Category Archives: style

Melrosian modifiers

I googled “avoiding adverbs”. Then I browsed through some of the results. The message was clear. Adverbs are evil, and shall be avoided at any cost.

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It is important that the story you tell comes through, so that the reader can understand it. Therefore, avoid unnecessary words. Often, adverbs are unnecessary.

And, of course, we have the Show, don’t tell paradigm, which if obeyed would make my prose better (perhaps). So I should not write

“I will kill you”, said the villain angrily.

Instead, I should write

“I will kill you”, said the villain, and killed his victim.

I reflected on these wise words of advice, and I also spent some time taking a peek into this entertaining book by one of the greatest. We learn there that The adverb is not your friend, and also that one should pay special attention to not use adverbs for dialogue attribution.

Also other forms of dialogue attribution should be handled with care. An example, again from On Writing, is

‘I’m the plumber,’ he said, with a flush

And please, do not substitute the plain ‘said’ for other words, chosen for the sake of making your point come through. So do not write

‘Put down the gun, Utterson!’, Jekyll grated.

These pieces of advice are very sound and they make sense to me. Checking my own endeavours, I find some adverbs here and there, but not too many as dialogue modifiers, so perhaps at least in that sense I do some things right?

But then I was confused. You see, I am reading this series of books that I find very good. There are four of them in my Kindle bundle, and there is now also a fifth book released.

The books, often referred to as the Patrick Melrose novels, portray a traumatic childhood, an evil father, a drug-abusing mother, and, as the years pass by, a drug-abusing child turned grown-up. But I did not find them any way near depressing. On the contrary, they are full of beautiful language, and large doses of both irony and humor.

So please meet Nicholas Pratt, in a relationship with the much younger and not at all so noble Bridget, when he, during a visit to the Melrose residence, observes Bridget acting in a not so proper way.

‘For God’s sake,’ snarled Nicholas, leaping over to her side.

Then, the drawing room door to the mansion opens, and out comes Yvette, the housemaid, carrying a tray of cakes and cups.

‘Ah, fantastique de vous revoir, Yvette,’ said Nicholas.
‘Bonjour, Monsieur.’
‘Bonjour,’ said Bridget prettily.
‘Bonjour, Madame,’ said Yvette stoutly, though she knew that Bridget was not married.

Then, as a result of Nicholas seeing David Melrose (Patrick’s father) in the doorway, the dialogue continues:

‘David!’, roared Nicholas over Yvette’s head. ‘Where have you been hiding?’

The next sentence, including also some body language, lets David explain, as

David waved his cigar at Nicholas. ‘Got lost in Surtees,’ he said, stepping through the doorway.

I find this style of writing at many places in the books, but I did not notice it until I read about adverbs and replacements for ‘said’. So in a sense, it did not bother me, and it did not hinder the flow in my reading.

Here is another example. It is from the second book, entitled Bad News, in which Patrick spends some time in New York. His father has recently passed away, and in this scene he visits the Key Club, a place to which one ‘comes in from the noise and the pollution of New York, and it’s quite suddenly like an English country house of a certain sort’.

He will meet some gentlemen. One is listening to the name of George (Watford I guess) and is a friend of Patrick’s father, and another one is called Ballantine Morgan. When Ballantine says hello to Patrick and directly afterwards mentions that he is very sorry to hear about Patrick’s father, and says ‘I didn’t know him personally, but from everything George tells me it sounds like he was a great English gentleman’, inner and outer dialogue follows, as

Jesus Christ, thought Patrick.
‘What have you been telling him?’ he asked George reproachfully.
‘Only what an exceptional man your father was.’
‘Yes, I’m pleased to say that he was exceptional,’ said Patrick. ‘I’ve never met anybody quite like him.’
‘He refused to compromise,’ drawled George. ‘What was it he used to say? “Nothing but the best, or go without.”‘
‘Always felt the same way myself,’ said Ballantine fatuously.
‘Would you like a drink?’ asked George.
‘I’ll have one of those Bullshots you spoke about so passionately this morning.’
‘Passionately,’ guffawed Ballantine.

I find that these modifiers – reproachfully, drawled, fatuously, guffawed – where some are adverbs and some are replacements for “said” – add a how-dimension to the story. Perhaps the reader is not only interested in what happens, but also very much in how it happens?

This thinking of what and how reminds me of an interesting book about the brain, a book where the two hemispheres of the brain are described, and discussed in very profound ways. The author, Ian McGilchrist, says that the right hemisphere helps us understand the “howness” of the world, whereas the left hemisphere is more what-centered. You might also like to look at this page, from the wonderful Brain pickings site, where the book is described, in an animated way (pun intended).

So perhaps an adverb here and there, and some well-thought-out replacements for said, combined with a dose of British irony, will make our stories more interesting?

Writing like a(nother) writer

It was one of those that made me hang in there, until the end, with very few intermissions.

And now I want to understand why.

