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Sanderson/Writing comments

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Demesnedenoir, Jun 10, 2016.

  1. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Instead of further derailing the "Making it More" topic, I decided to pop in this new thread. And I want to add just because I pick on writers' writing doesn't mean there is anything personal against them or the readers who love them, or that I won't read a writer I pick on... fact is I ordered a Sanderson book the other day, and in several ways I think he and I share some similarities of style. But anyhow...

    These are things I catch when I'm in self-edit mode. More shocking is how much gets past editors (the crack thing in Sanderson, several things in Rothfuss' first chapter or two that keep me from reading any more), it's not all up to the writer. Brandon is not a huge offender compared to some other folks. His story telling overcomes minor errors, obviously, just check the sales, and his biggest issue (outside of the double door crack which is more funny than a deal breaker) is the excessive use of began. We all have bad habits and phrases we cling to... for instance, I recently discovered that when I use the word "tear" as in crying, I tended to have "welling"... okay, fine, but it got old even if nobody else in their right mind would notice. So I went back and switched stuff up. That's nitpicky, but that's the artist as it forms within me.

    The writer wearing the artist's hat (as Sanderson might say) should not be satisfied with the number of begans he uses, IMO. Sanderson has taken several lessons from screenwriting, as demonstrated in his BYU lectures, but he seems to have skipped the "began" lesson from this industry. For the most part, began is a junk word and even when justifiable, it is a good flag for an improvable piece of prose in novels while also mirroring the time-stop concern in screenwriting.

    I will also admit that as a reader I no longer have "immersion" to break like I used to. I'm in constant edit/study mode looking for what I like and don't like and wasted words, bad echoes, continuity issues, whatever, they are always smacking me in the face. The closest I've come recently to just reading without getting clobbered is Cormac McCarthy. This is probably because I fall into the strong voice, much like Faulkner, where wasted words are part of the particular vernacular choice. Twain would be similar.

    One I found from a writer (thanks to Helio) I've never read was on page 1 or prologue, I don't recall... but a character slams something into a glass window, and the writer said something like "it made no impact at all". Well, I know what they mean but it jars me from the reading and absolutely made an impact on me. The glass did not crack, it did not break, but the fact they slammed it meant there was impact... this sort of thing leaps from the page and into my eyeballs to say "stop reading here" because the writer doesn't have the same sensibilities as I do as a reader, and if they do this on the first half of page 1? fergetaboutit. And you have to throw in Helio's pet cliche, a single tear down the cheek also on that page. On page 10 or 20 without other glaring issues, I'd ignore this, but page 1 it slaps my nitpickiness, LOL.

    I don't expect anyone else to read as insanely as I do, nor to even get rid of every "began" in a book, but they are things I think the writer as artist should be aware of. And it's also good to see wildly successful writers demonstrating their own "bad" habits. How unnecessary is the word began? In 124k words of my current book, I use began a grand total of 3 times, and none are a reference to beginning an action, they are references to past activities such as "...where life began and memories were made..." In a glance at Sanderson's work that I have searchable, he uses began 21 times... i don't have a word count there, but it's excessive for my sensibilities, but won't keep me from reading it... I ordered the book.

    Now I will pick on myself, my past self... my pet word was "that"... OMFrigginG. When I restarted my current work I about gagged myself on "that"s. They were everywhere! Not entirely worthless, mind you, but it gets way over used by a lot of writers including me. Still. I've cut my usage severely pre-edit (about 20% of what it used to be) and still I can kill more as I edit. Eventually "that" like "began" will disappear from my writing except where it truly works.

    Well, that's enough babbling for one morning, LOL.
     
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2016
  2. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    In the first chapter to Sanderson's Rithmatist, he uses "began" twelve times. Here's an excerpt online; just do a browser search and count the highlighted instances (if using IE, but I don't know/remember whether other browsers highlight.) The Rithmatist(Excerpt) | Tor.com

    There is one "began" then a long stretch and we very quickly have multiple instances used close together. Interestingly, the other chapters in that excerpt don't use the word as heavily.
     
  3. Holoman

    Holoman Troubadour

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    I see what you mean about began, in most instances it is redundant, don't think I've ever noticed it before but probably will now.

