I went to my friend Ingrid’s desk in the English department the other day. I said, “I need to show my students what adverbs do in a paragraph.”
“What?” she said.
I said, “I need to show how adverbs weaken the verbs.”
I started looking through some of the novels she uses in her American Lit. class. The Great Gatsby. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Then I read the opening to Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, and found what I wanted. “No adverbs,” I said.
Ingrid said, “Oh, okay.”
“She’s a good writer,” I said.
“Is that all it takes,” Ingrid said, “no adverbs?”
That made me think. What does it take to be a good writer? I thought through a few of the writing rules I try to follow:
– Write stark images. No cliches. Ever. Especially when writing similes.
– Write more verbs.
– Don’t use an adverb unless I have to. In the same way, minimize adjectives.
– Try to never write that a character is “thinking,” “considering,” or “wondering” anything.
– Describe without using abstractions like “glory,” “ugly,” “holy,” phenomenal,” “wicked,” or “good.” Use concrete items to show instead. Show, don’t tell.
– Activate the five senses to evoke. Write to the body, a reader’s emotions, not the head.
– Write dialogue as the character would speak, not how I would speak and certainly not how I wish somebody else would speak.
– Action should be real and necessary to character development or plot arc.
– Structure matters and should enhance the book. No structure gimmicks.
– Plants and animals and locations have to be researched and portrayed accurately.
– Central conflicts should be epic, not mundane (all first-world problems make books silly – don’t write about a missing cell-phone charger, for example, or getting the wrong drink at a Starbucks coffee shop)
Those are just a few of the rules that I think about as I write.
But to be good, to write well, I have to read great books. I like the image of Andre Dubus III reading poetry for fifteen minutes each day before sitting down to write in a walled in, naked room in his basement. No internet. No distractions. He also drinks black coffee as he reads the poems.
I like coffee and poetry as well. I also refuse to look on the internet as I write.
Reading list this last month:
Home by Toni Morrison
A Mercy (rereading) – Morrison
Multiple poetry collections by Tony Hoagland
Home Burial by Michael McGriff
The Book Of Men by Dorianne Laux
Ordinary Wolves (rereading) by Seth Kantner
The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor
New stories and poems in Tin House.