Yesterday evening I attended one of my last panels at Chicon 7--Bad Writer, No Cookie. It started out as a panel about purple prose and how to avoid it, but quickly transitioned into readings of particularly badly-wrought examples from the archives of Thog's Masterclass, assembled by David Langford.
There are definite commonalities, and simple things to look after: a too many adjectives and adverbs are the first lessons to be drilled in, but sometimes they take a while to take, as I first put "generally" back there before I rewrote it. There's a constant temptation to refer to gazes and looks as "eyes," so you end up with things like eyes bouncing across a room or eyes being collected and and eyes doing all sorts of things that eyes just shouldn't be doing.
That's not just purple prose, though. There's a certain overwroughtness that's common among starting-out writers, writers trying to shoot for something grand and glorious, trying to make their offering stand apart from the rest. They certainly do, but not in the way that they had intended. The effect, really, is ridiculous. It detracts from the story because the ornamentation of the verse is so ornate that readers have to peer in close to make sense of it and give themselves concussions on the brass.
It's one thing to talk about, though--it's another to provide examples. That's what Thog's Masterclass is for, that's what last night's panel was for, and that's what this post is. I went trawling through my own archives of incomplete stories, most of them dating from 2008 and 2009. None of them ever saw an editor, which is fortunate, because editors can't edit as well when they're struck blind.
Let me share them with you now.
There were eight thousand and sixteen people watching the launch through the same set of eyes, but he didn't imagine any of them had been betrayed by it like he had. The rocket's vapor trail cut across the placid sky like a tower made from a whirling snowstorm, roaring and biting men like him with all the fury of a freed tiger, or a staircase of clouds leading up to the gates of heaven that would collapse beneath his weight.
Today's lesson: rocket launches are loud and make smoke. I don't even know what the hell I was aiming for here, as the "story" died after this introductory paragraph--and no one else would, either, because no one would ever read beyond a paragraph like this.
Hob McDonnell knew he would die on the moon. There was no garden plot in his future and no weeping willows would scatter the sunlight around his simple tomb. All he could look forward to was the coarse inevitability of the ashen lands and frozen skies that surrounded him, and when he looked ahead all he could see was the fanning cloud of dust kicked up as Sevket Feyzioglu slashed ahead through the regolith with all the fury of a young man drowning in draughts of imagined immortality.
Anyone have any additional ways to get across that the moon is grey and dead? I don't think I established it well enough.
The half-dozen men and women walked like they were made of glass, shuffling through the tunnel like the thirsty drivers of a desert caravan, drifting from one flickering oasis of golden light to the next in a slow, unending zig-zag.
It may come as a surprise to some of you to know that things made of glass do not tend to walk particularly well.
That's only three. Doubtless I have more that I've left behind, and despite my best efforts I'm sure that some unnecessarily-ornamented passages will creep into future prose. It's insidious like that. The best thing you can do as an author is get a sense for the purple and beat it to death whenever you smell it. That is one of the author's jobs, after all.