Wednesday, January 1, 2014

"Sexy" and Other Words Writers Need to Stop Using

As an author who doesn't have his own marketing department, I tend to use a lot of social media. This means I belong to a lot of promotional groups on Facebook, I follow a lot of writer-themed blogs on Tumblr, and in general I try to stay plugged into what my fellows in the field are doing. The advantage is that sometimes I find really intriguing books, such as the Gonji trilogy by Ted Rypel, or Ghosts in the Yew by Blake Hausladen.

Because holy damn, that's why.
The disadvantage is that my feed gets crammed with promotion for a lot of books I'd really rather not see. Books that, when I pause to read the description, give me barking fits. After destroying a dozen chew toys and getting a calming belly rub though, I finally figured out what all these bad book summaries I keep seeing have in common. It isn't genre, it isn't plot, and it isn't even the target audience. It's the shallowness of the language used to describe the story.


That's what I thought you were going to say. Since examples tend to work best, and I don't want to name names and earn the enmity of fellow authors, I will give you a paraphrased version that I keep seeing over and over again. It goes something like this.

Sexy female lead, getting involved in a dangerous or personally distressing situation, must seek help and join forces with sexy, alpha male lead. Will the two of them find the answer, and will their raging libidos get the best of them?

If you don't feel this is an epidemic then I urge you to go to your local bookstore and read some dust jackets. Romance, erotica, mystery, thriller, suspense, modern fantasy, classic fantasy, science fiction, it's showing up everywhere. The pacing might be slightly different, the plots might vary, but there are certain buzzwords that are showing up repeatedly. This is a plea to my fellow authors, and a warning to future ones; stop it. You're making us look stupid.

What's Wrong With Sexy?

As a concept, not a damn thing. Some genres are predicated entirely upon telling sexy stories about sexy people. The problem is the word itself. What is sexy? I guarantee you that whatever you're thinking, the next person to pick up the book and read the same sentence will not be thinking the same thing. It's lazy writing, pure and simple.
What is it that makes someone an alpha male?
Don't get ahead of me, stock photo philosopher. The term alpha (it's just assumed that the character is male, which goes to show we need more alpha females in our fiction) has the same problem from a completely different angle. What is an alpha? Is it a man involved in the leather and BDSM scene? Is it a wolves-of-Wall-Street type in a ten thousand dollar suit with a watch that cost more than most people's cars? Or is he a muscle-bound noble savage, free from the constraints of your society who makes his own rules? Those are just three images that came to mind off the top of my head, and there are likely a dozen more where they came from.

So What Do You Suggest?

I'm glad you asked that, bolded, italic type face. My suggestion for all my fellow authors out there is when you're coming up with your dust jacket hook that you cut the fluff. Language that tells us nothing about the characters, or is misleading, sensational, or flat out lazy needs to go. Period. It's the modern day equivalent of saying "and she meets a tall, dark stranger." Even if she does (or he, let's be inclusive here), could we perhaps come up with a better reason for us to care? Do a little more showing, a lot less telling?

What more do you want?
I want character descriptions that tell us who we're actually dealing with. I want robust language that draws me in and makes me want more. Honestly I'd prefer if writers stopped trying to be edgy and let their stories speak for themselves, but I'm not asking for miracles. Mostly I'd like a carefully crafted hook that makes me sit on an uncomfortable floor in a bookstore for hours just to find out what happens. What I want to see less of is writers using empty shorthand to convince me that these characters are different from every other pair in the genre. I'm also tired of my fellow writers showing off their leads' toned abs and curvy hips just to persuade me to buy their books. I have the Internet, I can see all the sexy I want any time on demand. What the Internet isn't providing me with are deep characters that inspire me, and whose stories I genuinely care about.

Next time you're describing your plot or your characters, sit down and ask yourself how you'd feel describing real people this way. Is the most noticeable feature of a dedicated, hard-nosed police detective that she's sexy? Or is it that she takes dangerous assignments and never quits until the job is done? Is the most dominant personality trait of a business tycoon that he's mysterious? If so, you might need to dig a bit deeper because you've only scratched the surface. If there is more to them, then show us. Give us an elevator pitch that makes us skip our floor.

As always, thanks for dropping by the Literary Mercenary. If you'd like to help us keep going then remember to like, share, discuss, and follow us on Facebook and Tumblr. If you'd like to take a more direct hand in helping us out there's now a Patreon page for you to pledge a certain amount each month, or you can click the "Shakespeare Gotta Get Paid, Son" button in your upper right hand corner. Now go forth, and write well!

1 comment:

  1. "Couldn't we have a story where two men become friends?"

    --- Lee Gold at LASFS, 1975