Fiction writing tip: Avoid “purple prose”

Purple prose is writing that is so extravagant, ornate, hyperbolic, or flowery that it interrupts the flow of the writing and draws excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is characterized by the extensive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors. The culprits of purple prose are usually modifiers that make the writing wordy, overwrought, distracting, silly and, in most cases, quite funny.

The term purple prose comes from the Roman poet Horace, who compared this style of writing to patches of purple sewn onto clothes. Purple was a sign of wealth (and pretentiousness), and so we now have the phrase to describe such writing in fiction, typically created by inexperienced writers.

In purple prose, skin is always creamy, eyelashes always glistening, heroes always brooding, and sunrises always magical. Purple prose also features an abundance of metaphors, figurative language, long sentences, and abstractions.

Examples:

“Her silken, sun-kissed locks made a golden frame around her perfect heart-shaped face. Soft, ruby red lips curved up, crystalline sky blue eyes sparkled as she looked down at the brilliant, beaming emerald clasped in her long, elegant, lily-white fingers.”

“His eyes spoke eloquent volumes of walks in the rain and white beaches, cool mountain paths, and crisp forests. She felt like she was floating from one place to another faster than she dared imagine, all the while his eyes daring her to move, to let go.”

“She answered him haughtily, the smirk on her face touched by a naughty flash in her eyes that tugged at the male part of him. He noticed she sat tall and relaxed with her nubile legs twisted in lotus position. Her poise reminded him of queens of old sitting dominion over loyal followers in huge temples of worship with rich gold and crimson fabrics cradling them as followers came and dropped down to pay homage.”

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

“She lay upon her silken sheets in her ornately embellished robes of satin, her chest ascending and descending easily with every passing second, deep inside the caverns of her subconscious mind.”

“My heart is pounding, my blood singing as it courses through my body, desire pooling, unfurling . . . everywhere.” (From Fifty Shades of Grey)

Do you feel nauseous now? Me, too. Please oh please don’t write this kind of dreck.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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English language: Funny new words

The Washington Post  once again invited readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition. Here are the winners:

1. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.

2. Ignoranus: A person who’s both stupid and an asshole.\

3. Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.

4. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

5. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

6. Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.

7. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

8. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.

9. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

10. Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

11. Karmageddon: It’s like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it’s like, a serious bummer.

12. Decafalon (n): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.

13. Glibido: All talk and no action.

14. Dopeler Effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

15. Arachnoleptic Fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you’ve accidentally walked through a spider web.

16. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

17. Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you’re eating.

The Washington Post has also published the winning submissions to its yearly contest, in which readers are asked to supply alternate meanings for common words. And the winners are:

1. Coffee, n. The person upon whom one coughs.

2. Flabbergasted, adj. Appalled by discovering how much weight one has gained.

3. Abdicate, v. To give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.

4. Esplanade, v. To attempt an explanation while drunk.

5. Willy-nilly, adj. Impotent.

6. Negligent, adj. Absent mindedly answering the door when wearing only a nightgown.

7. Lymph, v. To walk with a lisp.

8. Gargoyle, n. Olive-flavored mouthwash.

9. Flatulence, n. Emergency vehicle that picks up someone who has been run over by a steamroller.

10. Balderdash, n. A rapidly receding hairline.

11. Testicle, n. A humorous question on an exam.

12. Rectitude, n. The formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.

13. Pokemon, n. A Rastafarian proctologist.

14. Oyster, n. A person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.

15. Frisbeetarianism, n. The belief that, after death, the soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.

16. Circumvent, n. An opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.

I hope you enjoyed those as much as I did.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
http://www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Writing fiction: How to use multiple viewpoints

Today’s guest post is an excerpt from Writing the Intimate Character by Jordan Rosenfeld (@JordanRosenfeld), published by Writer’s Digest Books.


fiction writer at workSome stories require greater scope, more voices, or a different context than can be delivered through the eyes of one protagonist. When you find this to be the case, consider using multiple viewpoints. However, you must think about several factors before launching into this greater undertaking.

