Purge the Pompous and Pretentious Padding of Purple Prose

When that editor rejected your story because your prose was “too purple,” she wasn’t referring to your font color. What is purple prose and how can you avoid it?

Purple prose refers to text using overly long and fancy words, elaborate phrases, and flowery language. It overuses abstractions, figurative language, modifiers, similes, and metaphors. It stretches sentences out until the reader drowns in pleasant-sounding but meaningless words.

Since that description is rather subjective, I prefer the simpler version provided by Stephanie Nolan: “Purple prose draws attention to itself.”

That may sound like something you’d have to do intentionally, something requiring extra effort, something easy to avoid. In reality, it’s easy to slip into the trap of writing purple prose. One method is by familiarity. If, like me, you enjoy reading books written in an era when purple prose wasn’t abhorred (looking at you, Jules Verne), then you can come to believe such writing is still acceptable.

Or, like Liz Bureman notes, you can drift into the purple zone when you can’t think of anything relevant to write about the characters or the plot. At such times, you might be tempted to litter the page with long descriptions of the setting, or of a character’s clothing.

Some of you might be thinking I’m being unfair to purple prose. What, you’re asking, is so bad about it? After all, some readers like high-sounding writing with ornate phrases, detailed imagery, and delicious turns of phrase. True, a few readers may enjoy that. However, the purpose of fiction is to tell a story about the human condition. If your prose meanders off on some tangent and strays too far from the characters and plot, most readers today will recognize they’re being cheated. They’ll cease reading, never read anything else you write, and post a harsh review of your book online.

By the way, the term purple prose isn’t exactly new. As Richard Nordquist states, it was coined by Horace (65-68 B.C.) who mentioned purpureus pannus (Latin for purple patch) in his Ars Poetica. Nor is ‘purple prose’ the only label for such writing. Nordquist also cites related terms: Adjectivitis, Bomphiologia, Cacozelia, Euphuism, Gongorism, Grand Style, Overwriting, Bugbear Style, Skotison, Tall Talk, and Verbosity.

For humorous examples of purple prose, skim through the winning entry and dishonorable mentions in the annual Bulwer-Lytton Contest’s Purple Prose category.

How can you avoid writing purple prose? Early on, the surest method is to have someone else point it out to you. You can hire an editor, join a critique group, or trust a Beta Reader. In time you’ll learn to pick it up yourself while self-editing your work. Look for excessive descriptions, unnecessary adjectives and (especially) adverbs, and any significant deviations away from the action or characters.

Tracy Culleton says whenever you find yourself showing off, that’s a sign you should delete that phrase. However, if it serves the telling of the story, keep it. Stefanie Arroyo says admiring your own phrasing is a danger sign. If you find yourself thinking, “That’s a lovely phrase,” that’s reason enough to consider killing it.

There are a couple of times when purple prose is okay. First, you can certainly use it for humorous effect in a story intended to be funny. Second, feel free to let your prose run purple in your first drafts, so long as you cut out the worst parts in later drafts. In that first draft, your subconscious (or your muse) is having fun lingering on a long description of an object, or setting, or clothing, etc. Maybe some description is called for, but in later drafts you should trim it down to the essentials.

Purple is a fine color, but purple prose is not fine writing. Pledge to purge purple prose from your paragraphs and passages, and proffer all praise for your newly procured perception and proficiency to—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Author Interview — Rebecca Gomez Farrell

Every now and then, do you meet someone who just plain gets more done than you do, someone who does it all? These people somehow cram way more into a 24 hour day than you possibly could. They make you feel like you’re living in slow motion while they jet around at hypersonic speed. I felt that way when I encountered author Rebecca Gomez Farrell, who has a story in the upcoming anthology, Dark Luminous Wings. Luckily for you and me, she had four minutes and thirty seven seconds to spare recently, and answered some interview questions.

Rebecca Gomez Farrell writes in all the speculative fiction genres she can conjure up. An associate member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Becca’s shorter works have been published by The Future Fire, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Typehouse literary magazines, and Pulp Literature among other outlets. Meerkat Press just published her debut fantasy novel, Wings Unseen, in August. Her food and drink blog, theGourmez.com, has garnered multiple accolades and influences every tasty bite of her fictional worldbuilding. In the past, she has also contributed her photography skills and commentary to her love of General Hospital, which has been in her blood since the womb. She credits soap operas for heightening her fiction’s romantic elements and appreciating the layers generational history can add to her work.

