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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Stinky Writing: Using All Five Senses (Including Smell)

Writers often draw their readers into the imaginary world they've created through the use of descriptive language.  They do this by using sensory details, which should include all five of the senses:  sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.  I always thought that I had a tendency to focus solely on visual details, but in the past year I've realized something else.  I am obsessed with smells.

A description of the scent that wafts from a nearby bakery is included in the first paragraph of my contemporary YA novel, "The French Impressionist."  I discuss smell (or odors) quite often in my historical YA novel "The Digger," about a young boy who works digging up the recently dead to sell to medical schools.  And, in chapter one I include details regarding the odiferous properties of the slums where my protagonist is trapped in my latest historical "work in progress," (WIP,) which I call:  "Kenna's Close."

Hmmm...I suppose I am a bit obsessed with what my nose knows.

A while ago, a friend wrote about the use of sensory details in writing, as a prompt on her blog.  I wanted to try to include descriptions of all five senses in a writing exercise.  This is what I came up with:


“Bet you’re too scared to go in there.”

Addison’s words stung.  They rattled around in my brain and would pop up to hit me, hard, like those stupid brown grasshoppers that plonked against my legs as I crossed the dry grass out back.  All through breakfast my brother had whispered “coward,” so Mom wouldn’t hear.  I showed him a big mouthful of mushy, sugary, Fruit Loops to show I didn’t care, but I did.  He knew it.  Finally, when Mom left for work, I stuck my chin out and snuck out back to crawl through a gap in the fence that separates our house from the old Milford place.  If my big brother wasn’t too scared to go inside the town’s “haunted house,” I wouldn’t be either.  After all, I was nine years old.  I was too old to be scared.

The rusted knob rattled under my grasp but finally turned with a screech, like the old house was protesting against the intrusion.  The door opened toward me with a soft groan.   I felt like the house was breathing out its hot, stale breath all over me.  Old houses have a smell to them, and this place was no exception.  The odor of rotting wood and something almost sweet, like a summer garden filled with dying flowers, filled my nose and mouth, and I swear I tasted it.  Chewed on it.  I spat and shoved the neck of my Captain America t-shirt over my mouth and nose so all I could smell was the scent of Downey fabric softener and my own sweat.  Then, before I could change my mind, I hurtled inside, mega-fast, before ninety-seven year-old Mrs. Compton across the street could spy me through her lace curtains and call the cops.

This house was alive. 

 It creaked, it moaned, it popped and crackled, like Mrs. Compton when she tries to stand up in church.  What were all those sounds?  Was someone else in here?  After being out in the bright mid-summer sun, I was blind in this old, dim cave of a place.  My heart nearly pounded itself out of my chest, but after I blinked a few thousand times, I could finally see.  There was no one but me.  In fact, there wasn’t much at all to look at.  A front room with a low ceiling, an empty fireplace, pale circles and squares where pictures must have once hung on faded wallpaper that was printed with sickly-looking yellow roses.  Dust-covered floorboards displayed a set of footprints that led away from where I stood, on out into a hallway, where I spied a set of stairs.

“You gotta wave to me from THAT window,” Addison had told me with a sneer.  “If you don’t, I’ll know you’re chicken.”

The steps shivered under my bare feet.  I bounced up and down a bit to test them out, but they held my weight, so I crept upward, fast as I dared.  The treads were covered with threadbare carpet that may have been green at one time.  The carpet felt so gritty under my feet it was like walking on dirt.   Breathing harder, I got to the top where there was a small landing, and then another hallway stretched out in front of me.  Two doors on the left, one to my right, and one down at the end.  That was the room I needed to enter; the one that faced the back of our house and our kitchen window.  It’s where I’d find THAT window, the one where Addison insists he sees a face staring out sometimes, like a pale smudge on a sheet of black paper, at night when everyone else is asleep.

The knob was shiny.  I didn’t know why, but that kinda struck me as funny.  Everything else in this house is dusty or rusty, faded and ancient, but that doorknob was brand new. 

