“Them Cute Little Adverbs”

Dear Maggie,

I just really, really really love playing around with words when I’m working on my novel, entitled The Man Who Really Really Really Hated Women. Especially those words that modify verbs, I actually and honestly think they’re called abverbs, or somethin like that. I absolutely, certainly and really cain’t understand why some writers say not to overly or excessively or even arbitrarily use them sweet little abverbs like they certainly and surely and necessarily should. 

Am I making sense, Maggie, you really and necessarly and phenomenalllly – I truly think my l key sticks –  don’t think I actually and positively and genuinely use to many do you? 

Yours for real,

The Abverb Consult –ant 


Dear – and that should be Adverb – Consultant, 

I simply really, really, really think you do use too many adverbs (spelled with a “d,” not a “b”), at least in your letter to me. If your novel is anything like your letter, I don’t believe you’re ready to query prospective literary agents just yet. 

As a matter of fact, many writing experts recommend avoiding their use altogether. Now that’s a bit extreme, if you ask me. Such people are known as Adverbalitionists, according to Edward M. Baldwin (EdwardMBaldwin.com), a high-ranking Fanstory.com writer in his article, “Why Writers Fight and Bicker.” As Mr. Baldwin so succinctly and amazingly stated, “According to Adverbalitionists, writing adverbs is the one sin that dooms your writing soul (also known as a ‘muse’) to publishing purgatory for all eternity.” 

Well, Mr. Adverb Consultant, my soul has long been consigned to that rather uncomfortable place for other writing sins already, so why not add another to the rather lengthy list. But before I damn my soul completely, let me add that strengthening your verbs is a far, far better thing to do than toss in a bunch of cute but unnecessary adverbs. 

For example, let’s look at the following sentence: 

“Ms. Brown walked swiftly down the lane.” 

According to Adverbalitionists – and other writers, I might add – a better sentence would be: 

“Ms. Brown galloped down the lane.” Or “Ms. Brown shot down the lane.” 

You get the picture? I certainly and deliriously and absolutely and unconditionally hope so!!! 

Excuse me while I go roll in some catnip to take the bad taste of your writing out of my mouth. 

P.S. Unnecessary adverbs aren’t your only problem.


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Show, Don’t Tell

Dear Maggie, 

After writing my first novel, “Tell Me,” I sent it to a beta reader. Well to make a short story long, she sent it back telling me that there was too much telling and not enough showing. I’m really confused about that. I know I put in a lot of description that I thought was showing, such as: 

“ Dennis [my protagonist] was 6 feet 4 inches tall, built solidly, and had brown hair and eyes. He spoke in a bass voice and tended to walk very fast.” 

Now isn’t that showing?” 

Yours truly,

Ms. Show-don’t-tell



Dear Ms. Show-don’t-tell, 

First of all, the line you took from your novel to illustrate your idea of descriptive “showing” is description, all right, but very boring description and will certainly cause a break in your storytelling, which is never a good idea. Your story should flow smoothly, with any descriptions you use being part of the “show.” 

Let’s take your example. Here’s a better, more “showy” way of writing it: 

“Dennis never walked anywhere: he careened through crowds like a runaway locomotive. As his feet pounded the ground, the local seismographs registered at least a 5.9 on the Richter Scale. When he spoke, he sounded more like a foghorn announcing his presence to ships passing in the night. Behind his unassuming features was a brain sharp enough to cut a cat’s whisker and observant enough to detect a skin mite crossing a person’s nose, as it was doing right now.” [This last sentence should then morph into an astute observation that he was in the process of making.] 

Sounds like an interesting character, right? I used not only more visually-appealing description, but also exaggeration, which is an excellent device in characterization as well. When used in moderation, of course. If you use too much exaggeration, your protagonist may sound too cartoon-like. 

Finally, you don’t want your protagonist(s) coming across as ordinary people. That’s not what readers are looking for when they buy a book. The only exception to that rule is to put, early on in your novel, your protagonists in extraordinary situations, forcing them to show their mettle, so to speak. 

I have to run now; my puddy-cat serial is about to come on. Puddy is so mangy that a swarm of gnats always seems to hang over her, and her tail is perpetually at half mast because of an old break in the middle. But she can cross open ground faster than an Olympic sprinter and scratch the eyes out of any dog alive. She’s my hero, well heroine actually. 


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When to Break the Rules

Dear Miggie,

Heard from someone that writing sentences in fragments is aokay. Supposed to be skinny sentences. Thought it would add more emphasis. Did, I think. Anyway, feels good. Feels right even. You think?


Mr. Skinny


Dear Mr. Skinny, 

Truly, no. 

Amend that. Emphasis, yes. Too skinny, no. Once in a while, aokay. Every sentence, or even every other sentence, I don’t think. 