Here’s the interview:

Poseidon’s Scribe: How did you get started writing? What prompted you?

Rebecca Gomez Farrell: I’ve wanted to be a writer since childhood. Other than a flirtation with being a veterinarian—cut short once I realized blood was involved—writer has always been my chosen profession. I was writing horror poetry during family vacations as a kid, and I still have my short stories from the second grade. Ghost cats, mean older sisters, and an ominous presence in the attic were reoccurring characters throughout elementary school. I’ve always loved fantasy and horror. Apparently, a little blood is okay with me as long as it’s fictional.

P.S.: Who are some of your influences? What are a few of your favorite books?

R.G.F.: I’m deeply influenced by the fantasy classics, especially J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. I love when a fictional world’s invented history informs the narrative. George R. R. Martin showed how well multiple points-of-view can be pulled off, which my novel also uses. I also take inspiration from important writers on the American experience, including James Baldwin, Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut. Favorite books: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler, Banjo by Claude McKay, and the works of the authors I’ve already mentioned.

P.S.: In the fiction world, you write fantasy, romance, horror, and science fiction. In nonfiction, you write food, drink, and travel blogs as well as reviewing TV shows, movies, plays, books, and concerts. Whew! How many projects do you have going at one time, and how do you keep it all organized?

R.G.F.: Too many! That’s a constant challenge for me: prioritizing my projects. I like having my hands in different pots, but I’ve learned to only focus on a couple at a time. I’ve transitioned away from entertainment writing and copyediting so I can focus on my fiction and my blogging. At this point, I’m cutting down on the blogging, too, because I want to use my energy for fiction for as long as I’m able to financially. But I can’t bring myself to let it go completely – I’ve worked hard for my perks like free menu previews and sample wines!

P.S.: Do you use facts and trivia picked up from your nonfiction writing and research in your fiction? If so, can you give an example?

R.G.F.: I do, in as much as any writer’s passions will end up in their works. An example would be that as I’ve honed my senses as a food and drink critic, it’s improved my worldbuilding. Food and drink are such essential parts of the human experience, whether that experience is on Earth or on a secondary world setting. Just today, I revised a Halloween-themed micro-fiction story in which the narrator is lured into an old, abandoned house by the potential for finding an amazing aged Scotch in the alcohol cabinet. Paying attention to the culinary scene also sharpens my writing’s sensuality – describing the smell of a homey chicken soup can conjure up a lot of powerful emotions.

P.S.: Your short story, “Treasure,” will appear in the upcoming anthology Dark Luminous Wings. Eager readers can get introduced to the story with the brief description on your website. Can you tell us something about the story’s setting?

R.G.F.: “Treasure” is a secondary world fantasy. The action primarily takes place in Trilonea, which the protagonist, Enkid, has been taught is dangerous for people from her country to visit. But what she finds are people who live a peaceful, happy, communal existence, and that is very different from the dog-eat-dog world she comes from. The Triloneans also have a sea monster who protects them from others who may be a threat to their way of life…and Enkid must decide if she is.

P.S.: In addition to your other activities, you offer fiction editing services. Has that experience affected your own writing?

R.G.F.: Oh yes. I’m doing more critiquing than editing these days, but both exercise the same part of my brain. Letting myself loose to write a first draft without pausing to edit is difficult and slows me down. I just gave my first workshop on the basics of how to polish a manuscript for submission, and those small mistakes pop into my mind all the time as I write. It’s a challenge to turn off that voice in my head and just get words down. That’s part of why I describe myself as a slow writer. The benefit is that my drafts are very clean, even if they take me forever to get done!

P.S.: It appears you’re a significant presence on Twitter, with nearly 32,000 tweets (averaging over 9 per day) and nearly 5,000 followers. Do you believe tweeting has attracted potential readers to read your fiction?

R.G.F.: Definitely! I draw in different audiences from all my different genres of writing, and that ultimately attracts more eyeballs to my fiction. After all, wine lovers read, fiction readers enjoy a good meal, and so on. The success of that strategy was evident on my recent book tour, when I often had bookstores pulling out more chairs to accommodate the folks who came out to support me from all different aspects of my writing life, sometimes buying books for a friend if they weren’t fantasy fans themselves.

