Friday, January 17, 2014

Hunting Adjectives with Elephant Guns

Bonnie's post on Monday made me sit up and pay attention. Bonnie climbed into the bully pulpit for the sake of nouns, the building blocks readers use to create story worlds and those shadows we all hope to leave with our readers. (Sharon's post on Wednesday made me rethink my daily words, the ones I fling about recklessly. Thanks for that, friend. I am resolved to do better.)

And so I went a-hunting for adjectives as she had done. I found few extraneous uses, but they're there. I also admired strong nouns like never before.

This was such a powerful exercise that I've done the work for you. I've collected seven random samples from novels we've all loved. Some are more adjective-rich than others. I hope you'll look at these 50-word snippets and help me decide if any of the adjectives should be scratched, or if a more descriptive noun could have been used.

Remember, adjectives aren't the bad guys. We do tend to lean heavily on them in our writing. The trick is to use the strongest noun possible (cottage rather than house; beret rather than hat) to minimize the need to slow-down-the-action adjectives.

Yep, this is how writers have fun, so jump in!

[Note: I italicized the adjectives for you. I didn't italicize adjectives with linking verbs. That makes things messy but does show what a complex task lay before us each day. Also, I have missed a few or thousands.]

I finished reading the letter and closed my eyes. I was thinking, So many tears for Elder Sister, so much joy for me. I was grateful that we followed the custom of my not falling into your husband's house until just before the birth of your first child. I still had...Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See

We had been wandering for so long I forgot what it was like to live within the walls or sleep through the night. In that time I lost all I might have possessed if Jerusalem had not fallen: a husband, a family, a future of my own. My girlhood disappeared in...The Dovekeepers, Alice Hoffman

A day after the Evers funeral, Miss Leefolt's mama stop by for a visit. She live up in Greenwood, Mississippi, and she driving down to New Orleans. She don't knock. Miss Fredericks just waltz on in the living room where I'm ironing. She give me a lemony smile. I go...The Help, Kathryn Stockett

When he was pushed out by the rest of his family, the relief struggled inside him like an obscenity. It was something he didn't want to feel, but nonetheless, he felt it with such gusto it made him want to throw up. How could he? How could he? But he did...The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

Restlessness rippled through the schoolroom like waves of wind through wheat. A teacher on a discipline rampage can be a fearsome thing; every student ever born knows that. But we never expected that kind of behavior from Morrie. Nonetheless he seemed to go out of his way to pick fault...The Whistling Season, Ivan Doig

The polar bears lies on his stomach, head and snout stretched in front of him. In repose he looks harmless--cuddly even, with most of his bulk concentrated in the lower third of his body. He takes a deep, halting breath and then exhales a long, rumbling groan. Poor thing. Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen
Note: Some would have italicized polar bear, but when it's a species, as the animals in the following example, I prefer to read the two-word phrase as a noun.

The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane's heart. She rowed upstream to see wood ducks, canvasbacks, and ospreys and to search for tiger salamanders in the ferns. She drifted downstream to find painted turtles sunning on fallen trees...Once Upon a River, Bonnie Jo Campbell

Did any of our authors go crazy with adjectives? Did they use adjectives when a strong noun would have been more powerful? Look at your own writing, too. Is this a new awareness for you? What are you doing this weekend? I'm going to a mineral hot springs with the family. Thanks for spending time with us. We so enjoy your company.


Henrietta Frankensee said...

Bonnie, you challenged me. Sharon, you encouraged me. Patti, you inspired me.
I am still grieving the loss of my beloved adverbs. Now I must rethink my adjectives?
Then I think, perhaps the problem with my writing is that I will take a strong noun, say, dipsomaniac, and fortify it with an adjective, say, quivering. This is to distinguish her from a non-quivering dipsomaniac that perhaps lives in the room next door. The distinction is important to the story.

V. Gingerich said...

I missed you, and I'm loving these parts of speech posts! No bossy should's or must's (which make me want to slather on adverbs with a butter knife, to be honest) but you inspire me to go over my WIP with new eyes. Thanks!

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Reading these samples, I didn't find any of them to be adjective-crazy. However, I think each of these selections would fall into the literary category. I wonder how it would be different with more genre selections?

I now, however, have more books on my to-read list! Thanks for that!

Also, I'm wishing I had a program that would italicize all the adverbs in WIP. Wouldn't that be a time saver during edits?

Patti Hill said...

Henrietta: I had to look up dipsomania.Who knew? Not me. Thanks for a new word. And I wouldn't spend a moment grieving adverbs. They're very sneaky when they're not wearing their -ly tails, so simply proceed judiciously and search out the strong nouns.

Vila: We're so happy to be back with our writing and reading friends. You understand us so well. We did worry about being pedantic about word choice, so thank you for the affirmation.

Susie: I took a 400-level grammar class for my English degree. The professor taught us what he called "Grandma Grammar." I recently got the chance to thank him. He flushed with pride. I know of no better way to truly learn the parts of speech than diagramming sentences. That is pedantic, but I can't apologize. I would love to be in a sentence diagramming club. Yeah, I'm weird.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I love diagramming! It's a puzzle and I enjoy it.

Ironically, yesterday my 1st grader brought home "parts of speech" homework. :)

Sharon K. Souza said...

Patti, diagramming sentences was one of my favorite things in my English classes going way back to junior high.

Susie, parts-of-speech homework for first graders! Oh my.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Sharon, I know. I was surprised...and very thrilled!

Patti Hill said...

I wonder if there is diagramming software, so we could share sentences online. I'm off to hunt...

It's nice to know I'm not alone.

For some true word nerd fun, go to this website. Type a sentence and the software diagrams it for you.

Bonnie Grove said...

Geek on, Patti! I'm off to diagram. I need the practice!