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I bought it as an e-book January 6, 2012. I was led to it by Francine Prose – she had an excerpt from it in Reading Like a Writer, and I was drawn into the story already after a few sentences. It was thriller-like in suspense and tension, but at its heart it is a love story. It begins with Daniel and Hampton wandering around in the woods, in search of a missing girl.

Daniel and Hampton were paired by chance and against their wishes. They were not friends – Hampton did not particularly like Daniel, and Daniel had every reason to avoid being alone with Hampton.

Then, in one sentence

But Daniel’s girlfriend or partner or whatever he was supposed to call her, Kate, Kate went home to relieve the baby-sitter who was minding her daughter, and Hampton’s wife, there was no ambiguity here, his wife, Iris, with whom Daniel was fiercely in love, had gone home to look after their son.

we learn the theme of the story. It then continues, with its real beginning, now written in the present tense, as

Two years after he was kicked down the stairs of his apartment building in New York City, which shattered his wrist, chipped his front tooth, and, as he himself put it, broke his heart, Daniel Emerson is back in his hometown, driving Ruby, his girlfriend’s four-year-old daughter, to her day care center, called My Little Wooden Shoe.

Perhaps it was this directness, where persons are talked about without being introduced, combined with the rhythm, where long sentences, with interestingly many commas, sometimes also with elements of repetition, a repetition that gave me, the reader, an additional, almost listening-to-music-like experience, that I liked most.

I did not have to spend time, as I do in many novels, by taking breaks where I stop the reading, for the sole purpose of trying to remember who is married to whom, and was it really important for me to remember where the old charming Aunt lived, and what was that name again, of the detective?

Then there is a new paragraph. We are still in the present tense, and following this first, short sentence, a sentence which really makes me stop and hold my breath for a moment, we learn more about Daniel’s relation to Kate’s daughter Ruby, and starting with worldly but still wonderful events he shares with Ruby, this second sentence, which is even longer than the previous, also long sentence, ends with a reflection on life itself, and its very meaning and purpose.

It’s fine with Daniel. He welcomes the chance to do fatherly things with the little girl, and those ten morning minutes with dear little four-year-old Ruby, with her deep soulful eyes, and the wondrous things she sees with them, and her deep soulful voice, and the precious though not entirely memorable things she says with it

and after a while, we approach the end with

it simply reminds you that even if God is dead, or never existed in the first place, there is, nevertheless, something tender at the center of creation, some meaning, some purpose and poetry.

It is not my purpose, with this post, to give away spoilers. But I wanted to take the chance to recommend the book – A ship made of paper by Scott Spencer – and at the same time submit a contribution to the weekly writing challenge – stylish imitation, a challenge I found very interesting, and perhaps, by some purpose or design, I was supposed to find it since by an act which to me seemed quite random, the nice folks at WordPress linked to my blog from the page where the contest was presented.

The feeling that something was intended for you I share also with Daniel, who contemplates like

Maybe he has drifted into the periphery of her life because somehow in the grand design of things – and this private, pulverizing love he feels makes him believe in grand designs – he is the man who must awaken her to her own beauty. Is there some casual, defused way he can say to her: Do you have any idea how lovely you are?

Then there’s Kate. And we learn that she, through dialogue, can express her suspicions regarding Daniel’s feelings for Iris in a rather subtle, but very calculating, way. Like if you dear reader, or one of my loved ones, would say

“Tell me something about your novel, I have seen you sitting there, in your office, in the evenings, typing away on your computer keyboard.”

and I would say that

“Well I do my regular work, but no, I have not started any novel-writing, but I have thought about it, perhaps later, when I am retired.”

but then you still pursue, and you are determined to make me reveal my secret passion, and being both jealous and worried that I might spend more and more time in this solitude, where you are not allowed to take part, you continue, and it gets sharper and sharper.

“You do like them, don’t you? she asks. A surviving bit of her old southern accent streches the “i” in “like”.

“I don’t really know him.”

“Do you like her?”

“Iris?”

She gives him a look. Of course Iris, who else are they talking about?

She, Kate, then arranges for them to meet Iris and Hampton at a restaurant, and the dialogue at that restaurant, also replayed in Francine Prose’s book, gives me a very direct and also a bit saddening view of our human nature, showing its more dark and cynical sides.

As the novel continues, we follow Daniel and his love for Iris, but we also follow several parallel stories, setting the relationship drama in its place in society. It is about race too, I did not say that before, but you will see that it is a significant element in the book, and there are also repeated references to a real high-profile court case, represented in the novel by Kate writing about the O.J Simpson trial.

And there is bad weather. You will meet storms and snow, causing electricity outage and blocked roads

The electricity cuts out for about the time of a long blink, the world disappears, then shakes itself back into existence

and sometimes these natural causes play their part as puppeteers for the love-seeking characters in the book. And even if not everyone says it,

“I love you”, Daniel says in the darkness