A Sonnet for Opening Day

Happy #OpeningDay and #NationalPoetry month. Continuing a tradition I’ve established over the last few years, here is my “Baseball Sonnet” to mark the occasion. Play ball!

Baseball Sonnet

by A. A. Rubin

That time of year thou mayst in fans behold
That malediction, fever of the spring–
Surrounded by lingering snow and cold,
We dream of pennants and World Series rings.
With pride we root our noble heroes on,
Eating hot dogs, peanuts, and crackerjacks–
And all our worldly troubles fade, are gone,
When that first pitch is thrown and bat doth crack.
But Lo! When April fades to crueler months,
We reach the summer of our discontent–
Like Mighty Casey in the Mudville ninth–
With hearts bereft of joy and merriment.
Yet hope springs eternal for one and all,
When that blue-clad umpire calls out, “Play Ball!”

A Baseball Sonnet For Opening Day

This year, opening day of the baseball season happens to fall on the first day of National Poetry Month. In honor of these two concurrent occasions, I present my poem, “Baseball Sonnet”.

Baseball Sonnet

That time of year thou mayst in fans behold
That malediction, fever of the spring
Surrounded by lingering snow and cold,
We dream of pennants and World Series rings.
With pride we root our noble heroes on
Eating hot dogs, peanuts, and crackerjacks
And all our worldly troubles fade, are gone
When that first pitch is thrown and bat doth crack
But Lo! When April fades to crueler months,
We reach the summer of our discontent
Like Mighty Casey in the Mudville ninth
With hearts bereft of joy and merriment
Yet hope springs eternal for one and all,
When that blue-clad umpire calls out, “Play Ball!”

Since I posted this poem last year as well (I hope to make it an annual tradition). Here are some links to some of my favorite baseball poems by other poets:

Casey at the Bat by Earnest Lawrence Thayer 

Baseball Canto by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

The Pitcher by Robert Francis

Baseballs Sad Lexicon by Franklin Pierce Adams.

Also, be sure to check out my reading of baseball poetry, which will be my first in a series of reading for National Poetry Month, later today on my Instagram page.

Some Baseball Poetry In Honor Of Opening Day

Today is (finally) opening day of the 2020 baseball season. Back on March 26th, I published a baseball sonnet here, and people seemed to like it. So today, on day that, traditionally, symbolizes hope, I present a couple of more baseball poems I’ve written to help get you in the mood for upcoming season.

The first poem is a “golden shovel” poem after the line “Hope springs eternal in the human breast” from the greatest baseball poem of all time, “Casey At The Bat,” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer. For those who are unaware, golden shovel is a form of poetry wherein the poet takes a line or stanza from a famous poem, and uses the borrowed words as the end-words of each line of the new poem.

Opening Day
A Golden Shovel after Ernest Lawrence Thayer

There is one day each year when every team has hope
Which rises like a fever; in our hearts it springs
Recurring, eternal
Each year down in
The land of grapefruits and cacti it grows like the
First crocus incongruously purple in the snow. Until that day when it thaws the cold human Heart and lets hope—at least for one day—spring, again, eternal in the human breast

The second poem is describes an at bat.

The Strikeout

The bend of the arm,
Like the crack of the whip
That ball is on him,
Quick, quick, quick–

The fastball zips by,
A shot from a gun–
The batter swings through it,
Whiff—Strike one–

The ball is released,
The same as before.
The batter gears up,
To offer once more–

But here t
h
e
B
                     a
                            l
l
                           B
                     e
n
          d
s
It
d
r
o
p
s
to the dirt–
The curve ball has fooled him,
He almost got hurt.

0-2 is the count,
And one he will waste:
Though he started his cut,
The batter checked it with haste

Now here comes the next pitch.
Thrown true and straight–
The batter swings quickly,
So he won’t be late–

Midway through his hack,
Oh no! does he sing,
The pitcher has tricked him,
By p – u – l – l – i – n – g – t – h -e – s – t – r – i – n – g

He tries to hold up,
But he can not, you see–
Fooled by the change-up,
He’s swung through, strike three.

And, because people seemed to enjoy it last time, here is the sonnet I posted on what was originally supposed to be opening day:

That time of year thou mayst in fans behold
That malediction, fever of the spring
Surrounded by lingering snow and cold,
We dream of pennants and World Series rings.
With pride we root our noble heroes on
Eating hot dogs, peanuts, and crackerjacks
And all our worldly troubles fade, are gone
When that first pitch is thrown and bat doth crack
But Lo! When April fades to crueler months,
We reach the summer of our discontent
Like Mighty Casey in the Mudville ninth
Our hearts bereft of joy and merriment
Yet hope springs eternal for one and all,
When that blue-clad umpire calls out, “Play Ball!”

