Lyrical Writing vs. Purple Prose

I have always been a line-level writer. I live for poetic prose, for dazzling descriptions, for the sentences that make you feel like you’re sipping something delightful as you read. I love writing that makes you see the world differently, that pulls you so deeply into its narrative that you can’t seem to leave that fictional world once you’re done. I love authors like Laini Taylor and Maggie Stiefvater, who have such a deft touch with phrasing that their books are not only engaging, they are positively delicious.

Recently I got into a discussion with some friends on Twitter about how to find the line between pretty prose and purple prose. Purple prose, in case you haven’t heard the phrase before, is—according to its Wikipedia entry—”text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself.” So how, exactly, do you know when you’re writing something that would be classed as literary or lyrical, and when you’re veering into purple prose?

 

1. Lyrical prose uses a light touch.

If you’re trying to write lyrically, it’s important to realize one thing: quality over quantity. True lyricism is a mix of plainer, more serviceable lines with lines that stand out and sing. If each line of your book is filled with metaphors, descriptions, and ten-dollar words, your story will quickly sink under its own weight.

Last month I read and loved Sandhya Menon’s bestselling young adult debut, When Dimple Met Rishi. One of my favorite lines from the book was this: “His eyes reminded her of old apothecary bottles, deep brown, when the sunlight hit them and turned them almost amber.” Can’t you just feel that description? Yet Menon’s followup is much simpler: “Dimple loved vintage things. She followed a bunch of vintage photography accounts on Instagram, and old apothecary bottles were a favorite subject.”

Notice how that first line is deeply poetic, verging on the fanciful; it uses description, an unusual metaphor, the striking image of sunlight through brown glass. But immediately, Menon grounds us back in the real world, with short sentences that give us the information without any adornment. If those lines had been as long and vivid as the first one, it would have taken so much longer for us to get to the actual crux of the scene—which would have brought us perilously close to purple prose, because…

2. Purple prose takes us out of a story.

The goal of truly great writing is to make the reader forget that they’re reading a book. As authors, we want our readers to be fully present inside our stories, to be so immersed in our characters’ worlds that we’ll feel disoriented when the book ends. Vivid, lyrical writing is a fantastic tool in our arsenal when we’re doing this—but if we overdo that vivid writing, it has the opposite effect, yanking us right back into the real world. Have you ever been reading a book and then found yourself stopping and thinking something like Good grief, I didn’t need to know that much about her dress or What does that scene even have to do with anything? Chances are, what you were reading could fall under the umbrella of purple prose.

I’m a highly descriptive writer, but I’m also a firm believer that description should be part of the lifeblood of your novel, not something that you intentionally break from your story to spend time on. Each time you use a descriptive passage, ask yourself: What is this accomplishing? Good description does more than just telling us what a person, place, or thing looks like. Good description heightens the book’s atmosphere, or gives us insight into a character’s thoughts and feelings, or even hints at character backstory. There are a lot of things that never really need to be described in a book—character clothing rarely matters, the precise layout of a house isn’t usually important, even what a character looks like can be mostly left up to the imagination. Vivid description, like poetic prose, is best used like salt: A sprinkle here or there to bring the flavor out on food, but not enough to overwhelm. Our readers shouldn’t spend more time noticing our descriptions than they do living in our novels.

3. Prose turns purple when you set out to impress.

Look, we’re all writers, right? And as such, it’s likely that we’ve spent a fair bit of our lives reading, building extensive vocabularies, and taking classes that have taught us all manner of cool literary devices. And let’s be honest: Sometimes it can be tempting to show all that off. But when we write with the intent to impress—even sometimes if we write with the intent to innovate—we often end up producing things that no person in their right mind would want to read. For an extreme, but still relevant, example, I turned to a source of unending purple prose… stuff I wrote as a teenage girl. Back then, my best friend and I played frequent letter-writing games, the first of which was a story between two Regency girls who wrote letters that were, well, about what you’d expect from two fourteen-year-olds trying to write in a Regency style.

