A guide to editing adverbs

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs…”

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

When I first read this quote I was confused and a little defensive. What’s wrong with adverbs? They’re not hellish—that’s how you show what’s happening instead of telling. And if there’s one writing rule to follow, it’s show don’t tell.

Well my friends, I lived like this for a while before realizing adverbs tell instead of show. Meaning, an adverb modifies verbs which are the driving force of action or the showing part of the sentence. Once I had this lightbulb moment, I went back through my writing and discovered adverbs peppered everywhere! The biggest culprit was an adverb behind said. He said jokingly. She said tersely. They said quietly.

At first I tried to defend myself. Well how will the reader know that the character is angry if I don’t write, she said loudly and passionately? I have to keep it. There’s no other way. Then over time, as I read more and more about writing theory, it clicked. You don’t need adverbs to establish mood or intent.

There is a myriad of ways to show someone is angry. Try writing about their body language or use a simile to characterize their voice. Select words with connotations of aggression or annoyance when writing dialogue. That is showing and not telling. This strengthens your story.

Whether you already know about the hellscape of adverbs or you’re still learning, it helpful to review your work for places where you can eliminate an adverb to strengthen the sentence. Below is a guide for locating and removing adverbs from your writing.  

Looking for a refresher on adverbs? Check out this article from Merriam-Webster.

1.       Search and find

Ctrl+F, Command+F, or the Find command will be your best friend in locating adverbs. Try searching for ly, very, and really. The search for ly is helpful as it will capture any word ending in –ly, which is what most adverbs end in. I find it useful for my writing as I sometimes slip in an adverb in places other than dialogue. In fact, I found two places in this blog post where I used an unnecessary adverb! (I deleted them if you’re trying to find them.)

2.       Delete it

Once you’ve located the adverb, delete it and see how it changes the sentence.

Example: She smiled happily at the picture of her husband.

Is the sentence still readable? Is the sentiment or point of the sentence still clear? Then delete that adverb and move onto the next one! Deleting a word without changing the structure or purpose means you didn’t need it.

If deleting the adverb alters the sentence so it’s no longer clear or the purpose is lost, try one of the next steps.

3.       Choose a different word

If you’re at this step it means deleting the adverb interrupted the flow of your sentence. Before you restructure, consider choosing a different word for the one that the adverb is modifying.

In the below example, the sentence makes little sense if I remove the adverb. Rather than rearranging the entire sentence, try selecting a different word for talked (the verb the adverb is modifying).

Example

Original sentence: He talked quietly in case he was overheard.

Edited sentence: He mumbled in case he was overheard.

Still not working? Head on down to the next step!

4.       Restructure

So you tried removing the adverb and choosing a different word for the one it modified and still no dice. Time to restructure that sentence.

You can restructure a sentence by:

  • Rearranging the order of words
  • Choosing new verbs and adjectives
  • Adding in a new image, simile, or additional description
  • A combination of all the above!  

Example:

Original sentence: She walked quickly to escape the feeling of dread.

Edited sentence: Dread swelled in her chest and she rushed towards the house.

There you have it! A guide to locating and removing adverbs to help tighten up your writing. As with all art, there may be instances where “breaking the rules” benefits the piece more than sticking to them. Check out this post from the Read series where Robin McKinley uses adverbs to her advantage.

In the meantime, keep checking for ways to do without the adverb. I promise it won’t be as hellish as you think.

Are there any adverbs out there you struggle to remove from your work? Or are there any instances in which you feel an adverb is well deserved? Leave a comment or tweet me @glcubel_writes!  

Check out this quick guide with tips for editing adverbs in your #writing.

Writing lessons from Sunshine

Welcome to my new blog series–Read! Where I explore writing lessons learned from reading. This week features Sunshine by Robin McKinley.

Book title: Sunshine

Author: Robin McKinley

Genre: Fantasy

Point of view (POV): First person

Synopsis: Rae “Sunshine” Blaise is an ordinary woman working in her family’s coffee shop. One night, unhappy and not sure why, she drives out to her father’s old lake house to reflect. While admiring the lake, she’s kidnapped by a gang of vampires that chain her to a wall in an abandoned mansion. Next to another vampire. Using a childhood gift, she escapes and takes the captive vampire with her. But as the vampire points out, their escape means something. Now Sunshine battles against a vampire warlord, government agencies, and her own inner demons trying to get back to normal. 

