well known writer:
“Imagine you’re buying your story words for $1 each. You won’t want to buy more than you need.”

If you had to pay for words, you’d want to make sure each word is doing its job. You won’t want to pay for a bunch that need others to lean against because they don’t say enough on their own.

Mark Twain: “When you see an adjective, kill it.”

I’ve modified this bloodthirsty ink-thirsty version and adopted this maxim:
“When two adjectives go walking, flatten one.”
A little less gruesome, don’t you think?

Last year my husband enrolled in the Jerry Jenkins School of Writing and we both benefited from his lessons on “Becoming a Ferocious Self-Editor.” He gives demonstrations along with explanations, taking the first page of someone’s story and hacking it to pieces showing how it can be tightened.

When it comes to adjectives, he quotes another writing guru — sorry, I forget who — saying: “One plus one equals one-half.”
The idea being: when you use two adjectives, you weaken the effectiveness of both. Choose the most powerful and cut the other.

For example: The neat, tidy little cottage sat at the edge of a tenebrous, spooky forest.
I’d go with tidy, which means neat. A cottage is automatically little, so cut that, too.
Tenebrous means dark or murky — and dark murky places usually are spooky. Spooky places are usually dark and shadowy. Pick one or the other — preferably the one most people will understand.

Tom was a pompous, dictatorial boss who loved nothing better than ordering his cowering underlings around.
Dictatorial means ordering others around. Don’t throw this word away, though. Chances are, it will fit in nicely elsewhere.

Raiva was a loquacious chatterbox, always running on at the mouth.”
Here you have not only and adjective repeating the noun, but an adverb clause saying the same thing.
I’ve cut loquacious. Erudites like big, fancy words but the average reader may get a bit (cut qualifiers, too) ticked off if they have to stop and look up loquacious in the dictionary. A few fancies may be okay, but don’t make a practice of throwing in humongous, supposedly-impressive words.

I just read a piece which included the word pulchritudinous. My first thought was “ornery” but I decided to look it up and be sure. According to vocabulary.com:
“Even though it looks (and sounds) like it would describe a disease or a bad attitude, pulchritudinous actually describes a person of breathtaking, heartbreaking…beauty.”

Most readers will guess. They’ll read “Joe had a contentious nature.” And they’ll think, hmm… Sounds like content. Must be Joe’s easy-going.” If you do use an unusual word, give the reader a clue in the context.

But I digress. Let’s get back to Raiva the blab. Cutting the excess, all we have left is, She was a chatterbox. Or, Raiva was always running off at the mouth.

Instead of telling this fact, we could show it like so:
Pam and Bev sat in Bev’s living room drinking coffee when they saw Raiva coming to the door.
Pam nudged Bev’s arm and said, “Here comes Miss Mouthpiece.”
Bev rolled her eyes. “Gossip, her specialty.”
(Or, “Advice her specialty,” depending on which impression you want to convey. And check if it needs a comma after Advice. Or not?)

Truth Dawns Slowly

When we were thirteen, the whole world revolved around us.
When we were twenty, we worried very much
about what others thought of us.
At age forty, we no longer cared quite so much
what others thought of us.
By the time we reached sixty, we didn’t
give a rip what folks thought of us.
When we hit seventy, we finally realized
they haven’t been thinking about us at all.

A Vital Question

Word of the Day prompt for today is PITHY.

Another word I’ve read often and understood in context, yet never stopped to examine in detail. I was thinking it means a snappy comeback; a blunt, even biting remark. My Collins Canadian Dictionary defines it as “terse and full of meaning.”
(This dictionary sticks quite close to “terse” itself, actually.)

Anyway, I hope this not-quite-haiku will qualify as PITHY:

I hear the owl call my name.
At least it’s asking, “Whooo
do you think you are?”

Rectitude & Security

The Word of the Day prompt this morning is RECTITUDE

This is one of those words I’ve known and seen often over the years. A fine word, but far enough out of my normal realm of speech that I wanted to look it up before I start writing.

Nelson-Gage Canadian Dictionary says:
1) Upright conduct or character; honesty; righteousness
2) Correctness, especially of judgement, procedure, etc.

Rectitude may sound like a rigid, stuffy word but, in reality, our society functions on the principles of rectitude. The economy ceases to function, lives are put in danger, and relationships break down when people stop being honest, careful, or correct.

People may make fun of folks who are “a stickler for rules.”
They may say, “It’s not such a big deal to cut corners. Everyone does it.”
They may think, “Being that hung up on honesty is so old-fashioned!”
Or, “If it feels good, do it.”

But this nonchalance is a bit hypocritical. Where it REALLY counts, we all demand integrity.

For example, would you mind very much if your bank teller takes a rough guess when adding up your balance? If you comment on the discrepancy — after your cheque bounces — and she says, “So what if I was out a few dollars,” will you say, “No, that’s fine.”

What if you‘re on the operating table being prepped for the bi-pass that will save your life and your surgeon leans over you and says, “I’m going to take a stab at it, but I have to admit I had other issues going on so I skipped out on the classes where we learned how to do heart surgery?”

My mind goes back to a young girl I worked with for a time. She was cheerful, a good worker, and ready to agree to whatever you asked — but commitment meant nothing to her. I observed this on several occasions. For one thing, she promised to join me and help out at a charity function. Totally agreeable to do it, but when the day came she never showed.

Even the commitment to be at work wasn’t always a priority. One day our boss at the Doughnut Shop had to call someone else in to work because this girl hadn’t showed up. Her excuse later was, “I’d promised to drive my aunt to Yorkton this morning.” (A small city three hours away.)

Having developed this attitude/lifestyle, I wondered how seriously she’d take car payments, a marriage commitment, family obligations?

Over the years I’ve seen that even people who are quite indifferent about honesty and integrity still expect this discipline in others. One acquaintance who thinks nothing of bending the truth or telling an outright lie if it’s convenient, gets furious if she finds out someone has lied to her.

People who cut corners themselves still go to a doctor and expect a thorough exam and an accurate diagnosis, not some nonchalant guess as to what may be the problem. They expect their optometrist will give them the right prescription for glasses and their dentist will fill the right tooth. They count on the pilot of their plane to follow all the safety guidelines and not just head out without proper clearance, hoping for the best.

As easy-going as she was in her commitments, my co-worker would have been furious if she’d had to stand at a bus stop for an hour in the rain because the bus driver decided to stop in and visit his mother on the way to work. Or if she’d been flying to Toronto and ended up in Edmonton because the pilot felt like going there instead.

Most of us go to work and we do our job to the best of our ability because other people depend on us, not just our bosses but the consumers of what we produce.Try telling a reader that a few dozen spelling errors and typos should be okay in a book—and see what he says.

In countries where people aren’t very conscientious and cut corners to save themselves a buck or two, some stress comes up and the lack of integrity costs lives. In Haiti, for example, builders who used poor quality rebar and cement, saw their buildings pancake when the earthquake hit. People were trapped and crushed to death because of poor quality materials.

Even if we don’t like them, most of us understand the importance of specs. We don’t steal because we’ve grasped a basic principle: “What goes around comes around” and we don’t want to be stolen from. We’re honest with others because we want them to be honest with us, and trust us. If we find out someone isn’t honest or trustworthy, we soon limit our contact with them.

There is a certain sowing and reaping going on in this world. I’ve lived long enough to see people receive a fitting reward for their actions.

In one place Jesus touched on the matter with these words:

“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” Galatians 6:7

Rectitude. Personal integrity. Honesty. Commitment. Carefulness. Old-fashioned virtues that make our society a safe and secure place to live. And they will for hundreds of years to come — if we can pass them on to the next generation.

Being Inscrutable

When I saw Fandango’s word for today, BEING, I thought the passive voice in writing, and of this tongue-in-cheek discourse I once wrote. Warning: confusion ahead. 🙂

A PASSION FOR PASSIVE

Attending a writing workshop, the subject was raised as to passive voice, herein referred to as PV, versus the active voice. It was explained to us by the workshop leader that the PV is seen as a grave error by modern editors.

It was explained to us by our instructor that the verb “to be” is always used (by writers) to form the passive voice. Hence, we were told, a careful examination must be made of each “to be” verb in every form — is, are, was, were was, etc— lest a passive voice be allowed (by carelessness) to slip in. In fact we’re urged to avoid the state of being verbs in general, to use went instead of was/were going, go instead of am/are going, etc.

Later, while a lovely walk in the country was being enjoyed by me, my mind was being teased by a brilliant idea: a writing should be composed as completely in the PV as possible, that its virtues may be lauded (by me). Thus this writing is being offered to you as an alternative to thinking being promoted by short-sighted editors.

(Wherever a slip into the active voice is deemed necessary, proper notice will be given by the initials “AV”.)

The passive voice is formed when the subject of a sentence – the doer of the deed – is obscured (by the one telling the tale) somewhere among stated or implied end-of-sentence phrases, while the object of the sentence has been forced (by the writer) to lead the way. Whenever such convolutions are made in sentences (by said writer), there must always be a “by” — stated or not. For purposes of clarification during this whimsical writing, these shall be duly marked (by me) in brackets.

Hence the AV construction, “I slipped on a banana peel” is turned into the passive “A banana peel was slipped on.” By me, but that part need not be added, lest (subjunctive) I appear rather clumsy. After all, it might have been dropped by someone else, which (AV) makes it their fault anyway, right?

During our workshop it was explained to our instructor that the passive voice can be used (by writers) to remain anonymously humble – or leave someone else anonymously humble. The self-promoting “I” can be buried forever (by the writer) in the “back forty” of the sentence.

And not only “I + me” but any other indication of something outstanding being done by someone among us. Several reasons may be offered (by whoever wants to) for this: if some action has been taken (by whoever) that may be deemed (by the hearer) offensive, the perpetrators can be forever hidden (by the teller of the tale.)