Here’s a gem from one of those letters: “Our dear windowseat, I feel, will be such a place of endearment that when it comes time for us to spread our wings, we will shed many a tear over the parting of it and ourselves.”

Ridiculous, right? I mean, what I was angling for there could’ve been substituted with a simple “we really like this window seat, we’ll miss it when we get old.” But while I’m grateful to think that most mature writers won’t fall prey to quite such flights of fanciful language, the things in this sentence that make it ridiculous are sins of which seasoned writers can be just as guilty. When we replace words, drag our sentences out mostly for the sake of having longer sentences, or try to write in a way that neither feels nor sounds natural to our own writer voice, we fall victim to the dreaded purpling of our prose.

4. Prose can also become too purple if our authorial voice dominates our character voice.

Last week I got some editorial feedback from my marvelous agent on my latest book. One of the things that she mentioned was that she felt there were a few times where my writer voice leaked in to my character’s voice a bit too much—the book is about an eleven-year-old who can be described as lower middle class as best, and who isn’t shown to have a particular gift with words, but I have occasional moments like the one where she describes a fellow student’s hat as “unfathomable, in this kind of heat.” Though I totally hadn’t noticed it before my agent pointed it out, that is much more the kind of thing that I, not my protagonist, would say. When we allow our own vocabulary and aesthetic to interject when they’re not consistent with our character’s attributes or worldview, our attempts at lyricism fall flat and pull the reader right out of the story.

There is no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to avoiding purple prose, and some of it simply comes down to taste. Some readers and writers prefer stories that are told simply, with clean, spare writing that avoids fancy devices. To these readers and writers, anything that ventures into the realm of the poetic is going to feel over-the-top. More than once, I’ve heard somebody criticize a book that I loved by saying it was guilty of purple prose.

Still, for those of us for whom vivid language and careful wordsmithing is just as important as crafting a strong plot, it’s worth giving the matter some thought! A few resources I found helpful as I prepared for this blog post:

Purple prose definition on Wikipedia

http://thewritepractice.com/purple-prose/

Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Her debut middle grade novel, WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, is forthcoming from HarperCollin’s Children’s in 2018. Find her online at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter at @beingcindy.

Let’s Stop The Writerly Blame Game

notebook

Settle down, my friends. Pull up a chair. Or a couch. Or a bed. Or sprawl on the floor, if that’s your preference. But get comfortable, because today we’re going to be talking about some hard truths.

Many, many times in the last few months, I’ve heard variations of the same two themes coming out of the mouths of aspiring writers. The first type of comment goes like this: It’s really no use querying an agent. Or querying this agent. Or trying to get traditionally published at all. After all, statistically only a tiny percentage of writers ever get an agent anyway. 

The second type of comment is similar: I’ve been querying, but I just keep getting rejected. I think it’s because agents only want the same old drivel. They don’t care about originality. This comment comes in an endless array of specifics and individualizations, but the heart of the justification is always the same: Those agents just don’t see what a good thing I’ve got going. They don’t recognize my genius. Often, the writer who makes comments like this is also resistant to the idea of revising or rewriting their book, feeling that that would be pandering to somebody else’s tastes in order to get an agent.

And you know what? I totally get it. Let me give you a little picture of my own query history.

Just over three years ago, I started querying a fairytale retelling. It was the third book I’d written but the first I’d queried, and I had stars in my eyes. I’d revised the book a bit, my critique partners had told me that it was Newbery Award material, and I was confident that I’d find an agent who wanted to snap that book up right away. Excitedly, I started live-pitching at conferences and sending out queries. I submitted to the Pitch Wars contest.

The crickets were deafening.

The sparse bits of feedback I got, from both agents and contest mentors, were all the same: It’s not original enough. There’s no place in the market for it. I was stung. I’d poured my heart and soul into that book! I’d given it my all! Couldn’t those agents recognize the genius that was in front of them? Of course, I comforted myself, the stats show that hardly anybody who queries actually lands an agent. The agents are all just too busy to see how big my book could go.