P.S.: Congratulations on the publication of your first novel, the epic fantasy Wings Unseen. It’s getting wonderful reviews so far. What sort of readers should try it out?

R.G.F.: Fans of classic fantasy will enjoy Wings Unseen, because it’s a tale with a deep history and mythos that informs the narrative. If they also like multiple points-of-view and a greater focus on inner transformation than big battles, it’ll be a perfect for them. Some readers may have no stomach for misogynistic behavior, and they won’t get past the first chapter, which I understand. But if they push through, I think they’ll be rewarded with rich character arcs, fast plotting, and twists that lead to a rather optimistic take on the interplay between faith, free will, and our better natures. The light shines ever brighter through darkness.

P.S.: After writing so many short works, including short stories, blog posts, and reviews, did you find it difficult to keep focused while you wrote your novel?

R.G.F.: Ha ha, you’ve discovered why my chapters are so short! In all honestly, I don’t think those shorter forms of writing affect my focus when novel writing. But I do tend to imagine a story in terms of scenes I want to write for it. Once those scenes are written, the rest of the narrative comes together through my piecing together how to best link them to form the overarching plot. So shorter works are my natural tendency, but novel writing requires I find the connective tissue to create a larger whole.

P.S.: You’re co-organizer of the East Bay Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers critique group. Do you recommend that beginning writers join critique groups? Why or why not?

R.G.F.: For beginning writers, just getting the words down is the most important skill to work on. If the beginning writer doesn’t hate writing after accomplishing that first draft, and they want to share their story with the world, I think critique is absolutely essential. Learning how to give and take critique helps us hone our craft so readers can truly connect with the story. Without critique, that story might be obscured by the cobwebs of beginner mistakes. Don’t we want to sweep those away so readers can fully view our masterpieces? Critique is an essential part of getting our stories to the point that they shine.

P.S.: Since you first began writing, how has your writing evolved in terms of style, theme, genre, etc.?

R.G.F.: Well, I’ve moved on from ghost cats to alien-possessed Thanksgiving guests! In all seriousness, I hope I’ve gained a better grasp of plotting, as characters are always the beginning of story for me, and the plot is secondary in terms of my interest. So I’ve worked on having clear through-lines in place for my plots from the beginning of the creative process. I’ve also learned that my love of poetic prose can undermine the effectiveness of my storytelling, so I spend a good amount of time cutting my flowery phrasing down after that first draft. I’ve also been surprised to write a fair bit of humorous science fiction along the way, and I’m more and more interested in the personal essay.

P.S.: You’re working on a second novel, Natural Disasters. Care to provide any hints about what we can expect with that?

R.G.F.: Natural Disasters is a post-apocalyptic novel set in a future Earth in which seasons are no longer differentiated by weather but by the natural disaster most likely to strike within them. The remaining human population migrates from island to island based on where the natural disasters are less extreme each season. The government is composed of psychologists who’ve reduced the suicide rate by using fairy tales to discourage the development of emotional connections, so people are less distraught when a natural disaster claims another life. Oh, and it’s a paranormal romance.

Poseidon’s Scribe: What advice can you offer aspiring writers?

Rebecca Gomez Farrell: Honing your craft is as important as your passion for storytelling. Be open to learning how to become a better writer, and steel yourself for taking rejection and critique along the way. It’s all part of the process, and any true writer will want to tell their stories so well that readers will respond to their passion for it.

 

Thank you, Rebecca. I’ll pass on some links for you interested readers out there, but you’ll have to keep hitting the ‘update’ or ‘reload page’ button since there’s always something new for Rebecca. Find information about her new novel here. Just try to catch up with her on her website, her food, drink, and travel blog, her Instagram page, her personal Facebook page, her author Facebook page, on Twitter, at the Writers’ Meetup group she co-leads, and at the national organization where she’s the SF chapter leader.

Poseidon’s Scribe

Author Interview — Jason J. McCuiston

Over the years, I’ve interviewed plenty of experienced authors. However, it’s also instructive for you beginning writers in my blog audience to hear from an author just beginning his writing adventure. Lucky for you, Jason J. McCuiston stopped by the towering Poseidon’s Scribe mansion and I asked him some questions.