Sunshine by Robin McKinley is one of my favorite books. I read it several times in high school and several times as an adult. It was even one of my book picks for my book podcast, Book & Bitch. 

This wasn’t my first Robin McKinley novel—before Sunshine was Beauty. A retelling of Beauty and the Beast with a twist—Beauty was unattractive. Instead of a beautiful woman that loved books, she was an awkward, gangly, plain woman that rolled up her sleeves when her family needed it. Oh, and loved books. Some parts of the old tale don’t change.

I fell in love with Beauty, the un-beautiful bookworm. She was the first example in my young literary life of a woman that didn’t have to beautiful to be important. So when Sunshine caught my eye on a Barnes and Noble end cap, I was eager to see if this heroine was the same. 

While the reader doesn’t know what Sunshine looks like, there are inferences (mostly from the protagonist herself) that she’s not the most attractive or even smartest woman around. But she is brave, kind, and loyal. She fights her inner demons with humor and self-depreciation in a way that’s relatable and authentic. Sunshine is a novel I can’t quit: a real woman (i.e., a messy woman) facing down the evil around her. On her own terms and with her own powers. 

Reading the book as a young adult, I was drawn to the first person point of view. Sunshine talked and thought like how I thought and talked. The prose was natural and wasn’t strip down to sound literary. Later, reading it as an adult with a Creative Writing degree, I cringed at the adverbs and long, rambling sentences. But I kept coming back to the story. Again and again and again. 

Then I figured it out. The narration uses repetition and adverbs with purpose to enhance the character. Not because McKinley didn’t feel like cleaning it up. Once I got off my high-writing-horse, I realized there were other lessons I could learn and apply to my own writing. 

If you’ve read Sunshine, you’ll probably recognize these lessons. If you haven’t read it, don’t worry, the lessons are relevant outside the context. 

Adverbs and rambling are okay (when used with purpose) 

“I took my tea and toast and Immortal Death (a favorite comfort book since under-the-covers-with-a-flashlight reading at the age of eleven or twelve) back to bed when I finally woke up at nearly noon, and even that really spartan scene when the heroine escapes the Dark Other who’s been pursuing her for three hundred pages by calling on her demon heritage (finally) and turning herself into a waterfall didn’t cheer me up.”

Sunshine, 16

You’ve probably heard the infamous Stephen King quote: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” It’s common writing law that adverbs weaken your work. We can’t think of a powerful verb and slip in an adverb to give our weaker one some oomph. I’ve even written a blog post about cutting adverbs from dialogue. 

Then there’s the writing advice (à la Hemingway) to keep your sentences tight and clean. If you can say it in ten words, don’t use twenty. So why is McKinley using adverbs and lengthy sentences, and why is it GOOD? 

It’s because she’s using them with intent. She’s not peppering them in like a chef trying to spice up a bland dish. Instead, she’s using them to build a rich character in the protagonist and narrator. The adverbs show us a character that is immature and unsure of herself. We think of the stereotypical teenager throwing in a really, seriously, definitely, completely, etc. into their sentences. The lack of directness (adverbs deflect direct statements) demonstrates the character is unsure of herself. 

Then there’s the long-winded sentences. That quote above? Seventy-two words before a period. But we’re hooked on it because it’s a window into Sunshine’s mind. It’s stream of conscious in a more grammatically correct format (looking at you Faulkner…). 

We can break rules. BUT (and this a huge but) make sure you know the rules and you’re breaking them on purpose. Purpose defined as enhancing your characters or story. Not because you’re stuck. 

First person madness is clutch

“I understood that I was crazy, crazy to be still alive, crazy to be doing what I was doing to stay alive, crazy to be trying to stay alive.”

Sunshine, 415

I’ve read my fair share of stories about people going crazy or thinking they’re crazy or with distorted perceptions. You can say I like a good story about a crazy person. You know what I love more? A story about someone going mad and told from first-person POV.

Instead of hearing second-hand (through another narrator) you witness the action in real-time. You experience the descent, the questions, and the anxiety without adulteration. Writing in first person narrative is an opportunity to examine and portray our characters on a deeper level. It’s a chance to write them as likable and relatable. To explore madness as a perception and not a condition. 