I swallowed and could still taste Fruit Loops.  

“Go on, Cam!  Get it over with!” I mumbled to myself, my mouth still muffled inside the neck of my shirt.  The hot, still air in this place was getting to me.  I wanted to leave as fast as I could and get back to the air-conditioned safety of my own room.  A trickle of sweat rolled down the side of my face, leaving a salty, itchy trail on my cheek.  Finally, pulling my shirt away from my face, I turned the knob and opened the door.

Then, I screamed and ran, blindly, stumbling my way down the stairs, through the front room and out onto the front porch. 

That was no empty room.


Well, that was fun.  :-)  As I was writing, I realized that I still tended to focus quite a bit on the visual properties of something, and then on the smell.  Old houses do have a particular odor, and true to my nature, I included descriptions of smell.

My new goal is to remember to include other sensory characteristics, including, in particular, touch and sound, when I write.  But I'll never forget to include how something smells, because for me, smell is where it's at.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Joys of Rejection (Note Sarcasm)

Rejection hurts.  We all know that!  We are rejected in many ways throughout our lives.  Ever develop a huge crush on someone, only to find out that the object of your affection was about as attracted to you as they might be to a jellyfish, a random pebble on the street, or a blob of mustard on your shirt?

Ever work extra hard on a school assignment, forgoing favorite TV shows or hanging out with friends because you were so determined to excel, then find you'd earned a nice, bland B grade?  Or a C?

Have you ever spent months working on the rough draft of a novel, then many more months revising, revising, revising?  And then, after that, have you ever spent perhaps more than a year attending writing conferences and workshops, and had writing group friends read and give feedback and suggestions, then continue to make even more changes to your manuscript?

THEN,  have you ever spent about eighteen months sending query letter after query letter to literary agents, hoping and praying that one of them would see something worthwhile in your novel, and maybe, just MAYBE want to represent you?  Only to receive rejection after rejection after rejection....

I have, and it's painful!  Why?  Because when a writer sends out queries, she is sending out the results of countless hours of effort, but not only that.  When I send out my work,  I am sharing a piece of my soul.  I'm not exaggerating, here!  Your novel, no matter how short or long, comes from somewhere deep inside, and when you put it on display for others to read, you are in a way baring your soul to the world.  It's like you've taken a metaphorical knife, sliced off a bit of the very essence of your being, and stuck it on a platter with a sprig of parsley.  You are vulnerable, because you are asking for something that you created, something that is entwined about your heart, to be weighed and judged. And therefore, you are opening yourself up to rejection.

Why do I keep doing this?  Today, I'm not so sure.  The last polite "no thanks" from an agent hurt.  It hurt because she loved my initial query letter and the concept of my novel.  She went so far as to say "I really liked what I've read so far" when she asked to read my entire manuscript.  This was the first request for a full manuscript I'd ever received and I was finally starting to feel hopeful.

But, of course, you know the result.  After a while, I got the "thanks but no thanks" email.  And, the dreaded "not connecting enough with the writing" phrase that I have started to see often whilst spending my time querying agents, to my great chagrin.  I realize that at some point I may have to let the dream of publishing this particular novel go.  And that hurts worse than a root canal, because I love my characters and my novel.  I feel like I have something important to say, and that others might feel that way, too.

Oh, well.  Dealing with rejection is character-building, right?  And, in case anyone was wondering, I haven't only written one novel.  I've written several, and have spent countless more hours revising these as well.  So, if I don't find an agent who wants to help poor Rosemary see the light of day, maybe they'll want to help one of my other characters join the world of published fiction.

I'll get over my disappointment, and as usual, I'll forge ahead.  I'll continue to write and try to make my work better and better.

But I'll do it tomorrow.  Today, only for today, I'm going to indulge in a mini pity party.  Don't worry if you hear me screaming "Mulder!!!" or:   "Scullyyyyy!!" if you pass by my house.  I'm just drowning my sorrows in a bucket of hot fudge while watching a few classic episodes of the X-Files. The cure for all ills.

Write on!