Rejuvenation

Despite an injury, I attended a Darcy Pattison revision workshop this weekend. It was outstanding.

Near the beginning of the workshop, Darcy read us the Stages of Learning.

 

First is Unconscious Incompetence: You don’t know that you don’t know.

Second is Conscious Incompetence: You know that you don’t know.

Third is Conscious Competence: You know that you know.

Fourth is Unconscious Competence: You know, but you don’t have to remember that you know every minute of every day.

 

Naturally as writers we would like our writing skills to be in the fourth category. But I was delighted to find (although it really stung a bit at the time) that there were some basic writing skills in which I am unconsciously incompetent. It stung because, well, I am human, and we don’t much like to be wrong. But the marvelous thing about this is that I now know I’m wrong – and can fix it.

 

That em-dash for example. (I picked the smallest example, sorry, don’t wish to really immolate myself just for a blog post.) When I had a character trail into silence, or another character interrupted them. I used ellipsis… because that looked right to me. And, if it looks right, it must surely be right.

Right?

Not.

So now I am in the third category, at least with those pesky em dashes (although still making mistakes…) and just as helpful, how to get my computer to make them.

Option + Minus = Em dash on the Mac.

 

If you have the occasion to take one of Darcy’s many workshops — GO FOR IT. Well worth the time, the money and the sting of learning that you don’t know everything you think you know.

 

Happy Writing!

 

 

Starting from Scratch (paper)

I had a marvelous post on New Year’s resolutions that went pfffft into the either. I think it was a gift, really, because in frustration I went looking for a way to work on the negative feelings. Found the following video which shows a lovely way to recycle your old newspapers into pots to use as starters for spring planting. A few hours with my Baker Seed catalogue — Et Voila — a need for pots emerges!

Just remember to plant your tomato seed with only about an inch to an inch and a half in the bottom of your paper pot, then, as the plant grows, cover the bottom on the stem with soil, leaving a pair of leaves in the air for growth. Makes for a stupendous root.

Happy New Year!

Julie

Writing That Makes Sense – Part Six — the Mystery Sense

What Lies InsideThe last post on this topic is the one that has taken the most time for me to write. (Obviously, since there is such a long break in the postings!)

The Mystery Sense is, for me, the one that involves the heart. It’s one that makes us sigh when we read a beautiful piece of prose, or laugh out loud when the character’s voice rings so true that we are right there with them as they sail through their adventures.

I am currently reading DEAD END IN NORVELT, by Jack Gantos. This writer has the mystery sense dead to rights. Fell in love with the voice right from the start. The moment when I lost my heart to this novel was when Jack was standing on a picnic table about three miles away from the drive in movie theater, watching a WW II movie with his father’s old war binoculars. His mother catches him playing with the war souvenirs and scolds him…and then literary magic happens…

“Jack!” my mom called, and reached forward to poke my kneecap. “Jack! Are you listening? Come into the house soon. You’ll have to get to bed early now that you have morning plans.”

“Okay,” I said, and felt my fun evening leap off a cliff and she walked back toward the kitchen door. I knew she was still soaking the dishes in the sink so I had a little more time. Once she was out of sight I turned back to what I had been planning all along. I lifted the binoculars and focused in on the movie screen. The Japanese hadn’t quite finished off al the marines and I figured I’d be a marine too and help defend them. I knew we wouldn’t be fighting the Japanese anymore because they were now our friends, but it was good to use movie enemies for target practice because Dad said I had to get ready to fight off the Russian Commies who had already sneaking into the country and were planning to launch a surprise attack. I put down the binoculars and removed the ammo clip on the sniper rifle then aimed it toward the screen where I could just make out the small images. There was no scope on the rifle so I had to use the regular sight — the kind where you lined up a little metal ball not the far end of the barrel with the V-notch above the trigger where you pressed your cheek and eye to the cool wooden stock. The rifle weighted a ton. I hoisted it up and tried to aim at the movie screen, but the barrel shook back and forth so wildly I couldn’t get the ball to line up inside the V. I lowered the rifle and took a deep breath. I knew I didn’t have all night to play because of Mom, so I gave it another try and the Japanese made their final “Banzai!” assault.