Happy opening day: Play Ball!

If you’re enjoying my poetry, please check out these two new anthologies, each of which includes one of my poems: Nassau County Voices In Verse; Prompting the Moon, and connect with me on facebooktwitter, and instagram for all my latest news and discussion.

A Sonnet For What Would Have Been Opening Day

Today, March 26, was supposed to be opening day of the 2020 baseball season. The season has been postponed due to the coronavirus, and, of course, that is the right thing to do. Still, I am missing baseball, especially today, a day that, traditionally, symbolizes hope, something that many of us need right now.

To mark the day, and try to tap into some of that “hope springs eternal” energy, I am posting a sonnet that I wrote in honor of opening day a few years ago. I hope it brings you joy on this day and reminds you of how you would be feeling on this day, at the start of any other baseball season.

That time of year thou mayst in fans behold
That malediction, fever of the spring
Surrounded by lingering snow and cold,
We dream of pennants and World Series rings.
With pride we root our noble heroes on
Eating hot dogs, peanuts, and crackerjacks
And all our worldly troubles fade, are gone
When that first pitch is thrown and bat doth crack
But Lo! When April fades to crueler months,
We reach the summer of our discontent
Like Mighty Casey in the Mudville ninth
Our hearts bereft of joy and merriment
Yet hope springs eternal for one and all,
When that blue-clad umpire calls out, “Play Ball!”

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.

Happy World Poetry Day

Happy world poetry day! Here are some places where you can read my poetry, both online and in print:

My latest published poem, Earth 2022, was recently published in The Deronda Review. You can read it for free here on page 27, right after a poem by Pablo Neruda:

The poem is in the tradition of the Wordsworth poem, London, 1802, and critiques the current state of education.

***

You can also read my gothic horror poem, The Widow’s Walk, which was published in Love Letters to Poe, here. The webpage includes an interview and a link to an episode of the publication’s podcast, which features me reading the poem.

***

The Patchwork Man, one of my favorite poems, was published earlier this year in Poetica, from Clarendon House. The book is available on Amazon.

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If free verse is more your style, check out Snow Ghosts, published last year in Bards Annual, the annual anthology of Long Island Poets from Local Gems.

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Of course, I also publish poetry on this site from time to time, including this sonnet about baseball, and this one about the moon.

***

Happy World Poetry Day! Enjoy.

Some Publishing News, And Happy Birthday To Me

Today is my birthday. For one year at least, I have become the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. What’s the best present you can give an author on his birthday? Read his work. Luckily, I have some new publishing news to report. I have work in two anthologies you can buy, and a free poem online as well.

My story “The Forgotten” is included in the Remnants shared world anthology from Kyanite Press. Remnants presents a post-apocalyptic world overrun by two different types of monsters. Each of the stories, written by a different author, takes place in the same universe. It’s a really interesting collection, and there is such diversity in the stories that, if you’re a fan of sci-fi, horror, or post-apocalyptic fiction on any stripe, there’s something in there for you.

My story, “The Forgotten” deals with a group of orphans who have banded together to fight the monsters. It’s a dark psychological tale that celebrates the power of childlike imagination even in the darkest times. Here is the opening paragraph to whet your appetite.

For the third year in a row, I have flash fiction in the Serious Flash Fiction anthology. This anthology, is one of my favorites. Each year on twitter, The editor, runs a contest to find the best tweet-length stories. Once again, my work was selected among the winners. This is one of my favorite anthologies each year, and I have discovered some of my favorite writers through this competition as well. The anthology also collects the previous years’ winning entries, so, if you buy the book, you’ll get my microflash from previous years as well.

The Serious Flash Fiction Anthology

While the previous two publications are for purchase, I also have a present for you on my birthday. My high fantasy ballad, Forthwith Flies The Mage, a long narrative, poem about a mage and his dragon battling the forces of darkness is now available for free as part of the “Healing Worlds” project from Kyanite Press. It is one my favorite pieces, and if you enjoy fantasy in the mode of JRR Tolkien or Ursula Le Guin, I know you’ll enjoy it.

Be sure to connect on facebook, twitter, and instagram, and let me know what you think in the comments.

Rules, What Rules: Avoid Alliteration, Always?

