Gloves Off: Round XXXII
An endless war against the adverb
Today we’ll take a deeper dive into Chapter 19 of the novel-in-progress The God of Death and Second Chances by Jay Rollins
To read the chapter as originally posted, please click here.
A gentle thumb in a nitrile glove pushed one of Danny’s eyelids up, exposing his eyeball. There was a very bright light, and then darkness. His other lid was lifted, and the very bright light moved to that side.
My Comments: Excellent job staying in the scene. That seems impossible for most writers, but you’ve done a great job of not straying from this time and place.
Going forward, let’s focus on on-the-body. How do we know it’s a nitrile glove? We smell it: A gentle pressure pushed at one of Danny’s eyes. The smell of nitrile, a finger in a glove, it lifted his eyelid. Now, avoid the “is” verb and the passive voice (was lifted), by trying: A bright light shot pain into his head. The finger lifted the other lid… Thanks for not using “left” and “right” to indicate the eyes. No one semiconscious is aware of left and right.
Someone was shining a penlight in Danny’s eye. He tried to think who would be shining a penlight in his eye, then realized that it must be a doctor or an EMT and relaxed in his seat. His nose was bleeding, a slow trickle that Danny knew meant it was broken.
He couldn’t move his arms.
Had he been in an accident?He hoped the cunt had told the doctors about his penicillin allergy.
My Comments: Now let’s weed out some “thought” verbs. Verbs like think, realize, meant, hoped are off-limits. Instead unpack the details: A penlight, a doctor or an EMT, the sticky feel of the gloved finger. Danny breathed the knots out of his legs. He breathed out to make his shoulders sag limp. Long exhales that settled him deeper into the seat.
To keep the tension, don’t fret about looking good. Unpack the nose: A slow trickle down the back of his throat tasted like blood. Something bubbled in one nostril, more blood.
And because you don’t get to hope (a thought verb) you need to demonstrate that impulse: He crossed his fingers (or knocked wood, or spit out a prayer) that the… These are all chances to demonstrate character. What does this character do that demonstrates hope? Especially if his arms are bound.
No, his arms were attached to the chair he was sitting in.
Had he been arrested?The restraints felt like handcuffs. He tried not to wiggle his broken nose; the crust of dried blood around it itched like crazy.
Then the smell of pepper spray reached his nostrils,
and he knew he was still in the nightmare.
My Comments: I pruned a few things that were cutting your tension. To keep tension up, avoid suggesting an answer to anything. Allow the reader to remain in the same undefined circumstances as the character.
Avoid the passive voice: his arms were attached… Instead, unpack: He flexed his fingers, his elbows, but not his wrists. The cut of metal pinched, the metal of handcuffs, and the chains, little chains that held the handcuffs to the chair. If this is his body-of-knowledge, the character might even know by feel exactly what kind of handcuffs.
And again, reconsider your thought verbs: Knew, tried. Instead combine things: The stab of pepper spray hit his nose, and he sneezed hard. Groans went up around him. He didn’t need to look. Great clots of blood, crusted curds of dried blood shot from his wrecked nose.
The penlight pulled back. Danny blinked
fiercelyuntil the spots faded and looked around frantically. It was still too dark to see clearly, but he thought he could make out a block and tackle in the corner, a leather spanking bench with restraints… He was in the playroom in the attic of his house.
“Love the decor, Danny,” a tired voice said.
My Comments: No adverbs. Instead, unpack. He twisted his neck against the pain, straining to see the room around him… A block and tackle hung in one corner. Near that stood a spanking bench with leather belts, unbuckled, nailed to the bench as restraints… Allow the reader to recognize that this is the playroom/attic. By doing so you allow the reader a rush of serotonin and you keep the tension higher by not naming the place outright.
Fucking Beckett. Danny could just make him out, stepping back into the shadows and slipping the flashlight into his pants pocket.
Danny tried to leap to his feet, but he succeeded only in toppling to the floor, along with the hard wooden chair into which he’d been strapped.
“Easy, old son. You’ll do yourself a mischief that way,” a second voice said. It had a British accent. It sounded amused.
