Monday, 25 August 2014


Another blog from my archives, first written about 3 years ago, this time about adjectives.

When I was at school (a long time ago!), my English teachers insisted we used lots of adjectives to make our writing more descriptive.  In contrast, writers today are warned against the overuse of adjectives.

Various reasons are given for this: too many adjectives give your novel a ‘purple prose’ tint, or clutter the text with unnecessary modifiers, or give the impression that the writer cannot quite find the right word.

Mark Twain said: "As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out.'

The question is – which adjectives should you strike out?

First there are the redundant adjectives – the tiny kitten (aren’t all kittens tiny?), the large mountain (ever seen a small mountain?), the narrow alley (an alley IS a narrow passage), the cold snow (if snow wasn’t cold, it would be water!). Omit the adjective if the noun is self-explanatory.

Secondly, there are the adjectives which, with their nouns, can be replaced with a much more descriptive word e.g. ‘a downpour flooded the streets’ instead of ‘heavy rain flooded the streets’, or ‘the witch cackled’ instead of ‘the witch gave an evil, sharp laugh’.

There are also some adjectives which have become almost meaningless and should be avoided (except in dialogue), including wonderful, lovely, pretty, stupid, foolish, pleasant, comely, horrid – and the obvious one, nice.

However, a story without any adjectives could end up as very clinical and dry. As with most things, moderation is the key. We are not advised to avoid adjectives altogether, but to avoid overusing them.

Eliminating all adjectives would be as big a mistake as overusing them. Adjectives can clarify meaning and add colour to our writing, and can be used to convey the precise shade of meaning we want to achieve. We should save them for the moments when we really need them and then use them selectively – and sparsely. Too often we feel the need to beef up our nouns in an effort to get our point across.

Compare: The dark, dreary house had an empty, suspicious feel to it, the thick air stale and sour with undefined, scary kitchen odors. Are all these adjectives necessary? A tighter, more dramatic description would be: The house had an empty feeling to it, the air stale with undefined kitchen odors.

Use adjectives only to highlight something the noun can’t highlight. We’ve already seen that the ‘narrow alley’ has a redundant adjective, but what about the ‘dark alley’ or the ‘filthy alley’?  Not all alleys are dark or filthy so in these examples, the adjectives are adding something that is not already shown by the noun.  This is the main reason for using an adjective.

And now I’m off to take my own advice, and look through my current story for redundant adjectives!

Monday, 11 August 2014

'And see the sun go down on Galway Bay'.

Continuing my 'recycling' of past blogs which I think are worth repeating, here's another 'A' blog from my archives - a scene which took my breath away.

Which shall I choose? The first sight of the Manhattan skyline as my plane came in to land at Newark airport? The perfect reflection in a still lake of the mountains in the Canadian Rockies? The contrasting bands of vivid colours stretching across the flat land of the Dutch tulip bulbfields? A beautiful deserted beach at Malibu, with the sunshine on the white sand and the surf from the blue ocean breaking on the shore? A small town in Provence, clinging to the side of the steep hillside almost as if it had grown out of the rocks? The wide expanse of grassland where Pickett led his charge at Gettysburg? The sunrise over Lake Nasser in Egypt, turning the Abu Simbel statues to gold? Or maybe the first sight of that ominous watch-tower over the railway line that led into the infamous death camp of Auschwitz? [I'd now add my first sight of the Grand Canyon to that list]

So many scenes, so many memories. But there’s a beautiful Irish song which says ‘you will sit and watch the moon rise over Claddagh, and see the sun go down on Galway Bay.’

I first went to Galway about four years ago [now 7 years ago!]. We arrived too late in the evening to see the sunset that night. The following day we went south into Tipperary and Limerick and thought we might get back in time for sunset, but then we were held up in traffic on the ring road around Galway City. ‘The sun going down on the Galway ring road’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?