    In a way I like to stay naive to these things as a reader so they don't jump off the page at me, but as a writer the little details are important.
     
  4. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Here's my count for the prologue-Chapter 4 of The Rithmatist:

    Prologue

    • began to draw a circle around herself


    Chapter 1

    • began to shift from the Matson Defense to [within dialogue]
    • began to whisper
    • began to draw
    • began by drawing
    • began to fly across the ground
    • began to move across the ground
    • began to wriggle about
    • began sending across Lines of Vigor
    • began to claw furiously
    • began to draw
    • began to gather up his books and notes
    • began dispelling his creations


    Chapter 3

    • began to write on his paper


    Chapter 4

    • began to whir
    • began to wolf down his food

    I think Way of Kings must have been your door-cracking encounter:

    The door handle shook, and then the wood began to crack as the guards threw their weight against it, one man calling for an axe.

    Szeth crossed the room in rapid strides, weaving around the shrouded furniture that had been stored here. It was of red cloth and deep expensive woods. He reached the far wall and—preparing himself for yet another blasphemy—he raised his Shardblade and slashed horizontally through the dark grey stone. The rock sliced easily; a Shardblade could cut any inanimate object. Two vertical slashes followed, then one across the bottom, cutting a large square block. He pressed his hand against it, willing Stormlight into the stone.

    Behind him the room’s door began to crack. He looked over his shoulder and focused on the shaking door, Lashing the block in that direction.​

    This one seems more of an editing issue. The wood had already begun to crack. It can't begin again, can it?

    For myself: I'm not sure that I would notice so many instances of "began" if I'm into the story—although now that you've pointed it out, I might! :eek: I do think it's very worth noting, especially in a discussion about improving craft. I've only ever read the first three Mistborn books. I have the fourth from that world in hardback, bought it on its release date, but have never read it. I have Way of Kings on my Kindle—also unread so far. I have the Writing Excuses collection of stories but haven't read it yet. I'm a huge Sanderson fan mostly because I think Writing Excuses is great, and I did love the Mistborn books when I read them although the strangest thing is that I don't remember much about them. (Mostly, the magic system.)

    Edit: BTW, I vaguely remember in one Writing Excuses podcast, Sanderson admitted that his prose is fairly weak, or the area he has to give special attention to when polishing his books during revision. It may not come easily to him, unlike devising a great magic system, world building, and general story ideas. I've noticed that those podcasts also tend to focus on larger aspects of story building, with much less attention paid to the nitty gritty of writing great prose. I've often wished they spent more time on prose, but I assume that they assume most listeners should bring basic writing knowledge/skill to the table.
     
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2016
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  5. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Words tend to cluster, no doubt about that. I wonder if there's a certain action trigger that's sets off the use of began for him, LOL. I analyzed GRRM a little bit once, and can't remember what word it is was, but he clustered them most often when info dumping history.

    And just in case someone is curious as to what I mean by "began" stopping the action, I nabbed this from Sanderson's sample.

    "She set the tip of the chalk against the ground and began to draw a circle around herself."

    Began is a word that describes an instant, it is a snapshot in time, something completely loathed in screenwriting and should be beaten out of writers of prose also, IMO. If you read the sentence, and form an image, it should by the letter of meaning be the moment she starts to draw. If the next words were "and she froze in time" or "but Bob slapped her, and she poked him in the eye with the chalk" then "began" makes sense because she did not complete the circle. In fact, she does complete the circle, so the sentence has more flow and creates an active image by saying:

    "She set the tip of the chalk against the ground and drew a circle around herself."

    Now if you form the image in your mind, you should be seeing her draw the line.

    Since I'm nitpicking this piece of prose already (but not picking on Sanderson, mind you, I promised not to do that ever again) I'm going to totally over analyze this sentence, LOL. What else is going on here? Two things... an overtly obvious detail "set the tip of the chalk against the ground" and a redundancy "circle around". Neither of these is a big deal, but since I had it sitting in front of me and it poked me in the eyeball, I had to mention them. LOL.
     
