Monday, March 27, 2017

Adverbs and the Road to Hell

While many languages are romantic and flowing, English is muscular and lean. It permits a direct discourse of cause to effect: subject kicks object.

English is well-suited for marketing and exaggeration. The adjective assumes a higher importance than the thing. The adjective precedes the noun. What strikes with more force in the following sentences? It was a bright cold day in April. . . or, I am an invisible man. Day and man have a secondary emphasis to bright, cold and invisible. The adjective can replace and become the noun: The Bold and the Beautiful. The adjective can follow an indicative verb and the noun equals the adjective. I am cold.

English stylists of the terse school of writing have long declared that the most important part of speech is the verb. If you select the right verb, you've constructed a forceful sentence. I phrase this advice as: "Choose the strongest, most vivid verb your sentence will allow."

From MacBeth's soliloquy.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's [is] but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

We have vivid movement verbs carrying a heavy weight: creeps, struts, frets. We have the sensory verbs; lighted, heard, told. As in death, the light is to be snuffed out (out!). Even the humble verb "is" is used to equate two nouns: Life equals a walking shadow; Life equals a tale told by an idiot. What does all this mean? Shadows, idiot tales, poor players, fools. It signifies nothing.

In line with the supremacy of the verb, stylists consider the adverb to be the lowliest part of speech. The adverb says: I didn't get the verb right and now I have to modify it. Ben Blatt, in his sprightly look at literature by the numbers, Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve: And Other Experiments in Literature cites Stephen King's advice, "The road to hell is paved with adverbs."

Adverbs are like cholesterol: you have the good and the bad forms. Blatt divided out the bad form: the -ly adverbs, and then counted. Stephen King uses 105 -ly adverbs per 100,000 words. Hemingway, a spare 80. Blatt further goes on to demonstrate that many authors have fewer adverbs in their most acclaimed books. Faulkner had 31 and 42 adverbs per 100,000 words in As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, respectively, but had 130 or more in the forgettable (and forgotten) Soldiers' Pay and Mosquitoes.


Blatt examines Elmore Leonard's writing advice. One rule admonishes against the use of the adverb, "suddenly." He shows graphically how Leonard over his career had forty plus suddenlys per 100,000 words in his first four books and not once in his last nine novels.

How do mystery novelists perform with "suddenly?" In marking the performance of 52 authors, Blatt includes the performance of five who were primarily mystery writers.

Suddenlys per 100,000 words

Dan Brown, 59
Agatha Christie, 46.
James Patterson (22 Alex Cross books), 38.
Gillian Flynn 29.
Elmore Leonard 9.

This group fairs more poorly than the median rate for all authors he analyzed (24 per 100,000). Dan Brown has more suddenlys than some authors have total adverbs. I have no doubt he is laughing raucously all the way to the bank.

How well do I perform? I have three published novels and one novella. These average out at 71 adverbs per 100,000 and 3 suddenlys/100,000. While I don't go out of my way to follow Leonard's rules, they have invaded my writing style.

I have previously characterized Elmore Leonard's rules as: Do not write like a 19th century author whose fainting couch overfloweth.

While composing this post I was reading Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase, (1908), a classic in the genre of spooky house with mysterious goings-on. I could not help but noting, again and again, adverbs modifying everything. After finishing I tallied up the incidents: 140 adverbs and 36 suddenlys per 100,000 words.

The rate of the use of the word "suddenly" by seven mystery writers. Patterson represents James Patterson's 22 Alex Cross novels. Rinehart is Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase. Most of this data came from Blatt's book, referenced above.

In Praise of the Adverb.

The terse, lean language advocated in The Elements of Style and by others is not the only worthwhile form. Choosing to write effusively, rather than directly, is another choice. English can be a nimble language and its phrasing can be made to reflect that of the romantic languages.

From my pre-adolescent days, I remember reading a Reader's Digest article that spoke of a study which found that people who used adverbs in their speech were more likeable (and you can be more likeable using adverbs!). Ever since, I've noted authors who exploit this. "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." (The movie version. The book version had two adverbs in the sentence). Within dialogue, exclamation points and adverbs and indirect speech serve to make a character colorful. My personal touchstone example of indirectness and repetition being used to make a character endearing is M*A*S*H's Radar O'Reilly. For example, "There might be naked female personnel showering in there with their clothes off!" and "Of course I could, but I'm not. I mean, I do, but I didn't!" I can't find the quote online, but from memory: "You're a female woman of the lady gender."

So, why all of these admonitions against adverbs? They are often found among the laziest and most amateur of writing. Good writing is never lazy. Good writing chocked full of adverbs and imprecision demands an even steadier hand at the helm: you are traversing choppy waters.


How Well Do Famous Authors Follow Elmore Leonard's Rules for Writing? Part One.
How Well Do Famous Authors Follow Elmore Leonard's Rules for Writing? Part Two.

 Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Benjamin Button and The Supreme Court

(Benjamin Button was the F. Scott Fitzgerald character who grew from old to young.)

