Monday, April 14, 2008

Purple Prose

Hi, anyone who's out there. I've been away a long time, but thought I'd try to get back on track here. I'm reading a book called "Spunk and Bite." It spins off from, and in places challenges, the old "bible" of writing style, "Elements of Style" by Strunk and White. Having been schooled on Strunk and White, I tend towards the sparse and streamlined approach, but I fear I have essentially stripped my writing of life and originality. So, I'm trying to shake it up, and have now begun overcompensating, falling prey to an overabundance of "Purple Prose." So, I am dancing the line. I guess I need to give myself permission to experiment and fail many times in order to find my voice and grow as a writer.

What kind of experiments have you tried? Successes? Failures? How did you determine which they were? What did you learn from them?


  1. At a workshop, Laura Whitcomb suggested printing out a scene and then going through with a red pen and changing every verb to something different, then every noun, every adjective, every adverb. Once you're done, she said, go back and read it.

    Where my protagonist had walked across the room in the prior draft, now he stomped. Where another character had looked out the window, now she glared.

    Most of the word changes made me laugh out loud, but a fair number of them were improvements, and another passel pointed to places where I could find other words that would do a better job than the ones I had picked.

  2. I know Strunk & White, of course; and though I didn't have it beaten into me, a big chunk of my writing training was in journalism, so I can definitely relate to having a spare and streamlined style. Get in, tell the story, get out, done. "Just the facts, ma'am." :)

    The timeless advice of the Oracle of Delphi, "All things in moderation," is as applicable to writing as to anything else. The only way to find the right balance is to try new things, and especially when it comes to working out your voice and style, what you feel most happy with, I think the only way to find the line is to cross it. Then you can step back.

    I haven't done too many writers workshops, so I've not really had much opportunity to try experiments along the lines of what Jan posted about. (Although it does sound like a cool idea!) Mostly my "experiments" have been stepping into forms or genres different than what I've done before. I am going to be trying something quite new for me soon, however -- an adaptation of an existing work. That should be interesting!

  3. I guess I need to remember that it's all about experimenting and learning. Part of the trick is playing with the purple, then letting it sit and coming back to it to see what holds and what pushes too far. It's funny, some of my older writing feels so over-written, but in a different way - overly careful as if I'm too self-conscious. The purple prose monster makes my writing seem overwritten in a gushy, florid manner.

  4. I'm working on a "shitty first draft" of a mainstream novel, and to get the editor to sleep in the back seat, I just keep repeating, I'm just exploring the territory, just exploring the territory. The nice thing about writing purple, at least for early drafts, is that it can get the juices flowing, open up new connections that won't appear if the editor keeps saying, "Ewww! That will never work." And you can always scale back the Purpl-O-Meter on a later draft.

  5. Anonymous3:30 PM

    I find that killing my adverbs is the best simple tool. Seriously, they are short cut that let us avoid struggling for verbs like stomp. And they tend to get us into phrases like "He circled warily." As one writing instructor said "What does that mean?"


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