Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Me Time

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?


Bill Greer said...

The editor, her light brown, silky hair with wisps of grey pulled tightly back into a ponytail knotted by a light pink scrunchy, looked through her rectangular-framed eyeglasses with the progressive bifocals lens at the writer on the other side of her faux-wood-covered desk. "You use too many pointless, useless, overused, bland, and unnecessary adjectives in your prose," she said.

The writer, rubbing his runny, bulbous nose on the sleeve of his extra-large, tie-dyed, 20-year-old Grateful Dead T-shirt, stared at her in disbelief. "But my novel's only 40,000 words long if I don't do that," he said.

The editor opened the top, right drawer of her desk and gazed at the Smith & Wesson 38 Special with the silver body and black handle with the thought flashing through her mind, "It's him or me."

Hot Ash Romance Novels said...

My critique partner is good about pointing out excess adjectives. I recently used:

All-American, clean cut, Midwestern, corn-fed boy. LOL. I knew I'd have to pick two but I left them all in so she could help me decide which ones should stay and which should go.


Kimber Li said...

Since it's body parts, maybe the writers are writing hotter than their comfort level hoping to snag Erotica dollars. I learned as a book reviewer this is a very bad idea. Readers are smart. Even if it makes it past an editor, they'll spot it instantly and throw the book against the wall and never give the author another chance and they'll tell all their friends she writes crap too. Personally, I wouldn't go above a 'Sensual' rating.

Anonymous said...

Bill...are you saying I have gray hair?!? At least I got rid of my Dead shirts long ago. I did keep the Smith & Wesson though.

Kimber, very valid observation. You're right, it's easy to spot writers not comfortable with the super hot stuff. As a reader, would you be satisfied if authors increased the sexual tension, at least, and involving more of the senses?


Kimber Li said...

Oh, absolutely. However, my experience at Enduring Romance has taught two very important things-

1) Each reader has their own comfort level and there are a huge number of reasons why, most of which have nothing to do with morality. It's vital to know one's readership.

2) While I prefer reading Sensual or Mildly Sensual romance, I can enjoy Highly Sensual IF the author is very skilled at creating and fleshing out the characters and plot and engrossing me in their relationship. I envy that skill level and know I have yet to achieve it.

P.S. If anyone's wondering what I mean by Mildly Sensual, Sensual, and Highly Sensual, just pop over to my book review blog and scroll down the sidebar to the Heat Level guide.

MsSnarkyPants said...

*passionately hates the word Turgid* It always strikes me as a word that must have popped up with someone right clicked and went to synonyms in Word...

Great post! *Runs off to check her adjectives*

Belle Scarlett said...

Mea culpa, in advance. ;-)

Angelia Sparrow said...

*Dies laughing*

I know people who write EXACTLY like that. Who will tell you the history and process of making every brick in a wall, and how they're arranged. And this is an ordinary wall the characters are loitering beside.

I try to be sparing with my descriptors. But I like color. Green dress. Brown shirt.

Green eyes are the most common genetic combination with red hair. Blue are much rarer. My best friend through grade school had grass-green eyes as does my father. (not dark enough for emerald) The only eyes I would call "emerald" belong to the actor Richard Hatch. (not Survivor-guy)

May your monthly reading be adjective-light and plot-heavy.

Anonymous said...

See, here's the thing, Angelia...I've seen tons of hazel eyes. Lots and lots. A few in my own family. But damn if I've ever seen true green. But I'm willing to go with's that darm emerald green that gets me every time, because it's so, so common in romance/erotica.

Sigh...I suppose "apple green" or "army green" doesn't have quite the same ring. :)

Ms. SnarkyPants... Turgid. *shudder!* I know, right?

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I think writers do this when they're not really "plumbing the depths" (a phrase I despise re: French her mouth's the clogged drain of a kitchen sink?) of their characters, the action, or the emotion in the story. These kinds of descriptors are superficial in every sense of the word. IMHO, they should be used as placeholders, a way of grounding the reader in a scene or a character before the writer moves on to the deeper he handles a cup of coffee shows his nerves, etc.

