Yours, appreciatively


Extract from the final draft of Madame Bovary.

One often reads that adverbs should be avoided. This is sound advice, on the whole. They generally clutter unnecessarily, add astoundingly little, and are arguably actually used relatively ineffectively. Imagine my consternation, then, when when I did a search for -ly occurrences in One Green Bottle and found three on the first page. Including one in the second line: Albert Roncet glanced at his visitor appreciatively.

Alarm bells rang. I pictured the agent’s weary outburst: Appreciatively? Oh, for heaven’s sake, give me a break! And she presses the rejection button, thinking, One less in the slush pile, at least. Phew!

How to get round it, though? What the adverb conveys is important here – I want it to be clear that Albert appreciates the visit. He glanced in appreciation? He gave an appreciative glance? His glance was appreciative? I juggled with a dozen alternatives before dispensing with the glance and settling on: Albert Roncet nodded his appreciation. It took me a good half hour.

Well, at least I’m in good company. As Oscar Wilde famously remarked, “I spent all morning putting in a comma, and all afternoon taking it out.” Ah, the joys of writing!

POV – a doggy-paddler’s guide

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Do you see what I see?

Orwell’s nuts and bolts advice having received some attention, I offer here a second piece about writing, a brief and basic introduction to POV, or Point Of View.

POV is unavoidable, like water for a swimmer. Whatever you write, you’re adopting a point of view. For ages, though, I didn’t think about it – I just jumped in and thrashed around and was happy enough to stay afloat (just about). Then I watched other people, read about technique, and thought, hey, I could move my arms differently, breathe a bit better, maybe even go from breast stroke to crawl.

Basically, POV is who sees what and how. As a writer, you’re free to play around with it as you choose. First person or third? Let’s go for third (first doesn’t need much explaining). You’ve got a story with two characters, Alf and Ben, who fight over a girl. Alf punches Ben on the nose. How are you going to describe this?

We’ve got the what (the punch), now we have to decide who. We have three choices: Alf, Ben or neither. The last is because someone has to be telling the story – a narrator. Could be an anonymous person, standing back from the scene, watching. Not getting involved, not taking sides, remaining objective. Alf punched Ben on the nose. Ben staggered back, clutching his face.

That’s objective POV, which can be very effective – think Hemingway (a lot of the time, but with deft subjective touches). But you might want to bring the reader closer. Alf flung his fist at Ben’s face. There came a satisfying crunch. Ben reeled back, clutching his nose. Here we’re with Alf: he does the flinging, and the crunch satisfies him, not (one presumes) Ben.

Or from Ben’s POV: Out of the blue, Alf’s fist came at him, hard and fast. He tried to dodge, but too late. A jolt of pain shot out from his nose. He staggered back, clasping his hands to his face. Warm blood trickled over his lips.

Those are examples of 3rd person limited POV – we’re with one character at a time. But you might say we have a fourth possibility: both. Theoretically, yes, but within a single action, it won’t work. There came a satisfying crunch as a jolt of pain shot out from Ben’s nose. Kind of strange, isn’t it? Combining two or more POVs can work, but not within a single sentence, and generally not within the same paragraph.

I think of subjective POV as putting myself in the character’s place, imagining not just what she sees, but why she sees it the way she does. Because two people watch the same show, but don’t see the same thing. They’ve come with different expectations and moods; the show evokes different memories. Why is Alf the sort of person who throws a punch? Why did Ben get into that situation in the first place? POV draws us to character – to be convincing, we need to know the who inside out. But that’s a different topic.

So now, after much practice, I swim a little bit better. But the summary here is for the paddling pool – if you want to dive in the deep end, Emma Darwin’s explanation says it all.

Nuts and bolts and good old words

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Hmm… Which one should I choose?

I always knew there were two things to writing: writing and promoting. But like many who write, I thought if I did the first, the second would take care of itself. Not so – as I’m now discovering. So this blog will cover both aspects, from the point of view of someone learning how it all works. Which means I have no pretensions to offer advice of my own – whatever I know has been learnt from other people. So I’ll always acknowledge my sources, and I apologise in advance if what I say seems obvious to some. If that’s the case, so much the better – it simply means you’ve thought about it already.

The writing first – promoting will be for another post. And because this is a record of my personal journey, I’ll start with what I read years ago, and have tried to follow ever since: George Orwell’s rules for effective writing (from Politics and The English Language, 1946).

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Will Self thinks these rules have resulted in an ‘Orwellian language police’. But compare a text by Self with one by Orwell and make your choice. I know where I stand on the matter.

It’s not always easy to follow the rules, especially in the first draft. Rule (i), for example, refers to figures of speech we’re used to reading, and because we’re used to them, they come to us easily. It’s what linguists call the frequency effect – the more often a word, or combination of words, occurs in the language, the easier it is to access in our minds, both in comprehension and production. And then they become clichés, which no longer amaze the reader the way original word combinations do. Of course, in a novel, not all words can startle – that would be pretty tiring after a while. But in poetry, for example, yes – that ‘Wow!’ effect is part of what makes a great poem great.

But we’re not too worried anyway about the first draft. It’s just a way to get the ideas down. It’s on the second, third and nth drafts that I try to bear the rules in mind. And it’s not just fiction Orwell is talking about, but all written texts. Including blogs? In our 1984, they didn’t exist, and in his 1984, they wouldn’t have been allowed (except for propaganda). But although we don’t have the time to submit our posts to umpteen drafts, even a quick revision, applying those simple rules, can bring about some improvement.

So there you go – my first post on the nuts and bolts of writing. And now you know who you’re dealing with: a highfaluting, grandiloquent, Orwellian bobby on the beat 🙂

Finally, today’s blogging 101 assignment. Naturally I’m attracted to blogs that have similar aims and content, so here are a couple of links to ones I follow, the first having already self-published and the second thinking seriously about it. Two other blogs I like for their content, the first for its original perspective (an Indian in Doha), the second for its humorous, entertaining accounts of daily life. Which isn’t to say there’s not a lot more out there which is interesting and inspiring – there is! And I’ll get round to mentioning others I’ve come across, I promise 🙂