5 Senses Per Scene

Draw them in with unexpected sensory details.

Ah, October. The changing of the leaves, the crackling of a cozy fire, the smell of rain on pavement, a wool scarf around your neck and the taste of pumpkin-spice.

October is so vivid. Evocative. Rich. (Thanks, handy Thesaurus!) Since today is the 1st, I decided it was the perfect time to share a little technique I use to bring more vividness to my writing.

First, the reason why I use this technique…

Like all writers, I have strengths and weaknesses. When I crank out a first draft, they make themselves pretty evident. I love writing dialogue and I think I’m pretty good at it. (I wrote screenplays long before I ever wrote short stories and novels.) Because of this, my first drafts end up with huge chunks of nothing but dialogue. Not much action or sensory details. Not so great.

Maybe you’re already good at drawing your reader in through their senses, but I needed some help with that. So I developed the 5 senses per scene technique.

It’s pretty simple. In each scene I make sure each sense is covered: sight, taste, smell, touch, and sound. (By the way, when I say scene I’m talking at least 1,000 words. It can be a bit of an overkill to hit each and every sense in super short scenes.) It doesn’t need to be excessive. Too many little details gets boring really fast. But little sensory details dropped here and there are delicious. (And I do mean here and there. Don’t chunk them all together as I did in my opening line about October. That was just for emphasis.)

So is that it? Nope.

There’s a trick to packing the most punch with sensory details: do it in an unexpected way.

Yes, of course she sees the hunger in his eyes. How about she also sees a robin hunting for a worm. Or a loose dog at the end of the street. Or a scrap of a blouse hanging from a dead rosebush.

Sure, she could smell the hero’s cologne. But maybe she smells the faintest hint of chlorine in his hair instead. Or the mouthwatering (or nauseating) curry from her neighbors dinner.

You probably get the idea.

Of course you must maintain an editing eye with this technique. Ideally each sound, smell, taste etc. is something that adds to the story.

Since I adopted this practice I feel my writing is far more evocative, vivid, and real. We notice little details in real life. We should notice them in our writing too.

My author friend M.K. Darcy is exceptionally skilled in this area. He puts it wisely and well:

Don’t just use the five senses: use them in unexpected ways. One well-chosen sensory detail can make an entire scene, and it doesn’t have to be blatant. It can be very nuanced.
This is one of the reasons I’m constantly practicing mindfulness. Woven inside simple and everyday details are an entire world of context that, in writing, can be used both literally and symbolically.
But you have to pay attention.

The Power of You. Why I’m Writing My Book In Second Person.

Unleash magic with this underused narrative.

Unleash magic with this underused narrative.

It’s safe to say that the majority of fiction is written in either first person narrative (I lit the cigarette,) or third person narrative (He/She lit the cigarette.) The second person point of view, where the protagonist is referred to by the second person pronoun, you, is the overlooked middle child of narratives.

Well, I happen to be writing my second novel in second person. I absolutely love that sad, neglected middle child, and I’d like to share why.

But first of all, why is it so uncommon?

The truth is, it’s kind of jarring. I remember the first time I picked up a book in second person. I didn’t get far before I swore off the stuff for life. Now that I’m older I understand why I found it so offensive. (Aside from the fact, that like most readers, I simply wasn’t used to it.) I couldn’t relate to the protagonist. I don’t remember the book, but I remember that everything about the character was everything I was not. So, trying to place myself in his shoes was plain uncomfortable!

As an author, this means writing a book in second person limits our audience. But we shouldn’t be writing for the masses anyway, right? (One of the few writing rules I agree with.)

And when a reader does relate to the character… watch out. A book in second person will draw them in far, far deeper than anything in first or third narrative ever could.

I have had that experience as a reader. And it’s why I want to provide it as an author.

I first read Bride Stripped Bare, the bestseller by Nikki Gemmel, when she was still writing as Anonymous. It’s written in second person, and though I found its unusual style a bit off-putting at first, it moved me deeply. When her next book With My Body was released, I didn’t hesitate. Again, it is written in second person, with a protagonist I can relate to. Well, I sobbed for days when I finished that book two years ago, and I sobbed when I finished it for the second time last night.

I’m now a faithful fan. I will buy everything she writes. I sure as hell want readers to say that of me, and I bet you do too.

So why not try the second person approach? Have a playdate with that sad, neglected middle child of narratives and see how you get along.

