Friday, 9 August 2019

Writers’ Questions: Why do (some) people really hate adverbs?


I’ve been blogging about Victorian literature and historical fiction for the last six years, but, in 2020, my own novel, Brontë’s Mistress, will be published by Atria Books (more on this here). Writing a novel can be a lonely process, so, in my new series, Writers’ Questions, I’m sharing some thoughts and advice about writing and the publication process.

This week, we’re talking adverbs, which, among the writing community, have been much debated, defended and maligned. [Note: all adverbs in this blog are in red so they’re easy to spot!]



When I first started writing more seriously, I was working on another (unsold) novel, also set in the Victorian period. I had just completed a Master’s in nineteenth-century literature, and, while I was reading newer fiction too, Dickens, Brontë, Collins, Eliot et al. were my biggest influences. The first time I submitted chapters to a writing group, I was shocked to see my beautiful adverbs returned ringed in red. That’s how Victorians spoke, I thought. Didn’t my fellow writers understand that this was pastiche? And how could using a common part of speech be so objectionable?

Several years later, while I haven’t sworn off adverbs completely, I’m firmly in the ‘fewer adverbs is better’ camp. In this post I detail my personal and unscientific system for determining which adverbs survive the cut and why.

Could you be using a stronger verb? Often, I use adverbs while drafting as a placeholder for a more specific verb. Every time I come across an –ly adverb while editing I ask myself whether another verb could make the adverb void. Do you have someone ‘walking quickly’, when they could be ‘jogging’ or ‘striding’? Is someone ‘moving stealthily’, when they could be ‘creeping’?

Are you telling vs. showing? Another place where adverbs sneak into your manuscript is when you’re being lazy as a writer and telling readers how someone is feeling vs. allowing them to work this out themselves. Is a character doing something ‘sleepily’ when you could mention that they yawned? Is someone ‘cooking happily’ when they could be ‘singing while chopping vegetables’?

Is the adverb having the opposite effect to the intended one? The biggest culprits here are ‘suddenly’ and ‘immediately’, but any adverb that’s meant to connote speed will slow your prose down. ‘The door flew open,’ is much more dramatic than ‘The door flew open suddenly’, for example.

Is the adverb in narration or dialogue? I give myself more leeway to use adverbs in dialogue vs. in narration, especially since I write historical fiction. Some characters may speak in a verbose way. Particular adverbs may give speech a period flavour. But, even in dialogue, I review and consider each adverb. It’s important that each character doesn’t sound the same and that every word is there for a reason.

Do you have an adverb density problem? As with repeated words, repeated parts of speech get tedious to a reader’s ear. So it’s important to look at your prose at a paragraph/scene/chapter, as well as sentence, level. I love using the Hemingway Editor to assess how I’m doing with this. This free online tool is great in two ways when it comes to adverbs. First, it flags which words are adverbs for you—brilliant if you struggle to identify parts of speech. Second, it gives you a maximum number of adverbs for the length of section you input. I don’t follow this guide blindly, but it does help me see where I may have too many adverbs in succession. In this blog post for example I have 13 adverbs, far more than the recommended four. But, given the nature of this topic, I think even Hemingway himself would forgive me.

In conclusion, as with any tool in a writer’s arsenal, adverbs should be deployed wisely. If you’re an aspiring writer, there’s no need to delete every word that ends with –ly but it could be useful to ask yourself the questions above if you’re an adverb addict like I was.

How do you approach adverbs? And do you have any requested topics for the Writers’ Questions series? I’d love you to tell me—below, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

The Poor Clare (1856), A Novella by Elizabeth Gaskell


I don’t usually include spoilers in my reviews, but The Poor Clare is obscure enough that in today’s post I’ll be throwing caution to the wind.


The work is a long short story/short novella by Elizabeth Gaskell, who’s better known for novel-length works including North and South (1854) and Mary Barton (1848), and for her biography of Charlotte Brontë (1857), which inspired my own forthcoming novel, Brontë’s Mistress.

The Poor Clare first appeared in serialised form in Household Words, a publication edited by Charles Dickens. Perhaps as a result of this, it alternates between feeling rushed and sorely in need of editing. There are no paragraph breaks, for instance, except in dialogue, and the development of the plot is uneven.