I’ve written before about the watershed moment that happened that autumn, the moment that gave me the courage to pick myself up by my bootstraps and keep working. Sadder but wiser, I turned my attention to my fourth novel. I spent months revising and polishing it, and then dove in again: live pitching, querying, contest entering. This time, things started out much more promisingly. I got lots of agent requests right off the bat, and for several months I was certain that that would be the book to get me an agent. When those requests turned into rejection after rejection after rejection, I found myself thinking again: It’s just because it’s not a Twilight or Hunger Games readalike. Can’t those agents recognize a good thing when they see it? 

Shelving that book was hard. It’s still the book of my heart, and saying a temporary goodbye to it was gut-wrenching. It was so, so easy to place the blame on anything else: the industry. The agents. The market.

This story has a happy ending: After going through a true dark night of the soul, I once again picked myself up, finished the manuscript I was drafting, and queried it. Within weeks, I had multiple agent offers for that book. I signed with my fantastic agent a month after sending my first query. Next year, that book will be my debut novel with HarperCollins Children’s.

What is my point in sharing this story? It’s because I get so frustrated, so saddened, to hear writer after writer utter self-defeating words before they’ve even really given querying and submission a college try. Querying is hard work. It is grueling, stressful, and involves a lot of rejection. But so, too, does writing as a career. No matter what path to publication you end up taking, there will be rejection, stress, and insecurity. As a traditionally-published debut author, I’m already beginning to feel the anxiety that comes from knowing that next summer, people will pick up my book… and some won’t like it. Some will give it bad reviews on Amazon. Even more terrifying, the vast majority of people will probably never be remotely interested in my book. And the stakes are high: How readers respond to my debut will, in large part, determine the path my future career takes.

Self-publishing is the same. While you get to skip the rejections from agents and editors, indie publishing is still rife with rejection and angst. The bottom line is this: If you want to be a writer, you cannot escape rejection.

And while shrouding yourself in an armor made of justifications is the natural response to the pain of being rejected, it’s also an ultimately unhelpful strategy. To be a writer is, by its very nature, to allow yourself to become vulnerable. What is more raw than the feeling of pouring your heart into words and then seeing somebody dislike (or—even worse—not care about) those words? That vulnerability is part and parcel of a writing career—and the sooner you can accept and lean into it, the more resilient and strong your writer heart will become.

Yes, it’s hard to be rejected. Yes, it’s hard to stomach the thought that the problem might lie with our book—those words that poured straight from our heart—and not with the agent, the publisher, the establishment. And yes, the statistics for the number of querying writers are grim. But you know what? In this industry, persistence, humility, and a willingness to start over and try again pay off. It took me three different books, more than 120 queries, and a whole lot of fresh starts and trying new things to land an agent and a book deal—but I did it. My agent has taken on a grand total of three clients in the last two years, including me. Based on the number of queries she generally receives, there was a .03% chance that I would have landed an offer. And yet I did.

And you, dear friend? I believe in you. I have faith in your ability to beat the odds. I have faith in your ability to adapt, to learn, and to use the tools available to you to bring your craft to the level that it needs to be in order to achieve your writerly dreams.

But trust me when I say that the first step to achieving those dreams is this: Take a deep breath. Let go of all the reasons you have for why agents or editors aren’t seeing what you see in your book. And get ready to work.

 

headshot1Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Her debut middle grade novel, WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, is forthcoming from HarperCollin’s Children’s in 2018. Find her online at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter at @beingcindy.

Cultivating A Mindset Of Ideas

One of the top questions we as writers get is “but where do you get your ideas?” I don’t know about you, but this question always gives me pause. I usually launch into a long, rambling story about the specifics of how a particular idea came to me, but if somebody is truly wanting to know a method for how I consistently develop ideas that become books… I don’t have one.

The truth is, my ideas are almost always completely random. The idea for my debut novel came from a children’s song. The idea for the next book I wrote after that came because I was annoyed about my husband always leaving shaving cream and stubble in the sink. The idea for the book that’s next up on my drafting docket came, I kid you not, from a typo that tickled my funny bone and seemed too serendipitous to pass up.