In the first post I published on this blog, I bemoaned the reductive nature of writing advice. “If you write like everyone else,” I wrote, “your writing will read like everyone else’s.” While I have gotten away from that theme from time-to-time, I try to return to it every now and then as part of my series: Rules: What Rules? which consists of a series of blogs that deal with common pieces of writing advice, and then present a famous work–by a successful author–which breaks those rules. My aim is not to criticize these authors—I enjoy all of them, that is the point. Rather, I present their works as examples of successfully writing, which might cause you to reexamine the writing “rule” critically. I am not advising you to ignore these rules, rather to take control of your own craft, and consider your choices actively. As always, I believe there is more than one path to success, more than one formula for great writing. Consider these posts synecdochally. The specific rule is not the point; it speaks to a general attitude which is prevalent within the contemporary writing community.

In each blog post in this series, I will give a brief summary of the rule, followed by a case study of a successful author, work, or series that breaks that rule. Finally, I will provide some analysis of the rule and the alternative techniques the featured author makes. Since the posts in this series will not necessarily be consecutive blog entries, I will link each piece to previous entries.

Previously in this series:

Dialogue Tags

Eliminating Adverbs

The Rule: Avoid Alliteration, Always

The pithy way this rule is usually stated is derived from a 1986 Writers Digest article by Frank L. Visco which took the form of a list of “rules” the author had “learnt” (sic) over the course of his writing career. The article, which has been quoted in numerous places, has been circulated widely, especially in recent years, through meme culture and social media. The statement in question leads off the set of rules, in which the statement of each rule violates the very principle it purports to teach.

While the article is a bit tongue-in-cheek, the rules it professes are, by and large, considered “good” advice by the writing community.

Alliteration, especially when done excessively, is supposed to be distracting. It supposedly takes the reader out of the story and makes them focus on the delivery rather than the content.

And yet…

There is a long tradition of using alliteration in English language literature. In fact, alliteration has been there right from the beginning. Anglo-Saxon epics, such as Beowulf, which is considered by many to be the first foundational text of English literature, is built around an alliterative structure. Seamus Heaney’s landmark verse translation keeps this structure, and his translator’s introduction explains his methods, the anonymous poet’s techniques, and the traditions upon which they both draw better than I ever could.

Shakespeare used alliteration (Love’s Labour Lost, for example), but I’d like to begin our discussion in earnest with a poet from the next generation, Alexander Pope whose poem Sound and Sense is both a poem and an instruction manual for writing poetry. Throughout the sonnet, Pope uses the techniques he wants his reader to learn, most of which have to do with the sound the language make, including alliteration, but also rhythm, meter, assonance, and consonance. These devices are categorized as “sound and sense” devices to this day. In the couplet that gives the poem its title, Pope writes:

‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense:

This couplet states the poem’s argument, which is that the poet–or any writer for that matter–should use their devices in harmony with, or to accentuate the content and/or message, of the piece. Throughout the piece, Pope uses the devices he intends to teach, but does not name them explicitly.

Pope employs alliteration throughout the poem, including in the above-quoted couplet. The leading “S” sound is repeated 3 times in the stanza’s second line, and five times in the next couplet:

Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;

The alliterative sound is not necessarily in consecutive words, which is actually the correct way to write alliteration. As least where poetry is concerned, alliteration is not, as it’s commonly defined the repetition of a sound at the beginning of a word, it’s actually the repetition of that sound on the stressed syllable.

One of my favorite examples comes from Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven:

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

The repeated S sound occurs at the beginning of “silken” and “sad,” but in the middle of “uncertain” and “rustling.” But read the line out loud. Notice how the S sound falls on the stressed syllable, whether it comes at the beginning of the word or not:

AND the SILken, SAD, unCERtain RUStling

If you transpose “silken” and “sad”, the alliteration won’t read as well, first, because of the meter, and secondly, because the alliteration won’t sound as natural.

The reason Poe’s line works so well is that the sound does, indeed, echo the sense. Not only is there an onomatopoeia in the “s” sound, which mimics the curtains rustling in the wind, but the hypnotic use of alliteration combines with the trochaic meter–the opposite of iambic, which is the most common English language meter–highlights the dream-like quality of the encounter (“while I nodded nearly napping”; the nightmarish Raven perched atop the bust of Athena, a symbol of rationality)–to “shush” the reader to that dream state with the repeated, soporific “s” sound.

When I wrote my poem, The Widow’s Walk which was recently published, fittingly, in Love Letters to Poe, I attempted to emulate Poe’s alliterative style. The opening line of the poem reads:

She wends her way around her walk
And round and round she goes.

Scanning the opening line, we get:

she WENDS her WAY aROUND her WALK

The alliterative “w” sound is used on the stressed syllable (although I use iambic rather than trochaic meter in this poem.)

Some might say that alliteration is an antiquated device found mostly in older poems (and poems like mine which pay homage to them), but modern poets use alliteration prominently as well.