The story is narrated by an unnamed lawyer, who finds himself involved in ‘extraordinary events’ of a decidedly uncanny flavour. Employed to track down the rightful heir to a sizeable estate, he tracks down a strange old Irish woman, Bridget Fitzgerald, whose fervour for Catholicism is matched with a proclivity for meddling with magic. Bridget’s beautiful daughter, Mary, has disappeared years before, leading to her mother’s unhappiness and isolation. But now her child—if she had one—is next in line for this windfall inheritance.

What starts out like a mystery soon turns to a ghost story. Our lawyer tracks down the child, Lucy, more through luck than strategy, and promptly falls in love with her. But there’s a hitch. Lucy is suffering under a peculiar curse. She has a demonic double, which is hell bent on dogging her steps, ruining her reputation and driving men from her life. What’s more, it transpires that it was her own grandmother, Bridget, who unwittingly cursed her.

Gaskell writes Gothic well. Examples:

‘I was sitting with my back to the window, but I felt a shadow pass between the sun’s warmth and me, and a strange shudder ran through my frame.’

‘In the great mirror opposite I saw myself, and right behind, another wicked, fearful self, so like me that my soul seemed to quiver within me, as though not knowing to which similitude of a body it belonged.’

The tone felt most similar to Behind a Mask, an 1866 story by Louisa May Alcott, writing as A.M. Barnard, which I reviewed back in 2013. And the doubling motif is suggestive of earlier (e.g. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)) and later (e.g. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)) Gothic, as well as sensation fiction tropes. Notably, Laura, the heroine of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, which appeared three years later, also suffers due to her near resemblance with another.

The Poor Clare takes an unexpected turn when our characters end up in war-torn Antwerp (only Bridget’s service to strict religious order, the Poor Clares, will be enough, it seems, to undo the curse). It’s tempting to imagine that Gaskell was inspired by the Brontës to depict a Belgian setting.

All in, although set earlier, Gaskell’s The Poor Clare is delightfully Victorian, with lots to recommend it despite its flaws. Short enough to read in one sitting, it could also serve as a great introduction for teens to Gothic fiction or as a quick-to-digest comparison text for students focusing on some of the more canonical novels in the genre.

Which lesser-known Victorian novels/novellas/stories would you like the Secret Victorianist to review next? Let me know—here or on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And keep up with every facet of my life (reading, writing, work and life in NYC) via Instagram.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Writers’ Questions: What is Point of View (POV)?


I’ve been blogging about novels for the last six years, but, in 2020, my own historical novel, Brontë’s Mistress, will be published by Atria Books (more on this here). Writing a novel can be a lonely process so, over the next year, I’m using this series, Writers’ Questions, to share some thoughts and advice about the writing and publication process.

This week we’re getting technical. We’re talking about point of view (often shortened to POV), which is something that often trips up newbie creative writers.

So many ways to tell a story... (my bookshelf)

So what is point of view?

Simply put, point of view is the perspective through which readers will experience your story. Whose eyes will they see through? Whose thoughts will they have access to? If this were a film where would the camera be?

The movie analogy is a good one, but it raises the spectre of one of the most common issues I see with beginners’ use of POV. Video is so pervasive in our culture that we are very familiar with a cinematic point of view. This moves between characters and zooms in and out, to first paint broad settings, before suggesting emotions through close and personal shots.

A novel can achieve the same effect but this is not the norm. Fiction (and especially character-driven fiction) is more about interiority than film or TV. And this will affect how you approach point of view. So let’s look in turn at each of the most common approaches to point of view in fiction.

First Person

What is it?
A character narrates the story directly using the pronoun ‘I’. Readers see/hear/experience only what the character does and are ‘present’ for scenes this character is in. Usually the reader has total access to the character’s thoughts and feelings (unless of course the character is lying or unreliable…).

In most cases this character is the protagonist (main character), but this is not always the case. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is the quintessential example of a novel in which the narrator (Nick) isn’t the protagonist (Gatsby is).

What are some other examples?
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

What are pitfalls/things to consider?
Readers often want a compelling reason why this person is telling their story—e.g. Is it confessional or persuasive? Are they writing from their deathbed or passing on the tale to their grandchildren?

