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"The Purple Prose Eater"
by Deb Stover

Included in How to Write a Romance For The New Markets

Genesis Press, Inc ISBN: 1-885478-46-1

Copyright by Deb Stover -- All Rights Reserved


Purple Prose. What is it? Where did this term originate, and how did romance authors become the lucky professionals to be slapped with this label? Mr. Webster failed to provide a definition, so I felt duty-bound to compose one myself.

Purple prose consists of words and phrases that sound stilted, overly descriptive, or cliché. Now that doesn't mean we should never use beautiful, descriptive language. Not at all. What it means is the overuse of it irritates your reader and can mutate into the dreaded purple prose.

The main area where romance writers in particular are accused of inflicting the reader with purple prose is in love scenes. Why? In the seventies, when authors first threw open the bedroom doors on love scenes in romance novels, writers had to devise creative ways to describe human anatomy. Apparently, the powers-that-be felt the reading public could only handle one shock at a time, so we formulated all sorts of interesting words and phrases to substitute for more clinical terms.

We still use euphemisms in love scenes, though I find them much more realistic than they once were. However, beginning writers will often depend on the euphemisms of the past, rather than simply calling a breast a breast.

Examples? Let's start with clichés.

" Every fiber of her being."

" Slow burn of anger."

" Orbs" for eyes. One book I read used the phrase " sapphire orbs" repeatedly to describe the heroine's eyes. We don't need to be reminded too often what color a character's eyes are. In my early days, I once wrote a hero with emerald eyes. I've learned since then.

A recent survey I conducted has revealed some rather interesting tidbits of the inadvertent use of purple prose. A few brave authors have given their consent for us to study their examples--an incredibly magnanimous gesture.

Author Jo Beverley believes that " physical description only needs to be done once or twice. Any further reference should be indirect. Having told us that the hero has long ebony hair, I don't want it mentioned again, thanks. For me it definitely comes into the purple prose category to not only be constantly repeating physical characteristics, but also using the same flowery phrases that we probably shouldn't have used in the first place!"

A romance reader who wishes to remain anonymous said, " I can't stand breasts being referred to as mounds. Makes me think of a candy bar. And I can't stand anyone bucking. I think of a rodeo."

That's pretty self-explanatory.

Author Patricia Ryan gets right into the euphemism subject with her answer: " Arousal as a euphemism for erection. What's wrong with erection? Ditto on mounds for breasts. Don't mention stallion in reference to your hero. Ick. Now that I'm warmed to my subject, I have to 'fess-up' to a somewhat lavender little phrase of my own. I did, I confess, make reference in a kissing scene to the hero and heroine's tongues being engaged in, well...in a primitive mating dance. I actually wrote it and printed it out and sent it to my agent, who called me and said, 'Primitive mating dance?' And I said, 'Uh...' Thank god for agents with good taste, is all I can say. I view that incident as a slip in my otherwise rather ruthless quest to use real words and normal language as much as possible, especially in my historical stuff. Looking back, I think I was probably just being lazy when I used that phrase instead of putting the old gray matter to work squeezing out something better."

Another anonymous reader also admits to hating the term " mounds" in reference to breasts. She goes on to say: " Also globes. Can't stand globes. I picture the school type, swirling madly on their stands. Why can't we call 'em what they are?"

Author Sonia Simone believes the phrase " his sex" is a good substitute for penis. She calls this term " raunch literary," whatever that means. It sounds good, though.

Here's an opinion on using graphic slang from one of the masters of the romance genre, Anne Stuart: " Words like 'cock' should be used judiciously. Sometimes the shock value can be very erotic. Sometimes it can be jarring." Anne later commented that she considers the word penis a " whiny, nasal little word." Then she confessed, and I quote, " I once, God help me, called it 'the raging beast of his desire,' but I saved my reputation when I saw the galleys and almost barfed." She also admitted that in her novel Night of the Phantom, she used the phrase " filled her with the hot wet tumult of his love." When she saw it in print, she wanted to scream.

Now that is purple prose!

While participating in a romance writers' open critique group last year, I ran across an interesting euphemism for erection: " Love tool." I'm not divulging the identity of the writer for fear of life and limb, but I think you all must realize this is not a good euphemism for erection. In fact, all I had to do was read it aloud. The perpetrator perceived my message loud and clear.

A well-known Regency author feels the word " erection" is preferable to " penis" in a love scene. I tend to agree, though I have used the term penis or cock from the male point of view.

Another successful Regency author, Lynn Kerstan, said that the funniest term she ever read was in a contest entry: " ...his tumescent tube of fire."

An unpublished writer asked me if " raging monster of his lust" would be acceptable. I said, " Sure, go for it. That'll cut down on my competition."

Some of the participants in my research became a little...carried away. Example? " The dragon of his desire writhed beneath his tight-stretched trousers." Ahem.

Author Susan Wiggs admits that her editor once omitted her reference to the male sex organ as " the bald avenger." Wonder why.

" Manhood" has been overused, but you'll still run across it. Alone, it's not too bad, but we have to be careful about the adjectives we use with it. " Manroot," on the other hand, is about as purple as it comes.

The phrase " his hardness" makes me think of royalty for some reason. I don't think that was the author's intention.

" Throbbing member?" Well...

" Turgid shaft." Even I'm guilty of that one. Sigh.

" Her gaze traveled down his muscular chest and lean hips to his softly swaying promise of future delight." It doesn't do a thing for me.

Robin Williams once used the phrases " throbbing love machine" and " heat-seeking moisture missile" in reference to the male sex organ in its aroused state.

I've seen " sword" used as a euphemism for erection. There seems to be a food and warfare thing relating to gender in romance novels. Have you ever noticed it? You'll see reference to foods with female genitalia and weaponry with male.

Hmm. Freud could've used this stuff.

Now, in all fairness, the responses to my survey didn't net nearly as many colorful substitutions for female body parts. You don't suppose that's because the respondents were all women. Do you?

" Hot sleeve of love?"

" Her moist warmth." Think about it.

" Silken warmth." Hmm.

" The heat of her femininity." Well, maybe. At least that doesn't push the giggle button.

" Nest of desire?" Give me a break.

" Perky, pebbled, and plentiful" are often used to describe breasts and nipples. As one reader pointed out, have you ever seen " upturned nipples?" Think gravity, writers. Gravity.

" Nether lips." Not for me.

" Mound of Venus." Yuck.

In addition to the different nouns we use to depict human anatomy, there are other words which can be overdone until they also become cliché. " Quivering" and " throbbing" come to mind. I always wondered why she does all the quivering and he does the throbbing. That doesn't quite seem fair, does it?

One way of identifying purple prose is by your reaction when you read it. Does it make you laugh out loud because it's so ludicrous? Or does it make you shake your head in disgust? If it does either, feed it to the Purple Prose-Eater. He'll appreciate it a lot more than your readers will.