  6. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    I think I have to give credit for "began" to screenwriting courses form UCLA. That's the first place the lightbulb went off for me. It's almost always a pointless word, at the minimum, and hinders flows at the worst. once you know about it, you'll probably start eliminating them and does have a cumulative effect on writing.

    And that is the door crack instance, and yes, it's an editing biff to say the least. Both writer and editor should have caught that one before it made print, but hey, these things do get through, just like typos. I do find it funny, however. Heck, the other day I found a sentence in my chapter one that echoed the word "drew" in lame arsed fashion and I just stared... I've read it a hundred times at least and only when finding a typo in a character's name did I notice "drew... drew" within a few words of each other.

    In general, I do like Sanderson's writing (at least what I've read) and as I mentioned, to me at least, reading his stuff feels a bit like reading my own writing, only I don't use began and adverbs as thick as he does.

    NowI need to look at those begans and see if any of them are useful, or if they are all junk words, LOL.

     
  7. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

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    I think these observations are related to the topic here, even if not about Sanderson.

    So I’m reading The Lies of Locke Lamora. I’m about a third of the way through and I like the book. It probably won’t be an all-time fav, but I’m enjoying it quite a bit.

    I came to a part where a number of characters were being described for the first time—there were about five or six, I think. I noticed a couple of ‘was’ sentences, then I noticed a few more. So I took a moment to stop reading as a reader and just looked at the verbs. I found more, and more, and more. I went back to the beginning of the page and found that every sentence on the entire page used either ‘was’ or ‘were’ or ‘had’. No exceptions.

    I had to go back several sentences on the previous page to find an active verb, and several sentences into the following page before I found one. It was an out-and-out passive-fest. (This was page 229 of the paperback edition if anyone wants to find this themselves.)

    And then there was the day I found fourteen ‘ly’ adverbs on a single page of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. If I had a nickel for every time I heard Steinbeck’s prose described as tough, unadorned, lean, sparing with modifiers… It’s just not true.

    I seem to keep finding discrepancies between how good books are supposed to be written, and how they are actually written. Really makes me wonder.

    I conclude that all the purging of passive verbs, adverbs, and other words deemed weak, like ‘began’ won’t make your story great if it isn’t great to begin with. On the other hand, I certainly believe it a good idea to keep an eye on these things so they don’t get out of hand. Personally, I think the best writing is writing that constantly mixes these things up. Prose should be dynamic, and be allowed to breathe.
     
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  8. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    In Steinbeck's defense, it was a different time period. I have not read Lies of Locke Lamora, it's on the list to check out.

    That said, I can't imagine pages stuffed full of passives wouldn't be better if rewritten, unless there is a specific and unavoidable reason. Due diligence is certainly the key, if you are using things, it's best to know you are doing it.

    Passives are natural, particularly in dialogue, and most folks aren't going to put down a book because of passives, -ly adverbs, or "began" style words, but in the pursuit of great writing, use them judiciously... and preferably not in the first ten pages where your work is so often judged, LOL.
     
  9. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

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    I agree with judicious use... of pretty much anything and everything. And I also agree that extra-special care should be taken during openings.

    But I also happen to be a weirdo who thinks writing was generally better fifty to a hundred years ago than it is today. No modern writer of fantasy can hold a candle to Steinbeck. Period. The thing I found interesting was not that he used that many adverbs, but that he is almost famous for NOT using them. Which turns out to be bogus, at least some of the time. Is it because people only look at the prose of the first ten pages and assume the rest of the book will follow suit? How did he get this reputation?

    This particular rabbit hole seems to run deeper than it looks.
     
  10. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    Why are there discrepencies?

    Because just like when we watch a great movie for the first time, we are too captivated by the experience to nit pick...unless we get bored, at which time the nit-pick gloves come off and shit gets real.

    I read a lot of new writer work and a lot of seasoned writer work, and the thing is, the -ly words, the "was" and "had" only bother you when you see them over and over in weak writing. There are perfectly awesome stories that info-dump, use adverbs shamelessly (see how I did that?), litter "was" and "had" through great prose, and get a little purple on the descriptive side of things. But they're great stories. They don't draw attention to words, but are too busy stirring our spirits with great imagery and feelings. We're moved, and our brain turns from critical and uncomfortable, to excited and adventurous. We want more. We want to see the story. We aren't setting the book down every five pages and taking a breather because it's so tedious...we're setting it down to wipe our eyes, or clear our heads after a reveal.