My Comments: Be careful not to filter through the character. Instead, just describe what the character sees. That way the reader will feel as if he/she is in the scene. For instance: Beckett the limey bastard stood half in the shadows, his hands in latex gloves. He pocketed the penlight, the all of him spattered with bloody clots of sneeze, and he stepped back into the darkness. (Keep your objects present)
Now, you get to unpack amused. What is amused to the point-of-view character?
And you don’t get to say British accent. I suspect your character will know the difference between a Brummie accent (Birmingham) and a Scouse accent (Liverpool), by getting more specific you build authority. Actually, this is the fun part: The words went Geordie mixed with Yorkshire and Estuary on the vowels, a pig’s ear of an accent.
Two pairs of hands picked up the chair and righted it. Someone switched on the overhead light. Danny looked around his attic. Beckett and a skinny guy in a gray longcoat
were standingstood over him. There was aA brown girl examined ingthe hanging restraints with what Danny glumly recognized asprofessional interest. It took him a minute to recognize her. She had distracted him so Beckett could...
Danny broke into a cold sweat.
My Comments: As always, beware the was-gerund construction. I’ve marked out two, here. Unpack professional interest so that the reader feels the menace. For example: …she doused a rag in rubbing alcohol and wiped the chrome buckles and leather bands. The clean rag came away stained red… Then, your instinct is correct to go on-the-body with cold sweat, but can you reinvent that trope?
Gordon Lish called cliches “received text” and wouldn’t allow them. Your job is to make that stale language fresh.
The black guy crouching next to the brown girl was getting little bottles of stuff out of a suitcase. They looked like the precursors Danny had seen people use to cook meth. Danny couldn’t figure out what was wrong with his vision for a minute; the black guy looked distorted, and Danny figured he’d hit his head harder than he thought until he realized with a twinge of embarrassment that the guy was
a little person,like Peter Dinklage or Wee Man.
My Comments: Where did the black guy come from? Was he the guy in the long coat?
As always, avoid thought verbs. Unpack the precursors. This character should have a body of knowledge that allows him to get specific, and the more he does the more likely the reader will recognize the purpose of the items. That’s what you want. Allow the reader to recognize the nature of things.
For example In the half-light the man’s arms looked stubby. The arms of a child welded to the shoulders of a man’s torso topped with a bulbous head, almost too large for an adult, the face squashed low by the blocky, overhanging bulk of a huge forehead. He took small steps, two or three for every step the woman took, his legs as short as his arms, the knees bowed.
Frankly, you’ll get crucified for saying little person or midget, so it’s smarter to culturally code the character so that the reader will make that distinction. The name Wee Man will be the only confirmation your reader will need.
“You’ve got more ‘andcuffs in this ‘ouse than exist at any police station I’ve ever ‘ad the misfortune to enter,” the guy in the longcoat said. “I’m impressed.” He sounded like something out of Peaky Blinders, and his smile was the same species of friendly, like the actors who played Tommy Shelby’s boys on the show. He didn’t look like an actor, though. He looked like one of Tommy’s boys would really look, like the kind of hard man Danny had long aspired to be.
Danny didn’t say anything, and he avoided looking into the guy’s eyes.
My Comments: I’d caution you against such a recent popularculture reference. It’s a shortcut and will exclude people who haven’t seen the show. But if you unpack the qualities you’ll allow Peaky Blinders fans to recognize their show, while not excluding non-viewers.
The guy produced a pair of EMT shears from the pocket of his coat and snip-
snip-snipped the air. He wore as wearingpurple nitrile gloves. “Do you buy your safe sex gear ‘olesale?” he asked, still in the same friendly tone. “I only ask because we found boxes an’ boxes of gloves an’ rubbers in your ‘all closet. There were ‘alf a dozen pairs of these safety scissors in your bedroom, too.” He snipped the air again and waggled his eyebrows. “Warms my ‘eart, the degree of care you take with your partners.”
