Busting Writing Rules: No Adverbs!

A little bit of business before the post:

  • I’ll be guest posting on Anne R. Allen’s blog this Sunday, so tune in for how to conquer your fears of doing a pitch session (or at least not sabotage yourself).
  • My next book in this writing series, to start in November will be Writer’s Toolkit: 12 Tips and Tricks for Pantsers.  No cover yet, but soon.
  • Also drop in and follow me on my eNewletter.  I have one writing link and one Hollywood or science link each week.


Busting Writing Rules: No Adverbs

I used to subscribe to all the writing magazines and “No adverbs” was on every top ten list.  The articles always made it sound like you could zip through your manuscript, searching for words that end in “ly,” zap them, and publication happens.

The truth is something entirely different…

What it Actually Means

First up, if you need a refresher of what an adverb is (and an adjective), head on over to the Owl at Perdue.

If you look for definitions like this, always start with original sources like college sites.  There are a lot of writers who try to define terms without truly understanding what exactly they’re defining (passive voice is an example of that).

The rule itself exists because some writers veer into adverb abuse.  Especially in the beginning of learning how to write, it’s hard figuring how to convey that a character is angry.  That’s the most common example, but you can pick your flavor.

So a story ends up with something like this:

He slammed the door angrily.  “How are we supposed to do this?”

She scowled bitterly.  “What am I supposed to do about it?  It’s your fault.”

“My fault?  If you hadn’t—” He furiously grabbed the magazines off the table and threw them across the room.

By the way, that hurt.  The writing was horrible!

In fact, I think once it’s pointed out, it becomes obvious how bad it is.  So the writers veer from too many to none at all.

Busting the Rule

Our tendency with rules is to isolate an item like “no adverbs” and follow it.  But everything in writing fiction connects to something else.  This rule connects to all of the following:

  • Characterization
  • Description
  • Dialogue

It also picks up the following rules:

What makes it so complicated? It’s just a bunch of words that end in “ly.”

Okay, let’s your character is angry.  How do you show that if you’re keeping description to a minimum?

With adverbs!

But if you eliminate all the adverbs, we circle back around to the original question: How do you show the character is angry?

Both the description, which is a chunk of characterization, and adverbs work hand in hand to build what you’re trying to show.  Zero tolerance is like leaving the salt entirely out of the food and have no flavor at all.

What you can do

  1. Identify if you’re overusing adverbs

    Run a search and replace for ly and add a space after it.  Replace it with a bolded or highlighted version.  If each page lights up like a Christmas tree, then it’s time to figure out why you put them in there in the first place.  But don’t panic if you see a lot of them.  Just refer to the next two steps.

  2. Work on finding adverbs that you can replace with stronger words. 

    This is just a skill that takes a bit of practice.  It’s unfortunately too easy to put in two words describing something when one would be more powerful:

    Original: He ran swiftly.
    Try: He bolted.

    This is NOT about economy of words.  It’s about what words will best convey the image you’re shooting for.

  3. Practice your description skills.

    We all are told to keep description to a minimum because it’s boring.  But it’s only boring if you write it that way.  More tips on writing description are on Rule Five.

Adverbs are an important part of writing.  Use them as a tool.  Your story will love you for it.

Time Management and Fiction Writing

General Business

I’m guest posting on Anne R. Allen’s blog today, 1:00 EST.  The post is on how not to mess on your pitch session.  I ran the pitch sessions for a writing conference and saw a lot of writers sabotage themselves.  Drop on by!

My fantasy short story Words of Rain and Shadows is featured in the RabbitBundle Here Be Magic.  You can get a lot of great stories and discover new writers with RabbitBundles.

And a reminder that you can sign up for my newsletter.  There’s always something about writing for the writings, and a topic about Hollywood or science.

Making Writing A Priority

Every writer talks about finding the time to write.  Some of that is actually putting it on a priority list and doing it.

Most of the time when someone tells me “I’m writing a novel,” it’s taking ten years to write because they surface periodically when inspiration strikes and add a few hundred words.

Everything else is important.

With some people, this is going to be the case.  They want to write one book, and that’s all they want to do.

Indie’s tricker because producing more words is important, especially if you want to write full time.  James Hunter at Superstars said that you have to produce a minimum of four books a year to be successful.

For that kind of goal, writing has to be on the priority list.

Writing and a Day Job

I’m in a periodically crazy and chaotic day job.  Originally, I was breaking under the weight of it.  It was a four-person job on one person.  It made it very hard to write when I came home because the job sucked the energy out of me.

I used as much of the job as I could to learn process and practices that would help me on my writing side.  In fact, I was so desperate to solve the deluge of information that I read every time management book I could lay my hands on.