In her poem, Fugue, from her new book, Call Us What We Carry, superstar inaugural poet Amanda Gorman writes:

excerpt from “Fugue” by Amanda Gorman

The first line of the excerpt employs alliteration in the same manner as Poe. The D sound is repeated on the stressed syllable. Later in the excerpt, Gorman uses alliteration in a similar manner to an anglo-saxon poet, as she moves the “f” sound around to different places in her lines.

Later in the collection, Gorman highlights alliteration as an essential literary technique, one which defines the poet, and speaks to the power of poetry. In her poem “Memorial”, Gorman writes:

But why alliteration?
Why the pulsing percussion, the string of syllables?
It is the poet who pounds the past back into you.

Thus, arguably the biggest contemporary superstar in poetry (is that even arguable at this point?) uses alliteration in her poetry.

Gorman, Poe, Pope, and the Beowulf poet refuse to avoid alliteration; the rest of us should follow their example.

***

Alliteration works in non-poetic writing as well. One of my favorite examples of alliteration in prose writing comes from Charles Dickens’ description of the storming of the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities:

Deep ditches, double drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke. Through the fire and through the smoke — in the fire and in the smoke, for the sea cast him up against a cannon, and on the instant he became a cannonier — Defarge of the wine-shop worked like a manful soldier, Two fierce hours.

Deep ditch, single drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke. One drawbridge down! “Work, comrades all, work! Work, Jacques One, Jacques Two, Jacques One Thousand, Jacques Two Thousand, Jacques Five-and-Twenty Thousand; in the name of all the Angels or the Devils — which you prefer — work!”Thus Defarge of the wine-shop, still at his gun, which had long grown hot.

In the first line of each of the two excerpted paragraphs, Dickens uses similar phrases which feature alliteration. In each example, Dickens’ uses the repeated hard “d” sound to represent the thud of the cannons against the walls of The Bastille. Like Poe’s, Dickens’ alliteration is also onomatopoeia, and, therefore, as Pope advises, even in prose, the sound echoes the sense. Moreover, the missing “d” in the second paragraph highlights the fact that one of the two drawbridges has been taken out by the rebels’ cannons. The missing “d” sound highlights the missing drawbridge.

Another more modern example is found in the film V for Vendetta, written by the Wachowskis and directed by James McTeigue. In one of the most popular scenes from the film, V, played by Hugo Weaving, gives a speech in which nearly every word begins with the letter “v,” in tribute to the Alan Moore’s comic which inspired the movie, in which each chapter title is a “v” word (in fact, many of the “v” words used in the speech are taken directly from those chapter titles).

V for Vendetta “V” speech

When I watched the movie in the theater, this speech drew appreciative applause from the audience, who seemed thrilled by the alliteration as the speech built to a crescendo–take that, Frank L. Visco!

Of course V for Vendetta followed a long tradition of comic book alliteration. The great Stan Lee loved alliteration, especially when naming characters: Peter Parker, Sue Storm, Read Richards, Matt Murdock, The Fantastic Four, the list goes on.

I could go on as well, but I think I’ve made my point.

Analysis

So, why is alliteration looked down upon? It seems that it’s because people misinterpreted a joke. Visco, who ironically uses alliteration to criticize its use, was clearly writing tongue-in-cheek. One could even say that the fact he opens with the alliteration “rule” shows he recognizes its power. Meme culture has contributed to the proliferation of Visco’s rules, and, as with so many other things, its has stripped the the original article of its context.

While it is true that alliteration can take a reader out of the story or be distracting if its used poorly, the same could be said for any literary technique. A bad simile or metaphor will take the reader out of the writing just as quickly; poor rhythm in poetry will do the same. Any device can be overused, and the writer must strive use them all judiciously. That is true about alliteration, but it is not unique to alliteration.

The fact is that proper alliteration makes writing memorable, which is why it often used in marketing. It is a signature device of writers ranging from Edgar Allan Poe, to Stan Lee, Charles Dickens, to Amanda Gorman.

Avoid it at your peril.


Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

On Banned Books, Privilege, and Stephen King’s Poor Choice of Words

In response to the recent appalling spate of book banning, many of my friends and fellow writers have posted the following meme which based on a quote by Stephen King:

While their, and King’s, motivations for posting this quote are noble, I find the content of said quote unhelpful, dangerous, and misinformed. It isn’t often one can say this, but in this statement, King chose his words poorly.

While I am very much in favor of encouraging kids to read banned books, the assumptions underlying King’s advice reveal a gross misunderstanding of the on-the-ground realities for many students and assume privilege as well.

