The Problem of Purple Prose

We’ve all read it. At some point, we’ve probably all had a problem with it. “Purple prose” can loosely be defined as a description that is overly exuberant, flowery, and often with odd and unheard words — words seemingly pulled straight out of the dictionary. (Or maybe the author is simply smarter than you.) Extraneous myriads of inessential and counterproductive adjectives and adverbs amass themselves upon a single noun (or innumerable others) to create a superfluous conglomeration of sentences and words compressed simultaneously – otherwise known as a “run-on sentence.” (Did you see what I just did there? Haha. That was painful . . .)

So how to avoid purple prose? Readers want simple sentences, but that doesn’t mean they want bare sentences. Also, purple prose doesn’t always mean it has to be the atrocity of up above — although not often termed as exact “purple prose,” you just need to watch out for over-description as well.

Here are some examples —

Original sentence: The tree was old.

Purple prose: The gnarled oak’s branches were contorted and twisting, its bark wrinkled and thin like paper burnt to a crisp, with its root curling over the ground, tangling with the fallen leaves.

Over-descriptive: The tree’s leave had all fallen to the ground, and its branches looked lonely without them. The tree’s bark was wrinkled and pale. The sun shone down onto the ground, onto the tree’s long and twisting roots which spread through the ground in every which way.

Simple: The giant oak had been living for far too long; you could tell by the width of its trunk and the knots on its bark.

Too simple: The tree was gnarled and looked ancient.

First of all, a disclaimer: I am not that great at writing descriptions, and I just did these off the top of my head to give you a general idea. There are a lot of different variations of all of these. Some purple prose use words that are rarely ever heard in daily conversation (or any conversation, for that matter), and you’re just like, “Where in the world did you get that word?”

But anyway, let’s do a quick analysis of these sentences. First of all, you’ll notice that our over-descriptive sentence is slightly longer than our purple prose one. However, it’s more simple in its description . . . it just runs on for too long (unless the tree is really important, do we need to know that much about it?).

With our purple prose sentence, you find a run-on sentence with a lot of adjectives — and look at this: “gnarled,” “contorted,” “twisting,” “curling,” “tangling”? Those all have similar meanings, don’t they? Be careful of that, too, when you’re writing. Be sure to choose the strongest word for your piece, according to the theme/mood/tone of your story. You might notice that I also chose to include a simile (don’t mind my simile; I’m no good at them) — sometimes, people use a lot of figurative language in purple prose . . . and it’s just too much. Don’t get me wrong: metaphors, similes, etc. can be great in stories. However, use them wisely. Too much of anything can be bad, right?

Too simple should be obvious. We have a very generic description that doesn’t give us much more than our original sentence.

With our simple sentence, I kept it fairly short, but specific. Always be specific. Notice that in our original sentence, it was just “tree,” but then in some of the other sentences, I made it more specific and referred to it as an oak. Doesn’t that give you a clearer image? Rather than just talking about your characters eating breakfast, why not choose waffles for them? How about some toast and eggs? I began with “giant oak,” which starts off sounding too simple but then I expanded the image by implying that the width of its bark was quite wide. This description also has a bit of personality to it. “The giant oak had been living for far too long” — that’s a character’s view. If your character is a nature-lover, then they probably wouldn’t think that. Maybe they’d describe the tree in a more majestic way, in awe of its size. (I probably wrote this description in the eyes of a snarky teenager since that’s usually what my protagonist is.)

So that’s kind of the difference between (my) four types of descriptions. And now that we’ve gotten a better hold on that, let’s get back to getting rid of purple prose.

There’s this thing that floats around that says you shouldn’t use a thesaurus. (By the way, I used a thesaurus to come up with that purple prose horror up above. But ignore that.) I, however, believe that it’s entirely up to you. Thesauruses can be really helpful if you know how to use one.