Over the history of the United States, there have been 114 Supreme Court Justices including 3 living and retired and 8 living and serving.

Neil Gorsuch, if he were to be confirmed and sworn in on April 1st, would be 49 years 7 months and 2 days in age, the 29th youngest. While that might not sound too drastic on the young side, 13 of the 28 youngest justices were born in the 18th century. Among those born from the start of the 20th century, only 4 have been younger.

The four youngest Supreme Court Justices, all of those sworn in while they were in their thirties, were born in the 18th century. In terms of life expectancy, the most recent justices have been the youngest justices in history. This trend is especially true for the recent Republican appointees. Clarence Thomas was the second youngest justice sworn in since 1853. John Roberts became the youngest Chief Justice of the Supreme Court since 1801.

Dividing the group up into quartiles we have the following.
The average age at time of being sworn in versus age at death for Supreme Court Justices, 1789 to present. The time periods have been divided into quartiles (28 to 29 justices). The difference is the number of years lived between being sworn in and death.

In the first period the average age was just under fifty. This increased to over fifty-five in the third period and then declined again more recently. In the meantime, life expectancy, determined by how long the justices actually did live, increased from 70 to 80 years. (I was surprised those born in the 18th century lived to 70.) Eleven of the twelve most recent appointees are still living and their deaths did not figure into the fourth quartile figures.)

From the above graph we can see there was little change in life expectancy from the age of being sworn in, until the fourth quartile in which case the justices got younger while the life expectancy continued to increase.

Since January 1972, when two of Nixon's candidates were confirmed to the Supreme Court, the majority of the court have come from Republican presidents. That would have changed in 2016 with the nomination of Merrick Garland (then 63 years old). No hearings were given to the nomination.

The Republican's long run has been in part due to chance of history (ten consecutive justices between 1969 and 1991), the refusal to hold hearings, and the young age of the Republican candidates. The last of these three allowed those sitting to continue serving for a longer period of time.

Ages of Supreme Court justices at the time of being sworn in since the beginning of the Republican-appointed majority in 1972. Red were selected by Republican presidents; blue by Democratic presidents. [Gorsuch] is pending.

Over this period the average age of a Republican judge at the time of being sworn in was 52.2 years and the average age of a Democratic nominee was 55.4. The 52.2 years drops to 50.8 years if the first selection, Powell is removed. The Republicans have been putting forward nominees 3 years younger to 4.6 years younger by the latter criterion.

Neil Gorsuch is under 50 years of age. The last time a Democratic president had a Supreme Court Justice under fifty was in 1962.

The Excel files of all ages are available by request.

 Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Never Kill A Contest.

A prize of $100 (US) will be awarded to the author who best completes the short story, The Final Confession, the first 1,100 words of which are presented below. Alternative prize formats are presented after the story. The total length should be between 2,000 and 5,000 words. The completed short story will be submitted as co-authors to a journal of the winner's choosing. All proceeds from future sales will be divided evenly between the co-authors.

Rights: The writing and ideas from all non-winning submissions will continue to belong to those who enter. [You can finish the story, then go back and write a new first half and then it's all yours.]

Fees: There is no fee to enter.

Judging the Winner: I will be the judge. I will look for the piece that best dramatically completes the story with the highest quality of writing. Several further considerations are presented at the end of the piece.

I reserve the right to edit the final story to maintain consistency in tone. Although Detective Shelley Krieg is a character from my novel, Never Kill A Friend, it is not necessary to use other characters or info from the book.

How to Enter: To enter, include your conclusion to the story in the body of an email to by 11:59 p.m., June 15th, 2017, EST along with word count, your name, address, phone, and email. Include the words "contest entry" in the email subject line. Do not send your submission as an attachment. The winner will be announced July 15th.

Martin Hill Ortiz

    The Final Confession

    Only one thing could be worse than having a boyfriend whose idea of a romantic Valentine's date consisted of a dinner at Arby's: being stood up.

    Shelley Krieg sawed at the papery meat between her teeth with the pinched end of a soda straw. She had ordered a Junior sandwich to tamp down the hour-long anger in her belly, an agitation which intensified with the waiting. And waiting. No phone calls, no messages, his phone off-line.

    The sandwich merely stoked the fire in her stomach. Horse radish: a taste that gave a bad name to both horse and radish.

    Even after sipping a bit more of the melted ice puddle from the bottom of her cup, her mouth felt dry. Why does anyone eat here?

    She looked around. Families happily munching away. A priest and some nuns seemingly enjoying their meals.

    She thought back to her Catholic days. The Sisters of Charity, Mother Teresa's group, ran her school. She once asked them whether they worried about living in a rough ghetto. They laughed and told her that D.C. was tame. They'd worked in the back alleys of Calcutta.

    She wiped off her lipstick, buttoned up her collar, and tugged down the fringe of her red skirt to just below her knees. Feeling less sexy, she felt less rejected.

    Her eyes wandered. Across the street, a car pulled up, double-parking in front of a liquor store. The driver, a skinny punk, wore a black ski mask topping his crown. With a jolt, her police instincts kicked in and her every muscle tensed.