Breaking even one rule, such as writing complete sentences, cannot be done with impunity. As I’ve already stated in my article “Us Writers Don’t Need No Rules,” newbie writers who break the rules can come across as ignorant. That’s a good way to lose potential readers. You have to master a rule before you can comfortably and safely break it. 

Writing a fragment, once in a while, can lend emphasis to what you’re trying to say. But writing fragments too often is almost guaranteed to cause you to lose credibility. Since newbies don’t have any credibility to start with, they most certainly can’t afford to lose any they may be building up. Show readers that you truly understand your craft. Then, maybe, you can play around with “bending” occasional rules. 

And if you don’t understand your craft, get a job and stop pestering me.

Okay with that? Whatever!! 

P.S. My name is  Maggie. Not Miggie. Not Moggie. Not Muggie. But MAGGIE!!! Excuse me while I throw up a hairball.


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Setting Meaurable and Realistic Goals

Dear Maggie,

I read somewheres where it’s important for writers to set goals especially goals that can be measured. So, being a writer myself, I sat myself down and thought and thought and thought. And then it come to me, my goal is for my first great novel that I jest finished to be at the top of the New York Times bestseller list in a month or too.. 

So, Maggie, do I have a measureable goal or not? huh? huh? 

Yours truly,

Miss Fabulous



Dear Miss Not-so-Fabulous, 

I do have to agree with your first remark, that it is important for writers to set measurable goals. However, and this is a biggie, that goal or goals must be REALISTIC. You have to crawl before you walk, and you have to walk before you run. Granted, a few authors throughout history have managed to achieve considerable success with their first – and sometimes only – novel, but that is quite uncommon. 

Most of us poor slobs usually have a pretty steep learning curve when it comes to figuring out our craft and then applying that knowledge in a unified way to our work. Some people never get the hang of it. 

As far as measurable goes, yes, you can see and therefore measure if you make the NY Times best-seller list. But that is not necessarily a realistic goal – especially in your case. A goal that is both measurable and realistic would be, for instance, getting a literary agent interested in representing you. Or, getting your novel on one of the self-publishing sites. 

If you go the self-pub route, a very good measurement stick would be how many copies you sell of your first novel, second novel, etc. as well as whether your second novel outsells the first one, and by how much. 

Expecting to get your first novel on a best-seller list, especially when you obviously are not well-versed even in the simple mechanics of writing (based on how you wrote your letter to me), is certainly measurable but definitely not realistic. I strongly recommend querying agents. Maybe one of them who has too much time on her hands and feels sorry for you will respond with some, hopefully, not-too-negative-sounding feedback. That may happen before hell freezes over. Then again, maybe not.

Paying one of the many self-pub companies to market your work is probably your best option. Unfortunately, those people don’t normally give feedback, just take your money and put your work out there in the public eye. Frankly, though, I doubt someone with your not-so-modest ego could handle the nasty mail that would result from taking that course.

Even good writers occasionally get nasty mail. You would probably get dire threats from those unfortunate enough to read your novel.

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Finding Your Voice Is Like Finding Your Identity

Dear Maggie,

I’ve written two novels now but still am rather mystified about what “voice” is to an author. My first novel entitled, “Listen to your pet,” was a somewhat humorous story about “pet-parents” and how they interact with their dogs and cats. I just wrote it as I saw it in my head, pretty much. 

On the other hand, since I’ve always admired Hemingway so much, I tried to follow his style in my second book, “The Old Fish and the Sea,” which was a serious literary work, at least it was supposed to be serious but several of my ex-friends told me they laughed all the way through it. Even though I thought I did a good job imitating Hemingway’s style, that book didn’t sell nearly as many copies as my first one, yet I thought it was better executed. 

Where have I gone wrong? 

Yours truly,

Mr. Hemingway #2 


Dear #2, 

First of all, in an attempt to demystify a difficult topic, “voice” is, simply put, how you write – how you write, not how you imitate someone else. Just as no two people have the same fingerprints, so no two authors ever write in exactly the same way. Sentence construction, chapter endings, paragraph construction, how we put the whole ball of wax (our novels) together…all these elements define your writing voice. Even if I gave a writing assignment based on a well-outlined plot with thoroughly-defined characters to two people with similar personalities, life experiences, etc., their results would be two very different novels. 

Moreover, you cannot fully imitate another author, no matter how hard you try. And even if you did, would you really want to be remembered as Hemingway, Junior? Or would you prefer to be remembered for yourself? 

Your first novel may have done better, plot and genre aside, because you wrote as you and not someone else. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it really won’t sell more books. 

Voice is somewhat like identity. Young people often try hard to “find” themselves by trying on different personas. But identity cannot be forced. If they try to act like their favorite character in a movie, say, it’s still an act. Only the shaping power of life experiences and social relationships confer identity.

