Today I’d like to talk a little about cliches, purple prose and other pitfalls that lay in wait for you, valiant writer. But first, a lengthy and rambling aside.
In my humble experience, there’s a threshold that most creatives cross before they really begin to emerge as an artist.
That line looks different for everyone. For some, it is the day they receive constructive criticism and don’t prickle or wince. Maybe it’s when they can make cuts or changes to their own work without much question. It can sneak up on a writer when they’re honest with themselves, too: when they don’t have grand ideas about how many people will actually read their work, or when they aren’t bogged down with delusions about how much their writing is worth, or when they know that no matter how good their finished product is, it could always be better.
Once they cross this Rubicon, it’s like watching a couple become familiar with each other. Some of the excitement dwindles and maybe a little romance is lost, but it’s replaced by something a little deeper and calm, something permanent and comfortable. These writers don’t say, “I’m trying to get published,” or, “I’m working on a novel.” They’re published; they have bylines; they have made writing not simply a habit but a part of daily life. They know they’re going to see their stories in small publications that no one has heard of, but they’re okay with that. They’re working up to something.
For those of us not sure where that line is, I’d like to offer some guidance. In my five years with Pif, I’ve seen a lot of work come through. Some is outstanding; some is not quite finished blooming; some has a good foundation, but doesn’t offer a fresh perspective. I’ve put together a list of tropes that our team sees a little too often and a few things to avoid when you’re feeling those creative juices flow.
Celestial, mythical and select biblical themes: Brilliant stars, divine and peaceful evenings, ethereally light snowfall, sunsets, sunrises, angelic faces or expressions, wings, flying, long climbs, gods, goddesses, snakes and serpents–it’s been done. We’ve all read or seen or heard or written a stirring bit of prose about the church-like quality of a serene place, the majesty of the night sky, the enchanting quality of twinkling stars, etcetera and so on. I think, eventually, we’re all so moved by this imagery and our association with it that we want to add our two cents. We’re making a mistake, though, nine times out of ten, when we examine it at length as the main theme of our work. It is very difficult to come up with original content when it comes to almost anything of a heavenly nature. Having said that, it can make for some beautiful additions to original work in the form of metaphor, simile, adjective and other controlled usages. Don’t avoid these images and connotations if they truly speak to you, but try making a list of a few possibilities before you land on oft-used language like you see in the examples above.
Oft-used juxtapositions: Sure, you’ve got your dark and light, hot and cold–the most base of contrasts–but this applies to broader strokes, too. An essay about how an “individual” is conforming to societal norms by being an individual, for instance. (By the way, if you use the phrase “societal norms” or write about anything that touches on conformity versus the struggle to be different or any version of that premise, I promise you, that topic has been heavily explored. It is pretty hard to come up with something that we or any other body of editors have not seen yet on this topic.) Whether it’s an abstract topic like love and hate or something concrete like rivers and mountains, consider your comparisons carefully. Is this metaphor original? Is it a contrast that really reflects what you’re trying to say? Is there something more you out there that might bring a fresh approach to tired ideas? We don’t know you, admittedly, but we bet you don’t speak like an old timey poet when you order at Jack in the Box. You’re funny; you’re bright; you have a real way with words. Give us those words, not Emily Bronte’s or William Blake’s.
Writing about writing: For someone who loves to read and write, it can be pretty difficult not to shout about how amazing you think the written word is. Some of us write about a plucky character who happens to write; others create poems about the intoxicating power of the pen; others write essays on the importance of writing. I urge you to remember, as you consider writing about the craft, that this is another lane our editors and our readers have all traveled down. It may be a passionate subject for you, but unless you have something new to say–hell, I haven’t seen a thought 1,000-word essay yet on why writing is the worst thing that’s ever happened to anyone…I’d read the crap out of that–this might be a topic worth avoiding. Having said that, I would love to see some lively essays that herald the merits of the correctly used semicolon. 😉 But seriously, we all know that reading “takes us to another place” and poetry “is the canvas of the soul” and writing “is a window into the self.”