If you do, here’s few things to keep in mind:

  1. Make your character someone your reader can relate to. Second person narrative requires a strong suspension of disbelief in your reader, therefore it works best in stories that are grounded in reality. (I’m willing to be proven wrong.)
  2. If you are using second person point of view, stay in second person point of view. This is one of the downsides of second person. You can’t jump around as easily as you can with third person.
  3. Ease your reader into it. The pronoun you is shocking enough. Give them a chance to get acclimated to who “you” are before dropping danger in their path.

Second person narrative is a bit like hypnosis. We’re telling our reader exactly how we want them to feel. And when used effectively, it’s absolute magic.

 

When Comparison Strikes

No, I don't teach Victorian literature. And I'm okay with that.

No, I don’t teach Victorian literature. And I’m okay with that.

The other day I found myself at a social gathering. We all know how much I love those. Actually, this particular gathering was small and consisted of friends. When the one new face in the crowd was introduced as a fellow author, I was excited to connect. I talked a bit about my book and how exciting it was to finally have my first novel out there in the world (after 7 long years of struggle.)

“What about you? What do you write?” I asked.

“I teach Victorian literature at Stanford.” Cue awe, envy, and comparison. “I just released a book, too. It also took me 7 years! It’s a critical analysis of Victorian poetry. Right now I’m working on a book about narrative.”

“Oh.” A tumbleweed tumbled past. (You have no idea how bad the drought is in California.)

Another woman jumped into the conversation. “Athena, did you bring me a copy of your book?”

My book found its way around the table, pausing for a few moments in every pair of hands. As Lady Professor flipped through it, reading here and there, I had to resist the urge to snatch it from her fingers. Speaking of narrative, the particular narrative going through my head at that time was pretty dismal. The comparisons had launched themselves into full flight.

I’m nothing compared to her.
Stanford. Seriously? I think she’s younger than me.
What does a book “about narrative” mean anyway?
Oh God, I’m a total fraud!

As the evening progressed, and in the days following, I got a handle on those comparisons by remembering three simple things…

1. Only we can tell our story.

So what if someone else does this or that, has a fancy title, or has written a thousand best sellers? We are on our own journey and it would serve us to remember that. Often. No, I can’t teach Victorian poetry (reading it is challenging enough, thanks.) But I’m pretty sure she couldn’t have written Dharma and Desire, either.

“Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.”
-Meg Rosoff

Our mind, hearts, and souls are our own. No comparison is possible.

2. We tend to compare our behind-the-scenes to other’s highlight reels.

How do I know what this woman’s struggles are? Maybe she wants, more than anything, to write a formula romance novel. Or an erotic novel. Or a sci-fi novel. But she’s terrified. Who knows? We tend to presume that everyone else has it amazing. That other authors have it easier. It’s just not true.

3. You’re only in competition with yourself.

I wrote a novel. Period. No, it’s not high-brow literature, but I wrote it. And I continue to improve my writing all the time.

And if you’re reading this, comparing yourself to me, thinking “I haven’t written a novel,”… so what if I wrote a novel? You’re writing and that is more than many will ever attempt. You are moving toward your goals. That’s what’s important.

If you’re anything like me, you have a hard time recognizing how far you’ve come. But I’m willing to bet if you really look at it, your writing has grown by leaps and bounds. You’ve accomplished a lot. Honor your achievements.

I’m pretty sure the greats out there (authors, leaders, teachers, etc) don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how they measure up to someone else. They are too busy focusing on helping others while being the best they can be.

 

When it comes down to it, Lady Professor and I probably have more in common than I realize. We’re both writers. We both want to share our minds, hearts, and souls with the world.

It’s okay — actually, it’s pretty damn cool that we do it in different ways.

Shouldn’t You Be Writing? The Real Reason Writers Avoid The Blank Page

"All writing problems are psychological problems." ~ Erica Jong

“All writing problems are psychological problems.” ~ Erica Jong

We writers are an imaginative, intelligent bunch. But instead of using our super-powers to finish writing the most kick-ass story ever, we often apply our cunning to the art of avoidance. We can always find an excuse. Pinterest “research.” Social media promoting. Cleaning the house. The quest to find the perfect pen. Personally, I’m partial to whittling away hours at a time making spiffy teasers and graphics like these:

raven in gray teaser

Dharma and Desire Teaser

Raven in Gray

 

 

 

 

 

 

And by the way, you can hire me to make spiffy graphics and teasers for you, too! Please, PLEASE give me something else to do besides facing the page.

We all do it. Anything to avoid doing the words. Sometimes our avoidance tactics are not even conscious. We rationalize our excuses, convincing ourselves that they’re real. If we’re so intelligent, why do we do that?

Because we aren’t even aware WHY we are running away. 