My Comments: If you really want to build authority, don’t just drop you H’s. Take some dialog and drop it into:
Thus, your line becomes: I only ask because we found boxes an’ boxes of TURTLE DOVES an’ rubbers in your ‘all closet. There were ‘alf a COUNTRY COUSIN pairs of these safety scissors in your bedroom, too.
Don’t overuse the trick, but it forces the reader to learn and adapt and thus enter into your world more deeply.
Beckett walked around from behind the chair and regarded Danny from above. At some point while Danny had been out cold, he’d changed into a thick red plaid wool flannel shirt. Outrage flowed into Danny from some hidden reservoir. “You better take that shirt off, asshole,” he said in a menacing voice, not caring that the missing incisor turned shirt into thirt, and asshole into athhole. “It was expensive, and it’s mine.”
“Well, you ruined mine,” Beckett said simply. He squatted down and grabbed the sides of Danny’s head
so he couldn’t look awayand stared into his eyes until Danny’s face twisted up with fear. “Getting shot hurts, Danny,” he said at last. “Even for me.” His snobby drawl had the edges of a low, angry growl, but Beckett didn’t seem like he was about to explode. Danny realized that even under the current circumstances, he still couldn’t imagine what the guy looked like when he lost his temper.
My Comments: Stay in scene. Avoid speculating about how someone might look if he got angry. How does Beckett look/sound like he’s not going to explode?
Beckett let go of Danny’s head and stood up. “Where’s Lisa?” he asked.
Danny looked over at the black guy—the little person, who was shaking one of his bottles rapidly, and then at the guy in the trench, who winked at him and snipped the air with the shears. “Are they gonna torture me?” he asked
miserably. Unexpectedly,Beckett smiled. He shook his head and chuckled to himself, like all of a sudden everything was okay.
My Comments: No adverbs. Either unpack it or discard it.
This would be a good place to revisit the possibly broken nose. It would be noir and jaded to asked, Did you break my nose? Instead of Are they going to torture… That would state outright the dread you’ve hinted at.
“No,” he said.
The British guy came over and cut Danny’s tee shirt off him with the EMT shears, quickly and efficiently, like he’d done it before. The black little person handed the British guy the bottle. The British guy took it and held it out to Danny. “I want you to take a swig of this an’ swish it around real well, then spit it out, orright?” he said.
“What is it?” Danny squeaked.
My Comments: Again, unpack or discard the adverbs. You’re a better writer than that. You don’t need such ready-made shortcuts. … three, maybe four quick snips of the shears starting at the gut as if the man had dressed pigs in a slaughterhouse.
“Industrial-strength antiseptic mouthwash,” the black little person said mildly. He had a low, pleasant baritone. “I put a little mint essence in there so it don’t taste too bad.”
“You’re lying,” Danny said, thickly, tears welling up in his eyes. “You’re gonna make me drink Drain-O or some shit.”
The British guy rolled his eyes and tipped a little liquid from the bottle into his own mouth so Danny could see. He worked it around in his mouth for a minute, spat it on the floor, and leaned over and breathed wetly in Danny’s face. “Minty,” he said. “See?”
My Comments: Nice. See how good a writer you are? Action always works better than shortcuts. Now ditch thickly. Instead, keep the broken tooth present, or the bloodied nose.
fearfully. The guy smiled reassuringlyand held the bottle up to Danny’s face. “There you go,” he said. “Swill that around, right?”
gingerlydid as he was told. It did taste like mouthwash, but mint-flavored peroxide rather than Listerine. He gargled and spat on the floor. “Why did you make me do that?” he asked nervously.
My Comments: You’re obsessed with adverbs. Consider staying in the physical moment of the mouthwash for a longer beat. The inside of a character’s mouth always gets a sympathetic reaction from the reader.
The British guy just smiled. He leaned forward and gently sponged the blood from below Danny’s nose with a moist towelette,
working carefully so as not to hurt him, stroking the skin, almost petting Danny’s face before he thensponged the tears from his cheeks.
Heath turned to the girl in the leathers. “Puddles?” he said.
My Comments: Better verbs, more specific verbs will always work better than adverbs.