I lifted the rifle again andwhen I saw a tiny Japanese soldier leap out of a bush I quickly pulled the trigger and let him have it.” — DEAD END IN NOVELT, Jack Gantos, 2011 Farrar Straus Giroux

And, you guessed it, there was a round still in the firing chamber. And then an ambulance pulls up to the next door neighbor’s house and Jack is sure he’s killed her. Did he? Go read the book — you’ll love it.

Why I fell in love with Jack has something to do with the fact that he reminded me of a favorite great-uncle who, as a child about Jack’s age, once blew out the windows on the undertaker’s barn with a homemade cannon. More importantly, however, it also had to do with how the writer has drawn Jack’s thought processes. He has not only shown us how Jack misbehaves and justifies his actions, but he provides the means for us to LIVE it as we read.

So how on earth does a writer draw what is in the character’s heart? The answer, sadly enough, is not found in Diane Ackerman’s wonderful book, A Natural History of the Senses, the book I used as a text for my class Writing That Makes Sense. She covers, Hearing, Smell, Sight, Touch, and Taste with abandon, but this last sense deserves to get the same coverage.

How to make your Point Of View character’s heart shine through?

1) Know your character. Backwards, forwards — and everything in between. Do a character sketch. Interview them. Have a conversation with them. Take them on trips (Grocery store: do they have a routine there? Are they OCD — or hopelessly forgetful when it comes to getting home with everything on their list? Going to bed routine: Do they brush their teeth while looking in the mirror or while sorting their mail?)

2) Discover their speech pattern. Do they have a trademark phrase that can tell the reader when they’re truly upset, startled, sad, angry? Winnie the Pooh uses “Oh, bother!” Jack’s is “Cheeze-us-crust!” Instructive difference between Pooh and Jack.

3) Look at your sentence structure. Long sentences usually mean slower action. Short sentences make the reader’s eye go faster. (I know. With Jack’s story, it’s the tumbling longevity of the sentence with so many thoughts pressed in between punctuation that makes for the hectic pace. He’s broken the rule. Once writers know the rules and can follow them, then and only then can they effectively break them and make it work.)

4) How do other character’s react to your Point of View character? Are they fully realized? Did you do steps 1 – 3 with them? You should with your main characters. (Just make sure that you don’t give too much air time to those characters who are so minor they don’t even have last names.)

5) Are you using speech tags to demonstrate emotions rather than having your action or dialogue convey that to the reader? Not a good idea. (An exercise you can use it to completely remove the tags from your dialogue and see if A. Can you tell who spoke and B. Does the dialogue convey the sense of emotion and the message you wanted to get across.)

6) How do you feel while writing the passage? A difficult scene may also be difficult to write. I’ve cried while writing scenes where the character feels despair and laughed out loud when the character has a good moment. This does not guarantee that the writing will convey what you want it to convey to a reader, but it’s a clue that you are headed in the right direction.

7) Do your word choices match the tone you want to convey? Do you use slithery, slimy, and slumpy words in a scene that is supposed to be about heartbreak? You might want to rethink. The disconnect between the words you use and the emotion you wish to evoke may sabotage your work. Contrast is one thing. (Think Irony or Sarcasm.) But having words come out of left field is another thing altogether.

8) Journal. I know. This is out of left field. Or is it? When you are in the grips of a particular emotion and journal about it, you are far more likely to capture the language of that emotion — and then you have a reference to use for your own writing.

9) Make lists. One of the exercises we did in my class was to come up with lists of verbs, nouns and adjectives associated with the different emotions. Corny, but effective. Once we had the lists it isn’t so much about going back and pulling Word 3 or Word 14 from the list like interchangeable cogs. It is more like recognizing and internalizing the vocabulary of the heart.

10) Practice. Yeah. I know. This one goes for all writing.

11) Read. There are some outstanding books out there — study them. Take your favorite stories apart and see how the author got you to buy in so completely that you were swept away.

Happy Writing.

