February 2017 Archives

Words so innocent and

Words - so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.
Nathaniel Hawthorne

Sensory Details

blind-men-1421406_1920.jpegYou may have heard "use all five senses in your writing," but I disagree. Use all six senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and temperature in your fiction.

Sight is the sense that seems to come easiest. We might talk about the blue dress, or the rain, or the black and white cat. We might describe the style of the dress--its length, fit, and neckline. The rain might be sheeting down or lightly sprinkling. The cat could be short or long-haired, skinny or fat, etc.

But we may forget to think about what we hear. In the three examples above what could you possibly hear? With a dress it depends on the fabric, but the skirt might swish or crinkle. Rain can pound on the patio cover or spatter on the window. That cat may have tiny feet which can be silent pawing across the floor, but at other times can thump louder than seems possible. Or is she a loud purrer? The stray cat we've been feeding is half the size of our own cat, but her meow is three times as loud. And rather harsh and gravelly as if she's been a long-time smoker.

Taste is more than eating, although it definitely includes that. Have you accidentally breathed in hair spray? It doesn't taste good. Neither does your mouth if you don't brush your teeth for several days. But then there are wonderful flavors--melted butter and honey on fresh homemade bread, the tang of a slice of orange, chicken tikka masala, the burst of bubbles in your carbonated drink. What is a normal taste in your character's home may be different from something your readers have experienced? I remember reading books and wanting to try something the characters ate because it sounded so good. And some of those were fictional food items. (But they didn't feel fictional.)

From the good to the bad, and the downright ugly, smells affect our lives and should affect character lives, too. I like subtle smells of flowers, fir trees, and clean sheets. I love the smell of spaghetti sauce simmering, or a beef roast in the oven. Sometimes my dog has bad gas that I'd willingly skip, but she doesn't give me the choice. The smell of exhaust can make me choke. My husband tells the story of the time his mom decided to cook up some horse radish--everyone but mom left the premises because the smell was eye-watering intense!

Touch. Right now I have a jagged fingernail that keeps catching on things, including my own skin. I've got a soft fuzzy crocheted afghan in my lap, which my cat usually has to knead before sitting down. Sometimes my healed broken ankle aches, and when spring hits, my eyes may itch from pollen. But let's go back to my first three examples with sight and how to think about the tactile aspects. Does that blue dress have a satiny texture, or is it that bumpy seersucker fabric? Or maybe it's coarse homespun. And the rain coming down--how does it feel when I go out in it? Pelting rain that stings my skin? Or a soft mist that is like a creamy moisturizer? Do I want to pet the black and white cat or is her fur mangy and dirty? Definitely no for the latter.

Temperature, a sixth sense. Are you cold and goose-bumpy, overheated and sweating, or somewhere in between? I often don't mind being caught out in a warm rain, but will hasten in out of the weather when it is cold. Stepping barefooted on sun-heated asphalt can make one leap for the coolness of lush grass. Is that breeze warm, hot, cool, or cold? Or how about the temperature of the pool, river, or lake? And is summer the dry heat of an arid area, or the hot-steamy bathroom feel of a humid climate? Again, your characters should be affected by temperature, just as you are.

For some stories, temperature might have to move to seventh place as the traditional "sixth sense" of intuition, or some psychic or magical sense is important to the story.

Does every scene have every sense? Not usually. But scenes should have three different sensory details. And the sensory details can be about a variety of things in your character's world. Be as specific as you can. And if those specifics are sometimes unusual that will add interest. The sensory details you include will establish setting and help bring your characters to life.

You only learn to be

You only learn to be a better writer by actually writing.
Doris Lessing

One for the Murphys

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

one-for-the-murphys-335x512.jpegIf you like me missed One for the Murphys (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2012) by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, run get the book. It is so good.

It's pretty scary for twelve-year-old Carley Connors to be placed in a foster home with the Murphy family--total strangers. It's always been her and her mom until just over a year ago when Mom married Dennis. And now because of physical abuse by her step-father, she's here and her mother is in the hospital. Her mom has taught her not to cry, not to be afraid, but she can't help shaking.

Living with the Murphys, Carley finds out that her old life had a lot wrong in it. Of course, she misses her mother and is sure she won't be staying long. But life is full of surprises for Carley and she grows to like her foster family. So what will happen when it's time to leave?

Author Lynda Mullaly Hunt has created such a believable sympathetic character--she had me aching for Carley and her situation. The book has won awards and been put on many lists. Go here to see all.

Because foster kids often don't have any books, Lynda has started Book Train to get books into their hands.

I've already recommend Lynda's book Fish in a Tree here.

Books put names on big

Books put names on big feelings, and then make them familiar and okay. And they tell you you are not alone in feeling them.
Anne Ursu

A Time to Dance

a-time-to-dance-cover-large-file.jpegA Time to Dance (Nancy Paulsen Books Penguin Random House, 2014) by Padma Venkatraman is a novel in verse that takes one directly to life in India. Veda has a passion for dance, Bharatanatyam dance specifically. Not that her mother approves. And now that she's won the competition her career can really start off. But a tragic accident takes the teen's right leg below the knee. How can she still dance with only one leg?

The story is inspirational as we accompany Veda on her journey of recovery. What Veda says sums it up, "...dance isn't about who you are on the outside. It's about how you feel inside."

I love what Padma says on her blog about books being more than mirrors or windows--read it here. You can hear Padma herself on her website in the Q&A section, plus there are TV interviews here.

I already recommended Padma's book Island's End here. Her first novel, Climbing the Stairs, is set during WWII.

