Thursday, May 19, 2016

Seven Deadly Sins of Writing: #4 Purple Prose

Recently, I beta-read a piece for a friend, and I noticed many of my suggestions involved cutting words or tightening sentences. Since it's been on my mind, I decided to dig up the following excerpt from our "Seven Deadly Sins of Writing" tip sheet. I hope this as helpful to all of you as it was to me as I assisted my friend with her story. Happy writing!

~Jessica Nelson


By strict definition, “purple prose” refers to writing that is overly descriptive and/or detailed (overwritten), drawing attention to itself. However “purple prose” can also refer to poor writing habits that add nothing but fluff. Here are some things you should avoid:

UNNECESSARY WORDS. This is the easiest place to start looking for fat. Any word that doesn’t add to your story detracts from it. If a sentence reads equally well with or without a word (such as “that”), cut the extra word. Examine your prose for words like these: started to, began to, proceeded to, could, would, there was, there are, there is, there were, seemed to, tried to.

Bad: She began to walk to the store.
Good: She walked to the store.

Bad: It appeared that the suitcase was heavy.
Good: It appeared the suitcase was heavy.
Better: Marcus struggled to lift the suitcase.

Bad: Jackie would run to the bus stop each day.
Good: Jackie ran to the bus stop each day.

Bad: Jarod could hear laughter coming from the basement.
Good: Jarod heard laughter coming from the basement.
Better: Laughter erupted from the basement.

INTENSIFIERS. Very, really, totally, completely, truly and so on. Is completely empty any more empty?

Bad: The room was totally quiet.
Good: The room was quiet.

CLICHÉS. Instead of reusing phrases that you’ve heard before, find fresh ways of saying things. Common clichés, such as “happy as a pig in a poke” are fairly easy to find. However, be aware that emotions, descriptions, characters, etc. can also be cliché. If it’s been said before or used before, it’s cliché.

ADVERBS AND ADJECTIVES. Instead of using an adverb to make a weak verb stronger or an adjective to make a weak noun stronger, omit the adverb or adjective and choose a stronger verb or noun. Also resist the urge to stack adjectives. Select the one (at most two) adjectives that are the most descriptive and omit the rest.

Bad: She quickly and purposefully walked to Blaine and sharply hit his arm.
Good: She strode to Blaine and punched his arm.

Bad: Janet was tired, worn out and exhausted.
Good: Janet was exhausted.
Better: Janet forced her leg to raise, move forward, step back down. Then the other. It felt as though her legs were encased in concrete.

EUPHEMISMS. Instead of using euphemisms (attention: romance and love-scene writers!) for parts of the body, use real words. Too much fluff is just like too much dessert—it leaves us heaving.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Please Write Badly

Charlotte Firbank-King

When we start writing, almost all of us write badly. I have never seen a baby that looks now like it will fifteen or twenty years down the line—some beautiful babies turn into ugly adults and visa-versa. A baby gabbles nonsensically, and toddlers string garbled words together that often don’t make sense, but they’re learning. Regardless at how adept they are at using the language, kids are painfully honest. They express their emotional truth without apology.

More often than not, the first stories we write contains major flaws in the grammar or technique, yet they often have the same strange innocence and honesty expressed by children.

At around thirteen, girls learn how to put on makeup. Later, they may use plastic surgery and dress to hide impurities—and they learn how to deceive and hide personality defects.

Equate this to writing. As we grow, we add even more adjectives and adverbs, and we indulge in “clever” writing to fool the reader. Instead of striving for natural perfection, we embellish.

At adulthood, people who are willing to grow and become real learn how to accept their perceived physical flaws and concentrate instead on becoming better human beings. However, this metamorphosis into honest awareness of self may only happen years later—and sometimes it never happens, and those adults live under the illusion of being good and beautiful.

Writers are the same. Some grow and learn and become better. But others live under the illusion of being good writers despite repeated rejections from publishers and readers.

Hopefully, growth does happen, and that’s when we get real as writers. We strip off the makeup and get down to living—really living/writing. We learn to trust that our inner beauty is what counts—we learn to trust our writing. We also learn that readers aren’t stupid, that they get it without us explaining every last detail and describing every scene as though they lack imagination.

It’s okay to start out ugly. Write from the heart—just write like you used to—write badly. Forget about the silly concept of writer’s block—that’s a cop-out. Just write without embellishments/makeup.

Now, take that horrible writing and edit it, then repeat the process another hundred times or more. The only obligations we have as writers is to be honest with ourselves and grow so that we can entertain readers. This road to honesty and self-awareness is a lonely one and only we can travel it.

Love it or hate it, we know our own face, and we can only work with what we know. So it is with writing—work with what you know. If you know nothing about politics or forensics, then don’t go down that rabbit hole unless you’re prepared to do a mountain of research/plastic surgery—knowing that even with all the research, you still stand the danger of not ringing true, just as a face covered by plastic surgery is not the real you.

So write badly about what you know and be honest. Readers will love you more for being you and entertaining them with what feels real. Don’t get me wrong. Writing is all about smoke and mirrors, but it’s how you do it that counts. Just as charisma and personality can make a person with a plain face shine and force us to see beyond the physical.