Readers enjoy a distinctive and interesting character voice if they’re reading in first person (think Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye).

Readers can’t know anything your first person character does not. This means that first person narrators often end up in passive situations (e.g. eavesdropping on a conversation) as writers struggle to convey information their protagonists aren’t privy to.

It can be tricky to vary sentence structure enough (don’t start every sentence with ‘I’!).

If your character dies, writing a death scene in the first person can be a challenge. While, if your character lives, the very fact that they’re telling the story could give away your ending and reduce tension.

Filtering language (also known as ‘thought verbs’) can creep into your prose, distancing readers from your character. E.g. There’s no need to say “I felt cold”. Instead say “It was cold.” Try replacing, “I thought he was an awful man” with simply, “What an awful man”.

First person is more common in specific genres and target ages (e.g. Young Adult fiction is often written in the first person).

Second Person

What is it?
A rarely used form, addressing the reader as ‘You’ and putting them at the centre of your story.

What’s an example?
The opening of The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern (review here)

What are some pitfalls/things to consider?
It’s rare and some readers HATE it.

It can give your novel a video game feel (for good and bad).

It’s immediately striking and immersive, so is good for pulling readers into an unfamiliar environment.

Third Person (Close)

What is it?
Also known as third person limited, close third person is the most common form of modern storytelling, but it’s one that beginners often struggle to execute.

The writer uses ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’, as well as characters’ names to tell the story—not ‘I’. However, as with first person, readers still experience the novel through only the main character’s perspective.

In practice, this means that we only go ‘inside the head’ of one character. The other characters’ motives, thoughts and feelings are as opaque to us as they are to the protagonist.

What are some examples?
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
Most of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling

What are pitfalls/things to consider?
Close third person has many of the same problems as first person: an inability to share information your MC (main character) doesn’t know, protagonists acting as an observer in some scenes vs. having an active role, and the creeping in of filtering/thought verbs when drafting.

You may find repetition of your protagonist’s name and pronouns gets irritating.

It’s easier to ‘forget’ your limitations when writing than it is in first person: remember, if you describe a setting, the narration should share only the details the protagonist notices, if the villain does something suspicious when the hero’s back is turned, readers can’t see it either etc.

Third Person (Omniscient)

What is it?
An all-seeing, God-like narrator knows everything each character does and more, and can dive into the brains of different characters at will.

The pronouns are still ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ but no one perspective acts as our filter on the world. This approach can work well in sweeping epics and multi-character novels and is also great for creating irony and suspense.

What are some examples?
Bleak House, Charles Dickens
Middlemarch, George Eliot

What are pitfalls/things to consider?

It can read as old-fashioned.

The narrator’s voice can seem intrusive.

Many modern readers have a preference for close third and first.

Readers can get confused about whose head they’re in at any given point, especially if you are often ‘jumping around’.

Readers don’t develop as deep an emotional relationship with your main character.

Third Person (Fly on the Wall/Cinematic)

What is it?
A third person perspective where readers have no access to anyone’s thoughts/interior life. They see only what a fly on the wall would see. While rarely deployed, this is the closest perspective to the one we’re used to in Hollywood blockbusters.

What are pitfalls/things to consider?
This can be effective for a scene but can get dull and make readers feel distanced from the story and characters.

If you’re leaning towards writing this viewpoint ask yourself whether you're sure you wouldn’t prefer to write a screenplay.

Can you move between different points of view?

I’ve written about each of these points of view in isolation, but often they are combined, with alternating chapters or different sections of a novel being written in different ways.

For example…
Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White utilises multiple first person narrators.
Hazel Gaynor’s The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter (which I recently reviewed) moves between different first and third person sections.

You can mix and match between different voices and perspectives, but it’s important that, as the writer, you know why you’re making the choices you are.

What POV is Brontë’s Mistress written in?

My novel, Brontë’s Mistress, is written mostly in the first person from protagonist Lydia Robinson’s perspective. However, it also contains letters (also in first person) from other key characters.

I’d love to hear what perspective(s) you love to write in and why? If you want to let me know, or suggest future topics for the Writers’ Questions series, contact me—you can comment below or on Facebook or tweet @SVictorianist. You can also now follow me on Instagram @finola_austin.