Language is phenomenal I have

Language is phenomenal. I have always been fascinated that one word can mean many different things.
Nikki Grimes

Dying to Meet You

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

dying.jpegDying to Meet You (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) by Kate Klise and illustrated by M. Sarah Klise is an unusual kid's story. Part of it is the format: letters and documents exchanged about 43 Old Cemetery Road, Ghastly, Illinois and letters and notes from the occupants. The book has illustrations to accompany the text, including rental property ads, floor plans, sketches by Seymour, pages from The Ghastly Times (ads included), etc.

The other unusual part is that the cast of characters is not your normal cast for a children's book. First, there is I.B. Grumply, who although a writer of children's books, doesn't want "to see or hear the little monsters." He's there to overcome his writer's block in this quiet out of the way house he's rented. There are some other adult characters introduced next, although they aren't as important as Olive, who lives--well, since she's a ghost, I guess hangs out would be more appropriate--in the supposedly empty house. Third, there's an eleven-year-old boy Seymour who was deliberately left behind in the house by his parents! The other characters have appropriately humorous names that often fit their occupations, such as realtor Anita Sale.

Can you tell the story is funny? Plus it has a happy ending. It makes me smile every time I think of it. And it's book one of the 43 Old Cemetery Road series. The other titles are: Over My Dead Body; Till Death Do Us Bark; The Phantom of the Post Office; Hollywood, Dead Ahead; Greetings from the Graveyard; and The Loch Ness Punster.

The author and illustrator are sisters, who share a website here. There you can find out about the other series they've done, the stand-alones, the picture books, and about the two sisters who collaborate while living in two separate states (California and Missouri).

I hadn't realized I'd read and recommended another book by Kate Klise until I wrote this blog post. It was for Grounded.

Taglines and Beats

camcorder-1294289_1280.pngA tagline indicates who is speaking. It's the part outside of the quotes around the dialogue. The attribution of who spoke. e.g. he said. A tagline is in the same sentence as what is spoken. e.g. "Will you help me?" she asked. or "Stop the car," Josh said. For the most part writers use "said" and "asked" because they are unobtrusive. An occasional whisper, yell, shout, call, etc. is fine. Overuse of more unusual words are a mark of an amateur. Adverbs aren't commonly used because the dialogue should be written well enough to not need it.

Beats are physical action lines that accompany dialogue. They also identify who is speaking, but are in a separate sentence. However, beats do so much more for the story than that. Beats help readers experience the action and the emotions of the characters. They can help with setting and mood. These kinds of beats often include some kind of sensory detail. They can help with passing of time and pacing.

Let's show these different aspects of beats starting with some plain dialogue. I'm not positive I can do them separately, but I'll try. ;-) (Please ignore that I can't indent paragraphs on this blog.)

"I'm not going," Matt said.
"Why not?" his sister asked.
"Because it's stupid."
"And you don't do stupid."
"That's right. What's burning?"

We know we have male and female siblings. We don't know where they are, what they are doing, or what they are arguing about.

Beats for action

Matt shut the door. "I'm not going."
"Why not?" His sister raised her eyebrows.
Matt leaned against the doorjamb. "Because it's stupid."
"And you don't do stupid."
"That's right." He sniffed the air. "What's burning?"

Action alone is all right, but adding emotion will be better.

Beats for emotion

Matt slammed the door shut. "I'm not going."
"Why not?" His sister frowned.
Matt smacked his fist into the doorjamb. "Because it's stupid."
"And you don't do stupid." She rolled her eyes.
"That's right." But he rubbed his sore hand. "What's burning?"

I think it's more interesting with indication of emotions.

Beats for setting

Matt shut the kitchen door behind himself. "I'm not going."
"Why not?" His sister hopped down from the counter where she'd been perched.
"Because it's stupid."
"And you don't do stupid."
"That's right." Matt sniffed the air. "What's burning?"

Now we know where we are--a kitchen. And because of our setting, what's burning is probably some kind of food. (And yes, I put an action back in.)

Beats for mood

"I'm not going." A swirl of fog followed Matt inside.
"Why not?" His sister shivered.
"Because it's stupid." He looked over his shoulder as if he expected someone to be behind him.
Her bare arms goosebumped, but not from cold. "And you don't do stupid."
"That's right." Matt lowered his voice to a whisper. "What's burning?"

Quite a different feel, eh? And I don't think it's food that's burning, do you?

Beats for passage of time

"I'm not going," Matt said.
His sister finished the sentence she was writing before asking, "Why not?"
"Because it's stupid."
"And you don't do stupid."
"That's right." He pulled out a chair and sat across from her. She turned a page in her English book and started on the next essay question. Matt sniffed the air. "What's burning?"

It's hard to separate passage of time and pacing. We know some time passes twice here. The pacing slowed because of the three things that happened between Matt's last two pieces of dialogue.

Beats for pacing

"I'm not going," Matt said.
His sister finished the sentence she was writing before asking, "Why not?"
"Because it's stupid."
"And you don't do stupid."
"That's right." He pulled out a chair and sat across from her. She turned a page in her English book and started on the next essay question. Matt checked the clock on the wall. 5:23. The second hand jumped forward one minute. 5:24. Matt sniffed the air. "What's burning?"

See how there's even more going on between his last two pieces of dialogue? It's slowed the pace. Adding in actual times slowed the pacing even more. It gives that portion a relaxed feel. You wouldn't want to do that when a character is in danger.

Looking at these examples as a whole, I added changes in facial features, body language, stronger action verbs, sense of place including items in that place, mood, and sensory details (fog, goosebumps, smell of something burning.) This means the characters aren't just standing in front of a white board. Way better than simply she said/he said. Of course, in a longer piece you'll use a mixture of taglines and beats to put the reader on scene with your characters.