Write badly, but then polish it until all we see is the charisma and personality.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Home Worker's What-Do-I-Do-with-My-Children Blues: A Mini-Guide

Debora Holmes

Since my twin boys turned a year old, I’ve been a self-employed writer and editor, except when I’m getting a “normal” paycheck for regularly playing the organ at church. And technically, I’m a single parent, albeit one surrounded by a small but supportive community who is there for me in most pinches (and often in the absence of pinches, yay). Of all the holidays, Mother’s Day is perhaps the most meaningful for me. And this, in turn, reminds me of the cards I received from my then-6-year-old twin boys a couple of Mother’s Days ago.

After sneaking around most of that weekend with their school-made cards behind their backs, Mother’s Day arrived, and Tristan and Tennyson presented me with their works of art. So exciting! Turns out, their first-grade teacher’s card-for-Mom template includes a brief section, “Facts about my Mom,” where the kids fill in the blanks something like this:

What color are your mother’s eyes?  

Both of them have written green. Yep! Correct.

What is your mother’s age?

50, writes one. The other says 25. Ha, dudes. I am neither.

What is your mother’s favorite color?

On this one, I get a pink and I get a blue. So cute.

What does your mother like to do most?

And then, my smile wants very much to fade. The answer they have both given? Work.

Oooh, ouch.

So. In the spirit of love, which one may more freely give when one has MORE TIME to give it, I humbly offer my Mother’s Day gift to you, the reader: tips on how to handle this whole work–family balancing thing, especially if you work from home, and just in time for summer vacation.

Most of these constitute practical tips that also strive to address the emotional turmoil you face every day as you balance work and family in a space that encompasses both.

1.      First off, earplugs are essential. Get a pack of at least a dozen (I like the orange memory-foamish ones made by Mack’s, and they’re cheap). Warn your children that you may unintentionally ignore them and not to take it personally. Also be sure to let them know that you can still hear any fights, whines, and thuds.

2.      Actually consider inviting a (well-mannered) child over so the kid(s) can entertain themselves to some degree (and then you can hopefully get the neighbors to take your children in return). To aid in the self-entertainment part, consider becoming a Legos household, but then of course you must buy thicker slippers.

3.      Yes, the television/Netflix can babysit to some degree. Limit their hours as needed, but don’t punish yourself for allowing a TV marathon to unfold here and there. Personally, in those necessary times, I urge/foist PBS upon them early and often. NOTE: We don’t have an iPad or such, but I understand they can come in handy; however, remember those hours also count as “screen time.”

4.      Provide blankets and boxes for forts that may be built in your children’s bedroom(s) or another place that’s reasonably far from your workspace. On a slightly different note, I have one child who likes paint-by-numbers projects, which can keep him occupied for days. If you have one of those kids who is patient with such things, visit your local hobby store (in all your free time) and discover what wonderful new pastime will a) make her happy PLUS b) keep her occupied.

5.      Regarding constantly asking for milk/other drinks: Learn to live with open cups; your refrigerator air is not full of toxins (and if it is, that’s a whole ‘nother issue). Teach your children how to pour their own milk and juice, preferably out of containers a half-gallon size or less (and over a sink). Remember that, as much as you love your kids, you do them no good by being their waitress.

6.      If your deadlines are absolutely killing you, consider setting out food sources in or out of the fridge (bologna, cheese slices, fruit, crackers, bread, peanut butter, jelly). Grazing is actually good for blood sugar, and six small meals a day may be better for many than three large ones [disclaimer: I’m not a physician].

7.      Answer all “I’m bored” statements with “Okay, I’ll find some work for you to do, then.” Child(ren) will run away; problem will be solved.

8.      Set alarms for yourself on your cell phone or portable clock/watch thingy to ensure that you don’t concentrate so much as to forget to pick your children up from school, etc. (Thanks to our illustrious editor Sandy T. for reminding me of this one, after personal experience taught her well.)

9.      Walk your dog (cat?) once every hour or two. This will provide a needed break for you (experts recommend hourly breaks for workers) and you’ll both be happier and feel more connected. BUT… this blog is about your children, isn’t it? … so see #10.

10.  Of course depending on the size and nature of the dog, if you haven’t already trained your children to do so, get the kids to walk—and feed and water—the pup/cat/lizard/etc. I give my children $1.00 per week to do this, and I add a quarter tip if they don’t complain. (Yes, I know I’m cheap. But whatever.)

11.  Sports or music/drama/dance/etc. practices in your schedule? Me, too. I invested in a new, light laptop with a great battery so I can open and shut the thing on the go. You’ll be surprised at how much you can get done while waiting for practices to end. If you possess an older laptop, go get yourself a new battery; that $100 you spend will pay itself back within a tiny time period.

12.  Ask for help, and always accept offers for help, from anyone (assuming you trust them). My parents are in their eighties, but they will sometimes spontaneously offer to drive or babysit. I say “yes,” except for the days when I scream “yes.”

13.  Forget about your house looking great (yeah, well, even “good” has been out of the question here for years). They won’t be around forever, and when one day they’re out the door, they’ll likely remember the household as a combination of loving and “relaxed,” and you certainly could do worse.

14.  Because it’s the right thing to do, read to your children at least 20 minutes a day. Of course, when they learn to read on their own, it will benefit you timewise (in spades) … as well as them in a thousand ways.

Always, always remember that the best thing you can offer your children is—LOVE. Most of us work because we have to, and even if we love our work, it’s tough to have to choose between paying the mortgage/rent and snuggling/laughing with the babies. Strive for balance. In the nuttiest of times, simply fling out a silly joke on the way to filling up your coffee cup, or locate them quickly for a big hug on one of your many coffee-driven trips to the bathroom.

Tell them you love them, and blow them kiss after kiss … even if across the room.