But time management is a scam.

Yeah, it really is.

All right, you get this guru who gives you a system to follow.  Doesn’t matter which one.

The majority of the systems are about jamming as much as you can into the time you have.  I remember on the Harvard Business Review, when I posted a comment about to-dos (which I despise, by the way), another writer popped up and bragged that she had a tracking system with 900 to-dos.



Been there at work.  Don’t want to be there.

I think if I hadn’t been focused so much on keeping up and instead let everything fall behind, I might have gotten an extra person much earlier. I’d complain about being overwhelmed, but all people saw was that I was getting things done.

I did get help eventually.

What It Taught Me

This year seems to be the year of thinking strategically.

It means turning some things down to do more writing.  Not on the personal side though—I still go out and have fun and yesterday was entirely lazy because of the gorgeous late summer weather.

But it means maybe not taking any classes for a while.  Dean Wesley Smith offered a licensing course, and all I could do was look at that and no…the time would have to come from writing.

It simply didn’t have any value for me at this time.

I also looked at the number of projects I could do at one time: It’s three.

I have the primary manuscript I’m working on (currently Golden Lies), a promotion-focused one (that’s the Busting Writing Rules now), and a floater.  Last week, the floater was a short story for an anthology call.  The floater has also been the short story refresh, which I’ll be getting back to later this year.

It’s hard because I look at the number of words I’m doing and totals I have for Golden Lies—it’s doesn’t feel like I’m making enough progress for the number of words.

But it’s because I’m working on three projects at once.  It’s possible when the Busting Writing Rules finishes up, I won’t have one book done but two.

Alternating between the project requires management of my priorities.

The short story, Alien Pizza, bubbled up to the top last week because I wanted to get it in when the anthology call opened.

Busting Writing Rules bubbles up because of the weekly deadlines to get a blog post up.

Golden Lies fits in the rest of the time.

The Biggest Takeaway?

Do less, not more.

Busting Writing Rules: Keep Description to a Minimum

For September, we’ll have chapters on well-entrenched rules:

  • Keep description to a minimum
  • No adverbs (is that like “no wire hangers”?
  • Only use said for dialogue tags
  • Show not tell

And a reminder that you can sign up for my newsletter.  There’s always something about writing for the writings, and a topic about Hollywood or science.

Off to the first one…

I cringe when I see this advice show up on blog posts and even in a recent craft book. The writers say the following:

  • Keep your setting description to a minimum. No one wants to read about the setting.
  • Don’t describe your characters. Let the reader imagine them. Or, if we are to describe the characters, do it in quick bits here and there, like “she tossed her blond hair.”\
  • Don’t bother with the five senses. Those don’t add anything to the story.
    The problem is that it’s really bad advice.

If you’re getting form rejections, this is one of the reasons. It’s not that comma on page ten.

What it Actually Means

This rule exists because of how description is taught. If you go to a writing class, you’re assigned an exercise like “Describe a village marketplace.”

So you dutifully form a picture of it and describe it like a TV camera panning over the scene. Five senses get wrapped up in this description.

It’s boring.

For a character’s description, this lands us in mugshot territory: He was six foot one, with a medium build. His hair was black and curly, his eyes gray. He wore jeans and a t-shirt.

That’s boring, too!

So what’s a writer to do?

Busting the Rule

No one mentions that description is a big piece of characterization.

Let this sink in for a moment.

If you keep description to a minimum, you undercut your characterization. Writers starting out tend to think characterization is identifying a favorite color, what time the character drinks her tea or the name of her parents.

But if your heroine meets another character and the heroine’s first reaction is that the other character’s hair looks like she put a finger into a light socket–suddenly you know a lot about your heroine from a few lines.

Or let’s suppose your character is out walking and gets a smell of a skunk. His first thought is a memory about his Golden Retriever coming into the house with skunk stink and giving it to everyone in the family. That one even does duty as backstory for the character.

And setting? One person might walk into a room with 1950s decoration and think it’s dated and another finds it a fond memory of their grandparents.

But if you don’t believe me, pick up Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. He talks about it as the “telling details.”

Also bear in mind that if you don’t describe something, you hand over control to the reader.

If you don’t describe your spaceship, the reader is likely to imagine the one they are most familiar with from TV or film. So when your story does pull in the setting for a battle scene, the reader gets thrown out of the story because you didn’t do your job in the first place.

For characterization, common wisdom is that the reader will imagine themselves as the character—except that not everyone does. If you leave it off for this reader, I’m going to feel a lack of characterization. I might or might not stop reading, but I probably won’t pick up another book.