The girl took off her motorcycle jacket and hung it from the coathook next to the door. Danny's mouth fell open
—she was fucking breathtaking. Like, one of the hottest chicks he’d ever seen. He took in the tracery of fine scars up and down her arms, like she’d cut herself up with a razor, and the one thick keloid zipper scar that ran up the inside of her left forearm. He’d seen those before. It wasn't his specialty, but Danny was affiliated with suppliers who cultivated the really discerning customers, the ones who exclusively preferred obviously damaged goods. In that niche market, cutting scars and suicide attempts bumped the value of the goods up by twenty or thirty percent rather than representing a liability; Danny knew major players who would make a fucking prime hourly off her. His estimation of Beckett increased to the point of awe. He wondered what the man charged for a piece of that tight little package. He bet it was a lot.
My Comments: To help your authority, can you name some actual prices? You’re showing more of the POV character’s body-of-knowledge, and that’s great, but can you get more specific? Especially if you can cite prices in monetary units that suggest an international clientele. Rubels, quid, yen.
The girl stretched
luxuriously, so he could see her flat stomach under her bustier, flipped her braid over her shoulder, then came over and straddled him. She looped an arm around his neck and rested her other hand on his chest, rubbing his pectorals, and made a noise like “Mmm.” Just the way she made that noise had Danny breathing hard, even under the circumstances. She flashed him a dazzling smile. “The mouthwash was so I didn’t have to taste your breakfast,” she purred said softly.
She had an accent, Indian or Pakistani or something like that, but Danny didn’t have time to ask where she was from
(or where she’d been all his life)before she pressed her lips to his and gently slipped her tongue into his mouth.
My Comments: Do you see how clever asides—or where she’d been all his life—cut your tension? Rethink those.
She must have had a sugar cube under her tongue; whatever it was laced with hit him like a slow-moving dump truck. It was like heroin and Molly blended with some kind of designer euphoric, and it sent his train of thought someplace blissfully slow and sticky. He felt like he was floating and flying and falling at the same time, and he never wanted it to end. He whimpered as she pulled back from the kiss.
The girl made eye contact with Beckett. “You need to ask him questions now, maithili,” she said, smiling gently up at Beckett as she began to rock her hips expertly. “He’s not going to be able to answer them for long.”
“I know,” Beckett said.
My Comments: Beckett need not respond. That cuts the tension.
Now the BIG big question: If the drugs get our character high, why don’t they get the hot girl high? They’ve been in her mouth for a little bit before the kiss.
Danny didn’t understand the note in the man’s voice, or the look in his eyes, which was a curious blend of angry, pitying, and achingly sad, none of it directed at him. But Danny was past caring about Beckett. He groaned urgently; his erection was so hard it hurt.
“Danny, where’s Lisa Carver?” Beckett asked. He paused. “Pardon me. Where’s Ronnie?”
My Comments: Bravo for adding a hard-on to the mix! But you’ve got to unpack angry, pitying, and achingly sad. All of this is a chance to describe the describer: …which was nearabouts the same look Danny’s dad had given their schnauzer before he’d shot it…
Danny sighed. “I dunno, man,” he said honestly. “I haven’t seen them since the night you came over. The cunt drove me to the dentist and they were gone when we got back. They took some clothes and some of their stuff, but not their phone.”Danny held his head straight on his neck and squinted to focus. He thought for a minute.“I just want to say I’m not mad at you anymore, Mr. Beckett,” he added politely. He smiled shyly. “Your girl’s so sexy.”
Beckett blinked a few times, then nodded
seriously. “Yeah, her body’s a drug,” he said. He turned to the girl, who was unhurriedlyrocking her hips in a rhythm that was driving Danny deliciouslyinsane. “Make it permanent,” he said. “He doesn’t need to come down, ever.”
My Comments: Don’t tell us anything we already know (dentist, clothes, gone). And because Danny is high as a kite… begin to burn his language big time. No slurred words, but miss-phrases. Maybe boozy nonsense. Again, avoid tennis-match dialog. Avoid responding to statements. That cuts tension.
The girl smiled up at him.
“They never do,” she said in her soft lilt. “Only you did.”