It comes down to assuming the reader's smart enough to remember eye color, body type/size, etc, when she's reading. After a while too much description yanks you back out of the story rather than drawing you deeper.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure emerald green (though I've never used it to my knowledge) is any less of an issue than guys who can come and come and come (or women for that matter) multiple times in the space of an hour. Or hang on and on and on!! It is romantic fantasy so I quite like the idea of unusal eye colors.
But back to the plot - yep, overuse of descriptors can be off-putting, especially where product names are used. I almost feel as though the author is showing off his-her knowledge of the fashion world. Sadly I wouldn't know a pair of Jimmy Choos if they bit me on the butt.

Anonymous said...

I'm with ya, Anon. Jimmy that a new kitchen blender? ;)

I'm also with you on the ever-ready, ever-hard, 12-hour staying power of the heroes. But given the genre, I'm willing to shut up and suspend disbelief on that one. Lol!


Anonymous said...

Did you ever see that episode of South Park where Mr. Garrison tried to write a romance?

Anonymous said...

No! But I'm gonna find it now...


Ann Bruce said...

KK - If you think you can handle it, check out the June 2009 issue of RWR, page 29, paragraph titled "Word choice and description."

Heck, read the entire "Mixed Marriages: Blending Subgenres" article. Your eye rolling will reach a new level.

Ann Bruce said...

Ack! KK...KC...why did you have to get married?

Anonymous said...

Lol! Ann, I'll always be KK, no matter now many times I get married. :)

Thanks for the reading suggestion; it's been a while since I've done some first-rate eye rolling.

KC, a.k.a. KK

Kimber Chin said...

I'm the opposite. I write very lean and tend to leave out description. Unless it serves a purpose. I talk about watches a bit because in business, that's one way you place people.

I also have a thing for eyes. I'm trying to curb that but no luck thus far...

Wylie Kinson said...

Uh oh.... I think I may be guilty of over describing.
Crap. Now I'm forced to 'paranoidedly' skim my 100k trunk novel.

Selena Blake said...

Excellent post, Kelli. It needed to be said.

I generally favor getting to the meat of the story rather than being overly long in my descriptions with lots of flowing text. Some readers/reviews seem to like that. Others, not so much.

I try to point out only the adjectives that I can see in my mind, the ones that seem most important in order for the reader to get a sense of the scene.

That said, I tend to skim books with excess adjectives and very few love scenes hold my attention for long. On one hand, I want a love scene to be slightly poetic while being sensual. On the other hand, a twelve or twenty page love scene...they're tough to write well and tough to read. :)

PS. I also hate the word turgid!

JezMorrow said...

Rough, ragged, thick, hot, fiery, dazzling, shining, taut, sharp. I keep a list of words I tend to use a lot, including nouns and verbs, then go through my manuscript with Ctrl-F to see how many times they appear in the work. Words like dark and hard are allowed more appearances than fervant which can only show its typeface once per story. And right here and now is the only time I have or will ever type the word turgid. Eyeewww!

Anonymous said...

I've always linked the heroine's hair and eye color to the quality of the sex:

brown/brown or hazel: soft, cuddly, middle of the road

blond/blue: sex is great cause of perfect body or virgin discovers life after defloration

black/black: loads of passion, involves lovebites, screaming and nail-scratching

red/green: kinky stuff

I'm not sure if this is actually true because I stop reading after the first mentioning of said color combinations. They never have relevance to the plot, and I get rashes whenever I read them.

Anonymous said...

Anon, that's the funniest thing I've read all day. And rather astute. I'm just nerdy enough to start keeping track to see how much validity we're talking about there. :)

So glad to meet so many "turgid" haters too! We should start a club...


Debra Glass said...

So, ya kept the Smith & Wesson, eh? LOL

Carrie said...

I have red hair and eyes that I describe as gray-green. My daughter has red hair and eyes that are mostly gray-brown with hints of slate blue. That is all.


Anonymous said...