A Picture (Book) is Worth A Thousand Words

You gotta wonder if editors didn’t have that in mind with their suggestion that one thousand words or fewer would be the ideal word count for a modern picture book. New goal for word counts between 700 to 1,000 words, according to Liz Scanlon, author of, among other books, A Sock is a Pocket for Your Toes. Liz (If I may be so informal after just six hours of lapping up your wisdom about the world of picture book creation.) spoke during a special day-long session this last Saturday at the Houston Chapter of SCBWI.

I am not a Picture Book writer, but I have never attended a session where writing was a topic and not come away with Pearls. This was no different. Thank you, thank you, thank you to all who organized and participated in the day. I so enjoyed sharing your writing energy!

The following are my notes from the session, which culminated in my paying not one whit of attention during the end of the lecture because I was diverted by a truly pitiful (but oh-so welcome) inspiration for a Picture Book.

Picture books. The purpose

Meant to be read aloud…always adult and child or children…

Provides multilayered and multilevel experience. Textual, visual, adult/child

Offers exposure to new vocab, the concept of story and literacy in general

Provides a platform for connection, intimacy, and love

Picture books. The form

Usually 32 pages long

Less than 1000 words, most less than 700

Perfect marriage of text and art

Often contains tradition narrative arc

Ends on a note of hope.

First the words.

Writing

Revising

Look up Picture Book Dummy for a notion of what to expect your words to wind up looking like on the page — plan for this. You have X=~25 pages and Y=12-14 scenes. (Which are picture opportunities) Make the most of them.

If you look at the grid on the Dummy, you notice that the first and fourth lines are short, about 4 – 5 pages, vs 8 pages on the middle two lines. Story blocking goes thus: First line: intro characters and problem Second line and third lines are the middle of the book, develop characters, action and story. (try and fail, try and fail, try and fail.) The fourth line is Crisis and Resolution. Voila!

I hate a closed heart. I know that when I have an unsuccessful day at my desk it is because I simply have not loved people and books and pictures enough…Ursula Nordstrom, editor

(Please, please rise from the dead and be my editor! -j-)

Interview with Maurice Sendak on fresh air last week. Listen!!!

Picture books are just a new way of looking at things…a childlike way of looking at things.

Coloring in the lines quiet…crayon escaping the lines energy…pb concept?

A sock is a pocket for your toes… Concept book

If want a successful PB explore a new perspective about…friendship, pockets, gardens, dogs, clouds…

Ask yourself: What is my fresh angle on the subject?

Two frogs down at the pond. Does one want to be a fish? A bird? Tell from pov of the fish under the lily pad…

Traditional narrative arc, aka plot pyramid aka Aristotle’s incline

  • Inciting incident, rising action, falling action, resolution

The Hero’s journey

  • Departure, initiation, return

Seven basic plots

  • The quest, voyage and return, rebirth, tragedy, comedy, overcoming the monster, rags to riches

Rules of threes

  • Try and fail, tray and fail, tray and succeed

12 – 14 illustratable moments

Page turns are the chapter breaks of picture books..dont miss the opportunity to tempt, satisfy, and keep ’em reading.

  • Q.a format
  • Complete verse forms
  • Mid.sentence splits…maruice sendek, where the wild things are
  • Build and thrill…one dark night, Lisa Wheeler…use of meanwhile…

The process

  • Write, revise, repeat
  • Write, revise, repeat
  • Write, revise, repeat

Special topics.

  • Tension and conflict
  • Characterization
  • Animal characters
  • Setting
  • Language, rhyme and rhythm
  • Revision

Non-fiction picture books are out there, wonderful, and creative. Gendre = creative non-fiction, written in the form of story…everything from here applies…tension and wonder. exceptions for length, can be, but not always, a bit longer…maybe 1200 words max.

Tension and Conflict:

  • illustration of the pyramid inciting incident, climax, resolution
    • The Carrot Seed, Ruth Kraus
    • Tension pulls you through the book, discovery process
  • Even in a picture book, we need:
    • Multiple uh-ohs
    • dream, frustration, resolution
    • who wants what from whom what’s standing in the way? what is the character willing to risk to get what he/she wants. how will the character, under his or her own power, solve the problem?

Characterization:

  • Memorable
  • Authentic
  • Sympathetic
  • Complex
  • Detailed

How do you achieve all that?