In a book with co-protagonists, each character should get approximately equal story weight. In other words, no one character is more important than the other, though one character’s story may seem to drive the action more than the others. Usually these multiples are written in an intimate POV, and each co-protagonist gets his or her own POV chapter or scene, in which we are privy only to that character’s thoughts and feelings. When your co-protagonists appear in a scene together, you still must choose which character’s POV to show it from. This has the potential to get confusing, so remember to imagine that each character possesses a movie camera. The POV comes from the person whose camera (mind) we’re looking through.

Using co-protagonists is different from omniscience, in which the POV can move between the heads of multiple characters in the same scene. Often in omniscient, the story has one protagonist, but the narrator still dips in and out of other characters’ thoughts, adding flavor, clues, and color. But ultimately we are still following only the transformational arc of one character. Using multiple viewpoints can benefit your story in several ways. Keep in mind that when showing the vantage points of co-protagonists in one of the intimate POVs, you must start a new scene or chapter each time you switch.

5 reasons to use multiple viewpoints in your novel

Your story must be told from multiple perspectives. No matter how compelling one person’s journey, some stories are more deeply realized when several people tell the same story, adding different facets to the larger picture. Novels that have done this include All the Light We Cannot See by Kathryn Stockett, and The Hours by Michael Cunningham. This is especially true when each member in your cast of characters provides a unique piece to a larger puzzle: They might not understand each other’s lives, or they might clash against one another as a result of plot events.

Each character offers a unique plot thread or strand to the story.

Multiple POVs only work when each POV character has a truly different story element to offer. They contribute new information, opinions, history, and clues that walk us deeper into the story’s heart.

Each character is compelling and has his own narrative arc.

Sometimes writers confuse secondary or supporting characters for co-protagonists. A true co-protagonist must have his own narrative arc. He must be driven by his own unique goals and undergo a journey of transformation related to the larger plot. That’s a lot harder to do than just maintaining one character’s arc.

Your story spans a wide swath of time and history.

Historical novels or stories that cover large time periods often feel limited when told in only one character’s POV. Since one character may also possess only a portion of the knowledge you need to convey, multiple characters can offer a feeling of depth and richness. But again, don’t bring in a new co-protagonist unless you are sure she is integral to the plot and carries her own arc.

Your book requires a quick and compelling pace.

Multiple-character POVs have the power to make readers turn pages at a fast clip. As you end one character’s compelling scene at an unresolved point, you also create a yearning in readers to know what happens next. Repeat this technique with two or three characters and you create positive page-turning tension.

5 common problems with multiple viewpoints

Before you get too excited about creating a cast of co-characters, it’s wise to consider some of the potential pitfalls inherent to multiple POVs.

Readers don’t need the POV of the antagonist unless you’re redeeming that antagonist via his own narrative arc.

I’ve read a lot of client manuscripts that try to “explain” the antagonist’s actions by offering several chapters from the antagonist’s POV. Unless you plan to redeem your antagonist so that he truly becomes a good, or better, person by story’s end, this is not necessary.

Don’t rehash the same scenes from different characters’ POVs.

Don’t fall into the bad habit of writing the same scene from several characters’ viewpoints. Unless each rendition offers new and potent plot information, you run the risk of boring readers and slowing the pace of the narrative.

Don’t use new characters to offer narrative info dumps or explanatory plot information your protagonist doesn’t provide.

A viewpoint character has to exist for his own story purpose, not just to offer up key plot explanations to carry your protagonist to the next stage of the journey.

Don’t add characters to create new subplots.

Some writers feel that the best way to create a compelling plot is to include lots of subplots linked to more characters. More often than not, this leads to complications. The best plots arise from one character’s problem, past wound, or current challenge. Subplots must also rise organically, like spokes radiating from a central hub rather than a tangled web of overlapping and confusing stories.

The character arc of each co-protagonist should be distinct.

New characters are exciting and fun to write, and it’s easy to dream up a team. But it’s a lot harder to develop a unique story arc for each character. If you can’t quickly think of how each character not only will play an integral part in your plot but also will experience a story-worthy transformation, you’re better off sticking with one protagonist.

