On killing adjectives

Begging your pardon for the tardiness of my latest post (my day job and migraines were brutal this week), I had intended to write about several subjects (prologues, narrative, the hook, etc), but then I ran across a quote I haven’t been able to shake:

When you catch an adjective, kill it. —Mark Twain

I should have known better than to take it at face value, but I happened to run across it at a particularly vulnerable moment during the week.

As a writer, you’ll come across these moments (big or small) when you suddenly find yourself thinking it was all for naught, and every nerve in your body is screaming for you to tear it all down and start over again. I’m not talking about the usual artistic dissatisfaction—that’s normal; I’m talking about a sudden shift in perspective where what you had once considered brilliant now seems insipid and forced.

That’s where I was, mentally, when I ran across this quote.

To make matters worse, my shift in perspective happened to be brought on by a particular insecurity I have regarding my penchant for imagery. Truth be told, I couldn’t kill an adjective if it were coming at me head on with a machine gun in its hands.

I should have looked up the entire quote (because it would have saved me several days of mental torture). Instead, I ruminated on it as I continued my work for the week. Then an innocent comment from a dear friend added fuel to my mental fire. A discussion about action scenes versus epic settings, in my mind, turned into a private viewing of my book’s crucifixion.

There are as many different types of readers as there are books in the world, and each one of them has their own preference when it comes to styles of writing; it would be insane to think you can satisfy them all. I happen to be the kind of reader who enjoys getting lost in a book, in its scenery and the world it has to offer. Of course, action is important, but to me it’s more about the feeling I get when I read; the sensation in the back of my neck as the world I’m reading about begins to take shape around me (guided by the author’s carefully chosen words).

The more details the writer offers, the more elaborate the world taking shape in my mind can be. The experience, for me, has to be one of immersion. It can be a scene as subtle as a Japanese gardener teaching his craft (Gail Tsukiyama‘s The Samurai’s Garden) or as intense as a child’s first kill in self defense during Rome’s invasion of Britain (Manda Scott‘s Dreaming the Eagle), but either way it has to move me; speak to something deep inside of me so that it becomes ingrained in my mind, like a memory (that isn’t even mine).

The same thing is true when I write. I tend to lose myself in the world I’m creating or describing. Whether it’s a real place or one that exists only within the writing, I want the reader to experience it palpably; to feel awe and wonder as they step through the threshold. Of course, in my zealous fervor, I can get carried away; it is one of the things I know, going into it, that I need to keep a rein on.

As I wrote The Butterfly Crest, I kept myself in check by doing two things. First, I followed the Coco Chanel rule, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory. Less is always more.” Yes, she was talking about fashion, but the sentiment still applies, and, unlike Mark Twain’s rule (or so I thought, throughout the week), this method didn’t require me to kill all adjectives. My second weapon was having my husband edit the book, since he is the farthest thing from my target audience and particularly dislikes overly written books (if I got his seal of approval, then I knew I had something going).

Suffice it to say, I tortured myself with this frame of mind all week. I kept going back and forth in my head, dismantling the story and justifying, to myself, the choices I made and the reasoning behind every step of Elena’s journey. I ultimately came to the conclusion I had reached at the beginning of the writing process—I had to strike a balance to maintain the integrity of the story. I couldn’t just arbitrarily kill adjectives. Yes, quite a few met their demise (through the Chanel rule), but others remained and thrived in order to give life to Elena’s journey. Every step chosen was methodically thought out, and randomly sacrificing imagery (adjectives) for more action would only do a disservice to the story I was trying to tell.

So after all of that mental torture exercise, I had found my way back. Good for Mark Twain that he could sleep at night after murdering every adjective that came his way, but I just wasn’t that kind of girl (I love adjectives!). At some point this morning, I decided I would write about my little experience with Mr. Twain. I started to look for the exact quote online, and found that Coco and Mark (when put into context) weren’t too far off:

When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.

If I would have looked up the quote earlier I would have saved myself a lot of grief, but I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to write about this. I think for a lot of us, we are our own worst critics. No matter how much we believe in ourselves, there are moments when we falter (when our genius doesn’t seem so genius-like anymore). It is important to step back in those moments and regain perspective. The instinct that guided you to begin with will return, and then you’ll really regret it if you started killing adjectives arbitrarily while your genius was gone.

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