Jason J. McCuiston’s short story “The Last Red Lantern” was published in the anthology Triangulations: Appetites, and was a semifinalist in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest. His story “The Wyvern” will appear in the upcoming anthology Dark Luminous Wings. He’s working on a series titled The Shadow Crusade.

Let’s get to the interview:

Poseidon’s Scribe: How did you get started writing? What prompted you?

Jason J. McCuiston: I’ve always been a storyteller. When I was little, before I could read or write, I used to draw pictures of cowboys, soldiers, and knights, then sit in my parents’ or grandparents’ laps and tell them these elaborate stories of what was going on in the pictures. Eventually, I got good enough at the drawings that people could see what was going on, and so I gravitated toward a career in art. By the time I finished high school, I had discovered Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and knew I just had to go into comics.

That was my plan when I went to college to study graphic design and illustration. Then, in the mid to late ‘90s, the comics boom busted. While I was working as a security guard after graduating with my near-useless degree, I read an absolutely awful vampire novel and decided I could do that. So I did. I wrote my own absolutely awful vampire novel.

I then flirted with writing, off and on, for the next seven years until I found myself unemployed in 2004, and I decided to write a scifi/fantasy hybrid novel. I had done zero research on the industry (or on the craft for that matter) and yet I cranked out a neo-noir interplanetary heist caper featuring dwarves, elves, and space pirates blasting their way across a cold-war era star system in search of the ancient secret of FTL technology. It was crap but had enough good points that I got a couple requests from agents. These didn’t pan out, of course, so I went out and bought my first book on writing, James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers, and I decided to get serious about becoming a writer.

P.S.: Who are some of your influences? What are a few of your favorite books?

J.J.M.: I have to say I’m heavily influenced by the works of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, as well as Alexandre Dumas, Edgar Allan Poe, and Rafael Sabatini. I have to include Lloyd Alexander here as well. I loved his Prydain Chronicles as a kid before I ever read Tolkien, and it doesn’t take much to see the influence of those stories on my own. My favorite contemporary authors are Bernard Cornwell, Jeff Shaara, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, and Stephen King. My favorite books of all time, in no particular order: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

P.S.: Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

J.J.M.: I love history. I love learning new things. And I love the mysteries you can find in history. I like to say I write in the cracks of history; anytime there’s a question mark on the page, I let my mind fill it in. My story, “1057 A.D.,” for example, is my attempt to answer two questions: What really happened when Edward the Exile returned to England to be named Edward the Confessor’s heir? And why are European vampire stories as equally prevalent in England as they are in Central Europe?

P.S.: From your blog posts, it appears you enjoy horror stories, but have a preference for monsters and magic. What attracts you to that particular sector of the genre?

J.J.M.: The short answer is, I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons. But I’m an escapist at heart. When the antagonist or the obstacle to be overcome in a story has a supernatural or science-fiction element to it, I think it gives the reader a way to process real-world issues in a safer environment. I’ve never been a fan of the slasher flick or torture horror. Our world is too full of real, all-too human monsters to waste my time reading or watching a piece of fiction based on what people are capable of doing to each other. We have the twenty-four hour news cycle for that.

P.S.: Do you illustrate some of your own books? Do those two talents—writing and graphic illustration—mix for you in some way? Do your drawings inspire your writing or the other way around?

J.J.M.: I did some cover mock ups for my completed manuscripts just to put on my website and on my Goodreads profile, but for the most part, I just write the stories now. However, whenever I feel the goblin of writer’s block rearing its ugly head, I break out the sketchbook just to keep the creative juices flowing. Occasionally I’ll sketch characters or scenes from the story I’m working on just for my own benefit, but for me the story usually comes before the imagery.

P.S.: Your story, “The Last Red Lantern,” was published in the anthology Triangulation: Appetites. What can you tell us about that story?

J.J.M.: I don’t recall what inspired me to research the Boxer Rebellion at the time, but I did and out of the horrors of the Siege of Tientsin grew this idea of a young Chinese girl rescued by an American soldier, taken and raised on a Montana Ranch. She later returns to Asia to seek her mother, a legendary leader of the Red Lanterns, an all-woman martial-arts organization. Like most of my stories, it has speculative elements (in this case a warlock and a zombie army) in a historical setting (the eastern edge of the crumbling Russian Empire in 1917). I think it met the theme of the anthology, “Appetites,” because many of us hunger to know where we come from and how our origins can affect who we are.