    Words have power. Some words have more than others. Some rather valueless words can still belong in a powerful sentence. The reason weak words and adverbs are even an issue is because they're abused by green writers, who are mostly guilty of every other sin one can put on a page, too.
     
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  11. Peat

    Peat Sage

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    I'd fully agree that one of the best things an author can do is learn his safety blanket roads and go back searching for them in their manuscript.

    I'd also agree with anyone who didn't want to read that way. I mean, if I notice them I'm not happy, but my default reading status is enjoyment and that means trying to enjoy things.

    Most of all I'd agree with Caged Maiden - it matters far more whether the words mean anything, then whether they're pretty and elegant. The latter often leads to the former, but the former should be the goal. Or at least for entertaining me.
     
  12. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    I remember some thing I read or watched about music. They said that Bruce Springsteen was neither as talented a musician nor as good a singer as many people that were his competition, yet he was beloved because he possessed a believability that people related to. I think writing is the same. I just spent three years of my writing life trying to edit my natural voice into "serious writer voice". I cut adverbs and beat up a thesaurus or two, always on the hunt for that perfect word to describe things. I took all my "weird" ways of composing sentences and bad grammar (like run-ons and fragments) and I compiled them into perfectly average sentences. I cut and trimmed away anything that wasn't "necessary" and I over-explained everything so it could be as clear as I could make it.

    And no one liked it. NO one responded positively. Rather, my short stories got good comments and fans, while my novels failed to impress though I'd spent the majority of my time on making them shine.

    Just a couple days ago, I had an ambiguous sentence in a chapter and my crit partners responded saying it was hilarious that this woman was talking about a rather foul concept, a double-meaning to her analogy. Well...as pleased as I was that people laughed, I wasn't trying to make the joke. That sparked a big conversation in which I just realized that sometimes my ambiguous sentences are totally okay. One reader will laugh because they're looking for the joke, and another will see only my original meaning. WOW!!! And I would have missed out on entertaining those folks who wanted the joke, if I'd been too clear! Lesson learned. I need to talk as myself, because being not-me sucks and it showed. Better late than never.

    At least if I'm me, I'm getting the praise and attention of people who like "me" rather than doctoring up my work as a phony. Be like Bruce. Be good and authentic. and while some singers can get far on their looks and stuff, all we have is our stories. We gotta make people feel stuff, or we've just got a pile of meaningless words, and at that point, it don't matter whether they're adverbs or strong verbs.
     
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  13. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Writing is filtered over time, and genre fiction is not known for stellar writing, it known for entertainment. Pretty simple. I read frighteningly little modern writing. Steinbeck's greatness is as with all art... arguable. I'm not a Steinbeck fan nor detractor. Maybe if he'd written fantasy, heh heh.

    I've no idea how he got that rep and wasn't aware of that rep.

     
  14. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    To each their own but being a grammar Natzi doesn't seem like a productive way to hone writing skills. Once upon a time, I used to worry about minutiae when writing and it slowed down my process. After suffering and struggling like this for a while, I decided one day that I didn't care anymore and never looked back.

    When I read books, it's for enjoyment. I don't care how many adverbs the author uses, or how they start their story so long as it's engaging. All that matters to me is that I write stories to the best of my ability. If a word is in the English language then I'm using it. Sure, there is such a thing as lazy or poor writing and I know what that means for my own work. But with another author's book their storytelling ability is all I care about.

    Sorry but being a stickler about grammar seems counterproductive to me. It takes the fun out of writing.
     
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  15. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Bruce takes things off topic, but!

    Ok, first, I'm not a fan of the the Boss... in fact I dislike his music in general if I hear them on the radio and like his songs better when covered by other artists... But!

    I watched the dude "live" in concert on tv about 15 years ago... not even really live... and damn, he rocked. Helluva show, and that convinced me why he made it. Get him on stage and for an hour and a half, whew. Still, I won't listen to him, but I respect him more, LOL.