    The driver twisted the plastic orange cap off of a play pistol. Even at this distance Shelley recognized it as a toy, but what she saw didn't matter: this was still armed robbery.

    Bolting from her seat, she knocked over her soda cup and hurried for the door, an action that elicited a crowd of stares.

    She had dressed for a night out—albeit, a cheap night out—and not for after-hours duty: her service belt and pistol lay stowed in her car. As she shouldered out the door, she took out her phone and speed-dialed dispatch.

    "This is Detective Krieg, MPD. We've an armed robbery in progress at B & B Liquors, Good Hope and Sixteenth. Make certain you tell them, 'Officer on scene.'"

    She emphasized the last part because she was out of her district and when the responding officers arrived they would encounter her: an unknown tall black woman with a gun in hand.

    She tweeted her car, flung open the door and reached inside, unbuckling her service automatic from its holster. She dumped the contents of her purse on the car seat and grabbed her shield, pinning it to her vest. And then she stood still, spending a quiet moment before heading into battle, ginning up her courage. It's a toy gun, she reminded herself. I saw the perp take the top off. But what if he put a plastic cap on a real gun to carry it around, making it seem fake? No, she told herself: I saw a toy, I know the difference. It had to be a toy—but what will I do if he points it at me? She knew what she would do.

    Then she recognized a new horror: what if I have to explain in court why I was eating dinner alone on Valentine's Day? At Arby's.

    She held her gun low as she crossed the street.

    Blam. A shot, a roar, from inside the liquor store. What the hell? A second blast. Shelley drew back from the door and to the side, out of the line of fire. "Police!" she called out. "Toss your weapon and come out with your hands raised."

    The door banged open and the punk staggered out. He clutched the toy gun against a gaping wound in his belly. He made it only a few steps before nosediving against the sidewalk. A moment later, a man appeared, brandishing a shotgun.

    Shelley aimed her gun at him. "Put your weapon down."

    "This is my store," the man said. His eyes were wild with adrenaline.

    "The crime is over. You do not need that weapon," Shelley said. And she didn't need a frenzied hero with a twitchy trigger finger. "Set it down." She demonstrated by lowering her own weapon.

    The man looked around as if to find someone who would support his rights. The few gawkers maintained their distance. He set the shotgun down beside him.

    "Call 911. Ask for an ambulance," Shelley said.

    "No," The owner said, folding his arms.

    Shelley dropped on one knee beside the man on the sidewalk. She freed the toy gun from his hand and tossed it aside to make sure the responding officers wouldn't think he was armed. When they arrived. If they arrived. Where are they? 

    It seemed as though half the man's blood had already spilled out: a rivulet from the broad puddle stretched to the gutter. Shelley rolled him over and pressed her hands against the bleeding. The man huffed against his ski mask. She pulled it back to allow him to breathe. From a distance, she'd judged him to be a punk kid. Up close, she could see he had a baby-face but with those creases that came in one's late thirties. The victim stared at her with desperation, mouth open, lips popping like those of a guppy.

    "You were likely within your rights to shoot this man," Shelley told the owner. "But if you do nothing and you allow him to bleed to death, you are committing murder and I can arrest you." Technically, this was true, but she made the threat only to ensure his cooperation. "Call 911 and bring me something to help stop the bleeding. A roll of paper towels if you have them."

    The owner reached for his shotgun.

    "Leave. It. There," Shelley said, each word snapping.

    "I want to put it somewhere safe."

    "Leave your weapon there."

    The man backed into his store.

    A shotgun, at close range, could tear a man in two. Both of Shelley's hands easily fit into the wide gash of his belly wound. She felt about for the source of the flood.

    "Bless me father, for I have sinned."

    Shelley had been concentrating so much on the wound, that these words startled her. She looked up. The priest from Arby's knelt next to the victim.

    "Tell me, my son," the priest said.

Additional notes regarding context and the contest.

Aspects of Shelley Krieg are presented in the above story. In summary, she is African-American, tall (over six feet), single and in her mid-thirties and works for the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department. She is a conscientious detective who does not act in an unethical way, although she has been known to cut corners for the greater good.

The first chapter of Never Kill A Friend is available here, online or from internet book outlets.

The winning entry should be realistic in plotting, not the magic of a poorly created cops-and-robbers world. Gratuitousness, whether it be sex, violence, gore or swearing is a negative. I will accept a moderate amount depend on context and internal justification.

The sacrament of confession is not absolute in requiring silence from the priest. Inasmuch as Shelley overhears something actionable, the priest could corroborate it: although this does not need be a plot point.

International contestants can apply. Alternative forms of awards can be: A check or money order for U.S. dollars, or as a gift card from iTunes, Amazon, or Google.

What publication rights are being asked? None, other than those requested by the magazine in which the final product will be published. The winning entry will not be published on-line beyond that of a teaser, unless by joint agreement. This could interfere with submission to journals.

You may query me with further questions or insert them in comments if you believe the answers would be of general interest.


 Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble