On Writing Kingly, Snakes, and Wheels

By Cyberquill 02/07/201018 Comments

In his splendidly (oops…) entertaining and highly (ouch!) edifying writing primer On Writing–A Memoir of the Craft, horrormeister Stephen King counsels against the use of adverbs:

Adverbs, you will remember from your own version of Business English, are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is a the voice of little boys wearing shoepolish moustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

The above 80-word paragraph features five adverbs, i.e., 6.25% of it is pure adverbiage—quite remarkable for a paragraph explicitly composed to discourage rather than to promote their employment—including a whopping three instances of the word usually. (On the previous page, Mr. King had stated that he was “not in love” with the sentence My romance with Shayna began with our first kiss because it contained the word with twice in four words.)

Mr. King continues:

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there.

Good point. While I’m at it, I shall also ask myself if really really has to be there.

A Tenth Anniversary Edition of On Writing is scheduled for July 2010. Whether the author or his editor will excise a few adverbs from the anti-adverb section remains to be seen.

What also caught my attention—other than the substantive content itself—was that in its 290 pages, On Writing contained at least twenty instances of the word apt in the sense of likely, as in you’re not apt to get a very unbiased opinion from folks who’ve eaten dinner at your house on page 217. (Incidentally, does very really have to be there?)

The last time I found the frequency of a particular not-so-common word similarly conspicuous was when I read The Da Vinci Code. In one of its early chapters, someone snaked himself through a partition at the Louvre. A few dozen pages later, a van snaked its way up a hill. For the rest of the novel, at clockwork intervals, someone or something advanced by snaking.

About halfway through the tale I began to suspect that the repeated use of the word “snake” was yet another clue to the solution of the mystery. Thus I resolved that a serpent of some sort must have swallowed the Holy Grail; or perhaps that the Holy Grail was indeed Mary Magdalene’s offspring, and “snake” was used as a phallic motif that, yes, snaked itself through the whole novel.

Given the wealth of verbs that signify locomotion, it is hard to imagine that all this snaking could have been a mere editorial oversight:

Page 110:

Arriving at the partitions, Fache snaked his way through them, saw the rest room door, and ran for it.

Page 224:

Sophie snaked her way toward the stadium.

Page 259:

The truck, after an unnerving pause atop the bank ramp, had moved on, snaking left and right for a minute or two, and was now accelerating to what felt like top speed.

Page 278:

Castel Gandolfo snaked downward through the Alban Hills into the valley below.

Page 357:

Before Sophie and Teabing could respond, a sea of blue police lights and sirens erupted at the bottom of the hill and began snaking up the half-mile driveway.

Page 515:

Winding down narrow hallways, Silas snaked through a kitchen, past terrified workers, who left to avoid the naked albino as he knocked over bowls and silverware, busting into a dark hallway near the boiler room.

In addition, there was a lot of wheeling going on in The Da Vinci Code. No one ever seemed to turn around. Everybody “wheeled”:

Page 108:

Fache wheeled to Collet.

Page 136:

Wheeling, he stared back in the direction from which he had come.

Page 174:

Grouard wheeled and aimed his gun at her but instantly realized it was an empty threat.

Page 318:

He wheeled suddenly and pointed to the far wall.

Page 370:

Collet wheeled, anger brimming.

Page 467:

He wheeled back toward the knights.

Page 514:

As the first officer wheeled to shoot, Silas dove for his legs.

Page 553:

Langdon wheeled, looking fearful.

As Stephen King would put it, characters and objects in Mr. Brown’s novel were usually more apt to snake and wheel than they were usually apt to move and turn.

Usually, that is.

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  • dafna

    he, he, he, always enjoy your blogs!

    really? writing lessons from stephen king? ordinarily a writer might be more apt to snake his way through this essay:
    http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit

    half way through before you inferred the snake was phallic… well we can deduce you are NOT a catholic. isn’t the serpent the source of original sin (libido actualis)?

    • http://www.cyberquill.com/about_us.php Cyberquill

      You are deducing incorrectly, as I am a Catholic (not like I had ordered a particular religious denomination, but being Catholic came with the package in my original neck of the woods). In practice, however, I’m more of a vegetarian, and I always thought the apple was the source of original sin. Wasn’t the serpent tasked with guarding the apple tree rather than encouraging consumption of its fruitage, or am I confusing this with the multi-headed canine who guards the gates of Hades? I may be getting my mythology all mixed up here.

      Besides King’s book and Orwell’s renowned essay, this excellent treatise by David Foster Wallace deals with the use of written language. (The author subsequently hanged himself at age 46. George Orwell had signed off at the same young age, albeit of natural causes. During the composition of On Writing, Stephen King was struck by a van and almost bought the farm. Writing about writing appears to be cursed. Naturally, I’m a bit worried on account of having contributed a few thoughts of my own on the subject, but I do take solace in the fact that, to my knowledge, William Strunk Jr. of The Elements of Style fame safely made it into his seventies.)

