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Plum Prose

You have likely heard the phrase “purple prose.” If you have not, it means writing that is too ornate—a simple enough sin, but a pernicious one. Beginning writers, if they fall into an extreme, typically go towards “too much,” rather than “too little.” They hear about good writing engaging the reader with detail, then slather the adjectives and adverbs on with a trowel.

Good writing, instead, is to know when to use well-chosen words to add vivid and meaningful detail to a scene or passage…and when not to. And underline that phrase “well-chosen.” Many adjectives are overused, or bland, or contribute little to what is said on the page.

Let’s take color, for example.

Yellow, green, black, dark, light…what do all of these words have in common? They are broad and generic, painting color (or tint) on the mind’s eye with a wide brush (ow!). They are rarely helpful, so should be left out, or made more specific.

Leaving out color is often the wise choice, which can be surprising to beginning writers. Does it matter if she has “rich brown eyes,” especially when first viewed across a room? Not if she is a supporting character; even a major character can often get away with having those sorts of details left to the imagination of the reader, romances aside. If you do mention their eye (or nail or hair) color, never mention it again, even ten chapters down the line, unless it is important to the scene.

Using colors in a deliberate and thoughtful manner, on the other hand, can change the tone of an entire scene. Not convinced? Take the following two examples:

“He handed her his card. It appeared hand-drawn, crowded with tiny gold script on stock the color of a ripe plum.”

“He handed her his card. It appeared hand-drawn, crowded with tiny jaundiced script on stock the color of a bruise.”

Either example conveys far more than “yellow script” on “deep blue stock.”

In her excellent book on writing titled Sin and Syntax, Constance Hale references a passage by Diane Ackerman where a yellowish monkey is described as “a sunset-and-corn-silk colored creature.” Used sparingly, this is a strong sensory description that places the subject—and therefore the reader—into a particular frame.

The lesson here, and it is a lesson that will be repeated on this blog, is to use words as any expert craftsperson would use a specific tool. That is what writing is, after all—a craft, requiring the finest tools utilized with skill and purpose.

—Michael Fink

Terroir

Terroir is a wine term meaning the particular taste(s) imparted to grapes by the many different qualities of the environment in which the fruit was grown. I have also heard the term applied to cheese: the type of soil, grasses, even water that eventually creates the milk, among other factors.

Perhaps literature possesses a terroir, as well. There are cultural influences, of course, but what shapes a culture? “It’s becoming increasingly clear that the way we speak is shaped by external forces,” says Sean Roberts in a report from NPR.  The fact that a place is hot, for instance, may be one influence on how a language sounds, or is used.

As for literature, there are those interested in documenting the “place-ness” of writing. POECOLOGY is an example, with each issue attempting to “inspire and enhance the understanding of place and the environment through literary arts.” There are five issues, all accessible online. Unfortunately, their “Literary Locator” map does not appear to be operational at the time of this writing.

Not to worry, however, as Poetry Atlas has that covered. With a “Featured Place,” a “Poet of the Week,” and a virtual pushpin map, Poetry Atlas endeavors to put a place to written works. Want a list of poems about London? There are also lists covering rivers, or battlefields, for instance.

How does your writing reflect the places you have lived or worked?

—Michael Fink

Not Feeling So Well?

Home from work? Not feeling so hot? Perhaps you are you nauseated. Or is it nauseous?

It is a fair question. Not too long ago, those two words—nauseated and nauseous—meant two different things. Careful writers may wish to preserve the difference.

If something is disgusting and makes you feel sick, it is “nauseous,” that is, causing nausea. When you feel nausea, you are “nauseated.” That’s the distinction.

That said, “nauseous” is well on its way to replace “nauseated” in common parlance, as well as popular writing, especially on television. This is how language evolves. It is unfortunate only because now we have to find something else that means “causing nausea.”

We suggest maintaining the distinction, unless you are writing dialog for popular media. In that case, consider using “nauseous” to mean “nauseated.” Your editor may or may not call you on it, but if you are using it consciously, it is your decision. Even if it makes your editor nauseated.

–Michael Fink

Like a Gemstone

 

As of this writing I am one of several judges for a short story contest. The project includes noting whether the authors followed protocol, assigning a score to the writing based on various factors, and providing feedback.

I am finding many of the submissions involve authors letting a story go after what appears to be a single draft. Granted, one of the challenges of this particular contest is that entrants have a tight deadline to write a story based on details (genre, theme, a specific character) provided just eight days before the due date. Nevertheless, the high scoring submissions so far are the ones that clearly have been through several careful edits.

The moral I am attempting to impart here is to submit only polished writing. Your best work will be the result of cutting, proofing, revisiting, rearranging, and, when necessary, rewriting. Whether you are submitting to a magazine, journal, or contest, do yourself and their submission editors a favor: polish your writing until it sparkles!

–Michael Fink