If you have a character that’s battling depression or believes they’re going insane, consider using a first person POV to delve deep into their mindset. It could offer an opportunity to create a well-rounded and interesting character. 

Complex romantic relationships are more interesting

“‘He’s lost his house keys anyway,’ I said glibly, ‘and we can call a locksmith from my house.’ 

‘He keep a fresh change of clothes at your house too?’ said Pat. ‘Does Mel know? I didn’t say that.’” 

Sunshine, 452

One of the other things I love about Sunshine is the complicated romantic relationships. Sunshine has a boyfriend she likes. But then there’s also this vampire. And she isn’t declaring for one or the other. As a young adult and adult reader, I enjoyed that Sunshine wasn’t some pure maiden waiting for her prince to show up. I liked that she was between two relationships and wasn’t spending her time trying to figure out which guy she wanted to be with. She had other shit to deal with.

Relationships in real life are messy. So it makes sense the ones in our stories should also be messy. This doesn’t mean your story shouldn’t have a romantic plot or subplot. This means can your romantic storyline operate outside of a perfect relationship to add complexity. For example, maybe the protagonist loves two different people, but neither loves the protagonist back. Or maybe the protagonist is married and having an affair and the neighbor knows. 

Adding complexity or interference to your character’s love lives offers an opportunity to develop a more interesting character. It reveals information about them; gives them a chance to overcome a challenge; and helps them grow into a different person. 

Next time you’re writing in a fairy tale ending for your protagonist, consider the advantage of writing in a messy romance. It could be what your character needs to progress. Or what your reader needs in order to relate.

Like this new blog series? What’s a book that’s changed your style of writing? Leave a comment below or drop me a line! I’d love to hear from you.

Citation:

McKinley, Robin. Sunshine. Jove Books, 2004.

How to plan your story

There are two types of writers: plotters and pantsers. Check out this post to learn more about planning your story and grab a free downloadable planner worksheet!

I’m so excited to announce that I’m participating in Camp NaNoWrimo this April! Now if you don’t know what Camp NaNoWriMo is, it’s a writing challenge where you set your own word count. Think of it as the younger sibling of the larger challenge in November. I.e., National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) where everyone attempts to write 50,000 words.

So, to prepare for the challenge, I wanted to share some ways to plan your story. Complete with a FREE downloadable (and editable) scene planner worksheet. Excited to plan your story?! Me too. Let’s get started. 

Generally, there are two types of writers: plotters and pantsers. Plotters like to plan out their story before they even begin to write. Pansters fly by the seat of pants and plot as they work. Often allowing the characters or scene to inform the writing.

Some famous plotters and pantsers according to Goodreads:

Famous plotters

  • John Grisham
  • R.L. Stein
  • J.K. Rowling

Famous pantsers

  • Margaret Atwood
  • Stephen King
  • Pierce Brown

No matter what category you fall into or even if you fall in-between, having a story outline can give a sense of purpose while still allowing for improvisation. If you’re a plotter it allows you to set the course for your story and even determine the nitty-gritty details like dialogue. If you’re a pantser it gives you enough of a jumping off point to say “buh-bye” to writer’s block while providing flexibility to improvise.

A story outline can mean many things to many writers, but at the core it’s broken down by major scenes or chapters. It’s up to you what information you would like to plan out in each scene, though I like Gabriela Pereira’s suggestion from DIY MFA which outlines: 

Characters

  • Sally
  • Gary, her coworker

Action

  • Sally goes to work and discovers she’s a witch
  • Gary reacts negatively to her discovery

Purpose

  • Introduces conflict that propels the rest of the story
  • Hint: if there isn’t a purpose for the scene, it probably doesn’t belong in your story

Now the fun part! Setting up your story outline. Again, a story outline is many things to many writers. Use the method that best works for you. Below are some versions to help jumpstart your outlining! 

Corkboard

Think old school corkboard with index cards held up by tacks. Each index card is a scene and the placement on the board indicates order. Write your information for the scene on card whether you’re using the above recommendation or your own categories. 

Now you can do this with a physical board (corkboard is a classic choice through dry erase would work) or an electronic one. My favorite way to create a scene board is using the corkboard feature in Scrivener. 

Here’s an excellent blog post from Kristen Kieffer at well-storied about using the corkboard feature. 