Distinguishing multiple protagonists

To figure out how many co-protagonists to include in your story, analyze novels in your genre with multiple viewpoints. You’ll find that three is the average number of co-protagonists, but it’s by no means the rule; many novels have only two POVs. And while focusing on the struggles of more than three POV characters can cause readers to feel torn or confused, that’s not to say it can’t be done: Marlon James’s Man Booker award–winning novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, has no fewer than thirteen protagonists spanning seven hundred pages. He pulls this off by putting the viewpoint character’s name at the top of each chapter so readers have no doubt whose POV they’re in, and he imbues each character with a distinct voice. However, I prefer books in which readers can tell who the POV character is by his distinct voice and personality alone.

To determine how often to switch to a different viewpoint character, many writers use a formula wherein each co-protagonist gets a POV chapter or scene in a set rotating order: Protagonist A, Protagonist B, Protagonist C, all the way through the novel. Others might structure their scenes so one character appears more often than the others: A, B, A, C, A, B, A, C, or even A, A, B, C, A, A, B, C. This is where scene trackers and plot outlines come in handy. When you’re juggling multiple protagonists, you will need more structural guidance to keep track of the arc and plot outcome for each one.

Paul Thayer
ThayerLiterary Services
Paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Fiction writing: Scene framing

Novelists should settle their readers quickly into each scene. To accomplish that, use scene framing. To frame a scene, you should:

• Identify the setting and give the reader a sense of where we are.

• Let the reader know how much time has passed since the previous scene.

• Indicate who your point-of-view character is and describe his/her frame of mind.

• Mention everyone who is present so that a character doesn’t suddenly pop up out of nowhere or so that character’s dialogue doesn’t come as a surprise to the reader.

• Subtly place any props your characters need, so when they reach for a briefcase or gun or chair, readers will already have that object in their vision of the setting.

For variety, offer these required elements in a different order each time you write a scene. You can make a quick check to see if you have included all the elements of scene framing by asking Who? What? Where? When?

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

 

“Begs the question” — Writing tips

I have seen and heard the expression begs the question used incorrectly much too often. Begging the question is a fallacy that comes from the discipline of logic and the art of formal argument, where it’s known by the Latin term petitio principii. In a debate, if someone begs the question, he is assuming in the premise the truth of something that he seeks to establish in the conclusion. This is a failure in reasoning that renders an argument invalid.

aristotle-bust
Aristotle’s work Prior Analytics contained an early discussion of this fallacy.

Alice in Wonderland

Begging the question is a form of circular reasoning. For example, in Alice in Wonderland, during Alice’s wacky conversation with the Cheshire Cat, he says, “Well, I’m certainly crazy; therefore, everyone here is crazy.”

What the cat says seems logical at first glance, but it isn’t. It’s a fallacy—faulty reasoning. In the premise of his argument he is using an assumption (that he is crazy) to conclude that everyone in Wonderland is crazy. This is an unsound argument. He is begging the question.

Other examples of begging the question:

“Celibacy is an unnatural and unhealthy practice, since it is neither natural nor healthy to exclude sexual activity from one’s life.”

“Happiness is the highest good for a human being, because all other values are inferior to it.”

“Of course smoking causes cancer. The smoke from cigarettes is a carcinogen.”

When a writer or speaker uses begs the question incorrectly, he means to say that some fact or condition brings up a question that deserves consideration.

Incorrect use: “The increase of terrorist attacks begs the question of why authorities can’t stop them from happening.”

Instead of using begs the question, you could say “raises the question” or “prompts the question” or “forces one to ask” or “makes me wonder” or “leads us to ask.”

From now on, please use this expression properly. I beg you.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

The dirtiest word in the English language

I have to mention a dirty wordgrammar. Oh, horrors! I know, I know. Studying grammar is about as much fun as poking yourself in the eye with a stick. But if you take writing seriously, you have to acquire the tools of the trade. If you want to build a house, you have to do the same thing—get the proper tools, learn how to use them, and learn carpentry. Unless you do that, your new home will look like a tree house built by nine-year-olds.

Most technical shortcomings are as crucial as the literary ones to providing your readers with a smooth reading experience. If, for instance, your reader notices that you have written many run-on sentences or that your page is peppered with semicolons, his/her read is disrupted as much as if your scenes lacked details of the setting or your plot wandered off on a tangent.