  • Character Backstories
  • Meaningful Names
  • Deep Desires
  • Flaws
  • Character tags and catch phrases

animal characters:

  • why is my character a worm or a bird?

Use the essential animalness of your animals — or play against type

  • Puns and animal-appropriate language
  • it’s your universe, but your universe has rules
  • look for the perfect balance between humor and tenderness

Setting:

no Headless Horsemen – Anchor your story in time and space!

Inside all of us is a wild thing.”

–where the wild things are

“It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short easy words like ‘how about lunch?'” — Winnie the Pooh

“I meant what I said and I said what I meant.” — Horton Hears and Who

Rhyming Dictionary: rhymezone.com

“This is not cheating. You know all the words in there, you just forgot it for a little bit” – Liz

The Synonym Finder — great thesaurus. edit Rodale

Language:

Watch out for too many adverbs and adjectives

Activate Verbs

Avoid crazy dialogue tags

Show don’t tell

Wordplay?

Rhyme, Rhythm and Reading Aloud

The story is the queen, the rhyme is her pawn

the story is the driver, the rhyme is his carriage

the story is the house, the rhyme is the wood

the story is the soup, the rhyme is the pot

(You are the boss of the story, not the rhyme)

  • Do not sacrifice the story for the rhyme!!
    • is there a reason to write it in rhyme?
    • could you use internal rhyme, repetition and rhythm instead?
    • Use natural syntax
    • don’t forget syllabics and meter
    • Read it aloud
    • Ask someone else to read it aloud.

Revision:

“The most important quality in writers is the ability to be dissatisfied with what we have written. Dissatisfaction creates the essential discomfort that will eventually lead us back to the manuscript to attempt yet again to craft our work to perfection. The least effective writers are the most immediately satisfied writers.” Mem Fox, Author

Revising is…

  • making decisions to improve your writing
  • looking at your work from a different point of view
  • identifying places where your writing could be clearer, more interesting, more informative or more convincing
  • Revising IS NOT copy editing

Potluck of Pointers:

  • Read, read, read ,read ,read
  • Read Aloud, read aloud, read aloud
  • Emphasize truth over fact
  • Use rhyme with caution and reason
  • Use verbs instead of adverbs, nouns instead of adjectives
  • don’t preach — or dumb down
  • submit manuscripts without artwork — unless you’re an author-illustrator

Aging Gracefully

While cleaning up my library the other day, I ran across a book published in the 1970s. I purchased The Stranger at Wildings by Madeleine Brent, on the recommendation of a dear friend, Dean James. “Her” books are those I will keep in my permanent collection. (Like Dean, who writes as “Miranda”, “Madeleine” was actually male.) The prose didn’t scan at all like a novel published today. But, once I adjusted to the pace and language of the story, I could not get it out of my mind.

Like so many of my octogenarian relatives, these books have aged gracefully. I think the relatives owe their vigor and indeed their current happy frame of mind to the fact that they have the ability to connect with the younger family members as easily as they did friends and family their own age. In other words, they kept themselves contemporary.

Evidently books can do this too. When I was young, my dad would go through a dozen or so pulp novels a week. Once finished, he would pitch them in the trash can in his study. There, enterprising young reader that I was would fish them out, shove them under my bed, and read them after the lights went out. (Ripping through Mickey Spillane at age ten probably wasn’t the formative experience my parents had in mind when they encouraged me to read before going to sleep.) Those seedy pulp novels now seem quaint in comparison to today’s fast-paced language-laden dystopian novels that are currently marketed for young adults. Has Spillane’s work aged gracefully? My opinion; not so much. Will these world-changing YA novels last? Harry Potter – yes. Twilight – no.

That brings me to a pretty scary question for a writer: will my work stand the test of time? The short answer, that I don’t know, isn’t helpful. I’d like to think that themes of friendship and what the bond requires of the people entwined within it is one that will stand the test of time.  That’s what I had in mind with the Three Dirty Women series. One of these days I may reread it and see how it stood up to the decade between publication and now. (And if I ever revise them, I’m putting the gardening stuff I had to pull out back in!)

The current Work in Progress’s underlying theme is the bond’s strength between a girl and her horse — and the ability of that bond to sustain this girl through a horrible period in her life. While I’d like to think that theme is eternal, the execution is key. I’m only on the third draft so it’s not timeless just yet.