On the third day we were travelling down from Clifden and the Connemara mountains towards Galway Bay as the sun started going down. The sky gradually became pinker, the small dark clouds were silhouetted against the glow.

Eventually we found somewhere to park near the shore, and went onto a small beach. We stayed there for over half an hour, watching the most glorious sunset I have ever seen. As the sun descended to the horizon, the sky turned from pink and yellow to a rich orange and deep gold. The clouds too changed colour until they looked like fiery orange smoke.  All this glorious colour was reflected in the water of the bay. The only sound came from the gentle and almost hypnotic swishing of the small waves which were like strips of molten gold as they broke on the shore.

Watching the ‘sun go down on Galway Bay’ was truly an unforgettable sight.

Monday, 4 August 2014

A Bad Rap for Romance

I decided to have a big 'delete' session of my hundreds of Word documents, but then had second thoughts when I reached my 'Blogs' file. Some of these, either on my own blog, or on our writers' group blog, were written 5 or 6 years ago, but I think they may be worth 'recycling'. I'll work my way slowly down the alphabetical list, but here, for starters, is one of my 'A' blogs, first written about 2 years ago.

Twice in the past week, I’ve heard comments from two different acquaintances that have made me think. Here is the gist of the conversations.

First conversation:-
Her (with a smirk on her face): Please tell me you don’t write for Mills and Boon.
Me: No, not now, but I wouldn’t mind being published by them again.
Her (with mouth dropping open): Why? Their novels are rubbish.
Me: How long is it since you read one?
Her: I haven’t read any. I wouldn’t be seen dead reading one of that bodice-ripper kind of book.

Second conversation (on the phone conversation with someone I hadn’t seen for a couple of years):-
Her: So what have you been doing with yourself?
Me: Actually I’ve been writing novels.
Her: Really? Have you had anything published?”
Me: Yes, three novels in the past year and another one due out in June.
Her: Oh, well done. What are they about?”
Me: They’re romances.
Silence, then Her: Oh, sorry, I never read romances. They’re so predictable, happy ever after and all that.

I’ve paraphrased these conversations, but you get the idea.

The first conversation made me realise the stereotypical image of romance novels has persisted, at least for my generation, for 30+ years. The “bodice-rippers” were the hallmark of Mills and Boon/Harlequin in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and, in my opinion, gave romance novels a bad rap. They had archetypal characters and contrived plots, usually involving a virginal heroine who was ‘rescued’ or 'dominated' by an arrogant, alpha-hero (often an Arabian  sheik, Italian count, Spanish prince, or Greek billionaire). These stories often contained a barely disguised rape scene (hence 'bodice-ripper'). The formula tended to be, 'I hate you, I hate you, I hate you' until the hero forces himself on the heroine, and suddenly she's madly in love with him!  On the whole, this kind of novel has gone ‘out of fashion’ (fortunately, but with a few notable exceptions!). However, a kind of stigma still remains.

The second conversation made me wonder about the word ‘predictable’. Yes, romances have, if not a ‘Happy Ever After’ ending, then at least a ‘Happy’ ending where the hero and heroine overcome the obstacles in the path to reunite. The reader is left with the hope that they will be happy in their future together. Yes, the ending of romance novels may be considered 'predictable'.  However, aren’t thrillers, detective stories, and mysteries equally predictable? The goodies will triumph, the baddies will receive their deserved punishment, and the crime or mystery will be solved. What’s the difference? Why are romance novels considered 'predictable', while other genres aren’t?

And why are romance novels considered by some to be the ‘lowest form of literature’? Why do people want to disassociate themselves from reading romance novels? I’ve had a few reviews which start, “I don’t usually read romances but …” as if that is somehow praiseworthy. It seems to be okay to say you read thrillers or mysteries, but not the ‘done thing’ to admit to reading romances, even though thousands (millions?) of women obviously do!

Have you come across this kind of ‘literary snobbishness’ and, if so, what’s your response?