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I found an old notebook on the shelf.

It’s not dated, but judging from the handwriting and some of the things that are referenced, I’d say it starts around sixth form (that’s age 17) and goes up to some time after I went to university.

It’s a fun read – it begins with what I think was my first real attempt at properly planning a story – character maps and notes on the world government and all.  There are even some notes on architecture and little drawings – to scale – of some of the physics involved.

The story plan concerns the (highly probable) situation in which the moon’s orbit has started to decay.  Scientists managed to find a way to prop it up on giant struts, but clearly in the process some damage was done to the Earth’s atmosphere.  Now, everyone has to live in the shadow of the moon, otherwise they die of radiation poisoning.

Shadowland plot

The radiation has caused strange mutations in the twilight lands, where people get a reduced dose of the sun’s rays.  They don’t die outright, but they have mutations in the genes which cause features such as white fur to reflect the rays, dampeners in their eyes to reduce glare, etc.  These twilight people feel bitter because they are thought of as freaks, when in fact they are better suited to life now.  They grow crops which have also mutated, and try to sell them to the shadowlanders.

My main character was called Tim, and he was an “ordinary person” in his late teens/early twenties, who was claustrophobic – a problem since the moon hangs so low in the sky and everyone lives in a tightly packed space with lots of tunnels.  Apparently his parents were accountants!

For entertainment’s sake, I thought it would be interesting to take some of what I wrote then and compare it with what I would do now.  I reproduce it complete with spelling errors, amendments and so on.


Tim stepped out into the clear night air.  A slight breeze stirred his short brown hair.  Involuntarily, he glanced upwards, and shuddered.  His sad blue eyes closed, and he swallowed.  He could see the moon’s craters with his naked eyes.  It was too close, too close.

He looked out across the city, taking in the skyscrapers which rose tall as far as he could see.  Some of them were so tall you could almost reach out and touch the moon from the top of them.

Walking briskly down through the concrete jungle, Tim wrinkled his nose at the all-pervading stench of moon dust.

I bet they first men on the moon didn’t realise how bad it smells when the first put man on the moon, 2 centuaries ago, he thought bitterly.

And now:

Tim stepped out of the airlock and listened to the door swish closed behind him.  Within moments he was covered in a fine layer of moon-dust.  He cast a glance over his shoulder to check that the green ‘ready’ light had come on, confirming that he could re-enter the complex whenever he wanted.  It shone brightly, cutting through the gloom like a beacon welcoming him home.  With a slight pang he thought of his sister, left behind for now.  I will come back for her, he vowed, once I’ve found them.  We will be together again.

He settled his dust-mask more firmly on his face and squinted at the world.  Around him, towers rose high into the sky, packed tightly together.  Windows were few and far between, especially at ground level.  There was nothing to look at, after all, apart from dust and more towers.  He deliberately didn’t look up.  Tim had heard that from the highest towers you could see amazing views, even as far as the edge of the Shadow.  He’d heard that from the very tallest towers you could reach out and touch the moon.  He’d never been that high, of course.  Only the richest citizens were able to afford to live above the dust.

The gully he was in now was one of several that ran throughout the complex.  They were designed to give access to the outside of the massive building, for the maintenance crews.  In reality they were hardly used.  The complex was given the minimum maintenance possible to keep it standing.  There was no money for anything else, and no spare materials to do it with.  All of the dwindling resources of the planet were focused on one thing: the Struts.

He moved forward to the first cross-gully and looked to the left.  In the distance he could just make out Strut Three.  There were eight Struts in all, spaced evenly around the edge of the complex.  Each one was a couple of miles wide at the base, able to support massive weights on its own.  It still took eight of them to hold up the moon.  He shuddered as he considered what would happen if (when!) the Struts failed.  With the ozone layer and most of the upper atmosphere stripped away when the moon descended, the entire human race was packed tightly in the shadow lands.  If even one Strut gave way they would all be destroyed.

Tim smiled grimly.  Not all, not if the stories were true.  He hoped, needed the stories to be true.

Making sure his rucksack was firmly settled on his back, he set out towards the distant structure.  Soon he was breathing heavily.  Each breath in caused more dust to settle on his mask, clogging the filter.  Every time he breathed out he tried to dislodge some of it, only to have it settle again moments later.  He forced himself to carry on.  There would be less dust further out.  Everyone said so.  He tried not to think about how “everyone” knew such a fact when “no-one” went outside.

He wished he could have made this part of the journey inside.  The complex was interconnected all the way to the twilight lands, and even the broken-down air conditioning units and recycled oxygen would be better than this.  Ever since the corn riots last year the towers had been segregated, though, and coming up with good enough reasons to cross further and further from his home would be difficult.  He did not want to get arrested for travelling without permits or whatever made-up crime the government had come up with this month.

