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Avoiding Purple Prose (Fiction Skills Series)

March 22nd, 2015 | Errors of Style, Fiction, How to Write Fiction That Doesn't Suck, Tutorial, Writing

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

purpleprose

It was late and the city had become deathly quiet, tomblike almost. The streets glistened as if varnished from the fallen rain, which now rose in misty vapors into the cool night air. The gossamer haze drifted through the gauzy beams of the streetlights, whose rich amber glow bathed the broken sidewalks with an eerie radiance.

On nights like this it’s easy to feel very alone, Mary thought. Her muscles ached, dull pain caressing her nerves with its bitter electricity. She needed something to eat, something to take the edge off the cavernous hunger of her stomach, unfed since noon. Ahead she saw the greenish luminescence of fluorescent light, and a strawberry-red neon sign: a dilapidated hole-in-the-wall diner was open. Already her mouth was watering in anticipation, and she didn’t even like the greasy heaviness of diner food.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: it’s fun to put words on the page. As long as the words keep flowing, it’s easy to feel like you’re really getting somewhere. This, you think, is a brilliant piece of fiction. It must be, because it contains so much beautiful writing, so many excellent words!

The truth, of course, is that you just blew it. All that superb verbiage that sounded so nice as you were writing it is, in fact, what we call purple prose.

Almost all novice writers fall into this trap at some point. It’s an easy mistake to make; once you realize you can write anything you want, you soon begin to write down every phrase that pops into your head. This is especially true when writing toward a wordcount goal, as in National Novel Writing Month, as every word counts toward that magic number whether or not it’s well-placed.

Purple prose is a problem because it actively interferes with storytelling. Look at my example passage from the beginning of the chapter: our fearless protagonist decides to go to a diner while out walking in the middle of the night. That’s all that happens, but it took over a hundred words to express that idea. When an entire story is written this way, it becomes difficult to tell what’s even going on, because maybe only one word out of a dozen is actually pushing the plot forward. Your reader will lose track of what’s going on, and if her attention strays, she may gloss over the only important part of a sentence. She will get bored and confused. She will stop reading your story.

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Game Over: The Failings of Season Four

March 19th, 2015 | Et Cetera, Review

Game of Thrones is starting to grow soft. No, not soft on brutal violence and the wholesale incorporation of dark themes; all that stuff is still in there. Rather, the show’s writing has begun to take a very by-the-numbers approach to its story, delivering more or less exactly what viewers have come to expect without doing anything really surprising. It goes through the motions, and that’s all it does. No more really needs to be said, but there’s no limit to my ability to carry on about things that irritate me, so let’s take an in-depth look at why Season 4 failed to live up to the example of preceding seasons.

The Season Four experience captured in one thrilling image

Lack of Direction

All the season’s problems eventually fold into one larger problem: that there is no singular direction in this season, no one overarching plot that all the other storylines play into. The other seasons used the leadup, climax, and end of the war as a sort of “meta-story” unifies the more personal storylines into the context of a larger arc. This technique worked brilliantly to explore the concept of how individuals’ actions affect events on a global scale.

So, with the war more or less over, what’s left to do? Well, not a whole lot, as it turns out. The Lannisters have more or less total control of the country, leaving them with nothing else to conquer. Most of the Starks are dead. Neither Stannis nor Daenerys are in a position to begin their invasions, so their activities are largely quotidian. The Greyjoys don’t do much of anything. The Wildlings eventually attack Castle Black but we don’t see much of their preparations for it. The Tyrells are nonentities. The White Walkers are hardly in evidence. With no particular goals to aspire to, much of the action consists of little more than characters shuttling back and forth between different locations, sometimes with minor skirmishes thrown in. Never do we get the impression that we’re witnessing a defining moment in this world’s history; it’s by and large a story of mundanities, and even some of the more interesting predicaments the characters face prove to be more pedestrian than they have in the past.

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Behind the Scenes of The Non-Seen

March 7th, 2015 | Artwork, Process, The Non-Seen

As I launch into the exciting world of Chapter 2, I thought this might be a nice time to give you all a little peek into the process of making each page. Let’s take a look at the making of Page 1, start to finish.

The page begins as a script. I went back and forth a lot on what to open the chapter with, and ultimately decided to show Claire waking up on the first page, then cut to the parents talking on the second and third pages. Here’s what my script said:

We open with Claire awakening the following morning, happy at first and then transitioning to irritation as she thinks back to the events of the night before. She wants answers. She gets up.

Ruth is out at the shoreline, collecting marine life samples. Alan meets her with a cup of coffee on the way to the lighthouse. They discuss his dreams and his unsettled thoughts over the last couple days. Ruth mentions that she’s going on a trawling trip later.

