Monday, November 30, 2009

When Leaden Blossoms Break the Very Boughs of Romance

Or to put it another way:  Flowery prose.

We know that the story is what drives every romance:  Characters, situation, story arc, happy ending.  Without any one element, the book falls flat.  But without the author's prose, the story is just a few pages long (and is called a synopsis).

Each author's prose is unique.  Her style includes how she describes action, conveys dialogue, sets the sense of time and place, and crafts word pictures that help her readers see and feel everything for themselves.  (Yup, I'm assuming female authors to keep the pronoun count down.)  Some authors' style is funny, some straightforward, and some flowery.  And it's that last category that interests me here.  (It's a bit like Potter Stewart's definition of pornography.  I can't define flowery prose, but I know it when I read it.  At a minimum, there's some imagery involved: metaphors, similes, analogies -- but don't make me identify which are which!)

Now, I personally don't much like flowery prose.  But after seeing glowing mentions of some books I personally didn't like, I wanted to be extremely fair.  I've selected seven books that seemed long enough to have something flowery somewhere, although page count isn't really the point.  Of the seven books, I'm in the middle of reading one of them, two I stopped reading mid-way because they made me cranky (see Reasons #8 & 9 here), three I like, and one I really didn't like.  I'm not going to identify which are which, nor are any titles, authors, or characters explicitly identified below.  If you recognize a book, congratulations:  You either have an amazing memory (or a so-so memory that allowed you to guess), or you wrote it.  And if you wrote it, please know I mean no disrespect by anything I say about your book or writing; after all, every single book I picked is well-loved.

Methodology:  To prevent cherry-picking (you know: going through the book page by page to find the most elaborate flowery bits), I got a random number generator to give me six page numbers between 1 and 400:  19, 294, 372, 185, 55, and 76.  For each number, I went to that page and found the floweriest sentence or excerpt there (in three cases, I found two worthy selections on that specific page).  I tended to exclude dialogue, descriptions of action, and discussions of technical matters contained in the book.  (I have included one line of dialogue, in quotes, and one excerpt from a character's journal, in italics as it was on the page.)  If I didn't find anything flowery, I just went to the next number in the sequence.  In some books, there was no page 372 (in one, it was an excerpt from the author's next novel; I disallowed that).  In another book, page 185 was the short last page of the chapter.  Everything in brackets is my substitution, and ellipses were used to show where I skipped material on the page.  All other punctuation is from the books.

Here, then, are the seven books I harvested like a purveyor of the world's finest blooms:

Book 1:

19: I cherished each day that slipped by without seeing her face or hearing her name. Cherished time slipping away like sand sliding through fingers. Quickly, painlessly.

294: Pure, sheer happiness filled her soul. . . . His warrior eyes grew fierce, his hand drifting down to the gentle curve of her belly.

185: But he couldn't stop the touch any more than he could stop himself from breathing.

55: For the first time, anger marred [X's] face. . . . His anger turned to something more elusive, dark, and troubled.

76: [She] stopped just outside the room as if peering through a looking glass at a foreign world, taking in the woman who sat so gracefully in a finely crafted wingback chair with a notch in the middle.

Book 2:

19: The ocean rose into view over the rail -- a high black swell covered with a vast reticulation of white foam, like endless yards of white lace -- then dropped, sending a spray up over the deck.

372: Her laughter became deep, a drum roll of mirth.

55: Caught staring again, the woman laughed -- partly a nervous, self-conscious sound, partly the odd, gleeful cackle she was finding so hard to contain.

76: "To let them know me for something other than how I look, something closer to the heart of me than the way my skin spreads over muscle and bone."

Book 3:

19: He felt bleak inside, and absurdly let down. Cheated, as if he'd been declared ineligible for a spectacular prize he'd set his heart on.

185: In that way it was a revelation, and she had a long time to ponder it as she struggled back up the straight, muddy, killing ladders, pausing at every sollar to rest while [her employee] gazed off into space a respectable ten steps below and tried not to let I told you so show in his dark, glaring features.

55: The women seated on long Sunday school benches in the vicarage meeting hall were all misty-eyed, and as enchanted with the love scene as [she] could wish.

76: The scent of her, faint as a whisper, potent as an aphrodisiac.

Book 4:

19: And behind it all were the green mountains rising up to mist and a double rainbow that spanned the entire sky.

294: It had arrested his breath, centered all his consciousness on exploding pain, annihilated him -- and he had had to go on, to keep fighting, to move when his body was paralyzed.

372: [His Japanese mentor] made a sound like a controlled tempest. Not anger, but a sound of pure energy.

55: She sat down next to the crown and peered into the infant face. It was ugly, it truly was, all wet mouth and wrinkled skin, and its mother didn't want it.

76: She pulled the cloak around her, realized she'd forgotten shoes -- forgotten even to dress -- a perfect picture she would make, running along the mucky street barefoot in her nightrail.

Book 5:

19: She was a narrow woman, narrow everywhere -- in the hips, the shoulders, the face, the hands; [her nephew] would have added, in the mind.

294: From an orange tree beyond the shaddocks came mockingbird song that filled the pause like tuned bells.

372: With temper chills biting like teeth in the lining of his stomach, [X] wrenched up the boot, strode with it to the window, pushed open the casing, and flung [Y's] boot into the harbor, where it drowned in a crown-shaped splash. Its halo of disturbed water had expanded and vanished before [Y] spoke.