So when people ask me where my ideas come from, I usually end up responding with something generic, like They come from everywhere. Because what I’ve come to believe after many years of writing practice is this:

The important thing isn’t where the ideas come from; it’s what you do with them after they come.

And, as a corollary to that, what you do to encourage more ideas to come. For me, at least, the answer is to cultivate a writing mindset in which ideas are honored, and in which they’re free to grow and flourish. When I’m in this sort of a mindset, it doesn’t actually matter that much whether or not one idea is really viable enough to make a novel; what matters is that I use the ideas that come as opportunities to flex my creative muscles and teach my brain how to be receptive to, and how to build upon, the ideas it finds.

How, exactly, do I do that?

  1. I write them all down. Usually not right at the beginning—the first part of my writing process is always just thinking, and sometimes that thinking goes on for months. But once the idea gets to a point where it could be summed up in a sentence—even if there’s still only the barest bones of a story in it—then I make a note on it. I’ve used lots of filing systems over the years; as a teenager, I kept my ideas in notebooks or index card holders; as an adult, I have a Scrivener file where I have a corkboard with one card per idea. These ideas come from everywhere—dreams, random thoughts, funny occurrences, questions. The important thing is just to get it down. For me, at least, the act of creating space for a new idea in and of itself activates the part of my brain that churns new ideas out. In times when I’m making notes on a new idea, I’m much more likely to discover still more ideas waiting to be written.
  2. Cultivate curiosity; always ask “what would that book be about?” When an idea strikes my fancy, I take some time to ask myself what would a book about that be like? Usually, I spend a few months—or a few years—daydreaming about what that story might be, until I eventually have enough of a ghost idea to make notes on it. Plenty of the books I make notes on won’t ever be written, but they’re all fun to think about.
  3. Write regularly. Inevitably, the times when I’m working the most on one book are the times when other book ideas beat down my veritable door. Partly because creativity begets creativity, partly because when I’m in the middle of drafting something I’d give almost anything to work on something that’s not that book, I am never so full of interesting new ideas as when I’m actively working on something else.
  4. Stop and notice. As I mentioned in my introduction, my ideas come from literally all over the place, and often come accidentally. Many are small things that might not stand out much—except that over the years, I’ve trained myself to notice them, to hold space in my mind to welcome new ideas and think about what kind of story they might turn out to be. Two years ago, when we moved to Portland, Oregon, where wild blackberry brambles cover everything in the summertime, my husband and I rented an apartment in a complex that had a strange abandoned shed, completely overtaken by blackberries. The day my toddler and I discovered it I was struck by what an odd sight it was, and found myself wondering for months what the story behind it could be. Eventually, a fully-fledged story idea—for a book I’m hoping to write someday soon—grew out of that scene. Stopping and noticing can mean a lot of things for me: sometimes, as in the case of the blackberry shed, it can mean literally stopping and looking at something that’s in front of me. Other times, it can mean allowing my imagination to run away with me while I’m reading books or watching movies, dreaming of how I might have crafted that story differently. Still others, it just means paying attention to my thoughts and the things I strike my fancy—like the funny typo I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Whatever the case, this sort of intentional noticing is key, for me, to finding ideas that inspire me to write.

I may never know exactly how to answer a question about where I get my ideas. The creative universe is, after all, a funny thing. Still, by focusing on the how of cultivation and not the where of finding, I feel confident that I won’t spend too much of my writing life lacking inspiration!

 

Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Her debut middle grade novel is forthcoming from HarperCollin’s Children’s in 2018. Find her online at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter at @beingcindy.

Let Your (Character’s) Freak Flag Fly

characters

For much of my writing life, I’ve been focused on creating lifelike characters—the kind of people who seemed ready to leap off the page, living and breathing and infinitely human. I spent a long time thinking that the key to creating these vivid, lifelike characters was to make them balanced and avoid extremes. Regular people are complex, and often boring, and making them too odd just loses that edge of reality, right?

