Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Context is Everything

by Chris F. Holm

You know what's stupid? Phillips head screwdrivers. I mean, what makes them so special? La de da, I'm all cruciform and fancy. A single slot ain't good enough for me.

Wanna know another thing that gets my goat? Handheld shots in movies. We invented dollies for a reason, people.

"But Chris," the handier among you might say, "Phillips head screwdrivers allow for deeper screw heads, which in turn provide greater torque than their flat counterparts while maintaining a smaller profile; they're just the thing when a tiny screw is called for." Meanwhile, the cinephiles in the audience are shaking their heads and muttering, "This Philistine has no idea what he's talking about. Sure, a nice, smooth dolly shot is just right sometimes, but every now and again, you need the immediacy of a scene shot in jittery handheld."

And to them, I say: damn right. It's all about the context.

So too it is with adverbs and other modifiers. Oh, sure, modifiers are easy to pick on: since they're a common crutch for fledgling writers who can't put their finger on that one perfect word, they're the editorial equivalent of low-hanging fruit. But they're part of language for a reason, and they have their place, their proper context. Sometimes they're the clearest (or funniest; Douglas Adams had a way with the funny adverb) way to get a given thought across. It's a mistake to blame the tools for the failures of the craftsman.

Speaking of context, this week's question reads as follows:
"Among Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, he states 'Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’.' What’s your rule(s) for using modifiers in your writing?"
I'd like to offer a little context for that Leonard quote, because (thanks in part to the Great Decontextualizer that is the internet) his so-called rules have become something like the Coke bottle from The Gods Must Be Crazy to aspiring writers so eager to figure out the Secret Publishing Handshake they pass them back and forth among themselves without the faintest understanding of the intent behind them. The quote comes from an essay Leonard penned for the New York Times called Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hoopdetoodle. It's a brief and excellent read. Go ahead and check it out; I'll wait.

Those who clicked through doubtless noticed something straightaway. Those hard-and-fast writing rules of Leonard's? They're not as hard-and-fast as they seem. As Leonard himself says at the outset of his essay:
"These are rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what's taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules."
I don't mean to say that Leonard's rules (which really aren't rules, but guidelines) aren't worth heeding. What I do mean to say is even Leonard didn't intend them to be written in stone. He doesn't follow the rules 'cause them's the rules. He follows them because they work for him.

Since I'm something of a contrarian, allow me to leave you with an opposing viewpoint, courtesy of Nick Hornby, the author of HIGH FIDELITY and ABOUT A BOY. This quote is taken from his marvelous essay collection, THE POLYSYLLABIC SPREE:
"Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune, and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress...

Actually, when you think about it, not many novels in the Spare tradition are terribly cheerful. Jokes you can usually pluck out whole, by the roots, so if you're doing some heavy-duty prose-weeding, they're the first to go. And there's some stuff about the whole winnowing process I just don't get. Why does it always stop when the work in question has been reduced to sixty or seventy thousand words - entirely coincidentally, I'm sure, the minimum length for a publishable novel? I'm sure you could get it down to twenty or thirty if you tried hard enough. In fact, why stop at twenty or thirty? Why write at all? Why not just jot the plot and a couple of themes down on the back of an envelope and leave it at that? The truth is, there's nothing very utilitarian about fiction or its creation, and I suspect that people are desperate to make it sound manly, back-breaking labor because it's such a wussy thing to do in the first place. The obsession with austerity is an attempt to compensate, to make writing resemble a real job, like farming, or logging. (It's also why people who work in advertising put in twenty-hour days.) Go on, young writers - treat yourself to a joke, or an adverb! Spoil yourself! Readers won't mind!"


Ron Scheer said...

Nicely contextualized. Thanks, bud.

Chris said...

Kind of you to say, Ron!

Meredith Cole said...

Great to read this while I'm in the midst of hacking away at a novel (otherwise known as editing)! Thanks for reminding us that we don't have to write 140 character (spaces included) novels--yet.

Chris said...

Happy to help, Meredith!