As you can see, my scripts generally don’t include dialogue or any sort of blocking; I find that stuff easier to work out in thumbnails. Here’s how I initially broke down these three pages:
First draft- thumbnails for first three pages

As you may have noticed, these pages don’t really resemble that which I finally drew. These were a first draft and I ultimately scrapped them and tried again. (The slashes across the pages indicate that they are not for use in the final comic.) I eliminated the page with Claire because it seemed unnecessary and because I have a bad tendency to start chapters with characters waking up. Instead I decided to jump straight to the parents, and to merge their two pages into one, as it seemed a lot of that was filler. Here’s the final thumbnail (with this and all other images, I will display only the first panel. Click to see the rest):

second_draft_small

As you can see, the dialogue and blocking are more or less solidified at this point, and the panel arrangements have been decided.
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Last Month: January 2015

January 31st, 2015 | Review

Hello, and welcome one and all to this, the first installment of this to-be-monthly retrospective of the things that I read and watched over the course of the previous lunar cycle. By posting more frequently, I hope to improve the quality (and, probably, the accuracy) of my commentary. At the end of the year, recommendations, awards, and condemnations will be selected from these, so if any of you wish to speculate wildly about winners and losers, now would be a great time to start.

Without further ado, here we go!

2015_01_jan

Books

Finn, Brunton. Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet. (Non-fiction)

This book has an excellent topic, one which has not yet (to my knowledge) been explored in such depth. What is spam? Why is there so much of it when no one likes it? Finn’s examination of spam covers nearly every conceivable angle: history, sociology, technology, warfare, and even a smattering of drama. Spam is depicted here as something akin to a force of nature, an unwelcome but unstoppable flow of garbage that has nonetheless defined much of the way that the internet functions.
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CREDO Fails at Science

January 8th, 2015 | Et Cetera

Ractopamine

Several times per week I receive emails from an activism organization called CREDO Action. Quite often these are about chemicals which CREDO has decided are a danger to the public, and recipients are asked to sign petitions to various branches of government requesting that the chemicals in question be banned. I used to sign these without much thought; it only took a moment and seemed like the least I could do. When I started to read them more carefully, however, I started to notice a recurring trend: CREDO doesn’t know what it’s talking about.

I will elaborate. Today’s email was about ractopamine, an additive which CREDO believes should be eliminated from the US food supply. They cite a number of startling facts about it: 160 countries have banned it outright, it’s used in 80% of pigs in the US, it causes harm to farm animals, and long-term exposure in humans has not been studied. It is described as both “dangerous” and “toxic,” and its effects on “consumers, livestock, and farm workers are serious.” Taken at face value, yes, ractopamine sounds like a pretty horrible substance, and not something that anyone should eat. But let’s look a little deeper at what’s going on here.

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Media Summation: 2014

January 1st, 2015 | Review

It’s that time of year again! Read on for the best and worst of 2014. Accolades are given to A.M. Homes, George Saunders, Tim Kreider, Sheri Fink, Joe Ollmann, Gabrielle Bell, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson. Stern talking-tos are given to Scott Bradfield, Jonathan Miles, David Sedaris, Mark Singer, Jesse Reklaw, Jeff Smith, and Wes Anderson. Apologies for any typos; I’ve been working on this all day and I can’t stand looking at it anymore.

My recommendations are marked with stars (★) because god forbid I use the same system two years in a row.

Over the course of 2015 I intend to switch to a new format in which I review things throughout the year and drop this annual post format, which has gotten to be unmanageably large. Check back every now and then for more reviews, and we’ll meet here next January to sort out the winners.

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New ebook: fiction writing skills!

November 23rd, 2014 | Changelog, eBooks

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that there’s some new stuff around here, namely, pertaining to an ebook I have recently completed. The title is How to Write Fiction That Doesn’t Suck, and you can find out more about it on its own page. It’s already been available for a couple weeks now, but I’ve neglected mentioning it on the blog because I hadn’t yet provided any free samples for your perusal. Well, that has all changed now! Behold, you can click on these links to download a free sample in any of three popular formats: PDF ePUB Kindle

If you’re the kind of person who prefers to live on the edge, there’s also the option to just go ahead and buy it without reading the free samples. You can get it at Gumroad, where it costs $9.

This is also an opportune time to mention that I’ve set up a special page where writers can hire my book-design services. It’s called Bibliorama.

This is all pretty neat stuff. I think you’ll like it.

Store-y time!

September 1st, 2014 | Changelog

In a quixotic attempt to make this site turn a profit, I have added an homage to capitalism to the link bar. See it up there? It’s the link that says “Store.” You can’t miss it; it’s green, the color of a $100 bill.