I’m willing, for now, to leave aside the opening gambit which say King “is never much disturbed” as a poorly-chosen rhetorical gambit. The real issue is the false dichotomy placing. Seeking out and reading banned books in direct opposition to being angry and protesting. One must fight against book bans because the alternative which King presents does not address the problem for most kids. Consider the third paragraph:

King advises students not to protest or sign petitions, but “instead, run, don’t walk, to the nearest non-school library or the local book store and get whatever it is that they banned.”

I’m going to begin with the end of that sentence: the assumption that a kid has enough money to buy a book, let alone the many that are likely banned by their district reveals King’s economic privilege and assumes the same of the students. I don’t know the demographics of the district where King taught way back when, but I have been a New York City public school teacher since 2007, and most of the inner-city kids whom I teach do not have extra cash to spend at book stores.

Moreover, the assumption that there is a local book store also indicates a certain type of community. Not every town has a book store, many do not have one within walking distance, and, even in suburban communities, the closest bookstore may be many miles away.

Let’s move on to the library. First off, books are being banned from libraries as well. While librarians generally try to fight the good fight, municipalities often will threaten to pull funding if the library if doesn’t pull certain books from the shelf, effectively banning those books.

But even if the banned books are available at the library, there are a number of other issues with King’s advice. First, in order for the advice to work, every kid in the class would need to borrow the book from the library. Let’s assume a class of 25 (I’ve had 34 kids in a class in the bast majority of classes I’ve taught, but let’s take 25 just for the example). Is a local library going to inventory 25 copies of Maus? Most likely, not. If a school has four sections, each with 25 kids, the library would need to carry 100 copies for each kids to have access to a copy so they could read it. I’ve taught in schools with graduating classes ranging from 100 to 900+. Eventually, the numbers get ridiculous. Let’s say that each kid borrowed the book for 2 weeks. How many books do we expect a library to carry? How long would it take for every student to read each banned book?

Not every kid would take the initiative to read the book, you might say—and you’d be right—which presents another issue with King’s argument. Only the kids with the interest and initiative to go to the library and read the banned books would read them. Most would not. To believe otherwise is idealistic nonsense. If Mr. King would think back to his days as a teacher, surely he would know this.

With the amount of ignorance which pervades our culture, and the rate at which the ignorant vote and even hold powerful positions, the dangers of the ignorance which arises from not reading banned books is great, indeed. We should be fighting against ignorance even if the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, like the Aesir against Ragnarok, rather than acquiescing to it.

“Ah,”you might say, “ but do all the kids in a class where a book is assigned read it?” The answer is certainly not. But, just as certainly, a greater percentage of them will than if the book was not assigned. Moreover, every student who attends class will have some exposure to the book, as well as its themes, issues, and historical contexts through the class discussions. Something, in this case, is better than nothing.

There is also a privilege issue with the library argument. In my district in New York City, which has one of the largest and most well-funded public library systems in the country, the public libraries close around 6pm. In the town in which I live, the library is only open in the evening twice a week, never past 7pm, and never on the weekend. Many of my students have after-school jobs which they use to help their parents pay the rent. Many take care of their siblings while their parents are at work as well. These students do not have the luxury of first researching, and second going to the public library to take out banned books on a regular basis. Maybe students in the district where King taught could, but I’m willing to bet that there are more students across the country who find themselves in a similar situation to the students whom I teach.

In addition, as students get older, they participate in after school activities. Let’s say a child is a member of a basketball team. Often, practices and road games end well after the public library would be closed. We can tell kids to pick books over their teams, but does anyone think the majority will make that choice?

For younger children—and children’s books are being as well—the problem is even greater. How are young children supposed to get to the book store or library? Who is taking them there? Surely not the very adults who populate the school boards that are banning books.

One last thing: My father was kicked out of his house for reading Catcher in the Rye. He happened to have a life situation and live in a community where he could spend the night elsewhere. Many kids do not. I wonder where the kids I teach would go if they were kicked out of their houses. Would they feel safe spending the night somewhere else even if they could obtain the book from the local library or book store? I know for a fact that many of them would not.

Returning to that opening gambit, there is no reason to place seeking out books in opposition to being angry and pursuing other means. I might, for example advise a fellow teacher who teaches in a district where Maus was banned to try to teach Joe Kubert’s Yossel, another graphic novel about the Holocaust. Leaving aside the issues of funding and acquiring the books this might be a way to stay ahead of the censors and teach a similar book. I would never advise them, however, to give up their fight to keep teaching Maus, not to protest the decision, or not to be angry or disturbed. I would, in fact, encourage that teacher to fight on multiple fronts. Similarly, while I might advise students to seek out the banned book wherever they could, I would never tell them not to be angry, not to fight, not to protest, etc. Had King advised his students in that manner, or used his immense platform to do so, I would not have a problem with his advise. The realities of how his advise would play out (as detailed above) makes his rhetorical ploy. One off as the kind of privileged indifference that people like Martin Luther King and Eli Wiesel warned against.