I also know that obvious problems with grammar, punctuation, usage, and spelling are reason numero uno for rejecting a manuscript. Literary agents and acquisitions editors rarely read more than a few pages—or only one page—before hitting the Reject button, which is easy for them to do when they see writing that’s littered with technical clunkers.

Many readers who aren’t as sophisticated as literary agents also notice writing errors. As proof of that, find some self-published novels on Amazon and read their reviews, especially the one- and two-star ones, not the five-star ones the author solicited from family, friends, and all their pets. Some of these reviewers mention how grammar and punctuation errors disrupted or ruined their reading experience.

Too many self-pubbed authors have made the mistake of skipping the last step in the process in their rush to get into print—having their book professionally edited. As a result, they embarrass themselves and fail to sell books.

Sorry, friends, but you can’t get around the need for this kind of education if you want to be a competent writer. You simply must learn about all the nuts and bolts.

So okay. Maybe now you have decided to suck it up and learn about the rules of the writing road. Where to start? Take a class, either online or off. Buy a good college-level textbook and study it cover to cover. Or find a website like this one: DailyGrammar.com.

I will discuss some technical issues in upcoming posts, so stay tuned.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

Fiction tip: The importance of Chapter 1

Chapter One is extremely important. Do I really need to tell you this? In both commercial and literary novels, this is where you have to hook readers and reel them into your story. It should include a motivating incident (a.k.a. the catalytic event); the problem or at least a hint of the problem that the main character has to deal with; the main character’s response; and the conflict (internal or external) that the problem creates for the main character.

When you consider your main character’s response, you should ask yourself, “What is this person’s goal(s)? What does he or she want? Everybody wants something. I want to be paid for writing this blog, but I’m not holding my breath. The goal can be explicit or implicit, the latter being an intimation, a glimmer, or a hint that readers with an I.Q. higher than room temperature will sense. Why is at least an inkling of the protagonist’s goal so important? Because without a goal the protagonist will take no action and experience no conflict as he/she strives to reach the goal. And without conflict your story will be snore fest.

In short: Goal ➔ Conflict ➔ Struggle ➔ Drama ➔ Emotions ➔ Reader connection

Before you introduce the components of scene-setting, you should have an attention-getting first line in order to pull readers into your story. This is one of my favorites from John D. MacDonald’s Darker than Amber:

“We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody threw the girl off the bridge.”

How could you not be sucked into a story that begins with that line?

From a much newer novel, Head Games by Craig McDonald, the first line is:

“We were sitting in a back room of a cantina on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, three drinks in, when Bill Wade reached into the dusty duffle bag he had tucked under the table and plunked down the Mexican general’s head.”

The severed head of a dead Mexican general? That gets your attention. Notice how much scene-setting info the author includes in this first line. He tells us that there are at least two characters in this scene, probably male, where the scene takes place, and what happens. The sentence does double duty—grabbing the reader’s attention and dropping him into the fictional scene.

You can find many notable first lines by googling that subject. Here’s one good site: http://americanbookreview.org/100bestlines.asp

I have read far too many uninspiring openings written by inexperienced novelists. Often they begin with backstory. They set up the story by downloading a ton of info to readers instead of getting right into the action of the story. In other cases the writer makes a minimal effort to get the story moving by beginning with a dull bit of commonplace action, soon followed by backstory, something like this:

“When Julia woke up, her bedroom was still dark. She shuffled to the bathroom and looked at her tired face in the mirror.”

Then the writer has to tell us why she’s tired, what color her hair and eyes are, how old she is, where she was born, where she went to college, where she lives now, where she works, what guy she has just broken up with, why she’s anorexic, why her mother hates her (or vice versa), her favorite color, the name of her best friend, and how she and her BFF bonded at age six after that day in the bathroom. Etcetera. I’m exaggerating so you get the idea.

This doth not a compelling opening make. Beginning a story with the main character waking up in the morning—used more than you might think—is one of the worst ways to start a novel. It’s beyond cliché.

Writing a reader-grabbing first line, first graf, and first chapter takes a lot of thought and experimentation. I urge you to read the beginning of a truckload of novels, analyze them, and determine what works and what doesn’t. Before long you will get the hang of it.

Tip: If reading the first page induces a coma, that’s not the way you should write.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.