Remember what I said about choosing the strongest word for your story? We’re going back to that. If/when you write purple prose, your story is probably overloaded with a bunch of unnecessary words. Which means you need to downsize. A lot. First of all, cut up the sentences. If you have a run-on sentence, split it up into smaller ones. Don’t make them all the same size, because then you’re just going to sound stiff. Vary the pattern a bit. After that, you’re going to want to review your sentence and cut out any extraneous words you see. Anything that just screams “too much! You don’t need me!”, get rid of it. When you have a healthy number of descriptive words left, you can start strengthening them. For example, “beautiful” is a very plain word. Try “stunning” or “drop-dead gorgeous,” if you will. But “beautiful” itself doesn’t give me much to go on. Same goes for generic words like “sad,” “happy,” “angry” — all words used to describe characters’ emotions. But, you know, I’ve felt sad a lot before. I’ve felt anguished and anxious and depressed and gloomy and miserable and distressed (and yeah, I used a thesaurus). Those words are specific and they get to the point. Use them. Choose the words that fit your story, the words that enhance the atmosphere of your setting, the words that will make your reader fall into your book’s world, and never want to leave.

Eradicating purple prose really doesn’t have a process. These are just simple tips of mine. Honestly, if I have a description problem, it’s probably that I leave it out too much of the time. But purple prose does happen, and I’m sure I have some passages that need reviewing.

Have you ever struggled with purple prose? When faced with it, how do you get rid of it? What other types of description do you excel at or have problems with?

I hope you and all your writing projects are doing well. Thanks for reading.

~ J. Dominique

Sometimes You Don’t Have to Do It Alone

Writers are often misled by the idea that our line of work is a solo job. And to an extent, that’s true. We are largely responsible for coming up with most of the ideas and constructing our plot and creating our world. However, you don’t have to go at it entirely alone, and trying to do such may be a fatal mistake.

I’ve been working on a certain fantasy series for several years now. Recently, I realized that I needed to drastically change some of the fundamentals and instead of trying to edit it, simply redraft the entire thing. Because I was still having problems motivating myself in doing this, though, I decided to enlist the help of my creative writing teacher at my high school, who’s read over some of my short stories before. We’ve set up an independent study of sorts, and now she’s really pushing me to work harder and focus more on my story.

What I’m trying to say is this: sometimes, you need people to keep you accountable and give you that extra push. Some people are able to tell others, “Hey, I’m going to write a story!” and then they’re motivated to finish. However, I need to actually have someone keeping tabs on me at all times — just the knowledge that people know I’m a writer is not enough to motivate me. What’s it like for you?

They don’t only have to help in the way of accountability either. Ever feel dry of inspiration? Try asking someone. Whether they’re a writer or not, everybody can have great ideas. And the fact that they look at the world differently than you do — and subsequently your story — is a wonderful thing.

Don’t know where to start? Are you a new writer? Or maybe someone who’s experienced with the craft, but just a little unsure this time, or feeling stuck. Try talking to people. Ask them for advice, inspiration, whatever. Whether it’s other writers, your family, or friends: people are full of good words; you’ll be surprised what you can get out of them.

One of the biggest times having other people as helpers comes in handy is when you have a story ready to show the world — well, maybe not quite ready. Basically, you need some beta readers first. Call on some of your favorite people, your best motivators, those who give you the best feedback and critique. I like to have an even amount of people who will just give me general advice, like how they thought of it and stuff (generally family and friends), and then those who will give me feedback with a more critical eye, things like grammar and plot structure (usually other writers).

Do you have people in your life who help you on your writing journey? What roles do they play? Do you prefer “doing it solo” or working with others?

I hope all your writing endeavors are going well. Thank you for reading.

~ J. Dominique

Goal-Setting and Beating Records (An Update of Sorts)

As many of you know, NaNoWriMo has recently finished. I’m still a bit abuzz from the experience. This year was my last NaNoWriMo in high school — or, in other words, the last NaNoWriMo before college (and being super busy!). As such, I decided to set some high goals for myself; I wanted to beat all my old records and try and surpass my highest goals if I could.

Did I manage to do that? Well, let’s see:

In July of 2014, I wrote my personal best of 112,714 words. This year, I surpassed that with 142,743 words. And my new daily record is 25,464 words in ten hours (whew, that was some day!).

