Monday, November 12, 2007

More Is Not Better: Judging 3 Contests in November

(This blog also appeared on The HEA Cafe)

While the title of this blog may appear to reflect my sentiments at having three writing contests to judge in one month, it is (deliberately) misleading, with a tad of double-duty. Okay, three contests while in a howling deadline is tough. But that's not the more I want to talk about.

I want to talk about word choice and word use, because in judging three writing contests back to back, I saw a lot of the same problems, over and over. So if you're yet-to-be-published and using contests as a means to get feedback and a possible entry to an editor (a method I heartily endorse!), this is a blog you might want to take note of.

You can read my first blog on those issues on this Alien Romances Blog here. It's called "On a Score of 1 to 10", referencing the score sheets that accompany each entry. I wish I could give every writer a perfect ten. I wish I could have all their entries sent to the final judges, the editors and agents. I wish I could jumpstart all those careers. I can't. Three of those reasons: Flying Body Parts, Head-hopping and Dialogue Tag Usage, are detailed in that blog. You might want to start there, then come back here.

Ready? Okay. More is not better. More words, more description, more adjectives do not a better story make. Good writing is all about choosing the word that most succinctly and memorably imparts that image or sensation. It's not about dumping words on a page like a bucket of confetti.

I read far too many first-three-chapter entries in a variety of romance novel categories that suffered from this problem. At first I thought it might be because my poison of choice is science fiction and fantasy, and I'd lost my ear for contemporary or chick-lit. Not so, I realized, when I ran into a few entries—one was a lovely historical romance, another a contemporary with a distinct Texas-twang—that just flowed. They were tight, imagery was on-point, pacing was perfect. And they were in genres I normally wouldn't chose for myself. So if I can be beguiled by what I don't like, imagine how much easier it would be for me to be seduced by my preferred genres? And yes, I did judge a paranormal that erupted with so many adjectives I felt as if I needed to hose myself off afterward.

So it wasn't genre. It was word choice and word usage.

Noted science fiction author C.J. Cherryh calls the problem "Florid Verbs" and "Scaffolding and Spaghetti." The woman's books have won Hugos and Nebulas and she's been on bestseller lists for decades. When she gives writing advice in her Writerisms and Other Sins, I listen:

'The car grumbled its way to the curb' is on the verge of being so colorful it's distracting. {Florid fr. Lat. floreo, to flower.}

If a manuscript looks as if it's sprouted leaves and branches, if every verb is 'unusual', if the vocabulary is more interesting than the story...fix it by going to more ordinary verbs. There are vocabulary-addicts who will praise your prose for this but not many who can simultaneously admire your verbs as verbs and follow your story, especially if it has content. The car is not a main actor and not one you necessarily need to make into a character. If its action should be more ordinary and transparent, don't use an odd expression. This is prose.

This statement also goes for unusual descriptions and odd
adjectives, nouns, and adverbs.

I'd highlight the "odd adjectives, nouns and adverbs" here. And not just odd, but simply overdone. You can tell me (though I'd prefer you show me) that the hero has muscles. But the third time in two pages that I read something about his "hard, sculpted, sinewy, muscular" chest or forearms, I'm ready to scream, "I get it, already!" The heroine runs her fingers down his sculpted, muscular chest then over his sculpted, sinewy arms—which are rock-hard, by the way—and then notices as he puts the coffee pot on the shelf how his hard, sculpted, muscular, sinewy muscles ripple.
The heroine also has time to notice—in detail—her own appearance and attire, flipping her soft, silvery-blonde, lustrous and wavy hair off her slender, cashmere-clad shoulders with her slender, delicate, French-manicured fingers while her perfect alabaster complexion glows in the candlelight. Yes, all in one sentence like that. Not only do I hate her as a character, I'm in imagery overload.

Which brings me to another suggestion from Cherryh:

Words the sole function of which is to hold up other words. For application only if you are floundering in too many 'which' clauses. Do not carry this or any other advice to extremes.

'What it was upon close examination was a mass the center of which was suffused with a glow which appeared rubescent to the observers who were amazed and confounded by this untoward manifestation.' Flowery and overstructured. 'What they found was a mass, the center of which glowed faintly red. They'd never seen anything like it.' The second isn't great lit, but it gets the job done: the first drowns in 'which' and 'who' clauses.

In other words—be suspicious any time you have to support one needed word (rubescent) with a creaking framework of 'which' and 'what' and 'who'. Dump the 'which-what-who' and take the single descriptive word. Plant it as an adjective in the main sentence.

Flowery and overstructured. More is simply not better. Plus it lends itself to inaccuracies.

As a writer, your job is to be a wordsmith. Okay, I call myself a wordslut but it's essentially the same thing. You have to love words but you also have to know how to use them. You have to know what their use is, what their flavors and nuances are. Pretty does not have the same meaning and mind-image as gorgeous. Plump isn't the same as obese. Red, crimson, burgundy and rose are not the same shade. House, cottage, mansion and chateau all create distinctly different images.

Descriptives in your prose—be they adverbs, adjectives or phrases—are like spices. Too much and the dish is overwhelming and unpalatable. Not enough and it's bland. Spend more time finding the right adjective to attach to your character, rather than burying him or her in an avalanche of description that becomes, essentially, meaningless. Or worse, comical and cliched.

Better yet, show me your characters are beautiful and strong but putting them in action. Telling me your character is gorgeous is your opinion. How do I know your definition of gorgeous segues with mine? But if you have your gal walk down the street and every man she passes stops and stares, jaws-dropping...I experience her beauty through them. You don't have to tell me. You've shown me.

So go over those first three chapters you're working on for that contest with rake in hand. Scrape out the detritus, the word-weeds, the literary-litter. Then send it in. And I'll give you a perfect ten.

RITA-Award Winning Science Fiction Romance
The Down Home Zombie Blues, coming Nov. 27th from Bantam Books

4-1/2 Stars—Top Pick! From Romantic Times BOOKreviews: “Quirky, offbeat and packed with gritty action, this blistering novel explodes out of the gate and never looks back. Counting on Sinclair to provide top-notch science fiction elaborately spiced with romance and adventure is a given, but she really aces this one! A must-read, by an author who never disappoints.”— Jill M. Smith

“[Sinclair’s] exceptional attention to detail…and quirky slant on the genre highlights her solid world building and allows even passing fans of science fiction to enjoy the ride.” — Nina C. Davis for Booklist


  1. I have the opposite problem, it seems. My Crunchy Critters are always wondering what things look like because I expect them to be telepathic and 'see' the pictures I see in my head. I don't know what I'd do without them because I can't seem to pick up on it all by myself!

    Anyone who needs their own Crunchy Critters can pop over to

  2. Anonymous8:38 AM EST

    Linnea, nice post, Captain, and thanks for including C.J. Cherryh's examples. I love blogs like this that help newbies like myself.

    Kimber An, I too suffer from that affliction. Watching it in my head is so much easier than putting it on paper, that is, in a way where others can see what I see. Ever onward.