He plodded on, trying not to think.  After what seemed like hours he was jolted out of his half-doze by a sudden increase in the light.  He flinched, cowering towards the walls.  How had they found him so quickly?  He thought he had hidden his departure well enough that nobody would even be looking yet.

When nothing happened he looked around and laughed.  Along the walls of the gully lights were flickering on, illuminating everything.  It was night, and the lights were on a timer.  Almost every other bulb had blown, but the light was still brighter than the dust-filtered sunlight available during the day.  Why the outside lights were on when nobody worked out here he didn’t know.

Now that he had stopped he realised how tired he was.  Sinking down against the side wall he leant his arms on his knees and rested his head on them.  The movement knocked his dust mask sideways, and he breathed in a face full of moon-dust.

So there we go!  Leaving aside the totally plausible science behind the situation, I think my writing has improved. What do you think?

An adjective is a describing word, used to give more information about a noun or noun phrase.  An adverb is also a describing word, but this time applies to verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, clauses, basically anything except nouns.  Aspiring authors are often advised to remove all adjectives and adverbs from their work, because they are “useless fat”.

In the spirit of discovery, I decided to discover more about adjectives and adverbs, in the hope of answering the question: what’s so bad about adjectives?

Quick Grammatical Summary

There are four types of adjective:

    • Attributive (part of the noun phrase) (That’s a large book),
    • Predicative (linked to the noun with a copula) (That book is large),
    • Postpositive (appears after the noun) (Something large, books aplenty),
    • Substantive (using the adjective as a noun) (The large are seen better than the small).

Adverbs are more interesting, not least because they include things that I, educated in a fairly normal school, didn’t know were adverbs at all.  (I wish they taught grammar better at school).

First the ones I knew about:

    • She walked slowly.

And then we have:

    • They played together. (Where “together” modifies the playing.)
    • She walked quite slowly. (Where “quite” modifies “slowly”.)

It’s become clear to me as I write this that the ones I knew about are only those that modify verbs.  I say again, I wish they taught grammar better at school.

So What Is The Problem With Adjectives?

Now, I can see that too many adjectives and adverbs might get annoying:

It was a cold, dark, windy night, and the old wooden doors were creaking loudly in the strong gusty winds.

But, sometimes they are needed:

The demon approached Bill and said “Tonight, I will feast.”

Bill laughed and replied, “Is that so?”

Could be this:

The demon approached Bill and said “Tonight, I will feast.”

Bill laughed nervously and replied, “Is that so?”

Or this:

The demon approached Bill and said “Tonight, I will feast.”

Bill laughed confidently and replied, “Is that so?”

Mind you, if we’d already set the scene – Bill is a fearless demon hunter and the demon in question is two feet tall – then the adjective might not be necessary.  Perhaps it is all down to context.

And that, I think, is the key.  If you have managed to successfully set the scene well enough that the emotions behind your characters’ actions are obvious even without adjectives, then you win.

Final Thought

The conclusion I seem to have come to is that adjectives and adverbs aren’t inherently evil, but if you can remove them all from your work and still have people understand what is going on, then your writing has got to be pretty good.

Today I was reading the BBC website (you may have noticed I do that a lot), and I came across this article.  The first sentence is

The crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant was “a profoundly man-made disaster”, a Japanese parliamentary panel has said in a report.

Uh… yeah.  Nuclear plants don’t grow on trees.  They were made by humans, so any disaster involving them is man-made, right?

It got me thinking.  One of the major pieces of advice given to writers is to cut out all of the useless words.  But how useless do words have to be before they should be cut?

To me, a statement that a nuclear disaster is man-made is a bit pointless.  Others might see it differently (and, when you read the article, they don’t really mean the disaster itself, but the human reactions and responses which made it worse than it could have been).

On the other hand, I think everyone can agree that “he thought to himself” is a little redundant.  Unless the book has telepathy, I suppose.

So where do you draw the line in your own writing?  Does it depend on the style of book or the target audience?  Can you give an example of a sentence which you thought was fine but others thought was pointless?  Or, more interestingly, the other way around?

Putting Children Off

Teachers are concerned that children in primary schools (that’s age 5 to 11 for those from foreign parts) are being put off reading for pleasure by the time they reach the top end of their school.  74% of teachers polled said that children did not spend enough time reading outside of the classroom.

The article also gives some guidance on what types of stories those readers are likely to enjoy – action, crime, fantasy, horror and adventure.  No surprises there then.

Another ariticle on the BBC talks about the low literacy rate in Welsh secondary schools (that’s age 11 to 16).  Apparently, most of them can read – although up to 40% start secondary school unable to read “properly” – but not fluently enough to really apply the skill in other subject areas.  I only hope that the literacy co-ordinators that they will be appointing have read the first article and don’t limit themselves to actions in the secondary schools!