What You Can Do

This one’s pretty simple.

  1. Have fun describing everything–all from your viewpoint character’s perspective.
  2. Huge paragraphs can really slow down your story.

    To keep pacing under control, write a description and hit three aspects. Then have the character talk, or their mind wanders to the problem troubling them. Then swing back for some more description. You can see this is best-selling books. Michael Connelly’s done it to describe Los Angeles while his character drives from one location to another.

  3. All five senses should appear every five hundred words.

    This is really hard to do. But human beings constantly interact with their background. As I write this, a TV is running the news, I hear voices echoing all over the halls, and behind me, air rushes out of a big vent that stands eight foot tall. A man just walked by, his heels clicking on the floor, and a door banged closed. And this is just the sounds!

Immerse your reader in the world around the character right from the start.
For more to read on this topic, check out Do Sweat the Small Stuff from Wylie Communications.

On September 8…

I’ll be doing a guest post over on Anne R. Allen’s blog.

Everyone always talks about doing the elevator pitch at a conference.  No one talks about how to deal with the actual pitch session.

When I was still thinking of going to traditional route, I ran the Washington Independent Writer’s Conference pitch sessions for about seven years.  I saw all kinds of things writers did to sabotage themselves.

So wander by and check it out.

Busting Writing Rules: Make the Character Suffer

One of the interesting aspects of busting all these rules is that they force me to really think about them. This one came into the book because of a trend I’ve been seeing where writers are pushing the envelope and going really dark to make the character suffer. I just stopped reading a series because of that. The writing was really good and engaging, but the escalation of suffering became exhausting.

So let’s head off to bust the rule.

What it Actually Means

Like a lot of advice, this started life in a much simpler version: Don’t make things easy for your character.

  • The mystery should not be too easy to solve.
  • There should be bumps and misdirections along the way in a relationship
  • The character’s own shortcomings should get the way of their success

Busting the Rule

The problem is two different issues:

  1. It’s a trend in today’s society to have darker stories that treat characters as victims, not as heroes/heroines.

    The media portrays people as victims of their circumstances. If someone is broke, it’s because society has done something to him, not because he made poor financial decisions.
    This ends up translating into fiction as lots of bad things happen to the character. It’s not the character’s fault, even though he is guilty of either inaction or bad decisions. So the character bounces along in the story, letting the story have control.

  2. Our society has a “more is better” attitude.

    It’s not hard to see this one everywhere. Just watch commercials for fast food restaurants, or commercials advertising exercise machines. The sandwiches get bigger and bigger and have more and more added to them. The exercise machines are about pushing, pushing, pushing so you get the body you want. (Somehow, no one connects the problem with these two, but that’s another story).

    But more is not necessarily better.

    Readers come to the story because they want escapism and an entertaining read. It’s hard to enjoy the story when the suffering turns ugly.

    One story I read was a detective series, and the suffering started out over the top and got worse. I did not understand why the character would repeatedly put herself through things that were horrifying. “More” made the character into a victim who struggled through life, not a heroine who survived, victorious.

What you can do

  1. “Suffering” does not have to be a negative emotion.

    Your character can have a huge win and the success brings unexpected emotions and complications. When I got my first personal rejection from a pro-rate magazine, it blew me out of the water. I’d improved my writing enough to get to the next step on the ladder! And my writing stalled out for about six months.

    There are plenty of examples of this in real life. You get an interview at your dream job and your nerves get out of hand. You think a relationship is going great and suddenly you do something really dumb to screw it up.

  2. It’s about balance and pacing.

    This is a more advanced writing skill. Pacing is knowing how much to give to the reader and when. Balance is figuring out not only how much to put it in, but also what to leave out.

    In James Rollins’ thriller series, one of the characters has a family crisis in the middle of all the action. His father starts out with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and eventually dies. Most writers would have done all that in one book. But these are fast-moving thrillers and that would have definitely slowed down and even distracted from the book.

    So what we get is a skillful blend into multiple books of this secondary plot happening. There are scenes at the beginning and the end of the story with the family, dealing with the latest complication. Then throughout the story, the character is struggling with his family life while he’s racing against time to save the world. He might be feeling guilty for not being back home and not helping more.

  3. The character must have agency.

    Chuck Wendig has a great definition of agency.

    One of the biggest issues with making the character suffer is that she reacts to the suffering but doesn’t make any effort to change her fate. She doesn’t have any agency.

Readers want characters to be larger than life. We want them to be heroes of their own stories.

If you want to read up more on this topic, head over to Justin Ferguson’s post.