  • dafna

    thanks for the edit. did you know foster wallace? great choice of words, peter, “treatise” vs “essay”.

    i have not read “on writing” by king. foster wallace makes a good point; writing about writing is ironic in that those who would be most interested in the topic need the advice the least.

    which explains my lack of interest in king’s nearly 300 page book on the matter and your ability to shred it’s advice.

    orwell’s essay is renowned and even someone incapable (handicapped) of improving their skills can get some use out of it.

    the only curse that i see connected to “writing about writing” might be the ability to drive yourself mad? or death by boredom, in the case of “the elements of style”. the rest seems coincidental.

    ugh, word soup bad today. starring at this screen desperately trying to form sentences… please take out decoder ring now :(

    “original sin” a uniquely catholic concept? blame the snake for enticing eve? in judaism the “apple” is an unidentified piece of fruit = knowledge. somewhere along the way the fruit became an apple, the apple became the knowledge of lust etc. dude… snakes are phallic, and in biblical times you would have needed one to reproduce (theme in davinci code).

    if you want some fun with words, look up the etymology of “fruit” or “eden” back to the hebrew and/or sanskrit. = “delight” ?

    jews don’t assign the same importance to the pomegranate in the garden -- if you are given only one rule there is a 50/50 chance you will break it. not great odds he, he! so what happens when you break it… you get 10 more rules! which got broken before they even made it down the mountain… etc.

    • http://www.cyberquill.com/about_us.php Cyberquill

      No, I didn’t know Foster Wallace, neither in person nor via his writings, until I read about his suicide. Someone mentioned his disquisition (another good word!) on language, and I checked it out. Haven’t read anything else by him. I’m sure it’s all very good. (Anytime a depressed/bipolar person commits self-slaughter--in spite of the Everlasting having fixed His cannons against it--I wonder if it was the condition itself or the cumulative effect of all those meds that ultimately did them in.)

      And I didn’t “shred” Stephen King’s advice. The guy is a phenomenal writer, and his book abounds with valuable suggestions. I merely picked on a minor incongruity. After all, the hapless author had just been hit by a motor vehicle. The process of learning to walk again often distracts from keeping tabs on one’s adverbs. Besides, no writer follows their own advice to a T.

      Not much has changed since Biblical times. One still needs a snake to reproduce. Sort of.

  • dafna

    pardon. i thought the tone satirical. with due respect to s. king, i was judgmental since i don’t read his work. on the other hand, i can say with good judgment that i detest the writings of j.k.rowling

    are you self-editing? my email alerts are different than your posts.

    to take your own life is an extension of mental illness, since we are hardwired to survive at all cost. suicide FOLLOWS extreme, overwhelming pain. period. yes the meds are often far worse than the disease.

    not all people in pain commit suicide, it’s dependent on a persons “threshold” for pain. it’s a desperate act by desperate people who have given up any hope of a life free of pain.

    • http://www.cyberquill.com/about_us.php Cyberquill

      I’m from the esteemed Tom Cruise school of psychology. If we shot the world’s supply of anti-depressants to the moon, I have a hunch that overall rates of clinical depression and suicide would actually decline. Too many people are taking too many pills.

      And yes, I’m a compulsive self-editor. The good news is that after a few dozen nips and tucks and rewrites applied over several weeks, I often reach a point where I actually like the way a paragraph flows.

  • http://andreaskluth.org/ Andreas

    This is a great post. Very witty.

    You’re poking fun at somebody for something in such a way that your love for the thing becomes even clearer.

    As it happens, I was not even aware of King’s essay, but I’ve also gone through a phase when I avoided ALL passive tenses and ALL adverbs. I stopped when I realized that I had overdone it, and that my writing was bad.

    I had a few other phases. At one point, I refused to start an article with a small fill word such as “a” or “the” or “in”. I looked for verbs (action!) in the gerund instead. That too soon got rather silly and stupid.

    BTW, whew, what a great spinning tag cloud over on the right.

    Is that only available on WordPress.org?

    That said, my eyes keep wandering over there, and away from your post….

    • http://www.cyberquill.com/about_us.php Cyberquill

      Stop wandering, or I’ll send you back into your closet. If you want to be a writer, you must learn to stay focused.

      My biggest pet peeve is (AAARGH!!!) the word “be” in all its bromidic incarnations, particularly the pesky “It is…” at the beginning of a sentence or clause. Please don’t remind me how many times I used it in this post. Talking about committing suicide. Having used “is” and “was” multiple times and not being able to come up with snappy replacements ranks among my personal top causes for suicidal ideation.

      Yes, I believe the rotating tag cloud plugin is available on WP.org only. It is sort of cute, but also rather worthless, as there are too many tags on too small a space, and I don’t know how to make the stupid thing bigger.

      OK. Let’s try the previous sentence without the wearisome “it is” and “there are”:

      I like its dynamic nature, but too many tags on too small a space render the gadget functionally useless, and I can’t figure out how to make it bigger.