ProsCons
Easy to read at a glanceLinear format; no room for scenes that don’t have a place
Can rearrange scenes easilyPhysical boards require supplies (beyond paper and pen) and space. Electronic ones could come with a cost. 
Mind map

Mind mapping has taken off in recent years as a form of note taking. Rather than confining you to bullet points and the dreaded I-think-this-is-important-but-I-don’t-know-yet decision, it allows you to branch out your ideas and connect them from across the page. 

Here’s the basics for creating a mind map

Create a central theme (your story title) → draw branches out to parent ideas (scenes) → draw branches out to child ideas (important pieces of information about the scene such as characters and purpose)

So guess what? This works incredibly well for outlining your story. Especially if you’ve got a head full of ideas and want to get them down without a fussy timeline.

Pen and paper work great for this or you can try mind mapping software tools. I like MindMup the best because it’s a) free and b) integrates with my Google Drive

ProsCons
Easy to visually see themesDifficult to see the timeline of your story
Breaks down complex storiesMaps can quickly become too large and difficult to view
Lists

Who doesn’t love a good list? Using a list format to outline your story is a good cross between the corkboard and mind mapping. It allows you to lay everything out in a linear fashion while at the same time offering you a chance to add multiple ideas.

I recommend using a plotting technique as the bones of your list outline and then filling in each category with bullet points. This will help you identify what you need to keep the story moving. E.g., you may realize as you’re outlining that there is no climax. 

Additionally, if you’re bursting with multiple ideas for each plot point you can write them all in! Later on as you’re writing or editing you can discard or reallocate the idea to a different plot point. 

ProsCons
Encourages you to identify what scenes will keep your story movingNot as visually easy to identify themes
Cost-effective option–only pen and paper required!Not as flexible for brain dumps

While the above ideas are far from comprehensive, they’re a great way to kickstart your writing. Stuck on which method to use or where to start? You can also try my scene planner worksheet. This is a FREE download (below) and can be printed or filled in electronically. 

How do you plot or not plot your story? Have feedback on the worksheet? Leave a comment below or tag me (@glcubel_writes) on Twitter!

Quote, unquote: how to correctly use quotation marks

Quotation marks (“ ”), one of the first punctuation marks you learn as a writer and one with a vast range of uses. In modern usage, we tend to encase words in quotation marks anytime we want to set it apart from other work. Rather than weigh down your work with unnecessary punctuation, check out these tips to correctly use quotation marks.

Quotation marks (“ ”), one of the first punctuation marks you learn as a writer and one with a vast range of uses. They can indicate dialogue, a direct quote from another work, even a word as a word. With a vast range of options, also comes vast opportunity to misuse the mark. It’s too easy to use the inverted commas liberally and paint them across any instance to create emphasis or affectation. But let’s start at the beginning. 

The quotation mark can be traced back to the second century B.C. with a librarian named Aristarchus, working at the Library of Alexandria. Aristarchus wanted a way to draw attention to noteworthy text and created the diple, an arrow-shaped symbol (>). From there, it was adopted by Christians to denote the direct words of God versus the author’s writing in the Bible. Later, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa made use of a single inverted comma to illustrate dialogue. 

I could gush on and on about the history of the quotation mark (#wordnerd), however I’ll wrap it up and you can read more here. 

With such a storied history and varied use, it can be difficult to determine proper use in your writing. In modern usage, we tend to encase words in quotation marks anytime we want to set it apart from other text. Rather than weigh down your work with unnecessary punctuation, check out these tips to simplify your writing.

When to use quotation marks

  • Dialogue
    • Use quotation marks when indicating a spoken word or sentence. In creative writing, this is most often conversations between characters. In non-fiction writing, this could be a quote pulled from a speech, written work, or casual conversation. 
  • Direct quotes
    • Any time you refer to someone else’s written or spoken work, word-for-word, use quotation marks. This helps you attribute the words to the author and avoid instances of plagiarism. If you’re not recounting their idea word-for-word, see the section on indirect quotes below. 
  • Titles
    • When citing the title of a work, you may need to use quotation marks. AP Style advises writers to include quotation marks around the titles of books, poems, speeches, TV shows, etc. MLA Style is more particular and advises the writer to use italics for longer works (books, magazines, reference materials, etc.) and quotation marks for shorter works or items that are a part of a larger work (poems, short stories, TV episode, etc.). 