Trauma titillation: Occasionally there are stories that make it to an editor’s desk (well, it’s 2017, so let’s be real: desktop) that are very honest. These tales are most often about self-harm or unspeakable abuse, and they can be emotional to read. We applaud anyone who has found the courage to share their traumatic experiences, and hope sincerely that these authors continue to write and to use these stories as a foundation to learn about themselves and about healing. However, as a literary review, our primary concern is literature. We judge all writing based on its merits as such, and our criteria for publication is not weighted; we don’t overlook a lack of narrative arc in lieu of a shocking premise; we can’t bypass powerful literary devices in exchange for intrigue; we can’t give preferential treatment to the quality of one piece of prose over another on the basis of subject matter or theme. For that reason, I recommend that if you’re writing about a social injustice or real-life hurt that you ask a beta reader for their honest opinion of the writing–not the story, but the writing. They always say to write about what you know, but in my personal experience, trauma is the one thing I can’t write about. I become hammy, heavy-handed and overly dramatic. I try to be suave and cool and collected, but I come across as whiney and bitter every time. And I couldn’t possibly bring myself to submit that work. Crappy things that happen are bad enough, in my opinion, without having to live with added the insult of someone declining to let you share your experience in essay form.
Purple prose: This kind of writing commits the cardinal sin of decadence. My step-daughter asked me to proofread a story she wrote for English in junior high school; she was exceptionally proud to share it with me. Reading it over, I could see immediately why. “How did you pick this word?” I asked. Vestibule. A large word aswim in a sea of many elementary ones; one of many. There were dozens of hefty adjectives and nouns that stuck out in her essay like chunks of debris bobbing in the ocean after a plane crash. “It means ‘porch,'” she told me, tickled. It was plain she relished that I had noticed her broad vocabularly. I nodded and murmured, “Ohhh,” on cue as if I’d learned something new. She was so excited, and being a step-anything is hard enough as it is…I decided to let the teacher field this one. Over-the-top adjectives, prolix sentences and rare vocabulary do not make for accessible story-telling. Writing that seems to have leaned heavily on a thesaurus, like my step-daughter’s essay, is a great example. It comes across as talking down to people. If people often ask you, “What does this mean?” when you share your writing with them, consider revising your draft a little bit to create a welcoming atmosphere for your story to take place in. (Please note: this story is shared with the permission of those involved. She’s on the school newspaper now and in AP English and we laugh about it. Definitely not trying to be accused of dictionary-shaming the underaged.)
Unusual colors: This is a small one, but when particular attention is paid to a character’s hair or eye color it signals something. Something juvenile, for lack of a better word. That’s not to say that describing unusual features is a no-no; please, by all means, give us the low-down on characteristics. Just know that if you mention “stormy gray-green eyes with piercing flecks of orange,” I’m going to assume you’re describing another real set of eyes and wonder why you wasted real estate in a submission paying homage to your lover’s eyeballs. That’s what love letters are for.
Swearing for the sake of swearing: As an unfortunately avid swearer, it pains me to say this, but: cursing effusively in dialogue or in copy is gauche. If it adds to the character, do it. If it sets a tone, by all means, eff-bomb it up. But please don’t toss in more than one curse word without being sure that it adds to your story.
Ego: This is less about writing and more about being a spokesman for your writing. If you find yourself composing an email about how much you believe your writing is worth in dollars, maybe don’t. If your work is not selected for a publication, consider not writing a letter to the staff that insults the platform you submitted your writing to or its team in colorful or explicit language. If your work is edited for compliance with the Chicago Manual of Style and you feel inclined to send a scathing message about artistic integrity and the rape of language because a comma was added to one of your sentences, please decide against it. Be a good steward for your product by conducting yourself professionally if and when you correspond with editors, collaborators and fellow writers. Also, consider that if your poem or story was not selected for publication at this or any other platform, it could be because it didn’t mesh well with the rest of that period’s issue, because the word count was too high or because of some other really dumb reason that has nothing at all to do with the quality of your work. There’s this saying that floats around corporate environments, this powerful gem of a philosophy that stands out in a line-up of some pretty flaccid golden rules: always assume best intent. If you can apply that attitude to submitting work, pitching content and sending queries, you would be surprised at the weight that will be lifted off your shoulders in the long run.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but hopefully it’s a good start. If you have a favorite pet peeve in writing, please feel free to email us and we will happily add to this list.