When it comes down to it, there’s only one reason. Fear. Big fat, stinking, slinky, fear.

Writers block is a misnomer. What is called writers block is almost always ordinary fear. ~ Tom Wolfe

We already talked about how scary it is to be honest and authentic in our writing. But the fear of exposure is only one of many fears.

Maybe we also fear…

We won’t be able to finish the book.

We aren’t good enough. We aren’t a “real writer.”

Nobody will want to read what we write.

We’ll go broke if we devote ourselves to our writing.

Complete failure.

Total success. (Yes, that can be scary too.)

We’ll find things deep inside that we don’t want to see.

And a dozen other things that are personal to us.

So now that we understand that fear is always beneath our avoidance, how can we conquer it? Well, sorry to be the bearer of bad news… but we can’t. We can only develop a new relationship with our fear.

Don’t underestimate the power of recognizing your fears.

When our fears are unconscious we get ants in the pants, and do everything in our power to escape that feeling. Once we recognize our fear, name it, and claim power over it (it’s just an emotion after all,) we can pull up our big-girl panties (or big-boy boxers,) sit down and write despite the ants in our pants. 

In order to gain more consciousness around our fears, I recommend writing them out – along with the worst case scenario should our fears come true. Be imaginative and overly dramatic about it. This will give you awareness of your fears as well as help you see that perhaps some of them aren’t even valid (or at least, they are blown out of proportion.)

Remember, courage doesn’t equal fearlessness.

We can face the page, filled to the brim with fear, and still do the words. We all have similar fears. We are all scared we aren’t good enough. But do you want to know what makes a “real writer”? The act of writing despite fears.

So pull up those panties or boxers, recognize the monsters in the closet, and do the words anyway. Your story needs you.

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Writing On The Edge. How Courageous Writers Make Successful Writers.

Fear is your guide, not your enemy.

Writing is scary.

It’s true. Only writers get this. Try to explain to a normie that you haven’t finished your novel because you are afraid, and you’ll only receive a blank stare of confusion, or worse, judgement.

But why exactly is writing so terrifying? From the book, The Courage to Write:

Even though novelists and short story writers ostensibly deal in fantasy, they are the most self-exposed authors of all. Fiction writers are judged by the emotional authenticity of their work. To create authentic feelings in their characters, they must first call up their own.

It’s that word: authenticity.

And that’s the crux of it. All famous authors have said it in their own way. You must be honest. You must be real. If you aren’t, your work will suffer.

“The only writers I respect,” said Henry Miller, “are those who have put themselves completely into their work. Not those who use skillful hands to do something. This isn’t writing, in my opinion. A man who can dash off a book, let’s say, and say it’s a good novel, a best seller, even of some value, but it isn’t representative completely of him, of his personality, then there’s something wrong there. This man is a fraud in a way, to me. All he put into his book was his skill. And that’s nothing. I prefer a man who is unskillful, who is an awkward writer, but who has something to say, who is dealing himself one time on every page.”

So many of us are afraid we aren’t good enough, skilled enough. So we obsess over rules and how-to’s and paralyze ourselves with the rigidity of doing it right. Often this is only a tactic our fear uses to distract us from writing the deep, scary, truth.

There is a woman in my writing group who desperately wants to be a better writer. When she shares her stories, they inevitably fall flat. She’s good with grammar, plot structure, and description. But there is something missing: truth. There’s no honesty in her stories. There is no risk.

The risk is what rivets readers.

They sense that not only are these characters in some sort of danger (physical, psychological, or otherwise) but the author is, too. Readers want to see the truth laid bare in all it’s humiliating glory. Why? Because it resonates as truth. And that makes them feel connected. It makes them feel better about their own truth. It makes them feel they are not alone.

This type of writing takes guts. There’s no magic cure for writing fear (though I’ll be focusing on how to face it for the rest of September.) As a successful writer, self-exposure is not just an occupational hazard. It’s a requirement. Make peace with this fact as best you can.

Remember that fear is your guide, not your enemy.

“When you stiffen,” said Toni Morrison of anxious moments while writing a novel, “you know that whatever you stiffen about is very important. The stuff is important, the fear itself is information.”

When you feel the fear, celebrate it instead of cursing it. Instead of running away. Be glad you feel it. It means you are doing something more important than following rules: you’re writing with authenticity.

And that’s a good thing. All those famous authors can’t be wrong.

 

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The Character Insight Spread

A fun, unique, and surprisingly effective way to learn more about your character! Use a tarot deck or regular playing cards.

