Thursday, January 27, 2011

Too Much Of A Good Thing; or, Writing vs Overwriting

As apprentice writers, we're told that we need to make every sentence sing. We should choose our words carefully so that each can have maximum impact, making every verb and noun count. We should avoid passive verbs and colorless language at all costs.

But sometimes, I think it's possible to try too hard, to veer to the opposite end of the spectrum, so that rather than neat, concise prose, you end up with paragraphs that are working a little too hard to achieve the desired effect.

This week I picked up "How To Wash A Cat," by Rebecca Hale. The cover blurb sounded promising--first in a new mystery series, set in an antique shop in San Francisco, and of course, there are cats. Great recipe for a cozy mystery, in my book.

And so far, the story has entertained me, but every once in a while, a paragraph jumps out at me. Like this one:

I drug myself up the polished front steps of a high-rise office building and squeezed into a crowded elevator. My empty stomach lurched as the stifling cube zoomed skyward, finally pausing to hover at the 39th floor. My head woozing, I stepped gratefully out into the refrigerated air of an expansive lobby. A wall of windows spanned the left side of the room, framing an opulent view of the bay.

Now, as paragraphs go, it's not the worst one I've ever read. The sentences are all active, and the language is colorful.

But in many ways, it also reminds me of pictures I've seen of Victorian front parlours. I'm sure you've seen them: rooms where every surface that can have a fussy little doily, does. Only in this case, the surfaces are nouns, and the doilies are adjectives. So we end up with "polished steps" and "stifling cubes" and "refrigerated air".

Then, too, our POV character cannot seem to ever just walk anywhere. She drags, she squeezes, she hovers, and she lurches. I'm not sure I even want to think about the woozing.

Is it overwritten? I think it is, but then I've been trying to pare down paragraphs that started out far wordier than this one, so at the moment, my mind is more disposed to see words that can be removed rather than ones that could be added. Though too much of that isn't necessarily a good thing, either; taking out too many words would rob the author, and her character, of their "voice."

I guess the difference, in my mind, is between prose that sings versus prose that tap dances while wearing a costume covered in spangles and sequins, using all of the trickiest, most difficult steps, and ending in a grand flourish. Both can be entertaining. Which one is "better" depends very much on the tastes of the reader. Apparently, there were enough people who liked this book to put it on the New York Times bestseller list.

Will I finish reading the book? Probably. The story is an entertaining one so far, and lurching stomachs and stifling cubes aside, the author has a knack for a witty turn of phrase. Whether or not I pick up the sequel has yet to be resolved, however.

Have you ever encountered prose you felt was overwritten? What, in your opinion, are the symptoms of overwriting? Is it necessarily a bad thing?