185: The sweet novelty of it cut like tin scissors through the resistance she had spent the night building toward him, but however attractive the man was, whatever the graces of his character, this man [...] would never be for her.   . . .    In his glowing eyes, in the sensual line of his lips, there was no sign it might be a struggle for him to deny the joyous enchantment of yesterday's kisses and transform the gentle, playful lover into a temperate companion.

76: Tremors began in her chest and rolled violently into her limbs, where the stiff wires of the jute ropes were methodically gnawing the living flesh from her ankles and her wrists, and her hair became fouled by the sloshing bilge water.

Book 6:

19: All color bleached from his face. Oh dear. Blonde hair didn't look so well on skin that particular shade of green.

185: It had been her sanity when the waves grew restive, when they had leapt up against the porthole as though calling her back to them.

55: His movements were seamless, and she closed her eyes, feeling his hands firm around her. She didn't need to count, didn't need to concentrate; she was flying, and if she stumbled, his hands would be there, strong enough to catch her --

76: She laced her hands together in her lap, squeezing hard to channel a tumult of foreign emotions.

Book 7:

19: She liked his eyes, and they had a way of turning soft when they'd light on the boys.

185: Though his insides were jumping with impatience, [he] forced himself to sit easy in the kitchen chair, an arm propped on the table edge, a finger hooked in a coffee cup.

55: He chuckled and ruffled the boy's hair. It felt as soft as it looked.

76: But his thanks made her efforts seem worthwhile and filled her with a sense of accomplishment she'd never known before.

Okay.  What I have learned from this exercise is that, for me, less is more.  Book 7 surprised me with its simple, spare prose.  Very few adverbs, but the ones Author 7 uses are so powerful: "forced himself to sit easy ..." (p. 185) where easy (normally an adjective) is used adverbially to convey both the man's effort to seem relaxed and perhaps his lack of more extravagant words.  And while our gastro-intestinal organs don't actually jump, we know exactly what he's feeling, and we've probably felt it ourselves.

By contrast, Author 5 has very elaborate word pictures indeed.  I'm pretty sure the character on p. 372 is just very angry, but is that really best conveyed by saying that "temper chills biting like teeth in the lining of his stomach"?  I like the description of the narrow woman (p. 19), but if I'd been editing Book 5, I might have suggested making the nephew's point a more straightforward sentence on its own:  "She was a narrow woman, narrow everywhere -- in the hips, the shoulders, the face, the hands.  [Her nephew] would have said she was narrow-minded as well."  "Narrow-minded," in that context is already a metaphor (or is it a simile? -- damn, I knew I'd get this wrong) and not actually a reference to a physical dimension of the body.  No need to make it a meta-metaphor, if you will.

Authors 1 & 6 seem to have a similar tendency to get the imagery almost right, but then either oversell it, or not really consider the plain meaning of their words.  We know what they mean, but it's not actually what they've written.  For example, on p. 185 of Book 1, what she writes is just not accurate.  You can stop your own breathing, at least for the length of time it takes to touch something.  We know she means to suggest that he can't stop himself from touching her -- that's it's a gesture he's compelled to make.  But we're not precisely compelled to breathe; it's an autonomic action that we can -- and do -- consciously control on occasion.  And consider this:  When we're reaching out to touch something in precisely the way Author 1 wants us to imagine, we often hold our breath!

Similarly, we know that the characters are dancing on p. 55 of Book 6, but there's really nothing new being conveyed.  He's strong and surefooted; she's safe and can let go.  Got it.  But consider the character's mood (action?) on p. 76:  We get the image of her gripping her hands tight as an exercise of self-control, but does "squeezing hard to channel a tumult of foreign emotions" actually tell you what she's feeling?  I think we're filling in for Author 6 when we read that sentence more like this:  "She laced her hands together in her lap, squeezing hard to control her thoughts."  You could make them "unruly thoughts," I suppose, but since when do we need to control our placid thoughts?

I would contrast the overwrought efforts in Book 5, and the rather sloppy images in Books 1 & 6, with the spare prose in Book 7.  Book 7 conveys to me more clearly what's actually going on.  Author 7 gets out of the way of my seeing the characters in that scene.  In fact, her prose makes it easier for me to feel that anxiety on p. 185, the boy's hair on p. 55, and the fondness of the man's gaze on p. 19.  (Or, if I might lapse into a highly personal observation:  I would give a lot to write half as well as Author 7 does.)

With the remaining three books (2, 3 & 4), there's nothing too objectionable here.  It turns out that I dislike one of those books intensely and love the other two, but reading these excerpts, I really have nothing to complain about any of them.  All good, workmanlike writing.  (Special mention, though, to Author 2 for describing white caps on ocean waves as an endless yards of lace (so true!) and to Author 4 for her bravery in acknowledging that an infant can truly be ugly, "all wet mouth and wrinkled skin," while still conveying compassion with the conclusion, "... and its mother didn't want it.")  This tells me that what I dislike about the book I dislike isn't the author's writing style, but her storytelling.

Because, ultimately, we can read through the most flowery prose, but if the story's crap, we just don't like the book.


  1. Great post!

    I like "oversell." It's like stepping on your own feet by putting a weak phrase right after a strong one.

  2. @Victoria -- Thanks. I learned a lot, actually, from putting this post together. Writing may be a bit like that advice about getting dressed for an event and then, just before you leave, removing one accessory. Which is why people work so hard on their edits & polishing.


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