So good luck to all you writers out there who are wishing for longevity in your work’s appeal, and good luck to me as I round the bend toward The End of the current WiP. Fingers crossed that it works.

Happy Writing!

How To

Our critique group had an interesting discussion on how you learn to write. I opened my browser to check my bookmarks and share them with the group, only to find that I hadn’t actually bookmarked the sites that I find most helpful. Time to fix that. As long as I’m out there looking, thought I’d share them here too.

Grammar:
My favorite site by far is the Grammar Girl site. Mignon Ballard has a good sense of humor and a way of explaining things that make the rules clear — and that stick with me. I subscribe to her podcasts and listen to them in the car during short trips. If I have a question about a particular rule, I can scroll to the correct podcast and, voilà, instant clarification.

Another site that comes up often when I do a search for a particular rule is the Purdue OWL site. This is more scholarly, but again, a solidly helpful site.

Spelling:

Hello? Spell check exists on most word processors. Just make sure you read it over to eliminate sound-alike/look-alike words.

Sentence Structure:

Nothing like knowing how to diagram a sentence. I cringed while typing that last. Never, ever thought I’d wish that I’d paid more attention during eighth grade English class.

Infoplease has a good basic page about structuring sentences.

VirtualLit has a series of good articles about writing, including one on sentence structure.

Plot:

Just found a video series by The Plot Whisperer. I must give these a viewing as the point she makes about reworking the beginning of a novel a hundred times while the end only getting a rough go through strikes horribly close to home with me.

You cannot write a novel without understanding the basic structure which underlies most of Western fiction: The Three Act Play.

Then there are classes. Nothing like taking a class — and doing the homework — to really get the understanding of the lesson firmly implanted in your fingers, heart and mind.

The Houston area is rich in opportunities:

InPrint – affiliated with the University of Houston’s outstanding English department

Houston Writer’s Guild – outstanding workshops!

Rice University Continuing Education

Leisure Learning – particularly Kathy Buck’s Grammar Class!

Women’s Institute of Houston — Chris Rogers is one of the best fiction teachers bar none.

While not styled as how-to, the Jung Center of Houston offers classes that bring insight to your writing.

And of course, you can always subscribe to my blog for more information about both gardening in Houston and writing.

Stay well — and send some wishes for rain in Texas this week. We have several large fires as yet uncontained. Rain would be most welcome!

The Great Divide

I am in the middle of several big life changes. Some of these are welcome — and expected. Some are neither. I am going from Mother of Dependent Children to Mother of Adult Children. (Our youngest just graduated from college.) My husband has actually uttered the word ‘retirement’, so I might be transitioning from Self-Employed Writer At Home Alone to Writer Looking for a Quiet Place to Work. Our parents are getting older (and wiser) as we creep across middle age and I have to recognize one day (May it be far, far away!) I will be one rung closer to being The Matriarch.

 

Some days it’s easier to think about my own personal life transitions than to craft a good transition from one scene to another, or even to wake up my character in the morning.

 

However, to make it all the way through a manuscript, one must segue from beginning hook through the muddled middle to satisfying end. Writing transitions can take several forms. If you are looking for transitional words or phrases, here’s a great site with helpful hints on that topic. I’m talking about transitioning between scenes.

 

The Shuffle:

“Doran needed some caffeine in the worst possible way. There was no way she would be able to face the meeting that morning without some stiff fortification. She tossed back the covers, threw her feet over the edge of the bed and managed to stand on both feet. She glared in the general direction of the kitchen, wishing for the first time that she had someone living with her who would start the pot brewing rather than having to do it herself. Stumbling into the shower, she braced one hand on the wall and turned on the hot water. The alarm went off again before the hot water even began spouting, so Doran steeled herself and stepped under the needle sharp spray of the cold water.

Doran continued stumbling to her closet, then her car, then into the office…yadayadayada…”

OK, you get the idea. I needed to wake Doran up and get her out the door to that important early meeting. My prose met her (Or was it my?) lack of mental acuity and hit shuffle mode pretty quick, getting nowhere fast. Some days it’s the hardest thing to get your character across the room without becoming a complete bore.