I think I can happily say that I did pretty well. I’m actually really proud of myself — and why shouldn’t I be? As writers, our chosen career can sometimes be a bit lonely and not always as productive as we’d like it to be. We should learn to celebrate the little things, and especially the big things.

So that brings me to the topic of this time’s post: setting goals and beating records. I possess a high WPM and an ability to easily come up with stories in my mind, without a need to go back and edit — this allows me to write quickly and efficiently. However, I know plenty of people who have a harder time with writing words down quickly. Because of my high typing speed, I can set higher goals for myself — but that hardly means I’m a better writer. Indeed, it may mean I’m just churning out crap faster, haha.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that depending on what type of writer you are, you need to adjust your goals based on that. If you’re a slower writer, who thinks more about the story and the characters as you write, rather than just speeding through the story, try a slow but steady goal — an hour a day or something.

For daily quotas, there are several different ways to look at it. They can generally be broken into three categories: time, pages, and words. Do you measure the time you spend writing by hours (or minutes, even), the number of pages you write, or how many words you can get down? I usually go by words, but sometimes that can be intimidating for people.

If you’re editing or even planning a story, it may be easier to go by time since you can’t measure that with a specific page or word count. Some people also think time is better since they are not constrained to meet a certain word count — since some scenes may be slower or faster, harder or easier to write, they can simply just spend the hour (or however long) working on it, rather than trying to get five hundred words into that scene.

For those who are busy, with jobs or school, you could write in time intervals. Steal fifteen minutes here and there. This is not my preferred way of writing, because I usually like to get into the “zone” and write for hours, rather than jumping in and out and writing for little bits at a time. However, I am blessed with extended blocks of time to be able to do that (at least currently . . .). If you don’t have several hours to yourself, you might be one of those people who need to take advantage of every spare minute to yourself. Carry around a notebook. Think about your characters in your free time. Watch the people around you, and search for ideas. As writers, we should take grasp of every opportunity in front of us.

Goal-setting is a hard thing to do. How can I find a proper goal for myself that I’ll be able to consistently meet, that won’t drag me down, won’t bore me, but keep me inspired and get me working steadily on my project? Well, I can’t answer that. You have to figure that out for yourself. It might take some fiddling, some changing up your routine, but eventually I’m sure you’ll find something that works for you.

Goals can help you focus and if you tell people about them, they can help keep you accountable. As with NaNoWriMo, having a goal can stretch your abilities, shooting you higher than you ever thought you could reach. The encouragement you get from the people you share your dreams with can also be very beneficial.

Mostly, I’ve been talking about daily goals. But what about other goals, vaguer things like deadlines to finish a draft, editing a story, or sending out query letters? For these, it might be good to have those daily goals to push you to those — you can adjust your daily goals according to your deadline, so you’ll reach it in time. As encouragement, think about giving yourself rewards each time you manage to be on schedule (if you have three months until your deadline, you can give yourself a reward every month).

As the new year approaches, are there any goals you’re setting for yourself? What do you hope to accomplish in the next few months? What are you proud to have accomplished this year? Beat any records lately?

Thanks for reading! For those of you who participated in NaNoWriMo, great job! It was an awesome year. As always, keep on writing!

~ J. Dominique

On Creating a Unique Voice and Style For Each of Your Stories

Have you found your voice yet? I’ve read lots of posts and heard lots of things about “finding your voice” and “learning your style,” but for me it’s never really been a problem. People talk about not imitating other authors (though if it’s to find yourself, that’s all right) and striving to create your own unique voice, but I’ve always just written what I wanted to — in other words, I’ve just poured words onto the page, without really worrying about how they sounded. In a way, I formed my own voice and style through that.

I’ve always kind of believed that you don’t need to try and force your voice; that it just comes naturally to you. But what happens when you’re writing a character whose personality is drastically different than yours? I’m not just talking about our POV characters or protagonists (which aren’t necessarily the same), but side characters who may speak up in the dialogue. We may have to alter our style of writing to fit that particular character’s outlook of the world.