Teaching Reading

A third article examines the system of Synthetic Phonics, which is the current government-approved method of teaching reading.  Phonics is contraversial, as some believe it doesn’t teach children to “read” but to “decode” writing, which is less fluent.  Not only that, but

The books that have been devised in order to support synthetic phonics offer a restrictive diet, says Lambirth.

So here we have a contraversial system for teaching reading, with a limited selection of books that they can use to learn with.  No wonder children aren’t learning to read for pleasure.

One of the contraversial things about it is the use of made-up words to test whether children can decode properly.  Children will be asked to read words such as “terg” or “thazz”.  It might confuse some children, but it does provide an early look at reading scifi… maybe they could include “grok”.

Some Thoughts

Clearly more, better books are needed for children in all age ranges.

Not only that, but books which are phonics-friendly will likely get used more in schools, at least in the UK.  If you’re planning to write something for children, it’s a good idea to do some research.  How are children taught to read in your country?  Are there any special considerations you should think about because of that?

When we’re writing, we need to think about the places that our characters live, work and play.  How much time to you spend thinking about the effect of buildings on the environment?  This recent article from the BBC reminded me that conditions on streets depend very much on what buildings surround them.

Skyscrapers are becoming ever more common, and many sci-fi novels contain massive cities which tower into the sky and spread for miles.  Where several large buildings are grouped together, canyons can form, with noise at street level being massively increased and wind tunnels springing into existence.  Even one skyscraper, if badly designed, can cause high speed winds from higher up to be diverted to the ground.

And that’s ignoring the long shadows and sometimes ugly car park entrances.

Fortunately, modern architects seem to be taking notice.  The Gherkin in London has an unusual shape not just to look good – it helps the winds go around the structure.  The almost-completed Shard (also in London) casts its shadow mainly over the River Thames.

When you’re writing about life in a city, whether it’s real or fictional, it’s important to understand what kind of city it is.  Is it modern?  Old?  Has it reached the point in its development where the citizens have started to build skyscrapers, but are still building them square?  Has the government of your country or planet decided to limit the size of buildings for any reason?  What effect will all that have on the microclimate at street level?

And of course, the feel of a city centre is enormously different to the feel of a suburb.  Cities in different parts of the country can be poles apart, let alone cities in other countries.  Ultimately, the best thing to do might be to find a real city with similar conditions to the one you are writing about, and go there.  Soak in the feel of the place, and notice the little things.  And then write.

We’ve all read them.  We all wish we could write them.  Those lines – often random sentences – that keep coming back to us.  They come from novels, short stories, films, TV shows, or radio.  Sometimes we don’t know what they’re from, sometimes we do, but wherever they came from originaly, they are now in our heads.  They’ll pop up unexpectedly at seemingly odd times, for no apparent reason.

They made an impact.

I’ll give you some examples.

  • “Oh, go play on the motorway!”  (I don’t remember the story, only that it was a post-apocalyptic world where the motorway was a perfectly safe place to play.  I remember it being quite good, though, so if anyone recognises it please tell me!  This might have been the first line.  Or it might not.)
  • “Oh tongue, give sound to joy and sing, of hope and promise on dragon wing.”  (Anne McCaffrey, from Dragonsinger)
  • “It’s all good.  All de time.”  (From Dark Angel – should be said in a Jamaican accent.  Every time I see an advert for McCain’s chips this runs through my head.)
  • “Do you know what this is?”  “I know what this is.  This is a water heater.  No, wait, it’s an espresso machine, that’s what it is.  Is it a snow cone maker?”  (From True Lies, my favourite spy film ever.  In case you were wondering, it was a nuclear bomb.)

What makes these lines unforgettable?

Alas, there is no simple formula.  The first is memorable because it defies the expectations we have and thrusts us headlong into another world.  It’s like a big neon sign saying “take nothing for granted, nothing here is what you expect”.  The second I suspect was only memorable because of the context – a long slow build up culminating in a moment of pure joy.

The third was repeated a lot – a character’s catchphrase.  I remember it because I liked the character.  And the fourth is just funny.  It’s Arnie doing his thing, dissing the bad guys.

Context, then, seems to be the key.  One is memorable because it doesn’t make sense in the context of our expectations, but makes sense in the story.  The others are memorable because we have invested our time in building up the context for the phrase.  If you want people to remember your work, you’re just going to have to make it good all the way through – having one memorable phrase probably won’t work.

What memorable phrases have you got floating around your head?  Do you remember where they are from?

Truth is in the eye of the beholder as much as beauty is.  Can you write a story from the point of view of all of the minor characters?

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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