When Editor-in-Chief Kelli Collins bitches about whatever’s annoying her this time.
A recent post on my Twitter page after a heavyweight championship bout of submissions reading:
“Scary amounts of adjectives do not disguise amateurish or sophomoric writing. Sorry.”
To which my dear friend Joe, a newspaper editor, responded:
“Did you just use two adjectives where one would have sufficed? Can you justify that second one?”
Me: “Due to their distinct meanings (describing two distinct problems), yes.”
Then I proceeded to call Joe another choice adjective. I admit to getting a little testy on occasion.
I don’t have truckloads of time to read external subs these days. I try to read a batch about once a month and, much like another monthly occurrence, it often leaves me feeling achy and bloated. However, with each new batch of subs, I hope anew. Actually, I hope and I pray. I light incense. I do the occasional ritual foot shuffle, involving steps from ancestral Polish folk dances and this really catchy chant I like. But that’s another post.
This time around, several of the subs continued the trend that prompted my tweet: Adjectives, adjectives everywhere but not a decent descriptor.
This isn’t about scene-setting, this is about illogical excess. Adjectives and modifying phrases attached to inane objects. I have to wonder whether the average reader really cares. I admit I don’t; at least not most of the time. Give me the goods. Get to the story. Describe the heroine’s office, please, but just tell me she’s got a pen in her hand, not a “slim, sleek, extravagantly expensive Porsche pen”. (Though if you’re looking for a birthday gift for me…) Tell me about the jaunty angle of the hero’s black trucker hat if you’d like. But unless the overarching theme is extolling or denouncing materialism, I don’t really care about his “intricately rendered, uber-hip Ed Hardy designer hat with tattoo-inspired black skulls and flaming red hearts”.
In the romance genre, you’ll seldom find anything more overly described than body part. And worse, they’re defined again and again and again (often with the same words each time) throughout the entire story, at their every occurrence. The hero’s hands. The heroine’s hair. The hero’s abs and chest. The heroine’s chest and legs. Their eyes (color, specifically), backsides, genitals and voices.
Look, if you tell me once that the hero’s hands are strong and lean and tan and sexy and calloused, I’m not gonna forget it. If you’ve defined the heroine’s soft, luxurious, glinting, coppery red hair a time or twelve, I hereby give you permission to ease up. And the eyes. God! I recognize the creativity involved in coming up with 18 ways to describe your basic blue eyes. But, um…stop. Please? (And what the hell is up with all the redheaded, green-eyed ladies out there? And the color is universally emerald! I ask you: Outside of contacts, have you ever seen a pair of emerald eyes in your life? I want pictures. Again…separate post.)
Even in erotic romances, a hundred descriptions of the same body parts are more than the average reader needs. A sampling of those adjectives which appear ad nauseam in nearly every submission:
Hot. Wet. Hard. Rock-hard. Muscular. Almond-shaped. Glistening. Steely. Soaked. Throbbing. Clenching. Heavy. Mushroom. Aching. Pulsing. Featherlight. Turgid. Heady. Earthy. Spicy. Musky. Pebbled. Delicious(ly). Luscious. Sexy. Sweaty. Strong. Mine!
All lovely, useful words, to be sure. Feel free to use them. The problem is frequency of use, especially when this list is but a molecule in a drop of water in the vast ocean that is the English language. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use the most popular or common words available, but why stop there when so many more are at your disposal? And I should warn, when the profusion of adjectives is so prevalent, it might lead certain editors (ahem) to wonder if it’s a fallback for larger problems. Like maybe a mask for writers hoping that, by throwing up descriptive roadblocks, readers won’t realize they’ve skimped on the plot, or don’t actually have anything thoughtful to say. Or maybe, if they describe the hero’s penis 27 different ways, the editor will overlook the lack of world-building and characterization. But maybe that’s just me being cynical.
At the very least, the most obvious problem to my mind is repetition—and not only in your book. The same words, over and over in every book, give this editor the impression of similar stories. If the plot time is wasted in favor of multiple descriptions of the hero’s crisp, soft white shirt of the finest Egyptian cotton, or the heroine’s pouting, deep red, Cupid’s bow lips, I promise the immediate sense will be, “Haven’t I read this before?”
And that’s not the impression you’re shooting for…right?