I agree with King’s final statement. Read banned books. Find out what “they” don’t want you to know, but be mad that those books are banned. Protest, carry signs, raise a ruckus. Even if you’re in the position where you can follow King’s advice. Fight like hell for those who don’t share your privilege. As another famous writer recently posted,

If that’s not a reason to get angry, I don’t know what is.

Rules, What Rules: Eliminating Adverbs

Salman Rushdie signing a book

In the first post I published on this blog, I bemoaned the reductive nature of writing advice. “If you write like everyone else,” I wrote, “your writing will read like everyone else’s. I have gotten away from that theme over the years, but today I wish to return to it. Over the next few months, I will present a series of blogs that deal with common pieces of writing advice, and then present a famous work by a successful author which breaks those rules. My aim is not to criticize these authors—I enjoy all of them, that is the point. Rather, I present their works as examples of successfully writing, which might cause you to reexamine the writing “rule” critically. I am not advising you to ignore these rules, rather to take control of your own craft, and consider your choices actively. As always, I believe there is more than one path to success, more than one formula for great writing. Consider these posts synecdochally. The specific rule is not the point; it speaks to a general attitude which is prevalent within the contemporary writing community.

In each blog post in this series, I will give a brief summary of the rule, followed by a case study of a successful author, work, or series that breaks that rule. Finally, I will provide some analysis of the rule and the alternative techniques the featured author makes. Since the posts in this series will not necessarily be consecutive blog entries, I will link each piece to previous entries.

Previously in this series:

Dialogue Tags

The Rule: Eliminate All Adverbs

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions—Stephen King

One of the most common pieces of writing advice is to eliminate all—or at least most—of the adverbs from your writing. Adverbs, especially those common ones that end in “ly”—and especially when they are used to modify dialogue tags are considered lazy writing. Better writing would describe the action conveyed by the verb interestingly and correctly (get it) rather than using a vague modifier as crutch to “tell” rather than “show” the reader the way in which the action occurs, or the dialogue is said.

Adverbs, and to a lesser extent adjectives, have been railed against (famously) by such writers as Stephen King (See the quote that kicks off this section), Mark Twain, Ernest Hemmingway, and virtually every writing class, blog, website and workshop.

Case Study: Salman Rushdie

By any measure, Salman Rushdie is one of the most decorated writers of contemporary literature. His lists of awards, which includes the Booker, two Whitbread prizes, and a plethora of others takes up a good 6 inches on his official about the author page. He has been knighted by the queen of England, is a fellow of the British Royal Society of Literature, and was the subject of a prominent subplot on a (really) famous Seinfeld episode (let’s just say the episode is real and it’s spectacular). He is famous for writing magical realism, blending Eastern and Western literary traditions, and remains one of the most popular serious literary writers among the general public.

And yet…

In Midnight’s Children, arguably his most famous and decorated novel, he uses adverbs liberally. For example, in the opening paragraph of the chapter Alpha and Omega (which is one of my favorite passages in the novel), he uses multiple “ly” adverbs.

Alpha and Omega page

Later on in the same chapter, he uses more “ly” adverbs, this time (gasp!) to describe a character’s actions (first line of final paragraph.

Alpha and Omega page

When I reread these passages for this blog, I wondered if Rushdie’s use of adverbs was specific to Midnight’s Children, or if it was typical of his style, so I pulled The Satanic Verses off my shelf and took a look. I flipped through the book randomly (had enough yet?) and quickly (ok, I’ll stop now) came across this passage.

As you can see, Rushdie uses “ly” adverbs to modify here as well, this time to modify dialogue.

How could this be?

Analysis

Midnight’s Children is one of the most decorated books in recent literary history. Not only did it win a Booker, it was voted The Best of Booker—the best book among the winners in the 40 year history of the award. Clearly, Rushdie’s use of adjectives has not kept the novel from literary acclaim. So, why does Rushdie’s use of adverbs work here, when according to every piece of advice an aspiring writer is likely to receive, adverbs are bad?

Reread that first paragraph of Alpha and Omega again. Read it out loud. Listen to the rhythm. It is a beautiful paragraph, it has pace; it flows. Has Rushdie rewritten the paragraph to replace the modifiers with more descriptive language, the rhythm would not have worked as well (unless he came up with one word descriptions with the same metrical properties (syllables and stresses), he would have sacrificed the flow for the sake of so-called “better description.” Rushdie is one of the most lyrical and readable literary writers, and this paragraphs—complete with the its two prominent adverbs—is a perfect example.