      I suppose we can kill the “functionally,” as the word useless sufficiently implies a lack of functionality. Actually, not sufficiently implies, but simply implies. Now let’s cut the “actually” and the “simply”: Not sufficiently implies, but implies.

      Much better--I’m learning, Mr. King!

      • http://andreaskluth.org/ Andreas

        Ah, but now you have just given a perfect argument for IGNORING King’s rules.

        The original sentence, from gut to quill, read:

        “It is sort of cute, but also rather worthless, as there are too many tags on too small a space, and I don’t know how to make the stupid thing bigger.”

        Your revised and “improved” sentence read:

        “I like its dynamic nature, but too many tags on too small a space render the gadget functionally useless, and I can’t figure out how to make it bigger.”

        (You then “improved” this further to:

        “I like its dynamic nature, but too many tags on too small a space render the gadget useless, and I can’t figure out how to make it bigger.”)

        Your original sentence wins hands down!!

        • http://www.cyberquill.com/about_us.php Cyberquill

          In all fairness to the Mainer, the “rule” about going easy on the be-word family is all mine. Pursuant to it, let me rephrase: Yours truly, not the Mainer, established the “rule” about going easy on the be-word family. King only inveighed against the passive voice.

          One person does not get to determine a winner. Proper adjudication of a motion requires two teams of three and a jury with keypads in their armrests.

  • http://www.testazyk.com Thomas Stazyk

    I don’t mind if people like Stephen King write books about writing. What I do mind is when people actually listen to what they say. It’s like Johnny Rotten telling people how to sing and having people think that’s the only way to do it. I have to confess to liking both King’s books (which may or may not be different from his writing) and Rotten’s music, but I don’t think that they are all we should get. It’s sort of like the way American Idol has engineered everything out of modern singing except people (male and female) who shriek like Whitney Houston being electrocuted.

    So I say, imploringly, make laughingly, lovingly, playfully, nauseatingly, poetically, atrociously, slyly, amusingly, perniciously joyful use of adverbs. Really.

    • http://www.cyberquill.com/about_us.php Cyberquill

      I don’t see anything wrong with listening to people who are successful in their fields, and Mr. King didn’t say anything about “the only way to do it.” He merely--firmly and clearly--stated his personal preferences. Besides, no one suggested that any particular person’s advice is “all we should get.” You appear to be reacting to claims that no one made.

      • http://www.testazyk.com Thomas Stazyk

        True, you made no such claim. And as far as I know, neither did Mr. King. What I’m reacting to is the logic that says: (1) King is a brazillionaire because he’s sold a lot of books, (2) King doesn’t like adverbs, (3) ergo, people should only write books with no adverbs if they want to sell books.

        • http://www.cyberquill.com/about_us.php Cyberquill

          That’s a bit of a cartoonish syllogism you’ve whipped up there. No one except a lobotomized chipmunk would seriously adopt such logic, especially not upon consulting Stephen King’s adverb-infested exhortation to forgo their use. Clearly, the chillmaster did not advocate writing completely adverblessly but merely to cut back on adverbs as muchly as possibly.

          I just opened a random page of The Stand, which happened to be within reach on my little desk here, and on this page (p. 743) I read the following:

          In the extremity of his joy, Leo’s carefully won-back vocabulary had deserted him, …

          He could only hoot loudly and enthusiastically.

          …and he saw that he was applauding as frantically as the rest.

          … a family of barnswallows that had taken up residence in this fine and private place after the plague struck now flew about crazily, …

          … and Stu muttered, “Goddam thing,” which was clearly picked up and broadcast.

          He cleared his throat, feedback whined briefly, and he took a wary step back from the mike.

          The page is small-print, roughly 400 words, and I found seven adverbs. Assuming I missed a few, let’s say the page contains 12 adverbs. Would be interesting to perform a scientific adverb count in Stephen King’s ouvre to see how many he uses compared to other authors.

          • http://www.testazyk.com Thomas Stazyk

            It’s good to see that you have The Stand within easy reach--it’s one of my favourites.

            But, regarding the larger point. What I do not have within easy reach is one of the several rejection letters I’ve received from agents/publishers telling me to read books like Mr. King’s in order to make my writing publishable.

            There, I’ve said it. I’m embittered by rejection!

            But I still think that this kind of thinking is homogenizing the arts.

            • http://www.cyberquill.com/about_us.php Cyberquill

              Artists are renegades by nature, so I don’t see much danger of the arts homogenizing anytime soon.

  • http://andreaskluth.org/ Andreas

    After all this, I am now considering — as I do from time to time — to write a post about why one must only use short, Anglo-Saxon words and never Norman-Latinate words, and to write it exclusively in Norman-Latinate vocabulary.

    • http://www.cyberquill.com/about_us.php Cyberquill

      Looking forward to your post, but does the exclusively really have to be there?

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