Saturday, September 17, 2016

Hyperbole and Purple Prose by Betsy Ashton

Don't you get sick of hyperbole? I mean, everything can't be the biggest, bestest, greatest, -est thing/event/sale/speech ever. And when did all national holidays become the place for the biggest, bestest, greatest mattress sales ever! EVER!

I'm going to stay away from political speech here. We've all heard the promises. If you are like me, you're tone deaf to wild promises, silly answers and character attacks. November can't come soon enough.

This is about hyperbole in prose. Too often we've all met books that needed the help of a professional editor. I recently received an ARC from a writer I didn't know with a request for a cover blurb. Forget the fact that he wrote in a genre I didn't even read. It didn't matter to him. He sent an email with his ARC attached. This was my introduction to this stranger. Because he was within the six degrees of friendship with a writer I respect, I took a look at the draft.

I tried, really tried, to read his ARC.

I could see from the first page that the book had never met an editor in its life. Beyond the incorrect punctuation (commas vomited all over the place) and incorrect word usage (lay instead of lie, him and me used as a subject), the author was in love with CAPITAL LETTERS and EXCLAMATION POINTS!!! These weren't in dialogue, where I can tolerate (and use) a very few exclamation points. In one paragraph, six sentences ended with exclamation points. Six. Or, SIX! I began to wonder if he knew the difference between a period and an exclamation point.

Want to guess how many pages I lasted? Four.

I'm sorry, dude. You need to hire an editor, learn your craft and revisit your fifth grade grammar books. Needless to say, but I will say it anyway, I politely declined to offer a cover blurb. I suggested his cover real estate would be better suited for a writer in his genre. He asked for introductions to such writers. Sheesh.

And purple prose. I thought gone were the days of a young girl seeing a handsome stranger across a crowded room and "falling into paroxysms of passion." With apologies to all the great romance writers on this blog, this is not a slam at your genre. The book I read for my book club is a NYT best seller. It was not listed as a romance. And in no way would it ever appear on the USA HEA lists. (Congrats to those of you who have landed there.) Short pithy sentences were frequently followed by elaborate descriptions full of strings of adjectives.

I really, really wanted to like this book. I really, really, really tried.

I love unreliable narrators. Heck, I'm polishing a WIP for publication next year where the narrator is both unreliable and unlikable. No one likes serial killers. And this one is a pip. Female. Tells her own story in the first person. May or may not have a moral compass. Knows why she kills. Learned her craft and practices it frequently.

The writer of this best seller "buried the lead" in this novel, to pick up a journalism term. The writer lost the opportunity to set the hook on the first few pages. I didn't know for several chapters who the primary narrator was. Just when I thought I was on top of the story, just when the pithy images grabbed my attention, the writer dipped her quill pen into a pot of purple ink and let adjectives and adverbs take over where character development and plot growth would have been a better choice.

I try to "write tight." I try to write with a reasonably spare prose. I love dialogue and let it carry the plot more often than not. My style isn't for everyone. Those readers who wait for my next book like it. I thank them every day when I sit to write more paragraphs that become pages.

So, writer peeps. What are your thoughts about hyperbole and purple prose? Thumbs up? Thumbs down?


Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max, Unintended Consequences, and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery, now available at Amazon and Barnes and NobleI'm really excited that the trade paper edition of Uncharted Territory was released this week. Please follow me on my website, on TwitterFacebook and Goodreads.


Margo Hoornstra said...

Oh my goodness, yes, Yes, YES!!! (tongue firmly lodged in cheek there ;-) A favorite editor of mine once asked me, as a favor, to read and provide a review for a book she just simply did Not Have Time To Get To! (TIC again) While I initially raised my hand with enthusiasm in a virtual sense, I did some major forehead to desk banging once I started to read. Wrote the most diplomatic review of my life! Your experience points up what some 'authors' consider promo. Glad you steered him in the right direction - ie away from you. Congrats on the paper edition release.

Rolynn Anderson said...

Besty, you are describing a by-product of self-publishing...we have the freedom to produce books that might not have seen the light well as the freedom to produce books that should not have their day in the sunshine. We tell people to write the books of their heart, but those stories may not be readable...and the person writing it may not have a clue how to write crisp copy. The more we write (and get soundly critiqued) the better we write (we hope). I've looked back at some of my early writings that no agent or publisher picked up. NOW I know why...back then, I didn't get picked up. Sometimes I worry my prose has become TOO spare...too dry, as I try to be modern. I put hyperbole in a closet...and I miss it sometimes.

Leah St. James said...

For more than three years I wrote a weekly column about local writers for my newspaper, and (as you can probably imagine), your author is not alone. One of our editors got into a pickle with a friend who'd self-pubbed a book. Since this person's job is writing in a PR office, she figured it would be decent and promised him a review (for the paper) Wrong. Within a few pages she knew an editor (or proofreader) hadn't touched it. Since it was going in the paper, and she is a journalist, she had to be unbiased and ding the book where it deserving dinging. She also praised where she thought praise was due. She tried her best to be fair. The last I heard, the author stopped speaking to her. I did an entire series about self-pubbing and devoted a whole section to the need for professional editing. People don't care. They think because they CAN easily publish a book, they should. I got calls every week from people certain they had "a bestseller" ready to go. It was hard to not laugh...or cry. (On the other hand, how many people probably thought the same of 50 Shades...?)

Vonnie Davis ~ Romance Author said...

I opened a book on my Kindle the other night. Imagine my shock to find two people's dialogue in one paragraph. I stopped. Reread and thought, oh dear...what a formatting error. I read on. No. It was the writer's stupidity. She had no clue each person's words deserved his/her own paragraph. There were other issues and once I got over the feeling of fingernails over the chalkboard, I deleted the book from my device.

I do love a good turn of the phrase, a different way of saying something or using a word in an unusual way--making a verb out of a noun, for example. Perhaps that's why I enjoy good poets. The visual they can create with so few words. I think that's our job as prose writers, to give the biggest bang with the least, most powerful words.

Jannine Gallant said...

Back when I used to have time to read, I'd skim long, drawn-out descriptions. If I found more than a couple in the first paragraph, I quit reading the book. I think Classics are hard to read simply for that reason. Too much purple prose to keep our attention. I remember having to read Spamela, uh I mean Pamela by Samuel Richardson in college. A perfect example, and I could barely stomach it.

Diane Burton said...

A good editor is worth her/his weight in gold. A cliche, maybe. I would never self-publish my work without an editor's input. I can't stand reading anything with basic grammar errors. One or two, okay. They slipped past the proofreader. But when I encounter the ones you mentioned, Betsy, my teeth hurt from gritting. I agree, Jannine, the Classics are hard to read, mainly because of the lengthy paragraphs of descriptions.