“-LY” Words and Arn
“-ly” words. Adverbs. Descriptive tags. I avoid them like the plague. I stress over not using them. Yet, as the re-blog from the other day shows (blatantly), I am a sucker for them when they paint the proper picture.
I have been editing. For me that involves checking context, this follows that, clear dialogue attributions. And whacking things I wrote two (or three) times (often back to back in different ways) getting to what comes next. (Are you listening, George F?) But – most of my editing involves adding more than subtracting. To me? People tell stories, so I have dialogue. And I set the scene (admittedly on a word budget). “What else?” is a pervasive question when I’m doing that sort of editing. Because I’m unsure. Too little is too much for me most of the time.
This morning I read the first chapter of an older Robert Parker’s Spencer. From his office window Spencer watched a client get in her chauffeur driven Bentley through a gray, misty day. It “gleamed wetly” as it pulled away. There has to be a better way to describe that than turning wet into an ly word. Gleamed wetly. Really? That, and “said” forty times on a page where attribution was clear. And I idolized this guy. I have also noticed that there are a lot of expression tags. She said, disconsolately. She said, spritely. Once it starts up that stuff is like a rash you can’t rid of. But it is like sheetrock mud. It fills in the cracks. And nobody has to work for your story as it stops requiring any imaginative support on the reader’s part. To me it also puts you slightly out of the scene because instead of being in the middle of it, you are being directed. Subliminal, but still…
I caught myself writing – “he found a strange comfort in the discordant sounds of a Long Beach Friday night as they mingled in distant, mellow cacophony before they found his open window.” That is some flowery shit for me. Do I have to write it? I don’t know. But it needed something besides “he fell in the bed with his window open.” And if you’d read up to that point you’d know that he has an infamous dive bar in the parking lot twenty feet behind and fifteen feet below his second-floor window, just off Ocean Blvd in Long Beach. I could fluff it up with drunks and dealers and low-riders with glasspacks and the ocean, but there has to be a cut-off point for the travelogue writing. And the easiest way is to avoid it altogether. You tell me.
I ass-u-me in dialogue that a lot of emotion is clear in the exchanges if the attribution is clear. I would write this –
Amanda Morisé’s office, Wednesday afternoon, November 1st, 1978
Amanda was standing, stretched across her big, clear desk doing something with a marker to an unrolled blue print, didn’t bother to look up.
“Jailbait, there is some viable reason for you to be in my office during business hours without Deanna?”
“Yeah. She’s done, Amanda. It’s over. All of this is over, I can feel it. The last one was the last one, if you’re picking that up.”
“You are speaking in riddles and I’m busy. Be clear, dear. Or be gone.”
Nowhere in there do I see the need for “she said, slightly annoyed.” Because she isn’t slightly annoyed, she’s curious. “She said, curiously.” Isn’t that redundant? Said, a ? and curiously? Which is one of my pet peeves in the “said” culture. It was a f*cking question, not a statement. I see it all the time “Are you okay?” she said. She asked, dammit. Okay?
Nor do I see the need for “jailbait” to clap his thighs in frustration or opt in on his demeanor. He will probably drop into her guest chair in a moment and we’ll get there. Nowhere do I see the need for tags. Isn’t the resignation in his word choices and the disruptive but not entirely unwelcome appearance of this person obvious? Even if you didn’t have two books worth of backstory on their relationship? I can see some stilted dialogue from someone requiring the appearance of an “ly” if it was needed to set the tone. But you tell me. Is it? If it is, I can do that. But…
Yes, there are times and scenes and moods that you want to set with words, that we need to set with words. The thing about editing is that it makes me wonder if there aren’t hundreds of thousands of my words that are total rubbish because I’m allergic to tags. But not altogether if they help –
It was rainy and cold the first Friday of December. The drive had been dry in his car, but the non-working heater had left it cold. Jackson stood under the heater by the hostess stand for a minute, his jacket dripping.
“May I help you, sir? Are you expecting someone?” The hostess was a girl about his age wearing real lipstick, not lip gloss, and had her snotty on.
“She’s here someplace. So tall,” he held out his hand at about five-four. “Long, blondish brown hair?” He wanted to describe her figure, just to piss snotty off, checked it. “Can I go look?” He didn’t wait for an answer. After a summer of snotty lipstick girls he’d figured out that they all thought they ran the place when they were really no more than attractive speed bumps between the door and a table.
There. Attitude for everyone involved, no work for anyone.
Out of that quagmire of self-pity and curiosity into – Dialect
Rule of thumb is “don’t.” I say as needed. I am the world’s worst for gonna and wanna and contractions. I am from the south. I’ve read a lot of stilted Indie (and mainstream) dialogue that would have benefitted from a little casualizing. People’s voices change, their delivery and inflection changes, with emotion. Aw, man. I don’t wanna go to the…Or. Look. I am not going to the…Either one of those, finished could have found their own LY tag. But contextually I don’t think they need me to direct you to how they’re feeling. That wasn’t this discussion. Apologies.
JD MacDonald slipped into some vernacular in a book and it was drawn his way and I had to go back and read it three times to get it. He didn’t go full on phonetics, he wrote new words wrapped in backwards apostrophes. Jeez. Elmore Leonard says not to load up your pages with apostrophes. I disagree with both of them. Write it so whoever is reading it gets the gist without struggling for it. I have a character from coastal Louisiana headed for New Or- lee-uns, as people from elsewhere might say. In narrative I would say he’s headed for New Orleans. If in dialogue, I’d have him say – “Headed for Nawlins, Junior. You comin’?” Because no redneck gets in his truck and says – “I am going to New Orleans, Junior. Would you like to come along with me?” No more than an ex-cop and an ex-boxer would say, under heavy gunfire ripping through their cabin, “Well, what shall we do?” I read that one. Honest to God. Here’s a funny story about dialect and I’ll get off my soapbox.
I did a handful of clinics with Larry Londin. He was the drummer for Motown during the Supremes era. There are other stories of his and Lamont Dozier’s that are priceless, but I’ll put on the limiter. When Larry was done with Motown he moved to Nashville as a session drummer. On his first session he set up, rehearsed some, they ran down the tune. When it was over, through the headphone talkback came “Hey you, new drummer boy. Don’t use no arn.” Larry thought WTF? Arn? He nodded, they ran the tune down again. Halfway through the tape stops. “Don’t use no arn this time,” the engineer said, edgily (!). Larry is still trying to figure out what arn is and they get the count-in. Not even to the first chorus and the tape stops. The engineer slams his chair back, stomps out into the studio. “Godammit, I said don’t use no arn,” and he proceeds to take Larry’s cymbals off their stands.
Iron. (Cymbals are copper based alloys). Euphemistically, and in a very narrow subcultural vernacular, they were a drummer’s “iron.”
When it gets to be a reach I’d have that redneck in a truck say “Gawldarn it, Junior, we got us flat tire.” Because “flat tar” would be a double take a lot of places. Particularly if the damn thing got hot and caught far. I say vernacular and dialect and even subcultural slang, in small doses, and apostrophes wherever you want, are okay. If they are true to your character’s voices. But watch your Arn.