It’s the same with voice: You can’t force it by pretending to write as your favorite author. It will always be an act whereas the real you could probably write much more winningly if you simply “be yourself.”

Than again, maybe not. It sounds to me as though you’ve already found that out. So be yourself and sell more books if that’s your goal, or pretend to be someone else and be lost to history. Forever. (Pardon me while I wipe the tears from my eyes and blow my nose on your letter.)


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Us Writers Don’t Need No Rules

Dear Maggie, 

I ain’t got time to read no rules about writing this here novel I been working on, and I certainly don’t have no time to take no english classes even if I could understand them teachers and all there nonsense, my novel is pretty dam good just as it is it don’t need no special punctuation nor to follow any them stupid grammar rules. All that there garbage is just for highbrows who call there stuff literary fiction and sell them for big bucks to socalled literary magazines that git sold to rich people. 

When I shown my novel to a agent at a big writing conference last week, she took one look and laughed at me laughed at me! Kin you imagine that and after all the time I spent writing it so I just punched her and run for my life.  

So Maggie I guess I respect your advice so tell me Im right? My writing friend told me that rules was meant to be broken so we real writers don’t need no stinking rules do we? 




Dear On-the-Run, 

I guess I’d better get caught up on my self-defense training before you read my reply. Why do you think that languages, not just English, but all languages have rules? It’s not so anyone can go around breaking them. It’s so people can understand each other, can communicate effectively and effortlessly (more or less) with each other. How well would you understand me if I wrote something like this: 

“I think you maybe should take the time to go to english classes like as soon as you get out of jail otherwise not just agents but everyone that look at your manuscript if you can get anyone to look at it will too. And then where will you be, you cant go around punching everyone which don’t like the way to write now can you. Unless that is you want to get caught up on writing rules class in prison which’ll probably happen if you continue to act like your better than writers which follow the rules.” 

Now that little paragraph above is a bit hard to understand. It would probably necessitate more than one reading to fully get the drift; in your case it would probably take quite a few readings. On the other hand, you might feel right at home reading it, even if you don’t understand the message it so unclearly specifies. 

Think about it, On-the-Run (that is, if you know how to put your brain in gear). If everyone wrote any old way without following any rules at all, the result would be total chaos. Now that might appeal to anarchists like you, but law-abiding people and writers wanting others to buy their works would not appreciate such nonsense. And such manuscripts would find no market at all, not even among the agents of chaos. 

Some writers can get away with breaking the rules of writing, but not just anyone and not just any rules any time they felt like it. Newbie writers who broke such rules would simply come across as ignorant of their craft. Even well-known authors who decided to break rules indiscriminately would quickly lose their following. 

So, On-the-Run, either put up or shut up. In other words, either learn the rules and apply them, or get into a different line of business. Once you get out of jail, that is.


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Sentences to Avoid

Dear Maggie,

I wrote a fiction novel. I sent it to some agents. Most of them never responded. Others said my sentences were boring. But my story is really good. I know it is. I don’t understand the agents. I have mastered spelling and punctuation. My computer likes my writing. What else is there?

 Help me Maggie!

 Yours truly,

Not Boring


 Dear Not Boring,

 I truly hate to disillusion you – although not that much admittedly – but the agents were right. If your “fiction novel” (what other kind is there?) is composed of sentences similar to those in your letter to me, I can see your problem.

 Writing experts recommend that sentences should be varied in terms of length and construction. It’s not enough to master purely mechanical details like spelling and punctuation. In addition you need to avoid writing sentences that follow the same format, as in your case, namely, subject-verb-predicate. Employ various and sundry clauses and place them in different locations within your sentences. Using different lengths, as well as constructions (think “complex” versus “simple”), will also help considerably in creating more visually appealing material.

 Let’s take your own letter as an example. Here’s a better way to write it, following my brief recommendations:

 “I recently wrote a novel that I thought was really good. Although I sent it out to a number of agents, most of whom did not even deign to reply, the ones who did claimed that my sentences were boring. Maggie, I just don’t understand. Is it not enough to master spelling and punctuation? What more can I do to improve my story and, hopefully, find an agent to represent me?”

 Do you see the difference? If not, you’re even more hopeless than I thought, which is pretty bad. And as far as computers go, If you really were a good writer/editor – and believe me, buster, you still have a long ways to go – you’d know better than to rely too much on your word processor’s built-in grammar guide. Besides, there are times when you want to break at least some of the rules of grammar for the sake of emphasis (but I’ll save that for another day).

 In the meantime, go back and rewrite you entire novel. Better yet, throw that one out and write a story about stupid computers. It should do well as a sci-fi novel and would be a refreshing change from those I’ve seen about smart machines that take over the world.

P.S. You’re really a little kid pretending to be a writer, aren’t you?

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