P.S.: What are the easiest, and the most difficult, aspects of writing for you?

J.J.M.: The easiest part is the actual writing when I get into that zone, where it feels like I’m just transcribing the words and actions of what these characters are saying and doing in this amazing time and space that only exists in my head. Sometimes, in those moments, I feel like I could write the whole manuscript in one draft in one day. The hardest part for me, being a lifelong introvert, is adapting to the social media aspect of self-promotion. Don’t get me wrong, I have met some amazing people (yourself included) via the internet, and I love the sense of community I’ve discovered with other writers. My problem is just trying to get my mind to switch gears from blog posts, tweets, and that sort of thing back to real, honest-to-goodness fiction writing.

P.S.: Are you a member of a writer’s critique group? If so, please tell us about it, and tell us if you think the group has helped your writing.

J.J.M.: It’s not a group, per se, but I’ve got a couple of writer friends with whom I’ve swapped manuscripts this year. The three of us happen to live on different continents, so I affectionately call them my “International Critique Partners.” From G.L. Cromarty, the amazing author of the Divided World Series, I’ve learned a lot about pacing a large-scale plot and how to keep the human element relevant in global dramas. She’s also my social media coach, helping me out of my 20th century shell! Marcus Henson, author of the upcoming Honour Among Thieves novel, is a world-builder extraordinaire, and a master of fast-paced action sequences. Not only have I benefited from studying their impressive skillsets, and getting their constructive criticism, but I’m also recharged by their passion for the craft. Sometimes I love reading writers write about writing more than I enjoy reading fiction.

P.S.: Your story, “The Wyvern,” will appear in the upcoming anthology Dark Luminous Wings. Please tell us a little about the setting and protagonist of that story.

J.J.M.: I love the Fallout video games, and I was replaying Fallout 3 last year when I watched a little horror movie called The Atticus Institute, about the MK Ultra government experiments in the 1960s. In the film, the psychic experiments go completely of the rails when a subject turns out to be demonically possessed instead of being a normal human psychic. So I thought, “What if the world was destroyed not by a nuclear holocaust, but by a supernatural one?” And so I created what I called “The World after Tomorrow;” our world where the human race has finally started to recreate civilization six centuries after magic and monsters have completely reshaped the planet. It became my sandbox where I could just practice the craft of writing; I could write horror stories, westerns, high fantasies, neo-noir detective stories, military adventures, and in the case of “The Wyvern,” a steampunk ghost-ship story set in the skies above the Mojave Desert. As a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, I wanted the story’s lead, Captain Noah Oggs, to be incapacitated with broken legs when the horror hits his airship the Cibola.

P.S.: You’re writing a series of short stories and novels called The Shadow Crusade. Please tell us about the world and main character of that series.

J.J.M.: The Shadow Crusade begins in the England and Normandy of 1096, just as the First Crusade is getting underway. I was inspired by Umberto Echo’s The Name of the Rose, and really liked the idea of a Sherlock-Holmes style character in the Middle Ages, but of course, me being me, he would have to deal with magic and monsters. Much like the protagonist of your story, “Instability,” Godric is a Renaissance man centuries ahead of his time. However, he is really too smart for his own good sometimes; he is a hedonist and an iconoclast, despite (or because of) being raised by monks. He is a Saxon orphan who is forced to ally with Robert, an introverted and dogmatic Norman squire, in order to save the world from evil. At its heart, the series is about true friendship; two young men have to overcome their racial and social differences in order to rely on one-another and form a lasting bond as strong as brothers.

Poseidon’s Scribe: What advice can you offer aspiring writers?

Jason J. McCuiston: Understand that rejection is just part of the process. If you can’t handle that, do something else. If someone gives you feedback, take it in, digest it, and let it make you better. Also, just because your story is not right for this agent or that editor, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t right for another one. Keep writing, keep revising, keep submitting, and keep going. I have said, “I may write more bad stories than good ones, but I do write good stories.” My goal is to change that ratio, and the only way to do that is to just keep writing. Remember that: writing in itself is the goal, not the means by which we achieve something else. Write good stories and success will take care of itself.

 

Thanks, Jason, for your answers and for mentioning my own story! Readers eager to find out more about Jason can check out his website, his Facebook page, his Twitter feed, and his Goodreads profile.

Poseidon’s Scribe