We’re delighted to feature a guest post today from Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, author of the new book Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg. Take it away, Alvaro!
Given that this forum is intended for the discussion of books and their creation, I feel comfortable invoking a writer whose life—over the course of a career now spanning a staggering six decades!—has been largely dedicated to the creation of hundreds of books: Robert Silverberg. I had the pleasure of conducting interviews with Bob over the course of 2015, and we talked about all sorts of things. The edited, organized result of these candid conversations may be found in my just-published book, Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg.
Of course, despite the wide range of subjects we cover, writing was never far from Bob’s mind. We talked about many writers (within genre and without), the meaning of awards, the writing process itself (schedule, etc.), the difference between artistic writing and hack work, and even word usage and grammatical constructions.
In Chapter 6, specifically, Bob and I spend some time investigating the first and last lines of famous novels by Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Hardy and Graham Greene.
At one point in the conversation I ask Bob the following:
“AZA: I want to go back to the end of The Sun Also Rises for a moment, to this line:
“The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.” It seems that some writers are very sensitive to adverbs these days, in particular something like “suddenly.” The idea is that if you want to convey suddenness, you can do so by picking a better verb that does it for you, without then having to modify it. To be more elegant in the word choice and make the adverb unnecessary.”
I was curious what Bob thought of this dictum, which I often see given as advice to starting writers (avoid “suddenly” at all costs, etc.).
Here is his response:
“RS: I don’t see anything wrong with “suddenly.” I object to finding different ways to say, “he said.” But “suddenly”? Look, there’s some people who’ll tell you that you shouldn’t use adverbs at all. Or that you shouldn’t use adjectives at all. Whatever works.”
Whatever works. Those words have stayed with me.
Of course, an argument can be made that “suddenly,” and some of its adverbial brethren, are overused, and may indicate laziness on the part of the writer. But that doesn’t mean they may not sometimes be appropriate. They appear in many of the great works of literature, after all, and I don’t think that striking them out would visibly improve such works. They appear in science fiction classics, too.
Ever since I first heard of the admonition to avoid “suddenly,” there was a particular science fiction novel that kept whispering skepticism in my mind. Its opening paragraph contains what I consider one of the finest lines in all of science fiction:
“Yet, across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”
This is H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. And it confronts us with that double adverbial offender, “slowly and surely.” Re-writing that sentence without that phrase is possible, sure, but I’m doubtful that it would make it better.
You may say, “Alvaro, ‘slowly and surely’ is not the same as ‘suddenly.’” True. But the word “suddenly” itself appears many times, too, in the same novel: for example in “Suddenly the monster vanished” or “Suddenly there was a flash of light,” and dozens of others.
Historical distance, then? Times change, and today’s readers may not enjoy Wells’ style in the same way the readers of his day might have. Over a century later, we may have become more sensitive to such word choices and repetitions, more canny and sophisticated as readers.
But modern writers like Joyce Carol Oates use “suddenly” quite freely, and I don’t think it’s harmed their careers any, or caused them to be considered poorer writers. Open a novel by Doris Lessing and you may find it strewn with suddenness! They still gave her the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m reading The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville right now, and the first “suddenly” explodes into being on page 8. Are we to take China Miéville to task for this?
So ultimately, I’m going to take refuge in “Whatever works.”
It’s a freeing thought.
Not “whatever goes,” but “whatever works.”
Our words as writers, whatever their taxonomy, need to work together to produce an overall effect. Maybe some writers feel that “suddenly” is more appropriate for a first-person narrative than one written from a third-person perspective; or that it should be used only under specific circumstances. Fine. But arguing that specific word choices should be avoided on principle, I think, unduly restricts us in our enjoyment of the English language, and in conveying its expressive wonders to our readers.
Alvaro started publishing around 2008, and has had more than thirty stories appear in magazines like Analog, Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, Lackington’s, Mothership Zeta, Farrago’s Wainscot and Neon, as well as anthologies such as The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of Moriarty, The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Tales, The 2015 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, Cyber World, This Way to the End Times [edited by R. Silverberg], Humanity 2.0 and An Alphabet of Embers. Alvaro’s essays, reviews and interviews have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The First Line, Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, SF Signal, Foundation, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Intergalactic Medicine Show; he also edits the roundtable blog for Locus.