    Now back on topic a bit... Serious writer voice is a disease spread by trying to cure symptoms... Or maybe a better analogy, it's prescription to cure bad writing is like using leeches to cure cancer. But cases of serious writer voice can also include plenty of adverbs and junk fillers. And the thesaurus is not the road to good writing. When I speak of getting rid of adverbs, the following is what I mean, and I'll make up a sentence for entertainment purposes only, typing cats and dogs, please do not try this at home.

    1: The rain fell gently on the parched, barren field.

    Now, here is what some folks do... then a better version.

    2a: The rain fell on the parched, barren field. 2b: the rain pattered on the parched, barren field.

    1 and 2a really aren't different except for the satisfaction of killing that badverb. If that's all you're going to do, why bother? (I admit, I prefer without given a choice) 2b is a real improvement, it still implies the gentle while also adding a certain audible quality to the phrase, ahhh, the patter of a soft rain. This has voice and no ringing -ly adverb. Now me? I search out adverbs as flags, not just to write 2b, but to see if I botched anything else in the sentence to create a #3. And in this instance I also tossed in a classic double adjective on the end there... also an excellent spot for improvement.

    3: The rain pattered, raising motes of dust on the barren field.

    Now we got rid of an adjective coupling while letting the reader visualize how dry this place is. By killing the adverb and adjective coupling, what we in fact create is voice in 2b and 3. That said, an awful lot of adverbs can just be deleted, they're worthless. But still, if that adverb was important enough to have, try to find a better verb or better way to say the same thing with Voice, instead of the clunky everybody can do it adverb.

    We went from a functional but blah sentence to giving an audible cue (pattering) and a visual (motes) for the reader to chew on. Much better.


     
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2016
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  16. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Adverbs are not a grammar issue. Bad grammar will murder writing period, no adverbs or a hundred, because errors will confuse and destroy the meaning of sentences and make you look amateur.

     
  17. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I'm glad we can dismiss the figurative genocide early in this discussion. Any attempts to round up users of various words and keep those defilers of Perfect Writing segregated in a place from where, mercifully, their writings will never escape to be published can henceforth be considered verboten.

    I think that Demesnedenoir's primary point is that an ability to recognize potential weakness in prose, or to see those things that can accumulate in an infelicitous manner within our writing, may be quite useful for anyone concerned about her own writing. A discussion like this can be useful; and, why not? I don't think anyone here has the power to take these dangerous ideas and institutionalize them, doling out punishment to some writers while unfairly advancing others. What's left over is a discussion that each person can take or leave however she likes.
     
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  18. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I'm a little more prone to look at what a word does, within a particular usage, than to eliminate a whole class of words or any individual word as a matter of habit. So I think that your example is useful and interesting because it at least shows the process of critical thinking. Where we may disagree is the manner in which we come to such a point of applying discrimination. -ly adverbs and words like "began" appear to be triggers for you, drawing your attention to those points, and I think they are worth critical consideration; but I wonder if the assumption that these are black spots, or almost certainly signals of badness, may be taken too far.

    I don't know. If I look at the way Sanderson uses "began," I, erm, begin to ask myself what he's accomplishing by the uses. Something like this, from The Rhythmatist,

    seems to accomplish or address two things:

    • The point at which the whispering begins is indeterminate, non-specific. The POV character notices the whispering at a certain point, once it's already begun; but the scope or shape of the whispering is vague. (I.e., like cacophony, a group whispering is made of multiple sounds, but how many? When would a cacophony begin? How many sounds, or instances, must there be before it's a cacophony? Similarly, with group whispering...how many students/sounds?)

    • It's an on-going phenomenon—again, of indeterminate duration. If I said, "He whispered to Joel," I might be describing a single word or sentence delivered as a whisper. If I said, "He began whispering to Joel," I'm alluding to a series of whispers or an extended whispering of unknown length.


    In The Way of Kings excerpt I previously linked, there are multiple similar examples:

    • The newcomers began shouting immediately, continuing the alarm.
    • The other guards in the hallway began to panic.
    • The storm began to rage again.
    • Some men began yelling, the roar taken up by others.