Busting Writing Rules: Write What You Know

When I researched this rule, it was surprisingly hard to find much of anything beyond “Write What You Know.”  It’s on most top ten lists.  Writers get lectured in their critique groups to “write what you know” when they try to go outside their comfort zone.   So this result is inevitable:

  1. I can’t write male characters because I’m not a male.
  2. I can’t write science fiction because I’m not a scientist.
  3. My character can only be a Human Resources Specialist because that’s my day job.

It all starts with what you can’t do. So it has the boomerang effect of writers either declaring you have to do it or to ignore it altogether. The reality of the advice is more in the middle.

What it Actually Means

While researching this rule, I found not a single definition.  Writers talked generally about it, some talked about how much they hated it, but no one talked about what it actually meant.  Most of the discussion was surprisingly vague.  So I’m going to boil it down to the following:

The foundation of your story starts with subjects you are familiar and confident with.  Subjects that only you can and want to write.

What the heck does this mean?!

  1. Subjects you’re familiar with and confident with.

    This part is a surprisingly hard concept to understand.   I started writing when I was eight.  When I turned eighteen, I wanted to branch out into professional publishing.  But what should I write?

    That’s where I ran into trouble because all my experience was childhood.  I tried to push at those boundaries—but with what?  If I tried to imitate the books I was reading, the subjects went way outside my comfort zone.  My first book was a crime thriller…but I knew nothing about how the police worked!

    That created the second problem.  I wanted to write science fiction, but I didn’t have a science background.  I wasn’t at all confident I could even pull off a science fiction novel.

    The result ends up being writers who do their research by watching movies (always a bad idea) or picking topics that require more research than the book is worth.  Or, in my case, not writing books that I really wanted to write.

    But I did have three topics that I did know in and out, even with childhood as being my life experience (and no, it wasn’t childhood):

  • The place where I lived, Los Angeles.  I could have confidently written about that because if I wasn’t familiar with a specific place, I could have easily gone out there and experienced it. I knew the history because it was a required class in school.
  • Hollywood.  I grew up reading about how films were made and the history of the industry.  I might have had to do more research once I started writing the story, but it would have been from the position of filling gaps rather than researching everything.
  • Ghosts.   I grew up reading my mother’s subscription to Fate Magazine and other ghosts stories.  I probably would have enjoyed researching hauntings around Los Angeles.

    Could I have done a science fiction novel with one of those topics?  Yes!  I did ghosts in space, and it focused on later life experience I had: the military.

  1. Subjects you can and want to write.

    This is something that often gets left out.  Some writers write what they think will sell, like a writer who comes up with a romance novel and doesn’t read the genre.  This pushes you out of your comfort zone, but in the wrong way.

    Never compromise what you want to write.

    I subscribe to anthology calls to see if there are any topics I want to do.  Lately though, the calls have been for dark stories, or on a politically-related topic.  I used to write dark because of my Desert Storm experiences, and it’s not a place I want to venture back to.  And I’m not one to get up on a soapbox, so even in the anthology topic is something I could write on, I wouldn’t want to do a political story.

    But you really have to know yourself and what boundaries you won’t cross.

Busting the Rule

 This rule originated as a piece of advice for intermediate and advanced writers.  Unfortunately, it got simplified down to one sentence for all these writing lists—and it loses its meaning.  Kind of crazy for people with their stock in trade in words.

What you can do

  1. Identify subjects that you are familiar with that you can use as a foundation for your story.

    If it’s hard to figure out—it was for me—start with the place you live.  Then look at the types of non-fiction books you like to read.  Are they on Ancient Egypt?  Or the Civil War?  How about the medieval era?

  2. Gain new knowledge.

    Visit a local historical site and soak up the information.  It doesn’t matter what kind of story you write.  There might be a germ of something that you can eventually use in your story. I went to a lecture on Civil War maps.  Who knew that over the next ten years, I would use a single piece of information from it in story after story.

    Right now, I’m practicing basic navigation in the local parks.  That’s something I know I can use in pretty much any story.

    But key is that it should be something you’re going to enjoy doing.

  3. Know what your boundaries are.

That one’s a bit tougher and will probably be developed with more writing over time.  Sometimes you’ll want to push a boundary and get out of your comfort zone, which is always a good thing.  But that internal compass is going to tell you what’s right for you, and there may be a wide variety of reasons.

I saw one political topic and thought, “Yeah, I could do a science fiction story on that.”  I knew I could keep the soapbox out and do a pretty good story.

But I was also pretty sure the editor had a certain image of what they wanted for the anthology and my story would not have fit in.  So then, my boundary was that I didn’t want to write a story that had no chance of getting published.