Joking aside, there is now a convenient storefront here. I’m hoping to expand it further in the near future, but in the meantime you can buy ebook versions of Sunrise issues 8-10 and the Sunrise print edition that was available already. Ebooks of the rest of Sunrise (including a complete anthology) will follow soon. I’ll announce new products here on the blog and on Twitter.

Why aren’t you looking at the store yet? Look at the store.

Webcomics Time: Cute ‘n’ Creepy

August 29th, 2014 | Circuit Reader, Review

I’ve been getting back into reading webcomics again, so it seems only fitting that I also get back into the business of reviewing them. That said, my “Circuit Reader” series was a bit of a huge time investment, so instead I’m switching to a more reasonable length. Gone will be the extreme nitpicking, and in its place I will endeavor to provide a brief but entertaining look at many of the fine (and not so fine) examples of sequential art on the interwebs.

For this episode, we’ll be looking at two nice comics, one by a famous dude, and one by two not-so-famous dudes. The theme is “Cute ‘n’ Creepy” and the comics are Broodhollow and Rickety Stitch and the Gelatinous Goo.

Broodhollow

Broodhollow by Kristofer Straub
Kristofer Straub’s name should be familiar to anyone in the webcomics world, having created numerous popular features, most notably the spacefaring gag strip Starslip Crisis (later Starslip), which was probably the only science fiction series to make art history jokes. I never warmed up to post-reboot Starslip, so until recently I hadn’t read Straub’s work in quite a while. When I learned that he had returned with an all-new feature, I was eager to check it out.

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Convert rich text to Markdown

July 15th, 2014 | Tutorial

Markdown is a nice simple markup language which you can use to format type in plain text. There are lots of programs which can interpret it and convert it to common rich-text formats. Ah, but what if you want to go the other direction, and convert rich-text to Markdown? What then? Well, you do have options. Here are three of them.

Method One

This is the easiest method. Save your text as a Word document (you can do this in Open/Libre Office if you don’t have Word), then go to this amazingly awesome automatic converter script. I have found this to work very well in general. I can’t vouch for its security, though, so if you need to convert something confidential, you’ll need to move on to Method Two.

Method Two

This method makes use of the find-and-replace tool in your rich-text editor and is inspired by these delightful instructions.

OpenOffice/LibreOffice:

  1. Open the find/replace box, drop down “More Options” and check Regular Expressions.
  2. In the Search For box, type: (.*)
  3. Click the “Format…” button and select Italics (don’t touch other options)
  4. Check “Including Styles”
  5. In the Replace With box, type: _$1_
  6. Click Replace All
  7. If you’re lucky, your italic text should now be wrapped _like so_
  8. As needed, adapt the instructions above for bold, underline, etc.
  9. Copy the resulting text into a plain-text document, and save. Voila!

Microsoft Word (tested in 2010 edition):

  1. Open the find and replace box, click the “More >>” button, and check Use Wildcards.
  2. In the “Find what:” box, type: (<*>)
  3. Click Format -> Font (at the bottom of the dialogue) and choose Italic from the menu (don’t touch the other options)
  4. In the “Replace With” box, type: _\1_
  5. Click Replace All
  6. If you’re lucky, your italic text should now be wrapped _like so_
  7. As needed, adapt the instructions above for bold, underline, etc.
  8. Copy the resulting text into a plain-text document, and save. Voila!

Method Three

If all else fails, try this. This method is convoluted and difficult, but it will eventually turn out some Markdown for you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

  1. Get Pandoc. If you’re on Linux, it’s probably in your repository. If not, you can download Mac or Windows binaries here.
  2. Save your file as an HTML document. I used Open Office to do this, I’m guessing Word would work as well but I didn’t test it. I did test AbiWord, but the HTML documents it produces are formatted really stupidly and don’t work for our purposes. Note: Do not use Open Office’s “export” feature (use Save As instead), as it seems to cause problems too for some reason.
  3. Use Pandoc to convert the HTML to Markdown. Basic console use is outside the scope of this tutorial, so hopefully this part is self-explanatory. The command is structured thusly:

    pandoc inputfile.html -t markdown -o outputfile.txt

     
  4. Check your output file for excessive line breaks. This is the fault of the way that OpenOffice exports HTML files. For some idiotic reason it puts in tons of line breaks. If your text has no extra line breaks, congratulations! You’re done! If not, proceed to Step Five.
  5. Use this online tool to nix the excessive line breaks. I sure hope this tool is still around when you or I next need it, because it’s a godsend.
  6. Repeat as necessary.