Since the purpose of this scene was to wake Doran up and get her ready for that all important meeting, The Shuffle slowed us down–– not putting us in the middle of the action.

Here are two other ways that work better.

Full Steam Ahead:

“Van Morrison was all about Crazy Love when Doran’s fingers finally slammed the off button on her clock radio. She squinted at the digital readout, trying to figure out why she’d set the alarm for five a.m.

“Botheration!” she exclaimed, throwing back the covers and vaulting out of bed. She shed clothes on the way to the shower, where she stepped in, scrubbed down, and shut off the water long before the water had warmed to a human temperature.

Ten minutes later, briefcase in hand, Doran pulled the door closed behind her.

Twisting the key in the ignition, she focused in on the clock on the dashboard. She breathed a sigh of relief as she backed out of the garage. She’d have enough time to hit the coffee shop drive-through and still make it to the meeting on time.”

Don’t you agree that this one works so much better than the first?

Dead Halt:

“Putting her head down, Doran closed her eyes.

*

*

The next morning Doran arrived at the meeting on time, even if it Fred called it for such an unholy hour of the morning. The good thing about only having enough time for a cold shower before she arrived was that she was awake enough to take on the questions she knew were coming.”

This transition is a complete blank in the middle. I stop with one set of actions and the next set are clearly happening in another place or time. I left off the part about her getting up because then I could move right into the action in the meeting. With this kind of transition, you use a series of hard returns in the middle to show the reader that Time Has Passed. (I used stars in place of the hard return so that you could tell that I meant to do that…)

 

If anyone has another favorite way to move their characters through the empty space between scenes, share!

 

Happy Writing.

Reimagine

At our SCBWI meeting this month, three Houston SCBWI writers, Vonna Carter, Millie Martin and  Lynne Kelly Hoenig discussed a Darcy Pattison seminar they had attended on rewriting their books.

Interestingly enough, the spin that this seminar put on their revision was using a ton of wonderfully useful exercises to evaluate their manuscript. (It sounded so wonderful in fact, that I have my reserve-my-space e-mail already written and timed to go out on the day registration opens for the Houston SCBWI-sponsored seminar later this year.) But even better than the tales of revising and camaraderie was one of the things one of our speakers said that caught my imagination.

She used the term ‘re-imagine’ in place of ‘revision’.

This word opened up a whole new line of thinking about my work-in-progress. Instead of having to re-do, I can step back, walk around the piece a bit, see how it looks from a distance, and then put my imagination to work again to strengthen the work a bit more.

Learning how to write for a Middle Grade audience has been daunting. Not only does a twelve-year-old think differently than an adult, everything is different, right down to the line of sight from which a twelve-year-old sees the world.

I started the story in third person. Finished it that way too. Mistake number one. Third person isn’t as popular with that age group because it’s harder to connect with.

Rewrote the story in first person. This improved the story tremendously, but…not enough. I was deep into the characters and the emotional investment that six months of working on the book gives me. Second mistake: no perspective.

I struggled both times to make it through the middle of the book to a happy ending. Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out why that pesky middle section was so darn hard. Third mistake! In the process of writing the book, I’d fallen in love with what I’d written and couldn’t see past the work I’d already put into it to identify the problem myself. It took an insightful critique by Abby Ranger from Hyperion to give me the Eureka! moment necessary to identify the deficit in the manuscript. The problem I’d set for my character to solve wasn’t a strong enough problem to carry the book.

Ms. Ranger had the distance (and skill) to re-imagine “what if” my Suzie faced a bigger problem. “What if” the problem was bigger and badder than the financial one I’d set for Suzie and “what if” she was able to find a strength that moved her twelve-year-old self from ordinary to extraordinary.

Poof! As soon as I left the meeting, I too began to re-imagine the story. What if Suzie’s financial trouble was because her mother was in trouble. What if…Mom’s job was gone because her place of work burned down? What if…Suzie and her friends found out who really set the fires?What if…the person setting the fires was close to Suzie and discovering who it was could hurt everyone? What if…Suzie’s journey to clear her mom brought her closer to being independent, but also confirmed her love for family and friends?