Have you ever had one of your characters surprise you? Perhaps something they said gave you a sudden insight into their motivation. Or perhaps you awoke in the middle of the night with a realization about their past. Good characters do that. They are always whispering little secrets about themselves that they want us to know. This exercise is a fun and unique way to turn up the volume on those whispers!

I’ve been using the Tarot for almost twenty years to help friends and family gain insights into themselves. The other day it hit me: why not create a spread specifically for the characters in my book? And so The Character Insight Spread was born!

Not only does this layout provide insights about your character’s life and personality, it can also inspire all kinds of new plot twists if you’re feeling stuck.

If you don’t have a Tarot deck, you can use regular playing cards. It won’t be as in depth, but it will work. Visit Playing Card Divination for excellent descriptions of card meanings.

The Layout

The character insight spread for writers

1. The character’s past.

2. The character’s present.

3. The character’s future.

4. Subconscious influences/a secret. (What the character doesn’t see.)

5. Hopes or fears.

6. Their world view.

7. Their world view continued.

 

How To Do It

Shuffle your cards and think about your character. I usually say “Tell me about so-and-so,” a few times. After they are thoroughly shuffled, cut the deck once, then lay out your cards. If you’re an expert card reader you can take it from here. If not, consult the book that came with your Tarot deck or look up playing card meanings here. You may also leave your layout in the comments and I will try to help.

As you are interpreting the reading, keep an open mind and engage your imagination. Sometimes cards are only hints. Let them spark your creativity! If you are confused about a card pull a second card to clarify.

Remember that the cards influence one another and are interpreted as a whole.

About Court Cards

Court cards can be tricky to interpret. They can represent your character, aspects of their personality, or another person all together. If, for example, a Queen shows up in your character’s world view, consider that it might be their mother or another woman who impacted your character in a profound way. Perhaps the layout is telling you another character should be added to your story. If you are totally confused about the appearance of a face card in your reading, pull a second card to clarify.

Example Reading 1

Example 1This reading is for my character, Raven, from my current work in progress, Raven In Gray.

1. Her past: Restricted, unable to make decisions. Sorrow. Imprisoned.

2. Her present: Imbalance. Energy is being wasted and scattered. Out of control.

3. Her future: Sharp, organized, and perceptive. Able to cut through confusion to arrive at the truth. Transformation.

4. Subconscious influences/secret: Moving away from conflict. Let emotions settle.

5. Hopes or fears: Freedom from bondage.

6. World view: Poverty, low vitality, spiritual emptiness.

7. World view continued: Sudden, unexpected upheaval.

Putting It Together

Raven is a woman who has felt trapped and in bondage. She is currently acting out and going to extremes because of that frustration. Her subconscious knows she needs to move away from the source of her emotional upheaval (whether or not she listens to that wisdom is another matter.) Her ultimate hope is to be free from the bondage she feels. Her world view is that poverty and tragedy can strike at any moment, so she must constantly be on guard. (I didn’t know this about her. Why she feels this way is something I’ll have to explore.) But in the end her future looks positive; she has become the wise Queen of Swords who has learned from her past. She is looking down at the butterfly on her sword, knowing that like the butterfly she has been transformed.

Example Reading 2Example 2

This reading is about Torin, my tormented artist in Raven In Gray.

1. His past: Intense grief and loss. Suppressed pain not being faced.

2. His present: Overwhelmed by financial demands. No long-term plans.

3. His Future: Dreamy and passive. Lives in fantasy not reality. Creative outlet could help.

4. Subconscious influences/secret: Life feels unfair. Blaming others for problems. Comparing self to others.

5. Hopes or fears: Moving away from conflict. Emotions settle.

6. World view: Hard working. Skilled with materials and hands.

7. World view continued: Just like life, we have our own cycles and rhythms. Fate.

Putting It Together

Torin experienced profound pain and loss but never dealt with it. (Something I didn’t know about him. But it fits!) Currently he is floundering, especially financially. He doesn’t even realize that he blames others for his own problems, or that he compares himself to others. He hopes someday he will escape conflict and pain, and experience peace. His world view is actually pretty positive. He views himself as skilled. He knows that life is cyclical so perhaps he figures that “things will eventually come around.” He believes in fate, which might make him feel disinclined to take action. In the end, he chooses passivity, and decides he’d rather stay in his fantasy world than face the reality outside.

 

Both of these readings were crazy accurate. And both gave me some interesting ideas to chew on.

Give it a try and see what you find! Let me know how it works for you.

If you’re struggling with the interpretation, give me a shout out. I’m happy to help if I can!