Moreover, the sound in this case is, indeed, an echo to the sense. The paragraph describes uncertainty on the part of the narrator, and the ambiguity of “oddly” and “badly“ as opposed to a more specific, concrete description fits the content as well.

Additionally, the point of view is key. Rushdie, here, writes from a first-person narrative perspective. Think of the way people you know speak. They probably do not use innovative and unexpected descriptions as a regular feature of their speech. They probably do use adverbs, and one that end in “ly” at that. Thus, the narrator’s use of vague modifiers makes characterization more realistic.

All right, you say, but what about the other examples, the ones where Rushdie uses adverbs to modify his dialogue tags?

The simple answer would be to refer you back to the first blog in this series, in which I stated my belief that any style of dialogue tags—from the traditional invisible “said” tags, to the contemporary literary counter-cultural convention of not using quotation marks, to using adverbs to modify dialogue tags, becomes invisible over the course of a novel if used consistently. I would, however, be remiss is I didn’t mention Matthew Salesses, who in his book Craft in the Real World discusses how Rushdie is influenced by different, non-western literary traditions than certain other well-respected writers. I do not know enough about the eastern tradition to say for certain, but this stylistic convention may come from that source as well.

Speaking of literary traditions, Rushdie mentions Dickens and Austen as two of his major western influences. Dickens and Austen are considered, perhaps, the two greatest novelists in the history of English literature, but their writings are often used as examples of old (read outmoded) style. Modern writers tend toward a sparser, Hemingway-esque style. King’s book on writing is very (sorry, couldn’t resist) influential as well, especially among authors who aspire to write popular fiction. While there are certainly writers like Rushdie who go against the grain, their voices are often lost beneath the groupthink that Salesses derides in his book about writing instruction.

Personally, I prefer Rushdie and Dickens to King and Twain. I like a more verbose narrator, one with a real personality. You may not, and that’s a perfectly legitimate opinion. That is a matter of opinion, however, just as most of the so-called writing rules are really matters of style and trends rather than evaluations of quality.

One additional note: Even if you buy into the idea that adverbs are bad writing and that they should be replaced by better description, just replacing the adverbs does not solve the problem. When researching this blog, I did a google search for eliminating adverbs. In one of the first blogs that comes up on google, the writer suggests replacing “flirtatiously” with “she batted her eyelashes. If one is going to use cliched descriptions instead of adverbs, one weakens one’s writing by making it cumbersome and verbose. Any lengthy description can slow down pace and rhythm, an empty cliche even more so. I would focus on writing a few exciting and original descriptions and using them judiciously, at important points in the text.


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Comic Book School Flash Fiction Challenge, Step 2 Begins

For the second straight year, I am editing the Comic Book School Flash Fiction Challenge. The challenge just entered step 2 (but it’s not too late to join), and here is the column I posted for this phase of the challenge on the CBS site, which includes my advice for writing Flash Fiction.

I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead—Mark Twain

Writing succinctly is hard. You must say what is essential—and only what is essential, remain laser-focused on what you wish to convey, and avoid digressions. You must drill down to the pure essence of writing, and tell your story in its purest, most distilled form. It is a task that writers like Mark Twain, Blaise Pascal, and Cicero all lament takes time, often more time that writing a longer piece would. For those who are participating in the Comic Book School Flash Fiction challenge, that time is now.

The drafting step of the current challenge begins today on our message boards for Flash Fiction #2, and first drafts are due in fourteen days. Here are three suggestions for how to approach this particular challenge:

1. Consider writing a One-Twist Story:

When writing flash-fiction you don’t have space for complex plots. Eschew all sub-plots, and focus on a single problem in a single dramatic situation. Build suspense around one question, situation, or antagonist. Try to build toward a logical, but unexpected resolution, and hide this resolution from the reader for as long as possible. If you are successful, the reader should be both surprised and satisfied by your story’s conclusion.

The Twilight Zone is the gold standard for this type of writing. Think of the episode, Time Enough At Lastin which Henry Bemis, a bookish man who wants nothing as much as to read finds himself with all the time in the world, surrounded by books. Unfortunately, his glasses are permanently broken. The powerful ending is built on one twist. All of the characterization focuses on Bemis’ love of books and his frustration with a society that won’t let him read. From the opening scene in which Bemis reads David Copperfield at his job, to the scene where Bemis’ wife setting him up for ridicule by first asking him to read poetry to her and then frustrates these attempts and destroys his book, each scene stays laser-focused on the single aspect of Bemis’ characterization that will be important to the resolution. If Bemis had been a character in a novel or a movie, he would need to be characterized more fully, but in the shorter medium, focus is essential.The single twist ending can also be pulled off in comedic form.