    These describe either a type of cacophony or something vague without a clear beginning, either with uncertain duration or an extended duration.

    With these examples, I'm not trying to dismiss the caution that a word like "began" might require, nor am I trying to justify heavy use of the word. I'm just feeling my way toward an appreciation of why Sanderson might sometimes use the word—even if he sometimes gets carried away. My guess is that he might be drawn to the word most often when he's trying to take readers "into the moment," drawing out a tense and uncertain situation. Things don't just happen and are over; no, a series of things of uncertain shape and duration are occurring.
     
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2016
  19. Hrmm, perhaps this is just me, but I have a strange style, one born out of how I write most days. One thing that I do, constantly, is that when I find a word to describe a thing that is the word I use to describe that thing. So, in one of my works I have literal talismans. They are metal disks anywhere from the size of a quarter to the size of a friggin city. In a paragraph I am describing a character looking and analyzing his quarter sized fire talisman. I think in 6 sentences I use the word talisman three times. Once at the beginning to say this character had grabbed the fire talisman, once in the middle after calling it, it several times, and once at the end where he put it in his special drawer for talismans. There is no "variation" and some readers hate it. They consider it bland prose. I disagree. It is precise prose. It is not an amulet, it is not a charm, it is not a phylactery, it is a damn talisman.

    I point this out for one reason, the definition of "good prose" is so very, very subjective. Granted, there is a threshold of quality. When someone meets that threshold I would call the prose acceptable. This is John Grisham. His prose is tight, accurate, but not pretty. It is acceptable. Sanderson is serviceable to good. Most of the time it is serviceable, however, there are points, like that final fight at the end of Words of Radiance, where his prose is good to great, but on average just good.

    The question of "good prose" is not just a micro consideration. Often times, the strength of prose is judged in the macro perspective, over books and chapters, rather than by sentences and paragraphs. So, let's turn to your examples, Dem, and presuppose that an entire book is written in the style of sentence 3. The unfortunate truth is, while great as a single sentence, it would not work for the whole of a book. It would bog the book a bit too much. Why? Because, it would draw out so many unimportant, yet necessary details, that we would be describing things with such detail that the reader would get lost. While ther should be a presumption against passive voice or adverbs, that presumption is rebuttable. Passive voice should be used when deliberately obfuscating the actor. -ly adverbs should be used when the action is rathe unimportant and the information needs to be conveyed quickly. And any number of items for what makes "good prose" has an exception that can be met for a single instance. Just like in baseball you have all of these statistics telling what a batter can and cannot hit and where he hits or doesn't. But, on any given night that can change. Normally a batter is a 33% average. That is a really good batter, depending on HRs and RBIs he could be a player of the year candidate. However, on this night he is 0/3 with a groundout and fly into the 3d base area and a strikeout where he was caught looking. He's just having a problem on the micro level in this game, nothing to worry about. You shouldn't go out and rethink his game because of that one bad night. This same thing is with prose. You can have really good prose, like a batter with a 33% average, and still have micro level problems. You shouldn't go and oust your voice simply because you have some micro level problems that some readers might dislike.
     
  20. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    No word or class of word is inherently bad, but there are weak tendencies. Sanderson's use of began or -ly's isn't going to keep me from reading, but if I'm in edit mode I often ponder why the heck use that? And there is rarely a good enough answer, LOL. IMO of course. Even when it comes to adverbs and the classic anti-adverb statement of: adverbs are lazy writing... well, you know what? Sometimes lazy works. Sometimes there isn't a quick and easy way to say something that an adverb can handle, and what we're saying simply isn't so important that it needs an extra sentence to describe it, but totally undescribed it loses something... ok, an adverb can work. Steven King still uses adverbs despite railing against them. I use -ly adverbs, but after the first draft there are very few because I use them as flags to point to where I can do better. I probably do about about 1 -ly per thousand words outside dialogue.

    Began, due to screenwriting, is just a done deal for me, I don't use them unless there is a real point to it. It is second nature now, and like adverbs writers can justify their use but it typically takes some stretches to get limber enough. And that's fine, in particular if you can justify each one because that means you thought about it. LOL.


     
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