Tuesday 12 August 2014

You Can’t Conjure a Sixth Adjective for a Little Toe

Signs of a problem: squinty face; brain cogs clunking.

The symptoms: frustration.

You’re writing the chapter where your protagonist puts on his shoes. You’ve already described his little toe twice (‘like a grubby, squidgy nipple’ / ‘as soft and pink as a baby peach’). What could you say this time without repeating yourself?

Stop right there. Why on earth have you devoted a chapter to a character putting on his shoes? Unless you’re rewriting the Elves and the Shoemaker in excruciating depth, there is no need to embellish the shoe activity. A simple ‘he put on his shoes’ will do.

It’s a common misconception that the quantity of adjectives correlates with the quality of writing, and that you need adjectives at all in simple sentences. Some genres lend themselves to poetic phrases more than others, but it is possible to overwrite any book.

Some passages, known as ‘purple prose’, can be so extravagant, ornate, over the top, unnecessary, poetic and flowery as to dramatically smash the calm, river-like flow of otherwise song-like text and draw excessive attention to the gratuitous writing style rather than the crucial content necessary to convey the message in a non-long, rambling manner.

Also, why isn’t your protagonist wearing any socks? Think continuity.

Additional Blog-Exclusive Advice

By David Wailing

As a freelance editor,  when one of my clients breaks the rules of writing, I am legally empowered to punish them in horrible ways. This usually involves going round to their house, putting their face on the griddle, pulling down all their curtains and smearing jam all over their cat. (And don’t think I won’t. Nav Logan’s cat Fluffy had to have her name changed to ‘Sticky’ under the Trade Descriptions Act.)

You might think that the scenario Rosen describes above breaks so many rules of writing that I’d have to set up a direct debit with my local jam emporium.

The truth is that purple prose is usually not seen as breaking the rules. In fact it’s seen as normal. That’s because there is an enormous number of published novels out there clogged with unnecessary adjectives. (Stephen King knows he is guilty of this – he claims to suffer from ‘literary elephantitis’.) As writers, we naturally absorb a huge amount from reading other people’s books. So gradually we develop this assumption that our own writing has to be the same. We start following that pattern of embellishing every single thing.

Fight it. Fight this tendency. If you ever want to stroke your cat again, fight it. It’s much easier to waffle than to write concisely, so coming up with six adjectives for a little toe is actually the path of least resistance. It takes more effort to write fewer words. It takes practice. Get practising.

As a useful tip, imagine that people are reading your book on top of a ticking time bomb, which will fire a spike up their bottom if they don’t finish before the countdown ends. (This is also a service I can provide.) Most people read quickly, because they have a load of other books to get on with after yours. They don’t have time to absorb and appreciate your lengthy, drawn-out, extended, long-winded, thesaurus-wrangling, oh for the love of god get on with it prose. Get your readers to the point, before the bomb goes off and the point gets to them.

Finally, for those clients of mine who don’t own cats, spouses work just fine and are usually a lot more fun for me too.

1 comment:

  1. Purple prose is the essential, vibrant and integral fulcrum of all great tales. Every story should have long, expansive descriptions; wondrous vistas of delightful, magical prose, crafted with such poetic beauty as to leave the reader breathless and gaping in bewildered awe at the infinite genius of the scribe who penned those amazing words; and veiled in a silken sheen of majestic cadence which carries the reader through the scene with such blessed, wondrous (like "wondrous", so I thought I'd use it twice) lightness that the reader feels as if they are walking on air. Purple prose is a lot art. Truly.

    I seem to recall you rather like Alan Dean Foster's "lambent topaz"...