Likewise, a solution can be found (by someone) without any congratulatory pat on the back (by recipients) to the finder. And if it was a poor solution it will be unknown (by the ones upset) on whom to put the blame. Thus the most words can be used (by the prudent) with the least information actually being revealed. This same policy has been specialized in by government officials for ages.

Passive voice can also be used (by writers spilling their lifeblood–or someone else’s) to avoid humiliation or acrimonious litigation. “Suggestions were made about the Mayor’s involvement,” sounds much safer than to have it admitted (by some blabbing reporter) that “Tom Smith suggested (AV) the Mayor was getting a kickback (from interested investors).” Especially if Tom Smith and/or the Mayor could sue. And if the investors are named, they might sue (AV) as well.

Of course, objections to the use of PV are usually raised by word-count-conscious editors. The most said (by writers) using the least number of words remains ever (AV) the passion of those insensitive red-pen types. That all shall be blabbed up front (by the writer) — subject first — is insisted upon (by modern editors)!

Nevertheless, a continuous demand shall always be held forth (by those afraid of offending) for the obscurity of PV. So let it be learned by us to execute it well in our writing endeavours. Should it be wished by modern editors to execute it literally, theirs will be the loss in the end. Much will remain unwritten to avoid embarrassment.

NOTE:
Dangling &/or confusing clauses are often (AV) one undesirable result. By using great vigilance, avoidance of these can be accomplished.

Anonymity is wished for by the author lest she be blacklisted by the aforesaid editors.

Mashed Up Musings

Rambling Thoughts on Genre Mashups

Puzzling.jpgYesterday over at The Write Practice, the subject was genre mashups, something I’d never hear of before — at least not by that name. The concept of taking a story and retelling it in another genre is familiar. For example, telling the story of Cinderella as a news report.

In this Write Practice post “The Magic Violinist” is suggesting mixing genres like fairy tale + sci-fi, romance + thriller, classic + contemporary. Oliver Twist meets his Mafia Godfather. That type of thing.

I read a book recently where one of the main characters is an author and in her novel Jane Austen is captured by space aliens. The title of the book will give a clue as to how successful she was at getting it launched. The Rejected Writers Book Club (Southlea Bay) by Suzanne Kelman is a funny, though none-too-believable, tale with a mixture of zany and normal characters. I found it delightful.

Mixing genres is an intriguing thought. Even in straight fiction, there are some tales I think would benefit from a dash of something else thrown in. For example, Wuthering Heights — one book I disliked extremely. I read the thing all the way through, hoping poor Heathcliff would get a grip, but there was just no improvement.

It’s billed as a romance — but I saw no actual love anywhere in its pages. Jealousy, greed, snobbery, obsession, fury, cruelty, revenge, yes. Love, no. I think Healthcliff might have benefited immensely by a visit from those three Spirits of Christmas who brought Ebenezer Scrooge to his senses in A Christmas Carol.

I think a lot of mashups of the old classics have already been done a zillion times. There are many contemporary, sci-fi, fantasy, and western versions of Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Pride + Prejudice, Romeo & Juliet, and Hamlet floating around.

Just for the fun of it, here are a few mashups I came up with:

Lord Peter Wimsey is sent to investigate the assassination of the King of Scotland and the murder of Banquo. He deduces from various clues that MacBeth is the guilty party…
or
Miss Marple, a good friend of Banquo’s widow, does some snooping and uncovers Lady Macbeth’s duplicity in the assassination of the king.

The Three Musketeers could be three university roommates who join together to prove their favorite professor, accused of being a spy, is innocent.

I’ve never read The Great Gatsby, and the synopsis doesn’t at all inspire me to start. However, one of the three male characters could meet up with the three spirits of Christmas and come to see the error of his ways, improving the sad outcome of that story.

On the humorous side, Bertie Wooster could meet up with Ebenezer Scrooge’s three Christmas ghosts and resolve to atone for his former self-indulgent lifestyle. He tries in his inept way to donate time + talent to some worthy cause, but Jeeves has to sort things out when they go awry.

Notes:

Cinderella, an old fairy tale, was recorded by French writer Charles Perrault
Oliver Twist is a classic novel by Charles Dickens
The Little Mermaid was a Hans Christian Anderson tale
Wuthering Heights was Emily Bronte’s only novel
Ebeneezer Scrooge is Charles Dicken’s notorious curmudgeon and tightwad
Pride & Prejudice was penned by Jane Austen
Romeo + Juliet, Hamlet and MacBeth were written by William Shakespeare
Lord Peter Wimsey was Dorothy Sayers’ famous detective
Miss Marple was Agatha Christie’s very successful sleuth
The Three Musketeers was written by Alexandre Dumas
The Great Gatsby was an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel
Bertie Wooster + his valet, Jeeves, were created by P. G. Wodehouse