Most of the time our protagonist is our POV character — and most of the time, our protagonist shares a few qualities with ourselves. But what happens when we decide to introduce a POV character who is different than us? The opposite gender? Older or younger? A wild personality that, if the character was real, would conflict with our own? (While we might like them on the page, it’s probably a whole different story in real life.)

If you read a lot (which you should), there might be a particular author you love who’s written widely and has a variety of stories and protagonists. Do you notice them changing their style of writing slightly with each new book? Or do all their characters feel the same? Most authors’ underlying voice will always be similar, but with each new story we introduce and the characters that go with it, we should bring along a fresh, new tone with it.

There are some authors that I love, and as I read the many protagonists’ stories, even though they have varied personalities, I don’t really feel any difference between them. Some authors are naturally funny or sarcastic, so they always make their characters such — even if that character may not be so. I myself have a habit of writing in a more modern way and adding too much sarcasm, even though I often want to go for a more fantasy-esque and sophisticated feel.

My point is, with each story you write, your voice might change. Actually, with each story you write, your voice probably will change. Because you’ll grow as a writer with each story you pen. It’s inevitable. I can tell that I’ve grown just from a few months ago. That’s the wonderful thing about writers and writing — there’s no end in sight: we can always keep going, up and up, with no limits to our growth.

Anyway, when writing a story, your voice/style might be something you review when editing. Get the first draft done. Write with your natural voice. It’s probably easiest that way so you can just get it down and done with. After that, you can review your character (are they witty or serious? do they view the world in a lot of detail? what is the first thing they notice about people? do they tend to think carefully through things, or not at all? etc.) and apply those to your story. Create a voice unique to your story.

Often, when stories have multiple POV characters, there’s a complaint that the two characters sound the same. Have you ever run into this problem (in reading a book, and perhaps writing one if you’ve written a multiple POV story)? There’s no easy way to fix this other than to clearly grasp all of your characters’ voices in your head. Know in depth how they’d react to situations. Know when they’d act or hold back. Know how they speak, fast or slow, the catchphrases they use, the quotes they’d quote. Do they let their emotions show easily or not? If you’re basing one of your characters off someone, observe that someone. See how they act. Of course, observing people is good just for any character or situation. It lets you get a good grasp on characters and voice, regardless of what you’re doing it for. When you think about the many people you know, you can easily identify their individual voices and personalities, right? You just need to apply that thinking to your characters. Steal some from the people you know, if need be. I’ve done it a lot. (Might need to be sneaky about it, though, haha. Or you could always get their permission. . . .)

Aside from character voice, the writing style of such things as the descriptions and action might change according to the story as well. If the story is a thriller, you might want shorter sentences, choppier action scenes, full of snappy dialogue and hot emotion. If it’s a romance, you’ll fill your story with fluffy scenes, sweet, visual descriptions, and lots of internal dialogue and drama (most likely). Horror and mystery could use a dark mood, with depressing word choices, and a gloomy tone to set it off; potentially a lot of character development. Fantasy, sci-fi, and dystopian stories might be more based on world-building and character turmoil, with the fate of the world to be decided, and action scenes to keep the plot going. An even balance between beautiful descriptions, high-stakes action, and heart-pounding emotion.

(As a side note, since I always get confused between the difference of tone and mood: tone can be defined as the author’s attitude toward the subject, the feelings you write into your story; and mood is the atmosphere perceived by the reader, the emotions that are brought out by the author. Hope that clears it up. If it still doesn’t make sense, I’m sure you can look it up and see explanations by other people much more talented than me at defining things.)

Do you see how your voice and style are so important, and how it can change depending on your story? If you’ve written multiple stories, how have you dealt with the change of characters, voice, and style (along with tone and mood and such)? Are there any authors that you’ve read who have mastered the art of changing their voice well? What about authors who always sound the same, no matter who their character is?

Thank you for reading! I hope this post has been informative to you in some way. NaNoWriMo is almost upon us. I’m pretty excited because I actually have a project I’m really invested in this time! I just hope I’ll be able to finish my outline before then. Are any of you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Best of luck to you who are! And to those who aren’t, best of luck to you in all your writing endeavors!

~ J. Dominique