In perhaps the most famous episode of The Honeymooners, the 99,000 Dollar Answer,  the seeds that hint at the twist ending are sown throughout the early part of the episode. The writers engage in a classic misdirection framing the story around Ralph Kramden’s appearances on the gameshow, partially to hide those seeds, but there is still only one dramatic situation that leads to a perfect surprise twist ending.

In The Duel, my flash piece for the last anthology, I tried to affect a single twist ending. Reader have told me that were surprised by the ending. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s only 500 words. Read it and see if you’re surprised, then read it again and try to isolate the techniques I use to affect the suspense and hide the ending.

2. Consider putting your own spin on a traditional trope or cliché.

One of the hardest aspects of writing flash fiction for writers who are used to longer form writing is the lack of space for worldbuilding and backstory. When writing flash fiction, you must build a believable world quickly. Why not let the reader do some of the work for you? By using a trope with which the reader is already familiar, a writer can rely on that reader to do the world building for them. If you write what appears to be a classic fairy tale, a traditional horror, or noir crime story, half the work is done for you. The reader already knows where they are and what is supposed to happen.

The same can be said when using a seemingly cliched or trope-y character. Certain character types are supposed to act in certain ways: Prince Charming, the tragic hero, the undead monster, etc. Moreover, setting your story within a cliched trope allows you to subvert that trope to affect your twist ending. Consider Neil Gaiman’s masterful short story, Nicholas Was. (If you have not read it yet, read it before the next sentence. It’s only 100 words; I’ll wait) At the end of the story, Gaiman relies on the reader’s familiarity with the Santa Claus myth to affect his twist ending. The last three words of the story—”Ho, ho ho”—carry so much weight because the audience is already familiar with Santa Claus before reading the story. Gaiman has used something cliched and familiar to create something surprising and original.

In “The Duel,” I combine two common tropes, the duel at high noon from spaghetti westerns and the traditional high-fantasy wizard archetype, to create a new and different world. Because readers are generally familiar with the Western movie archetype, I could quickly establish the setting with details like the old-west saloon, the tumbleweed rolling across the road, and the townsfolk shuttering their windows. Because readers are familiar with the wizard archetype, I do not have to explain an elaborate magical system that allows the wizards to shoot magic from their staffs. The tropes have done that work for me. But, because I mash-up two unfamiliar genres, the story still feels fresh and new.

3. Consider using an unconventional or experimental narrative technique.

Because flash fiction is so short, it affords the writer the opportunity to experiment with form and language. An unconventional storytelling method can set your story apart and grab the reader’s attention. Readers will stick with an unconventional technique longer in shorter-form fiction, and this gives the flash fiction writer freedom to try out new things.

In her famous short story, The Birthday Party by Katherine Brush uses multiple point of view shifts—including the dreaded second person—to affect the dramatic distance of the reader to the story. In “The Duel,” I use present-tense narration to create immediacy and build suspense. These techniques work better in short form writing than in long form writing. They make the reader uncomfortable, which has the contradictory affect of hooking them in the short term (hmm, this is new and interesting, I’ll give it a shot) and alienating them in the long term (This is just weird/difficult; I don’t want to put in the work to deal with it).

Flash fiction offers you the opportunity to experiment with unconventional techniques and forms without alienating the reader. Take advantage of that opportunity and be creative. Surprise yourself by writing in an unfamiliar way, and you will be sure to surprise your reader.

The drafting phase is the perfect time to experiment with these unconventional narrative techniques. If you write your draft in, say second person, and you don’t like it, it is easy to revise your narrative perspective in future drafts.

There are, of course, many more ways to approach Flash Fiction—many more than I have space for here—and I encourage you experiment with them all. If, however, you are having trouble getting started with the challenge—or if this is the first time you are attempting to write flash fiction—I hope you find these suggestions helpful.

As always, I look forward to seeing your creations, and I will see you on the message boards for Flash Fiction: Step #2.

How to Participate

Register for the challenge, review the creative prompt, and start brainstorming on the boards.

We hope you will take on the flash fiction challenge. We’ll see you on the boards…and in The Time Inn.

Next Steps

Read the announcement for the 8-Page Challenge and fill out the startup form.

Questions? Contact our editor A.A. Rubin on the Flash Fiction Forum.


This article first appeared on the Comic Book School page. Comic Book School runs the flash fiction challenge.