When not to use quotation marks

  • Indirect quotes
    • If you’re indirectly quoting someone (i.e., sharing the essence of what was said or written but not giving a word-for-word account) you can skip the quotation marks. E.g., if recapping a speech you could write: The speaker touched on the challenges of writing without coffee. 
  • Scare or shudder quotes 
    • Also known as air quotes–these are instances in which you place quotation marks around a word or phrase to indicate disagreement or dissociation. Like air quotes, they most often make you look annoying instead of sophisticated. If you disagree or want to distance yourself from the word or phrase, just do it. No need to hide behind irony or quotes. 
  • Colloquialisms or slang
    • This one comes directly from our good friends Strunk & White. If you use a colloquialism or slang, don’t place quotation marks around the word or phrase. Using quotes with colloquialisms or slang, is similar to using scare quotes. It gives the appearance of affectation and makes it difficult for readers to connect or trust you. 

“If you use a colloquialism or a slang word or phrase, simply use it; do not draw attention to it by enclosing it in quotation marks. To do so is to put on airs…”

(STRUNK AND WHITE 34)

Like all good stories, the story of the quotation mark doesn’t end here. There are other grammar rules and usage rules on best practices for using quotation marks in your work. And knowing what rules to follow or discard, will help your writing stand out. 

Citation: Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style with Revisions, an Introduction, and a Chapter on Writing. Longman, 2000.

What to do with writing scraps

As writers, we often write things that sound great in our head and fall flat on the page. It doesn’t mean these pieces are worn out socks that we should thank and toss. Instead, given the proper atmosphere or editing that piece can turn into a sparkly bundle of joy. Here’s how to save those lovely scraps.

If you’ve been anywhere on the internet or Netflix in the last few years, you’ve probably heard of Marie Kondo and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. If you haven’t, Marie Kondo is an organizational consultant and expert as well as the founder of KonMari, a lifestyle brand. There are many facets to the KonMari Method™ of tidying up, however the premise is to only keep items that “spark joy” to promote a more mindful and peaceful lifestyle. 

The simple premise is so effective, it’s been applied to almost every industry including phone apps, food, and work spaces

Now I know what you’re thinking: this is going to be a post about applying the KonMari Method™ to writing. Good guess! However, today I’m heading the opposite direction. While I’ve read the The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and could dedicate a whole post to how shedding the excess has enhanced my personal life, I feel the opposite about writing. I don’t believe in getting rid of writing that doesn’t “spark joy”. 

Instead, I adhere to the write often and keep everything philosophy. As writers, we often write things that sound great in our head and fall flat on the page. It doesn’t mean these pieces are worn out socks that we should thank and toss. Instead, given the proper atmosphere or editing that piece can turn into a sparkly bundle of joy. 

So instead of deleting or shedding writing that doesn’t serve, try keeping it. Here are three ways to use your writing scraps. 

Add it to your story with a footnote

Write something that includes characters, settings, or plot points for a project you’re already working on? But not sure where in the timeline it fits? Or even if it fits at all? Instead of scrapping it, insert the piece into your project and include a footnote, highlight, different font color, comment–anything to distinguish that’s a TBD piece. Later, as you’re working through your editing phase you can decide if it stays, goes, or can be repurposed elsewhere. 

Bonus tip: if you’re working on Scrivener, you can always add the piece as a new document and then make a note in the title or on the corkboard that it’s TBD. 

Establish a Save for Later notebook

Like a good set of tupperware, consider creating a Save for Later or SFL notebook. This can be a paper or digital notebook–any place that can store a large amount of writing and is easily accessible. You can even get fancy and add tabs or sections to organize it by project, characters, setting, etc. Next time you’re looking for inspiration or that one sentence of dialogue is too good to leave behind, pull out your SFL notebook. 

Have a leftover night

Put that baked ziti away–I’m talking about word leftovers. Next time you’re staring at a blank page and not sure what to write, pull out your SFL notebook or other writing scraps and whip up a new recipe. Mix-and-match different scraps to create a new story; add something unexpected to a piece that’s flat; maybe edit and reheat something that’s almost there but not quite. It’s amazing how a little rearranging can bring a new dish…story to life. 

Have a collection of scraps and ready to dive into using them? Check out the Edit section for advice on revising and polishing. Go get your sparkle on.

KonMari Method™ is a trademark of KonMari Media Inc.