If you’ve been following my blog, you know that lots of things piss me off in politics, healthcare, the environment, and of course, in the business of writing, and that I don’t mind whining about them. I’ve been told that I am way too critical of other writers and that I need to chill out and forget about the technical stuff when I’m reading a book and to just enjoy the story. I try to. I really do. But when I come across a New York Times Bestselling author whose novels read like the work of a tenth grade high school student, how can I let it go?
Without mentioning names, let me tell you about the thriller I’m struggling to read right now. This female author has had 10 bestselling novels. I will admit that the story is interesting and the plot is compelling enough to keep me engaged. However, it drives me nuts and distracts me from enjoying the story when I see fundamental technical errors throughout.
When you write dialogue in a novel, the author must pay very close attention to what we call “dialogue attributes”—he said, she said, following a statement. Here’s an example. “I love your red dress,” he said. In this case, “he said” is a dialogue attribute. The first commandment of writing dialogue is to minimize “ly” adverbs. It is the novelist’s job to show more than tell, so in most instances, overusing “ly” adverbs exposes a weakness in the writer’s ability to show action. It’s the lazy author’s way of telling instead of showing.
The other issue here is that a constant flow of these “ly” adverbs distracts the reader. If a writer is truly doing his or her job, and is crafting crisp, clean dialogue, then throughout an entire novel, “he said” and “she said” are sufficient. The only reason to use a dialogue attribute is to identify who’s speaking. Period.
Here are a few examples of the dialogue attributes I found on page after page of the “bestselling” novel I’m currently reading.
He said softly.
She said briskly.
He said quietly.
She said immediately.
He said abruptly.
She said tersely. (Are you kidding me?)
He said gently.
She said testily. (Testily? What an awkward word)
He said grudgingly. (This particular adverb appears repeatedly)
She said shortly.
He shrugged modestly. (Huh? Is it possible to shrug modestly?)
She said honestly.
He nodded glumly. (How do you nod glumly?)
She said supportively.
He said dryly.
All I can say is that I truly, honestly, wholeheartedly doubt that I’ll be able to finish this book.