Sure, I could have indie-published it, but the fact that I didn’t exposed that it was a boundary I needed to stay away from.

If you want to read up on this topic, the non-fiction writing books will be a good place to start.  Non-fiction writers have to have an expertise before writing non-fiction.  Try this book as a start:

  • Write Faster, Write Better, by David A.Fryxell.

Busting Writing Rules: You Must Outline

When I first started writing, I just put a pencil to a sheet of notebook paper and wrote.  Didn’t think anything about it other than having fun figuring out what was going to happen next as I wrote.

People around me noticed how I was writing.  Family and friends informed I needed to outline.

Beginning and intermediate writers scratched their heads and told me that I’d learn soon enough that I was supposed to outline.

In writing circles, this divides the writers up into outliners or plotters versus pantsers (the term coming from “writing by the seat of the pants.”).

What it Actually Means

Unlike other rules, this isn’t one that was misinterpreted by time or repetition.  I think there are two reasons it exists:

  1. Outlining is easy to teach.

    The instructor provides a system, forms, and off the writer goes to write the story,  It tells the writer what’s going to happen next, so when you get a free moment, you consult the outline and can figure out where to start.  You can also use it to figure out if you any plot holes.

    Pantsing….pretty much just start writing.  You discover the story as you write and get surprised a lot (sometimes for the better, and sometimes not).  You’re Christopher Columbus with his three ships, sailing across the ocean.  You don’t know what’s at the end of the journey until you get there.  That’s writing that has to be experienced, rather than taught.

    Some people want—or even need—more than “just start writing and figure it out.”  It’s just hard to figure out how to get started on a big project like a novel.  Because it is so big, it can also be overwhelming.

  2. Outlining is what we know.

    In school, teachers give writing assignments that include an outline.  I think that’s why so many adults kept trying to push me into outlining short stories.  In college, they had to outline term papers as part of the assignment.  It seemed like a logical thing to do, even for a short story.

Yet, everyone also says that it doesn’t matter how you get to the story.  Then why does pantsing get such a bad rap?

Busting the Rule

The problem is three separate issues.

  1. Pantsing is a messy process, especially for new writers.

    You start writing the story and somewhere along the line you go off track and run aground.  Then it’s hard troubleshooting what happened.  It can be extremely frustrating, especially with the amount of revision that you might end up having to do to fix the story.  It then easy to think you’ll never learn how to finish a story unless you outline.

  2. How craft is taught.

    For an outliner, learning the craft is wrapped up in doing an outline.  So if you’re learning about structure, it’s built into the outline by doing tasks like identifying where plot points go.

    Craft is taught as process-to-craft.  That is, the outliner uses the outlining process to learn the craft skill.

    But there’s no outlining for a pantser…now what?

    This is how pantsers get told over and over again they have to outline.  An instructor who outlines can’t figure out how to teach writers to get from Point A to Point B without using an outline as an explanation.

    Teaching craft for a pantser is craft-to-process.  That is, the pantsers learns the craft skill and incorporates it into their process.

So you can see this rule’s conflict.

What you can do

First, it doesn’t matter what process is used to create the story. If you give the reader a good story, they’re not going to care.

  1. Never put down another writer’s writing process, even if you don’t understand or don’t agree with it. It’s theirs. Let them own it. 

    Also, if you’ve never tried that writing process and finished a book successfully using it, don’t explain how to do it. All you need to do is search for Pantsers vs. Plotters on the internet and you’ll find a lot of writers explaining something they’ve never done. It just adds to this rule’s clutter of misinformation.

  2. Own your process.

    Too often, we allow the group-think to steer us wrong. “So many people are saying this, so they must be right” instead of asking, “What’s right for me?”

    There are a lot of writers who have adopted an authoritative tone as to what everyone should do—and haven’t even finished their first book. Remember Point #1 above—there are writers stating “This is a fact” and they’ve never tried the process.

    Always be the skeptic. I learned pretty fast that if I asked “Is this workshop pantser-friendly?” and got “Sure. We work with pantsers and outliners,” it was code for, “We expect you to outline.” I was very shocked when I asked one writer that same question about his class and he said, “Sure. That’s how I write.”

  3. Have fun!

    Everyone tends to focus on following the rules instead of just having fun. Fun is never going to steer you wrong, and it’ll show up in the story.

References for Pantsers

  • Story Trumps Structure by Steven James
  • Writing into the Dark by Dean Wesley Smith
  • Pantser’s Guide to Writing by Linda Maye Adams
  • Storytelling for Pantsers by Annalisa Parent

There aren’t any actual instructions on how to write novels for pantsers. Read all of the books. Take what you need from them.