Ah, ha! Re-imagining this story has brought me another boatload of work to do — but it’s work I’m happy to have because it will make this story stronger, better, something I’ll be proud of having written and closer to being something that will sell.

Fingers crossed…at least when I’m not typing madly away.

Writing that Makes Sense – part three – Hearing

I talked about the benefits the Auditory sense brings to your writing when you read it out loud,  but there is value in adding this sense TO your writing.

I am not talking about, “It sounded like a herd of elephants running overhead,” although that too has a part to play in stimulating the auditory sense in your readers. What I find benefits my writing the most is using action or something that brings an auditory memory to life as part and parcel of the story. The best example of this that I’ve ever seen (heard?) is in Tensleep, a novel by Sarah Andrews, where the action takes place at an oil well drilling site. The author uses the sentence structure, the action, the dialogue to build a “sense” of the reverberation of the drill in the background. It is so skillfully done that I didn’t “hear” it until it went silent on the page — and then the silence echoed in my own mind.

That way of doing things is hard, and therefore pretty rare to find. Most of us use those pesky things like adjectives, nouns and verbs that have to do with hearing.

The sense itself is kind of interesting. Sounds strike our eardrum and set off vibrations which our nervous system interprets in terms of pitch, intensity, resonance, “color”, — if you don’t believe that sounds have color, then listen to Adele’s Ringing in the Deep and tell me her voice doesn’t color that song bluer than blue has ever been. Now that you’ve allowed me color, I’m going to add shape as well, because a round sound is not the same as a sharp sound. (Perhaps the word that I’m really searching for is length of sound, but I rather like shape as a descriptor better than length.)

Familiar sounds spark memory associations. A barking dog will have very different connotations to someone who was bitten by a dog than for someone who has always had good experiences.

So what sort of words evoke sound? Clanging, Bell, Ringing, Chime, Echo…on and one. Make your own list and see where it takes you. Writing in the Open is a wonderful tool for capturing sensory writing. Go to a playground, a forest, and a church and see what your hear, see, smell, taste, touch.

Next week I’ll work on Taste, recipes included!

Writing That Makes Sense – Part 2 – Smell

In part one of Writing That Makes Sense, I talked about building a vocabulary for SIGHT, now let’s hit that second sense, SMELL.

I picked SMELL to work with second because you cannot TASTE without the sense of smell. In short, aroma brings home the bacon. (Sorry, might not be factual, but so much fun to say!)

So how does a writer bring the sense of smell to a piece? Begin by thinking about things that evoke responses in you when you smell them — favorable and not so much, because both of those can help build a smelly vocabulary.

Sometimes it’s enough to mention an object that evokes the smell without saying,” the aroma of _____.”

Coffee. Fresh baked bread. Freshly mowed grass. Burnt sage. Pine. All evoke a sense of smell without even using an adjective. Then there are the seven basic odors the human nose can detect:

  • Camphor –  mothballs
  • Musk – perfume
  • Floral – roses
  • Mint – peppermint candy canes
  • Etherial – gasoline
  • Pungent – vinegar
  •  And last-but-not-least on the reaction scale, Putrid – Unnaturally green food in the back of your fridge.

For now, I’m lumping the pheromone system in with the sense of SMELL, but there is some evidence that there are actually two senses that the nose connects with our brain.

Exercise:

Grab your magazines and start looking for pictures of things that smell. Take a sheet of paper and list all the nouns, adjectives and verbs that you can think of that have to do with smelling. Sharp, sweet, sniff, quaff, waft, you get the idea. Try combining some of them that you wouldn’t ordinarily put together. You never know what might work.

Now go back to that piece you did with SIGHT and add something about the SMELLs in the air. Don’t make it like a laundry list — you know what I’m talking about.

Susan saw the orange cones. Susan smelled burning rubber as she hit the brakes.

Susan’s car shot past the orange cones trailing a cloud of burning rubber as her foot pressed hard against the brake pedal.

Second exercise; Go for a walk with your pocket notebook. Stop somewhere and close your eyes. What do you smell? Can you identify individual people by their smell? Objects close at hand? List them complete with the impressions you got just from your nose.

Happy writing!