Beckett’s expression was unreadable.
“Well, I’m me,” he said.He stepped back and nodded to the girl. “Go ahead and work up a sweat.”
The girl reached back and undid her braid. She shook out her hair, which went all the way down until it brushed the floor, and began to grind on Danny in earnest. It was heaven. He didn’t even mind that his hands were cuffed and he couldn’t show her his appreciation. She rubbed her cheek against his, then bent down to nuzzle his neck. Danny groaned and licked her collarbone. Her sweat tasted so good.
My Comments: We’ve forgotten that Danny is bare chested. Unpack how her sweat tastes. Keep the boner present as he thrusts his hips up from the chair. Keep us aware that he’s stoned.
Important: The biggest set-up in this chapter is the dread about the penicillin allergy. Can you pay that off?
There was a tickle against his bare, shaved chest, then a pinchy feeling that made him jump. He jerked back from the girl’s embrace. It felt like something small and insistent had…bit him? He had had the house fumigated when they moved in, but had there been bedbugs on the chair he’d set up in the kitchen? He'd got it at the Salvation Army, after all. He hoped it was his imagination; the goddess in his lap shouldn’t sully herself with vermin.
My Comments: Careful, as soon as you begin speculating about bed bugs and the Salvation Army you lose tension because you stray from the scene. He seems to be beyond such rationalizing.
There it was again! Danny couldn’t keep from yelping. Something had bit him!
This time it really hurt. And it felt like there was something crawling up his ankle and into his pant leg. And another something.
Oh, God, it was in his ear!
Danny began to thrash back and forth, frantically, desperately. Beckett and the British guy held the chair still so he didn’t fall. The girl licked his earlobe, lifted her head, and smiled at him.
My Comments: All good.
“Are you okay, Danny?” she asked him, her hips keeping up the same slow, steady grind
rhythm. She sounded amused. “Is something wrong?”
Danny screamed as a brood of earwigs dropped from her open mouth and landed on his bare chest. Their tiny legs tickled his neck as they scurried up toward his face. He stopped screaming and clenched his mouth shut tight, and one of the bugs ran into his nose while the others crawled into his ears. The girl laughed delightedly, and a huge millipede climbed out of her throat and tasted the air before falling from her tongue onto his leg.
She kept laughing, a gentle, pleasant sound like tinkling bells. A parade of fat Madagascar hissing cockroaches flowed from her mouth like liquid. Brown recluse spiders peeked out from behind her eye sockets and crawled onto her eyeballs, descending from silky strands of cobweb down onto his lap. Swarms of pale, flabby grubs with thick pincers scuttled up his body toward his face, into his nose, between his lips, through the gap in his teeth.
My Comments: Okay, great. Now he’s really high.
Important: If she’s held this drug in her mouth, why isn’t she high? That plot hole will bounce the reader out of the story.
Danny screamed again, and this time he didn’t stop screaming. The bugs were already in his mouth, wriggling in his throat, stinging his tongue and feasting on the soft flesh of his palate and the insides of his cheeks.
Like…at that point, why not scream, right?
My Comments: Again, don’t cut the tension with a clever aside.
Overall, you do a wonderful job of staying in scene. You get us out on a cliffhanger. You introduce a possible vamp/romance. Now I’d like to see you write from deeper within the character’s point of view. That will allow you to unpack your abstracts and adverbs. And it will tell your reader more about the POV character—by how he describes his world.
The problem with reducing the world to words is that you’re using the same words as other writers. Once you’re inside the character you can misuse words and combine them in strange ways. That’s the only way to transcend standardized language. Copy editors will battle you over such deliberate missuse, but it’s worth the effort. So long as you make your “mistakes” consistent you can justify them as “voice.”
Always ask yourself: What was the first thing Hitler did when he came into power?
He standardized the language and compelled all people to speak High German. He who controls the language controls people’s thinking. Your job is to avoid shortcuts like thought verbs and adverbs and to fuck with the language.
Now, get messy. Drive the scene to chaos, not just with events but with the language itself.
Chuck Palahniuk's Plot Spoiler is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.