And then, about a year and a half ago, I read a marvelously fun nonfiction book called Pirate Hunters—the true story of a group of salvage divers trying to find the ship of one of history’s most notorious pirates. And as I read that book, it started to change my opinion. The protagonist of that book—John Chatterton—is a passionate person who has single-mindedly pursued the things he’s interested in throughout his life, pulling his crew through difficult searches and seemingly impossible wild-goose-chases with sheer force of will. As I read about him, suddenly I realized:

Often, people really can be distilled down into a few sentences—and often, having a good grasp on a character’s defining characteristics is what makes them compelling and realistic.

Every person runs deep in ways that take a long acquaintance—or the length of a novel—to plumb. But most people have quirks, interests, obsessions, or mannerisms that dominate their personalities, too. I’m writing this post over Thanksgiving weekend, right after two long-awaited TV shows have dropped: The first part of PBS’s new adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, and Netflix’s Gilmore Girls revival. As I’ve begun both of these, I’ve been struck by how well the characters in both these shows embody this principle:

Anne Shirley, one of literature’s most iconic and enduring heroines, epitomizes “quirk.” A dreamy and precocious child, she talks incessantly, uses words longer than she is, and frequently gets into embarrassing “scrapes” as a result of her flighty imagination. And while Anne mellows out a little as she grows older, these defining characteristics stick with her, making her as enjoyable to read about as an adult as when she was a twelve-year-old orphan determined to sleep in a flowering cherry tree if her adoptive family hadn’t come to the train station before nightfall. There’s a lot of depth to Anne; she’s a firm friend, a loving mother, a young adult whose wisdom is laced through with whimsy. But the things that make Anne the most memorable, the things that have made her go down in time in one of history’s most beloved characters, are the characteristics that are easily distilled and feel almost too exaggerated to be real.

Likewise, Lorelai and Rory Gilmore are nothing if not quirky: Obsessed with coffee, junk food, trashy TV, and obscure pop culture references, the entire show is founded upon the principle of slightly batty characters interacting with one another in hilarious ways. Like Anne, there’s depth to the Gilmore girls that takes more than an episode or two to plumb; but, like Anne, it’s the surface-level idiosyncracies—Lorelai’s frantic shouts of “Coffeecoffeecoffee!”, for instance—that linger with the viewer long after the TV’s shut off.

The more I’ve thought about this principle over the last year and a half, the more I’ve noticed how true it is for successful books of all stripes. There’s Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings, to whom cooking and caretaking are so fundamental that he brings spices and dishes on a journey into the heart of the villain’s territory, just so that he and Frodo can eat well while they travel. There’s Willow Chance, heroine of the bestselling middle-grade novel Counting By 7s, who’s equally obsessed with horticultural science and medical pathology. There’s Katniss Everdeen, whose stubborn loyalty to her family drives the entirety of the Hunger Games trilogy. There’s Hermione Granger, whose intelligence and drive help in large part to fuel Harry Potter’s successful quest to defeat Voldemort.

All of these characters are complex and realistic, and all of them tap into something different that resonates with us as we read about them—but all of them also embrace their quirks and defining personality traits without shame, and ultimately become all the more realistic for it. What I’ve come to realize as I’ve studied this is that even in real life, most of us can be summed up quickly: In my family, I’m the writer, dreamer, and emotionally-driven one, while my husband is the logical, analytical computer programmer. My preschool-age daughter is a spirited and strong-willed storyteller. All of us are complex, often contradictory, but those are the things that define us most deeply in our day-to-day lives.

So, as you craft your characters and strive to create the kind of people who will leap off the page and linger in your readers’ imaginations long after the book has closed, give yourself permission to go a little wild. Give your character layers and depth, but don’t be afraid to give them defining characteristics, too—and let those defining characteristics be as weird and wild as you like. Let your character’s freak flag fly for all the world to see! I guarantee that the world will only love them better for it.

 

headshot1Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Her debut middle grade novel is forthcoming from HarperCollin’s Children’s in 2018. Find her online at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter at @beingcindy.